The Controversial Naoe-jo

Naoe Kanetsugu’s official artwork from Samurai Warriors 4

The Battle of Sekigahara is one of the most well-known battles in Japan’s history. It is an impressive and important battle, yet much of the history that surrounds it tends to be forgotten at times, especially by those who study the battle for military strategy only. The two years leading up to this epic battle are full of political intrigue, secret alliances, and even betrayals. History books can only tell us so much about the atmosphere in Japan during this time, which is where primary sources come in. One such source that helps historians understand the political climate leading up to Sekigahara is the controversial Naoe-jo, a letter written by senior Uesugi retainer, Naoe Kanetsugu. The letter, however, is controversial in more ways than one.

The History

After the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in September 1597, Japan was inching its way to another war. The reason for this was because Hideyoshi left behind his five-year-old son, Hideyori, as his heir. The problem was that he was too young to rule the country on his own, which meant that it would be easier to control the Toyotomi from behind the scenes and eventually, take over the clan entirely. Hideyoshi saw this possibility and to prevent this from happening, created the Council of Five Elders. However, this would become the Toyotomi’s downfall.

Two of the people in the Council of Five Elders were Tokugawa Ieyasu and Uesugi Kagekatsu. Both stared making their moves not long after Hideyoshi passed. Ieyasu started out with arranging marriages between the Date and Fukushima clans, while Kagekatsu had pledged to support Ishida Mitsunari by the end of the year. While Ieyasu dealt with assassination attempts and moving into Ōsaka Castle the following year, the Uesugi were quietly working on their domains of Yonezawa and Aizu, preparing for a war that could break out at any moment. Though different sources have different dates, mid-spring of 1600 was when trouble began brewing between the Uesugi and the Tokugawa.(1)

Before the Taikō passed, the Uesugi were given the lands of Aizu in exchange for the province of Echigo, and that they did not have much of a chance to settle into the newly acquired lands. Tensions began to rise at the end of 1599 when Ieyasu moved into Ōsaka Castle and the Uesugi believed that war was imminent. In February 1600, Kagekatsu commenced the construction of Kazashigahara Castle in Aizu, with 80,000 men employed to build it.(2) The castle was being built in a strategically important area, at the mouth of a mountain pass that was key to controlling Aizu as a whole. While there was already a castle in the land, Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle, they claimed that it would be too difficult to defend in wartime due to its location on the Wakamatsu Plain.(3) The construction of a new castle with a large army of men in their employ set off alarm bells for one of their neighbors, Hori Hideharu, the new daimyo of the Uesugi’s old stomping grounds of Echigo.(4) Word of their activities reached Ieyasu not only through Hideharu, but also a traitor from within. Fujita Nobuyoshi left the Uesugi in March 1600 and went to Tokugawa Hidetada in Edo and told him that the Uesugi had intentions of opposing the Tokugawa.(5) Armed with this information, Ieyasu asked Saisho Jotai to help him compose a letter that would be sent to Kagekatsu in Aizu.(6) It is unknown how or why, but the response sent back to Ieyasu was not penned by Kagekatsu, but by his senior retainer, Naoe Kanetsugu.

The Naoe-jo

After some extensive research, there is only one English translation I have been able to find that is available to the public here in the West. This translation comes to us from Dr. Nyri Bakkalian, who has posted the English translation of the Naoe-jo on her official blog on Tumblr.(7) The following is her translation of the famous letter:

I have this day received your letter of the first of the fourth month, which arrived yesterday, the 13th. I was most pleased to receive and to read it.

ITEM: Regarding our province, there are many false rumors circulating at present. So there isn’t much we can do about the Interior Minister (Ieyasu) holding reservations. Furthermore, as these rumors are now spreading [to] Kyoto and Fushimi, there isn’t anything that can be done. Aizu is a distant country, and my lord Kagekatsu is young, so naturally he is the target of rumor. We aren’t worried, so please be reassured.

ITEM: Regarding why Kagekatsu will not come to Kyoto, all manner of things are being said. Barely two years ago our fief was transferred, and in no time we went up to Kyoto, returning only on the 9th month of last year. Even so in this year’s first month we were again ordered to report to Kyoto. When can we be expected to care for our own lands’ affairs? This land is snow country, so from the 10th to the 3rd months nothing can be done. If you ask anyone who knows this land, they’ll understand. So given our request to delay our trip to Kyoto, you’ll understand that the rumors that Kagekatsu is traitorous are misunderstandings.

ITEM: You’ve said that if Kagekatsu harbors no traitorous motives then he should submit a vow affirming this. We have sent several written pledges since the Taikō’s death, but they’ve all been ignored. So sending in another document is pointless.

ITEM: Since [his service to] the Taikō, Kagekatsu has been known as an upstanding person- this has not changed. This is contrary to the world’s fickle ways.

