2022: Be Inspired to do Big in the Year of the Tiger

It’s 2022! Let’s kick off in our usual fashion with an article on what the current Lunar Zodiac year is and what sign represents it. As many are aware, 2022 is the year of the tiger. Many have been sending out new year wishes accompanied with colorful images of tigers to help spread the word and support the Chinese Zodiac cycle. If we follow the actual chronological order of this ancient calendar, the correct date for this zodiac year is February 1st. Still, doesn’t mean we can’t get into the proper mindset and start 2022 right.

For this article, we’ll cover the specifics of the tiger sign, and what to expect the auspicious predictions for this year to be. Along with this, we’ll look at the societal and cultural influences the image of the tiger, as a whole, has had within the history of Japan.

UNDERSTANDING TORADOSHI

Under the Zodiac calendar, 2022’s zodiac animal is the tiger. So, we can call this the year of the tiger, or toradoshi (寅年) in Japanese. In many people’s minds, the imagery of a tiger symbolizes power, courage, as well as strong-willed. Of course, these characteristics were added much later once animals were incorporated as relatable representatives of humanistic qualities for each of the 12 zodiac signs.

A painting of a tiger reclining. Artwork of Ohara Kosen.

Let’s break down technical traits of this year’s zodiac sign. The tiger sign is identified by the character “寅”, which is pronounced as “tora”. Normally, the kanji for the actual animal is “虎”, which also uses the same pronunciation. Although possessing the same animal name, the “寅” character’s root meaning points to “sprouting of seeds”. This is significant as it’s the precursor to the seasonal transition from Winter to Spring.

Along with the 12 Zodiacs, there is the “10 Heavenly Stems” (十干/Jikkan in Japanese), which traditionally associates with each year’s reading. The character that represents this category is “壬”, with the pronunciation being “mizunoe”, and means “light-water”. This is because the 10 Heavenly Stems is a product of Inyō Gogyōsetsu (陰陽五行説), which is the combination of philosophical beliefs pertaining to ying-yang (light and dark) and the 5 Movements/Elements (earth, water, fire, wood, metal).

There are essentially 5 different tiger years within the 60-year Zodiac cycle, with each one representing a different element. For this year, we get both tiger and mizunoe together as “壬寅”, which is pronounced either as “jin-in” or “mizunoe tora”. Thus, the complete way of reading 2022 would be as “year of the water-tiger”.

EVERYDAY USAGE

The Zodiac signs have continued to have an impactful influence in Japan’s society of old. Becoming a staple within the culture, people were educated to rely on these signs for telling time, determining direction, and so on. Below are the different roles of the tiger sign in everyday application, along with its traits for this year.

  • Time = 3 am – 5 am
  • Direction = East-Northeast (abit past 30 degrees)
  • Month = 1st (old calendar); 2nd (modern calendar)
  • Energy = Light / positive (yang)
  • 5 Elements = water

Although archaic for today’s standards, it is still possible to utilize the tiger sign, as well as the other zodiac signs, for calculating time, directions, and so forth. There is a systematic process, which is covered in one of my translation projects entitled, “Many Ways of Utilizing the Zodiac Signs“. This can be found in the Translations section of this site, in the menu above.

2022 PREDICTIONS

As mentioned earlier, the character used to represent the tiger sign possesses the meaning of a seed sprouting. This imagery represents growth & vitality, as well as new beginnings. In essence, 2022 is read as a year for everyone to not only become revitalized, but to start a new endeavor. Realistically, this tends to be a general goal for every year, especially in the West. What the tiger sign emphasizes is an increased success rate on an auspicious level, especially for life-changing, ground-breaking pursuits.

Those born particularly in the water-tiger year are said to have particular traits that makes it easier for them to succeed. This includes having a strong intention to succeed, passionate and able to take on any challenges, and an eagerness to learn. While designated as the personality of those born under this sign, keep in mind this can benefit all individuals universally, as those of different signs can mimic this in order to reap the rewards this year can offer.

Interestingly, as much as an advantage those born under this tiger sign has, there are also significant disadvantages they have to especially be cautious about regarding overdoing things. Then there are those other fortune factors to be concerned about, such as wearable color clothing, lucky numbers, favorable directions, and so on…at least, for those individuals who actually follow this type of auspicious practice.

CULTURAL IMAGE

Outside of the Chinese Zodiac calendar, the image of the tiger has cemented itself into Japan’s culture, despite being a country that originally was not a habitat for such animals. Gaining knowledge about this large, wild cat from sources such as artworks, literature, and folklore from China & Korea centuries ago, Japanese society has incorporated the concept of them representing strength, bravery, as well as something having high value. Thus, it’s not unusual for the tiger image to be used as a form of expression for one’s worth, or to distinguish objects with this animal association to instill an everlasting impression.

Artwork entitled, “Satō Masakiyo toragari no zu” (Satō Masakiyo on a Tiger Hunt). Artist is Utagawa Kuniteru. One of many artwork pieces that follow a popular theme regarding warriors defeating a tiger, usually as a feat to display their prowess.

Let’s look into the historical use of the word tora (tiger) as a label. Since as far back as medieval Japan, it wasn’t unusual for individuals to include this word in their name or given title, especially for warriors or those in the entertainment field.

  • Takeda Shingen (武田信玄) = the renown warlord of Kai province was nicknamed “Tiger of Kai” (甲斐の虎, Kai no Tora), for he was a cunning & formidable competitor in the race to dominate Japan during the 1500s.
  • Akiyama Torashige (秋山虎繁) = a strong warrior & trusted retainer of the Takeda clan that controlled Kai province.
  • Hara Toramasa (原虎胤) = another warrior of the Takeda clan that was an ashigaru taishō (足軽大将, infantry commander).
  • Ii Naotora (井伊直虎) = a female territorial lord during the mid 1500s, as noted in the chronicles of the Ii family.
  • Utagawa Yoshitora (歌川義虎) = an accomplished ukiyo-e artist during the late Edo period to early Meiji period.
  • Nakamura Toranosuke (中村 虎之介) = a young kabuki performer/actor who hails down a family line that specialized in kabuki theater.

In a sense, the inclusion of tora (tiger) in each of these individual’s names or as a label can be taken as an indication of their capacity for success.

Next, is how value is placed on tangible things. For example, within the different areas of artistic practices and performances of old such as bujutsu (武術, martial arts) and chadō (茶道, way of the tea ceremony), documents that contain secret & high-level knowledge exclusive to those worthy were often called “tora no maki” (虎の巻), which literally can be translated as “tiger scroll”. This is still done today, as this label is placed on workbooks & study guides that contain important tips and strategies to help students pass exams, or excel in various fields of interest, such as medical or tech. There is also the term “tora no ko” (虎の子), which usually indicates things of extreme value, such as money. With the term meaning “tiger’s cub”, one can get the idea of how protective a mother tiger is when it comes down to ensuring safety for her own cubs. This is the type of feeling that must be projected for things that are of the status to be labeled “tora no ko”.

Painting entitled, “Fūryū Jūnishi Tora (Appreciation of the 12 Zodiac Animals: Tiger). Artist is Isoda Koryusai. While no official description could be found, this artwork displays an adult tiger with a tiger cub on its back, possibly rescuing it from the strong water turrent.

There are also some interesting old sayings that use the tiger image in an expressive fashion. Below are some examples, from dangerous situations to challenging the road to success:

  • Kogō (虎口) = the tiger’s den
    MEANING = a dangerous place to either avoid or escape from.
  • Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu (虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず) = you can’t steal the cub if you don’t enter the tiger’s den
    MEANING = have to take risks if you want to succeed big.
  • Tora no o wo fumu (虎の尾を踏む) = stepping on the tiger’s tail
    MEANING = beware of stirring trouble, or getting caught in a bad predicament.
  • Tora ni tsubasa (虎に翼) = a tiger with wings
    MEANING = giving someone who is already powerful a level up boost.
  • Neko wa tora no kokoro wo shirazu (猫は虎の心を知らず) = Although similar, a cat doesn’t possess the mind of a tiger
    MEANING = an average Joe cannot understand the mind of a successful person.

CONCLUSION

While our world has faced an amount of setbacks caused by the pandemic, we are gearing to move forward with our lives in hopes to overcome. Let’s hope that this year everyone can make strides towards this, and be successful in our goals, whether it be in helping our communities, starting a new business, or just getting back on our feet. Don’t forget to use the image of the tiger to be inspired to do big!

Nengajō: Happy Wishes on New Years Day

As the year comes to a close, people send different forms of heartfelt messages around the world. This is done for all types of purposes, whether it be reaching out & staying in touch between family and friends, or keeping good relations between businesses and customers. In the US, many usually do this in the form of holiday cards, such as Christmas cards or New Years cards. Similarly, Japan has a practice of using cards as well, which is called nengajō (年賀状). What is the story behind nengajō? In this article, we’ll explore the history behind these letters of happy new year wishes & when they came about in Japan, along with the iconic appearance that has become a mainstay. We’ll also touch upon the rules & hardships that come along with following this tradition, as well as how technology is changing people approach sending out new year wishes.

MEANING AND HISTORY

The word “nengajō” stands for a written letter used to wish good fortune in the new year. In today’s standards, this is labeled simply as a holiday card. Such practice in Japan was recorded around the later part of Heian period (794 ~1185). Evidence of this is found within the collection of letters called “Unshū Shōsoku” (雲集消息), which were of the possession of Heian aristocrat and Confucius scholar Fujiwara Akihira. In this collection, there are exchanges of messages of New Year wishes between him and others. Considering the time period and how aristocrat families primarily had access to literacy education, it is believed that the practice of nengajō started with this group. Other examples of expressing new year wishes can be also found in educational resources called “Teikin Ōrai” (庭訓往来), which were used at private temple schools starting sometime in the 1300s during the Muromachi period. In the past, the most common phrases found in these letters included expressions of fortune or wishing happiness to the recipient as Spring was opening up throughout Japan. Along with the elite families, military families would also follow this tradition, as many warlords saw it important to uphold good relations with their allies.

Here’s an opening page in a version of Teikin Ōrai from Sakamoto Ryumon Bunko & Nara Women’s University Academic Information Center that was written in 1520. The underlined section is an example of nengajo, where the message is expressing luck and plenty of fortune to the recipient as Spring is upon them. This reflects the time period when the old calendar was prominent in Japan’s past, for the new year fell on the beginning of today’s February.

In the Edo period, this practice was slowly being adopted by the common people. This is due to literacy education being made available through private elementary schools, which helped society as a whole develop with each generation. Still, the catch was that family had to be making a well enough income to afford education lessons. Education as a whole made it possible for many towns & prefectures to incorporate cultural traditions primarily elite families partook in the past. As nengajō became a growing practice among the masses, one form of transportation that became essential was the mobility of machibikyaku (町飛脚), or express messengers in English. This special service was introduced as a simple solution to meet the demands of Japanese citizens having their holiday cards reach their families, friends, and acquaintances on the exact day of gantan (元旦), or 1st day of the new year. Machibikyaku were depended on for this task up until the ending of the Edo period, as this service would be replaced by a more systematic process known as the postal system.

The postal system was introduced in Japan around 1871, with post offices slowly constructed in each prefecture throughout the country. The postal service would become fully established around Japan within the years, which from there a formal delivery service could be provided throughout the country. Citizens took advantage of this, for in late 1880s onward post offices had to handle the bulk of these holiday cards from everyone throughout Japan in the last month of the year, as postal workers had to work around the clock to ensure each and every nengajō made it to their destinations on the 1st day of the new year. This approach was adopted from how the machibikyaku were used for express deliveries in short periods of time.

DESIGNS AND FEATURES

Over the course of history, nengajō went through several visual and physical transitions. More ancient examples can be seen from resources like Unshū Shōsoku and Teikin Ōrai, where In the beginning this letters were sent that contained new year wishes in the form of one to two line greetings. Once Japan was unified by one sole power called the Tokugawa Shogunate and giving birth to Edo period in the early 1600s, nengajō retained its letter form as common people emulated what was done in the past. In some of these, illustrations were added along with the message depending on the sender’s taste. These new year letters were folded into a smaller, compact size, which made easy to carry by those who could travel, or be piled with other letters in a square box and easily distributed by machibikyaku once they reached their destination.

An example of nengajō in modern times. From Wikipedia.

As Edo period came to an end, with Meiji period taking its place in late mid 1800s, advancement in modernization would influence how people would send out nengajō. With an actual postal system in play, actual holiday cards called nenga hagaki would be made available for purchase. This version was especially well received during the early to mid 20th century, as people could go to their local post office, book stores,or specialty shops and purchase these pre-made cards. This period saw a very iconic look for these holiday cards, where on one side would be for the address of the sender & recipient and the stamp, while the other side would feature some form of illustration followed by space for one’s message.

An example of otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki. From Wikipedia.

Speaking of which, with the inclusion of the card design came other features that gave sending nengajo more appeal. The 1st one being otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki (お年玉付き年賀はがき), which are holiday cards equipped with lottery numbers. These lottery numbers are issued by the postal system and give the recipient a chance to win small prizes. Take note that these cards are only purchasable from post offices, as this is one of the ways the postal service makes money. There are 2 periods in which these lottery holiday cards can be purchased, with the earliest being July, and the latest during August. These lottery cards are different from regular cards used as nengajō, which are generally made available from November 1st. Surprisingly, these lottery holiday cards became the “expected” way of sending new year wishes at one point.

The other appealing feature would be the nenga kitte (年賀切手), or new year stamps. These specialized stamps were introduced to the public in late 1935, and were designed to be placed on nengajō. Over the years, these stamps featured unique art themes to make them more eye-catching, such as having a national landmark, a symbol attached to a specific prefecture or island in Japan, a person in an attractive outfit, and to the ever familiar Zodiac animals. New year stamps are still in play today, both physical and digital stamps (more on this later).

