Looking at the True Sanada Yukimura ~ Part 1

Those who invest time in studying up on the Sengoku jidai (戦国時代, Warring States period) of Japan will eventually come across accounts concerning the Sanada clan. Possibly one of the more popular figures, the Sanada clan are renown for their brave, unorthodox methods of warfare while under the allegiance to warlords such as Takeda Shingen and Hideyoshi Hideyori. Out of the known members of this clan, the most talked about would arguably be the one named Yukimura. To some it would be due to his fame, yet this in turn is riddled with discrepancy. Who was this Sanada Yukimura?

Primarily inspired (mainly from curiosity) through the Kai Kokushi project found in the Translation section of this blog¹, I decided to take a shot at presenting the true face of Yukimura, as well as separating him from the fabled image that is currently predominant around the world. What I’ve found out, however, that this is a task that, in the very end would still have holes due to a lack of solid factual evidence, making it near impossible to paint a perfect picture. A plus to all this is understanding the situation enough where I can at least explain it where readers can discern just how difficult it is to claim what is historically real and what is fabricated through fiction.

In this 1st post of this 2-part discussion, we will touch upon the historical story regarding of the true Yukimura, the origins of the fictional Yukimura, and the proposed reasoning behind the name.

BRIEF LOOK AT THE LIFE OF NOBUSHIGE

Picture of Sanada Nobushige (Yukimura). From Wikipedia

To understand the legend of Sanada Yukimura is to learn about how historical sources view him. For starters, Sanada Yukimura’s actual name is said to be Nobushige (信繁). His active participation in war is often recited to be around 1600, when the Western forcess of the Toyotomi clan went to war against the Eastern forces of the Tokugawa clan for control over Japan during the “War at Sekigahara” (関ヶ原合戦, Sekigahara Gassen)². During this time he was fighting alongside his father, Sanada Masayuki while establishing a strong fortification in Ueda Castle on the side of the Toyotomi clan. Records point out that Nobushige and his father went into hiding at Kudoyama (九度山) in northern Wakayama prefecture after the Tokugawa-Eastern force came out victorious in the battle and had Masayuki exiled.

Many years later, Nobushige and his troops joined allies of the remaining Toyotomi clan to occupy Osaka Castle, as well as took part in the fighting against the Tokugawa shogunate that ensued afterwards, known as the Osaka Campaign (大阪の陣, Osaka no Jin) in 1614. Nobushige is said to have been a skilled strategist, as he performed effective tactics such as securing a weakpoint on the side of Osaka castle with his own fortification called “Sanada-maru” (真田丸), which proved to be near impenetrable. He also divided his troops into smaller squads around the battlefield and attacked their enemies from multiple directions, disrupting the opposite side’s advancements a few times. As talented as he was, however, in the long run Nobushige met his end during one of the smaller conflicts that took place during the war called “Battle at Mikatagahara” (三方ヶ原の戦い, Mikatagahara no Tatakai). It is recorded that while he was wounded and tired amongst a grove of trees, Nobushige was successfully killed and decapitated. The rest of his troops shared a similar fate.

Yet, there is much mystery surrounding his death as well, as there are claims that he had managed to escape to Satsuma province (present-day Kagoshima) through the use of many kagemusha (影武者, someone posing as a double of another). These kagemusha perished in battle posing as him³. This is a recent claim made in 1941 by researchers who came across the grave of one of Nobushige’s grandchildren in Kagoshima, who’s name was Sanada Daisuke (真田大助). Speaking of graves, supposedly Nobushige has many graves around certain areas in Japan; while this isn’t an unusual thing in Japan, a few of these are in areas where certain individuals claim he traveled abit during his escape before making his residence there. Of course, these claims are made during modern times.

Is it a possibility that one of these claims are true? Could it be that the myth created from the novels that portray Sanada Yukimura as a legendary figure was the inspiration for random people to devise such plans that support the notion of Nobushige having survived the Osaka campaign? This goes against the official report by the Tokugawa shogunate where, despite soldiers claiming to have brought back the head of this fearless warrior, they were able to confirm his death through using an acquaintance of the Sanada clan to identify the correct head of Nobushige.

