(Friday Night History) Episode 29: The Mantle of Hiraizumi
"Magni et universalis sanctissimique totius orbis Patris Domini Papa Pauli V, pedes cum profunda summiss et reverentia osculando Idate Masamune in imperio Japonico Rex voxu suppliciter dicimus..."
"To the Great and Universal Father of the World, Lord Pope Paul the Fifth, I, Date Masamune, King of Ōshū in the Empire of Japan, humbly kiss your feet and say as a supplicant..."

This is the beginning of Date Masamune's letter to Pope Paul V, in which he made diplomatic overtures and a request for trade and military aid. There was not to be anything beyond a token response, but we're not here to talk about that, we're here to look at what Masamune called himself here: "King of Ōshū in the Empire of Japan." What's going on here? Why would he call himself this? where does it come from? That's what we're here to talk about today, because the answer may surprise you.

Letter from Date Masamune to Pope Paul V. (source)

So let's start from this: who was the first person that might be termed "King of Ōshū"? Well, that would be the Northern Fujiwara lords, who ruled the north during the Heian era from their capital Hiraizumi, and where they drew their claim to primacy from was partly not Japanese at all.

So what's going on over here? And who are the Emishi?

Well, the Emishi are not a single people but rather a number of peoples who lived in northern Honshu. As the Yamato court-- what we now call the imperial family-- consolidated its control further and further north, it expanded into Emishi lands. In as much as the early Yamato state tried to overwhelm the north by brute force, every time it did so, in Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan's words, it was as though "there rose a breakwater that sent wave after wave of Kinai pressure back upon itself." Its inhabitants, and the Yamato court, both knew this. The 8th century campaigns of Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, famous for being one of the earliest people to hold the title of shogun, were aimed at subjugating the Emishi peoples. Eventually, the court succeeded in extending clear if tenuous control northward into Emishi lands, and those Emishi who surrendered to the authority of the Yamato court became known to the court as fushu, a word that means "surrendered barbarians." But don't let the word fool you-- the fushu continued to rebel against the Yamato domination, and in time, adapt their approach to aim for bids at maximum autonomy under nominal Yamato control. Leaders of the fushu clans held the title of fushucho (Fushu chief), granted by the Yamato court. Thus, the northern "breakwater" survived, albeit in a new guise, and the north retained some measure of self-determination-- by merging the the authority of the court in recognizing the local authority. This began a tradition of balancing "inside yet outside" for the region, vis a vis its standing with the rest of Japan.

The 10th century found northern Honshu only nominally under the court's control. So, fushū people of Emishi origin flooded the ranks of the provincial administration in what the Yamato court had named Mutsu, "beyond where the road ends." Instead of rebellion, the fushu leaders accumulated increasing amounts of power under that government's nominal auspices. Under the Fujiwara of Hiraizumi, who came from and openly claimed fushū descent, they reached the pinnacle of their political and military power during the 11th-12th century peak of power of the semi-independent Hiraizumi domain.

The Northern Fujiwara family claimed heritage from two leading fushū families, the Abe (安陪) and the Kiyohara (清原). It ruled from Hiraizumi, a city in modern Iwate Prefecture, for four generations. They were in the Kyoto court's orbit, had Japanese names, and ruled with imperial sanction, but they and their lands were ultimately not the same as other local rulers and lands in the archipelago. They were not touched by the Taira clan during its ascendancy, and survived the Genpei wars that saw the Minamoto displace the Taira and establish the Kamakura Shogunate. But because the Northern Fujiwara sheltered the first shogun Yoritomo's brother Yoshitsune, they bore the brunt of Yoritomo's wrath during the Bunji War, and it was then that the Northern Fujiwara clan was crushed and its domains confiscated. But this still did not stop the north from being "inside yet outside."

The Northern Fujiwara made no secret of their heritage, and each successive generation of Northern Fujiwara lords called themselves "chief of barbarians" in communications with the court. But the Northern Fujiwara were also Yamato in origin. They claimed descent from the same venerable Fujiwara lineage that bore their contemporaries and predecessors who ran the imperial bureaucracy. And most notably, they are also known by the name of a county (gun in Japanese) where they had a double-moated boundary post. Thus, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, the last Northern Fujiwara lord, is also called Date no Yasuhira, after Date County and the Great Wooden Gate of Date.

 But wait, I hear you ask, what about our Date? Is this the same family? Is that where the King of Ōshū thing comes from? AAAA!

"Our" Date came to Ōshū in the vanguard of Yoritomo's army and settled in Date County, from which it got its name. The precise origins of this Date family, later house Date of Sendai, are not as clear-cut as you might assume-- but we'll save that for another week-- suffice it to say, they came up with the Kamakura forces, and stayed there, in Date county. And in the centuries that ensued, as they grew and consolidated their power in the region, this Date family-- as with many others in the region, as historian Irumada Nobuo observes, laid claim to the legacy of the Northern Fujiwara in this region that was still "inside but outside." But unlike others who laid claim to Northern Fujiwara retainer lineage or other things of that sort, the Date saw themselves as the heirs of the Northern Fujiwara themselves. And when the Date took over what became Sendai domain, they took great care to preserve the sacred and historic places of the Northern Fujiwara-- places like Chusonji and Motsuji temples in Hiraizumi, which are still around and now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Great Wooden Gate, the old double-moated barrier that protected the north, became the border crossing into Sendai domain in the Edo period.

Which brings us full circle to Date Masamune's letter to Pope Paul the Fifth. "King of Ōshū in the Empire of Japan." As Irumada argues, given what we know about how the delegation to Europe parsed Masamune's roots and claim to "royal" status, this was an intentional allusion to the Northern Fujiwara on Masamune's part. In past weeks we've looked at various aspects of Masamune's plans and hopes, and how he saw his domains, his place in Japan, and more. We saw how he aimed to position his new capital of Sendai as the new Luoyang. So did he want to take over Japan? I don't know that he did. Was he actually descended from the Northern Fujiwara? Probably not. But he was using the Northern Fujiwara legacy-- laying claim to it-- as a way of cementing his regional power in northern Honshu even internationally. Irumada calls this the "Hiraizumi legend of Date" (Date no Hiraizumi densetsu). To me, this is the missing piece from discussions about the role of leadership that the house of Date took over the north, during the Boshin War of 1868. Yes, it was the biggest domain too, but when we think of how the Date insisted on having the Northern Alliance's domains meet in Sendai, and in initial drafts of the Alliance charter, aimed to have the region obey its orders, thinking of the Northern Fujiwara roots to which the Date laid claim helps that make a lot more sense. Otherwise, it seems odd that a domain that was that impoverished in the wake of multiple decades of bad harvests, regardless of nominal size, would insist on such a central role and on command.

In short: we need to understand house Date seeing itself as an heir to the Northern Fujiwara, in order to understand what it tried to do in the 17th century in Rome, and what it did do in 1868 in leading the Northern Alliance.


  • Irumada Nobuo, "Date no Hiraizumi densetsu." Chuusei Bungaku 1997:42, pp. 36-39.
  • Kobayashi Seiji, Date Masamune (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1966), pp. 164-166.
  • Takahashi Tomio, Hiraizumi: Ōshū Fujiwara-shi Yondai (Tokyo: Kyōikusha, 1978), pp. 26-28, 78, 107.
  • Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan, “Hakusan at Hiraizumi,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1998:25 3/4, p. 263.

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