Takayama Ukon

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  • Born: 1552
  • Died: 1615
  • Title: U-Konoe
  • Japanese: 高山右近 (Takayama Ukon)

Takayama Ukon was born the son of Takayama Tomoteru (also known as Zusho; 1531-1596), a retainer of Matsunaga Hisahide who held Sawa Castle in northwest Yamato province.

Known in his childhood as Hikogoro, the future Ukon was given the name Shigetomo upon his coming of age[1]. Ukon’s father became a Christian 1564 and Ukon was baptized as ‘Justo’. Not long afterwards, in 1565, Matsunaga murdered the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru, and then became involved in a war with the Miyoshi. In the course of the feud, Sawa, Tomoteru’s castle, was lost, forcing the Takayama to flee. Through the good offices of Wada Koremasa, a friendly acquaintance of Tomoteru’s, the Takayama came under Oda Nobunaga’s banner and took up service with the Wada in 1568.

In 1571 the Wada came to blows with Araki Murashige (? –1579?), a powerful vassal of Ikeda Katsumasa (who in turn served the Miyoshi - Oda Nobunaga’s enemies). Murashige besieged Tomoteru’s castle, and Wada Koremasa came up to the front with a relief force. In the ensuing confrontation, Koremasa was killed. Murashige was nonetheless unable to bring the castle down and retreated, allowing Tomoteru to become advisor to Koremasa’s successor, Korenaga. Relations between the young lord and the Takayama were sour, and word came to Tomoteru that Korenaga plotted to have him and his son killed. Tomoteru decided to act fist. In April 1573 he called upon Korenaga and asked that he come and visit his home, where waited fifteen samurai, including Ukon. Korenaga arrived with an armed escort and in the ensuing melee the latter was killed. The Takayama took over Wada’s castle, Takatsuki, a move backed by the troops of Araki Murashige, whose support Tomoteru had gained prior to the assassination. As Murashige had just sided with Oda Nobunaga, this affair was not quite treason, rather being an internal matter which Nobunaga seems to have had no comment on[2].

The Takayama remained under the Araki’s influence until 1578, the year Murashige rebelled against Nobunaga. The reasons for Murashige’s revolt are unclear, though the suggestion has been made from time to time that Nobunaga distrusted the Araki and considered dispossessing them, intentions that reached Murashige’s ears. For Nobunaga, the rebellion could not have come at a worse time. He had just managed to complete his blockade of the Ishiyama Honganji; Murashige’s actions threatened to loosen the noose he had painstakingly set and also encourage dissension elsewhere.

Critical to Araki’s success were a number of castles that formed a perimeter around Itami, his headquarters. The most important of these included Ibaragi, held by Nakagawa Kiyohide (also known as Nakagawa Sebei; 1542-1583) and Takayama’s Takatsuki. Nobunaga had Takatsuki surrounded by the forces of Fuwa Mitsuharu, Kanamori Nagachika and others, while calling for the Jesuit Padre Gnecchi-Soldo Organtino. Knowing the Takayama were devout Christians, Nobunaga asked the Padre to convince them to surrender, promising that such an outcome would benefit the Church. At the same time, he hinted that failure to submit would lead to an unfortunate persecution. Padre Organtino obligingly contacted Ukon and informed him of Nobunaga’s message, which the younger Takayama took to heart. Unwilling to allow harm to come to his religion, he abandoned Takatsuki in the night. His father was furious and went to Murashige to apologize (and, hopefully, save a number of hostages that had earlier been sent to the Araki)[3]. Murashige took no action against the remaining members of the Takayama, and in the end, released the Takayama hostages.

Nobunaga rewarded Ukon for his decision, especially after the latter was able to convince Nakagawa to open Ibaragi’s gates to the Oda. Both Ukon and Nakagwa kept their castles and Takayama set about converting the population in his fief. Many temples were reportedly torn down or converted to churches, an activity that could have hardly drawn less concern from Nobunaga, the destroyer of the Enryakuji. In June 1582 Nobunaga was killed by Akechi Mitsuhide in Kyoto. Toyotomi Hideyoshi hastily marched back from the western provinces on a campaign of vengeance, and in Settsu was joined by the Takayama and Nakagawa. In the ensuing Battle of Yamazaki, both men commanded troops in Hideyoshi’s vanguard and helped defeat Akechi Mitsuhide’s army[4].

After Hideyoshi’s triumph at Yamazaki, conflict broke out between the late Nobunaga’s senior retainers over the matter of succession. The tensions culminated in open warfare between faction led by Hideyoshi and Shibata Katsuie. In late 1582 Hideyoshi dispatched Takayama and Nakagawa to northern Omi and tasked them with holding two critical forts placed to block any movement from the Shibata down from Echizen. Takayama was given Iwasakiyama and, some miles to the south, Nakagawa was installed in Shizugatake. In early 1583 Katsuie dispatched an army under Sakuma Morimasa to capture these frontier forts, and in the course of the campaign Takayama was forced to abandon Iwasakiyama and take up in nearby Tagami [5]. Sakuma went on to besiege Shizugatake and killed Nakagawa, although he was unable to take the castle itself and in the end was defeated by Hideyoshi in battle.

