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by Alan Scott Pate

Exceptional Warrior Doll set by Maruhei Okiheizo IV (1860-1939) depicting the Nakaso no Seki barrier crossing
during the Later Three Year’s War (1087), Figures: 17" (Banner 30” ), Meiji Era, Circa 1891-1898

The Nakoso Barrier looms large in Japanese poetry and history as a place of remote mystery. Through much of Japanese history barrier gates were placed along major roads and along controlled borders to restrict traffic, collect fees, and generally monitor the comings and goings of the populace. The Nakoso Barrier, also known as the Kikuta Barrier, was located at the outer-most edge of imperial control, the entrance to a wild land, a mountainous tract located on the road connecting the village of Kubota in Iwaki Province and the village of Sekimoto in Hitachi Province—the gateway to Tohoku, the forbidding north. Symbolically, on the one side lay order and imperial control, on the other lay the Ainu, a barbarian peoples from the perspective of the court in Kyoto, and the rebellious and defiant Abe family who defied imperial rule and law.

Fig. 1 Musha-ningyô of Minamoto no Yoshi’ie by Maruhei Okiheizo IV

In the 12th Century, the military Minamoto clan was commissioned by the emperor to subdue the Abe. These conflicts, known as the Early Nine Years War, occupy an important period in the development of the samurai class, their role, and their political aspirations. Minamoto Yoshi’ie (1039-1106) earned his fame during this conflict while still a very young man, garnering himself the name “Hachiman-taro”—or the son of Hachiman, the god of war. Yoshi’ie was to return to this area again in what is known as the Later Three Years War to once more face the Abe and to fight against his own son and stepson who had risen in rebellion. Passing through the Nakoso Barrier yet once more to Kyoto following this last victory he is said to have penned this poem:

Fuku maze wo
Nakoso no seki to
michi mo se ni chiru
yamazakura kana
Although I thought
that the blowing wind would not come
to the Barrier of Nakoso
the mountain cherries fall so
that they make the path narrow

Fig. 2 Minamoto no Yoshi’ie at the Nakoso no Seki by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1846
This poignant moment of his return along this narrow path through which he had traversed so often to and from war captures the Japanese sense of the fleeting and ephemeral nature of life, the falling blossoms, the intimacy of death for a samurai. Woodblock prints depicting this moment at the Nakoso Barrier were created by many artists during the Edo Period, Yoshi’ie astride a horse, enraptured by the falling blossoms as he makes his way home along the narrow trail from the north.

Yoshi’ie himself represents the classic warrior and his exploits were recounted in legend and lore, perpetuated in story and song. During the Later Three Years War (1083-1087), he was accompanied by another young warrior: Kamakura Gongorô Kagemasa. In 1085 Gongorô was only 16 years old when he joined Yoshi’ie in this conflict. Gongorô is famed for having taken an arrow in the left eye while fighting. He did not stop until he had vanquished his opponent. Legend has it that he had a retainer try and remove the arrow. In order to get leverage Gongorô was laid on the ground and the retainer put his foot on Gongorô’s face to pry the arrow free. Gongorô refused to suffer the indignity of a foot in his face and threatened to kill the retainer. The heroism and bombast of Gongorô was later captured on the Kabuki stage. The acting lineage of the Ichikawa Danjurô family made plays featuring Gongorô one of their staples as they developed their own acting style known as aragoto or rough stuff. Gongorô, in these plays, is far removed from the battlefield where he fought with Yoshi’ie, but the essence of his character, the bravado, the youthful vigor and undaunted courage is captured in plays set in later periods featuring more mundane character sets.Dolls depicting Yoshi’ie as well as Gongorô Kagemasa were popular for the Boy’s Day celebration. These warriors personified many of the virtues so valued in samurai society, and the exploits and daring also captured the imaginations of the merchant class. Dolls depicting Yoshi’ie frequently show him as a classic general, seated atop a camp stool enveloped in heavy armor, wearing a dramatic dragon-crested helmet. Known as an archer of strength and accuracy, Yoshi’ie also carries the bow as a standard accessory along with his curved-blade sword.

Fig. 3 Musha-ningyô of Kamakura Gongorô Kagemasa by Maruhei Okiheizo IV

Gongorô receives different interpretations. Sometimes he is depicted as a vassal, kneeling next to the senior and more powerful Yoshi’ie. Sometimes he is depicted singly, a young and valiant warrior with all the armature and weaponry of one of his status.

The set depicted here is a complex and intriguing one. Consisting of six individual characters we might be at a loss as to their identities and roles if it were not for the detailed inscriptions on their original storage boxes. We learn from these boxes that the set was created by Maruhei Okiheizo of Kyoto. The interior shop label allows us to date the set with accuracy between 1891 and 1898. This was during the height of Maruhei Okiheizo IV’s output. As an atelier, Maruhei was a supplier to the imperial family since the Edo Period. Even after the court moved from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo at the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868, Maruhei remained an official supplier of dolls to Emperor Meiji and the court nobility. A number of sets created by Maruhei during this period appear to be specially commissioned sets, depicting characters and scene’s that, while known, were not typically found in the Boy’s Day pantheon.

