Friday 14 June 2019

Intrigue, Treachery and Betrayal at the Japanese Court - by Lesley Downer

The neglected wife - Lady Tsukiyama

In 1578 a scandal ripped through the princedom of Mikawa, domain of Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu was 36 at the time and had recently snapped up the neighbouring domain of Totomi, so his power was growing - but it was as nothing compared to that of his neighbour, the fiery warlord Oda Nobunaga (whom I'll call Oda to keep things clear).

This is the story of the terrible fate of Ieyasu’s first wife.

The great lord - Lord Imagawa Yoshimoto
Wives of the Warlords III
Lady Tsukiyama’s Treachery 
Like all women of high class in those days Lady Tsukiyama had been married to Ieyasu in a political marriage to cement the alliance between the Houses of Imagawa and Tokugawa. She was just 15 and he was 14. At the time Ieyasu was a hostage in the House of Imagawa. She however was the niece of the great Lord Imagawa Yoshimoto himself. Perhaps she thought she’d been demeaned by being married off to a miserable hostage.

After Ieyasu was released they lived in Okazaki Castle, the capital of Mikawa. She bore him a son and heir, Nobuyasu, and a daughter. But after 13 years of marriage, when Ieyasu took over the neighbouring territory of Totomi in 1570 and moved to Hamamatsu Castle, he left her in Okazaki and surrounded himself with concubines (nineteen, to be precise).

Just three years had passed since Ieyasu and his powerful neighbour and ally, Oda, had inflicted a massive defeat on Lord Takeda Katsuyori at the Battle of Nagashino. Katsuyori retreated to his snowbound castle in the northern land of Kai and plotted to wrest back control of Japan.

Using a Chinese doctor as her conduit, so the story goes, Lady Tsukiyama smuggled a letter or letters - some say as many as twelve - to Katsuyori asking for help. She begged him to have her husband and Oda killed, take her son Nobuyasu under his protection, make him lord of the old Tokugawa territory, and find her a new husband from among his generals. In exchange she would betray her husband and Oda - perhaps send a signal to Katsuyori at a time when Ieyasu would be at his most vulnerable, when he was planning to be away from the castle.
The enemy: Takeda Katsuyori

Katsuyori, so the story goes, replied. He promised to give Nobuyasu one of Oda’s provinces (which by then he would have captured) and to marry Lady Tsukiyama to one of his generals who was a widower. Delighted with this answer, Lady Tsukiyama prepared to flee the castle for Katsuyori’s camp.

A case of fake news ...? 
Sharp eyes will have noticed some holes in this story.

For a start, why would Lady Tsukiyama want to take such an extraordinarily foolhardy course which risked punishment by death if it was discovered? Was she jealous of all those concubines, angry at being left behind in Okazaki Castle, or was it just general bad temper? And how precisely did she plan to betray her husband given that they lived in different castles, nearly 70 kilometres apart, a long day’s walk on foot (which was how people travelled in those days)? It’s said that Lady Tsukiyama wrote the letters in order to secure a future for her son. But he was Ieyasu’s recognised heir. He already had a future.

In fact the story only became widely known and accepted as fact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, long after all the protagonists were dead and the truth could never be discovered.

So how did the story come to light?

The Daughter-in-Law’s Revenge
Lady Tsukiyama's son, Nobuyasu
Lady Tsukiyama doted on her son, Nobuyasu. He had been engaged to Oda’s daughter, Princess Toku, when they were both 4 years old. They were married 4 years later to seal the alliance between their fathers. But even though it was a political marriage they’d grown to love each other. All three - Lady Tsukiyama and her son and daughter-in-law - lived together in Okazaki Castle.

In due course Princess Toku had two daughters but no son. Lady Tsukiyama was clearly not fond of Princess Toku; maybe she thought she’d supplanted her in her son’s affections. She urged Nobuyasu to take a concubine so as to produce a son and ensure the succession. She even found one for him and presented her to him.

Princess Toku was incandescent.

Two Sisters
Oda had secretly installed two young sisters in Okazaki Castle to protect and spy for his daughter, Princess Toku. The older served as one of Lady Tsukiyama’s maids, the younger as one of Princess Toku’s. According to the story, the older maid was rifling through Lady Tsukiyama’s appurtenances when she found the incriminating letters to Katsuyori. It does seem a little odd, however, for her to have found them if they had already been sent.

The older maid told her sister who told Princess Toku. Princess Toku, no doubt bursting with glee, wrote to her father, Oda, revealing everything. According to one version of the story she forwarded the incriminating letters to him. One account says there were twelve, another that she added a list of twelve crimes committed by Nobuyasu and her mother-in-law against her.

The Messenger 
Warlord of warlords:
Oda Nobunaga by Giovanni Nicolao
The messenger who carried the letter to Oda was one of Ieyasu’s most trusted vassals, Sakai Tadatsugu. When Oda read the letter he could hardly believe it. He interrogated the messenger, asking him if he knew anything about these crimes. Sakai said the letters were genuine and confirmed ten out of the twelve crimes listed. Oda, Princess Toku's father, had to conclude that the accusations must be true if Sakai confirmed them. And that meant that Ieyasu’s son Nobuyasu really had been plotting against him.

It seems Nobuyasu had a terrible temper and had fallen out with Sakai over a woman, so Sakai bore him a grudge. Perhaps Sakai didn’t realise what the full implication of confirming Princess Toku’s allegations would be - and perhaps Princess Toku didn’t either.

The Terrible Consequences
On the 4th day of the 8th month of 1578 Oda sent Sakai Tadatsugu with a message for Ieyasu that his son Nobuyasu was not fit to be the governor of any province. If he was not eliminated now, Oda warned, he would do great harm in the future. He ordered Ieyasu to execute his own son forthwith.

Ieyasu was devastated. But he couldn’t afford to go against Oda's orders. Their alliance was all-important. Poor Nobuyasu, who was only 20, vehemently denied all the allegations. But Oda insisted. In the end Ieyasu had to order Nobuyasu to commit seppuku - to kill himself by cutting open his own belly.

Ieyasu said, ‘I have been looking forward to having him succeed me. It is a disgrace and a pity to let him die so young. But having this formidable enemy, Katsuyori, we cannot do without Oda’s help.’
Okazaki Castle

Nobuyasu’s retainers were devastated. Several offered to die in the young man’s place. But Oda  would not be mollified.

The only thing we know for sure, that is preserved in the historical record, is that Oda commanded Nobuyasu’s death and Ieyasu had to obey. It’s said that Ieyasu loved and trusted his son and ordered his death with the greatest of grief and remorse. But at this point ensuring the survival of the Tokugawa clan was more important than saving his son’s life.

Nobuyasu committed suicide on the 15th day of the 10th month of 1579 at the age of twenty. Ieyasu often spoke of his grief over his son’s death.

As for Lady Tsukiyama, in the end she was just collateral damage. Oda did not order her death and neither did Ieyasu. After all, she was just a woman. But Ieyasu’s retainers understood what they had to do. On the 29th day of the 8th month of 1579, a month before her beloved son’s death, she was killed by either one or two retainers, according to one account. Another version is that she drowned herself, yet another that she committed suicide by slashing her own throat.

It seems totally obvious that Lady Tsukiyama didn’t write any letters. Princess Toku made the whole thing up in order to spite her mother-in-law. But the consequence was that she accidentally brought about her own husband’s death and robbed Ieyasu of his first son and heir.

As for Ieyasu, he fathered another heir and went on to found a dynasty of shoguns that was to last for the next 250 years.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale of love, death, plots and subterfuge in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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