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This is a topic I’ve written about in a prior Friday Night History– from December 2019– but my skill with this, as well as the characteristics of this feature itself, have changed. So I figured, why not try my hand at a rewrite? Hopefully, this will lend itself well, both to conforming to my current standard as well as to being the raw material for a later podcast episode.
If the history you write isn’t inclusive of women and their role and agency in society, it is incomplete. So-called Great Men, and men in general, are not the only driving forces in the myriad events of the past. The common picture of ruling clans in Warring States Japan all too easily falls into the same old Great Man tropes. But if we make a point of including and centering the women of these clans in our appreciation of how that wild and often unpredictable era played out, our picture of them will only be better rounded and more complete. Women are often erased, but are not invisible. With this in mind, let’s talk about Katakura Kita. If we’re to understand the house of Date in the 16th and 17th centuries and appreciate why it was able to survive an era where many of its peers did not, she is one of the women that we have to include in our consideration. This isn’t the “Date Masamune springs fully formed from the peak of Mount Yudono” show.
Born in 1538, Kita was a child of the vassal band serving the house of Date, which was then headquartered at Yonezawa Castle in Dewa Province– modern day Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture. Her father, Oniniwa Yoshinao (1513-1586, also known as Oniniwa Sagetsusai), was a noted Date military commander, and when Kita was very young, he divorced his wife Motozawa Nao. Nao went on to remarry Katakura Kageshige, a Shinto priest turned warrior. Because she followed her mother after the divorce, Kita is surnamed Katakura. Katakura Kagetsuna (1557-1615, also known as Katakura Kojuro), Kita’s half-brother 19 years her junior, was born in 1557. As with many elder siblings throughout Japanese history, Kita shared in the responsibility of childcare and early education for Kagetsuna.
Now, remember: Warring States era is not a name that’s applied for nothing. In those days, it was very common to know how to use a weapon, because the time could very well come where one would be expected to use it. You do need all hands on deck when the country’s been fighting itself since the 1470s. And as the daughter of two very prominent and somewhat wealthy warrior vassal families in the Date clan service, Kita knew how to fight. She could throw a punch, she could swing a sword, she could shoulder a halberd, as I recall, she knew how to handle a musket, and given what comes up later in our story, we can reasonably assume she was also familiar with military engineering. Yet even in times of civil war, as the daughter of a high ranking vassal family, one doesn’t just learn to fight. So, Kita was also educated broadly in the arts, was an accomplished poet, and read the Chinese and Japanese classics. Kita brought all of this to bear in helping with her half-brother’s upbringing.
In several installments of Friday Night History I’ve talked about Date Masamune’s succession to Date headship in the late 16th century, as well as the politics motivating his mother Mogami Yoshi’s desire to exert control over the succession arrangement in the family to benefit her birth family, which was another powerful clan in Dewa. Lady Yoshi’s political motivations were known to her husband, Date Terumune, from the beginning. So, in the interest of guiding the young Masamune’s early education, and also protecting him, Terumune had to choose an appropriate woman as a surrogate mother. Terumune chose Kita. With a measure of sass and a keen ear for the clan’s politics, and she was educated enough, experienced enough, dangerous enough, and unorthodox enough that she got Terumune’s attention. Some sources claim that she wasn’t actually Masamune’s wetnurse, because she was unmarried and had not been pregnant, but lactation can be induced in people who aren’t pregnant, so I don’t know if this is necessarily the case. But whatever the case, Kita was attendant, teacher, guardian to the young Bontenmaru, who would grow up to become Masamune. She was the first to teach him how to read and write, though her role was later supplanted by the abbot Kosai Soitsu, who was invited to the north by Terumune to further instruct his son. But Kita also taught Masamune how to fight. In 1575, her half-brother Kagetsuna became Masamune’s page– and because she had a hand in Kagetsuna’s education, I see this as further reinforcing Kita’s influence on Masamune’s education and early development.
