Ashikaga Takauji

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Ashikaga Takauji.

Few figures in Japanese history are as controversial as Ashikaga Takauji, a man whose actions brought down the Hôjô Shikken, made the dream of Imperial restoration a reality and then tore down that dream in a war that would leave the Court divided and the country in the hands of a new warrior government.

The Ashikaga clan

In 1331, as Emperor Go-Daigo was preparing to throw off the yoke of Kamakura rule, Takauji was a powerful landholder in the Kantô region. His clan, the Ashikaga, was of Seiwa Genji stock, the same branch of the Minamoto family that had produced Yoritomo. Minamoto Yoriyasu (d. 1157), grandson of Minamoto Yoshiie, had settled in Shimotsuke and taken the name of his holding: Ashikaga-no-sho. Yoshiyasu's son Ashikaga Yoshikane (d. 1199) had joined Minamoto no Yoritomo in 1180 and served him in the Genpei War. Yoshikane also happened to be married to a daughter of Hôjô Tokimasa, and so the Ashikaga thrived in the years following Yoritomo's death in 1199. In fact, five of the next seven generations of Ashikaga leaders would marry Hôjô ladies, to include Takauji (Takauji, however, was not of Hôjô blood-his mother was of the Uesugi house). By 1331 the Ashikaga had grown and branched out, with Ashikaga lines to be found in Mutsu, Shimotsuke, Kôzuke, Sagami, Mikawa, Mimasaka, and the Kinai region, under such later familiar names as Imagawa, Hosokawa, Hatakeyama, and Shiba.

Respected by the Hôjô, Takauji was among those men quickly dispatched east after the news of Go-Daigo's rebellion reached Kamakura. In October Takauji joined in the Bakufu's assault on Kasagi, which led to the apprehension of Go-Daigo.

In Spring 1333 Go-Daigo escaped exile on Oki Island and returned to the mainland, buoyed by the activities of Kusunoki Masashige, who was holding off Bakufu troops at Chihaya fort, on Mt. Kongo. Determined to end this attempt at Imperial restoration once and for all, Regent Hôjô Takatoki ordered two powerful armies to join in the war. One of these hosts was under the control of Ashikaga Takauji, which departed from Kamakura, the other being led by a certain Nagaoshi Takaie. Loyalist samurai of the Akamatsu clan ambushed Nagaoshi's force and Nagaoshi himself was killed. This reverse left Takauji the most powerful Bakufu commander now operating in the field. Gathering up allies as he moved, Takauji arrived in Tamba, a province controlled by Takauji's relatives the Uesugi, at the beginning of June. At this point, Takauji probably could have added his men to those already pressing the loyalists and ended Go-Daigo's rebellion. Instead, Takauji declared for the Imperial cause and in mid-June attacked Kyoto.

In all probability, Takauji had planned on changing sides as soon as he received his orders to march west, in part due to perceived slights by the Hôjô. His army was largely composed of warriors whose chiefs had familial ties to the Ashikaga and his decision to march straight to Tamba first was no doubt significant. The reasons Takauji had for rebellion ranged from personal ambition to a growing dislike of the Hôjô: he came from a family with stronger blood then the Hôjô and resented being treated like a vassal.

In Support of Emperor Go-Daigo

Even before he had reached Tamba, Takauji had received a letter from Go-Daigo expressing the hope that the Ashikaga would turn on the Hôjô. This letter, in effect, legitimized any treasonous thoughts Takauji may have had, coming as it did from an Imperial hand. Takauji had therefore bypassed Kyoto and sent out secret messages to his allies alerting them to his intentions.

Takauji's forces easily secured Kyoto, allowing Go-Daigo to return to the capital in July. At the same time, Nitta Yoshisada of Kôzuke rose up and attacked Kamakura, bringing an end to the Hôjô regency as the city burned and Hôjô Takatoki committed suicide. To the delight of the Court, power had been restored to the throne.

Go-Daigo, however, owed his success to the efforts of those military men who had supported him. At the same time, the Court demanded it's share of the spoils and this led to a precarious balancing act that revealed the weaknesses of Go-Daigo's new government. Chief among these failings was an apparent naiveté as regards the samurai class, that even though they had been supreme in Japan for centuries, they might be expected to take back seat to the nobility. While the average samurai revered the emperor (a fact generally ignored in western histories), this sense of obligation and filial respect by no means translated to include the rest of the court.

