A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. Ced's visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
Even if you aren’t into Japanese history, you’ll still regularly encounter references to these larger-than-life characters and heroes during your Japanese holiday.
Here are 15 key Japanese historical figures to know about when having a holiday in Japan. Though all have long since passed from this world, their legacies—and the gorgeous tourist attractions associated with them—continue to be prominent in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Most Important Japanese Historical Figures and Heroes to Know About
- Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子 AD 574–AD 622)
- Kūkai (空海AD 774–AD 835)
- Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経AD 1159–AD 1189)
- Oda Nobunaga (織田信長AD 1534–AD 1582)
- Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉AD 1537–AD 1598)
- Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康AD 1543–AD 1616)
- Date Masamune (伊達政宗AD 1567–AD 1636)
- Miyamoto Musashi (宮本武蔵 AD 1584–AD 1645)
- Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉AD 1644–AD 1694)
- Sakamoto Ryōma (竜馬坂本AD 1836–AD 1867)
- Saigō Takamori (西郷隆盛AD 1828 - AD 1877)
- Hijikata Toshizō (土方歳三AD 1835–AD 1869)
- Emperor Meiji (明治天皇AD 1867–AD 1912)
- Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石AD 1867–AD 1916)
- Kurosawa Akira (黒沢明AD 1910–AD 1998)
1. Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子 574–622)
Also referred to as Prince Umayado (厩戸皇子) or Prince Kamitsumiya (上宮皇子), Prince Shōtoku was a semi-legendary regent during the Asuka Era of Japanese History and the one name you must know when visiting the Nara region.
A skilled politician as well as a devoted Buddhist, the prince is credited with the successful establishment of a centralized government as well as the founding of Japanese Buddhism. According to some historical records, Shōtoku was also the first to use the name Nihon, which means the Land of the Rising Sun. This supposedly happened during his correspondences with Chinese Emperor Sui Yang Di.
The above contributed to the prince regent today being one of the most venerated Japanese historical figures. In the Asuka region of Nara Prefecture, there are no less than 28 temples associated with him. Many educational institutions in the country are also named after this legendary regent.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Prince Shōtoku:
- Yumedono in Hōryū-Ji, Nara Prefecture. The hall was built to assuage Prince Shōtoku’s spirit.
- Many other temples in the Kansai region contain mention of the prince regent too.
2. Kūkai (空海 774–835)
Even if you entirely avoid temples during your Japanese holiday, it is impossible not to encounter the legacy of this mythical Japanese religious leader.
More commonly referred to as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師, Grand Master who propagated Buddhist doctrine), Kūkai was the founder of the influential Shingon School of Japanese Buddhism. In his 30s, the master studied Buddhism in Tang Dynasty China, during which he also received esoteric indoctrination from Chinese Vajrayana Buddhist Master Huiguo.
After his return to Japan, Kūkai steadily gained recognition for his Buddhism insights. He was additionally renowned for his talents as a calligrapher, scholar, poet, and public works administrator.
As for the master’s accomplishments, these include the establishment of the Mount Kōya monastery, the completion of Kyoto’s Tō-ji, the invention of the Japanese kana writing system, and many more.
If you were to also accept the master’s more mythical accomplishments as truth, then you would surely agree that few other Japanese historical figures transformed the country’s religious and cultural landscape as much as the great Kōbō-Daishi did. His wisdom continues to reverberate across the country today.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Kūkai:
- The UNESCO world heritage site of Mount Kōya, the center of Japanese Shingon Buddhism.
- Kyoto’s Tō-ji. The five-story pagoda of the temple, a Kyoto landmark, is a designated Japanese national treasure.
- The famous Shikoku Pilgrimage visits 88 temples associated with Kōbō-Daishi.
3. Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経 1159–1189)
Thanks to creative depictions in popular entertainment, legendary general Minamoto no Yoshitsune is today somewhat of a mythical heroic character.
Some stories claim he could effortlessly soar through the air and was the disciple of mountain goblins (tengu). Others celebrate him as a stunning bishonen (beautiful young man) samurai with incredible acumen on the battlefield.
The real Yoshitsune, on the other hand, was the ninth son of defeated noble Minamoto no Yoshitomo, born when the Minamoto Clan was all but subjugated by their rivals, the Taira Clan. After spending his childhood and teenage years in Kurama and Hiraizumi, Yoshitsune reunited with his older brother Yoritomo and together, they led an uprising against the Taira forces.