Maruehi IV was famed for his attention to detail. His style was referred to as "seika" roughly meaning clean and gorgeous. This can be seen in the treatment of the armor on Oya and Gongorô as well is the exceptional execution of the faces. Age, rank, temperament are all conveyed in the facial expressions and details. The stern Oya, the youthful and slight wild Gongorô with his long hair and mouth open. Even the attendant figures are given distinct personalities: the helmet carrier with pride, the bannerman with grim determination, and the horse handler as a hapless goof.

From the calligraphic inscriptions we also are informed that these characters are intended to depict the Nakoso Barrier (Nakoso no seki fuzoku). The figures are divided into two groups of three. Box 1 contains: Sakata Uemon Norikai, Oya Hitachi no Kami Mitsutô, and a hatamochi (attendant). The Box 2 lists Young Warrior (wakamusha) Kamakura Gongorô Kagemasa, Fujiwara Sakon no sho kan, and a batei (horse handler).

Let’s break these down a little more.

[Box 1] Oya Hitachi

Starting with the big player in Box 1 (above): Oya Hitachi. His actual name is Oya Mitsutô. “Hitachi no kami” is actually a rank listing meaning that he is in charge of local affairs for the Hitachi government and that he functions as a retainer to Minamoto no Yoshi’ie. In this set he is depicted in lush armor with silk lacings of green, gilt forearm guards, a severe and heavy metal halberd in his right hand, a long sword with a tiger pelt scabbard at his hip. Though he carries no bow his back is festooned with arrows in a highly detailed quiver. His helmet is a peaked cone with a perplexing crest. Frequently crests, both on clothing and those found on armor can be used in identifying the character. Here we have a moon-like design with a leaf in the middle in what appears to be a take or bamboo motif. The leaf can also be interpreted in other ways (wisteria, nandina, nogi tree, etc). So, while a beautiful design element, it is not terribly useful in furthering our identification of Oya Mitsutô.

Sakata Uemon
hatamochi (Bannerman)

The next character is Sakata Uemon. Noriaki is actually a rank indicating that he is a judge of the third rank or order. Here he seems to function as a spear carrier for Oya Mitsutô. He wears simple iron armor, no ornamentation with a functional high crowned helmet, also in iron.

The hatamochi is an attendant figure. He wears a simple lacquered conical helmet, but importantly carries the banner of the Minamoto with the gentian (rindo) crest executed in a triangular form. "Hata" refers to a banner suspended by a pole and "mochi" means to carry or hold. Bannerman is a good translation.

These are there merely in a supportive role to Oya. Their footwear indicates minor sub-gradations. Sakata, for example, wears shin guards, straw sandals and leather foot socks. While the lower rank figure wears his sandals on bare feet.

[Box 2] Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa

In Box 2 (above), the most important figure is that of Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa. Some of his life’s details are outlined above. “Kamakura” actually refers to where his family established a base. It is interesting to note that, technically, Gongoro was a member of the Taira Clan, ultimate arch-enemies of the Minamoto. This fellowship between Taira and Minamoto was short lived and much of the Japanese middle ages are defined by the epic battles waged between these two powerful military clans.

To reflect his youth, he is shown with an unshaved head, his hair drawn into top knot with a long queue. He wears a simple eboshi of black gauze with a white tie band. These are used en lieu of helmet linings during the period. Like Oya, he wears forearm guards of gilt, an arrow quiver of more modest make at his back. In his left hand he carries a long bow, and a sword at his left hip. His footwear is also similar to that of Oya. His armor is of a red lacquer, red being Taira colors.

Fujiwara Sakon
batei (horse handler)

His principal attendant is listed as Fujiwara Sakon. Here he serves as the helmet bearer of Gongorô. The full name listed as Fujiwara sakon no Shokan Norisue, includes rank references, implying that he was second-in-command of Hitachi.

The final character listed is that of a lowly batei or “horse handler.” He receives the most minimal of treatment, with the most comedic of faces. He is also depicted with bare feet over sandals.

So now the fun begins! We have the players and we have the location. But what is the story.

Absent is the figure of Minamoto no Yoshi’ie, the likely focus of the story itself. Rather than representing opposing sides within a story, this set likely features Yoshi’ie’s allies in his fight during the Later Three Years War. The Nakoso no seki, with its long-standing poetic references and close connection with conflicts taking place in the north became something of a shorthand signifier of the Early Nine Years War and the Later Three Years War.

There is a museum in Iwaki City at the site of the old Nakoso Barrier called the Iwaki City Nakoso Seki Bungaku Rekishikan. Although the current situation in Fukushima makes it difficult to visit at this juncture, a future trip might yield exciting information about this set, who it is to represent in greater detail, and possibly why it might have been of importance during this part of the Meiji Era.


The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in McIntosh, Florida, USA,
Tel +1 (858)-775-6717

He received an M. A. in Korean history and language from Harvard University.

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