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Ôtomo Sôrin, or Yoshishige, was a prominent Sengoku period daimyô of northern Kyushu. At his peak, he controlled six provinces.[1]

Sôrin was born the eldest son of Ôtomo Yoshiaki, lord of Funai, head of a clan that traced its roots to a certain Fujiwara Hidesato, the adopted son of Nakahara Chikayoshi. Fujiwara served Minamoto no Yoritomo during the Gempei War and fought in Mutsu in 1189. In 1193 he was named shugo of Buzen and Bungo provinces, and took the name Ôtomo.

Ôtomo Sadamune, the 5th head of the family, sided with Ashikaga Takauji during the latter’s struggle for power and in 1336 joined him in marching on Kyoto. Sadamune was involved in fighting with Nitta Yoshisada and later that same year lost his son Sadanori in a struggle with Yuki Chikamitsu.

Later in the Namboku-chô Period, Sadamune’s great-grandson Chikayo fought against his neighbors the Kikuchi, who supported the Southern Court. As a result of Sadamune’s activities, Ôtomo influence was extended into Chikuzen, Hizen, and Higo. During this period he assisted the Chinzei (Kyushu) Tandai Imagawa Sadayo, but once the fighting was over, he banded with the Ôuchi to have Sadayo removed.

The Ôtomo weathered the Ônin War (1467-1477) and entered the 16th Century in a stronger position than many other old shugo clans. Tensions with the Ôuchi of Suo and Nagato provinces brought a war in 1501, and a victory for the Ôtomo at Uma-ga-take in Buzen. Other feuds with other local clans followed, and at various points over the next five decades the Ôtomo clashed with the Shôni, Tawara, and Tachibana-the last two eventually becoming Ôtomo vassals. The Hoshino family of Chikuzen also submitted but later revolted, their bid for independence dragging the current daimyo, Ôtomo Yoshinori (Yoshiaki) into a bitter civil war. In 1550 Yoshinori was murdered by one of his own retainers, a certain Tsukuni Mimasaka, in the Nikaikuzure Incident, and his son Yoshishige became the 21st head of the Ôtomo. As it was said that Yoshinori had planned to disinherit Yoshishige, rumors circulated that patricide had claimed the old daimyo. Regardless, Yoshishige proved a capable enough leader, and moved to expand the Ôtomo’s borders deeper into Kyushu. The following year, his younger brother Ôuchi Haruhide succeeded the assassinated Ôuchi Yoshiaka as head of the Ôuchi clan of Suô province.[1]

In 1551 Yoshishige fought and defeated the rebellious Kikuchi Yoshimune of Higo; in 1557 he invaded Chikuzen and forced Akizuki Kiyotane into submission. In September of 1559 he led an assault that recaptured Moji castle, which had been lost to the Môri clan in 1558. The Môri retook Moji soon afterwards and in October 1561 Yoshishige attempted to reclaim this strategic prize with an all-out assault that included a number of cannon-equipped Portuguese warships. The warships were used to credible effect, but Yoshishige’s subsequent attack failed, and Moji remained in Môri hands.

In 1562 Yoshishige took the name Sambisai Sôrin, and it is as Ôtomo Sôrin that he is best known. That same year, the Ôtomo accepted an alliance with the Môri’s enemies to the east, the Amako, and attacked the Môri holdings in Buzen. Môri Takamoto, assisted by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru, managed to arrange a peace treaty. One of Sôrin’s daughters was arranged in marriage to Môri Terumoto, Takamoto’s young son, though it does not appear that this union ever actually took place.

In 1564 Ôtomo Sôrin had to quell a rebellion by the rebellious and fiercely independent Akizuki of Chikuzen. In 1568 the Ôtomo moved against the Ryûzôji of Hizen, an operation that prompted the interference of the Môri clan. The Ôtomo vassal Hetsugi Akitsura was defeated at the Battle of Tatarahama and in 1569 lost Tachibana castle (Chikuzen) to the powerful Môri expeditionary force. Sôrin responded by threatening the Môri’s Buzen foothold, and forced the Môri to retreat.

By this point, Sôrin could claim control of Bungo, most of Buzen, Chikuzen, Chikugo, and considerable influence over Higo and Hizen. Ôtomo banners even flew over forts in Iyo, taken from the hostile Kono clan. The Ôtomo army was known as the Ôtomo shichikakoku no zei, or the Seven-Province Host of the Ôtomo. On paper, Ôtomo Sôrin was a mighty daimyo, and led a powerful clan seemingly destined for regional supremacy. Yet two factors were to undermine Sôrin’s ambitions, both of which may well have proved fatal in and of themselves - the Shimazu clan and internal weakness within the Ôtomo itself. To touch on the latter problem first, the Ôtomo do not appear to have ever achieved the sort of control over their retainers that other successful Sengoku daimyo did. Some of their most important vassals, notably the Tachibana (formerly known as the Hekki) and Tamura, were hardly vassals at all, rather allies who operated with a degree of independence that all but made them daimyo themselves.