Reorganization in the Capital

Following the destruction of the Hôjô's political institutions in Kyoto, Takauji created an office in the capital, the Bugyô-sho (or, roughly, Commissioner's Office). The Bugyô-sho was responsible for the governing of the city, and through its offices Takauji assumed the right to dole out rewards and appointments to his men. Go-Daigo must have chafed at Takauji's noticeable presence in Kyoto, but initially the two men worked together with some modicum of mutual respect. Takauji was in fact amply rewarded by the emperor for his services, and was named the shugo of Musashi and given considerable influence in two other provinces, was granted the courtly title of the Fourth Rank, Junior Grade, and the position Chinjufu Shôgun. The last, which translates as 'general of the northern pacification command' was actually a consolation prize - Takauji had asked for the title of Shôgun, in effect an official acknowledgment that he was the realm's foremost soldier. Go-Daigo might have been wise to give him what he wanted, but this he did not do, perhaps fearing (not without cause) that Takauji would become a new Taira no Kiyomori. In addition, there can be no doubt that Go-Daigo's other prominent general, Nitta Yoshisada, made every effort to hinder Takauji's ambitions. The Nitta, a hither-to relatively obscure family that had suffered by not joining Minamoto no Yoritomo in the Genpei War, were now famous throughout the realm. Yoshisada, already a rival of Takauji, had no intention of coming under the Ashikaga's thumb.

Tension began to grow as Go-Daigo attempted to juggle the wants of the samurai with the suddenly unchained desires of the nobility. No doubt to Takauji's chagrin, the coveted rank of Shôgun was given to Prince Morinaga (and later Prince Norinaga), and the Hôjô's now vacant lands were handed out almost capriciously. It would appear that Go-Daigo's earliest rewards were on the inordinate side, and after assigning considerable chunks of land to the nobility, many deserving warriors were rewarded either inadequately or not at all. Go-Daigo faced the same dangerous predicament the Hôjô had found itself in after the Mongol Invasions, with similar results.

1334 was largely taken up by reorganization, although Takauji was careful to stay in step with the emperor. To this end he was ably assisted by his brother Tadayoshi, a gifted and unscrupulous political schemer. When Go-Daigo announced that Prince Norinaga was being sent to Kamakura, Takauji arranged for Tadayoshi to go along as his military guardian. Later in the year, Prince Morinaga, who had been residing in Yoshino up until now, returned to Kyoto and soon rumors began flying that he was plotting against Takauji. Takauji confronted Go-Daigo about the matter, and after the latter protested his own innocence, Morinaga was arrested. The action was certainly a controversial one-it had been Morinaga's letters that had drawn many warriors onto Go-Daigo's side in the first place, and the Prince was well liked. Perhaps fearing that Morinaga's imprisonment would stir up trouble in the capital, the Prince was sent to Kamakura.

In 1335 Hôjô Tokiyuki, a son of Takatoki, rose up and attacked Kamakura. The event created a considerable panic, and Go-Daigo's administrators Kamakura was abandoned and in the course of the chaotic flight, Tadayoshi saw to it that Morinaga was murdered. A better back-room dealer than a warrior, Tadayoshi was quite unable to contain Tokiyuki, and the event looked to the first real crisis of Go-Daigo's restoration.

Takauji hastily gathered an army, apparently without the consent of the emperor, and marched along the Tokaido Road, absorbing Tadayoshi's forces into his own. Takauji briskly defeated Tokiyuki in a number of engagements in Tôtômi and Suruga and on 8 September 1335 retook Kamakura. Tokiyuki was killed and order restored to the Kanto - albeit, no doubt, in such a way as to provoke the consternation of Go-Daigo and Nitta Yoshisada. Declaring that he felt more secure in Kamakura than in Kyoto, Takauji had himself a headquarters at Eifukuji temple. Go-Daigo made some effort to recall him, but to no avail. Almost as provocatively, Takauji began rewarding those warriors who supported him with lands, securing their personal loyalty and throwing the Court's lackluster rewards record in sharp contrast.

