A letter by Uesugi Kiyoko. 5.27 Kenmu 5 [1338] Uesugi Kiyoko jihitsu shōsoku (上杉清子消息 建武5年5月27日)

This letter survives, one of a handful written by Uesugi Kiyoko, who was the mother of Ashikaga Takauji, the first shogun of the Ashikaga regime.  She was descended from the Kanjuji line of the Fujiwara, whose members had been chamberlains (kurōdo) for generations. Her father Fujiwara Shigefusa traveled east to Kamakura because he served Prince Munetaka, who was  appointed as the shogun of Kamakura in 1252. Shigefusa also owned managerial rights to Uesugi estate, in Tanba province, which is located about thirty miles to the northwest of Kyoto. This estate was so important that it would become the name lands of this family, which became known as the Uesugi.  Shigefusa’s daughter Kiyoko was born and raised there (mumarete sodachitaru tokoro nite sōrō hodo ni) in 1270, a fact which she describes in one of her surviving letters. Kiyoko married into the Ashikaga, one of the most illustrious warrior families, and Kiyoko gave birth to Ashikaga Takauji here in 1305, and here their graves, and for that matter, Takauji’s birth clothes survive.  It was also near here, in a place called Shinomura, that Takauji rebelled against Kamakura in 1333, and ensured the destruction of that regime, and the possibility of his own warrior government.

It is because of her status as the shogun’s mother that this letter survives. In it, she recounts a crucial moment, the decisive battle where Kitabatake Akiie was killed. This was an important moment, for Akiie was the most prominent, and threatening commander for the Ashikaga. He had thrice led armies from the north, and had been successful in dislodging the Ashikaga from the capital in 1336. Akiie was also a noble, but of the same Minamoto lineage as the Ashikaga, and he set himself up as a General of the Northern Marches (Chinjufu shōgun), and even outranked Ashikaga Takauji as being the most prominent warrior of the Minamoto lineage.  Akiie has been misunderstood because he does not appear prominently in later chronicles, for he did not unquestionably support the nascent absolutism of Go-Daigo, and a blistering remonstrance (kansōbun 諫奏文) to emperor Go-Daigo a mere week before his death, reveals his profound dissatisfaction with this regime.

Kiyoko’s letter is interesting because she describes both the miraculous appearance of the gods on the battlefield, and the fact that six ships were burned on the coast, suggesting that she was either an eyewitness, or had access to an eyewitness’s account. The document survives in the original, and was preserved with the records of the Uesugi, but judging from its appearance, it was not stored particularly carefully, and exhibits considerable damage.

The letter is extremely challenging to read, as the names of the participants involved are unknown, and the clauses tend to run together, making the subject as well as the content of the document difficult to ascertain. Some words have extra syllables, such as konoto for kondo, which means “now,” or what likely seems to be the province name Mutsu appearing as Mutsuna.

Difficulty of language notwithstanding, this letter also reveals how people in the provinces could be quite skeptical about the veracity of letters unless they had the proper monograms. Likewise, messengers had to transport letters to proof their veracity.

Kiyoko’s use of honorifics should not obscure the fact that she was most likely addressing one of her sons via a messenger. Neither Takauji or Tadayoshi was at this battle, but Takauji issued reports of its result shortly after its completion and so most likely was in the capital. This suggests that she wrote this letter to her younger son Tadayoshi, who was primarily in charge of administration.

Kiyoko’s letter also suggests that her judgment was valued within the regime, and exercised considerable authority. This goes against the grain of common understandings of the age, which assume that women were becoming less politically prominent in the fourteenth century.

After Kiyoko’s death, Kitabatake Akiie’s father Chikafusa told his supporters that it was now likely that the Ashikaga regime would unravel, and Takauji and his brother Tadayoshi would have a falling out. This in fact did happen in 1350-52, in a chaotic dispute that almost resulted in the collapse of the Ashikaga regime.

These documents have been declared to be national treasures of Japan. Images have been provided and permission granted thanks to Abe Tetsuto of the Uesugi Museum of Yonezawa.

Royall Tyler also provided me with invaluable help in deciphering this letter. All errors are my responsibility [Thomas Conlan].


[A letter from Kashōin dono. Engen 3 [1338].5.22]Since [sōro nareba 候なれハ] this [Minase no] Sōzu[1] is in our service [hōkō no hito nite sōrō ほうこうの人にて候なれハ] he might well receive somewhere else, but [sōrowan suru ni 候ハんするに] he most certainly controls this place from nearby, and I fail to understand why the plan decided here has not been carried out [michiyarare みちやられ].[2] We have entrusted the administrative office (mandokoro) to Mutsuna no Nyūdō[3]; while he was a graduate (shinshiしんし[進士] ) chamberlain (kurado くら人[蔵人]) in our service we reassigned him to that office. Now (このと=今度)) he has served us so faithfully that we have given him [tabiteたひて=賜びて] Shinkōji, but I cannot understand that he should control it. You should give this careful thought. I have fully informed my messenger (onninae 御になヘ), and you must read the letter that he carries.

Sincerely (kashiku)

5th month, 27th day

Discussion of this important matter requires my seal. I have therefore affixed it so that you should know [that the letter is genuine].

(Monogram) [Uesugi Kiyoko]

I wondered how you have been since you went down from Kyoto. I was quite worried. Here, on 5.22 [1338] between Tennōji and Sakai, in Izumi, [Kitabatake] Akiie, the governor of Mutsu was killed and his head, etc was presented for inspection. Astonishing to tell, Hachiman and Sumiyoshi appeared, visible to the eye, in the midst of the battle [Ishizu no tatakai 石津合戦], and also a good half-dozen six ships lay burned out and sunk. Such was the will of the gods, and it gave me great hope for the future. . . . They say that Hosokawa Hyōbu no shō [Akiuji] and Musushi no kami [Kō no Moronao] has fought very valiantly (kōmyō かう名[高名]). The flight of the Kii army is due to these two men.

Now, we have given [tabite たひて] Shinkōji at Oyamada[4] to the above (ue 上). . . and he[5] is insisting that that is untrue. On the draft of the order Nagasawa’s seal is affixed. When my messenger gives you this document you need have no further doubt, but you instead monitor the situation [osaerare おさへられ][6] without taking action [sōrawarade候ハて]. There are many matters to look after, even here. Even more so, then, it is unfortunate that many people should be distressed about… [text missing].


[1] A Sangha administrator. A member of the monastic nobility, but not occupying the highest echelons.

[2] This phrase is obscure, but may have something to do with 満つ (満ちる) and might mean something like “fulfill,” “carry out fully,” or something of the kind. Here michi in principle makes the verb intransitive, but Kiyoko may not have been much of a grammarian.

[3] There is a place named Mutsuna in Aichi prefecture today, but it could also be the province Mutsu with an added syllable.

[4] Musashi province Tama district.

[5] Most likely the person mentioned at the beginning of the letter.

[6] This term is quite repetitive in the text.