In 1185, the Minamoto Clan emerged victorious, thus beginning the Kamakura Shogunate with Yoritomo as shōgun. As for Yoshitsune, he was sadly forced to flee to Hiraizumi after his older brother turned on him. Ultimately, the legendary hero was betrayed and committed ritual suicide in Hiraizumi.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Minamoto no Yoshitsune:
- Mount Kurama on the outskirts of Kyoto. Yoshitsune spent his childhood here and supposedly benefitted from the tutelage of mountain goblins.
- The Takadachi Gikeido Memorial in Hiraizumi is dedicated to Yoshitsune.
- Scenic Mount Yashima on the outskirts of Takamatsu was the site of the final battle between the Minamoto and Taira Clans.
- Gojo Bridge in Kyoto was supposedly where Yoshitsune first met his famed retainer, the fearsome warrior monk Benkei. The scene is referenced in many Japanese souvenirs and artistic products.
4. Oda Nobunaga (織田信長 1534–1582)
While pop culture boosted the international popularity of Japanese historical figures like Yoshitsune, it did quite the opposite for Sengoku (warring states) Warlord Oda Nobunaga.
The first of the “Three Unifiers” of feudal Japan, Oda Nobunaga is frequently portrayed in manga and video games as brutal, bloodthirsty, and even demonic. The resulting notoriety is further worsened by the historical fact that Nobunaga died by ritual suicide after his retainers rebelled and surrounded him in a burning temple. Going by this final act of his life, it indeed seems the case that Oda Nobunaga was a monster. A bloodthirsty warlord who ultimately suffered his due comeuppance in the hands of his own soldiers.
The truth about Nobunaga, though, is subjective. While he was indeed ruthless and responsible for the horrific siege of Kyoto’s Enryaku-Ji monastery, Nobunaga also promoted free trade and was supportive of Jesuit missions in Japan.
More importantly, his military victories laid the foundation for the permanent unification of a deeply fractured medieval Japan. Monster or not, murderer or champion, Oda Nobunaga’s ambitions permanently transformed the Land of the Rising Sun. His name is the one name to know for any tourist interested in the bloody medieval history of the country.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Oda Nobunaga:
- Kiyosu Castle in Kiyosu City was Nobunaga’s seat of power.
- The grave of Nobunaga at Mount Kōya.
- Enryaku-Ji, Mount Hiei. The mountain is to the northeast of Kyoto, easily accessible by public transportation.
- The Samurai Kingdom Ninja-Ise theme park in Ise has a gaudy reconstruction of Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle. Azuchi Castle was built by the warlord as an expression of wealth and might.
5. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉 1537–1598)
The second of Japan’s “Three Unifiers” of the Sengoku Period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi initially fought under Oda Nobunaga. After the latter’s suicide, he successfully avenged his former lord and in doing so, elevated his position within Nobunaga forces.
By AD 1583, Hideyoshi was the most powerful warlord in the country, controlling 30 provinces on top of having subjugated most surviving Oda Clan members. By the late 1580s, he even became the de facto ruler of Japan. During these years, Hideyoshi commenced construction of his renowned stronghold i.e. Osaka Castle. He also implemented various harsh policies to consolidate power. For example, he was responsible for a total weapons ban on commoners.
Given his accomplishments, the man could be considered a historical Japanese champion, except his domestic military successes then vastly fueled his bloodlust for bigger victories. Between 1592 and 1598, Hideyoshi launched two invasions of the Korean peninsula, both of which decimated the Korean peninsula but were ultimately unsuccessful.
In turn, these unsuccessful expeditions severely impacted Hideyoshi’s administration, with waves of repercussions that were worsened by the succession crisis after his death.
In short, Hideyoshi died while still in power but his actions paved the way for a successful coup by his subordinate Tokugawa Ieyasu. Everything gained by Hideyoshi would eventually be swallowed by the patient and scheming Ieyasu.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Toyotomi Hideyoshi:
- Osaka Castle. One of Japan’s most famous castles. (Note that the current keep was rebuilt in 1931)
- The lovely Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto was built in memory of Hideyoshi.
- Nagoya Castle Museum near Karatsu, Kyushu, focuses on the history of Hideyoshi’s megalomaniacal invasions of Korea.
- The Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument in Nagasaki are dedicated to 26 Christians executed Hideyoshi's order.
6. Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康 1543–1616)
The third and most successful of the “Three Unifiers” of the Sengoku Period, Tokugawa Ieyasu was yet another ally of Oda Nobunaga. He was also a compatriot of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, although he briefly fought against Hideyoshi when he supported a son of Nobunaga to be heir to their combined forces.