RULES & HARDSHIPS

Nengajō has a pivotal place in Japanese society. In modern times, people took sending these holiday cards out seriously, especially for maintaining good business relations. Since their purpose is to wish the recipient a fortunate new year, they need to be prepared & sent out at on time. There are actual protocols that need to be followed when sending these out.

  1. The period for sending out nengajō is from the last week of November to around 2nd~3rd week of December
  2. Cut off time for the post office to receive nengajō is December 25th
  3. While any type of holiday card can be used, official ones issued by the post office were the expected type
  4. Nengajō had to be bought at a particular time, especially otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki

While this is a seasonal practice, just keeping in mind when to prepare for this isn’t too much of a hassle, especially when sending out personal holiday cards for family and friends. On the other hand, businesses are hard pressed with getting all of their holiday cards out at a timely fashion. Companies are expected to take seriously the custom of sending out new year wishes to everyone they communicate throughout the years, whether it be customers, associates, and vendors. This includes individual workers who are the position of working directly in business transactions.

Picture of a Print Gocco. From Wikipedia.

Speaking of which, there was a point where sending nengajō was a serious endeavor that equipment was needed to assist with the volume of holiday cards that was required to be to sent out. From the late 1970s to early 2000s there was a handy device called “Print Gocco” (プリントごっこ), which allowed anyone to custom design their cards with the typical designs found on nengajō. It was small & simple to use, and would allow anyone to fully design a typical holiday card in a short amount of time (specially-supplied cards from the post office generally were used). Of course, what a Print Gokko could not do was duplicate a hand written message, which a person had to do themselves. In terms of experience with a Print Gokko, my Japanese father-in-law invested in this during his years of full-time employment at a company. It wasn’t for personal use though, but instead needed to prepare nengajō for customers and business partners he interacted with over the years. Every year he had to prepare around 200 of these holiday cards at home using the Print Gocco, and making time to write personal messages based on recipient. My wife explained that was a daunting task on him, and how others in Japan had the same routine as him. This is an example of how important keeping good relations through nengajō was viewed upon throughout the years.

Another example of the importance nengajō presented was impacted on the Japanese postal system. Pressure was placed on post offices around Japan for many years, especially during the late 21st century, when the economy was at its highest point and many high-profile businesses doing well worldwide. During this period, the volume of mail that included nengajō was unmanageable during regular postal schedule. This instilled a critical end-of-the-year overtime during the last week of December, where Post Offices had to hire part-time workers, usually students, to handle the task of delivering nengajō on January 1st. This is reminiscent of how machibikyaku worked during the Edo period. As of recent, this end-of-the-year overtime was lifted off the post office, due the lesser volume of physical holiday cards they see nowadays.

DECLINE DUE TO MODERN ADVANCEMENT

Nengajō has cemented its place in Japanese culture. However, how people continue this tradition of new year wishes is changing. Advancement in technology has given the world options for ease of accessibility for many areas of interest with the introduction of computers and smart devices. People can enjoy nengajō through these methods, but in return interest in sending out physical mail has dwindled considerably.

Let’s take a look at how technology has given people options with nengajō. From the late 20th century to early 21st century, print shops, as well as online services that can be accessed on one’s personal computer, offer options to customizing and designing unique holiday cards. Through such service, customers do such things like choose font type, adjust layout, to adding their favorite pictures, including of family members. The popularity in this was due to the departure from the more traditional look of nengajō since the start of the Meiji period, to a modern standard that fit everyone’s personal taste and style.

Snapshot of new year stamps that can be purchased for use in messages, which can be used through Line app.

Technology of smartphones in the early 21st century would further give people greater ease of sending holiday wishes through digital nengajō using SMS, such as Line app. Along with one’s personal message and decorated picture, users can add cool looking new years stamps. Digital nengajō is a very cost-efficient way of staying in touch and is extremely popular way among different age groups in Japan. Of course, with this ease in communicating with both family and friends through tech, the more traditional method of “snail mail” using paper cards and physical stamps is not relied on as it once used to be decades ago.

ENDING

This concludes our look at nengajō and its impactful history in Japanese culture. As a well-documented practice, there are some really nice designs that can be viewed online of cards & stamps used within the last century. Even though there’s a departure from physical nengajō, sending them digitally is also cool, as it still retains the spirit of wishing a happy new year to loved ones & friends. As a whole, one can have fun making a comparison of this holiday card practice in Japan with one’s own country’s standards.

Fame to the Spear ~ Part 2: Tenka Sanmeisō

In part 2 of this series on popular stories & events highlighting the yari (aka Japanese spear), we go in the direction of legends. Japan has had its fair share of people, places, animals, nature, and things elevated to a level beyond normal existence. There are several cases like this involving the yari, especially the one called “Amenonuhoko” (天沼矛), which was used by the deity Izanagi-no-mikoto (伊邪那岐命) to create Japan and the world in old Japanese mythology. These objects of legends were first passed down from word of mouth, then to being jotted down in documentations, to now being depicted in pop culture such as video games and dramas.

For this article, we will look at three special yari that are labeled as “Tenka Sanmeisō” (天下三名槍), or “Three Great Spears of Japan” in English¹. Being real spears, we’ll cover when each was created, which individuals were lucky to be the owner, and whether they survived into modern times or not. Along with this, small but unique details that add to these yari being a cut above the rest will also be covered. Resources used to write this include the following:

NIHONGŌ, THE IMPERIAL SPEAR

The 1st of these legendary spears is known as the Nihongō (日本号)², believed to have been made during the Muromachi period (1336 ~ 1573). A large yari featuring a long blade with an engraving of a Buddhist depiction of a Kurikara dragon wrapping around a sword at the base. It also boosts a lacquered wooden shaft, and is well adorned with fine fittings. By design, it is considered an exquisite weapon designed as a treasured weapon of the Imperial family. Originally it was just known as an Imperial spear. It was later that when it passed into the possession of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, that he would give it the name “Nihongō”. This name can be interpreted as “No. 1 spear of Japan”.

A snapshot of the Nihongō’s blade (replica) on Nagoya Touken World website.

Here are its known dimensions:

  • Blade length = 79.2 cm
  • Spear weight = 912 g

It was considered the finest yari in existence that it was given the rank “Shōsani” (正三位), which is an official Senior Third Rank of the Imperial Court. Bearing such status, it is no wonder that it was recorded to having been passed down through the hands of individuals of high rank. The order goes as the following below.

The 106th Emperor Ōgimachi (1517 ~ 1593) is considered to have been the first owner of the Nihongō. He would at some point bestow it upon Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the 15th Shogun of the Muromachi period. For awhile it remained in the possession of Yoshiaki until he formed a working relationship with Oda Nobunaga around 1570. Being around the time when Nobunaga was rising in power, some sources say that once he learned about the spear’s origin being a treasured weapon from the Imperial Palace, he demanded it from Yoshiaki to the point where they almost went to war just for the sake of it. Other sources say that it was a peaceful exchange between the two. In any event, Nobunaga would successful claim the Nihongō. At some point, this yari was passed into the hands of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda Nobunaga’s successor. Finally, possibly after his impressive service on the battlefield, Fukushima Masanori, a retainer of the Toyotomi clan³, was rewarded the Nihongō from Hideyoshi.

Artwork of Mori Tomonobu. From Wikipedia.

From this point comes interesting stories that illustrate the Nihongō’s whereabouts later down the generations. First is a tale about how Masanori would lose it to Mori Tomonobu (母里友信), a retainer of the Kuroda clan, in a drinking game. From there, it would remain in the Mori family line for several generations. Between 1800s to 1900s, it would once again get passed into different hands, but in the most peculiar ways. In one instance, an individual was able to purchase it for 1,000 yen (almost 9 dollars). Later, it would once again be bought, but this time for 10,000 yen (almost 100 dollars). It would eventually be acquired by a descendant of the Kuroda family in around 1920s. Finally, a museum in Fukuoka prefecture would acquire the Nihongō, where it is said to be til this day.

In honor of this Imperial spear, many smiths made attempts to recreate the Nihongō. Not just the blade itself, but its decorative fittings as well.

OTEGINE, THE MALLET SPEAR

The next spear is an interesting one, both in name, design, and origin. It is called “Otegine” (御手杵). This name means “Tapering Mallet”. It was created during the Muromachi period by Gojō Yoshisuke (五条善助), who belonged to a well known sword smith in Shimadashi, Suruga Province. It was made at the request of Yūki Harusaki, lord of Yūki castle in Shimōsa Province. Harusaki would keep its splendor alive through his foster child, Yūki Hideyasu. He in turn would then pass it down to his 5th son, Naomoto, who at one point also inherited the Yūki surname. One thing to note is that Hideyasu was originally from the Matsudaira clan, but was adopted into the Yūki clan at a young age. Due to the ties, the Otegine would be associated with both families, as it would be passed down to a few members of the Matsudaira family in later years as well.

Two pictures, with a clear view of a replica Otegine and its shaft on the left. To the right, the blade of the replica Otegine placed on a stand next to its mallet-shaped sheath. From Wikipedia.

Out of the 3 legendary yari, the Otegine is known to be not only the longest, but also the heaviest. The blade itself was a sight to see, as the blade was long and triangular design, and featured a rather deep groove that ran up through the center. It also featured an even longer tang, which made it solidly reinforced when fitted into the shaft, and allowed the user to perform sweeping cuts along with thrusts.

Here are its known dimensions:

  • Blade length = 138 cm
  • Tang = 215 cm
  • Shaft length = 215 cm

The name “Otegine” comes from the very unique sheath it is paired with. Originally, when Harusaki had the spear created, it came with a sheath that was wider at both ends, and tapers towards the middle. This shape resembled a type of mallet or pestle used for pounding mochi (餅, rice cake), thus the unique name given to the spear. At some point, Harusaki had a fur covered mallet-shaped sheath devised. This is for decorative purposes.

An example of a tapering mallet. From Wikipedia.

While its blade was tempered extremely well and has potential of being effective on the battlefield, its sheer size and weight made too cumbersome to be used proficiently. While it may not had seen use in actual warfare, the Otegine was symbolic and showed one’s status when heading to the battlefield. It is said that it would often be brought from the Yūki castle to the commander’s camp and used like an umajirushi (馬印, banner carried next to a commander’s horse) right before going into battle. There were even occasions during 1635 when Tokugawa Iemitsu, the the 3rd Shogun of the Tokugawa Bakufu, had the Otegina brought out and used as a symbolic lead during official processions by those of the Yūki clan and Matsudaira clan to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Note that carrying the Otegine was no easy feat, with or without its furry sheath, as its sheer weight was overbearing to be carried by just one person over long distances.

The Otegine’s last whereabouts was in the possession of the Matsudaira family, but tragedy would struck in an unexpected way. This spear was destroyed by fire bombings during WWII. Although it was stored away in a special containment, the heat from the fire caused by the bombings would melt the steel spear blade, and burn the shaft to a crisp. Unfortunately, this state left it impossible to repair. On a positive note, replicas were made of the Otegine in the early 21st century, and are up for display at several museums, including the Yūki Kurabikan (Yūki Collection Gallery) in Yūki City, Ibaraki Prefecture, and Kawagoe-shiritsu Hakubutsuken (Kawagoe City Museum) in Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture.

TONBOKIRI, THE DRAGONFLY SLAYER

The 3rd treasured yari is known as “Tonbokiri” (蜻蛉切り). Out of the three spears, this one is renown for its overall performance on the battlefield. Of course, credit also goes to the one who was wielding it as well — Honda Tadakatsu (本田忠勝).

Ukiyoe of Honda Tadakatsu with Tonbokiri in hand called “Honda Tadakatsu Komakiyama Gunkōzu” (本多忠勝小牧山軍功図, Honda Tadakatsu at Battle of Komaki Mountain”. The work of Mizuno Toshikata.

In the Muromachi period, The Tonbokiri was crafted by Fujiwara Masazane, a swordmaker from the Muramasa smith in Ise Province. It is a large spear, designed in the fashion of a “ōsasahoyari” (大笹穂槍), or “spear with a large bamboo grass-shaped blade”. On this blade are engraved 3 bonji (梵字, sanskrit symbols) above what looks to be a vajra-like sword engraving. From top to bottom, here’s what each symbolize:

  • Jizō Bōsatsu, guardian Buddha of children and travelers, and deity known to be compassion for those suffering
  • Amida Nyōrai, Buddha recognized for infinite light and life
  • Kannon Bōsatsu, Buddha of compassion for others

It features the following known dimensions:

  • Blade length = 43.7 cm
  • Tang = 55.6 cm
  • Shaft = 4.5 m

Take note that the Tonbokiri was not the longest spear by the standard followed during Sengoku period. When this yari was crafted, Tadakatsu was already up in years. Apparently he found wielding the average length yari abit cumbersome, so he intentionally had the Tonbokiri’s shaft shorten by around 90 cm.

The name Tonbokiri means “Dragonfly Slayer”. This is because the blade of this yari is said to be so sharp that a struck dragonfly would be severed into 2. To top this, it’s said that even if this spear were not moving, a dragonfly that perches onto the tip of the blade would also be divided into 2. These claims elevate the Tonbokiri as a devastating weapon, even if they can’t be taken literally.

As mentioned earlier, the owner of the Tonbokiri was Honda Tadakatsu, who himself was a legend in his own rights. Tadakatsu was one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s most trusted and loyal vassals during Sengoku period. A large man in stature since his youth, it is said he was a force to be reckoned with in skirmishes, as he participated in as many as 57 battles during his lifetime, and never sustained any damage. For his service, Tadakatsu was among Ieyasu’s top 16 generals, and was named one of the “4 Heavenly Kings⁵”.

