Imagawa Ryoshun

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  • Born: 1325 or 1326
  • Died: 1420
  • Other Name: Imagawa Sadayo
  • Japanese: 今川了俊 (Imagawa Ryôshun)

Imagawa Ryôshun was a renowned Japanese poet and military commander who served as Tandai ("constable") of Kyushu under the Ashikaga Bakufu from 1371 to 1395. He was also the author of the "Nan-Taiheiki", a critique of the "TaiHeiki" which he wrote in 1402. His father, Imagawa Norikuni, had been a supporter of the first Ashikaga Shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, and for his services had been granted the position of constable of Suruga province (modern-day Shizuoka prefecture). This promotion increased the prestige of the Imagawa family (a warrior family dating from the Muromachi Period, which was related by blood to the Ashikaga shoguns) considerably, and they remained an important family through to the Edo Period.

Imagawa Ryôshun's early life

During his early years Ryôshun was taught Buddhism, Confucianism and Chinese, archery, and the military arts such as strategy and horse-back riding by his father (governor of the Tôkaidô sea provinces Tôtômi and Suruga), along with poetry, which was to become one of his greatest passions. In his twenties he studied under Tamemoto of the Kyogoku school of poetry, and Reizei Tamehide of the Reizei school. At some point, he was appointed to head the boards of retainers and coadjudicators. He had taken religious vows when the Ashikaga Bakufu called upon him to travel to Kyushu and assume the post of constable of the region in 1370 after the failure of the previous constable to quell the rebel uprisings in the region, largely consisting of partisans of the Southern Court supporting one of the rebellious Emperor Go-Daigo's sons, Prince Kanenaga. By 1374-1375, Ryôshun had crushed the rebellion, securing for the Bakufu northern Kyushu, and ensuring the eventual failure of the rebellion and the consequent success of the Shogunate.

Kyushu Tandai (1371-1395)

Ryôshun's skill as a strategist was obvious, and he moved rapidly through northern Kyushu with a great deal of success, bringing the region under his control by October 1372. This was an impressive achievement considering Prince Kanenaga had been fortifying his position in this region for more than a decade. Kanenaga was not defeated outright however, and went on the defensive, leading to a stalemate that lasted through to 1374, when Kanenaga's general, Kikuchi Takemitsu, died, leaving his military with no strong leader. Ryôshun seized the opportunity and planned a final attack.

Ryôshun met with three of the most powerful families on Kyushu to gain their support in the attack, those families being the Shimazu, the Ôtomo and the Shôni. Things seemed to be going well until Ryôshun suspected the head of the Shôni family of treachery and had him killed at a drinking party. This outraged the Shimazu, who had originally been the ones to convince the Shôni to throw their lot in with Ryôshun, and they returned to their province of Satsuma to raise a force against Ryôshun. This gave Prince Kanenaga time to regroup, and he forced Ryôshun back North, prompting Ryôshun to request assistance from the Bakufu.

Help never arrived, forcing Ryôshun to take matters in to his own hands, and he continued to push the loyalists forces until their resistance ended with Prince Kanenaga's death in 1383. The death of Shimazu chieftain Ujimasa in 1385 also helped ease tensions between Ryôshun and the Shimazu for a time.

In 1395 both the Ôuchi and Ôtomo families conspired against Ryôshun, informing the Bakufu that he was plotting against the Shogun, in a move that was likely an attempt to restore the post of constable to the family that had held it prior to Ryôshun, the Shibukawa family. Ryôshun was relieved of his post and returned to the capital. Ryôshun had, in addition, acted fairly independently in his negotiations with the Shimazu, the Ôtomo and the Shôni, and also in negotiations with Korea; this recall was prompted by all three causes being used against by his enemies in the Shogun's court.

Later years (1395-1420)

In 1400 Ryôshun was once again questioned by the Bakufu, this time in relation to the Imagawa province of Tôtômi's failure to respond to a levy issued by the Bakufu - a negligence interpretable as treason and rebellion. This charge saw Ryôshun stripped of his post as constable of Suruga and Tôtômi provinces, and gave him reason to believe he might be assassinated. With this in mind he fled the capital for a time, though was later pardoned and returned to the capital, spending the rest of his days pursuing religious devotions and poetry until his death in 1420.

Ryôshun's poetry

Ryôshun began composing poetry from an early age: by the age 20, he had a poem included in an imperial anthology (the Fugashu or "Collection of Elegance"). His teacher was Reizei no Tamehide (d. 1372). His poems were displayed to more effect in his fairly popular and influential travel diary, Michiyukiburi ("Travellings"). It was this travel diary that in large part won Ryôshun a place as a respected critic of poetry: he felt that poetry should be a direct expression of personal experience, a fact that can be seen from his own poems.

Even though Ryôshun is better known for his criticism of the more conservative poetry styles, the Nijô school in particular, and his tutoring of Shôtetsu (1381-1459), who would become one of the finest waka poets of the fifteenth century, than he is for his own output, it nonetheless provides a glimpse in to the mind of this medieval scholar and his travels.

Ryôshun was active in the poetic disputes of that day, scoring a signal victory over the Nijô adherents close to the Ashikaga Shogunate at the time with 6 polemical treatises on poetry he wrote between 1403 and 1412, defending the Reizei's poetic doctrine and their cause (despite Ryôshun's renga poetry's debt to Nijô Yoshimoto's (1320-1388) examples and rules of composition). Ryôshun used a number of quotations to bolster his case, including notably a quote of Fujiwara no Teika's, which was that all of the "ten styles" (Teika had defined ten orthodox poetic styles, such as yoen, a style concerned with "ethereal beauty", yûgen, the demon-quelling style, or the one the Nijô championed to the exclusion of the other 9, ushin) were licit for poetic use and experimentation, and not merely the Nijô's ushin. With the aid Ryôshun afforded him, Fujiwara no Tanemasa's politicking eventually succeeded in converting the Shogun, ending the matter- until the rival Asukai poetic clan revived the dispute, that is.

Select poems

Japanese English
Chiru hana o
Semete tamoto ni
So o dani kaze no
Nasake to omowan.
The least it could do
Is blow the scattering blossoms
into my sleeves -
Then I could at least believe
The wind has some compassion.

Japanese English
Nami no ue ni
Shio yaku ka to
Mietsuru wa
Ama no obune ni
Taku hi narikeri.
What had looked like fires
Tended by seaweed burners
Out on the waves
Turned out to be torches aflame
On the boats of fishermen.

Japanese English
Tomone nariseba
Tabi no umibe mo
Nani ka ukaran.
Oh, to share the night
In talking with these fisher-poets-
For then the miseries
Pressing the pillow-grass of travel
Would no longer wash my seaside path.


  • A History of Japan, 1334-1615, by George Sansom, Stanford University Press, reprinted 1991.
  • Waiting for the Wind: Thirty-Six Poets of Japan's Late Medieval Age, translated by Steven D. Carter, Columbia University Press, 1989.
  • Unforgotten dreams: poems by the Zen monk Shôtetsu, 1997. Steven D. Carter, Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10576-2
  • An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, by Earl Miner. 1968, Stanford University Press, LC 68-17138
  • "The Imagawa Letter: A Muromachi Warrior's Code of Conduct Which Became a Tokugawa Schoolbook", by Carl Steenstrup. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 28, No. 3. (Autumn, 1973), pp. 295-316.