ITEM: Kagektasu is absolutely not harboring ulterior motives. If you do not investigate and expose these evil words of strangers, and assume that he is treacherous, then it can’t be helped. Otherwise we would ask to have the chance to face our accusers and ascertain the truth of the matter. If not, then the Interior Minister is being dishonest.

ITEM: As regards Lord Hizen-no-kami of Kaga (Maeda Toshinaga), things have been settled between him and the Interior Minister. We assume this is because of the Interior Minister’s influence.

ITEM: As for Mashita Nagamori and Ōtani Yoshitsugu’s promotions, we’ve heard about it in detail. It is truly most felicitous. Sakakibara Yasumasa has acted as official go-between. And even if Kagekatsu’s stance of opposition was public, hearing opposing viewpoints is part of what’s right as a warrior. This would also serve the Interior Minister. It is better if it is known whether or not somebody is a loyal or treacherous vassal.

ITEM: First, as the matter concerns baseless rumors, we refuse to come to Kyoto. Our reasons are as stated above.

ITEM: Second, It’s been said of our gathering of weapons and materiel that we’re preparing for rebellion. These actions are the same as when warriors of central Japan gather tea implements, charcoal scuttles, and gourds. Please consider we backcountry warriors gathering spears, guns, bows and arrows as simply a difference of culture.  Even if he was planning action, what could someone in Kagekatsu’s position do? Isn’t making this into a problem a judgment that is unbecoming for the realm?

ITEM: Third, regarding roads and bridges, this is to make travel more convenient. It is the duty of one who rules a province. When Kagekatsu ruled Echigo he did the same; those bridges and roads are still extant. Here in Aizu we already built roads that go to Kōzuke, Shimotsuke, Iwaki, Sōma, Masamune’s territory, Mogami, Yuri, and Senboku, and nobody on the other side of those borders said anything. Incidentally, only the Lord Kenmotsu, Hori Naomasa, has feared this construction and spread various lies that betray a lack of understanding of what befits a warrior. The fact that only Hori Kenmotsu has made an issue of this road construction shows that he is a thoughtless person who knows nothing of the warrior’s way. If Kagekatsu had any evil intent, then Hori would’ve run into border security and adequately prepared defenses. If you doubt this, send messengers to check our border crossings from other provinces, and I believe you will understand.

ITEM: The third month of this year was the requiem for Lord Kenshin. Kagekatsu planned to come to Kyoto after that, in the summer. As he readied his arms and administered his lands’ business of government, messengers came from Ōtani and Mashita, relaying the Interior Minister’s demands that if Kagekatsu had no treacherous aims then he should come to Kyoto. But as you’ve relayed these false charges to us, if you look closely then you’ll know we harbor no deception.

Yet even though we’ve said that Kagekatsu has no traitorous intent, to receive the retort of “if you don’t, then come to Kyoto” is to be treated like a child. This world, where one who until yesterday was a traitor can, feigning ignorance, go to Kyoto and receive a reward, does not suit Kagekatsu. Though the rumors are baseless, if Kagekatsu entered Kyoto in the midst of all these lies about his intent, we would lose all honor earned by generations of Uesugi arms.

So because you will not confront the people spreading these rumors, then we cannot come to Kyoto.

Kagekatsu is unmistakably right on this matter. We are especially aware that in the middle of the 7th month, Kagekatsu’s vassal Fujita Noto-no-kami left this clan for Edo and then went on to Kyoto. Is Kagekatsu wrong or is Ieyasu dishonest? We will leave it to the world to decide.

ITEM: Many words are unnecessary: Kagekatsu has not a whit of rebellious intent. But we are being set up so as to be unable come to Kyoto, and only be able to come by the Interior Minister’s determination. To remain at home would violate the Taikō’s will, and our pledges have already been ignored. What’s more, it would betray our young master Hideyori. Even if we were to raise our forces and make Kagekatsu ruler of the realm, we would not be able to escape the stigma of being evil men. It would be a shame for all time. Could anyone rebel without reservations? Rest at ease. But if you believe the words of evil men as being true, then oaths and promises are pointless.

ITEM: Rumors are circulating that Kagekatsu is traitorous. They also claim that he is sending troops to garrison castles, and preparing provisions. These are the baseless words of strangers, so there is no need to heed them.

ITEM: Sending messengers to explain things to the Interior Minister is called for. Incidentally, on both the lies of evil people from beyond our borders, and Uesugi vassal Fujita Noto-no-kami’s betrayal, because Kagekatsu is suspected of treachery, there isn’t anything that can be done. If what I’ve explained above doesn’t clarify things, then there’s nothing more to be said.

ITEM: No matter what, our land is far away, so as you might surmise, the truth about us becomes like lies. It should be needless to say so, but I have written things plainly for your eyes to see.

You know the right and wrong of the world, so I have written this simply. I have voiced most humbly my reservations. To gain your will, I have spoken without concern for any rudeness. Please convey my words.

With reverent esteem.