While Kita’s role in the Date clan’s daily life changed as Masamune grew older, she remained a powerful presence in guiding and shaping its affairs. The 1590s saw her in Kyoto as an attendant to Tamura Mego, Masamune’s wife, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi– then the de facto ruler of Japan– summoned all daimyo to send their families to reside as hostages in his court at Jurakudai. While she was in Kyoto, Kita was often in the presence of Hideyoshi. It bears noting that Masamune had a bad habit of pissing Hideyoshi off. When they met, Masamune had deliberately dragged his feet on responding to Hideyoshi’s summons and request for Masamune to pledge fealty. Later, Masamune was accused of treason– a charge that may have actually been true– and only his smooth talking in the heat of the moment saved him. But the thing is, Hideyoshi got a kick out of Kita! He thought she was funny and clever as hell, and he even called her Shonagon as a mark of his praise. Shonagon– which some of you might recognize as part of the courtly nickname of the 11th century diarist Sei Shonagon, was the title of a high counselor to the Emperor– it’d be like being called Chief of Staff or Aide de Camp or something of that sort. In the end, it was because of Kita’s regular politicking that the Date clan was saved from Hideyoshi’s wrath– in Masamune’s absence, she took action many times to keep Hideyoshi happy and keep his attention away from potentially destroying, impoverishing, or reassigning the family. When Masamune finally got wind of how without consultation she was regularly making decisions he considered rightfully his, he wasn’t happy. But I think it a sign of her influence and their shared history that rather than executing her, he had her simply sent back north to live in semi-retirement in her brother Kagetsuna’s castle. By that point, having risen in the Date vassal ranks, he was warden of Sanuma Castle. When he received ownership of Shiroishi Castle (in modern day Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture) in 1602, he brought Kita along. Shiroishi, formerly known as Masuoka Castle, had been a possession of the nearby rival Uesugi clan. Date forces took it at gunpoint during the climactic Sekigahara Campaign of 1600. This is where Kita’s background in military engineering is particularly visible. She took a walk around the castle’s outer works with her brother, and pointed out the gaps in its defensive architecture, urging her brother to close the gaps if he wanted to be serious about the castle as a viable piece of military architecture rather than a decoration. This was the castle at which the delegates of northern Honshu clans convened to form and lead the Northern Alliance during the Boshin War of 1868-1869. Partially dismantled in the years after the Boshin War, Shiroishi Castle, which I saw in 2005, is now partially reconstructed, along the lines of Kita’s suggestions to Kagetsuna.
Also remaining and locally ubiquitous today is Shiroishi City’s emblem– a black castle bell– which she first suggested that her brother use as his battle flag. Kagetsuna’s descendants used it until the house of Date’s surrender in late 1868. Here it is as I saw it at Shiroishi Castle in 2005.
Kita died in 1610, at the age of 72. In a rather uncommon act for the time, Date Tadamune– Masamune’s son and heir– ordered that Kita’s lineage (as opposed to a male lineage) be continued by two of his cousins. One of them, Katakura Yoshitane, was the originator of the Aoba tradition of matagi, a style of hunting still found some places in northern Japan. Katakura Kunio, former Japanese ambassador to Iraq, is his descendant– and thus, Kita’s.
The moral of the story is this: for every outstanding Japanese warlord still revered today, there’s at least one woman like Kita who made his success possible, and likely many more. You just have to dig a little deeper to find their stories. And if you’re going to tell a well-rounded story about the past, it behooves you, and me, and everyone else, to do so.
I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.
- Date Chike Kiroku Vol. 2, ed. Taira Shigemichi (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1974), pp. 434-438.
- Kazama Kansei, “Shiroishi-jō,” pp. 125-138 of Sendaijō to Sendairyō no Shiro, Yōgai (Tokyo: Meichō Shuppan, 1982), pp. 126-127.
- “Kessanji no Kaiki: Katakura Kojuro Kagetsuna-ko.” https://kessanji.jp/history/katakura Accessed 14 January 2021.
- Kobayashi Seiji. Date Masamune (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1966), pp. 108-110.
- “Moniwa-shi.” Harimaya.com. http://www2.harimaya.com/sengoku//html/moniwa.html Accessed 14 January 2021
- Otokozawa Chisato, Itō Sukemasa, Yano Michisato, & Imamura Moriyuki, “Boshin Shimatsu,” pp. 41-325 of Sendai Sōsho Vol 12. (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1974), pp. 161-162.
- “Shishou, shinboru.” Shiroishi City. https://www.city.shiroishi.miyagi.jp/soshiki/1/261.html Accessed 14 January 2021.