First Battle of Kawanakajima

The Battle of Kawanakajima in 1553 was the first in a series of five battles fought between the warlords Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. Although ultimately indecisive, the battles at Kawanakajima were considered archetypal clashes of Japan’s Warring States period.

Summary of Event

The alluvial plain known as Kawanakajima (meaning “island between the rivers”) is located in what was during the sixteenth century northern Shinano Province (now Nagano Prefecture), at the confluence of the Chikuma and Saigawa Rivers. As one of the strategic approaches to the north, the plain of Kawanakajima is reported to have been a battlefield as early as the twelfth century. Starting in 1553, it was the point where the ambitions of two major daimyo (warlords) Daimyos Takeda Harunobu, later known as Takeda Shingen, and Nagao Kagetora, later known as Uesugi Kenshin, clashed violently. Kawanakajima, First Battle of (1553)
Takeda Shingen
Uesugi Kenshin
Murakami Yoshikiyo
Takeda Shingen
Uesugi Kenshin
Takeda Nobutora
Murakami Yoshikiyo

Takeda Shingen came from a long line of shugo (military governors) who had ruled mountainous Kai Province (now Yamanashi Prefecture) in eastern Japan since the thirteenth century. In 1541, he had ousted his father Takeda Nobutora (1494-1574) and had assumed the headship of the Takeda family himself. Landlocked Kai Province had traditionally been considered a somewhat backward area famous for thoroughbred horses and fierce warriors. Shingen appears to have been eager to use these natural assets for military expansion, for he waited scarcely a year after the expulsion of his father to invade neighboring Shinano Province (now Nagano Prefecture) in 1542. The greater part of Shinano Province came under the control of the Shingen before the decade was over. However, his steady northward advance toward the Sea of Japan was checked when he was about to cross the border into Echigo Province (now Niigata Prefecture).

Echigo had long been the domain of the prominent Uesugi family, but the real power was in the hands of the Nagao house. Nagao Kagetora succeeded to the position of family head and shugo-dai (deputy governor) in 1549. Although another twelve years would pass before he formally assumed the family name of his erstwhile superiors, the Uesugi, and the Buddhist name Kenshin, he had already made a name for himself as a powerful daimyo. His position as de facto ruler of Echigo would have been seriously compromised by an invasion of the Takeda forces into that province. In this strategic context, the Kawanakajima Plain was of utmost importance, since the mountain passes on its northern side led straight to Kenshin’s headquarters at Kasugayama. Kenshin thus had ample reason to try to prevent enemy forces from occupying the Kawanakajima Plain.

Guarding the southern access to Kawanakajima were several fortresses belonging to Murakami Yoshikiyo, one of several kokujin (provincial barons) in Shinano. Takeda Shingen’s campaigns in that province in the late 1540’s had reduced other barons, such as the Suwa and the Ogasawara, to relative insignificance. However, the Murakami forces had defeated Shingen’s army in 1548 at Uedahara, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) up the Chikuma River from Kawanakajima.

Murakami Yoshikiyo thus emerged by the early 1550’s as the main opponent to Takeda Shingen’s advance into northern Shinano, and by default as a buffer between Shingen to the south and Uesugi Kenshin to the north. In 1550, Takeda Shingen renewed his attack on the Murakami by besieging Koishi Castle on the Chikuma River only to be beaten back once again. The castle was finally taken in the summer of 1551, thus opening up the way north along the Chikuma valley.

To the north and down river from Koishi lay Katsurao Castle, the Murakami stronghold guarding the southern access to Kawanakajima. After the fall of Koishi, it was only a matter of time until the Takeda forces would overrun Katsurao as well. Yet Shingen took almost two years before finally pressing on northward, taking Katsurao Castle in May of 1553. It was this Takeda victory that prompted the defeated Murakami Yoshikiyo to flee north into Echigo and seek the assistance of Uesugi Kenshin.

The promptness of Kenshin’s response suggests that he was well aware of the strategic implications of a Takeda presence around Kawanakajima. Control of this area would have given the Takeda forces easy access to several routes into Echigo, while an adequate defense of all passes and river valleys against hostile forces presented severe logistical problems. Kenshin consequently chose to forestall a further Takeda advance by deploying his forces at the first sign of trouble. As several castles higher up in the mountains were still in Murakami hands but under the threat of a Takeda attack, time was of critical importance.