Takayama went on to serve in Hideyoshi’s invasion of Shikoku (1584) and in 1585 was transferred to Akashi (Harima province, 60,000 koku). Once there, Ukon, as he had at Takatsuki, set about converting the population, an activity that enraged the local Buddhist monks but drew no immediate attention from Hideyoshi[6].

Takayama went on to serve in Hideyoshi’s invasion of Kyushu in 1587, but this campaign proved to be Takayama’s last. Hideyoshi had finished breaking the power of the armed monks (an effort Takayama had assisted him with in 1585-86) in the Yamato region; now the de facto ruler of Japan turned on Christianity. Takayama was known to be a dyed-in-the-wool Christian, and was therefore considered untrustworthy. Even before the Kyushu campaign had been wrapped up, Ukon was deprived of his fief and forced to find shelter under Konishi Yukinaga, a much more powerful Christian lord who was awarded a substantial fief in Hyuga. Ukon ended up wandering all the way to the Hokuriku region, where he sought service with the Maeda family in Kaga province. In 1588 Maeda Toshiie accepted him as a retainer, an interesting turnaround in Ukon’s career poorly explored by western historians. Over the next decade, Hideyoshi gradually stepped up a program of persecution against Christianity in Japan that was only temporarily halted by the Taiko’s death in 1598. The short respite was ended by a Tokugawa edict in 1614 that finally banned Christianity in its entirety, and ordered the expulsion of all missionaries and those samurai who refused to recant their faith.

Though Maeda Toshitsune feared Ukon would fight rather than leave the country, Takayama peacefully complied and on 8 November 1614 departed for Manila. He arrived later that month and was greeted warmly by the Jesuits there, but died of illness just 40 days afterwards.

Takayama Ukon was a rather controversial figure, considered by the Jesuits as a pillar of the Christian faith in Japan and by some Japanese (contemporary and modern) as a symbol of the duplicity and heavy-handedness of Christianity in the Sengoku era. At the time of Ukon’s transfer to Akashi some 18,000 of Takatsuki’s population (of 25,000) were said to have been Christian, an achievement much lauded by the Jesuits and scorned by many Japanese as proof of forced conversion. Additionally, Ukon’s betrayal of both Wada Korenaga and Araki Murashige were looked down upon, to say nothing of his questionable conduct at Shizugatake. Conversely, Takayama fought gallantly at Yamazaki and was a noted tea man, practicing that art with Sen no Rikyu as Minami no Bo. He was also supposed to have converted Kuroda Kanbei to Christianity and been respected by as many of his contemporaries as not, as his admittance into the service of the Maeda would seem to indicate. Takayama Ukon Shigetomo, whether considered a conniver or saint, provides an interesting case study of the rise and fall of a Sengoku warrior.

Notes on the Text

  1. 'Ukon' was in fact part of an honorific title he received later in life; as he is best known as Takayama Ukon, this name will be used for the remained of the text.
  2. Nobunaga was rather distracted at this time with affairs in Kyoto and elsewhere; additionally, as the Wada had come into his service as a result of championing Ashikaga Yoshiaki, he was possibly not sorry to see them go. This was the same year Nobunaga banished Yoshiaki and brought the Ashikaga shogunate to an end.
  3. Little further mention is made in most histories of Takayama Tomoteru, who is also known by his Christian name, Darie. He evidently gave up his Christian faith and retired, passing away around 1596.
  4. It may be of some interest to note that later, during Nobunaga's funeral, Takayama refused to light incense at his mortuary alter or say traditional Buddhist prayers (due to Christian beliefs). This does not appear to have sat so well with Hideyoshi, and may have gone some way towards fostering disquiet between the two men.
  5. Takayama is traditionally accused of cowardice during this action in arguably biased Japanese histories, an accusation difficult to substantiate one way or the other. It seems that had Takayama been guilty of blatant cowardice, Hideyoshi might have taken serious issue with him (as he would later with Otomo Yoshimune and others who broke before the enemy). In fact, Takayama's defeat further drew Sakuma Morimasa's neck out, much to Hideyoshi's benefit-a fact which, on the same token, may have spared Takayama a certain amount of disgrace. Tagami, incidentally, was held by Hashiba Hidenaga, Hideyoshi's half brother.
  6. It remains a point of debate as to whether or not Takayama engaged in forced conversions at either Takatsuki or Akashi-if not both locations.