It may be that Takauji attempted to lure Nitta Yoshisada away from the Court during this period, for he was the most powerful warrior in Go-Daigo's service and losing him to Takauji would leave the emperor isolated. At the same time, a war with Yoshisada that resulted in the destruction of the Nitta could only benefit the Ashikaga in the long run, so Takauji was essentially in a win-win situation as far as that went. When it became obvious that Yoshisada had no intention of abandoning Go-Daigo, Takauji issued what amounted to an act of war: he announced that Kôzuke, Nitta's home province, was now under the governorship of the Uesugi.

Go-Daigo, after some waffling, made the decision to brand Takauji a traitor and called for his destruction. Takauji, meanwhile, was careful to avoid involving the emperor in his own call to arms and directed his hostilities towards Nitta Yoshisada. He received a certain amount of legitimacy from the signature of Retired Emperor Kôgon (whom the Hôjô had appointed emperor after Go-Daigo's first bid for power in 1331).

The Rise of Takauji

In December 1335 a punitive expedition led by the Emperor's son Takanaga and Nitta Yoshisada marched out from Kyoto and defeated an advance force commanded by Tadayoshi in Mikawa province. The Imperialists pressed eastward, only to be mauled by Takauji himself in the Ashigara pass of the Hakone Mountains. A following battle in Suruga sent Go-Daigo's army fleeing westward, pursued by the Ashikaga. On 23 February Takauji's army fought its way into Kyoto but failed to capture Go-Daigo, who had taken up with the warrior monks of the Enryakuji. Takauji himself arrived two days later and began what would prove to be an extremely short-lived occupation of Kyoto. At the same time, the loyalist general Kitabatake Akiie had gathered an army and drove on the capital, gratefully accepting the full assistance of the Enryakuji. Within days of entering the capital, Takauji found himself forced to defend it against Kitabatake, and after four days retreated to Settsu. Takauji eventually made his way to Kyushu, on the way making various promises and appointments to drum up a considerable amount of support from the western families. Once on Kyushu, a brief campaign was required to defeat the sole source of notable opposition to the Ashikaga on the island, the Kikuchi. The Kikuchi were defeated at the Battle of Tadara no hama on 14 April 1336, and Takauji now had a secure base of operations and the support of the Kyushu warrior families, including the Shimazu, Matsura, Otomo, and Shoni. Adding these clans to those already in the Ashikaga camp (the Hosokawa, Akamatsu, Imagawa, Isshiki, Nikki, Uesugi, Ko, and Ouchi) rounded out a formidable coalition that was far more formidable then the army Takauji had marched to Kyoto with. Nonetheless, Takauji could not afford to dally on Kyushu for long: at other points throughout the country Go-Daigo's forces were pressing those Ashikaga bastions left behind, including those in the Kanto and the eastern Chugoku provinces. In June Takauji headed back towards Kyoto, setting part of his army on the march through western Honshu and the other slowly advancing via ship.

Faced with Takauji's inexorable movement towards Kyoto, Go-Daigo was pressed by Nitta and the court for immediate action, with Nitta advocating an all-out battle with Takauji's army to end the war decisively. Kusunoki Masashige was against a direct approach due to the disparity in numbers but in the end Go-Daigo decided to fight. Often presented as foolishness on his part (especially to highlight the tragedy of Masashige's resulting death), Go-Daigo's decision may simply have been realistic. Taking to the hills again (as Kusunoki suggested) would probably have only delayed the inevitable. Most of the country's important samurai families were either already on Takauji's side or leaning that way-Go-Daigo's Kemmu Restoration was in fact already over.

Nitta Yoshisada commanded the army that deployed around and near the Minatogawa in Harima province. Aware that at least part of Ashikaga's army would be approaching by boat, Yoshisada was forced to position part of his army along the coast from the mouth of the Minatogawa east some miles to the mouth of the Ikutagawa. 700 men under Kusunoki were forward deployed beyond the Minato (which may well have been dry at this time) while Nitta covered an area to his south. Yoshisada's rear was covered by is relatives the Wakiya and his southern flank by the Otachi Ujiakira.

By 4 July Takauji's land force, under the command of Tadayoshi, and his own naval contingent had paused at points in Harima and exchanged messages. Tadayoshi's group was at Ichi-no-tani while Takauji rested his warriors and sailors at Akashi. Meanwhile, another ship-borne contingent under Hosokawa Jozen was regrouping off the coast of Shikkoku and would set out while the sky was still dark the next morning.

