Naoe Kanetsugu: Defender of the Uesugi

Painting of Naoe Kanetsugu

Naoe Kanetsugu was a retainer to the Uesugi clan, who served both Kenshin and his adopted son, Kagekatsu. He is well-known for fighting against Date Masamune in the north during the Sekigahara Campaign and writing a letter to Tokugawa Ieyasu just shortly before one of the last campaigns of the era. He is credited for keeping the Uesugi name alive after the rise of the Tokugawa.

Born in 1559 in Echigo, he was the eldest son of Higuchi Kanemoto, who was an influential vassal of Uesugi Kenshin’s father, Nagao Masakage.(1) In 1564, he became Kenshin’s page and during that time, he was noticed by Naoe Kagetsuna and was adopted into the Naoe Family. Kanetsugu served in minor administrative duties for both the Uesugi and Naoe clans until he became Uesugi Kagekatsu’s aide three years later.(2)

When Uesugi Kenshin died in 1578, the clan split over succession disputes, leading to a civil war within the clan that would be called Otate no Ran.(3) During this civil war, Naoe Kanetsugu sided with Uesugi Kagekatsu. The civil war only lasted a year, with Kagekatsu as the victor. They had many problems after the civil war, mainly due to Oda Nobunaga taking advantage of the chaos that followed after the death of the proclaimed God of War. Nobunaga was almost successful in wiping out the Uesugi clan, however, he was assassinated at Honnōji before he could complete his mission.(4)

Before Nobunaga’s death, Naoe Kanetsuna lost his son, Naoe Kagetaka. He was murdered along with another strategist, Yamazaki Shiyusen by a man named Mōri Hidehiro.(5) Kagetaka left behind a wife, Osen no Kata, who became Kanetsugu’s wife after her husband’s death, making Kanetsugu the heir to the Naoe clan. This marriage is one of a very small number of monogamous relationships during this era, as there are no records of Kanetsugu taking on a concubine.(6)

The Uesugi clan became allies with the Toyotomi clan after participating in the battles against Shibata Katsuie after the death of Nobunaga. Kanetsugu participated in many battles along the Sea of Japan, and would fight during the Odawara Campaign, taking part in the bloodbath that was Hachiōji Castle.(7)

During the peace that followed from the successful Odawara Campaign, Kanetsugu focused on the prosperity of Echigo. He helped improve the lands for agriculture, gave farmers more rights, encouraged trade and commerce and began growing ramie for clothing.(8) The gold mines of Echigo were handed over to Hideyoshi and Kanetsugu was promoted to magistrate. In return for the mines, Hideyoshi granted the Uesugi clan the lands of Aizu.

The Uesugi were a major part of the Sekigahara Campaign. Tokugawa Ieyasu accused the Uesugi clan of treason due to rumors spreading around about the Uesugi clan preparing for war. Kanetsugu sent a letter to Ieyasu, known simply today as Naoe-jo, explaining that they were trying to strengthen the new lands that were given to them by Hideyoshi before his death and that the road construction that was being done had no objections from the lords neighboring their lands, including Date Masamune, a known ally of Ieyasu.(9)* The letter called out Ieyasu, which made him declare war on the Uesugi clan. This led to the Tōhoku Sekigahara Campaign.

In 1600, Date Masamune’s forces attacked Shiroishi Castle, which was south of the Date stronghold of Sendai and was held by an Uesugi retainer. Date took over the castle, making the Uesugi clan launch an attack of their own, spearheaded by Naoe Kanetsugu.(10) He managed to take over Hataya Castle by overwhelming the defending army of only 300.(11) Kanetsugu’s army also took over Kaminoyama, but he lost a valuable officer, Honmura Chikamori, during this siege.(12)

The Siege of Hasedō is the most famous battle during the Tōhoku Sekigahara Campaign. Kanetsugu ordered an all-out attack on the castle, but was turned away due to arquebus fire. During the retreat, however, they were attacked from behind. The battle lasted fifteen days and on November 5, 1600, a messenger from Uesugi Kagekatsu relayed the news that Ishida Mitsunari lost at Sekigahara and ordered Kanetsugu to withdraw. Maeda Keiji served as their rear guard until they got back to Yonezawa, where they confirmed the messenger’s news: their victories during the campaign were all for nothing.(13)

