Mori Motonari

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The Lord of Koriyama

Mori Motonari.

Motonari inherited a clan that claimed direct descent from Ôe Hiromoto (大江広元, 1148-1225), an advisor to Minamoto Yoritomo who served the Hôjô well after Yoritomo's death. Hiromoto's son assumed the name Môri, and in 1336 Aki province became the clan's homeland when Môri Tokichika was appointed Jito there. The clan experienced a power struggle in the 1470's that saw the main Môri line absorb both its branch families.

Motonari was the second son of Môri Hiromoto, a daimyo in Aki Province who struggled against the local Takeda clan and the encroaching Ôuchi. His mother was a daughter of Fukubara Hirotoshi [福原広俊]. In 1499, Hiromoto found himself in the path of a looming Amako invasion from Izumo, and allied with Oûchi. At the time, Ôuchi Yoshioki was becoming involved in the gunboat politics of Kyoto and while he was away, the Amako grew stronger. In 1506 Hiromoto died, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Okimoto, who ended up assisting Yoshioki in Kyoto for a short period. Motonari, meanwhile, was given his manhood ceremony in 1511. It happened that Okimoto died in 1516, and Motonari was named to act as guardian to the late lord's young son, Komatsumaru [幸松丸]. The most powerful daimyo in Aki, Takeda Motoshige, took advantage of Okimoto's death to launch an attack on the Môri and Kikkawa domains, bringing 5,000 men to attack Arita Castle [有田城]. Motonari led an allied army of some 1,000 out to contest the Takeda. The Takeda's vanguard commander, Kumagai Motonao [熊谷元直] killed in the first action and in response Motoshige himself lead the army against Motonari but was himself killed by an arrow crossing the Mataouchigawa (又打川). This Battle of Arita-Nakaide [有田中井手の戦い], possibly Motonari's first action, was a pivotal moment for the Môri and increased their influence in Aki Province greatly. However, some time after this, the Amako, as part of their ongoing conflict with the Ôuchi, compelled the Môri to ally with them. In 1522, Motonari married the daughter of Kikkawa Kunitsune, known today as Myôkyû [妙玖]. This match secured the friendship of the Kikkawa and would in time produce three fine sons.

In 1523 the Amako launced an attack against Ôuchi holdings in Aki and Motonari led the Môri in service in Amako Tsunehisa's army. The Amako were initally repulsed in their attempts to bring down Kagamiyama Castle, held by Kurata Fusanobu (蔵田房信). Motonari suggested a trick that resulted in Fusanobu's murder. The castle fell and Motonari himself gained further prestige. Later that same year, Komatsumaru died. Motonari was nominated by the family's retainers to become the official head of the clan. His younger brother, Sôgô Mototsuna (相合元綱, d.1524), resented the decision and plotted against Motonari, only to be discovered and at length forced to commit suicide. His supporter Katsura Hirozumi and others were also killed or committed suicide. Relations between the Môri and the Amako declined over the next few years and Motonari decided to cut his ties with the Amako and allied his clan with the Ôuchi.

In 1528, Ôuchi Yoshioki passed away and was succeeded by his son Yoshitaka. The Amako made an effort to capitalize on this turn of events, but with only minimal success. Meanwhile, Motonari set about consolidating the Môri's holdings in Aki, and gathering local allies, chief among these being the Shisido, Kumagai, and Amano. Efforts by the Amako to bring the Môri back under their sway failed, and in 1540 (Tenbun 9/8/10) Amako Akihisa (Haruhisa) dispatched a sizable army drawn from all his holdings into Aki with the intention of bringing down Koriyama Castle. Motonari was heavily outnumbered and shut himself up in Koriyama, sending out raids to harrass the Amako troops under cover of darkness and fog and calling for aid from the Ôuchi. The Amako destroyed a number of Koriyama's outlying forts and burned Koriyama's accompanying town, Yoshida, to the ground. Still unable to convince Motonari to submit, the Amako attempted to besiege Koriyama. Ôuchi Yoshitaka dispatched his general Sue Takafusa (Harukata) to relieve Koriyama, and in early October Sue arrived and combined forces with Motonari and a number of hard-fought battles ensued. The Battle of Yoshida-Koriyama Castle [吉田郡山城の戦い], a term generally applied to the overall campaign but consisting of a number of stages and engagements that lasted for the rest of the year, ended in defeat for the Amako with the withdrawal of their battered army out of Aki at the beginning of 1541. The defeat of the Amako had the benefit of isolating the Môri's enemies, the Takeda, who had come to rely on the Amako for aid. Motonari threatened Kanayama Castle [銀山城] and Takeda Nobusane [武田信実] fled to Izumo and the castle was afterwards surrendered. This marked the end of the Aki Takeda's power.