While it’s not recorded that Tadakatsu’s successful career was all thanks to Tonbokiri, there is little argument that he did take it to battle. In historical records, along with Tadakatsu’s achievements due to his undying loyalty to Tokugawa Ieyasu, his prowess with the yari was noted. After his death, this yari was passed down his family line to his descendants for several generations. Today, it is in the safe keeping of a museum in Shizuoka, Japan.

THREE FAMOUS SPEARS: FUN FACTS

A good amount of info regarding the Tenka Sanmeisō was provided above. However, it’s not quite over as there are plenty more tidbits and rumors regarding the 3 yari. Below are lists of extra info for each yari.

Banner on Nagoya Touken World website promoting the project of replicating the Tenka Sanmeisou. Here, we get a clear idea of the details on these spear blades.

General

  • All 3 yari are considered ōmi yari (大身槍). What this means is that these are in a class of very long spears, especially with the blades they are outfitted with.
  • Originally, just the Nihongō and the Otegine were considered treasured spears. There was a comparison between the two based on the geographical significance of Japan predating modern times. The Nihongō was called the “great spear of western Japan” due to originating there, while the Otegine was the “great spear of eastern Japan” for the same reason.

Nihongō

  • The tang of this spear blade was unsigned. Speculations are that the spear was of the Kanabō style (金房派) of Yamato Province, but this has not been proven yet.
  • Despite its grand image, the Nihongō was not used in battle. There is one rumor that it was taken overseas during the invasion of Korea in 1592 by Mori Tomonobu, where it survived fierce battles. Unfortunately, there is no solid evidence to verify this.

Otegine

  • In the Matsudaira family, there are 2 legends about the Otegine. The 1st stating that when the sheath is removed, snow flakes fall down, while the 2nd is it will rain when it is leading a procession to Edo. There is no particular meaning behind these, but adds more sentimental feelings to the splendor of this yari.
  • Speaking of rain, it is said that the sheath’s fur absorbs water when it rains, adding more than 50% of it natural weight. Those who have to carry it during a procession on a rainy day had a lot of work on their hands.

Tonbokiri

  • What adds to the praise given to Tonbokiri is where it originated from. Mikawa is known to be home of a group of smiths labeled “Mikawa Monju” (三河文殊). Mikawa prefecture is known for many weapons being produced there, which many important people sent commissions to, including Tokugawa Ieyasu. These smiths were liken to miracle workers, as their products were rumored to perform better…as if they were magical. Since the Tonbokiri was crafted by a smith who is part of the Muramasa line, this was a major selling point.
  • It is said that Honda Tadakatsu had another spear commissioned, and that one was also named Tonbokiri. It is not certain that this is true, nor the reason being supposedly possessing 2 yari with the same name.

CONCLUSION

This here concludes this article on the Tenka Sanmeisō, and what makes them legendary weapons. With evidence of their existence, they are more than just rumors leaping out from the pages of history, as they have survived over many generations and made it to modern times (albeit the Otegine). The also ends this 2-part series highlighting the yari and its value in Japanese history. Hope this was enjoyable, as well as informative, regarding one of Japan’s strongest weapons.


1) Can also be pronounced “Tenga Sanmeisō” Also known as the shorter title, “Tenka Sansō” (天下三槍).

2) Can also be read as “Hi-no-moto Gō”.

3) Fukushima Masamori was introduced in part 1 of this series, which can be read here.

4) The descriptions come from Lifehacker Analyzer website.

5) This is “Shitennnō” (四天王) in Japanese.

The Female Leader and Strategist named Myōrinni

Today’s article features the tale about a female warrior name of Myōrinni ( 妙林尼 ), who lived during the frantic Sengoku period in the 1500s. Hailing from northern Kyūshū, she earned merits by defending her clan’s homeland at a time when it was in danger of being taken over by an invading force. In this article, we’ll look into what is known about Myorinni’s past, the events she took part in, and how she is remembered in present day.

One thing worth mentioning is that the records of Myōrinni are, like many other women during ancient Japan, not as well documented as her male counterparts. A few sources that do mention her and her acts of bravery include ” Ōtomo Kōhaiki” (大友興廃記, Rise & Fall of the Ōtomo Family), and “Ryōbunki” (両豊記, Bungo Province: Before & After). It is very difficult to come across the official sources, but fortunately there are a good number of Japanese websites that cover her story. Here’s a few sites that were helpful in writing this article:

THE BEGINNING

Looking into Myōrinni’s past, we learn that there’s not much recorded prior to her becoming a renown female warrior and leader. There are uncertainties regarding her birth father, for it is either she was the daughter of Hayashi Sakyonosuke (林左京亮 ), a Shintō priest at Oe Shrine, or Niu Kojiro Masatoshi (丹生小次郎正敏), a nationalist who specialized in a mining business. This has not been definitively confirmed. Who her mom was is also a mystery. Another mystery is her original name, which is unknown to this day; the name “Myōrinni” is a Buddhist name she took after becoming a nun. Variants of this name includes “Yoshioka Myōrin” and “Yoshioka Rinko”, with Yoshioka (吉岡) being the family name she married into.

A statue in Oita City, in honor of Myōrinni. From Wikipedia.

Why is there so little background info? A common reason behind this is because of how record-keeping were handled in the past. For instance, when it came down maintaining a family line’s genealogy chart, generally boys’ names were recorded, while girls were simply identified as “woman” or “daughter”. Women of a particular status usually associated with the Imperial court, held power such as land, or took part in an important or well-documented event would then have their names and background stories recorded in journals or diaries. You can say for half of her life, Myōrinni lived a simple life where who she was and her roots were not so significant enough where anyone needed to write it down.

Her story as a warrior, as far as we can tell, begins at a time when her husband, Yoshioka Akioka (吉岡鑑興), who was a retainer for the Ōtomo clan (大友家), and land owner of Takada villa (高田庄 Takada jō), Tsurusaki castle (鶴崎城, Tsurusaki jō), and Chitose castle (千歳城, Chitose jō). Their land was in the north-eastern part of Bungo Province (豊後の国, Bungo no kuni) located in Kyūshū, which was an island in the south-western part of Japan. They also had a son named Yoshioka Munemasu (吉岡統増), who was old enough to serve the Ōtomo clan as he helped manage Tsurusaki castle. In terms of her appearance, there is not much to go by during her youth to the time she was married to Akioka. However, there is much depiction of her later on wearing your typical Buddhist attire, which includes an iconic shawl and simple robes.

ŌTOMO VS SHIMAZU

The Yoshioka clan was a prominent one, as they were descendants of the elite Ōtomo family. They were also involved in the governance of their parent clan thanks to Akioka’s father, Yoshioka Nagamasu (吉岡長増). Along with the Ōtomo family having significant power in their own rights, they were also retainers to the current shogun of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At the time, Kyūshū was divided into two, with Ōtomo clan having control of the northern half, and the Shimazu clan, land owners of Satsuma Province (present-day western part of Kagoshima Prefecture) further south west, controlling the southern half. As like many clans that sought more power through expansion, the Shimazu clan was extending their reach little by little by acquiring more territories in Kyushu, as they made their way towards the north. This includes a particular area called Hyūga Province (日向の国, Hyūga no kuni, which is present-day Miyazaki Prefecture).

In the 9th month of 1578, 21st successor Ōtomo Yoshishige commanded an army in an attempt to regain Hyūga from Shimazu’s clutches. At the time, Shimazu Yoshihiza was occupying Taka castle (高城, Taka jō) in Takagigawa no Hara (高城川原), Hyūga Prefecture with his own force. Both armies would clash head-on, which would lead to the “Battle at Takagigawa” (高城川の合戦, Takagigawa no Gassen). At first, the Ōtomo force had the upper hand, and were gaining ground against the opposition as they tried to overtake the castle. However, in the 11th month of the same year, Yoshihiza devised a strategy where his army would unexpectedly divide and surround the Ōtomo force from the east and west. Doing so caused them to flee towards Mimi river (耳川, Mimi kawa), where many soldiers including top commanders on the Ōtomo side had drowned as they tried to fend against the overwhelming odds. This triumphant victory for the Shimazu clan had this incident called “Battle at Mimi river” (耳川の戦い, Mimikawa no Tatakai). Akioka, Myōrinni’s husband, was also one of those who had died during this. Upon learning about the death of her husband, Myōrinni decided to retire herself to Buddhism. It was at this time she took up her Buddhist name, and was from this point on was recorded as so.

Facing a major victory, this boosted the morale of the Shimazu army, as they continued to make their way up north of Kyūshū, ambitious in taking over the region completely. On the other hand, things didn’t look to good for the governance of Ōtomo clan, as they lost some key members. In fear, the Ōtomo clan were able acquire aide from their master, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Reinforcements were sent to help safeguard points they still had control over, but they too failed to suppress the invaders’ northern expansion. With nothing to stop them, the Shimazu force made their way to Ōtomo Yoshishige’s mainstay, Niujima castle (丹生島城, Nuijima jo).

MYŌRINNI’S PREPARATIONS FOR WAR

Munemasu, along with the younger soldiers, left Tsurusaki castle to provide aid to the Ōtomo clan by preparing fortification at Usuki castle (臼杵城, Usuki jō), leaving his mother, children, women, and older soldiers behind. Myōrinni was concerned about the safety of everyone who remained at the castle, for it was possible that the invading Shimazu clan would target them as well. Not wanting to give in to the idea of sitting idly just to surrender when the time came, she devised countermeasures to outlast a possible siege. She evaluated the castle’s strong points, as there were plenty; Tsurusaki castle was situated between bodies of water to the east, west and north, providing it natural defenses that made it too difficult for an invading army to attack in these areas. She had everyone at the castle help with setting up defensive measures to Tsurusaki castle, which included digging pits in the field as traps, and setting up makeshift alarms called naruko (鳴子, small hollowed bamboo pieces strung to a wooden board by a rope) to prevent potential infiltration attempts. Myōrinn also had everyone with no combat experience train how to use matchlock guns in order to fire at the enemies from a distance within the safety of the castle.  

In 1586, Shimazu Yoshihiza set forward a two-prong assault, one on Usuki castle where the Ōtomo army set up fortification, and another towards Tsurusaki castle, where Myōrinni and her makeshift force were preparing their defenses. It is stated that Yoshihiza sent retainers such as Ijūin Mimasaka-no-kami Hideo, Nomura Bitchū-no-kami Fumitsuna, and Shiraha Suou-no-kami Shigemasa, along with 3000 troops, to storm Tsurusaki castle. The Shimazu force could only approach from the south, which made it perfect for Myōrinni’s defensive plans to go into effect.

While the invaders charged with what can be considered unmatched might, they fell prey to the many pitfalls cleverly designed in the southern path, while the naruko alarms made it easy to pinpoint where the soldiers were as the battle-inexperienced civilians released volleys of shots from their guns and stopping them in their tracks. The Shimazu force apparently made 16 attempts to storming the castle, but each time was the same as before, which them being forced back by the near-impregnable defense Myōrinni and her militia were maintaining.

ANOTHER BRILLIANT TRAP

Despite the successful defensive play, Myōrinni was faced with an impending issue. Tsurusaki’s food rations were heavily depleted, while many of the inhabitants were becoming fatigued from the many assaults that came towards the castle. On top of this, despite successfully halting a possible invasion 16 times, it doesn’t look like the Shimazu force was ready to give up. The invaders then sent a message to Myōrinni, stating that if she allowed the gates of Tsurusaki castle to be open so that they can claim the castle peacefully, they will ensure safety to her and the inhabitants. Thinking that the safety of her people present was top priority than to risk their lives and fail in a battle they cannot outlast, she agreed to the terms. However, what the Shimazu force didn’t realized that this was a mere ploy, and that Myōrinni was scheming on how to use the situation to her benefit.

Tsurusaki castle’s gates were opened, permitting entry to the 3 Shimazu generals and their troops, while Myōrinni and the others were allowed to reside in the lower level  of the castle. For several nights, Myōrinni and several of the women in her group entertained their new guests as they feasts by serving them alcohol and the like. This allowed them to get closer to them. She noticed that one of the generals, Nomura Bitchū-no-kami Fumitsuna, became particularly fond of her, and was developing feelings for her. Myōrinni decided to keep this relation with him, and use it at the right moment to her advantage.

The Shimazu force were successful in extending their reach into Hyūga province, and invading into the lands of the Yoshioka and Ōtomo family. With much of the Ōtomo force held up in Usuki castle, they needed more help in order to contend with the large Satsuma army. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi amassed a very large army¹, which he set out to reclaim Kyūshū. Suspecting that the Toyotomi force would bring the battle straight to Kyushu to drive them out, Shimazu Yoshihiza had ordered his troops who occupied different points in Kyushu to concentrate their power in Hyūga Province. This included the 3 generals who held Tsurusaki castle.

Fumitsuna, worried about Myōrinni’s safety as the impending war loomed over them, suggested to her that she move to Satsuma Province. This way, in case the Satsuma force had lost, she wouldn’t be caught and punished for being a traitor. Myōrinni happily obliged², but not for the reason Fumitsuna believed. That night, after getting Fumitsuna drunk & wasted, she quickly wrote a letter and had it delivered to the 50 retainers of the Yoshioka clan³, which included a Tokumaru Shikibe (徳丸式部) and his family, Mukaishin Uemon (向新右衛門), and the Nakamura Shinsuke brothers (中村新助兄弟). This letter served as a declaration that they were to prepare for war against the Shimazu force.

DECISIVE BATTLE TO RID OF THE INVADERS

As the 3 generals left Tsurusaki castle with their troops as they moved southward towards Hyūga Province, they were ambushed on their way by a small army of Yoshioka retainers. This clash took place near Otozu-river (乙津川, Otozu-gawa), with the Shimazu force caught with their backs to the river. This skirmish is known as “Battle at Terajihama (寺司浜の戦い, Terajihama no tatakai), as well as “Battle at Otozu-river” (乙津川の戦い, Otozu-gawa no tatakai). The 3 generals and their troops were defeated woefully, with 2 of them dying in battle. Although Fumitsuna suffered many wounds from arrows rained upon him and his troops, he still managed to survive long enough to escape to Hyūga Province. However, he would shortly pass away from his fatal wounds.

