Home » Masashige Kusunoki – samurai who died for an Emperor

Masashige Kusunoki – samurai who died for an Emperor

In the corner of Kokyo Gaien (Outer Gardens of the Imperial Palace) is a rather large statue of a samurai on a horse.  I first saw it in 1991 when I went to the palace with a friend.  At that time, I didn’t pay much attention.  We glanced at it, took some pictures, and moved on.

Tokyo Samurai

It was a beautiful piece of work.  There was so much intricate detail on it.   The man was covered in samurai armor, pulling on the reins to bring his mount to a stop.  He looked very heroic.  But I had no idea who he was. 

head and helmet of Masashige Kusunoki

Some years later, I passed through the area again.  I stopped for a closer inspection.  I read the plaque on it and found it was Masashige Kusunoki.  Who was he?  What did he do?

A brief history of Masashige Kusunoki 

Masashige (1294 – 1336) was a fourteenth-century samurai.  He came from a wealthy family was a scholar and a devout Buddhist.  On top of that, he was courageous and loyal to the emperor.  That wasn’t uncommon at the time, so why was he special?

During his lifetime, the Kamakura shogunate ruled Japan.  Of course, that was fine, but the Emperor, Go-Daigo, wanted real power returned to the throne. 

According to legend, he dreamed when resting under a camphor tree (in Japanese, “Kusunoki”).  Can you see where this is going?  No prize for guessing who that was.  Masashige suddenly found himself a loyalist general.

samurai on horse statue in Imperial Palace Outer Garden

Luckily, he was a brilliant tactician and strategist.  He defended two fortresses, Akasaka and Chihaya.  That allowed Go-Daigo to return to power for a brief time.  He rewarded Masashige for his efforts.  The emperor gave him the governorship of Settsu and Kawachi Provinces (near Osaka). He also received several court promotions and awards.

Things didn’t go well.  Some were discontented with Go-Daigo’s rule.  They wished to return to the way things were in the Heian period.  One of them was the samurai Takauji Ashikaga.  He raised an army with support from another branch of the Imperial line.  The Genkō war started.

For the loyalists, it was a disaster.  The emperor ignored Kusunoki’s military advice.  The two forces engaged each other near Kobe at the Battle of Minatogawa.  The Ashikaga won, and Masashige died.  After the battle, his head was taken and sent to Kanshin-Ji (temple) for burial.  The new court branded him a traitor.  It is no surprise he dropped out of history for a time!

Things change, though.  During the Edo period, Neo-Confucian theories influenced scholars and samurai with new ideas.  They created a new legend.  He now epitomized loyalty, courage, and devotion to the emperor.  In 1871 he was enshrined at Minatogawa Shrine.  Masashige, even in death, became a tool of the state. 

During World War II, the kamikaze revered him.  They thought he had all the virtues they should have – loyalty, courage, and devotion.  And like him, they died for an Emperor.

Samurai on horse in Imperial Palace Outer Garden

Photography at the statue of Masashige Kusunoki

Benches surround the statue.  And a toilet block is nearby.  You might want to keep that in mind when planning your pictures;

Being in a park and up on a pedestal, it is straightforward to photograph.  I would suggest going there in the late afternoon as the sun should be lighting the statue’s face.  The other thing is that if you want to capture details, you will need quite a long lens.  The head is relatively high up, so if you plan to zoom in, take a 100 to 200 mm.  Of course, for those with only shorter lenses, crop your photos;

horse head

The statue has a helmet and armor hanging out all over the place!  They create a lot of shadows.  For those who want more darkness in their photos, that is great!  If you don’t, you will have to deal with them in post-processing.  Bracketing or a long exposure might be helpful too, and;

Trees surround the statue.  That means if you shoot there late in the afternoon, shadows will come into play earlier in the day.  That is something you’ll need to keep in mind.

Masashige Kusunoki on horse statue

Where is the Masashige Kusunoki statue?

The statue is in the Kokyo Gaien (Outer Gardens of the Imperial Palace).  It is a short walk from Hibiya Station or a slightly longer one from Tokyo Station.

Here is a Google map:

Opening hours

The statue of Masashige Kusunoki is in a park, so you can go whenever you like. It is open twenty-four hours a day.   But, the lack of lighting at night might be problematic.

Admission costs


samurai thigh armour

Public restrooms


Masashige Kusunoki statue

What else is near the Masashige Kusunoki statue to photograph?

1)  Godzilla Statue

2)  Hibiya Park

3)  Imperial Palace

4)  Tokyo International Forum

5)  Tokyo Station (and its beautiful domed ceilings)

6)  Wadakura Fountain Park

Wrapping up

I like the statue because it is historically valuable and beautiful. The buildings around it provide a great contrast. Kusunoki provides a link with the past. And if you can catch them with some good background weather, a great picture will surely be the result.

3 thoughts on “Masashige Kusunoki – samurai who died for an Emperor”

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