Matsunaga Hisahide: Villain of the Warring States?

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Matsunaga Hisahide as he appears in the anime ‘Sengoku BASARA: Samurai Kings’

This Matsunaga guy… He’s known as the Villain of the Warring States but he hasn’t been doing anything.”

This quote comes from Saratobi Sasuke in the middle of the seventh episode of Sengoku BASARA: Samurai Kings first season.(1) I have often thought about this quote and it has made me wonder: Is Matsunaga Hisahide as villainous as he has been portrayed? 

Matsunaga Hisahide was a notorious figure from the Sengoku Jidai, who held power in Kyōto and Yamato Province. He was a well known schemer and is remembered for his assassination of the shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru, the destruction of the Tōdaiji Temple and his betrayal against Oda Nobuanga which resulted in his famous and fiery death.(2) He is viewed by many historians as a villain but I believe Matsunaga is not this villainous figure. In order for me to explain my reasoning on this, I will talk about Matsunaga’s life and debunk some common misconceptions about the man. These misconceptions have lead to this idea that Matsunaga was this cruel man, when in reality, he was no different than other samurai who lived during this era.

The Life of Matsunaga Hisahide

Woodblock painting of Matsunaga Hisahide destroying the tea kettle, Hiragumo, painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Matsunaga Hisahide (1510-1577), sometimes known as Matsunaga Danjō Hisahide, is a bit of a mysterious figure. We do not know much about his childhood and early years, but he is first mentioned in most sources serving under the Miyoshi clan by 1540.(3) It is unclear if he was governor of Kyōto by this point or not, for once source does state that he became governor of the capital city as early as 1529.(4) He served under Miyoshi Chōkei, who was a childhood friend. Along with the Miyoshi, Matsunaga went on a campaign to take over Yamato Province. By the 1560s, Matsunaga began his takeover of the Miyoshi clan. Between 1561 and 1564, it is said that Matsunaga was responsible for the deaths of three of Chōkei’s brothers and his son and heir to the Miyoshi, Yoshioki.(5) When Chōkei died in August 1564, Matsunaga was the one left in power over the Miyoshi. There was one younger heir to the Miyoshi, Yoshitsugu, who was left in the care of the “Miyoshi Triumvirate”: Miyoshi Nagayasu, Miyoshi Masayasa, and Tomoichi Iwanari.(6) Even though he distrusted them, Matsunaga used their power to help gain more for himself.

In 1565, Ashikaga Yoshiteru (1536-1565), the 13th Ashikaga shōgun, wanted to break free from the grasp of the Miyoshi and Matsunaga clans who held power in Kyōto. On June 17, 1565, Yoshiteru was cornered in the capital by Matsunaga and the Miyoshi clan and committed seppuku. It was after this betrayal in Kyōto that the Miyoshi clan and Matsunaga would have an off again, on again alliance. For the next couple of years, the two clans waged war in Yamato, sometimes with each other, sometimes together, facing a common enemy. During this entire time, Matsunaga Hisahide still held power in the capital. In 1567, it is said that Matsunaga burned and looted the Great Buddha Hall, Tōdaiji, in Nara, an act that was condemned by all in Japan.(7) When Oda Nobunaga arrived in Kyōto in 1568, Matsunaga fled the capital originally. He would later surrender to Nobunaga and presented him “Hatsuhana”, a tea caddy which is known to be a tsukumogami, an antique Chinese vessel that are believed to be possessed by spirits.(8)

Under Nobunaga’s command, Matsunaga made himself useful. He continued his war with the Miyoshi clan, which now had the backing of the Oda clan. He also helped Nobunaga retreat at the Battle of Anegawa, which he and Tokugawa Ieyasu believed that was the best option. To avoid the Azai army, a friend of Matsunaga’s sent a local guide to help them get through the mountains.(9) Nevertheless, Matsunaga Hisahide still wanted power for himself and was not satisfied with serving under Nobunaga.