Despite this uneasy beginning, Ieyasu eventually became one of Hideyoshi’s most trusted allies, to the extent he was one of the five elders Hideyoshi entrusted his son to on his deathbed. This foolish decision then set in concrete the downfall of the Toyotomi Empire.
In 1599, merely a year after Hideyoshi’s death, Ieyasu’s forces stormed Osaka Castle. By the end of 1600, Ieyasu had defeated all remaining opponents in Japan too. The path was thus cleared for him to become the new shogun i.e. the new de facto ruler of the country.
With power completely and safely in his hands, Ieyasu next went about strengthening his newly united empire. Among his many political maneuvers, the most notable was his choice of Edo (江戸) as his power base, Edo being the traditional name of Tokyo.
Years later, Ieyasu’s heirs would also implement nationwide isolation, a policy that trapped Japan in feudalistic times but ensured three centuries of peace. The short of it, the Japan that we know of today was greatly shaped by the vision and decisions of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Art-forms such as Kabuki also enjoyed their golden ages during the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Even the oldest Shinkansen i.e. bullet train route is related to Ieyasu. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is named after the most important coastal route during the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was the route connecting the capital of Kyoto with Ieyasu’s chosen power base of Edo.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Tokugawa Ieyasu:
- The world-famous UNESCO world heritage site, Tōshō-gū, is Ieyasu’s spectacular mausoleum in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.
- The Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya. The museum exhibits treasures belonging to the Owari Branch of the Tokugawa family.
- Tokyo Imperial Palace was previously Edo Castle. Though Ieyasu didn’t build Edo Castle, he made it his seat of power after he received eight eastern provinces from Hideyoshi as war spoils.
- Nijo Castle in Kyoto was Ieyasu’s residence in the former capital.
- Nagoya Castle was famously rebuilt by Ieyasu in 1609. Until the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it was the home of the powerful Owari Branch of the Tokugawa Family.
7. Date Masamune (伊達政宗 1567–1636)
Though less famous internationally when compared to the Three Unifiers, one-eyed Date Masamune was still a major player in the final conflicts of the Sengoku Era. The founder of the Tōhoku city of Sendai, Masamune was a superb tactician who loyally served both Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
After the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Masamune ruled his awarded domain admirably, growing it into the strongest power faction in Northern Japan.
As an indication of his enlightened rule, Masamune encouraged trade, beautified his lands, promoted the arts, and was even sympathetic to Catholic missionaries. He also notably funded one of Japan’s very few pre-modern diplomacy missions to Europe. Today, several hundred descendants of this mission are still living in Seville, Spain.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Date Masamune:
- Many historical sites related to Date Masamune are located in Sendai. The most famous of these is Zuihoden Mausoleum.
8. Miyamoto Musashi (宮本武蔵 1584–1645)
Miyamoto Musashi is one of the most difficult Japanese historical figures to describe because he was so many things.
Primarily respected and feared as an exceptional swordsman, he was also a philosopher and an accomplished writer. His opus magnum, The Book of Five Rings, is today one of the most translated and widely read East Asian classics in the world.
Interestingly, businessmen have also discovered much commerce wisdom in Musashi’s discussions of confrontational and tactical advantages. This naturally further boosts the swordsman’s glowing reputation.
For tourists, the name “Musashi” is found on numerous products throughout the country too, often accompanied by an Ukiyo illustration of a classic Japanese samurai. Outside of this, the venue of Musashi’s legendary duel with contemporary swordsman Sasaki Kojirō is nowadays a tourist attraction. Supposedly, Musashi turned up at this duel late, so that the sun would be shining into Kojirō’s face.
If true, the man is without a doubt, a true tactician. Ethically debatable perhaps, but definitely with an inborn talent for the cutthroat world of business.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Miyamoto Musashi:
- Ganryūjima in Shimonoseki was the site of Musashi’s legendary duel with Sasaki Kojirō.
9. Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉 1644–1694)
Much like Kūkai, it’s hard to avoid mentions of Matsuo Bashō during any Japanese holiday.
The country’s most celebrated Edo Period poet, Bashō’s name is today synonymous with the haiku i.e. Japan’s most renowned poetic form. A devoted wanderer, Bashō also composed numerous memorable works that succinctly described the rustic sceneries he experienced.
In fact, the poet could even be considered one of Japan’s earliest travel writers. He was a phenomenal solo traveler with the unique ability to condense what he saw in so few words.
As for his background, Bashō was born in Iga Province, and by the age of 30, had achieved substantial recognition for his talents. In subsequent years, he undertook numerous extended solo trips across the country, always using routes that were considered highly dangerous because of banditry.