In the Yoshioka accounts, it is written that during this battle, the Yoshioka clan personally took down the 3 Shimazu generals, along with 300 of their soldiers. On top of this, Myōrinni is mentioned to have participated as well, and took the heads of 63 enemy soldiers. As a sign of her loyalty and dedication, she had those heads sent to Ōotomo Yoshishige, who was at the time at Niujima castle. She received much praise for her efforts. As for the loses on the Shimazu side, they suffered a heavy death toll during the battle. As a means to put the lost soldiers to rest, a burial site was created near Terajihama called “Sennin Zuka” (千人塚).

Word spread about the Yoshioka’s success, especially about Myōrinni’s impressive feat in organizing their successful battle at Terajihama. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was also informed, who then requested that Myōrinni come to Ōsaka castle in person and be bestowed honors. However, Myōrinni had no interest in this, and humbly turned this down. Instead, she merely asked that she keeps her late husband’s keepsake sword as a reward for fulfilling the role as castle lord while her son was supporting the Ōtomo clan, and assisting in defeating the Shimazu clan from northern Kyūshū, which was motivated by acts of revenge for her late husband.

ANALYZING MYŌRINNI’S LEGACY

After these events, there is no more word about Myōrinni. It is thought that, as a Buddhist, she removed herself from the political life the Yoshioka clan were involved with, and went into seclusion to live the remainder of her life in peace. Today, a statue honoring the legacy of Myōrinni can be seen in Tsurusaki Ward⁴ of Oita City, Oita Prefecture. She is even elevated to the level of a saint, where some establishments in Oita City sell omamori (御守り, talisman) that represent her.

The official website for Oita City has several publications that feature Myōrinni. The following is one of them, which features her (circled in red) amongst other historical figures whom are considered heroes of northern Kyūshū. From City of Oita Offical Website.

While she has considerable fame especially in what can be considered her hometown, there is still much mystery that surround Myōrinni as a whole. For example, it seems that just as sudden as she makes her appearance during the Ōtomo family’s war against the Shimazu force, her story ends just as abrupt once her role is done. There are no clear details about she lives the rest of her life. In terms of her own combat experience, we don’t get any info on that either. Yet, from little descriptions we are told that she designed the defensive measures for Tsurusaki castle, and had all the residents there train for combat, especially with muskets. In her own rights, it is possible that prior to the events between the Ōtomo family and the Satsuma army, Myōrinni may have learned much about warfare and worked closely to her late husband. Or, she may have learned about combat even before marriage. The latter is a stretch, as usually women of a military family can gain such access to combative training.

While she is admired by her cleverness and commitment in freeing her land, we must also wonder if this was truly a one-woman show. It is not unusual for leaders to discuss & plan with others, such as a strategist. However, in Myōrinni’s case there is no mention of her working closely with anyone. It is possible that she spoke with, and was assisted by, a few of the older soldiers that were in her party. It would make sense, especially to have them help train the residence to be battle ready. Alas, as they remain nameless in the original sources, their involvement in the battles also go unmentioned. Lastly, accounts mention how she beheaded 63 soldiers from the Shimazu army. How did she go about doing this? During the battle at Terajihama? Or afterwards, on captured enemy troops? If she did participate in the skirmish, did she do so with her husband’s sword, a matchlock gun, or a naginata? It is a shame that these details were left out, but it is also not unusual. In fact, it is pretty common to find pinpoint details regarding what took place during battles for many important figures.

ENDING

The bravery and strategic genius of Myōrinni is quite impressive, as it illustrates how well-formulated plans can foil even the largest of armies. Her story has been covered over the years, both in novels and historical programming in Japanese, which helps to keep her legacy going even in modern times. Here’s hoping this article continues this trend, as it serves to introduce Myōrinni’s story to a western audience.


1) One of the figures given for Hideyoshi’s troop support is 200,000. War journals of old are known to inflate the size of armies as a means to illustrate that they were large. Thus, this figure is most likely an exaggerated number, and should be much lower.

2) There is another version of this, where Myōrinni initiated the conversation about accompanying Fumitsuna back to Satsuma Province.

3) These retainers are related to the Yoshioka-owned Takada Manor, and most likely reside there. It’s possible that this is where they were when the letter was delivered.

4) Former grounds of Tsurusaki castle.

Okiku’s Daring Escape

Many popular stories from Japan’s history usually based on famous wars and conflicts. These stories generally cover the bravery of warriors clashing in battle, or feudal warlords trying to outdo another for the sake of land, and the power to control it. Many enthusiasts of Japanese history draw inspiration from these tales. Yet, we can also take some lessons from tales that focus instead of warriors on the battlefield, but from those who avoid the conflicts for the sake of survival.

There is a story¹ called “Okiku Monogatari” (おきく物語).  taken from the surviving journal of a woman by the name of Okiku and her plight to escape from the chaos during the famous Osaka Campaign headed by Tokugawa Ieyasu. This journal was supposedly written by her grandchild, Tanaka Motonori (田中意徳)², who was a physician from Ikeda, Okayama prefecture. He had learned that his grandmother, whom he called “Kiku”, was a survivor of the aforementioned war, and wanted to record it³. While the story is short, it is a great example of survival using one’s wits, judgment, along with some luck, from the perspective of one who was not honed in the ways of the warrior.

WHO WAS OKIKU

Okiku was born in 1596 in Ōmi province. Her father was Ogawa Mozaemon (小川茂左衛門), who had served several influential families, such as the Asai clan and the Toyotomi clan. There is no mention as to who her mother was. While there isn’t much mentioned about her childhood, this story covers the point when Okiku was 20 years old⁴ and, at the time, living within Ōsaka castle. She was as a female servant for Yodo-dono, who was of a high ranking aristocrat. While this Yodo-dono did come from an influential military family, as she was the daughter of Asai Nagamasa (浅井長政) and Oichi no Kata (お市の方, late Oda Nobunaga’s daughter), she was also a concubine of the late Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

As stated before, there isn’t much info before the actual events in her story, other than small tidbits regarding when she and her family became associated with the Toyotomi clan. On a related note, Okiku’s father had fought during the Ōsaka Campaign in 1615, where it’s said he died in battle⁵. When last did Okiku see her father before the tragic day when Ōsaka castle would fall? Unfortunately, there are no notes about this.

DAY OF THE CHAOS

in June 7th, 1615⁶, Okiku was in the nagatsubone (長局), which was a long, multi-room living quarters quarters for servant girls within a separate part of the large complex of Ōsaka castle. Being told to go take a break, she made yakisoba (焼き蕎麦, fried noodles) for herself. After finished eating her meal, she returned to kitchen area. At some point she heard commotions coming from outside. She took a moment to step away and go to investigate.

As she stepped out from Tamadukurikuchi (玉造口, the southeast exit of the main structure), Okiku walked along the path in the courtyard towards Senjojiki (千畳敷, a large structure with many rooms famed for having around 1000 tatatmi mats). She heard people yelling, and wondered what was causing this. Then her eyes caught visual cues that showed fighting outside the castle was taking place: fire leaping up over the walls of the castle grounds, along with sounds of gunfire and war shouts. from the troops that were fighting. Startled at the chaos that was erupting on the battlefield and how close it was to the castle, Okiku felt that it was necessary to escape the castle.

Okiku rushed back to the nagatsubone, and made preparations to protect herself before venturing out into the courtyard, joining 3 hats together along with several koshimaki (腰巻, a belt worn with kimono). She used these as a shield to cover herself as arrows were now randomly raining into the vicinity of the castle grounds. At this point, there was nothing worth of any value that would make her stay in Ōsaka castle. Other than her life, she did happen to pick up a keepsake mirror from her room at the nagatsubone that was rewarded to her by Toyotomi Hideyori. This was very dear to her, so she kept it safely in her futokoro (懐), which is an inner pocket within a kimono. As Okiku made her way back to the kitchen area, where she spotted a retainer of the Toyotomi clan, Takeda Eio, who was dressed in armor. Eio was trying to maintain order as the place was in turmoil with many female attendants running around hysterically, while injured soldiers were being attended to.

There were other women who moved towards a gate near the kitchen. As they were asked where they were heading, they replied to leave the castle. Eio refused, insisted that they don’t abandon their castle. The women then pointed to a prized banner that had several golden gourds on top⁷, which represented the Toyotomi clan. This banner, laying down on the floor unattended, meant that it was abandoned by the appointed flag bearer. They refuted, claiming others have already left. From that, the women ignored the flustered soldier, and rushed to the gate to leave the castle grounds and find a place to hide from the ensuing battle. Okiku also did the same, as she moved alongside with the  other women.

TROUBLE AT KYŌ BRIDGE ENTRYWAY

Okiku walked along the outskirts of the assaulted Ōsaka castle, trying to stay on a safe path while avoiding the ongoing conflicts between the Toyotomi troops and the the Tokugawa army. She decided to head to Matsubara-guchi, which was northwest of her (present day southern area of Hyōgo prefecture). There, she would look for safe haven from a daimyo and ally of the Toyotomi clan, Tōdō Takatora, who also happened to be a benefactor to her family. Her father knew him first when he was a retainer of the Asai clan, for at the time Takatora was a minor soldier who was working directly under him. At the time, Takatora was poor, but her mom would call him and make him food. When the Asai clan fell, and her father wandered as a ronin, Takatora had risen to a high position, and had contacted her father to come work for him.

To reach Matsubara-guchi would be a bit of a journey, and Okiku would need to cross over a few bridges to get there. First she crossed over Gokuraku Bridge (極楽橋), which was just north of Ōsaka castle. She moved vigilantly, as she took caution not to run into danger as she journeyed farther away from what was once the safety the Toyotomi clan. Especially as a female traveling on her own, she would be an easy target for thieves and such. The Gokuraku Bridge was one of the few ways over Ōsaka Castle’s natural water defense, as it was surrounded by several lakes. After crossing this bridge, she headed west and made her way towards Kyō Bridge Entryway (京橋口). It appeared that Okiku was still in the clear as she reached the entrance. As she was going to pass by and continue along the path, she then heard a voice calling to her.

To the side of the road near Kyō Bridge Entryway a man appeared, beckoning her to come to him. Okiku did as so, as not to make any sudden moves to turn the situation sour in her favor. As she got close, the man took out a bladed weapon⁸, and asked for money. Okiku cooperated with the thief, and took out a takenagashi (竹流, bamboo container for cleaning small things using water) from her inner pocket, and from it brought out 2 coins. She gave one coin to the thief. Not satisfied, the thief requested the other. Okiku then bargained with him, saying that she would give him the other if he leads her to Tōdō Takatora’s encampment in Matsubara-guchi. Surprisingly he agreed, possibly on the prospect of being rewarded even more for his good “deed”.

CROSSROADS

Okiku and her unlikely companion of a thief continued on their way the Matsubara-guchi. Shortly on the Okiku saw a crowd of people, who were surrounded by many soldiers. Taking a closer look, Okiku recognized one of the people to be a high-ranking aristocrat named Jōkōin. Okiku was familiar with her, as she was the daughter of Yodo-dono through marriage. Accompanied by some female servants and personal male guards, Jōkōin and her companions were off towards Kyōto north of Ōsaka prefecture to gain refuge from the Tokugawa force.

A diagram of Okiku’s intended traveling plan. After escaping ① Ōsaka castle, she went across ② Gokuraku bridge, and west along the bodies of water surrounding the castle. Going on the path that passes by ③ Kyō Bridge Entryway, she would have needed to go over ④ Tenma Bridge, then head west in the southern part of Hyōgo prefecture in order to reach ⑤ Matsubara-guchi. There was the other option, however, to accompany Jōkōin’s group and head north of Ōsaka prefecture to ⑥ Kyōto.

Okiku pondered about Jōkōin’s plan, as it appeared to have some value in terms of survival. It was a big risk, however, and granted safety from the enemy side was not guaranteed. On the other hand, She could continue with her original plan and head to Matsubara-guchi to gain safe haven from Tōdō Takatora. However, there’s no guarantee that she could make it all the way there, especially as she was accompanied by her shady companion.

As she watched Jōkōin and her group start to head off, in a sudden turn of events Okiku decided to accompany them. She followed behind the group, enough where it was obvious she was a part of their party. The thief did not tag along this time, must’ve been a relief on Okiku’s end. As they went on their way, they could see Ōsaka castle in the distance, with the sky lit up around it as it was set ablaze. It was truly a sad and surreal scene, for no one could’ve imagined that they would lose their home, once under the control of the prestigious Toyotomi family, being burned down through the violence of war. Despite the sorrow they felt, Okiku and the group marched on towards a new land, one where they may be safe.

During the group’s trek, Okiku was surprised to learn that Jōkōin was no longer taking them to Kyōto to gain refuge from the Tokugawa side, but instead was making a detour to northern Ōsaka towards Moriguchi (present-day Moriguchi City, Ōsaka prefecture). This was actually Jōkōin’s intention all along, as a means to get away from the bloodshed and violence that was taking place around Ōsaka castle. As members from the Toyotomi side, the group were able to hide amongst the populous in Moriguchi, as they each were taken in and made residence in different homes. Okiku stayed in the home of a rather poor family, but they were nice to her, and made her living as comfortable as possible.