On the morning of 5 July, a day that promised to be hot and humid, Takauji gave the order to move to contact. Tadayoshi advanced eastward, his main body flanked to the south by Shoni Yorihisa and to the north by the warriors of the Shiba clan. While Takauji sailed around and prepared for a landing just east of the Minatogawa's mouth, Tadayoshi clashed with Kusunoki's picked men and soon became heavily engaged. Wakiya Sagisuke had repulsed a landing by Hosokawa and now Jozen moved to make another try further up the coast. Meanwhile, the Shoni had moved around Kusunoki's hard-pressed troops and clashed with Nitta's forward ranks. To the north, Shiba outflanked Kusunoki and advanced on Nitta's right. By this point, Takauji had landed and after regrouping struck Nitta's front. At this critical stage in the battle, Nitta received word that Hosokawa had landed behind the Imperialist army near the Ikutagawa. Nitta realized that the possibility now existed that Takauji might trap the defending army and defeat it in detail. Panicking and pressed from all sides, Yoshisada sounded a general retreat, which, unfortunately, left Kusunoki isolated. That redoubtable warrior fought against hopeless odds until he took his own life, by which time the battle was more or less decided. Go-Daigo's one hope for securing a continuation of his restoration had ended in complete defeat, and while Nitta and other surviving loyalists would fight on elsewhere, Takauji was triumphant.

Nitta managed to hold off the oncoming Ashikaga samurai long enough for Go-Daigo to flee Kyoto for the relative safety of the Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei. Takauji entered Kyoto a month or so after Minatogawa and received retired emperor Kogon-in, whom he rewarded generously. Anxious to put an end to the war while he was so far ahead, Takauji launched an attack on Mt. Hiei that made little progress. A loyalist counter-attack on 7 August caused some damage to Kyoto but resulted in the death of the force's commander, Nawa Nagatoshi. A virtual stalemate settled over the area, not broken until October, when Nitta Yoshisada failed in an attempt to drive Takauji from Kyoto. Continued resistance from Mt. Hiei was becoming more and more pointless, and perhaps to buy time Go-Daigo agreed to a cease-fire. He handed over the Imperial Regalia to the Ashikaga and fled to Yoshino while Nitta Yoshisada went with Prince Takanaga and holed up in southern Echizen. Takauji invested the Regalia on Prince Yakuhito, retired emperor Kogon-in's brother, who reigned as the Emperor Kômyô. Knowing that there was likely to be much fighting left to be done, Takauji made immediate rewards to those who had followed him to Kyoto and any who responded to subsequent calls to arms.

Perhaps to the frustration of Takauji, Go-Daigo would not go away. From Yoshino he loudly declared that the Imperial Regalia in Komyo's possession were in fact forgeries. Since the originals were necessary to have a legitimate succession, that meant that Go-Daigo was still the real emperor. He gained enough support to make his claim at least feasible, and the Period of the Southern and Northern Courts began.

Takauji responded to this new threat by bearing down on Nitta Yoshisada. Repeated attacks were launched against Nitta's stronghold of Kanagasaki in Echizen and in April 1337 it was brought down. Yoshisada himself escaped, but his son and Prince Takanaga were forced to commit suicide. The next year Ashikaga forces engaged Nitta in the Battle of Fujishima (August 1338) and in the course of the fighting Yoshisada was killed. Two months previously, another notable supporter of Go-Daigo, Kitabatake Akiie, was killed at the Battle of Ishizu (Izumi).

Takauji the Shogun

The Southern Court not withstanding, the deaths of Nitta and Kitabatake effectively sealed Takauji's hold on the country. In 1338 emperor Komyo gave Takauji the title he had long sought: Shôgun.

The government Takauji established was very much influenced by the political situation of the time. The threat the Southern Court posed his fledgling government compelled Takauji to place especially loyal retainers in the provinces he controlled, and in this virtual wartime environment the authority of the Shugo was much enhanced. Rather then essentially acting as go-betweens with the jito and other landowners and the Bakufu, the Shugo became military governors, of whom those with a history of loyalty to the Ashikaga (the Hosokawa and Akamatsu, for instance) became the strongest. Takauji kept his headquarters in Kyoto to stay close to Yoshino and in a centralized position, though he did maintain a political institution in Kamakura.

