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Saitō Musashibō Benkei (西塔武蔵坊弁慶, 1155–1189), popularly known as simply Benkei, was a Japanese warrior monk (sōhei) who lived in the latter years of the Heian Period (794–1185). Benkei led a varied life, first becoming a monk, then a mountain ascetic, and then a rogue warrior. He later came to respect and serve the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. He is commonly depicted as a man of great strength and loyalty, and a popular subject of Japanese folklore, showcased in many ancient and modern literature and productions.
Stories about Benkei's birth vary considerably. One tells how his father was the head of a temple shrine who had raped his mother, the daughter of a blacksmith. Another sees him as the offspring of a temple god. Many give him the attributes of a demon, a monster child with wild hair and long teeth. In his youth, Benkei may have been called Oniwaka (鬼若)—"demon/ogre child", and there are many famous ukiyo-e works themed on Oniwakamaru and his adventures. He is said to have defeated 200 men in each battle he was personally involved in.
Benkei chose to join the monastic establishment at an early age and traveled widely among the Buddhist monasteries of Japan. During this period, monasteries were not only important centers of administration and culture, but also military powers in their own right, similar to the Roman Legions. Like many other monks, Benkei was likely trained in the use of the naginata, the half-moon spear.
At the age of seventeen, Benkei was said to have been 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall. At this point, he left the monasteries, and became a yamabushi, a member of a sect of mountain ascetics. Benkei was commonly depicted wearing a black cap that was a signature theme of such mountain ascetics.
Tales of Benkei's loyalty and honour have made him a mainstay of Japanese folklore, as well as a popular subject for literature and entertainment.
One kabuki play places Benkei in a moral dilemma, caught between lying and protecting his lord in order to cross a bridge. The critical moment of the drama is its climax, where the monk realises his situation and vows to do what he must. In another play, Benkei slays his own child to save the daughter of a lord. In the Noh play Ataka, Benkei must beat his own master (disguised as a porter) in order to avoid breaking his disguise. Ataka was later adapted into the kabuki play Kanjinchō, which became one of the most popular and widely performed works in Japanese theatre.