Keichō 5, 14th of the 4th Month

Naoe Yamashiro no kami Kanetsugu

(to) Seishō Jōtai of Hōkō-ji

This letter becomes the catalyst for Ieyasu and he declares war on the Uesugi not long after he receives it. The letter is never mentioned by history again until it mysteriously resurfaces in 1654, but it is met with much skepticism.(8)

The Controversy

The odd thing about the Naoe-jo is that historians are not one hundred percent sold on its authenticity. Many different versions of the Naoe-jo are in circulation, all containing the same content with slight variations to each. This has led many to believe that the letters in circulation are either forged copies or just flat-out hoaxes.(9) Some have even gone as far as saying that Naoe Kanetsugu never wrote the famous letter named after him.(10)

The main reasons that historians believe that the letter is either a hoax or a forgery come from examining the various letters and comparing them to other documents from the era. According to the historians who have studied this document, the biggest giveaway comes from the grammar and “unnatural use of honorific expressions” that seemed out of place for the era it was written in, stating that the documents are written in a more contemporary style.(11) They also point out that the letter did not become public until the Edo Period (1603-1868), making many believe that it is a fabrication from a later era. Interestingly, while many historians believe that the Naoe-jo in circulation is a fake, they acknowledge that the document gives insight into the political climate before Sekigahara.(12)

There is a small camp of historians that believe that the Naoe-jo is real and that it has been misinterpreted by other historians. Others acknowledge that the ones in circulation today might have been copied from the original and the language might have changed as the language evolved.(13) This is entirely possible for the original document could have been destroyed or lost years prior, but scholars of the era might have realized its significance and thus, produced copies in case the original was lost or destroyed.

Naoe Kanetsugu in Toukiden

Whatever the case may be, the Naoe-jo is an important document to study. It lets us look at the situation before Sekigahara from the eyes of one of Ishida Mitsunari’s staunchest supporters. Though it might not be the exact letter that Naoe Kanetsugu wrote over four hundred years ago, the content is close enough in all variations that we are able see his conviction in every line, showing us that Kanetsugu was afraid of Ieyasu’s response. It is a fascinating document that should get more acknowledgement by historians, much like its author.

Sources

  1. There are two sources I have found that list dates for when the following events occurred. The first is The Battle of Sekigahara: The Greatest, Bloodiest, Most Decisive Samurai Battle Ever by Chris Glenn (2021). He has in his timeline (p. 164) that Ieyasu sent an envoy to Aizu on April 1, 1600 and that Ieyasu received the reply back on April 27, 1600. Sekigahara 1600: The final struggle for power by Anthony J. Bryant (2009), places everything almost a month later (p. 89). According to Bryant, the letter from Ieyasu was sent to Aizu on May 7, 1600 and Ieyasu received the response from the Uesugi on June 8, 1600.
  2. Glenn, Chris. The Battle of Sekigahara: The Greatest, Bloodiest, Most Decisive Samurai Battle Ever (2021), p. 25
  3. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 446
  4. Bryant, Anthony J. Sekigahara 1600: The final struggle for power (2009), p. 36
  5. Glenn, Chris. The Battle of Sekigahara: The Greatest, Bloodiest, Most Decisive Samurai Battle Ever (2021), p. 163
  6. “The Naoejo (Naoe Letter)”, Japanese Wiki Corpus. https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/history/The%20Naoejo%20(Naoe%20Letter).html?msclkid=43b15642ceff11ec970439473ee9ffe7, last visited 5/13/2022. Side note: I am not too sure on the translation of the monk’s name for it is either Saisho Jotai or Seishō Jōtai, as we with the only English translation of the Naoe-jo that is available to us.
  7. “(Translations) The Naoe Letter”, Sparrowdreams: Official Blog of Dr. Nyri Bakkalian, Tumblr.com. https://sparrowdreams.com/post/95872037266, last visited 5/13/2022.
  8. “Kanetsugu Naoe”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe?so=search, last visited 5/13/2022.
  9. https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/history/The%20Naoejo%20(Naoe%20Letter).html?msclkid=43b15642ceff11ec970439473ee9ffe7, last visited 5/13/2022.
  1.  “Kanetsugu Naoe”, Koei Wiki. https://koei.fandom.com/wiki/Kanetsugu_Naoe?so=search, last visited 5/13/2022.
  2. “The Naoejo (Naoe Letter)”, Japanese Wiki Corpus. https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/history/The%20Naoejo%20(Naoe%20Letter).html?msclkid=43b15642ceff11ec970439473ee9ffe7, last visited 5/13/2022.
  3. “The Naoejo (Naoe Letter)”, Japanese Wiki Corpus. https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/history/The%20Naoejo%20(Naoe%20Letter).html?msclkid=43b15642ceff11ec970439473ee9ffe7, last visited 5/13/2022.
  4. “The Naoejo (Naoe Letter)”, Japanese Wiki Corpus. https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/history/The%20Naoejo%20(Naoe%20Letter).html?msclkid=43b15642ceff11ec970439473ee9ffe7, last visited 5/13/2022.