Yonezawa han

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Yonezawa han was a domain in the Tôhoku region of Honshû, governed by the Uesugi clan. Covering the Okitama district of Dewa province, in what is today southeastern Yamagata Prefecture, the territory was ruled from Yonezawa castle in Yonezawa city. The Uesugi were tozama daimyô, with an initial income of 300,000 koku, which later fell to 150,000-180,000. Though not controlling all of a single province, the Uesugi's holdings were considered significant enough that the clan was considered among the taishin kunimochi ("great country holder") daimyô.[1]

Compared to many other domains, Yonezawa had a relatively large samurai population,[2] and by the late 18th century, a relatively commercialized economy.[3] The domain is perhaps most notable for its rapid shift from a poor, indebted, and corruptly led domain to a very prosperous one in only a few decades in the 1760s-80s. Yonezawa was declared in 1830 by the shogunate to be the paragon of a well-managed domain. Scholar Mark Ravina uses Yonezawa as a case study, in analysing the political status and conceptions of statehood and identity in the feudal domains of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868).



The region was held by the Date clan for much of the Sengoku period, from 1548-1591, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power and declared the Date move to Iwadeyama in Mutsu province. The Gamô clan were given Aizu to govern under the Uesugi, and Tairô Uesugi Kagekatsu gave his karô (advisor) Naoe Kanetsugu a 300,000 koku income.

In 1600, however, the Uesugi opposed Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Sekigahara Campaign, and lost, becoming tozama daimyô (outsider lords) under the new shogunate. Their income and territory along the Sea of Japan coast, worth 1,200,000 koku, was shrunk to 300,000, and they were forced to move from Aizu to Yonezawa, recovering the castle from Naoe. They now possessed 180,000 koku worth of land in Dewa province, and 120,000 koku in the neighboring Mutsu province, the Honjô clan given nearby Fukushima castle by the shogunate in order to pressure the Uesugi and prevent them from expanding their territory. This 300,000 koku territory would represent the peak of the Uesugi clan's income in the Tokugawa period.

Like many han in the archipelago, Yonezawa was operated as a semi-independent state, directly under the daimyô. The Uesugi demanded respect for the shogunate from their retainers, and forbade public criticism, but only imposed and enforced those edicts and policies which they chose to. Retainers were ordered to obey shogunal laws while outside the domain, but within it, shogunal orders did not apply unless conveyed by the daimyô.


In 1664, the third daimyô of Yonezawa, Uesugi Tsunakatsu, died suddenly of a perforated ulcer, and without producing an heir. The succession was determined at the advice of his father-in-law, Hoshina Masayuki, the younger brother to shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu. He suggested that the clan adopt as heir Uesugi Tsunanori, the son of Tsunakatsu's younger sister and Kira Yoshinaka, though this would mean splitting the domain in half, returning the Uesugi holdings in Mutsu, and retaining only the 150,000 koku worth of territory within Dewa province.

This decision led to severe financial difficulties in the domain, for the Uesugi and their administration, and for the increasingly impoverished peasants. The domain, now reduced by roughly 90% from its pre-Edo peak, simply could not support the stipends of its great number of retainers, but due to feudal obligations and the logic of patrimonial authority, neither could they release retainers from their service. In the end, the Uesugi were able to reduce their number of retainers by roughly one quarter, by getting rid of roughly 1,400 of their lowest-ranking retainers - mostly those with unstable claims.[4]

The domain began in 1702 to "borrow" heavily from its retainers' stipends. As in many other domains, these so-called kariage (lending upwards) payments were not repaid for decades, if at all, and so in practice constituted severe cuts to retainer income. In the case of Yonezawa, these kariage payments were repeated, sometimes increased, numerous times over the course of the 18th century, and no repayments were made to the retainers until 1828. A 1791 budget reveals that in that year, over 4,000 retainers received on average a measly five koku each for the year. As a result, many samurai turned to artisanal craft manufacturing, or other by-employments.[5]

Meanwhile, taxation rates and harsh punishments exacted against those unable to pay drove tens of thousands of peasants to flee the domain, leaving much agricultural land unused, and severely diminishing the already strained tax base.[6] Taxation on lacquer, one of the domain's chief cash crops, had a similar impact. Though a flourishing cash crop in the early 17th century, by the 1640s-50s, the domain had begun increasing taxes on lacquer (in copper me per tree), and by 1689 had established a domainal monopsony, meaning growers could only sell to the domain, not to any other buyers; this gave the domainal government considerable power over prices. Taxes continued to be increased, and despite official prohibitions on the destruction of lacquer trees, and even mandates on individuals maintaining a certain number of trees, villagers found a variety of ways to resist or evade the obligations, and the taxes, and counter to the government's intentions, lacquer production declined.[7] The domain implemented similar policies regarding flax, which not only drove peasants away from producing flax, but actually led to all-out protests in 1760.[8]