Image of a newspaper article from 1941 regarding the discovery of a grave of Yukimura’s grandchild. From “Rekishi Kenkyu Unno“.

In the actual records before Nobushige’s untimely death, the name “Yukimura” doesn’t come up at all. However, it becomes widely used later. In reality, surviving records show that this figure is known by the name of Nobushige, along with other titles he took on during his military career⁴. While he is a recognized warrior of the Sanada clan, Nobushige’s military career is somewhat underwhelming. When comparing merits and achievements, it appears that a few of his predecessors accomplished more. For instance, his father Masayuki is a much more renown individual due to his illustrious career on and off the battlefield serving different lords, including his long time servitude under Takeda Shingen’s as one of his top 24 generals.

BIRTH OF “YUKIMURA”

When does the name “Yukimura” start to come into play? The earliest example is in the war chronicle “Nanba Senki”⁵ (難波戦記), which was written in 1672, years later after the Tokugawa Shogunate was well established and had complete rule over Japan. This covers the actual events that unfolded during the Osaka Campaign, told from the supportive side of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his allies. When it comes down to speaking about the Sanada clan and their forces, who were on the opposing side, the name used to identify Nobushige was not his real name, but “Yukimura” instead.

This trend continued, as the name Yukimura also appeared in other places, such as the official family registry for lords and their retainers called “Kanseichōshu Shokafu”(寛政重修諸家譜), the Sanada lineage & history compiled in Matsushiro district (present-day Matsushiro Town, Nagano), as well as fictional war novels such as “Chibō Sanada Yukimura” (智謀真田幸村) and “Sanada Sandaiki” (真田三代記). These were all written during the Edo period. The continuous use of this name gave many the perspective that this was the official name, thus the Yukimura tag further its inclusion in historical-related subjects, especially in pop culture. For example, fans of manga may be familiar with the heroic portrayal of Sanada Yukimura in “Goshimei Bushō Sanada Yukimura: Kageroi” (御指名武将真田幸村 かげろひ -KAGEROI-), or game enthusiasts may enjoy playing as him in the video series “Sengoku Basara” (戦国BASARA).

One would think through the evidence of Nobushige being his real name, that the current descendants or affiliates of the Sanada line would dispute this fabricated name being used as almost an official identification. Surprisingly, it appears that the name “Yukimura” has not only been accepted, but also promoted as well. As mentioned before, a Sanada lineage chart was officially released from Matsushiro domain many years ago. This was under the control of Sanada Nobuyuki (真田信之) & his descendants at one time, and they compiled this lineage chart which includes Yukimura⁶. It is possible that, due to the large recognition and popularity the name brings brings to the history of the Sanada clan, that they have “accepted” Yukimura being a nickname of Nobushige.

THE REASON BEHIND THE NAME

Why use “Yukimura” instead of “Nobushige”? It is not 100% confirmed, but there appears to be some logical patterns behind this. For starters, it is not unusual in Japanese documents of old to change a particular figure’s name if they were on the losing side. Doing so may imply some things, such as if they are viewed as significant or not, referencing the actual individual directly may be a taboo, or in order to take some creative liberties with their story. From another point, changing Nobushige’s name may indicate a little of each of what was just mentioned with the following explanation.

A historian by the name of Atobe Ban published a book entitled “Sanada Yukimura ‘Eiyū Densetsu no Uso to Shinjitsu'” (真田幸村 “英雄伝説のウソと真実”) in 2015. In this book, Mr. Atobe explains how Yukimura (幸村) is an acronym for certain traits of the Sanada clan that bears some weight depending on how one views it⁷. He does this by dissecting the name into separate components.

Cover of Atobe Ban’s book regarding the facts and fiction surrounding Sanada Yukimura

Taking the first character yuki (幸), the pronunciation is used for naming purposes. This character was originally used in the given name of different members of the Sanada family (such as Nobushige’s father, Masayuki), as well as the preceding clan they originate from, being the Unnō family. Bearing positive meanings such as “bountiful harvest”, “good fortune”, and “happiness”, it is no wonder why yuki would be an acceptable component in a given name. Yet, why wasn’t Nobushige named in a similar vein? Who knows. Possibly as a nod to this, the writer of Nanba Senki may have thought the same thing when conceiving the name Yukimura.

