Thursday 14 March 2019

Trouble at t'Palace - by Lesley Downer

There’s a fable that every Japanese schoolchild knows. Three men are watching a nightingale, waiting to hear its beautiful song. But the nightingale stubbornly refuses to sing. What are they going to do about it? 

‘Kill it,’ says Nobunaga.

‘Make it want to sing,’ says Hideyoshi.

‘Wait,’ says Ieyasu. ‘Wait till it sings of its own accord.’

Lady No - portrait in Gifu Castle
Nobunaga, lord of the Oda clan, Hideyoshi of the Toyotomi and Ieyasu of the Tokugawa were three rival warlords who sought to unify Japan in the second half of the sixteenth century, when the country was torn apart with endless civil wars. They all lived at the same time and all knew each other.

They were all brilliant generals. Nobunaga was dashing, fearless and brutal; Hideyoshi wily, brilliant and able to argue himself out of any situation, no matter how desperate; and Ieyasu stolid, calculating and very very patient. You can guess which one won in the end.

Each of them had a formidable woman behind him - whether on his side or against him.

In those days young people of high rank were invariably married off in political marriages, either to an ally to cement an alliance or to an enemy warlord to make peace. If it was the latter, there might be a lethal shifting of alliances and you’d have to choose between your father or your husband.
Oda Nobunaga, depicted by the
Jesuit missionary Giovanni
Nicolao. Portrait commissioned 
and approved by Nobunaga

Wives of the Warlords, Part I

Lady No, the Princess of Mino

It’s probably never a good idea to marry your enemy’s daughter, especially if that enemy is the Viper of Mino. But that’s what happened to Nobunaga. In 1549 his father married him off to Kicho, Lady No’s name as a girl, when he was 14 and she was 13. The idea was to broker a shaky peace with Dosan of the Saito clan. Dosan had started life as an oil merchant, then murdered the daimyo of his province, Mino, and taken over his lands, mountaintop fortress and wife, which was why he was known as the Viper.

On their wedding day 14 year old Nobunaga declared that his bride had ‘the mind of a genius and the appearance of a goddess’. She was reputedly a prodigy in swordsmanship and the martial arts. You had to be able to take care of yourself in those days. She was basically a ‘hostage wife’ in that she lived in the Odas’ castle and could be disposed of if there was trouble.

Nobunaga dancing
The Oda clan were the lords of Owari, directly north of Mino, so naturally the two clans were deadly enemies and spent a lot of their time setting each others’ villages afire, seizing land from each other and having pitched battles. There were suspicions that Kicho, the Princess of Mino, had been planted not just in the family but in Nobunaga’s bed so that she could plot against him, spy on him or murder him, depending.

The Idiot Lord
The following year Nobunaga’s father died and he became lord. Nobunaga was known as the Idiot Lord because of his propensity to play the fool.

Lady No’s father, Saito Dosan, famously arranged a meeting with Nobunaga to size him up. He then hid in a peasant’s hut and spied on him as he was approaching the meeting place in the middle of a huge entourage. Nobunaga looked like a slovenly fool, lolling on his horse with a messy topknot, with amulets dangling from his belt and leopard and tiger skins tossed over his saddle. Dosan must have smirked to himself. There’d be no problems with this one. He was clearly an idiot.

But before the formal meeting Nobunaga said he needed time to change. When he reappeared he was transformed from a carefree youth into a stern-faced daimyo, with a perfectly oiled topknot and crisp hakama skirts.

Official portrait of Oda Nobunaga
Dosan realised that Nobunaga had decided it was to his advantage to play the fool. Given that his daughter was a hostage in Nobunaga’s castle, it’s said that from this point on he gave up all thought of invading Owari.

Daughter of the Viper

Lady No being the ‘daughter of the viper’, there were ongoing suspicions that she was at the very least passing information to her father. Once he became lord Nobunaga took to creeping out of their bedchamber in the middle of night and staying away till dawn. Eventually Lady No asked him what he was doing. Was he seeing another woman?

After much persuasion he confessed that he was in touch with two of her father’s closest retainers. They had said they would kill her father, then light a signal for him so that he could invade with a huge army and take over Mino province. He was up every night till dawn watching out for the signal.

Having confessed he swore her to secrecy but naturally she found a way to get a message to her father - proof that she was indeed in communication with him. Her father, hearing the news, had his faithful elders executed. Nobunaga’s story was of course all lies. Having lost his faithful retainers her father was much weakened.
The Saito family castle in Mino that Oda Nobunaga 
took over and renamed Gifu Castle

The Leper Lord 

The other kink in Kicho’s family was that her father and brother hated each other. Her father, possibly suffering from a guilty conscience, suspected that her brother was not his but the son of the murdered late daimyo, whose wife Dosan had married.

In the end there was a huge battle between them and Lady No’s father, Dosan, was killed. The son, Yoshitatsu, was struck down by leprosy shortly afterwards, obviously in judgement for the unnatural act of killing his own father, and was thenceforth known as the Leper Lord.

The Concubine

All of which gave Nobunaga an excellent excuse to invade, avenge his father-in-law and ‘liberate’ the land of Mino, which he did in 1567.

As for progeny, Lady No never had a child. Eight years after their marriage, Nobunaga met and fell in love with a lady called Kitsuno of the Ikoma family. He took her as his concubine and they had two sons and a daughter but then she died at the age of 29. It’s said that Nobunaga mourned her through the night and had her status upgraded to a second wife so that her children could be his heirs. His son Nobutada was given to Lady No to be raised. 

Nobunaga trying to fend off his attackers at Honnoji Temple, Kyoto
The Traitor

In 1582, when Nobunaga was 48, he was attacked by one of his own generals turned traitor. He and his son were killed and the temple where they were staying in Kyoto burnt to the ground. 

Shortly afterwards a veiled lady slipped away from Nobunaga’s castle, Azuchi Castle, in the middle of the night. Lady No was never seen again. It was said that she stayed in hiding as wars raged and died in 1612.

All this presaged a new period in Japan’s epic history - which revolves around central Japan and the very city where I used to live, Gifu! Stay tuned for more.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 


Ruan Peat said...

oh this so lets you wonder what happened to her, she would have been 47 a year younger than her husband when he died, I hope she did well quietly!
One of my childhood joys was a book that didn't tie up all the ends, where I could dream about what happened next to a character I had come to love while reading!

Marjorie said...

Fascinating! It sounds like a very interesting period, and she sounds like an extraordinary person.

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you both! History has it that after Nobunaga's death, his womenfolk and female servants were sent to Azuchi Castle, which had been his residence. Among them was a Lady Azuchi, who was taken in by Nobunaga's second son, Nobukatsu (the first son having been killed with Nobunaga). This Lady Azuchi was widely believed to be Lady No in disguise. Soon afterwards she slipped away from Azuchi Castle in the night. It's said that after that she was taken care of by her adopted son Nobukatsu until he was defeated and killed by Hideyoshi, then was taken care of by the Toyotomi clan until she died in 1612, when she was 77. But it's all supposition.
Much enjoying digging into this new period!