The Miyoshi Family of Awa
From the 15th through to the 16th centuries, the Miyoshi became a prominent family, advancing from Awa province on Shikoku Island into the Kinai region, a region that at the time was known as ‘the realm’. ‘Realm’ is a multi-faceted term and can refer in particular to Kyoto, the Kinai region, and Japan in its entirety. During the Era of the Warring States (Sengoku Jidai) it was mostly used to refer to the Kinai.
‘Realm’ does not simply designate a region but includes a nuance of centralized political power, in the same way ‘capital’ and ‘central’ is used today. In the area around Kyoto following the Ōnin War (1467-1477), the Miyoshi family were extraordinarily active. Starting with Miyoshi Yukinaga who led a tokusei ikki (a form of protest against the imposition of land taxes), it extended to Miyoshi Motonaga who recommended that Ashikaga Yoshitsuna (otherwise known as the Sakai Kubō) be elevated to the position of shōgun, to Miyoshi Nagayoshi, who refused to show deference to the Ashikaga shōgunate and came to rule over Kyoto itself, to Miyoshi Yoshitsugu who assassinated shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru, to Miyoshi Yasunaga, who adopted both an offspring of Oda Nobunaga and the nephew of Hashiba (Toyotomi) Hideyoshi, through to Miyoshi Isan and Miyoshi Fusakazu, both of whom loyally served Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Yet when compared to the families of the eastern provinces such as the Date, Hōjō, Uesugi, and Takeda, and those of the western provinces such as the Mōri, Chōsokabe, and Shimazu, nowadays the Miyoshi are virtually unknown. Why is this?
When we think about the Era of the Warring States, we recall that this was the age of the three great figures of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu, which also incorporated the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The Miyoshi, who were unrelated to these three great figures, prove poor material when it comes to providing stories for manga, novels, television dramas, historical plays, movies and tourist spots. Yet all versions of the standard high school issue B textbook of Japanese history bring up the Miyoshi. For someone to claim they don’t know who they are should be considered odd.
According to the newly revised version of the “Japanese History B” textbook (published by Jikkyo publishing in 2019), “Hosokawa Harumoto, who successfully managed to subdue Kyoto, had his authority seized by Miyoshi Nagayoshi. Meanwhile the authority of the Miyoshi would in turn be taken over by their retainer Matsunaga Hisahide.” These details have not changed since 1989. Moreover in the ‘Comprehensive Japanese History – Revised Version” (printed by Yamakawa Publishing in 2019), it includes a footnote that states “the struggle over the authority of government centered around the Hosokawa continued unabated”, while in the margins it says “in reality authority shifted from the Hosokawa to Miyoshi Nagayoshi, and then transferred to Nagayoshi’s retainer Matsunaga Hisahide”.
In other words, the Miyoshi had no other role than as an example of how retainers such as Matsunaga Hisahide overthrew their social superiors (gekokujō).
When we trace the origins of this line of thinking, we arrive at Ōta Ushikazu (Gyūichi)’s “Taikaou sama kunki no uchi” (A military record of the Taikō, i.e., Toyotomi Hideyoshi) and Raisan Yō’s “Nihon Gaishi” (A history of Japanese foreign relations). The “military record of the Taikō”, written at the outset of the Edo period (1615-1868) was a compilation of anecdotes about warring state era generals centered around Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and featured embellishments and fabrications. It was to become the basis for narratives and ballads. “A history of Japanese foreign relations” was released in the latter Edo period, and while it is unclear whether it was based on any historical evidence, through stories and ballads its anecdotes grew in popularity and were eagerly absorbed. These in turn became renowned tales that were widely read by the population at large.
Most notably, Raisan Yō, who possessed Confucian values, defended the previously reviled Nobunaga by claiming that Nobunaga’s harsh measures were a necessity because of the civil strife of his era. Raisan was also responsible for the formation of a view of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu as heroic figures struggling against adversity. By and large these views have carried on through to today. For my part, I have never read a primary source that says that Matsunaga Hisahide usurped the Miyoshi.
