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Portrait of samurai warrior Genkuro Yoshitsune and monk Musashibo Benkei

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Print of samurai Genkuro Yoshitsune and monk Musashibo Benkei by Toyokuni Utagawa, c. 1804-1818

Woodcut print of samurai warrior Genkuro Yoshitsune and warrior monk Musashibo Benkei by Toyokuni Utagawa, c. 1804-1818.

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The famed samurai warrior and Minamoto clan general Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189), shown here standing at the rear, was the only person in Japan who could defeat the fierce warrior-monk, Musashibo Benkei. Once Yoshitsune proved his fighting prowess by beating Benkei in a duel, the two became inseperable fighting partners.

Benkei was not only ferocious but also famously ugly. Legend says that his father was either a demon or a temple guardian and his mother was a blacksmith's daughter. Blacksmiths were among the burakumin or "sub-human" class in feudal Japan, so this is a disreputable genealogy all around.

Despite their class differences, the two warriors fought together through the Genpei War (1180-1185). In 1189, they were besieged together at the Battle of Koromo River. Benkei held off the attackers to give Yoshitsune time to commit seppuku; according to legend, the warrior monk died on his feet, defending his lord, and his body remained standing until enemy warriors knocked it over.

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