Sohei, the monk-soldiers 僧兵

Monks mastering the art of war

Japan has experienced, through its history and the various wars, a particular phenomenon: the large companies of monk-soldiers, or Sohei. Although attached to a monastery where they carried out their religious duties, these monks mastered the art of war and had a great influence in many Japanese battles.


A phenomenon born of rivalries


The first monk-soldiers appeared in the 10th century in Japan, especially during rivalries between the two branches of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Both located in the city of Otsu, at the level of Mount Hiei, they were the teachings of the Enryaku-ji and Mii-dera temples.

Subsequently, the Todai-ji and the Kofuku-ji of the city of Nara also constituted groups of Sohei to support their grievances. The phenomenon grew and in the 11th century, more and more troops took part in increasingly violent conflicts.

Le temple enryakuji, sur le Mont Hiei

Enryakuji temple on Mount Hiei

Yu-Jen shih flickr


The irruption in political conflicts


The Genpei War (1180 - 1185) between the Minamoto and Taira clans was an opportunity for the Sohei to emerge from their internal wars and influence the destinies of the country. The two clans sought to reconcile the powerful troops of monk-soldiers, who could have a significant impact on the battlefield, in particular using their naginata, a kind of Japanese halberd of almost 2 meters.

Indeed, many sôhei were accomplished warriors, mastering the fight with the sword, on horseback, and above all wielding the bow to perfection.

It was also during this time that some soldier monks stood out even among the samurai. So it was with Monk Benkei, companion of the great samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who entered into Japanese legend for his many warrior prowess.


Benkei and Yoshitsune


The Ikkô-ikki, from power to control


The following centuries were a period of calm for the activity of the Sohei, until the Sengoku period (1477 - 1573), a century of anarchy that favored the birth of the new independent power of the samurai.

This era saw the birth of "ikko-ikki" (literally "a direction, a category"), groups of warriors made up of Men from the peasantry and nobility, Buddhist monks, and Shinto priests, animated by an ardent faith and egalitarian demands.


Battle of Azukizaka pitting Ieyasu Tokugawa against the Ikko-Ikki


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