Amako Tsunehisa died in November 1541. Sensing a great opportunity in the passing of this formidable and considering Haruhisa's damaging defeat at Koriyama, Oûchi Yoshitaka and Môri planned a campaign to bring down Gassan-Toda Castle. The combined forces mobilized in January of 1542 (Tenbun 11/1). The Oûchi brought down Akana Castle [赤穴城] on the Iwami-Izumo border after a three month siege and eventually the allies approached Gassan-Toda, well into the year. By this time their troops were weary and at the absolute limits of their supply lines and numerically not powerful enough to storm the castle. After some fighting after the new year, the allies conceded defeat and withdrew, harried as they went by the Amako. The 1st Battle of Gassan-Toda Castle [月山富田城の戦い] marked a turning point in the fortunes of the western provinces. Motonari returned to Koriyama to lick his wounds while Yoshitaka, his confidence said to have been forever shattered by the fiasco, withdrew into Yamaguchi and increasingly relied on his senior retainers to manage the Oûchi domain. In fact, the failed expedition could be seen as benefiting the Môri in the long run. With Yoshitaka's lapse into inactivity, Motonari had more room to expand throughout Aki and consolidate his power. In the meantime, the Amako took advantage of their recent victory to push their influence into the lands to their east, Hôki Province, Mimasaka Province, and Bitchû Province.

Over the next few years, Motonari concluded alliances with such powers as the Kumagai and [Western Murakami clan|Murakami], the latter a family consisting of three branches that was essentially an Inland Sea pirate organization. Môri's alliance with Murakami Torayasu would pay dividends for years to come. In 1550 Motonari arranged for his sons to assume the leadership of two powerful Aki clans-the Kikkawa and Kobayakawa. His second son Motoharu went to the Kikkawa, and his third son, Takakage, went to the Kobayakawa. Motonari's eldest son and heir, a onetime goodwill hostage of the Oûchi, was Takamoto, the father of the future Môri Terumoto. By 1550, both Motoharu and Takakage had become the lords of their respective clans, and not a moment too soon, for turmoil erupted in Suo.

The Battle of Miyajima

As mentioned, Oûchi Yoshitaka had retreated from affairs of state following the Izumo debacle in 1543. During the next seven years, he handed over most martial matters to his retainers, notably the Naitô and Sue Harukata (Takafusa). It would seem that Sue had attempted again and again to warn his lord against neglecting military affairs, going so far as to insinuate that someone close to the Ôuchi might rebel. In 1550, Sue himself revolted. When Harukata revolted, Yoshikata was forced to flee Yamaguchi and, finding that none of his major retainers were willing to help him, committed suicide. Sue quickly made a thin attempt to legitimize his actions by arranging for Ôtomo Haruhide, a son of Ôtomo Sôrin whose mother was the daughter of Ôuchi Yoshioki, to be installed in Yamaguchi as Ôuchi Yoshinaga. Môri's immediate reaction to Sue's rebellion is unknown, but for the next few years he paid the new lord of the Ôuchi lip service. Motonari contented himself with expanding the Môri presence in Bingo province, taking Takiyama Castle in 1552.

In 1554 Motonari dropped all pretenses and broke from Sue, prompting the latter to gather a large army of as many as 30,000 men. Motonari, while stronger then ever, could scarcely muster half that. Nonetheless, he fared well in the early stages of their conflict, defeating Sue troops at Oshikihata in June. By using what had already become hallmark Môri trickery and by bribing a number of Sue's men, Motonari managed to balance out the odds somewhat. For his part, Sue made no major moves against Koriyama, and with the end of the year's campaigning season, Motonari was allowed some breathing space.

