Matsunaga Hisahide

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Kanji: 松永 久秀

Dates: 1510-1577

Other Known Names: Matsunaga Sotai; Matsunaga Danjō Hisahide


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Matsunaga Hisahide was a notorious figure from the Sengoku period, who held power in Kyōto and Yamato Province. Considered to be a villain of the era by most historians today, he was a well-known schemer and is most famously known for his assassination of the thirteenth Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiteru in 1565. While he served the Miyoshi clan, Matsunaga held most of the power in the clan after many different assassinations happened within the clan. Despite how he is portrayed in most works of fiction, it is said that Matsunaga was actually a tall and handsome man who was a patron for the arts.

Matsunaga Hisahide’s early years are unknown, but he is first mentioned in most sources serving under the Miyoshi clan by 1540. It is unclear if he was governor of Kyōto by this point or not (one source states that he was governor in 1529). He served under Miyoshi Chōkei, who was a childhood friend of Matsunaga’s. Along with the Miyoshi, Matsunaga went on a campaign to take over Yamato Province. By the 1560s, Matsunaga started 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 (Kazunari in 1561, Jikkyu in 1562, and Atagi Fuyuyasu in 1564) and his son and heir (Yoshioki in 1563). When Chōkei died in August 1564, Matsunaga was the one left in power over the Miyoshi. There was one young heir to the Miyoshi, Yoshitsugu, who was left in the care of the “Miyoshi Triumvirate”: Miyoshi Nagayasu, Miyoshi Masayasa, and Tomoichi Iwanari. Even though he distrusted them, Matsunaga used their power to help gain more for himself.

In 1565, Ashikaga Yoshiteru 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 went separate ways. For the next couple of years, the two clans waged a war in Yamato, but Matsunaga still held power in Kyōto. During this, in 1567, Matsunaga burned and looted the Great Buddha Hall, Tōdaiji in Nara, an act that was condemned by all in Japan. Oda Nobunaga arrived in the capital in 1568, and Matsunaga ended up fleeing. 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.

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 to be the best option. To avoid the Azai army, a friend of Matsunaga’s sent a local guide to help them get through the mountains. Nevertheless, Matsunaga Hisahide still wanted power for himself and was not satisfied serving under Nobunaga.

Matsunaga Hisahde did conspire against Nobunaga twice. When the new shōgun, 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 apart due to the death of Takeda Shingen and the removal of Yoshiaki from the throne in 1573.

Matsunaga then betrays Nobunaga during the siege of 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. 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 ten days. Matsunaga Hisahide’s son, Kojirō, even died in a dramtic manner. Kojirō died the same day as his father by committing suicide by thrusting his sword through his throat and jumping off the castle wall with Hisahide’s head in hand, which was cut off by Kojirō himself. Matsunaga Hisamichi was captured alive and was executed in Kyōto. The people in Kyōto celebrated Matsunaga Hisahide’s death with three days of sake drinking.

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 a castle in 1567, Tamon. While nothing remains of it 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.

His work with Christianity goes deeper. Matsunaga was not a Christian, but a Buddhist from the Nichiren sect. He was not fond of the Christians who came into Kyōto during the 1560s. While they were given a pardon to preach in Kyōto by the shōgun, Yoshiteru, Mastunaga, who was still governor at this time, was getting complaints from the Buddhist priests, wanting them removed from the city. Matsunaga’s retainers were also backing the Buddhists, but Takayama Zusho, the father of Blessed Takayama Ukon, asked for Matsunaga to determine if the Christian preaching went against the Japanese religions and to remove their heads if that happened to be the case. In the early summer of 1563, Matsunaga got the best minds of the day, an astronomer named Yūki Yamashiro no Kami Todamasa, and a Confucian scholar, Kiyohara Ekata to examine the Christian teachings. It was an outcome that Matsunaga was less than thrilled about. Both scholars, at the end of their investigation, asked to be baptized. Takayama Zusho would follow suit. After he assassinates Yoshiteru, Matsunaga bans Jesuits from the capital.

Matsunaga Hisahide would meet up with the Christians after his flight from Kyōto 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 Luis Fróis confronted the gerenals 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.

A grave is all that remains of Matsunaga Hisahide today, located in Daruma-ji Temple, Oji-cho, Nara.