Naoe Kanetsugu


Kanji: 直江 兼続

Date(s): 1559-January 23, 1620(?)

Other Known Names: Higuchi Kanetsugu, Yoroku (childhood), Yamashiro no Kami (court title)


Naoe clan mon


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 Sekighara Campaign and writing a letter to Tokugawa Ieyasu just shortly before the 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. In 1564, he became Kenshin’s page, and during that same time, 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.

When Uesugi Kenshin died in 1578, the clan split over succession disputes, leading to a civil war within the clan called the Otate no Ran. 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 during and after this civil war, due to Oda Nobunaga taking advantage of the disarray and the death of the proclaimed God of War. Nobunaga was almost successful in wiping the Uesugi clan from the map, however, he was assassinated at Honnōji before he could complete his mission.

Before Nobunaga’s death, Naoe Kagetsuna lost his son, Naoe Kagetaka, was murdered along with another strategist, Yamazaki Shiyusen by Mōri Hidehiro. 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 the very few monogamous marriages during this time period, as there are no records of Kanetsugu taking on a concubine.

The Uesugi clan became allies with the Toyotomi clan after participating in the battles against Shibata Katsuie after the death of Nobunaga. He participated in many battles along the Sea of Japan, and fought in the Odawara Campaign at Hachiōji Castle.

During the peace that followed 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. The gold mines in 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, known today as Naoe-jo*, explaining that they were trying to strengthen the new lands that they were given, and the road construction that was being done had no objections from the lords of neighboring lands, including Date Masamune, a known ally of Ieyasu. The letter called out Ieyasu, which made him declare war on the Uesugi clan. This led to the Tohoku 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, sparking the Uesugi to launch an attack of their own, spearheaded by Naoe Kanetsugu. He managed to take over Hataya Castle by overwhelming the army of 300. Kanetsugu’s army also took over Kaminoyama, but he lost a valuable officer during this siege.

The siege of Hasedō is the most famous battle during the Tohoku Sekigahara Campaign. Kanetsugu ordered an all-out attack on the castle, but was turned away due to harquebus 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 for nothing.

The Uesugi clan surrendered to the Tokugawa following the Western Army’s defeat at Sekigahara. They were one of the few clans that fared well 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. Naoe 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”. He continued to encourage industrialization of the area and even commissioned a town to be build near Yonezawa Castle. Despite his extreme dislike for Tokugawa Ieyasu, Naoe Kanetsugu did have good relationships with his generals, especially from the Honda clan. Honda Masashige even married one of Kanetsugu’s daughters and took on the Naoe family name.

The last battle that Naoe Kanetsugu fought in was the Ōsaka Campaign in 1614, receiving high honors for his participation. After the wars were finally over, he wrote a law code called “Orders for Peasants” and then retired. His year of death varies per source, but it was either 1619 or 1620, but all say that he died of illness. His wife, Osen no Kata, lived on as a Buddhist nun until 1637, passing away at 81 years old.

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 talk. If Kagekatsu does not like what Hideyoshi has to say, they will fight the Toyotomi once he returned to his own lands. Hideyoshi tired to make Kanetsugu his adopted son several times, but he always refused. In one source, it states that he joined the priesthood for a time, and the priests there stated that he “abandons profit and grasps for honor” where most people do the opposite. One other instance of his character was when his vassals killed five of his associates. Kanetsugu did everything he could to make sure that the victims’ spirits would not be taken to the Lord of Death. This brings up his Buddhist ties.

Naoe Kanetsugu studied under Uesugi Kenshin, who believed he was the reincarnation of Bishamonten, the God of War. To balance out the negativity that came from such a god, Kanetsugu followed one of the Buddhist gods of love. This can be seen from his helmet, for he has the kanji for love, (“ai”) mounted 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. A statue of him stands at the Yoita History and Folk Museum in Niigata Prefecture, Japan.


*The only English translation I could find for Naoe-jo was on Tumblr of all places. For the full letter, visit: https://sparrowdreams.com/post/95872037266.