Some time passed after the fall of Ōsaka castle and the demise of the Toyotomi clan. Okiku would receive word that the Tokugawa bakufu would not condemn any of the former female servants of Osaka castle guilty due to association. This was a relief to Okiku and the other survivors, as this was confirmation they could come out of hiding and move on with their lives. Okiku would leave her surrogate family and head to Kyoto, where she would gain employment as a servant for Kyokoku Tatsuko, who has blood relations to the once influential Asai family. Once a concubine of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tatsuko had became a Buddhist priestess and was known by the title “Matsu no Maru-dono”. Okiku’s having the same connections possibly helped with her connecting with Tatsuko, and being accepted. It is said that from there on, Okiku was able to live a good & happy life.

ANALYZING THE SITUATION

While she may appear to be just a common servant girl who knows nothing of warfare, Okiku shows to possess good judgment, and a natural sense of adaptation to her environment and situation.  One could only imagine how difficult it would be to stay calm in the face of pending danger from an ensuing battle right at one’s doorsteps, as well as to run into wild territory not knowing who’s friend or foe. Yet, if this journal is true, then Okiku exhibited this, which is quite remarkable.

  • If Okiku put loyalty over her life and instead returned back to the main building in search of Yodo-dono, things would turn out differently. You see, Yodo-dono and her remaining servants at hand walled themselves up within Osaka castle. When things turned dire and it was obvious that the Tokugawa force were going to take the castle, Yodo-dono and her servants had committed suicide.
  • Takeda Eio was very adamant that the women there calmed down and remain in the castle. If Okiku had listened to him, all could’ve been lost as the castle soon was burning around them. On top of this, Eio himself had seen that the end would come, thus committing suicide.
  • Being able to bargain with the thief was a risky yet brave move. Considering the times, this thief was not such a bad person, as he cooperated with her and was willing to accept getting the 2nd coin after escorting her to her intended location. For all she knew, the thief could’ve been a cold-blooded murderer, plus there really wasn’t any incentive for him not to take both coins by force. It’s possible that her appearance showed that she wasn’t a poor, local girl…which would’ve been even more a reason to rob her. Still, it could’ve been her upbringing in a relatively good environment that gave her the mental fortitude to control the situation as she did.
  • Okiku was not only flexible in her decision-making, but also able to adapt in order to ensure her main objective comes true: survival. Switching to follow Jōkōin instead of continuing her journey to Tōdō Takatora’s location demonstrated just that. It’s still possible that heading to Takatora would’ve also been fruitful. Still, her final decision lead to her having a happy ending.

CONCLUSION

The war story of Okiku is one that demonstrates the trials & tribulations a civilian can go through in order to survive a war that appears at your doorstep. There are not so many old Japanese texts that go into details like this that are transliterated into English. Hope everyone can enjoy this type of story.


1) This is often labeled as a “gunki” (軍記), which means “war (military) text or journal”. It is usually coupled with another war journal called “Oamu Monogatari” (おあむ物語), which is a recording about a women named Oan and her experience actively participating in th defense of a castle during Sekigahara war. One of the connections between both stories is that the Sekigahara war took place before the Osaka campaign, and both deal with the struggle between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa forces.

2) Some trivia regarding Okiku and her name. It is possible that her real name may have been “Kiku”, as that is what her grandson called her. Does that mean the the “O” is an honorific label (which could be the “御” character)? Or is “Kiku” just a shorthand that Tanaka used due to having kinship with her? Unfortunately, none of this has yet to be verified, specifically since Okiku is not written in kanji (Chinese characters) in the original source.

Speaking of which, few sources have written her name with the kanji “菊” or “お菊”, which may be the correct way to write it. However, her employer, Yodo-dono, also went by “Okiku”, and used those very same characters…but that doesn’t mean everyone who had the same name wrote it with thise exact characters. 

As a whole, Okiku’s name is represented in hiragana as “おきく” as that is how it appears in the original.  This is a neutral way of writing it.

3) Motonori as a name is not common nowadays. This is the only reading I was able to find associated with the characters that make up the name.

4) Her age may have been calculated based on kazoedoshi (数え年), where everyone gains an extra year the moment of their birth. This practice was common in Asia.

5) Osaka Campaign took place both in the winter of 1614 and around the summer of 1615. It is believed that Mozaemon died in battle during the one in 1615.

6) Apparently, the year mentioned in the original text is off, as it states June 7th, 1617.

7) The full name of this banner is “kane no Hyotan no umajirushi” (金の瓢箪の御馬印).

8) There is no description of what type of man he was. Considering the times and the threats while walking along paths and bridges, most likely he was a thief or bandit waiting to spring on easy targets. It is possible he was once a warrior who switched to a life of thievery. This may be because his bladed weapon could’ve been a (short) sword.

The Strategic Prowess of Takigawa Kazumasu ~ Part 3

We continue with Takigawa Kazumasu’s history during Medieval Japan under renown feudal lords such as Oda Nobunaga, as he accomplishes many feats through his tact, resourcefulness, and his influence on others. Last we left off where Kazumasu participates in the ambitious campaign by his lord Oda Nobunaga to take over Northern Ise. Will they be successful?

NOBUNAGA TO THE RESCUE

Around the middle of the 5th month of 1569, Takigawa Kazumasu, his force, and his new allies stayed holed up in Kizukuri castle, as they had to hold out against Kitabatake Tomomori and his large force. Kizukuri castle was completely surrounded, so any chances of escape were cut off. Fortunately, word of their plight got back to Oda Nobunaga, was also taking care of other matters at the same time¹. He would command his available top officers to round up their troops and head to assist them. A large army was able to gather at Gifu castle in Mino Province², which consisted of the combined strength of his trusted retainers and their own troops, such as Shibata Katsuie, Ujiie Naomoto from western Mino, and Kinoshita Hideyoshi.

Artwork of Oda Nobunaga. From the series “Taiheiki Eiyūden” (太平記英勇傳, Heroes of the Great Peace). By Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

In the 8th month of the same year, Nobunaga’s large army finally headed into Northern Ise and made their way towards Kizukuri castle. For the last 3 months, Kazumasu and everyone else holed up inside Kizukuri castle did their best to hold out for as long as they could against Kitabatake Tomonori’s force. While they had to endure a long siege, in the long run it paid off; when Tomonori heard how large the incoming army of the Oda force was, he and his troops fell back, and quickly retreated to Okawachi castle.

STANDOFF AGAINST THE KITABATAKE

Kazumasu and his force were finally rescued, and in short time joined Nobunaga’s large force as they moved on to besiege Okawachi castle. Arriving there, Nobunaga had his force surround this castle by making it triple-layered, to prevent any chances of escape. This would be the chance they’ve been waiting for, to take control over Northern Ise in a decisive battle against the Kitabatake family, starting with Tomonori.

Okawachi castle was well equipped, fortified, and suited against sieges, so Tomonori made no attempts to go into battle. Seeing how no confrontation was going to be made, Nobunaga ordered his troops to hold their ground in an attempt to wait their opponents out and weaken their morale. This waiting period lasted for about a month, with a couple of attempts to speed up things. This included building spiked fences around the castle’s perimeter, and a night raid, which ultimately failed due to heavy rainfall rendering their rifles useless. At a later date, Nobunaga ordered Kazumasu to cut off their rations supply by burning down neighboring Tage castle. Kazumasu did as ordered, as well as set ablaze the immediate area around this castle. The fire caused the inhabitants of Tage castle to flee to Okawachi castle, which allowed them in. However, this brought about an even bigger issue as with their food line cut, Tomonori now had even more people to feed, which was an outcome Nobunaga must’ve anticipated.

Although it took time, Nobunaga’s actions did prove fruitful, for eventually Tomonori called for a peaceful surrender. To capitalize over his defeated foe, Nobunaga had his 2nd son, Nobukatsu, become the next heir of the Kitabatake by having him marry with Tomonori’s daughter, Yukihime, then have him adopted by Tomonori’s son, Tomofusa. The way this process worked was Tomofusa had no children of his own, so if Nobukatsu was taken in as an adopted son, he would be able to keep the Kitabatake line going. This also meant that the Oda clan would claim Northern Ise through hereditary means. Along with this union, Okawachi castle was given up by the Kitabatake family, in which Kazumasu was given the responsibility to take control.

At a lost, Tomonori moved to Mise Yakata (三瀬館, Mise Mansion), which was near the Kitabatake-owned Kiriyama castle. There, he would later retire from his military career and become a monk. Clinching control over Northern Ise, Nobunaga went to Ise Shrine to say prayers and pay respect to the new land that is now in his control.

SERVING A RELENTLESS LORD

Gaining control over Northern Ise did wonders in propelling Oda Nobunaga’s power and influence, as well as further cement his presence as a threat to those who oppose him. During the campaign he even was able to establish good relations with Ashikaga Yoshiaki, and helped him gain entry into Kyoto and ascend to being the 15th shogun, continuing the Ashikaga rule…although Nobunaga himself used him as a stepping stone in order to have direct influence in the Imperial court. Takigawa Kazumasu had truly sided himself with a warlord who has the potential to rule Japan, thus he used his talents to achieve victory in whatever task was presented to him. It just so happened that late within the same year, there was some bad relations between a feudal lord within Ise province named Hosono Fujiatsu of Anō castle and Oda Nobukane, who had recently been instated as lord of Ise Ueno castle³. Kazumasu was sent to handle the situation, and he was able to quell the situation by allowing Fujiatsu to adopt his son, Yatsumaro⁴. Through this, Kazumasu was entrusted with Anotsu castle, Shibumi castle, and Kozukuri castle. As can be seen, his story is heavily dependent on much of his lord’s actions, for his story goes hand-in-hand with many of the war campaigns the Oda army took part in.

Artwork of Kennyo in what appears to be suit of armor.

Kazumasu’s next task at hand would soon present itself just one year after the dealings with Kitabatake clan, In Osaka, located in Japan’s western area sits a large estate that acts as a religious ground, with a large temple Ishiyama Honganji in the center. This temple was home of Buddhist monks of Jōdō Shinshu sect, led by the head priest Kennyo. At the time, Jōdō Shinshu Buddhism was not only the most widely practiced at the time, but Kennyo also expressed separation from governing rule. They were in a unique position as they grew in their own political power and influence, and commanded their own force of warrior monks⁵. On top of this, others in the land sided with the the monks’ viewpoint, especially those who suffered a lose due to the Oda force taking over Nagashima castle. This group of rebels collaborated with those of the temple Ganshōji in Nagashima, and were known as the Nagashima ikkō ikki (長島一向一揆). Over a course of time, as he acquired new allies and developed working relations with the Imperial court in Kyoto, Nobunaga also had deteriorating relations with Kennyo, as he expressed his disapproval of this unchecked rising power of the monks of Ishiyama Honganji.

In the 9th month of 1570, Oda Nobunaga had sent a small army to Fukushima in Settsu (present day southern part of Hyōgo Prefecture), north of Ishiyama Honganji. This expedition was to deal with the Miyoshi clan, who were considered allies with the monks of Ishiyama Honganji, as well as supported by 15th shogun Yoshiaki, who was trying to side with those who could help suppress the potential seize of power by Nobunaga. A month later, after declaring Oda Nobunaga a threat to Buddhism as a whole, Kennyo ordered his force to go and attack that army. A battle soon ensued around Yōdō river, which ran along Osaka and Settsu where the Oda army was stationed. Nobunaga’s army won and drove Kennyo’s force back to Ishiyama Honganji, and would also have a few more successful wins in other skirmishes against supporting groups as a small war was on the rise.

Artwork called “Taiheiki Nagashima Gassen: Ise Nagashima Ikkō Ikki” (太平記長嶋合戦 -伊勢長島一向一揆-). Here, the Nagashima ikkō ikki are shown battling against the Oda Force. By Utagawa Yoshikazu.

Kazumasu and other top officers took part in the war, setting up their fortifications for the long haul, including in castles they took over during the war with the Kitabatake family. However, they would soon have to deal with the relentless force of the Nagashima ikkō ikki. At one point, they had harassed Kazumasu to the point where as he and his force retreated from the battlefield, they gave chase. Later, they would assault Kokie castle in Owari Province, where Oda Nobuoki, Nobunaga’s younger brother, was stationed at. Nobuoki would hold out against the assault for 6 days, until the castle was breached and he and his troops had to evacuate. During the assault, Nobunaga had sent aid to save his son. Kazumasu, who was occupying Kuwana castle at the time, was also summoned to help. However, he too was besieged and had to stay walled up in his castle. While Nobuoki managed to survive the besiegers, Kokie castle was lost in the hands of the Nagashima ikkō ikki.

On May 12, 1571, Nobunaga had rounded up a large army, and moved towards Nagajima to deal with the ikkō ikki. He led them through a narrow valley, which was a mistake. The rebel group ikkō ikki laid a trap as they waited on both sides of the valley. As the Oda forces proceeded inside, the opposition ambushed them, initiating it by raining gunfire from their rifles, then closing upon them through upclose skirmishes. Many people of the Oda force sustained a large amount of damage, along with a large number of casualties. In the end, the Oda force was not successful in this campaign against the monks of Ishiyama Honganji and their supporters. Kazumasu and others were withdrawn from the fighting, and returned to their territories to recover from their losses. However, Nobunaga himself was not deterred, as he was determined to continue this war with them until he succeeds in eliminating them.

FACING THE TIGER OF KAI

Not too long after the unsuccessful campaign, Takigawa Kazumasu was yet again summoned to take part in a battle. This time it was against a considerably powerful feudal lord, who was known as Takeda Shingen, the lord of Kai Province. There was abit of history between the two, including during the campaign in Northern Ise⁶. This time around, in an effort to rout Nobunaga, Shingen intended to invade neighboring Tōtomi Province and Mikawa Province from the north-east with a large army split into three. In an effort to prevent this, Nobunaga needed to combine efforts with his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was lord over Mikawa Province.