Matsunaga conspired against Nobunaga twice. The first was when the new shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, called on some of the most powerful clans to help stop Nobunaga, Matsunaga was allied with Takeda Shingen, on the promise that he would help Matsunaga regain his influence in Kyōto. This plan fell through due to the death of Shingen and the Ashikaga shogunate dissolved.(10)

Matsunaga then betrayed Nobunaga during the siege of Ishiyama Honganji. Nobunaga sent his eldest son, Nobutada, and Tsutsui Junkei to Shigisan Castle. Nobunaga offered Matsunaga to surrender willingly under one condition: Matsunaga would hand over “Hiragumo”, a tea kettle that Matsunaga highly prized. Matsunaga refused and Nobunaga had Hisahide’s two youngest sons crucified at Rokujogawara, an execution ground on the banks of the Kamogawa in Kyōto.(11) Matsunaga then killed himself either by means of seppuku or blowing himself up with the famous Hiragumo tea kettle. Another theory on his death is that he killed himself and ordered for his head to be destroyed along with Hiragumo. Shigisan went up in flames and the siege lasted only ten days.(12) The people in Kyōto apparently celebrated Matsunaga’s death with three days of sake drinking.(13) A grave is all that remains of Matsunaga Hisahide today, located in Daruma-ji Temple, Oji-cho, Nara.(14)

Reexamining the “Villain”

New portrait of Matsunaga Hisahide found in March 2020*

Matsunaga Hisahide has been portrayed as a villain for many years. Many point to three specific things that make him this so-called villain: the murders of the Miyoshi heirs, the assassination of Ashikaga Yoshiteru, and lastly, the destruction of Tōdaiji. Are they credible?

Starting with the murders, let me start by saying that none of them have been confirmed to have been done by Matsunaga personally. Considering that by the time all these deaths have taken place, Matsunaga became the most powerful man within the Miyoshi clan, it is easy to see how many people believe that he was responsible for all the deaths. Some recent explanations for a couple of the deaths was a fatal injury from a fall from a horse to illness.(15) It is also possible that Matsunaga managed to convince Chōkei to kill another brother of his, but this brother was struggling with Chōkei to gain control of the Miyoshi clan.(16) At least to me, this does not seem any different than Nobunaga ordering the death of his younger brother, Nobuyuki, to gain control of the Oda clan after their father’s passing. Family members killing each other and people betraying their lords or using them for more power was not such an uncommon thing, so I am not too sure why Matsunaga is being vilified for doing what most people did during this age. This can also be tied into the assassination of Ashikaga Yoshiteru.

Matsunaga Hisahide’s major claim to fame is that he assassinated the thirteenth Ashikaga shōgun, Yoshiteru. While Matsunaga did conspire with Miyoshi Yoshitsugu to assassinate the shōgun, he did not personally lead the attack on the shōgun’s residence in Kyōto. That honor went to Miyoshi Yoshitsugu and Matsunaga’s son, Matsunaga Hisamichi.(17) At this point, the Ashikaga clan were puppets to whoever held control of the capital during this time, which happened to be the Miyoshi clan. While Yoshiteru was trying to shake off the strings and reestablish the Ashikaga Shogunate, the Miyoshi saw this as a threat when it came to their influence over him, which led to his assassination. While this could be seen as villainous, this allowed for Oda Nobunaga to take further steps towards reunification under the guise of restoring the Ashikaga Shogunate, which would ultimately fail, but in the end, paved the way for reunification under Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Lastly is the second burning of the Great Buddha Hall, known as Tōdaiji. For years, the burning of this great temple has been traced back to Matsunaga Hisahide, but no one can give a reason to why Matsunaga burned down Tōdaiji. Now, we have gotten the truth. The temple was actually burned by a zealous Christian samurai that served under the Miyoshi clan, who were then at war with Matsunaga in 1567.(18) This account comes from Luís Fróis, the Portuguese missionary who kept a detailed account of events in Japan during his time there. In the process of vilifying a man who has not done anything, was wrongfully accused of doing something, or was just doing what most people did, history has nearly forgotten the achievements Matsunaga Hisahide accomplished during his lifetime.

Matsunaga Hisahide’s Lesser Known History

Screenshot of Matsunaga Hisahide in the video game ‘Nioh’

While Matsunaga is portrayed as a villain, he has made some interesting contributions to the architectural and Christian worlds. It is noted that Matsunaga Hisahide constructed Tamon Castle in 1567. While nothing of it remains today, sources claim that it is the first Japanese castle to have a tower keep. Only a few of these types of castles remain in Japan from the sixteenth century today.(19)