Lecture notes belonging to one of the most prominent scholars of history during the Meiji and Taishō eras, Tanaka Yoshinari, who served as both head of the historical archives and a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, were compiled by his students following his death into the “Ashikaga Jidai Shi” (History of the Ashikaga Era, 1923) and the “Oda Jidai Shi” (History of the Oda Era, 1924). This was a time when historical studies were adopting evidence-based theories. While both works go into considerable detail on the divisions within the Hosokawa family, they note that Miyoshi Motonaga, the father of Miyoshi Nagayoshi, was responsible for the creation of a new political dynamic, but say nothing about either Nagayoshi or Hisahide themselves. Perhaps Tanaka, regarding these two as responsible for nothing more than chaos and decadence, saw no value in speaking about them.
Rather, the “Nippon Kinsei Shi” (History of Early Modern Japan, Vol.1, 1916) which was authored by Nakamura Kōya while he was still studying as a postgraduate at Tokyo Imperial University, regarded Miyoshi Nagayoshi highly. For Nakamura, Nagayoshi was “without peer among the many heroic figures made flesh during the maelstrom of the sixteenth century”. In the Kinki region where he was most active, there existed “a school of thought advocating mature iconoclasm” and was a region suited to the “large scale recruitment of troops”. This ‘shining star’ lacked the forthright nature of figures such as Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Yet in terms of political skill he “should indeed be admired”. The fact that he placed his main residence not in Kyoto but at Sekkasen (Izumi province, modern Osaka) was ‘extraordinarily perceptive’.
His response to opponents such as Hosokawa Harumoto and Ashikaga Yoshiteru was praised for its “calm repose, thorough preparation, and abundant benevolence”. Before the war, Nagayoshi “had an established reputation as a calm and composed general that loved poetry”. After the war, most historical study on the Kinki region in the warring states period focused on the Yamashiro kuni ikki (a form of uprising led by regional leaders) and the ikkō ikki (a religiously inspired uprising linked to the Jodō Shinshū faith), as well as the emergence of independent urban areas such as Sakai. Such trends as these had their foundation in the search for the origins of post-war democracy in Japan.
As a result of such studies, the picture of the Kinai following the Ōnin War was one where Oda Nobunaga abruptly entered the capital and thereafter embarked on conflict throughout the nation. The history of almost a century of central government that occupied the period in between the two above events was apparently cast aside. Moreover, as a result of movements opposed to the over-concentration of authority in Tokyo during Japan’s period of accelerated economic growth, regional leaders, namely famous warlords from various places throughout the nation, garnered a great amount of attention. Almost concurrent to this trend was another where those like the Miyoshi who were active within the central government faded from view.
With the turn of a new century, studies into the Muromachi Bakufu and shōguns along with those of warlords of the Kinai region evolved, resulting in the publication of a continuous series of books on the subject. Conversely doubts began to be raised regarding both Nobunaga’s foresight and creativity. The image of Nobunaga that we hold today was greatly influenced by Ōta Gyūichi’s “Shinchō Kōki” (Public Records of Nobunaga), resulting in his portrayal as a heroic, albeit somewhat unusual public figure. (The emergence of new studies into the Muromachi period) thus made it possible to compare the era of the Oda with their warlord predecessors in the Kinai region.
Ultimately, to the people of the Muromachi era, the idea of overthrowing the Muromachi Bakufu and uniting the nation was both extraordinary and lacking in common sense. People today have the benefit of knowing the history of the Kamakura, Muromachi, and Tokugawa bakufunates and how all three were overthrown by force of arms. They then tend to believe that overthrowing the Bakufu was one of the options available at the time. However the overthrow of the Muromachi Bakufu was the first time in Japanese history that this idea became reality. To directly confront the shōgun and then overthrow him was something that no Japanese had experienced up to this point.
And while all this was going on, there is the added question of how the people at the time accepted a new form of central government in exchange for the old one? What presuppositions and environment led to its formation? In order to consider such questions, there is value in discussing how, over the course of a century in the Kinai region of central Japan otherwise known as ‘the realm’, the Miyoshi dealt with the Muromachi Bakufu and Ashikaga shōgun and then three governments each led by a different ‘heroic figure’ of the age. Let us begin, then, by examining the battles of the Miyoshi family.