Shimazu Yoshihisa

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The grave of Shimazu Yoshihisa, located alongside that of his father, at Fukushô-ji in Kagoshima
  • Born: 1533/2/9
  • Died: 1611/1/21
  • Distinction: 16th Lord of the Shimazu clan
  • Other Names: 島津龍伯 (Shimazu Ryuuhaku)
  • Japanese: 島津義久 (Shimazu Yoshihisa)

Shimazu Yoshihisa was the 16th head of the Shimazu clan.

A son of Shimazu Takahisa, he is known for reuniting the provinces of Satsuma, Ôsumi, and Hyûga under Shimazu control, and came close to conquering all of Kyushu before being defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whose Kyushu Campaign of 1587 came just as Yoshihisa was about to complete his conquests. Following the battle of Sekigahara, he was reaffirmed in his territory by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1602, but was not granted permission to invade Ryûkyû Kingdom; the invasion would come seven years later, under his nephew, Shimazu Iehisa, who was eventually granted permission by the shogunate.

Yoshihisa's Advance

Shimazu Yoshihisa was the eldest son of Shimazu Takahisa (1514-1571). His mother was the daughter of Iriki-In Shigesato. He was named Shuri-daibu in 1564.

Takahisa took the tonsure in 1566, making Yoshihisa head of the Shimazu clan at that time. Yoshihisa continued the long struggle to unify the fragmented Shimazu domain. To this end he was compelled to subdue both the Tomotsuki and Hisikari within the borders of Satsuma and Ôsumi while fighting hard to fend off advances from the outside lords Sagara Yoshihi and Ito Yoshisuke. In these difficult endeavors Yoshihisa was well-served by his brothers (Yoshihiro, Iehisa, and Toshihisa) and his steadily growing retainer band, which included the noted generals Ijuin Tadamune, Niiro Tadamoto, and Uwai Akitane. His first wife was the daughter of his grandfather, Shimazu Takayoshi and thus his aunt. He was very fond of her, as evidenced by his grief when she died. His second wife was the daughter of Tanegashima Tokitada. The existence of a third wife is presumed but her identity is uncertain.

Once he had defeated his rivals in Satsuma and Ôsumi, and brought around the Iriki-in and Togo to his side, Yoshihisa was able to concentrate on his greatest threat: Itô Yoshisuke. The latter controlled much of southern Hyûga, and from the vital castle of Obi was threatening the borders of the Shimazu domain. In 1572 the Shimazu and Ito fought a fierce battle at Kizakihara [木崎原の戦い] that saw 300 Shimazu defeat an Ito army of as many as 3,000. The conclusion of this battle saw the Itô seriously battered and Yoshihisa in a position to expand northward. Four years later Yoshihisa and his brothers led some 6,000 men into Hyûga and defeated the Itô again at Takabaru. The war was decisively turned against Yoshisuke in January 1578, when he suffered yet another defeat at Kamiya. Largely abandoned by his followers, the once-proud Itô lord fled to the lands of the Ôtomo and begged asylum. His former capital, Sadowara, was occupied soon afterwards by the Shimazu.

The battles in southern Hyûga in 1578 had established Yoshihisa as a great warrior and had the additional benefit of increasing the confidence of his followers. Almost overnight, the ranks of the Shimazu swelled - and not a moment too soon, for the Otomo had taken notice of the disturbance on their southern border. Determined to nip the Shimazu menace in the bud, the father and son team of Ôtomo Sôrin and Yoshimune gathered a great army from the considerable Ôtomo domain (which included much of northern Kyushu) and marched into southern Hyûga.

Yoshihisa had by now returned to Satsuma, having left his brother Iehisa with a thousand men to watch the border at Taka Castle [高城]. The advancing Ôtomo quickly crushed the pro-Shimazu lord (and former Ito vassal) Tsuchimochi Chikanari and occupied Matsuo castle. The two Ôtomo lords lingered there after sending a relative, Tawara Chikataka, ahead with the main body. This invested Takajo, defended fiercely by Iehisa.

Battle of Mimigawa, (1578)

