Miyagi AJET - History - Miyagi History






Date Masamune - A Brief Introduction 


What's With That Guy Wearing a Banana On His Head?



Date Masamune (1567-1637) or - as many in Miyagi AJET like to call him – “Banana Man” is Miyagi’s most famous historical figure. Not only is his family responsible for the foundation of Iwadeyama’s Yubikan which (thanks to Allied bombings in World War II) is now Japan’s oldest existing samurai school still in original condition, but he himself is credited with changing Sendai from a small (and politically insignificant) fishing town into the major city it is today.1 Not bad for a guy who wasn't even born in the prefecture, eh?2


But who was he?


What were the significant events in his life?


And why, oh why, did he wear a banana on his head?


This article will endeavour to answer these questions, and more, in an attempt to - to paraphrase an old cliché -  find the man behind the banana.


Before examining Masamune3 himself I think that it best first to give a brief outline of the family into which he was born, so that one can gain a greater understanding of Masamune.


The Date family was founded in the early Kamakura period (1185-1333) by Isa Tomomune who originally came from the Isa district of Hitachi Province (now Ibaraki Prefecture). The family took its name from the Date district (now Fukushima Prefecture) of Mutsu Province4 which had been awarded to Isa Tomomune by Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) the first Kamakura shogun, for his assistance in the Minamoto-Taira War (1180-85)5 and in Minamoto no Yoritomo’s struggle for power with his brother, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189)6.


By the early 1500’s the family had risen to become sengoku daimyo (powerful local lords) and controlled a number of castles in the Tohoku region. Date Masamune, as a vassal of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) and then the first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), added greatly to the lands held by the Date family (including the huge and rich Sendai domain). Other branches of the family controlled the Yoshida and Uwajima domains in Iyo Province (now Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku).


The power of the chief line of the Date family was greatly weakened in 1660's by an internal succession struggle which saw the assassination of one member of the family and the arrest and imprisonment (by the shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna ) of two of the family’s heads (including the reigning daimyo Date Tsunamune).7 After the Meiji restoration (1868) the Date family, as with the majority of dainyo appointed by the Tokugawa, were forced to return many of their estates (including the Sendai domain) to the new centralised imperial government thus losing much, if not all of the last of their power.8 The last major act of this family was the foundation of the city of Date and a number of other towns and villages in Hokkaido in 1870.9




Date Masamune - who in later life was not only to become skilled in the arts of war but also Noh drama, calligraphy and the art of incense - was born in 1567. The eldest son of Date Terumune (1544-85), the lord of Yonezawa Castle (in the modern Yamagata Prefecture), Masamune contracted smallpox as a child and almost died. Although he recovered and suffered no long term physically debilitating effects from the disease, the disease did cause him to lose the sight in his right eye (that’s why he seems to be winking in many of his depictions). This, combined with his ferocious nature on the field of battle and expansionistic tendencies, gained Masamune the nickname dokuganryu ("One-eyed Dragon").


On the death of his father in early 1585 Masamune, at age 17, became the head of the Date family and immediately set about increasing his family's domain by invading the lands of the daimyo families which surrounded his own.10 By 1589 he had succeed in increasing the area controlled by the Date family to 30 gun (counties) in the Mutsu and Dewa Provinces.11 In the same year he defeated the Ashina family and gained control of the rich, and strategically important, Aizu domain which he made his base of operations.12 


However, the Aizu domain was not to stay in Date Masamune's hands for long. In 1590 he was forced to hand over control of the domain to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, kampaku (imperial regent) of Japan, who had begun to see Masamune as a threat to his power.13 In return, and as a reward for his role in suppressing a number of peasant uprisings, Toyotomi gave Masamune the derelict Iwatesawa castle and the surrounding lands as his home domain.14 Masamune moved there in 1591, rebuilt the castle, renaming it Iwadeyama, and encouraged the growth of a town at its base. Today this town is the modern town of Iwadeyama.15 Masamune was to be based in Iwadeyama for approximately 13 years and while he was there it became a major political and economic centre in the region.16


Like many of the major daimyo of Japan, Masamune, and many of his retainers, were actively involved in Toyotomi’s Korean campaigns (1592 and 1597) - both on the field of battle and in supporting roles. It is said that Masamune and his retainers served with great distinction. 17