Section featuring Takeda Shingen from the artwork entitled “Ichimosai Mushae Minamoto Harunobu Yamagata Masakage” ( 一猛齋 武者絵 源晴信 山県昌景 , Ichimōsai’s Warriors Art piece: Minamoto Harunobu (aka Takeda Shingen) and Yamagata Masakage). By Utagawa “Ichimōsai” Yoshitora.

Nicknamed “the tiger of Kai⁷”, Shingen was a particularly well-established lord who maintained a highly disciplined and efficiently organized army that utilized cavalry forces very skillfully, so his presence coming anywhere near Nobunaga was a threat that couldn’t be ignored. Nobunaga mobilized an army of a few thousand troops, as he had to keep the majority behind to protect his lands from other potential invasions. As one of the generals, Kazumasu made preparations and led his troops. He coordinated alongside with other top officers, such as Nobunaga’s senior general an war-harden Sakuma Nobumori, the recently acquired Mizuno Nobumoto, and loyal Oda clan retainers Hirate Hirohide & Hayate Hidesada. While the Oda force wasn’t as large as the Takeda’s, their continual development of using gunner squads was expected to be key component in winning. Being experienced with rifles and firearms, Kazumasu was a good candidate to bring for this.

In the 10th month of 1971, Shingen invaded Ieyasu’s borders, with his sights set on claiming Hamamatsu castle and thus controlling the area. He sent is army to first gain control of Futamata castle, which was under the control of one of Tokugawa’s officers. The combined forces of Nobunaga and Ieyasu worked to intercept this, which led to several clashes. First of the clashes would take place around the slope of Hitogoto-zaka (一言坂, Hitogoto Slope) in Tōtomi Province, just north of Hamamatsu castle.

A map showing the layout of the territories controlled by the major players in the war between Oda Nobunaga , Takeda Shingen, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The flow of the battle was not in the favor of the Oda-Tokugawa coalition, however, as the Takeda proved to be too much to deal with due to their sheer numbers. The Oda force had to retreat from the skirmish. The Takeda army continued to march towards Futamata castle and, although faced abit of resistance for a few weeks, were able to successfully drive out the defenders and claim Futamata castle by cutting off their water supply. After these unfortunate events, Nobunaga and Ieyasu both took time to regroup.

For the next couple months Nobunaga and Ieyasu prepared to trap the advancing Takeda army and attack from different angles. There was also extra fortification put in place at Hamamatsu castle, with trusted generals such as Takigawa Kazumasu and Sakuma Nobumori given the task of defending it. This was certainly a great honor, mostly likely due to Kazumasu’s track record of successfully managing captured castles during the campaign in Northern Ise. In 1572, as the joint forces prepared to set their plan into motion, Takigawa assisted in administrative duties at Hamamatsu castle and the given area around it, along with maintaining diplomatic relations, and administrative duties.

At some point it was discovered that Shingen wasn’t heading for Hamamatsu castle, but instead commanded his troops to pass by and entrap Nobunaga and his force with the Takeda army moving in several parts. Kazumasu and Nobumori of the Oda force, along with other officers of the Tokugawa force tried to advice Ieyasu against the planned trap, especially since his force was still outnumbered. Ieyasu, on the other hand, did not heed to the advice, and continued with the intended plan. Taking position up on Mikatagahara, Ieyasu ordered his troops to charge at the passing Takeda troops. Kazumasu, along with Sakuma Nobumori and other generals combined their efforts with the Tokugawa force, intending to overcome their larger opponents with the newer technology of rifles. Initially this ambush appeared to have worked, as it caused some disarray in their formation. However, it proved to not be enough as Shingen had his cavalry units run through the gunners, disrupting their attack while killing unprepared soldiers.

A 3-section art piece entitled, “Mikatagahara no Tatakai” ( 三方ヶ原の戦い , Battle at Mikatagahara). In the center panel is Takeda Shingen, who’s leading his cavalry in the right panel against the Tokugawa force in the left panel By Yōshu Chikanobu.

Both the Oda and Tokugawa troops were overwhelmed by the Takeda army’s exceptionally crafted strategies and militaristic discipline, while their formations crumbled before the cavalry assaults. In the long run, much casualties were faced on the defenders’ side, especially with the lost of Nobunaga’s close retainer Hirate Hirohide. Kazumasu and others retreated off the field in order to save their lives. Ieyasu not only had to fled back to Hamamatsu castle to save himself, but lost many soldiers and important officers as they tried to cover his retreat.

It was clear that Takeda Shingen was the superior force, while a looming fear crept on the losing side that he would succeed in defeating Nobunaga and capture parts of the eastern provinces. What will happen to Takigawa Kazumasu and his companions? Will they survive? Could the mighty Shingen be stopped? Tune in to part 4 to find out the outcome.


1) Around this time, Oda Nobunaga was making an agreement with displaced Ashikaga Yoshiaki, who was trying to continue his family’s line of shogunate rulers by gaining entry into Kyoto.

2) Interestingly, Mino Province in next to Kuwana, where the Kitabatake family were located in

3) During the Northern Ise campaign, Oda Nobunaga was able to claim Ise Ueno castle through peace relations with Nagano Tomofuji. This was solidified through marriage between Nobunaga’s younger brother, Nobukane, and Tomofuji’s niece.

4) Details about him are scarce. It is not clear if Yatsumaro (八麿) was a biological son of Kazumasu’s. One thing that is clear is that this deal benefited Oda Nobunaga a great deal, for when Fujiatsu is out of the picture, Yatsumaro would claim Anō castle.

5) Around 1568, Nobunaga was multitasking between the Northern Ise campaign and assisting Ashikaga Yoshiaki into becoming the next shogun. As Oda headed to Kyoto to help Yoshiaki gain entrance, there were many that had some connection with the Imperial court who opposed this, such as the Miyoshi clan, Asai clan, Araki clan, and even Kennyo of Ishiyama Honganji. They made a pact called “Nobunaga Hōimō” (信長包囲網, Anti-Nobunaga network). Takeda Shingen was also against Nobunaga, and was recruited by these opposers to help subdue this growing threat. Apparently Shingen had mobilized an army, but was kept back through the assistance of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

6) Here I use loosely the term “warrior monks”, which is sōhei (僧兵) in Japanese, as this is common term. However, it has to be pointed out that there’s a large misconception regarding warrior monks, not on in the West but in Japan as well. While the idea sounds similar to say the Shaolin monks in China, warrior monks were not necessarily Buddhist monks, or fully ordained. Books like “The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sōhei in Japanese History” (Mikael S. Adolphson) goes into deep details regarding Japanese researchers and how they’ve been able to get a better picture through surviving accounts about warriors who represent the military strength recruited by these Buddhist temples. In many cases, they were oftentimes warriors hired to protect the temple. This isn’t saying that monks themselves didn’t go to war, but at what rate can these warriors be called “Buddhist monks” is the point here.

Also, while the popular image has these hired “warrior monks” dressed in robes and have a shawl wrapped around their head and face, in reality their appearance was, in many cases, similar to that of regular warriors. There may have been few who do fit the stereotypical image, but it may be more related to them being of status where they could dress with extra attire to distinguish themselves. This is not unusual.

7) This is “Kai no tora” (甲斐の虎) in Japanese

The Modern and Older form of Kodomo no Hi

Many older holidays and celebrations from Japan have a deep and intricate background. Nowadays they have been simplified one way or another, with the focus on the core component. This has to do in part with social practices of old do not have the same role in Japan’s society as a whole as it once used to. Still, some areas in Japan pay recognition to the older history of these celebrations, while great efforts are made to preserve their details in documentations.

LOOKING AT KODOMO NO HI

Let’s look one of Japan’s more well-celebrated holidays, “Kodomo no Hi” (子供の日), or “Children’s Day” in English, which takes place on May 5th this year. Kodomo no Hi is a celebration for kids, where parents pray for the to grow up healthy and strong. This is similar to how girls’ healthy future is prayed for during the holiday known as Hinamatsuri. There are different ways to go about celebrating this. One way that has a traditional background is where families place a small display featuring a kabuto (兜, tradition helmet used with armor), yumiya (弓矢, bow with arrows in a quiver), and a tachi (太刀, battlefield sword) out in their home, which is symbolic for protection from harm. Another is shōbuyu (菖蒲湯), where stalks of iris are used in conjunction with water or sake in the form of a remedy to drive away bad spirits.

The more popular practice during Kodomo no Hi is to celebrate with koinobori (鯉のぼり), which are carp-shaped streamers. Koinobori are generally strung together in a large mass on a pole or on a cable in between poles in one’s area or around public places, with a yaguruma (矢車, wheel consisting of arrows) on top. Looking at the history behind the concept of koinobori, we learn that It has a connection with the Chinese myth of carps that are able to swim up a particular waterfall will turn into dragons, which was adapted into Japan’s culture. Carp are also seen as a creature of spiritual significance, where they have a long lifespan, and can adapt to different environments. These traits, and more, are what parents pray for in their children. Adding a yaguruma on top of a pole is symbolic for informing the gods of children’s birth and residence in the area in order to receive their blessings, as well as to drive away evil spirits.

Koinobori are made in different colors. The meaning behind these colors have changed over the centuries since mid Edo period. At first the colors used was based on what was popular in one’s region, such as families in eastern Japan would use gold and silver, while families in western Japan would use black and red. Later, the colors became generalized as koinobori were designed in predetermined sizes and colors. They were displayed in a pack on Kodomo no Hi to represent one’s family. For example, the largest koinobori would be a black color and represent the father, the 2nd largest would be a red color and represent the mom, while the smaller one would be a blue color and represent children. Eventually this would be expanded, featuring much smaller ones in a green or pink color.

As mentioned earlier, the design that is commonly recognized as koinobori was popular in eastern and western parts of Japan. Other regions also adopted different designs and shapes as the practice spread. For example, there are hata sashimono (旗指物, flag banners) such as enobori (絵のぼり, picture streamers) and furafu (フラフ, flags), which consists of images of carps, famous warriors from fairy tales, and other artworks that are related to the theme of Kodomo no Hi.

LOOKING AT TANGO NO SEKKU

Kodomo no Hi is actually a modern naming convention petitioned in 1948, in an attempt for reformation of a new holiday that was more suitable to support the new, younger generation¹. Before this change, it was originally known under the title “Tango no Sekku” (端午の節句). Practice of this starting as early as the Kamakura period (1185~1333), the meaning of this title can be interpreted as “the seasonal celebration of the beginning of the 5th”. However, this title has more components due to its connection to the older Lunar calendar and the Zodiac signs, which can be easily explained If we break down the words individually:

  • Tan (端) = Edge, side (beginning)
  • Go (午) = Horse (Zodiac), fifth month (Lunar Calendar)
  • Sekku (節句) = Seasonal festival or celebration

The kanji or Chinese characters used incorporate a bit of play on words in order to grasp the meaning. The use of “tan” here is to identify the start of good weather in the new season, which would’ve been summer according to the old calendar². The word “go” has two sources but line up perfectly in meaning, for while the kanji “午” means horse according to the Zodiac signs, it is designated to the 5th month on the old calendar. On top of this, its pronunciation is the same as the number 5 (五, go) in Japanese. Along with all of these points, Tango no Sekku takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month, which makes it an auspicious occasion to receive blessings from revered gods, as well as has strong ties with divination practice Onmyōdō (陰陽道) and what are considered lucky numbers. With number 5 being one of those lucky numbers, this makes the 5th day of the 5th month an important date³.

Originally, Tango no Sekku was a day to celebrate young boys and pray for their healthy growth. One of the reasons is credited to an older practice of “Shōbu no Sekku” (菖蒲の節句), where shōbu (菖蒲, iris) and other types of herbs & vegetation were used for medicinal practices and environmental purification by Imperial & noble families. As a play on words, “shōbu” (尚武, militaristic spirit) was used to inspire creating a festival were families prayed for boys to grow into strong warriors. Since from the Kamakura era onward the road to success was believed to be in becoming a military family, a large display called “gogatsu ningyō” (5th Month Dolls) was placed within one’s home to represent this belief. On this display were items that symbolized protection from harm and ill fortune, such as a miniature kacchū (甲冑, armor), a musha ningyō (武者人形, a warrior figurine), a toy horse, mock weapons such as bow & arrows and a battlefield sword, taiko (太鼓, drums), kamon hata (家紋旗, banners with family emblems), and so on. Dolls of famous fabled characters were also included, such as Momotaro, Musashi Benkei, and Kintaro. Koinobori is also believed to have been used at some point as well, although not throughout Japan until later in the Edo period.

IMPORTANT DISHES FOR THE CELEBRATION

There are popular snacks and food to eat on Kodomo no Hi today, which were passed down from the older Tango no Sekku:

  • Kashiwamochi (柏餅)
  • Chimaki (粽)
  • Takenoko (竹の子)

Kashiwamochi is mochi wrapped in a kashiwa leaf. Other than mochi being the common treat in many celebrations, the use of the kashiwa was due to the fact that it was a leaf that stayed on a tree for a very long time. This resilience was inspiring, and would symbolize having the ability to keep one’s family line intact. Chimaki is similar to Kashiwamochi, except that it’s made of a sticky rice such as mochikome (もち米), consisting of a variety of fillings, and wrapped in bamboo leaves, which molds it into an elongated or triangular shape. Lastly, takenoko is bamboo shoot that is steamed and eaten in various ways, with it being topped over rice (called takenoko gohan / 竹の子御飯) being one of the more popular ways.

According to the Tango no Sekku theme, these foods are meant to promote a long lifespan for boys using natural ingredients. Of course, this has now been extended to girls as well, as Kodomo no Hi promotes all kids should be taken care of evenly. Note that depending on the region, there are numerous ways in which the following foods are made, with some being more different than others.

ENDING

In conclusion, Kodomo no Hi is but one of the many examples of how a day of celebration can look simple visually, yet possesses layers of deep and complex history once delved into. While its older form, Tango no Sekku, has historical components that are a telltale of how society used to be, this doesn’t take away from the modern development of Kodomo no Hi and how families celebrate it.


