Not a Lady

By C. Sterba


Shogun-to-be Tokugawa Ieyasu took a wife whose real surname was Sekiguchi, but she was called Lady Tsukiyama because she lived in Tsukiyama, which means Moon Mountain. Mainly, she is remembered for her murder plot against two of the greatest warlords ever: her own husband and Nobunaga. To save space, this author deems to call her Not a Lady.

Though, Not a Lady is hardly the first woman to be remembered by the place name where she lived, Heian ladies-in-waiting of the imperial court were often known by their birthplace or even by their father’s position. In fact, that is how two extremely talented lady poets with the same surname Shikibu were known. One was called Murasaki Shikibu, which means something similar to Purple Minister. Murasaki means purple and her father’s job was as an important attendant in the Ministry of Ceremony for the Emperor. Purple became the first novelist in the world. That is definitely, an impressive feat for a person with an unknown name or any name, for that matter. She was able to write Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) and use her talent to relieve her stress connected with all the shenanigans at court as well as recall in every detail, the tradition of poetic letters written in verses of five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 sounds or 31 Japanese syllables, originally called waka, but now called tanka, and in doing so, she set an extremely high standard for world literature.

At the same time, there was another lady-in-waiting with the last name of Shikibu. Her name was Izumi Shikibu, which could be translated as Fountainhead Minister. She was also a famous poet who wrote a poetic diary. While Purple wrote to use her talent, she was a modest woman who wrote about others. However, Fountainhead had a talent for having affairs with two princes who were half brothers, while married to her husband, the governor of Izumi. Naturally, she wrote about herself and her lovers.

Returning to Not a Lady, it was known by everyone that she had a terrible temper and was full of jealously not only towards her husband’s concubines, but also towards the her son’s wife, the daughter of Nobunaga. Therefore, most of the time, she lived apart from Ieyasu and most everyone else who could not stand her. One would think that she would have had other ways to reduce her stress than planning a poorly thought out murder plot. Well, to tell the truth, there was a male friend, who may have been a lover. His name was not Genji, but Genkei.

Ieyasu’s wife wanted to kill the future Tokugawa Shogun. What if she knew that he would begin a dynasty, which would last for over 250 years? If she had had a prophet as a lover instead of a quack doctor, maybe she would have had more foresight. One wonders if she ever weighed the consequences for herself and her son, Nobuyasu. Most probably she forgot that her hubby had hundreds of loyal samurai retainers, who would use their sharp swords to slash anyone who would endanger their magnificent lord, Ieyasu.

Nevertheless, she wove a plan with her doctor friend to persuade her hubby’s rival, Takeda Katsunori, to murder both the incomparable Ieyasu and the unmanageable Nobunaga. With the cluelessness of a latter day politician who sends out photos of private parts via the worldwide web, Not a Lady imagined that her secret plot would never be known. Did she daydream about life with the quack doctor?

It is not clear in my book for reference, The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu by good old A. L. Saldler, whether Genkei was a Chinese doctor or a Japanese doctor of Chinese medicine, but we do know that Not a Lady was plotting for the Takeda clan to give her one of “the most distinguished captains for her second husband,” so she was probably planning to get rid of the doctor no matter what. Nevertheless, as usually turns out in this kind of situation, a glorified maid found out about the murder plot and armed with “the twelve incriminating letters,” gave the evidence to Not a Lady’s daughter-in-law. Then the truth passed from her to her father, Nobunaga. He is known to have been friendly with the Christian priests in order to have them on his side, but he was a really a cruel man. He immediately went to tell Ieyasu the double-whammy that his wife was plotting against both Ieyasu and him, and added that Ieyasu’s son, Nobuyasu, was in on his mother’s plot.

Immediately, several of his loyal retainers were sent to kill Not a Lady. It is said that Ieyasu did not want his son to die, but he felt the powerful Nobunaga should be given first consideration in the hierarchy of leaders and scoundrels, so he consented to have his son put under guard as a compromise. Later, Nobuyasu was pressured to commit suicide. It is said that the retainers, who surrounded him wept, including Honda Tadakatsu. When Ieyasu heard his son had died, he only asked what kind of sword had been used. The answer was a “Muramasu” blade.

“How ominous!” he remarked. ”It was a Muramasu blade that Abe Yashichi struck down my grandfather Kiyoyasu. And when I was a child . . . I was cut myself with a sword by accident, and that was a Muramasa blade, too.” Then Ieyasu knew that this brand of blade would be continual bad luck for the Tokugawas, so he asked his retainers to dispose of any they had.

Significantly, it was found that Nobuyasu did not take part in his mother’s plot. And so that’s how it goes for loyalty in high places.

Back to Murasaki Shikibu. She has a sterling reputation. Everyone who reads The Tale of Genji knows it is as important in Japanese culture as Shakespeare’s plays are in Western culture. There are old and new songs, poems and plays that continue in every generation to embrace this novel’s themes. In addition, one poem each of illustrious poets Murasaki and Izumi are memorialized in the traditional New Year’s poetic card game (karuta) of One Hundred Poets or Hyakunin Isshu, which was complied in the Kamakura Era by the highly respected poet, Fujiwara no Teika. This is an exquisitely refined game of memorization and is especially popular with well-educated girls and young women.

we met again by chance
but before I could tell
if it was really you,
the midnight moon vanished
into the clouds

Murasaki Shikibu

after my passing
into the other world,
for a memory to cherish,
I wish to see you
just once more

Izumi Shikibu

It certainly would be surprising for the life of Not a Lady to be commemorated by songs, plays, poems or a poetic card game. There is next to nothing known about her, though she could be called Lady Macbeth in a kimono. Whereas, Murasaki and Izumi will be remembered, a woman who plans to kill a husband will either be forever infamous or forgotten. To be fair, Not a Lady was aware that her husband might have been responsible for the death of her father. In the Sengoku Era, a time of constant intrigue and war, both men and women were expendable. How could she have known that her husband’s fate would be the first to unite the Japanese islands and stop the civil wars for 250-years.

Ieyasu’s wife paid for her murderous plot and Ieyasu went on to become Shogun after the battle of Sekigahara. He also joined his son, the second Shogun Hidetada in the Winter and Summer Battles at Osaka castle. It is said he fought or led 90 battles in his life. The price of each war is incomprehensible.

A.L. Sadler. The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Company, pgs. 92-93,1937.
Ibid. pgs. 93-94.
Ibid. pg. 95.
Fujiwara Teika. Hyakunin Isshu/100 Poets: Passions of the Imperial Court. translation by Emiko Miyashita and Michael Dylan Welch. Tokyo: Pie Books, 2008, pgs.56 & 57.