Two years after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598 Japan – which had been at peace only since 1590 - plunged once again into civil war. Masamune was ultimately to profit greatly from this war. Masamune allied himself with the “Eastern Faction” led by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa had been one Toyotomi’s most senior generals and had instigated the new civil war by moving to take control of Japan for himself rather than keeping the promise he had made to Toyotomi to serve his 5 year old son, Toyotomi Hideyori (1593-1615).18


Tokugawa Ieyasu triumphed in his bid to gain sovereignty over Japan at the Battle of  Sekigahara (21 October 1600).19 Despite what many textbooks and encyclopaedias will tell you, Masamune was not present at this battle. Rather he and his army were involved in fighting to the north at Uesugikagetsu20 where he effectively secured Tokugawa’s flank from attack and helped him to solidify his control of northern Japan.


Manasume reaped many rewards from picking the correct side to support. In gratitude for his assistance, Tokugawa gave Masamune the lordship of the huge and profitable Sendai domain which made Masamune one of Japan’s most powerful daimyo. Indeed, Masamune had become so powerful many people, including some of his most trusted advisors, believed it was only a matter of time before he gained control of Japan at the expense of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Suzuki Motonobu (1555-1620), Masamune 's Finance Minister, even drew up a constitution for the “Date Shogunate.”21


On being granted the Sendai domain Masamune chose to move his capital from Iwadeyama to the small fishing village of Sendai. He did so because Sendai gave him access to the sea (and thereby foreign trade) and because the village also sat astride one of Japan’s major north-south domestic trade routes. Masamune began building Aoba Castle (Sendai Castle)22 in 1601 - sparing no expense on its construction. In 1604 Masamune, accompanied by 52,000 vassals and their families, moved to Sendai. He left his fourth son, Date Muneyasu, to rule his vassals remaining in Iwadeyama.


In Sendai Masamune not only encouraged the development of the town as a trading centre but also built a major salt works and a number of shrines and temples - some of which still exist today (see below). Masamune’s rise in power and his new-found access to the sea also allowed him to further pursue one of his great interests - Christianity, and the West in general.


On 28 October 1613, alter having built a European style ship which he named - after consultation with Spanish diplomats - Sant Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist), Masamune sent an embassy of 180 of his retainers, led by Hasekura Tsunenaga (1571-1622), to seek trade with Mexico and southern Europe, and to visit Pope Paul V in Rome.23 The embassy, called the Keicho Mission, returned to Japan in September 1620.24 Despite this mission being received favourably, and great European interest in Japan, Date Masamune was forced to abandoned his Western diplomacy after the Tokugawa Shogunate banned Christianity and severely limited Japan's contact with the rest of the world.25




This, I guess, is probably the question most people want answered - so here it goes. The large banana shaped symbol that Date Masamune wore on his helmet in fact is meant to represent a crescent moon. This symbol was Data Masamune’s personal heraldic crest (J. Maetate). Easy, eh?


The heraldic symbol of the Date family itself was two sparrows facing each other surrounded by a circle of stylised bamboo. You still see this symbol quite a lot around Sendai (and Iwadeyama) especially during festivals.


by Nic Clarke


locations related to Date Masamune




1 Before the Date clan moved to lwadeyama and then Sendai, historically the most politically important city in the Mutsu Province had been Tagajo, which had been both the provincial capital and a major naval base during the Nara period (710-794).


2 That singular honour goes to Yamagata ken.


3 A note on the use of names. In most cases I have chosen to refer to persons discussed alter the first time by their family names unless doing so would cause confusion - such as in the case of more than one family member being discussed. In these cases I have opted to use the individual's given name. Date Masamune - as the subject of this article - will be referred to by his given name. I hope this does not cause too much confusion. By the way, I apologize for the use of footnotes bet I just couldn't help myself.


4 The Mutsu Province covered an area which is today made up of Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori, and a small part of Akita prefectures. During the Tokugawa Shogunate the territory of the province was divided into approximately 20 daimyo domains of which Sendai and Aizu were the most powerful. The Sendai domain was controlled by the Date family while the Gamo (1601-1627), Kato (1627-1643), and the Matsudaira (1643-1868) families in turn controlled the Aizu domain. Date Masamune had briefly controlled the Aiziu domain (indeed had his base of operations in a castle there) in 1589-1590 before being forced to yield the castle to Toyotomi llideyoshi (see below).