Not only did Bashō survive these trips well, he was immensely inspired by what he saw, which in turn refined his art form. On a lighter note, Bashō would probably be a megastar on today’s Twitter. Despite having lived over three centuries ago, the man’s artistic formula is perfect for today’s consumption.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Matsuo Bashō:
- The Bashō Memorial Museum and Bashō Birth House in Iga Ueno City.
- There are many rustic locations associated with Bashō. The best way to visit these is to join a themed guided tour.
10. Sakamoto Ryōma (竜馬坂本 1836–1867)
A low ranking samurai from Tosa Prefecture (土佐, present-day Kōchi), Sakamoto Ryōma was the game-breaker and Japanese hero in the events preceding the Boshin War i.e. the armed conflict that ended with the Meiji Restoration.
Said to be an incredibly masterful swordsman, Sakamoto negotiated an alliance between the feuding provinces of Satsuma and Chōshū, thus creating a formidable army that could challenge the Tokugawa Shogunate. In addition, he is also credited with the establishment of Japan’s first modern navy in Satsuma, while his “Eight Proposals While Shipboard” thesis is believed to be the foundation for the country’s subsequent parliamentary system
Sadly, this beloved Japanese revolutionist, samurai, and hero was assassinated before any of his efforts bore fruit; he was ambushed at the Ōmiya Inn in Kyoto. Today, Sakamoto Ryōma continues to be one of the most heavily featured historical heroes in Japanese media and entertainment. There is a museum dedicated to him in Kōchi. There are even two asteroids named after him and his wife.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Sakamoto Ryōma:
- The Sakamoto Ryōma Memorial Museum in Kochi, Shikoku, is a major tourist attraction.
- Teradaya Inn in the Fushimi District of Kyoto is famous for being the location of a failed assassination attempt on Sakamoto’s life.
11. Saigō Takamori (西郷隆盛 1828–1877)
Regarded by many Japanese as the country’s most famous samurai, Saigō Takamori was instrumental in the overthrowing of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Simply put, had Takamori’s Satsuma Province (today’s Kagoshima) not allied with Chōshū, the pro-emperor forces would never have restored power to the throne. The country would have been stuck in medieval times.
That said, Takamori’s subsequent refusal to let the Shōgun and his supporters go unpunished resulted in the Boshin War. After the defeat of the Tokugawa forces, Takamori also insisted on war with Korea. In the face of refusal, the man resigned from all posts and returned to his home province.
In 1877, he spearheaded the Satsuma Rebellion which consisted of samurai disaffected by the Meiji Restoration. The short-lived rebellion soon failed, with Takamori himself dying in battle.
If this story sounds familiar to you, know that it’s because Takamori’s life was the main inspiration for the movie, The Last Samurai. The movie’s main samurai character of Katsumoto was almost entirely based on the most romanticized depictions of Takamori i.e. that of a righteous war hero aghast at the rapid modernization of his country and the corruption of his peers.
In reality, however, Takamori’s actions are controversial, with some historians believing the man was motivated by the strong conviction that power should remain in the hands of social elites like the samurai caste. Whatever the truth, Saigō Takamori represents the last days of feudal Japan. For better or worse, he also epitomizes the old samurai ways for most Japanese.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Saigō Takamori:
- Tokyo’s sprawling Ueno Park has a famous statue of “the last samurai.”
12. Hijikata Toshizō (土方歳三 1835–1869)
Hijikata Toshizō was the vice commander of the Shinsengumi, a pro-shogunate military group during the final days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Thanks to numerous depictions in manga, anime, and video games, he is today one of the most famous Japanese historical figures in pop culture, frequently portrayed as a suave and talented swordsman who’s fiercely loyal to his masters.
Hijikata’s real place in history, however, is neither his looks nor his skills, it’s what he did in the face of military defeat and the obliteration of the Shinsengumi.
In October 1868, Hijikata and his surviving allies established the Ezo Republic in Hokkaido after occupying the Hakodate fortress of Goryōkaku. While short-lived, the Ezo Republic was ironically, Japan’s very first democratic institution. Hijikata’s final defeat there then cemented the victory of the pro-emperor forces and formally began the Meiji Restoration.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Hijikata Toshizō:
- Goryōkaku in Hakodate, Hokkaido. Be sure to ascend the nearby viewing tower for the best view.
- The Hijikata Toshizō Museum in Tokyo is devoted to this famous samurai. It is managed by the vice commander’s descendants.
- Hijikata’s exact burial spot is unknown. However, there is a tomb with his name at Senkidenji Temple in Tokyo.