Learning of the dire threat in Hyûga, Yoshihisa hastily rallied his kinsmen and marched north to Sadowara, where he was briefly held up by bad weather. Meanwhile, his brother Yoshihiro, who was advancing along a different route, encountered and scattered an advance Ôtomo force, following up this success with the destruction of an enemy fort at Matsuyama. Yoshihisa then advanced to the Taka area, and joined with the rest of the Shimazu clan. The following battle was one of the lesser-known but more decisive of the 16th Century. Yoshihisa, with as many as 30,000 warriors, adopted a defensive posture, inviting an attack from the impetuous Tawara, who had no less then 60,000 men at his command. The attack did come, and it was nearly ruinous for the Shimazu: a number of generals including Hongo Hisamori [北郷久盛] were killed under the sheer weight of the charge, which tore deeply into the Shimazu army. It was at this moment, however, that Yoshihisa revealed his true qualities as a leader. Refusing to move his standard back, the lord of the Shimazu rallied his faltering men and turned the tables on the Ôtomo. With the enemy spearhead ground to a halt in front of him, Yoshihisa signaled for the men on the flanks to charge the Ôtomo flanks in a pincer movement while at this key moment, Iehisa led out a spirited foray from Takajo. The Ôtomo levies panicked and suddenly the battle had developed into a rout, with the Shimazu mercilessly riding down their defeated enemy as they fled north. Hundreds if not thousands were drowned attempting to cross the Mimigawa [耳川], after which the battle is called. Sources differ on the results of the slaughter but the cost to the Ôtomo may have been as many as 20,000 killed. Certainly, the Ôtomo would never again command the power they once had.

Yoshihisa's reputation soared after Mimigawa, and the Shimazu strength grew. Confident that the Ôtomo would be of no account for the time being, he proceeded to strike a truce with them and marched into Higo. Many of the warriors there were in fact wise enough to see which way the wind was blowing and offered their fealty. An exception was Sagara Yoshiaki, who resisted a Shimazu request to march through his land in 1581. The result was the Siege of Minamata, which is described in the Iriki-in documents…

The story of this campaign is as follows:

The lord sent a message to Sagara dono, by the two envoys, saying that, since it was inconvenient to send by sea guards to Utsu dono and Zho dono [the lord's allies at Kumamoto], he wished to make them take a direct route overland [through Sagara's territory] in their journey to Higo; and that, if [the latter] agreed to this, he would henceforth be at peace with him. [Sagara] replied that that would never be permitted. Accordingly, with a view to cutting through the land route and sending guards to Utsu dono and Zho dono, first of all the lord pitched three camps at Minamata. Minamata was carried, and Ashikita, Nanaura, even Yatsushiro, were possessed [by the lord]. This was the first step of his entry into Higo."

The motivations for the Shimazu drive were simple but compelling. A larger - and hard-fighting - retainer band needed lands to be rewarded, and these could be gotten only through war. Of course, pure ambition likely played a significant role in Yoshihisa's wars; there is an enduring legend that Takahisa called on his son from his deathbed to bring all of Kyushu under the Shimazu banner.

The Shimazu movements in Higo brought them up against the third of Kyushu's great warrior houses: the Ryûzôji. Led by the ruthless Takanobu, the latter had already subdued most of Hizen and Chikuzen and, taking advantage of the Ôtomo's woes, was happily claiming districts in Higo. In Takanobu Yoshihisa would find himself well matched, and their rivalry would develop into a stalemate.

While the Shimazu worked to consolidate their hold over Southern Kyushu and hold on to their forts in Higo, the Ryûzôji were active on another front, forcing the smaller clans of the Shimabara area of Hizen to submit. Of these, the Arima offered a spirited but seemingly doomed resistance, with their lord Harunobu even converting to Christianity in the hope of receiving aid from the Jesuits. Receiving only marginal assistance from that quarter, he then sent messengers to the Shimazu pleading for help. In fact, Yoshihisa was skeptical that anything could be done for such a stricken clan, and that in any event sending assistance would not be worth the effort. However, Iehisa prevailed on him to accept the possibilities of using the Arima's plea to open a second front against the Ryûzôji. Nonetheless, an opportunity to actually dispatch a relief force to the Shimabara Peninsula did not present itself for some years, and by then Harunobu's straits were dire indeed. He had lost his main castle, and was reduced to a thin strip of land facing the sea. It was right into this difficult situation that Iehisa came, personally leading a contingent of 2,000 men across the waters. The Shimazu had finally moved just in time, as it turned out. Takanobu, perhaps aware of the Arima's dealings with the Shimazu, had organized a campaign to finish off the former once and for all. In early May 1584 some 20,000 Ryûzôji warriors marched south and into the Shimabara area, where they were opposed by a total of 3,000 Shimazu and Arima troops. Once again, the Shimazu were destined to prove themselves the master underdogs, winning a remarkable victory at the Battle of Okinawate. In the midst of the fighting, Takanobu and a number of his great retainers were struck down and the result was that the Shimazu had effectively eliminated the last real opposition on Kyushu to their dreams of conquest. Takanobu's successor, the ineffectual Masaie, offered a truce (that included the surrender of Ryûzôji lands in Higo), which Yoshihisa accepted as a prelude to a final push to destroy the Ôtomo.