5 The Minamoto-Taira War was the last phase of the two clans' struggle for power which had begun in earnest in the 11th century. After the Hogen Rebellion (1156) and the Heiji Rebellion (1160), the Taira succeeded in wiping out most of the main line of Minamoto clan. However, Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181), the bead of the Taira clan, (unwisely as it turned out) sent the three sons of Minamoto no Yoshitomo (the head of the main line of the Minamoto clan and the leader of the Heiji Rebellion) Minamoto no Yoritomo, Minamoto no Noriyori, and Minamoto no Yoshitsune into exile rather than having them executed along with their father, as was the common practice of the day. In 1180, burning with the desire to avenge his father, Yoritomo rebelled. The rest, as they say, is history.


6 Yoshitsune, as his brother's chief general, had been responsible for the final defeat and annihilation of the Taira clan at the Battle of Dannoura in 1185. His good relations with the former Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127-1192), much greater military ability and popularity aroused Yoritomo's suspicions and hostility. In 1185 faced with Yoritomo's increasing hostility, and given the right to rebel by Go-Shirakawa (who was hoping to weaken the Minamoto clan ), Yoshitsune joined with his uncle, Minamoto no Yukiie in rebellion. The rebellion failed and Yoshitsune fled. He was forced to commit suicide in 1189. Even today the ill-fated Yoshitsune remains a far more favoured figure in Japanese popular fiction than his brother Yoritomo, who is considered shrewd, calculating, ruthless and even paranoid. Indeed, the phrase hogan-biiki, meaning sympathy for the underdog or an ill-fated person, derives from a military title given to Yoshitsune by the emperor Go-Shirakawa. There are also many plays and stories about the adventures of Yoshitsune and his faithful retainer and friend, the warrior-monk Benkei. One of the most popular is the Kabuki play Yoshitsune Sembon-Sakura, “The Thousand Cherry Trees of Yoshitsune.”


7 In 1660 Date Tsunamune was deposed and placed under house arrest by Tokugawa Ietsuna (1641-1680) on the

charge of immoral conduct. Ietsuna made Tsunamune's infant (1 year old) son, Tsunamura, the new daimyo of the Sendai domain. Real control over the domain lay in the hands of Tsunamune's uncle, Date Munekatsu (1621-1679) who was made regent. In 1666 there was an attempt on Tsunamura's life through poison being placed in one of his meals (Tsunamura didn't die but one of his taste testers did). Even though there was no proof, Munekatsu, who had the most to gain from Tsunamura's death, was widely believed to be responsible. In 1670 a member of the Date family reported to the Shogunate that Munekatsu was badly handling the running of the Sendai domain (and may have hinted at possible treasonous activities). In response one of Munekatsu's retainers murdered the informant in the house of the Tairo (great elder) Sakai Tadakiyo (1624-1681) a few months later - just before Sakai was to pass his judgement on Munekatsu. The assassin was executed and Munekatsu, who was deemed responsible, was imprisoned for life in Tosa Province (now Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku).


8 The Date family returned its lands to the imperial government in 1869.


9 The branch of the Date family which did this was based in Iwadeyama. Thus today Iwadeyama has many cultural exchanges with towns in Hokkaido (a prime example of this is during Iwadeyama's Date Masamune festival).


10 These families were the Hatakeyama, Ashina, Nambu, Iwaki, Satake, Shirakawa, Mogami and the Uesugi.


11 Dewa Province covered an area which today is made up of Yamagata and Akita prefectures.


12 The Aizu domain was centred on the Aizu basin and is now part of the modern Fukushima Prefecture.


13 Toyotomi Hideyoshi is himself a fascinating figure in Japanese history. A man of humble origins (his father, according to legend, was a foot soldier) he completed the work of national reunification started by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), whom he had served under as a general, and rose to become, by 1591, the undisputed ruler of Japan through military conquest and as the emperor's nominated kampaku. After conquering Japan, Toyotomi turned his eyes to Korea and launched two invasions in an attempt to conquer the country. The first invasion, in 1592, ended in a draw. The second, in 1597, was called off in 1598 when Toyotomi died.


14 Iwatesawa castle had first been built in 1346 as a wooden moot and bailey style castle. Over the years it had been converted into a reasonably sized stone structure. In 1590 part of the hill on which the castle was built collapsed, seriously damaging the castle (bits of this hill are still falling off in large chunks - and it's forested now!).


15 Today the castle no longer exists, although one can still make out the outline of the positions of the battlements (especially if you have a map to refer to, yes I am a history geek). The hill on which it stood (which is the next hill along from the one my school is on) is now a memorial park to Date Masamune.