1) Along with praying for kids’ health and fortune, Kodomo no Hi also includes giving thanks to mothers for giving birth to and helping to raise kids.

2) While Tango no Sekku was a celebration for boys, there were special events for girls as well almost at the same time. However, they greatly varied depending on the region.

3) These 5 numbers are the following: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. They make up the positive or yō (陽, yang) numbers of the in-yo (or yin-yang). In turn, there are 5 seasonal celebrations, called Go-sekku (五節句), which take place on the following dates:

  • January 7th
  • March 3rd
  • May 5th
  • July 7th
  • September 9th

The Patron & The Ox: Legends of Tenmangū ~ Part 2

We continue with the discussion on the legendary tales from Tenmangū. Since we were able to achieve an understanding behind these shrines through the history of Sugawara no Michizane in part 1, we will now proceed with those tales and get an idea how they have deep ties with the yearly ox Zodiac sign theme. Note that many of these stories were made long ago in Japan’s past, during a time where superstition was prevalent, and natural phenomenons were believed to have been caused by one of many gods. Whether they are believable or not, they do play a big role in the development of both culture and society.

BIRTH & DEATH

Sugawara no Michizane was elevated to the level of a divine being after his death due to his contributions while he was alive. This isn’t so unusual, as there are plenty of examples of this happening not only in Japan, but in other countries as well. Interestingly, one could say that this was already predetermined on the day of his birth. A tale that is told at the Tenmangū shrines is that his birth was an auspicious one, and truly denotes his connection with the ox Zodiac sign, which is considered beyond normal. In this particular tale, Michizane’s birth is recorded to not only been in the year of the ox, but was also on the day of the ox, and at the time of the ox¹. What does this mean?

The Zodiac signs have a multitude of purposes, some utilitarian, others mystical. In the past, they were used to denote years, days, and time, which was key for fortune telling. Depending on the period and the tasks that are at hand, a person may believe they will see benefits, or will heed caution and refrain from doing anything important. In Michizane’s case, this repeated occurrence with the ox sign in his birth is pretty auspicious, and viewed as beyond normal. On top of this, Michizane is said to have died on the day of the ox. Such a repetition of a Zodiac sign may point to him as being divine, like a deity who took the form of a human. As for the ox reference, one could interpret it that the ox brought him into the world, as well as returned him to his true realm, since the ox is naturally a vehicle of the gods. More on this point later.

VENGEFUL SPIRIT, WRATHFUL GOD

This tale can almost be seen as a continuation to part 1, based on how it’s told in the visual records of the Kitanō Tenmangū shrine called “Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki” (北野天神縁起絵巻). In 908, just 3 years after Michizane’s death, a member of the Fujiwara clan would die suddenly from disease. One year later, Fujiwara no Tokihira, the main antagonist in Michizane’s misfortune, also dies from disease. In 913, new Minister of the Right Minamoto no Hikaru would tragically die through drowning while out on a hunting expedition. As the Fujiwara clan gained a stronger hold of both the Imperial palace and Imperial family, more tragedy befell upon them. Such can be seen in the 930 incident where a lightning storm would strike down upon a building on the Imperial grounds where many members of the Fujiwara family were, resulting in a few of them dying on the spot, or later passing away due to suffering from lightning burns. The final tragedy befell on 60th Emperor Daigō, who is believed to have been the main target of the lightning storm. After the incident, Emperor Daigō’s health deteriorated, until finally dying 3 months later. The cause of this is viewed to be linked to his agreement with the validity of the accusations made by Tokihira and others, and Michizane being exiled from Heian Kyō.

This entire story is seen as an act of revenge by Michizane’s spirit that took its course over the course of almost 30 years. Initially, as these events were unfolding, the consensus within the Imperial palace was that Michizane’s vengeful spirit was cursing the Fujiwara clan. There were different attempts to try and “appease” him, such as bestowing upon him different titles including Minister of the Right, which was taken away from him through slander while he was still living. The lightning storm was the most severe, which happened later after the Fujiwara clan were able to become part of the Imperial family through one of the women conceiving a child for then Emperor Daigō, making him a prince. As a result, A Fujiwara member was sent to Anrakuji, where Michizane was buried at, to build an enshrinement. This enshrinement was then named Tenmangū. A few centuries later the Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki was created, which retells this story.

While there were those who described him as a vengeful spirit, Tenmangū instead envisions him as a wrathful god punishing wrongdoers in an act of justice. As a result, Michizane is called by several other names, including “Raijin” (雷神), which means “Thunder God”. According to old beliefs, a thunder god is generally depicted having the guise of an oni (鬼, demon) with horns². According to the Zodiac signs, the combination of the Ox and Tiger signs refer to demons, both metaphorically (i.e. they point towards the unlucky north-east direction on the typical Zodiac chart) and visually (demons are usually illustrated having ox-like horns and wearing tiger fur loincloth). This goes back to Michizane being born in the year of the ox, which contributes to this image.

PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH OXEN

There is a legend that Michizane had encounters with an ox, which may have been his guardian spirit in disguise. During his youth, Michizane found a baby ox wandering alone in a wooded area. Appearing to be lost or abandoned, he took it into his residence, where he nurtured it until it grew into an adult. At some point, just as it suddenly appeared in his life, this ox suddenly disappeared without a trace. While he wanted to set out to search for it, in the end he let the matter go. Fast forward to when he was exiled to live his life in Dazaifu in the south, Michizane would one day travel west to Dōmyōji (道明寺, Dōmyō Temple) in Osaka to visit a relative³. After parting ways, he set out to head back home when he was unexpectedly attacked by an assailant. Before harm could befall on him, a large ox suddenly appeared and drove the assailant away, saving Michizane’s life. Just as quickly as it appeared, this ox would disappear from sight in the same way.

One of the ways to interpret this story is that the baby ox was a spirit. Since Michizane showed kindness and helped raise it, this ox spirit in return acted as a guardian spirit. In a way, it is not so different from many other Japanese fabled tales of similar nature. Although it is just a legend, this contributes to Michizane’s ever-persistent connection with the ox Zodiac sign. On another note, while in this version of the story the color of the ox is not mentioned, I’ve heard another one, although very brief, where Michizane was rescued by a white ox. While I’m not sure if this is a variation of the story mentioned above, there is significance in the white ox to the Buddhist god Shiva, which the Tenjin of Tenmangū is loosely based off of.

AN OX’S STUBBORNNESS AS FATE

Another story is directly related what took place after Michizane’s death and the decision with what to do with his remains. In his final days, Michizane wrote a poem as part of his will that states “people should allow themselves to be pulled along in a wagon by an ox, letting it take us where ever it may desire, and to eventually be buried in the spot where it stops at”⁴. Following this as his last wish, those sent to bury his remains put it in an ox-drawn wagon, and had intended to carry it all the way to Heian Kyō (present-day Kyōto) in the west in a procession. During the journey, the ox suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, laid down, and wouldn’t move. They didn’t make it far, as they were still in the southern part of Japan. Despite efforts to get it to stand up and proceed again, the ox wouldn’t budge. With no other choice, They took Michizane’s remains to a near by temple called Anrakuji, and had it buried there.

At Tenmangū shrines, the underlining point of this story is that everything happened based on fate. Michizane was destined to be laid to rest in the south, and the ox was like a divine messenger to show where the burial spot should be. Interestingly, this is where Michizane was enshrined in the 1st Tenmangū shrine, thus being deified. Again we see the significance of the ox, whether we choose to view this as chance or by fate.

OX AS A SERVANT OF THE GODS

If we look at some of the stories mentioned above, we see the ox had a close role in the life of Sugawara no Michizane, as well as after his death. At the Tenmangū, the ox is often described as a “shinshi” (神使), which can stand for being a servant or messenger of the gods. According to Shinto beliefs, there are spiritual creatures who, acting on the will of the god(s) they serve, come down to earth to handle tasks they were assigned to. At times, humans may also view these spiritual creatures as gods themselves. They would take the guise of earthly creatures such as foxes, monkeys, birds, snakes, and centipedes. In the Tenjin faith of Tenmangū, the ox is the main servant.

From another perspective, the ox can also be viewed as a vehicle for the gods. In Eastern religions and beliefs, gods are depicted as coming down to Earth on the back of a divine creature. These creatures include boars, horses, and oxen. There are artwork that feature Michizane sitting on the back of an ox, although in these he is in his humanly form, as if to say he did this while he was alive. Since Michizane is deified and now recognized as the Tenjin, this is fitting.

ENDING

These are the majority of legendary tales from the Tenmangū. Bearing a lot of references to the ox, one can get an idea how important their underlining messages are especially when the ox Zodiac years come around. This here brings the 2-part series to a close. I hope readers enjoy this piece of history, and get an understanding about how intricately enwoven the Zodiac signs were with Japanese culture.


1) This is commonly written as “丑の年の丑の日の丑の刻”, which reads “ushi no toshi no ushi no hi no ushi no koku”

2) This is more in the vein of a divine demon, who is a guardian of Buddhism. Another way to describe this would be “onigami” (鬼神), or “demon god”.

3) This relative is stated to be an oba (叔母), which could mean aunt.

4) Although written in modernized Japanese, this is an interpretation of the poem:

「車を牛に引かせて、牛の行くままに任せ、牛の止まった所に葬ってくれ」

“Kuruma wo ushi ni hikasete, ushi no yuku mama ni makase, ushi no tomatta tokoro ni hōmuttekure”

Note that during the Heian period, ox-drawn wagons were popular among the populous, which may have had an influence on him writing this.

The Patron & the Ox: Legends of Tenmangū ~ Part 1

Continuing with the ox theme that coincides with this year’s Zodiac sign, I will introduce some interesting tales that relate to it through the famous Tenmangū (天満宮), which is the name of numerous Shinto shrines built around Japan. These shrines practice the Tenjin faith (天神信仰, Tenjin shinkō), a form of Shinto belief, which involves the worship of the Tenjin (天神). A significant point worth mentioning is that the Tenjin is Sugawara no Michizane, who was as an actual scholar and aristocratic that lived during the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). He was later viewed as a patron deified due to the many good things he did while he was alive, as well as the incidents that would later take place after his death that were then told as legends.

Today’s article will be the 1st of a 2-part series about Tenmangū’s fabled tales surrounding Sugawara no Michizane, and the persisting imagery of the ox. Before getting into those, part 1 will cover this individual’s actual history in order to better understand the roots of his legendary status.

LIFE STORY OF SUGAWARA NO MICHIZANE

Sugawara no Michizane was born in 845, which was the year of the Ox. The Sugawara was an elite family during the Heian period, at a time when noble families lived in or close to Heian Kyō, (present day Kyōto) the Capital where the Imperial Palace was built, and the golden age when foreign import contributed immensely to cultural development before Japan was turned into a military state by warring feudal lords. Michizane was privileged to receiving education in many topics, including Chinese classics, writing, archery, and poetry. It is said that he was very gifted in learning, as he demonstrated natural talent in both literature and military studies¹. As an example, Michizane would not only understand Chinese poetry thoroughly at the age of 11, but he also wrote his 1st poem at that age². Earning high honors, he would became a professor of literature at the age of 33.

A pic of Sugawara no Michizane.

Outside of education, Michizane was also talented in political matters, as well as a devotee of the Shinto belief. Eventually his career would involve working for the Imperial court. He not only proved to be a loyal subject of the court, he was also very close to 59th Emperor Uda, where he was heavily depended on as an advisor. He handled different tasks that helped Japanese society as a whole, including improving living conditions for the poor and maintaining Japan’s unique image while adapting foreign influences. Michizane also proposed many reasonable ways and solutions to handling foreign relations, which Emperor Uda truly valued. With his hard-working ethics and knowledgeable insight, he rose through the ranks, and inevitably achieved the title udaijin (右大臣), or Minister of the Right. This was one of the highest ranks achievable at the time, which was a great honor to him and his family. This title was matched equally by sadaijin (左大臣), or Minister of the Left, which was held by another aristocrat named Fujiwara Tokihira (藤原時平).

Speaking of which, at the time the Fujiwara were major players in the Imperial court, where they imposed their influence in many aspects politically. Although the Sugawara had a history of good relations with the Fujiwara, Michizane and Tokihira did not get along, where the latter would not treat the former well. In fact, there were other opposing noble families who were in favor of the Fujiwara, and were also jealous of Michizane’s seemingly unfaltering favor from Emperor Uda. Secretly, Tokihira and others conspired a plan that would expose him of abusing his power in an effort to rid his presence from the Imperial palace, and help elevate their family and peers.

When Emperor Uda retired and was succeeded by the 60th Emperor Daigo, Tokihira and others took a chance to put their scheme into action. They were successful in defaming Michizane, who would then be unfortunate of being stripped of his rank, and exiled from Heian Kyō by the new Emperor. Separated from his family, he was forced to reside in Dazaifu located in the south (present day Dazaifu City, Fukuoka).

Deprived of the wealth and loved ones, Michizane’s life in Dazaifu was hard, yet he maintained his dignity and continued to present himself as a good example by continuing with scholarly studies, and devoting his time in worship for the sake of the safety of the Imperial family and the nation of Japan. He spent the remainder of his years there, and would pass away in 903. Shortly after, his remains were buried at Ankakuji, not too far away from his residence. Years later, as Michizane’s former detractors started to die due to diseases and freakish accidents, the Imperial court would exonerate him from all crimes he was judged to have committed, bestowed upon him his former ranks, and ordered for Tenmangū to be built at Ankakuji to enshrine his remains, which would in turn make him a deity — all as a means to appease what was believed to be his vengeful soul.