In the early summer of 1555, Sue was again threatening, and Motonari was hard-pressed. Harukata was by no means a poor fighter, and the danger of his retainers and allies deserting the Môri led Motonari to adopt a bold and unorthodox scheme. His plan involved Miyajima, home to the Itskushima Shrine and a place combatants had traditionally avoided on religious grounds. The suggestion to occupy this place, which was strategically located just off the Aki coast in the Inland Sea, actually came from Môri's generals. Initially, Motonari refused the idea on tactical grounds. For Miyajima to be a viable base of operations, Sakurao castle [桜尾城], the nearest fort on the mainland to Miyajima, would also have to be held. Should Sakurao fall, any army on Miyajima risked being isolated. Yet Môri's own doubts led him to attempt to lure Sue into just such a tactical dilemma. Naturally, for the plan to work Sue would have to act accordingly, and for inducement, Motonari immediately gave orders that Miyajima was to be occupied, and a fort thrown up quite near the Itskushima shrine. In September, Sue fell into the trap. He landed with the bulk of his army on Miyajima and attacked Miyao Castle [宮尾城]. When the island had been secured, Sue threw up a few fortifications on To-no-oka (Pagoda Hill) and sat down to plot strategy. From his point of view, it should be noted, the capture of Miyajima was a strategic boon. From this secure springboard he could embark to almost any point along the Aki coast, as well as Bingo. Since the following autumn, Môri had assumed a largely defensive posture, and Sue had some reason to feel comfortable in his new forward headquarters. Sue grew complacent.

Môri retook Sakurao and called on the support of his naval ally, Murakami Torayoshi. Gathering the pirate's naval strength, he set out to surprise Sue on Miyajima, and picked a perfect night on which to do so. On the night of 16 October (Tenbun 24 10/1), in a driving thunderstorm, Motonari and his sons put to sea. As a diversion, Takakage sailed straight past the Sue positions on To-no-oka while Motonari, Takamoto, and Motoharu landed just to the east and out of sight. Takakage doubled back around and landed at dawn, attacking the Sue forces practically in the shadow of Miyajima's great Torii Gate. Motonari then assaulted the confused Sue troops from behind, and the result was a rout for Harukata, who committed suicide at Oe Bay (Oe no ura, 大江浦), a small island inlet. Many of his troops followed suit, and for Motonari, the Battle of Itsukushima [厳島の戦い] was utterly decisive. While it would take the Môri until 1557 to force Oûchi Yoshinaga to commit suicide and years longer to completely bring Suo and Nagato under their control, Motonari was now the most powerful lord in western Japan. He officially retired in favor of Takamoto in 1557 although he retained substainal authority over most clan affairs.

Command of the Western Provinces

Mori domain.jpg

The next five years were occupied with reorganizing the newly acquired Ôuchi territories. In addition, a string of battles with the powerful Kyushu daimyô Ôtomo, allies of the Ôuchi and then the Amako. Fighting centered around Moji castle, a vital stronghold in the extreme northern tip of Buzen province. Moji would change hands a number of times until finally being secured by Takamoto in 1561. Motonari continued his efforts in Iwami and in 1560, Honjô Tsunemitsu [本城常光] abandoned the Amako and joined Môri. Tsunemitsu had changed sides a number of times over the years, between the Ôuchi and Amako, and in 1562, when it became practical, Motonari had him murdered to avoid being betrayed himself. Amako Haruhisa died suddenly in the 1st month of 1561, leaving his weaker son Yoshihisa to carry on the struggle. Little assistance was forthcoming from Gassan-Toda to the Amako's retainers in Iwami and in 1562 the Iwami Silver Mines were taken.

Motonari pushed into Izumo and a campaign was then directed to cut Gassan-Toda off from its supply lines. In the 9th month of 1563, Takamoto, returning from Kyushu on his way to join his father in Izumo, died suddenly at the mansion of Watchi Saneharu [和智誠春] in Bingo Province. Motonari, grief-stricken by the news, later named Takamoto's young son, Terumoto, as the heir and in the meantime continued to rule despite his advancing years. Although no specific cause of Takamoto's death was ever given, foul play was suspected as Takamoto had fallen ill shortly after dinner. The suddeness of his death does suggest that he ingested poison of some kind. Motonari was sufficiently suspicious of Watchi to have both him and his younger brother murdered some years later, although his son was spared and the Watchi house was allowed to continue.