- Mibudera Temple and Yagitei Mansion in the heart of Kyoto are famous for their associations with the Shinsengumi.
- Takahata Fudo Temple in Tokyo has a full-size statue of Hijikata.
13. Emperor Meiji (明治天皇 1867–1912)
Unlike its massive Chinese neighbor, very few Japanese emperors are historically famous, the result of real power frequently in the hands of shoguns and warlords.
This peculiar situation changed with the Meiji Restoration. In 1867, crown prince Mutsuhito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne to become Emperor Meiji, with formal governing power returned to his throne two years later upon the defeat of the last pro-shogunate forces. Together with other royalists, the new emperor then untiringly modernized his realm, to the extent that when the emperor died half a century later, Japan was no longer a backward and isolated nation but one of the Great Powers of the world.
Today, the most prominent reminder of the emperor’s reign is the sprawling Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a leafy oasis in the heart of the ultramodern metropolis. Dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his empress, the massive park is a constant reminder of the emperor’s important role in modernizing Japan.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Emperor Meiji:
- Meiji Shrine is the most popular and renowned tourist attraction associated with the emperor. It is right beside Harajuku Train Station.
- Several Japanese cities have a major road named Meiji-Dori.
- The Meiji Mura architectural theme park in Inuyama showcases the unique architectural fusion of the East and West during Emperor Meiji’s reign.
14. Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石 1867–1916)
Despite its small size, Japan boasts of an impressive number of world-famous writers. Among these, novelist Natsume Sōseki stands at the forefront, recognized throughout the country and the world as the greatest of all Japanese writers from the modern era.
A British literature scholar and a poet, Natsume’s most famous works are Kokoro, I Am A Cat, and Botchan, the last of which is still widely read by Japanese schoolchildren today. For tourists, no tour of the Shikoku city of Matsuyama is also possible without numerous mentions of Natsume, this being the city Botchan was set in.
Last but not least, the writer’s portrait was featured on the 1000 Yen Note from 1984 to 2004. If you have one of these in your pocket during your Japanese holiday, know that you are literally carrying the country’s most respected writer with you wherever you go.
Tourist Attractions Associated With Natsume Sōseki:
- As highlighted, Matsuyama is famous for being the setting of Botchan. Particularly the centuries-old Dogo Onsen, which was repeatedly mentioned in the novel.
- One of the writer’s homes is preserved in the Meiji Mura Theme Park in Inuyama.
- The Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum in Shinkuju, Tokyo, is a new installation devoted to the life and works of this Japanese literary giant.
15. Kurosawa Akira (黒沢明 1910–1998)
Kurosawa Akira is no stranger to the modern world, especially for movie lovers. Still, it might feel odd to include him on this list of important Japanese historical figures, given the rest of the entries earned their place in history through military success or revolution.
Consider, though, Kurosawa’s contributions to the revival of his country as a respectable culture after WWII, and the country’s current recognition as an Asian cultural powerhouse. Beyond the artistic merits of his movies, Kurosawa familiarized modern generations with traditional Japanese concepts of warrior’s honor, loyalty, and karmic violence. In many ways, Kurosawa’s celebrated career also mirrored the return of a WWII-ravaged Japan to the international scene.
Furthermore, he was named in 1999 by the American AsianWeek magazine and CNN as an “Asian of the Century,” one who contributed to the betterment of Asia in the realms of art, literature, and culture. When it comes to being an international representative of modern post-war Japan, there is perhaps few other Japanese historical figures are more suitable than this visionary director. His artistic style undoubtedly also shaped the world’s current interpretation of classic Japanese culture.
Key Tourist Attractions Associated With Kurosawa Akira:
- There aren’t any tourist attractions specifically devoted to Kurosawa Akira. However, you are very likely to see posters of his movies during your Japanese holiday in pubs, cafes, collectors’ shops, etc. Such posters are sometimes sold as travel souvenirs too.
© 2018 Ced Yong
Liz Westwood from UK on August 11, 2018:
This article is packed with information as well as some excellent illustrations.
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on August 10, 2018:
Hi Mary, thanks for commenting! For me, what's doubly fascinating is how these characters are portrayed in Japanese media. Nobunaga, for eg, has been depicted as everything from villainous to demonic, to enlightened, to even saintly. Some even show him as some sort of mecha incarnation.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 10, 2018:
I have read about two of these figures in novels and I find them interesting. It is not often we read about them and the roles they played in putting Japan on the world map. Next time, I visit Japan, I will look for some of these monuments I have not seen before.