Unfortunately for the Shimazu, the aging Ôtomo Sôrin played the final card in his hand, traveling to Osaka to beg for succor from Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself in 1585. Hideyoshi, who had conquered Shikoku the year before, saw this as a useful opportunity to interpose his own ever-growing authority onto Kyushu and sent a letter to Shimazu demanding that he cease his activities. To this first letter, the Shimazu merely responded that their campaign was in fact what might be called a matter of proactive defense and was justified. The following year Hideyoshi issued an even stronger ultimatum that was nonetheless generous, allowing that if Yoshihisa would show his compliance, he would be allowed to retain half of Chikugo and Higo in addition to his lands in Hyuga, Satsuma, and Ôsumi. Yoshihisa rashly penned in reply a dismissive letter that contrasted the Shimazu's long history and Hideyoshi's humble roots. After all, this was not the first time that an outsider had attempted to interfere with affairs on Kyushu: Oda Nobunaga had made similar demands (perhaps hoping to keep the Ôtomo alive-and a threat to the Môri) before his death in 1582.

Hideyoshi Intervenes

Yoshihisa had made a grave mistake in his underestimation of Hideyoshi, but as 1586 drew to a close, the latter's threats may have seemed a moot point. With the Ôtomo everywhere retreating or switching sides, the occupation of the Ôtomo capital in Bungo, Funai, was only a matter of time. Perhaps hoping to buy back a little of that time to rally his great hosts, Hideyoshi dispatched a force to Bungo commanded by Chosokabe Motochika and Sengoku Hidehisa. Though these men were under orders to sit tight in the Ôtomo capital, Sengoku and Ôtomo Yoshimune, over Motochika's objections, decided to take the fight to the Shimazu. Their reasoning was that the Shimazu seemed to have drawn back to rest (as indeed they had) and this presented a fine opportunity to relieve Toshimitsu, a nearby castle currently under siege by Niiro Tadamoto. Unfortunately for the allies, Yoshihisa learned of their movements and hastened to the area. Toshimitsu was overrun, and Ôtomo and his allies were confronted with a Shimazu army. Motochika suggested they retreat to Funai, but was again ignored. Instead, Yoshimune decided to have a go at what seemed to be a reasonably manageable enemy force (unaware as he was that the bulk of the Shimazu were hidden in the hills across the Hetsugigawa). The Battle of Hetsugigawa [戸次川の戦い] commenced with Sogo Nagayasu (a Shikoku warrior like Motochika) falling for a feint across the river by Ijuin Hisanori. The result of the battle was another Ôtomo defeat and the occupation of Bungo. Unfortunately for Yoshihisa, his moment of glory would be brief indeed. On 20 January 1587 Hashiba Hidenaga landed on Kyushu with as many as 60,000 men, followed by Kobayakawa Takakage and the Môri, who had with them a further 90,000. Faced with this mighty host and already stretched to the limit, the Shimazu withdrew south rapidly, allowing Hidenaga to proceed with an advance along the eastern coast of the island. Hideyoshi himself arrived with yet another 30,000 in February and secured the submission of most of the warlords of the provinces conquered by the Shimazu in the past decade, including the Akizuki, Arima, Goto, Nabeshima, Omura, and Ryûzôji. The Toyotomi progress was almost leisurely, especially since the only real Shimazu resistance would come at the Sendai River on 6 June, and this was in essence a show of simple defiance by the proud Shimazu warriors. By this point, the approaches to Kagoshima lay open, and Toyotomi troops were pouring into Satsuma.

Yoshihisa was faced with two alternatives: a doomed last stand at Kagoshima or surrender. He wisely chose the latter. On 14 June 1587, he shaved his head and appeared in Hideyoshi's headquarters at Taiheiji in Satsuma. All things considered, Hideyoshi was lenient in his treatment of the humiliated Shimazu, allowing Yoshihisa to keep his head and his clan to keep Satsuma, Ôsumi, and southern Hyûga. Yoshihisa was naturally expected to retire (and indeed he had hastily taken up a monk's habit and the priestly name Ryûhaku [竜伯]), and he turned over leadership of the clan to his brother Yoshihiro. Though he took up residence at a temple in Kyoto in 1586, Hideyoshi permitted Yoshihisa to return to Kagoshima in 1588. Though ostensibly retired, he continued to play an active role in governance, alongside his brother Yoshihiro and nephew Shimazu Tadatsune (Iehisa).[1]

Preceded by:
Shimazu Takahisa
Head of Shimazu clan
Succeeded by:
Shimazu Yoshihiro


  • Initial text from FWSeal & CEWest, 2005
  • Asakawa, Kan'ichi The Documents of Iriki Yale 1929
  • Berry, Mary Elizabeth Hideyoshi Harvard University Press 1982
  • Rekishi Gunzô Shirizu Sengoku no Kassen Taizen Gakken 1997
  • Sengoku Jinmei Jiten
  • "Shimazu Yoshihisa," Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia, Ryukyu Shimpo, 1 March 2003.
  1. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 209.