In the fall of 1563 the Môri invested Shiraga Castle [白鹿城], a vital 'satellite' of Gassan-Toda in Izumo held by Matsuda Michihisa [松田満久]. An Amako effort led by Yoshihisa's younger brother Tomohisa to relieve the garrison failed and the castle surrendered after 70 days when its water supply was cut. Michihisa committed suicide but his son Masayasu [誠保] escaped and would reemerge with the attempted Amako restoration years later. In the meantime, Shiraga's fall all but isolated Gassan-Toda and Môri led his 15,000 men on to the Amako stronghold in the spring of 1564. This campaign is known as the 2nd Battle of Gassan-Toda. Heavily outnumbered and facing starvation, Yoshihisa nonetheless managed to resist one Môri assault in April that cost Motonari some moderate losses and forced him to withdraw to reorganize. In the 8th month of 1565, Motonari returned, and this time resolved to starve Gassan-Toda into submission. To assist in this policy, Motonari let it be known that the Môri would accept no deserters from the castle, content to keep all of the besieged within the walls and eating up the Amako's dwindling supplies. Yoshihisa then falsely accused his retainer Uyama Hisakane [宇山久兼] of treason in the 1st month of 1566 and had him killed. The morale of the starving defenders crumbled. Finally, in the 11th month, Yoshihisa surrendered and was exiled to the Enmyouji [円明寺] in Aki Province.

Motonari lived for five more years, passing away at the age of 74 at Koriyama Castle, having become one of the greatest warlords of the mid-16th Century. Under his leadership the Môri had expanded from a few districts in Aki to rule over ten of the Chugoku's eleven provinces. Motonari was known even in his day as a master of wiles and trickery, a warlord whose schemes won as many battles as his soldiers. His greatest victories: Arita-Nakaide, Yoshida-Koriyama, and Itskushima had all been against numerically superior foes and involved bold action on Motonari's part. Interestingly, he is possibly best remembered, at least outside Japan, for an event that probably never took place-the 'lesson of the three arrows'. In this parable, Motonari gives each of his three sons an arrow to break. He then gives them three arrows bundled, and points out that while one may be broken easily, not so three united as one. The three sons were of course Takamoto, Motoharu, and Takakage, and the lesson is one that Japanese children still learn in school today. He in fact had a total of six other sons, two of which appear to have died in childhood. The others included Motoaki, Motokiyo, Motomasa and (Kobayakawa) Hidekane.

Shiji Hiroyoshi, Kuchiba Michiyoshi, Kumagai Nobunao, Fukuhara Sadatoshi, Katsura Motozumi, Kodama Naritada, Kokushi Motosuke, Hiraga Hirosuke, and Ichikawa Tsuneyoshi assisted Môri Motonari in his rule. His greatest generals, however, were his own sons Kobayakawa Takakage and Kikkawa Motoharu, the 'Two Rivers' (a play on the 'Kawa' charactors in their names).

The well known 'one line, three stars' emblem of the Môri was inherited from the family's descendant, Ôe Hiromoto.

In addition to being a gifted general Motonari was also a noted poet and patron of the arts. Surviving letters written by his grandson Môri Terumoto describe Motonari as a strict and demanding man with a sharp eye. He was succeeded by Terumoto, who was the son of the late Takamoto.

Motonari, his wife, and three of his sons are buried at Ôbai-in, a sub-temple of Daitokuji in Kyoto.[1]

Motonari in Fiction


  • Mori Motonari 36th NHK Taiga Drama 1997


  • Bessatsu Rekishi Tokuhon Sengoku no Kassen Shin Jinbutsu Ôrai Co. 1998
  • Hall, John Whitney, Nagahara Keiji and Kozo Yamamura, eds. Japan Before Tokugawa Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1981
  • Rekishi Gunzô Shirizu #49, Môri Senki Gakken, Japan, 1997
  • Initial text from FWSeal & CEWest, 2005
  • Sengoku Jinmei Jiten