Reforms & Recovery

The domain's financial/economic problems became so severe that the eighth daimyô, Uesugi Shigetada, seriously considered turning over the domain to the shogunate. Instead, he resigned his position as daimyô in favor of Uesugi Harunori, who then began to reform the domain's administration and to revive its economy. He introduced strict disciplinary measures, and ordered the execution of several karô (advisors) who opposed his plans. In order to finance castle repairs imposed upon his domain by the shogunate, Harunori asked his retainers to agree to a reduction of their stipends, for the good of the domain. As a result of various other measures he took in the 1790s, many of them at the advice of Nozoki Yoshimasa, Yonezawa became fairly prosperous, and did not suffer as much as many other areas did in the famines which swept Japan in the Tenmei era (1782-7), and the Tenpô era (1833-1836).

Population growth returned, much of the land that had laid idle came into cultivation again, and by 1823, the domain's subjects were able to pay their taxes in full for the first time in many decades.[9] In 1830, the shogunate formally declared Yonezawa to be a choice example of a well-governed domain.

Among those measures was the encouragement of proto-industrial production. Due to the relatively large samurai population in the domain, which strained the domain's ability to support on rice stipends, many lower-ranking samurai were encouraged to continue to engage in activities such as the weaving and even the selling of cloth, one of many examples in Edo period Japan of how Neo-Confucian ideals did not always live up to socio-economic realities. These cloth-weaving samurai operated part of a putting-out system, in which certain merchants authorized by the domain provided thread and looms to the samurai, and the samurai sold back silk cloth.[10]

Bakumatsu & Meiji

When the Boshin War erupted in 1868, and the shogunate came to an end with the abdication of shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the Uesugi joined the pro-shogunate "Northern Alliance" (Ôetsu Reppan Dômei), acknowledging their debt to Hoshina Masayuki and thus to the shogunate. The samurai of Yonezawa for the most part saw the Imperial loyalists as a threat to the security or autonomy of their domain, and were willing to fight to defend it.[11] After several months of battle, the Alliance was defeated, and the Meiji period began, under a new imperial government. The domain was cut down by 3000 koku, then combined with other territories to form "Yonezawa Shinden han" in 1869, and abolished along with the han system as a whole two years later. It was renamed Yonezawa prefecture, but was combined very shortly afterwards with Okitama prefecture to form Yamagata prefecture.

The end of the shogunate and abolition of the han system brought with it an end of the samurai class and of the daimyô. The Uesugi clan were incorporated into the kazoku or noble peerage, as Counts, or Hakushaku in Japanese.

Ironically, the low or even measly stipends which many retainers received, forcing them into by-employments in the late 18th to early 19th centuries, made the transition into the Meiji period much easier for many Yonezawa retainers than for many individuals in other domains. Already used to receiving little from the government, and to farming or manufacturing to make a living, many of these samurai families were well ready to spend the bonds their stipends were converted into in 1876 to purchase looms or other equipment, to keep the family "business" going.[12]

Lords of Yonezawa

  1. Uesugi Kagekatsu (r. 1603-1623)
  2. Uesugi Sadakatsu (r. 1623-1645)
  3. Uesugi Tsunakatsu (r. 1645-1664)
  4. Uesugi Tsunanori (r. 1664- )
  5. Uesugi Shigesada (r. -1767)
  6. Uesugi Harunori (r. 1767- )
  7. Uesugi Norihiro
  8. Uesugi Narinori
  9. Uesugi Mochinori


  • Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Ronald Toby, "Rescuing the Nation from History: The State of the State in Early Modern Japan," Monumenta Nipponica 56:2, 197-237.
  1. Ravina, 19.
  2. In 1692, roughly 1/4 of the population was samurai; by the 1870s, this had fallen to 7%. Ravina, 73.
  3. Ravina, 9.
  4. Ravina, 73.
  5. Ravina, 74-75.
  6. Ravina, 76.
  7. Ravina, 81.
  8. Ravina, 83.
  9. Ravina, 79.
  10. Ravina, 10, 197.
  11. Ravina, 202.
  12. Ravina, 112.