With the feud with Southern Court on going, Takauji had been content to hand over most political tasks to his brother Tadayoshi. By 1349, however, conflict had arisen between the two and Takauji dismissed Tadayoshi on the suspicion of treachery[1]. Takauji's son Tadafuyu, whom Tadayoshi had adopted, protested the move and in 1350 came to blows with his natural father. The realm seemed to teeter on the brink of a three way civil war between Takauji, Tadayoshi, and the Southern Court, with the latter gaining support as a result of the rift between the brothers. Tadayoshi was captured by Takauji's men in 1352 in Izu and poisoned, presumably on Takauji's orders. Tadafuyu responded by joining the Southern Court, whose cause was alive in the Kanto as the Nitta family joined with Tadayoshi's surviving followers and took to the field against Takauji. Takauji managed to defeat this group but learned of startling developments back in the capital. The new emperor of the Southern Court Go-Murakami (Prince Norinaga, whose father Go-Daigo had died in 1338) had taken advantage of Takauji's distraction to recapture Kyoto on 5 April 1352. The operation had been finely executed and hard fighting and considerable blood was required to dislodge Go-Murakami's adherents. Heavy fighting continued in the Kinai for the next three years, culminating in the January 1355 recapture of Kyoto by Go-Murakami's army. Takauji rallied his forces in Omi province and launched a counterattack that produced a string of fiercely contested struggles in March and a fight for the capital itself that occupied the better part of April.

Ashikaga Tadafuyu, present on the Southern side, fought tenaciously but by 25 April was driven out. Takauji's forces had been badly blooded in the last weeks of the fighting, and the future Ashikaga deputy Shôgun Hosokawa Yoriyuki was wounded, but Kyoto was secured. The Southern Court had expended its greatest efforts in the previous three years, and would never again pose so great a threat to the Ashikaga.

Takauji himself spent the next three years reorganizing his administration and was considering the idea of personally leading a campaign to Kyushu against the Shibuya family when he fell ill and died on 8 June 1358. Takauji was succeeded by his son Yoshiakira, who kept the Ashikaga government in Kyoto. The Southern Court would continue to resist until December 1392, though never as fiercely as had during Takauji's time. Takauji's new Bakufu, built out of the ashes of the Hojo and the failure of the Kemmu Restoration, would survive for a total of 15 generations but would in many ways be the weakest of Japan's military governments. Much had been sacrificed to the Shugo in the early years for the sake of necessity, and this would later come back to haunt the Bakufu. A few of the great houses could trace common cause with Takauji back to the earliest stages of his career (such as the Uesugi) and a number could claim strong familial bonds (including the Hosokawa and Imagawa) but many had been raised up out of necessity or expediency. This was in contrast to both the Minamoto and later Tokugawa models, and would prove fatal after the Onin War (1467-77). At the same time, Go-Daigo's failure and the subsequent fall of the Southern Court eliminated any chance of a return to Imperial rule for nearly 500 years.

A great soldier and a charismatic leader, the first of the Ashikaga Shôguns etched out a place in Japanese history by giving free rein to his own ambitions and those of the warrior class. Perhaps, given how unwilling the samurai were to relinquish political authority, Takauji was an inevitable figure, and he is often seen as a traitor, opportunist, and even (usually when connected to Kusunoki Masashige) a villain. Like so many of Japan's great samurai figures, just who Ashikaga Takauji was is really a matter of perspective.

Jizo and Takauji

Takauji had a bizarre obsession with Jizo, the bodhisattva who vowed not to pass into nirvana until the last soul in hell is redeemed. The Shogun even believed Jizo supported his military exploits. Since Jizo was usually viewed as the guardian of the lower castes, it was considered very eccentric for a samurai to be so devoted to him. Kannon and Hachiman were prefered by samurai instead. Takauji drew many pictures of his protector and also frenquently dreamed about Jizo. He radically claimed later in life to be a manifestation of the bodhisattva on Earth.

Preceded by:
Reign as Shogun
Succeeded by:
Ashikaga Yoshiakira

Notes to the Text

  1. Tadayoshi comes across as an entirely unsavory character, and even allowing for the biases of the Taiheki he does not appear to have been at all popular in his day. In particular, his murder of Prince Morinaga and the poisoning of Prince Tsunenaga, another of Go-Daigo's sons, was considered villainous.


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