Today, many go to the Tenmangū to pray for academic success, since Sugawara no Michizane is viewed as a god of learning. Despite facing slander and hardship towards the later part of his life, his life story, which includes his achievements, were recorded and preserved, which in turn makes him a revered individual, and one that inspires all that visit these Tenmangū shrines. Visitors can also see large bronze statues of an ox at some of these shrines, which is also plays a significant role in several tales related to Michizane’s story.

ENDING

This is how Sugawara no Michizane’s history closes, as well as concludes part 1. In the following article, we will review different tales and legends that paint vivid pictures of Sugawara no Michizane, as the Tenjin, being an auspicious, as well as the ox being like a divine creature.


1) Essentially the standard structure for learning during the Heian period, which is called bunbu ryōdō (文武両道).

2) Below is the poem he wrote:

「月夜見梅花 月輝如晴雪 梅花似照星 可憐金鏡転 庭上玉房馨」

In his poem, Michizane describes how the sweet-smelling flower garden made up of plum blossoms (ume [梅] in Japanese) looks radiant in the bright moonlight like stars, similar to how snow sparkles in the sun rays.

The Genealogy of Tokugawa Ieyasu & The Advantages when Claiming Power

During a research project a while ago, I came across an interesting point regarding Tokugawa Ieyasu, the feudal lord to unify all of Japan in the early 1600s, and first shogun of the Tokugawa Bakufu (徳川幕府, Militaristic rule of the Tokugawa clan). I came across notes online that state he would have himself addressed as “Tokugawa Minamoto Ieyasu” (徳川源家康) within some administrative-related letters and documents¹. For those who are familiar with the earlier years of Japanese history should know about the Minamoto clan, which was a powerful clan with nobility roots to the Imperial family, and greatly recognized for their prowess in military campaigns by a few exemplary individuals from the Heian period to the Kamakura period. What is this significant link that the Tokugawa family have with this clan?

Before modern Japan, it was commonplace for people to change their names. There are numerous reasons for this, such as to represent one’s (new) living area, job title, adoption into a new family, rise in status, and so on². In most cases, an explanation is given in surviving documents, whether it be in the form of a diary, family records, of official papers. In some of these cases, however, are critical disputes on the validity of these documents and their claims.

For this article, we will look at Tokugawa Ieyasu and the story behind the lineage he established. This ranges from his own personal history, the factors in which prompted him to take on a new name, as well as his family line’s connection to the Minamoto clan. Some of the sources used for this includes the following:

GENJI – MATSUDAIRA STORY

Ieyasu was born in the Matsudaira family, who were from Matsudaira Village in Kamo District of Mikawa Province (present day Matsudaira Town, Aichi Prefecture). The Matsudaira family were an influential one, who would eventually gain full control over their domain for many years once there was no one to challenge them. After becoming shogun and establishing the Tokugawa Bakufu in the early 1600s, Ieyasu presented a genealogy for his family line, which illustrates the Matsudaira line was started by Matsudaira Chikauji (松平親氏). This Matsudaira Chikauji is stated to have a link to the Seiwa-Genji lineage (清和源氏), which is but one of the different lines that have ancestry to the noble Genji clan.

Some points to understand regarding this Seiwa-Genji line:

  • This line descends from the 56th successor Emperor Seiwa, making it the most powerful of all the other Genji lines.
  • All Genji lines originate from the Minamoto clan, a family of nobility whom were once one of many imperial families during the Heian period.
  • While they have a long history, the Minamoto clan are especially renown for their on-going struggle for power against the Taira clan which eventually lead to victory within the late Heian period (794-1185).
  • One of the main representatives of this Seiwa-Genji line is Minamoto no Yoshiie (源義家, 1039-1106), who is viewed as a legendary figure being the role model for the brave, armor-clad warriors whom would later rise and establish Japan into a military state.

Here’s an explanation of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s claim to the Seiwa-Genji link. His ancestor, Chikauji, is a descendant of the Serata³ clan, which split from the Nitta-Genji (新田源氏) line (another branching line from the original Seiwa-Genji). The Serata clan left the Nitta Manor in Tokugawa Village (新田庄徳河郷), and later established their own home in Serata Village in another part of Tokugawa (世良田郷徳河) within Ueno Province⁴. According to different sources, early in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), Chikauji and his father Arichika (有親) fought alongside with others against the Kamakura bakufu within the Shinano area in eastern Japan. They were on the losing side, and had to flee from the pursuit of Ashikaga Takauji and his force. Not being able to return to their homeland, they escaped to Sagami Province. Reaching the Shōjōkō Temple, Chikauji took vows there to become a Jishu sect monk under the name “Tokuami” (徳阿弥)⁵. Later, he would travel to Matsudaira Village in Mikawa, and became a member of the Matsudaira family through marrying the daughter of Matsudaira Taro Saemon. Thus, Ieyasu’s claim is that his blood line directly comes from Minamoto no Yoshiie through Chikauji, as well as past generations were known as “Tokugawa” due to Serata Village being in Tokugawa.

Above is a genealogy chart I’ve prepared that illustrates the generations that progresses from Minamoto no Yoshiie all the way to Matsudaira Chikauji. It also includes how certain individuals changed their surname generally based on the geographical location they were living in, which led to the establishment of new branching family lines. Some of them even did this multiple times. If we look at Chikauji at the bottom of the 2nd image, he too is a prime example of switching surnames. Apparently he went by “Tokugawa” at one point when he was residing at Tokugawa Village, while he would eventually switch to Matsudaira.

IEYASU AND HIS CHANGE TO TOKUGAWA

Looking into Tokugawa Ieyasu’s personal history, he went through a period where his identity changed in stages before establishing the Tokugawa shogunate and ruling all of Japan. As a summary, he was known by the name of Takechiyo (竹千代) during his childhood. When he was given his ceremony of adulthood at the age of 16⁶, his given name 1st changed to Motonobu (元信), then later to Motoyasu (元康) while working under Imagawa Yoshimoto, but kept his family name “Matsudaira” the same. He inherited the role of the 9th head of the Matsudaira clan, yet didn’t spend much of his life with them in Mikawa after the age of 6, for he was sent away as a hostage⁷ by his father, Matsudaira Hirotada. He was 1st under the care of Oda Nobuhide in Owari Province for 2 years, then later sent to his intended caretaker Imagawa Yoshimoto in Suraga Province, who lorded over Mikawa. Eventually, he would gain complete control over Mikawa when Yoshimoto died during the battle of Okehazama in 1560, which was the final of the ongoing war this individual had against the ambitious warlord Oda Nobunaga. His military career truly took off under the title of Matsudaira Motoyasu, and would continue especially after his identity undergone yet another change.

Artwork of Tokugawa Ieyasu as Shogun. From series “Mikawa Eiyuden” ( 三河英勇傳, The Great Heroes of Mikawa Province) by Utagawa Yoshitora. From Wikipedia.

In 1563 he would alter his first name, from “Motoyasu” to “Ieyasu”. 3 years later, he would then change his family name from “Motoyasu” to “Tokugawa” as an official title from the Imperial court. While it is very common to have one’s family name changed in relations to receiving an official rank with some sort of back story, there is none whatsoever in Ieyasu’s case at the time. It would be many years later during the 1st year of the Edo period that Ieyasu would reveal that in his family’s genealogy, which traces back to the Serata clan, there were a few individuals who bore the name Tokugawa. It is through this connection that he believed it was best to reinstate this name. Some researchers question this as there was no mention of this in his earlier years, especially from someone who grew up away from his own clan members during his youth. Another interesting point that is mentioned is that members of Ieyasu’s Matsudaira clan did not change their family name to Tokugawa after his rise in power, but did not hesitate to use this surname when needed.

QUESTIONING THE AUTHORITY TO POWER

By setting up the new Tokugawa bakufu in Edo (present day Tokyo), Tokugawa Ieyasu was able to establish rules, regulations, and territorial development process throughout Japan. Official documentations were also transcribed, which were used to retain all sorts of important information. Some examples of these are the Mikawa Monogatari (三河物語), which is a documentation of historical tales and accomplishments regarding families from Mikawa including the Matsudaira/Tokugawa, and the Kansei Chōshū Shokafu (寛政重脩諸家譜), which is a collection of many different genealogy, including that of land owners and military families. In these we can see the genealogy of Ieyasu, which claims an ancestral link to the Minamoto clan through the Seiwa-Genji line.

Despite these documentations, historians and researchers are skeptical about this claim. Some of these arguing points include the following:

  • There is very little concrete info on those individuals who come before Chikauji
  • There is no evidence of a Serata member migrating to Mikawa, let alone it being Chikauji
  • Outside of Ieyasu’s genealogy claim, there are no other details regarding a family lineage presented by other Matsudaira members

There isn’t much solid proof of where such a well-detailed genealogy comes from. Taking his historical account into consideration, Ieyasu didn’t spend a lot of his time in Mikawa, let alone amongst his Matsudaira clan members. This isn’t an unusual case, to be honest. There are even some questions regarding those that come after Chikauji in this genealogy, but for this article I will refrain from discussing those, as they don’t have the same weight as the ones mentioned above. What’s interesting to note is that Imagawa Yoshimoto, Ieyasu’s primary care taker in his early years, also claimed a link to the Seiwa-Genji lineage. Possibly this is where Ieyasu got the idea from and decided to follow suit?

If there is solid ground for skepticism, what would be the benefit of fabricating a lineage? Understand that after military rule was established by Minamoto no Yoritomo as the 1st ruling Shogun during early Kamakura period (1185 ~ 1333), not just anyone could simply use force and claim the title as “shogun”. It had to be acquired through the following 2 points:

1) Appointed by the Emperor

2) It could only be given to those of (according to very old beliefs and fables) “noble families that were descendants of the gods that created Japan and the world”

While we will not delve into the specifics of the 2nd point, we can sum this point up by the fact that the Minamoto clan, like many other noble families, was established with the proclamation of ancestry under a specific god, thus their connection with the Imperial court bearing the status of nobility. This link to nobility, along with other factors, is what granted Minamoto no Yoshiie the qualification to be appointed as shogun by the Emperor during his military career⁸. It is not hard to see the advantage of claiming rights to rule as Shogun through a link to the Seiwa-Genji lineage.

Claims to nobility wasn’t something that only Ieyasu took advantage of, for there were others before him who used the same proclamation to acquire the shogun title. For example, the Ashikaga clan, whom had a long line of shogun successors throughout the Muromachi period (1336 ~ 1573), also did the same and claimed ancestry to the Seiwa-Genji lineage. Toyotomi Hideyoshi also dabbled in such play of claiming a link to nobility, for when he was able to rise to the top through superior military strength over his adversaries, he was initially faced with an issue that would prevent him from becoming shogun. The son of a lower class family, Hideyoshi was not born with a noble surname, meaning he had the blood of a mere commoner. To rectify this situation, he was advised, as well as permitted, to be adopted by an Imperial court noble named Konoe Sakihisa. Through this newly-established noble link, Hideyoshi was allowed to receive the title shogun from the Imperial court.

CONCLUSION

This research on Tokugawa Ieyasu’s claimed genealogy, along with the critical disputes against it is an interesting one. It gives a glimpse of methods those who have the means can use in order to secure their position to achieve success or claim power. Even though this matter is centuries old, researchers still take the time to examine just how real the roots of the unifier of Japan truly is in order to understand the history of his ancestors…that is if any traces of it can be discovered. It’s but one of the many ways to learn about the past and understand Japan when society was structured very differently from modern times.


1) In a related topic, the online edition of Sankei News reported about a letter written in 1586, where Tokugawa Ieyasu used the title addressed as “Fujiwara Ieyasu” (藤原家康) in 1586. It appears that along with the surname change to “Tokugawa”, Ieyasu initially wanted to elevate his status even higher through an ancestral link to the Fujiwara family. For those unfamiliar with this, the Fujiwara family were elite to the point that they were not only the most influential in the Imperial court, but they also had control of the Imperial house behind the scenes through manipulating which member of the Imperial family would be the next successor. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Ieyasu’s predecessor, was another who used the Fujiwara surname at times after he established himself with a noble lineage.

You can see the actual news report here.

2) One of the more interesting cases I’ve heard is that some people would change both their given and family names if they feel their current ones are unlucky. To improve their luck, changing them to ones that are more appealing in meaning is a route that is seen as beneficial.

3) Also pronounced as “Serada”

4) The kanji (Chinese-bsed characters) for “Tokugawa” uses an older way of writing. There are different ways in which this name has been written throughout the ages. Here are the following:

  • 徳川 (most familiar)
  • 徳河
  • 德川
  • 得川
  • 禿川
  • 禿河

5) This is explained in the “Mikawa Monogatari” (三河物語). There is a slightly different take on this in an earlier publication called “Matsudaira Yuishogaki” (松平氏由緒書). This too presents descriptions regarding the Matsudaira genealogy, but for Chikauji’s case he is not written to have been a monk. Instead, he left his hometown on a solo journey across the lands like a wanderer. Because of this, there are beliefs that this part about him becoming a monk is a fabrication, and added to later documentations.

6) This is known as “genpuku” (元服) in Japanese.

7) This “hostage” case is very common throughout Japan’s history. Different from the idea of kidnapping by force, in many situations a clan that is controlled by another more powerful clan would send family members to reside with them. While these members are given to fulfill a particular need by the powerful clan, the gist of it is to keep those family members in order to control the lesser clan. There are also many political usages behind this.

8) Before the establishment of military rule, the title “shogun” had a slightly different nuance, along with a different manner of entitlement. During the Nara and Heian period, certain renown warriors who were recruited to deal with supposed threats (i.e. “barbarians” and “villains”) to the Imperial palace and the aristocratic governing system would be given this title. In Minamoto no Yoshiie’s case, his complete title was “Chinjufu Shogun” (鎮守府将軍), which has the full meaning of “Commander-in-Chief of the army which pacifies threats from the North”.