As the Takeda army was slowly advancing on the right bank of the Chikuma River toward Kawanakajima, Uesugi Kenshin and his troops, including, according to some accounts, Murakami Yoshikiyo, moved southward on the opposite side. The opposing forces met for the first time at the ford of Hachiman, just south of Kawanakajima, on June 3, 1553. The skirmish resulted in a reported victory for the Uesugi, who appear to have disengaged from the enemy and continued their push southward. Having attacked but failed to recapture Katsurao Castle, Murakami proceeded southwest into the mountains to reoccupy some of the fortresses lost to the Takeda earlier.

Takeda Shingen, evidently unwilling to risk a pitched battle in unfamiliar terrain, had withdrawn to safer ground for the summer but was back in the area by early fall. In September his force recaptured the Murakami castles in the mountains, killing the entire garrisons of two of them. Murakami Yoshikiyo was once again forced to flee northward, with the Takeda forces in hot pursuit. The sources relate that in the process of this pursuit, the Takeda encountered and fought the main body of the Uesugi forces at a place called Fuse on the Kawanakajima Plain. It is this encounter that is commonly referred to as the First Battle of Kawanakajima. No precise date for this battle has been established, but circumstantial evidence points to the end of September of 1553 as the most likely time frame. Fuse marks the northernmost point reached by the Takeda forces during that campaign. After suffering a defeat there, Shingen withdrew southward, but the Uesugi vanguard caught up with the Takeda again at Hachiman on October 8, obtaining yet another victory in the process.

The Takeda forces managed an orderly retreat southward along the left bank of the river, fighting the pursuing Uesugi army. After scorched-earth tactics left several castles along the Chikuma River in ruins, both forces retreated before the advance of winter in November. Uesugi Kenshin appeared to have achieved his objective. He had denied the Takeda a foothold in northern Shinano. The Takeda forces, having suffered three defeats in their first series of encounters with the Uesugi, would not be back in the area until two years later. Shingen evidently preferred to secure territories farther west before confronting Kenshin once again in 1555.


The 1553 Takeda campaign into northern Shinano set the stage for a bitter conflict between Shingen and Kenshin. Ever since the dust settled on Kawanakajima, the series of battles fought there between 1553 and 1564 have been described, analyzed, and romanticized by a succession of writers. The contestants, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, loom exceptionally large in the history of the Warring States period partially because of their exploits at Kawanakajima. Although there was no clear winner, or perhaps for that very reason, the repeated clashes of their armies on ostensibly the same battlefield occupied a prominent place in later chronicles.

Most of what historians know about the battles fought at Kawanakajima comes from a multitude of gunki (war tales) written well after the sixteenth century. Mixing fact and fiction, combining detached analysis with personal memoirs, and condemning upheaval and disorder while making heroes out of those responsible for it, these semiliterary works have obvious limitations as historical sources. Comparisons of the various accounts make apparent that the various chroniclers could not agree on such facts as the number of battles fought or the years (let alone the dates) when they occurred. There remains considerable doubt about the intensity of fighting at Kawanakajima. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the battles occurred in the general vicinity of Kawanakajima but were not all fought on the same battlefield. At the same time, one cannot help but agree with the view shared by all later chroniclers: that the Battles of Kawanakajima were an epic struggle epitomizing the Warring States period as few other conflicts do.

Further Reading

  • Hall, John W., et al., eds. The Cambridge History of Japan. Volume 4: Sengoku and Edo. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Contains the most comprehensive, up-to-date account of the Sengoku period available in English.
  • Hall, John W., Nagahara Keiji, and Kozo Yamamura. Japan Before Tokugawa: Political Consolidation and Economic Growth, 1500 to 1650. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. A collection of scholarly essays on sixteenth century Japan.
  • Lamers, Jeroen. Japonius Tyrannus: The Japanese Warlord Oda Nobunaga Reconsidered. Leiden: Hotei, 2000. A detailed scholarly account with ample quotations from primary sources.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. Kawanakajima, 1553-1564. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2003. Though not a scholarly work and not without inconsistencies, this is the only work available in English devoted exclusively to the topic.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. War in Japan, 1467-1615. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2002. From the same series as the preceding book, this volume provides an analysis of samurai warfare in the Warring States period with brief accounts of major battles.

1457-1480’s: Spread of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism

1467-1477: Ōnin War

1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

Mar. 5, 1488: Composition of the Renga Masterpiece Minase sangin hyakuin

Beginning 1513: Kanō School Flourishes

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

1587: Toyotomi Hideyoshi Hosts a Ten-Day Tea Ceremony

1590: Odawara Campaign

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

1594-1595: Taikō Kenchi Survey

Oct., 1596-Feb., 1597:
San Felipe Incident

Oct. 21, 1600: Battle of Sekigahara