16 While Date Masamune resided in Iwadeyama the town was, in fact, much bigger than Sendai, numbering over

50,000 people. Today the population of Iwadeyama (including its surrounds ) is just over 14,000.


17 According to the Date Ke Tokenki (Sword Records of the Date Family"), it was during the first Korean campaign that Masamune's sword Kura-giri (" Saddle Cutter") got its second name Kurombu-giri ("Black Chap Cutter"). The story goes as follows: During a meeting of officers to test swords a dark-skinned Korean prisoner

who was "as big as an ox" was presented as a test subject. The gathered samurai were reluctant to offer their weapons for testing fearing that the edge of their weapons might chip on the bones of the “Korean giant.” Finally Masamune offered Kura-giri for testing. Kura-giri cut through the prisoner and deep into the block on the first cut -  so deep in fact that it could not be easily withdrawn - without damage. In reference to the unfortunate Korean's dark complexion, this fearsome sword became known as Kurombu-giri. This sword was a tachi made by the Tosho Kagehide of Bizen and had a cutting edge of about 73 cm - it is now deemed an "Important Cultural Asset" by the Japanese government.


18 Rather than murdering the child Hideyori when he began his campaign to gain control of Japan, and thereby

causing a backlash against himself, Tokugawa Ieyasu waited until Hideyori reached adulthood - and he had gained full power in Japan - and then forced Hideyori to commit suicide and had his seven year old son, Kunimatsu, beheaded. Tokugawa Ieyasu did this in order to stop either Hideyori or his son from becoming focuses for anti-Tokugawa forces.


19 Sekigahara was in Mino Province (modern Gifu Prefecture). This battle was one of the largest land battles ever fought on Japanese soil. Tokugawa Ieyasu's army alone numbered over 100,000 men. Tokugawa won this battle more through treachery than good generalship - as halfway through the battle 4 daimyo who had allied themselves with the opposing "Western Faction" defected to Tokugawa’s “Eastern Faction.” The subsequent surprise assault of their men on the Western Faction led to a total rout of the Western army. After winning this battle and consolidating his position Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. Japan was to be ruled by members this shogunal family for over 250 years (1603-1867).


20 In modern Fukushima Prefecture.

21 Suzuki ordered these documents destroyed while on his deathbed in order to stop them from falling into Tokugawa hands. If these documents had fallen into Tokugawa hands it is highly likely Date Masamune would have been charged with treason.


22 So called because it sits on Aobayama hill.


23 This ship was built by Japanese shipwrights under Spanish supervision. Its very name indicates the interest Masamune had in Christianity. Masamune's interest in Christianity is further indicated by the letter which he sent with his envoys to the Pope, one line which said I’ll offer my land for a base of your missionary work. Send us as many padres as possible.


24 Hasekura had an audience with the Spanish viceroy of Mexico in 1614. By January 1615 he had reached Madrid where he gained an audience with Philip III of Spain and was converted to Christianity. In October of the same year Hasekura travelled to Rome where he met with Pope Paul V. Pope Paul V received Hasekura well - to the extent that he even granted him Roman citizenship. The clock outside Maruzen in Sendai commemorates this embassy (this is especially obvious when it strikes the hour).


25 Although a policy of almost total national seclusion - called sakoku (literally “closed country”) in Japanese - was not fully adopted until 1639 during the reign of the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-51), earlier rulers, starting with Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587 and followed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1612 and 1614, had passed a number of edicts against Christianity which were occasionally enforced but were more often than not ignored especially if those Japanese converted to Christianity and Western Christian missionaries remained discreet. This changed in 1623 when Tokugawa Iemitsu came to power and began to attempt to eliminate Christianity in Japan in earnest. By 1639 he had passed numerous edicts (1633, 1634, 1635, 1636, and 1639) which forbade contact (on the pain of death) with the outside world in all but the most limited (and heavily controlled) instances. While it is clear that part of the policy of seclusion was to stop the spread of Christianity - which the Shogunate saw as a pretext to western invasion and a destabilising influence on its rule, it is also possible that the Shogunate also saw the policy of seclusion as a way in which to gain all the benefits of foreign trade for itself while preventing individual daimyo from being able to build their own power bases through foreign trade and foreign political alliances (just as Date Masamune was attempting to do) which they could then later use to challenge Tokugawa rule.




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