The Uesugi clan surrendered to the Tokugawa following the Western Army’s defeat at Sekigahara. They are one of the few clans that fared well (compared to others) after the battle, for the clan was transferred to the lands of Yonezawa and their income extremely reduced. The Uesugi also changed their name and lived on as the Shigemitsu clan from there on out. Kanetsugu made the best of his later years by trying to build up Yonezawa. He oversaw the flood control near Yonezawa Castle and even constructed a levee which became known as “Naoe Stone Levee”.(14) He continued to encourage industrialization of the area and even commissioned a town to be built near Yonezawa Castle. Despite his extreme dislike of Ieyasu, Kanetsugu did have good relationships with Ieyasu’s generals, especially with the Honda clan. Honda Masashige even married one of Kanetsugu’s daughters and took on the Naoe family name.(15)

The last battle that Kanetsugu participated in were the sieges of Ōsaka Castle, most notably in the Winter Siege of 1614, and he received high honors for his attendance. After the wars were finally over, he wrote a law code called “Orders for Peasants” and then retired.(16) His year of death varies depending on the source, but either in 1619 or 1620, Naoe Kanetsugu would pass away due to illness. His wife, Osen no Kata, lived on as a Buddhist nun until 1637, passing away at the age of 81.(17)

Naoe Kanetsugu was known for his intelligence, his loyalty and his character. He managed to change the minds of Uesugi Kagekatsu’s other generals when it became known that Toyotomi Hideyoshi was coming to visit Kagekatsu unarmed. While most of the generals wanted to kill Hideyoshi, Kanetsugu told them that it would look bad for the clan if they killed an unarmed general who has only came to them to talk. If Kagekatsu does not like what Hideyoshi had to say, Kanetsugu told the generals that they could attack Hideyoshi once he returned to his lands.(18) Hideyoshi tried to make Kanetsugu an adopted son several times, but he always refused. In one source, it states that he joined the priesthood for a time and the priests stated that he “abandons profit and grasps for honor” when most people do the opposite.(19) One other story about his character is shown when his vassals killed five of his associates. Kanetsugu did everything he could to make sure that the victims’ spirits would not be taken by to the Lord of Death.(20) This brings up Kanetsugu’s ties to Buddhism.

Naoe Kanetsugu studied under Uesugi Kenshin, who believed he was the Avatar for the God of War, known as Bishamonten in Japan. To balance out the negativity that came from such a god, Kanetsugu followed one of the Buddhist gods of love. This is why he has the Japanese character for love displayed prominently on his helmet.(21)

Naoe Kanetsugu’s armor with the kanji for love (“ai”) on his helmet.

Naoe Kanetsugu and the Naoe clan had been lost to history until 1924, when he was given the title of Jushi, which is an honorary rank given to him for his contributions to Japanese society. It was after this that many people began to claim that it was because of his efforts that the Uesugi clan was able to survive, even at the cost of his own.(22) A statue of him now stands at the Yoita History and Folk Museum in Niigata Prefecture.(23)

Sources

  1. “Naoe Kanetsugu”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naoe_Kanetsugu, last visited 7/21/2021
  2. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  3. “Sengoku Database: Naoe Kanetsugu”, https://sengoku-database.tripod.com/naoekanetsugu.htm, last visited 7/21/2021
  4. “Sengoku Database: Naoe Kanetsugu”, https://sengoku-database.tripod.com/naoekanetsugu.htm, last visited 7/21/2021
  5. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  6. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  7. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  8. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021. Also, ramie is “a vegetable fiber noted for its length and toughness”, a plant that is native to tropical Asia. Definition from Oxford Languages produced from Google Search.
  9. The only translation I have been able to find has been from Sparrowdreams on Tumblr:https://sparrowdreams.com/post/95872037266, last visited 7/21/2021
  10. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), p. 251
  11. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), p. 251
  12. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), p. 251
  13. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), pp. 251-252
  14. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  15. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  16. “Sengoku Database: Naoe Kanetsugu”, https://sengoku-database.tripod.com/naoekanetsugu.htm, last visited 7/21/2021. Source has a site that has some of the translations from the “Orders for Peasants”, which can be found here: https://www.angelfire.com/zine2/samuraiworld/Buke_Shohatto.html, last visited 7/21/2021.
  17. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  18. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  19. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  20. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  21. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  22. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe, last visited 7/21/2021
  23. “Sengoku Database: Naoe Kanetsugu”, https://sengoku-database.tripod.com/naoekanetsugu.htm, last visited 7/21/2021

*Interestingly, while going back to this topic again, I have found that the Naoe-jo that is known to us today are most likely forgeries as it has been said that the original letter no longer exists. Many point to the questionable grammar that would not have been used then and the “unnatural use of honorific expressions” as to reasons why it is not the true document, however, since several pieces of the text have been handed down, it is possible that the “forgery” is just a copy of what the letter could have possibly said, which obviously, would have been created years later. For more on this: https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/history/The%20Naoejo%20(Naoe%20Letter).html, last visited 7/21/2021.