Now for the last character mura (村). This character is in reference to the Muramasa (村正), a type of sword forged in the style by the famous swordsmith named Sengo Muramasa (千子村正). There are supposedly 2 theories why “mura” is used, but they arrive to the same conclusion.

  • The 1st one is that Nobushige, his troops, and even possibly other members of the Sanada clan used the Muramasa (村正) swords as their preferred style of blades. While there is no proof regarding this, it is one that is also not unreasonable. Muramasa swords are known for their sharpness, to the point that they would cut and harm everything and everyone indiscriminately…including the wielder (more on this in the 2nd theory). For the sake of war, these types of swords were ideal and sought after. Between the late 1400s to throughout the 1500s the Muramasa swords were massed produced and said to have been used by many throughout Japan. It would make sense that the Sanada clan would also add this to their equipment.
  • The 2nd theory spurs from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s superstition regarding the Muramasa swords. It is stated that from his youth onward, he had repeated bad experiences with these popular swords, despite the fact that it was originally a favorite in the Tokugawa household. At one time, when inspecting this type of sword, he had cut himself when drawing out this blade from its scabbard. As he got older he viewed the Muramasa to be bad luck to him and his family line, as he saw it having the possibility of bringing his family line doom. Once establishing his reign over Japan, it is said that Ieyasu ordered these Muramasa swords banned, and to have them be dismantled. Now, seeing how strongly he was against this type of sword, you can imagine how this can be applied to those who were his enemies and how they willingly armed themselves with Muramasa swords. Interestingly, it is recorded that the Sanada clan were extremely difficult to defeat due to their unconventional battle tactics and their resourcefulness. Ieyasu and his allies had many difficulties with subduing them during the battle at Sekigahara and Osaka Campaign. You can say that Nobushige (Yukimura) was like the Muramasa, as he was a thorn in the side of Tokugawa Ieyasu that could not be overlooked.

CONCLUSION

Now that a clearer picture of who the real Yukimura/Nobushige was, we’ll end part 1 here. While there is a definitive record of who he was up until his speculated death, in actuality there are some things that remain unclear due to a lack of proper documentation, as well as claims made by Sanada supporters. Part 2 will continue with looking at the fictional Yukimura, traits and items that are iconic to him, and how they may have been inspired by real life evidence associated with Nobushige.


1) You can access it by clicking on the “Translations” tab from the menu above, or you can go directly to the Kai Kokushi page here.

2) In actuality, Nobushige was active much earlier than this. Since 1592 he, his brother, and father were serving Toyotomi Hideyoshi, handling different tasks over the years such as managing Nagoya Castle in Bizen Province (present-day Saga Prefecture), taking part in the construction of Fukumi Castle in Kyoto, and occupying Ueda Castle in Nagano Prefecture.

3) Out of these kagemusha, 5 have been identified. Their names are Mochizuki Yoemon (望月宇右衛門), Yamada Kichibei (山田喜知平), Anayama Kosuke (穴山小助), Takabashi Shikibu (高橋式部) and Anayama Ichiemon (穴山市右衛門).

4) These names include Genjirō (源次郎), Saemon-no-suke (左衛門助), and Kōhakusai (好白斎)

5) Another name for this is “Osaka Gunki” (大阪軍記)

6) Some writers such as Hirayama Masaru wrote about this point. Originally, Sanada descendants in Matsushiro domain compiled “Sanada-ke Bunsho” (真田家文書, Records of the Sanada Family), which included a lineage chart. Within this only the name “Nobushige” was used. At a later date, this was converted to “Sanada-ke Keifu” (真田家系譜, Genealogy of the Sanada Family), which would include the name “Yukimura”. These were both produced during the Edo period.

It appears that these descendants accept the “Yukimura” name as being used for Nobushige after the Osaka Campaign. That doesn’t necessarily mean they believe Nobushige himself used it himself.

7) Apparently there is another way to write the name. In relations to the news report about the discover of his grandchild’s grave in Kagoshima made in 1941, supposedly a gravesite for Yukimura was also found. On the headstone the name “Yukimura” is on it, but using the characters “雪丸”. These characters may have been used to keep his grave hidden…that is, if this story is true.