His work with Christianity goes deeper. While Matsunaga was not a Christian, he inadvertently helped Christianity spread across Japan. As a devout Buddhist from the Nichiren sect, he was not fond of the Christians who began arriving in Kyōto during the 1560s. While they were given a pardon to preach in Kyōto by Yoshiteru, Matsunaga, who was still the governor of the city, was getting complaints from the Buddhist priests wanting the Christians removed from Kyōto. Even Matsunaga’s retainers backed the Buddhists. One of Matsunaga’s retainers, Takayama Zusho, proposed an idea to him. Zusho said that a study should be done to determine if the Christian preaching went against the Japanese religions and remove the missionaries heads if that proved to be the case. Matsunaga agreed to this and got two of the best minds of the era to look into the matter. In the early summer of 1563, an astronomer named Yūki Yamashiro no Kami Todamasa, and a Confucian scholar, Kiyohara Ekata, began their research on Christianity and it produced an outcome Matsunaga was less than thrilled about. At the end of their investigation, both scholars asked to be baptized. Takayama Zusho would follow suit with his son, Takayama Ukon, who would centuries later, be on the path to sainthood in the Catholic Church. This victory for the missionaries was short lived, for after Yoshiteru’s assassination, one of the first things Matsunaga did was ban the Christians from the capital.(20)

That would not be the last time he would have to deal with them, though. In 1567, Shibata Katsuie was sent by Nobunaga to defeat Matsunaga at Sakai, a battle which happened to fall on Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Father Luís Fróis confronted the generals on both sides, asking them to set aside their differences and join him to celebrate the Eucharist. Surprisingly, both armies answered the Father’s call and both sides celebrated the Blessed Sacrament. The battle was fought the next day, ending in Matsunaga retreating from Sakai.(21)

Villain of the Warring States?

Screenshot of Matsunaga Hisahide holding Hiragumo in the upcoming ‘Samurai Warriors 5’

In pop culture, we are given the same narrative that history has given us for so long. They continue with idea that Matsunaga Hisahide was one of the worst figures to come from the Sengoku Jidai. As more information comes to light, however, I do not believe that is the case for him. He acted like most people did in this era, scheming in the shadows to put his clan in a better position. He managed to gain control of the Miyoshi clan and with the death of Yoshiteru, he managed to regain control of Kyōto. We know now that he was not responsible for the destruction of Tōdaiji, but rather was blamed for the destruction for generations. We have overlooked his architectural work and how he inadvertently furthered Christian expansion within Japan. In truth, Matsunaga Hisahide was said to be a handsome man who was a patron of the arts and a lover of the tea ceremony. Unfortunately, historians and even pop culture references still portray him as a villain despite that he is one of many who took part in the phenomenon known as gekokujō. I believe that history needs to reexamine Matsunaga Hisahide, not as a villain, but as one of the gekokujō pioneers of the age.

Sources

  1. Opening quote is from Sengoku BASARA: Samurai Kings Season 1, Episode 7, time stamp 10:52-10:59. Spoke by Saratobi Sasuke, English Dub.
  2. For more information on the manner of his death, click here.
  3. Hall, John Whitney (edit.), The Cambridge History of Japan Vol. 4: Early Modern Japan (2006), p. 319
  4. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), p. 58
  5. “Matsunaga Hisahide”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matsunaga_Hisahide, (last visited 5/17/2021)
  6. “Hisahide Matsunaga”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Hisahide_Matsunaga, (last visited 5/17/2021)
  7. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 139
  8. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), pp. 144-145
  9. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 164
  10. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 177
  11. “Matsunaga Hisahide—Japanese Wiki Corpus”, https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/person/Hisahide%20MATSUNAGA.html, (last visited 5/22/2021)
  12. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 238
  13. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 238
  14. “Matsunaga Hisahide”, https://samurai-world.com/matsunaga-hisahide/, (last visited 5/22/2021)
  15. “Matsunaga Hisahide—Japanese Wiki Corpus”, https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/person/Hisahide%20MATSUNAGA.html, (last visited 5/22/2021)
  16. “Matsunaga Hisahide—Japanese Wiki Corpus”, https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/person/Hisahide%20MATSUNAGA.html, (last visited 5/22/2021)
  17. “Ashikaga Yoshiteru”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashikaga_Yoshiteru, (last visited 5/22/2021)
  18. Ōta, Gyūichi. The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga (2011), p. 272
  19. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), p. 164
  20. Hall, John Whitney (edit.)The Cambridge History of Japan Vol. 4: Early Modern Japan (2006)p. 319-320
  21. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 154

*Shoutout to Dr. Paula Curtis for translating and summarizing the original Japanese article, making this information available for followers on Twitter: https://twitter.com/paularcurtis/status/1235193817411858435?s=27, (still on Twitter as of 5/22/2021). Original article in Japanese: https://www.sankei.com/west/news/200304/wst2003040024-n1.html, (last visited 5/22/2021)