Sôrin’s embracing of Christianity no doubt created dissension in the Ôtomo lands. In 1551 Sôrin entertained Francis Xavier and allowed the establishment of a Jesuit mission in Bungo. Sôrin was exceedingly friendly to the advocates of the new religion, and while this was no doubt motivated in part by the weapons and commercial opportunities the westerners offered, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Sôrin was taken by Christianity. Certainly, the advantages offered by the missionaries were outweighed by the difficulties Christianity incurred. Sôrin’s own wife, a woman known to us by the nickname ‘Jezebel’ (a tag assigned the lady, of course, by the Jesuits) was an ardent opponent of Christianity and many of the Ôtomo retainers complained at the activities of the missionaries, which included the desecration of Buddhist and Shinto sites. Sôrin indulged most of the missionaries’ requests and in 1575 had a son baptized. In 1578 Sôrin divorced his wife and was himself baptized, assuming the name Francisco. Two years previously he had retired, and handed over the reins of government to his son Yoshimune, also a Christian known as Constantinho). By this point, the Shimazu clan had entered the picture, and created a crisis in Hyûga.

After nearly a decade of fighting, Shimazu Yoshihisa had defeated the Ito clan and forced the daimyo, Ito Yoshisuke, to flee north and take shelter in the Ôtomo’s domain. Ôtomo Yoshimune, perhaps looking to prove himself as a leader, decided to attack Hyûga before the Shimazu had an opportunity to consolidate their gains. Yoshimune called up an army and prepared to take the field, ignoring the objections of his retainers who felt this sort of campaign would only encourage the Ôtomo’s other enemies to attack. With as many as 40,000 men under arms, Yoshimune marched into Hyûga, to be followed by his father, who was said to have desired the founding of a model Christian town in Hyûga.

The first resistance they encountered was that of Tsuchimochi Chikanari, lord of Matsuo castle (present day Nobeoka). A warrior of some ability who had earlier betrayed Ito Yoshisuke and joined the Shimazu, Chikanari was overwhelmed by the Ôtomo host and his lands earmarked by Sôrin for the planned Christian paradise. At this point, Sôrin and Yoshimune sent the main army on ahead, under the command of Tawara Chikataka. Tawara, a man who had in the past showed himself at least reasonably capable, was Sôrin’s brother-in-law (through Sôrin’s new wife) and politically sound. In the meantime, Sôrin and Yoshimune set about destroying all of the Buddhist and Shinto shrines in the Tsuchimochi lands, an activity that angered the local population and caused disquiet among the Ôtomo retainers.

Tawara crossed the Omaru River and paused before Taka-jô, the only castle aside to offer resistance thus far. The 3,000-man garrison was under the command of the skilled Shimazu Iehisa, who was determined to hold out as long as possible, giving his elder brother Yoshihisa time to prepare the Shimazu army. Tawara, not unwisely, decided to bypass Taka-jô, leaving a screening force to keep Iehisa pinned down and, hopefully, to wither on the vine. At the same time, it seems that Tawara was confident that the Shimazu, whose reputation was traditionally none too impressive, posed little threat. Consequently little effort was made to gather intelligence on what was transpiring beyond the southern Hyûga hills that lay before the Ôtomo army. In fact, Yoshihisa had rallied an army and driven north, executing a series of maneuvers that led to the Battle of Mimigawa. The battle ended in a complete disaster for the Ôtomo - thousands of troops were killed and thousands of others scattered, with the ‘Seven-Province Host’ in pell-mell retreat. Sôrin and his son joined the flight and returned to Bungo crest-fallen. The fortunes of the Ôtomo had taken a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse, and declined with every year thereafter. The following year the Ôtomo were largely driven from Chikugo by the Ryûzôji, and suffered another rebellion by Akizuki Tanezane. In Bungo itself, dissension was rife, in many cases as a result of Sôrin’s continued support of Christianity. In fact, the Ôtomo were in such poor shape that Shimazu Yoshihisa saw fit to call for a cease-fire. The beleaguered Ôtomo readily agreed, freeing Yoshihisa to fight an enemy he considered a much more dangerous opponent – Ryûzôji Takanobu.

By 1586 the fortunes of the Ôtomo had reached their nadir. Ryûzôji Takanobu had been killed, allowing Shimazu Yoshihisa to return his attentions to Bungo. In May Sôrin left Usuki, his place of retirement, and traveled to Osaka to see Toyotomi Hideyoshi, from whom he pleaded assistance against the Shimazu. Hideyoshi had no doubt planned to march on Kyushu anyway, but Sôrin provided a convenient excuse made all the more substantial when the Shimazu refused to agree to a Toyotomi-brokered peace deal. In December 1586 the first Toyotomi troops landed on Kyushu and while these men joined Ôtomo Yoshimune in a defeat at the Battle of Hetsugigawa, the massive army that followed swept the Shimazu all the way back to Satsuma.

Sôrin passed away later that year, his family seemingly secure in their hereditary fiefdom of Bungo if no longer independent. Unfortunately, Yoshimune had one further mistake to make. Tasked with leading 6,000 men to Korea as part of Hideyoshi’s invasion in 1592, Yoshimune displayed cowardice during fighting with Chinese troops near Pyongyang. Learning of a sizable Chinese force moving into the area, Yoshimune abandoned an important fort, an action that caused him to be sent home in disgrace and then stripped of his lands. He sided with Ishida Mitsunari during the Sekigahara Campaign and was exiled afterwards. He died in 1605, the last head of the Ôtomo family.

Yoshimune’s father Sôrin was in many ways an enigma, a figure that defies easy explanation. Was Sôrin, the most important Japanese ever to be baptized, sincere in his new faith and a crusader of the Christian cause? Or was he merely pragmatic, an opportunist who saw something to be gained by paying lip service to the foreigners and their religious ideas? Little studied in the West, Ôtomo Sôrin and his clan stand, if nothing else, as an interesting chapter in the Sengoku period.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Ôtomo Yoshishige," Satsuma Shimazu-ke no rekishi, Shôkoshûseikan official website.