Battle of Hetsugigawa


Shimazu Clan

Bungo Province

Toyotomi Clan

Date:  12/12 of Tenshō 14 (1586)

Location:  Alongside the Hetsugi River in Bungo Province in northeast Kyūshū

Synopsis:  Following a strategy meeting, Sengoku Hidehisa made a fateful decision to traverse the Hetsugi River and attack the Shimazu instead of waiting for additional forces to arrive.  The attack failed, resulting in a significant loss for the Toyotomi.  Hidehisa survived the battle but over 1,000 died and his domain in Sanuki Province was seized upon orders of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. 

Lord:  Shimazu Yoshihisa

Commanders:  Shimazu Iehisa

Forces:  10,000 to 13,000

Losses:  Unknown

Lord:  Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Commanders:  Sengoku Hidehisa, Chōsokabe Motochika, Chōsokabe Nobuchika, Ōtomo Yoshimune, Sogō Masayasu, Yorioka Sakyōshin

Forces:  20,000 (able to place in action up to 6,000)

Losses:  Over 1,000 including Chōsokabe Nobuchika and Sogō Masuyasu

The Battle of Hetsugigawa occurred on 12/12 of Tenshō 14 (1586), marking the opening chapter in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s campaign known as the Pacification of Kyūshū.  In this conflict, Shimazu Iehisa led the Shimazu forces to victory against a Toyotomi army led by Chōsokabe Motochika, Chōsokabe Nobuchika, Sengoku Hidemasa, Ōtomo Yoshimune, and Sogō Masayasu.


On 4/5 of 1586, Ōtomo Yoshishige (Sōrin), the sengoku daimyō of Bungo Province met with Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Ōsaka.  Yoshishige requested support to counter an advance by Shimazu Yoshihisa into Bungo.  Hideyoshi consented, ordering Kuroda Yoshitaka to assemble Mōri forces for deployment to Kyūshū.  He further ordered Sengoku Hidehisa from Sanuki Province to lead forces from Shikoku including Chōsokabe Motochika and his son, Nobuchika, to Bungo in Kyūshū.

Course of events

Shimazu Iehisa invaded Bungo, attacking Tsuruga Castle held by the Ōtomo.  On 12/11, in support of the defenders, Sengoku Hidehisa and Chōsokabe Nobuchika set-up an encampment alongside the Hetsugi River.  At a strategy meeting, Hidehisa insisted the forces should cross the river and attack, while Motochika advised the army wait for additional forces to arrive before commencing an attack.  Hidehisa refused Motochika’s recommendation, while Sogō Masayasu concurred with Hidehisa.  Consequently, the forces quickly crossed the river to engage in battle from the evening of 12/12 and continuing into the next day. Hidehisa’s unit serving in the vanguard was taken by surprise and promptly defeated.  A battalion of 3,000 forces under Chōsokabe fought against an army of 5,000 soldiers under Niiro Daizen-no-suke.  In the ensuing chaos, Motochika and Nobuchika became separated while on the defensive. Motochika managed to escape safely to Hiburijima, a small island off the coast of Iyo Province.  Nobuchika sought refuge in Nakatsuru-Kawahara but was killed by Suzuki Daizen.  He died at the age of twenty-two.  Sogō Masayasu and as many as 700 soldiers under Nobuchika also perished, while Tsuruga Castle fell.  Hideyoshi was dismayed at the loss by Hidehisa, seizing his territory in Sanuki and assigning it to Bitō Tomonobu.

Account of Luís Fróis (a Jesuit missionary from Portugal residing in Japan)

To protect himself from an attack by the Satsuma army, the lineal heir of the lord of Bungo Province, together with two generals (Sengoku Hidehisa and Chōsokabe Motochika), decided to build a fortress at a site known as Uenoharu.

They did not, however, earnestly pursue the construction.  Instead, they enjoyed feasts and engaged in acts of debauchery, disregarding the immediate needs so the status of the castle was a matter of contempt.

As a result, when the Satsuma army raided them, there was no prospect of help.

Pandalian (Tawara Chikamori, the third son of the provincial lord, Francisco (Ōtomo Sōrin) and adopted son of Tawara Chikakata), informed the priests that if an incident occurs in Funai, they should bring their family belongings and seek refuge in Myōkendake Castle.

Without wasting time, the Satsuma forces strengthened their offensive, gradually entered Bungo, and seized territory.

Owing to their erratic behavior, the commanders in Bungo became increasingly vulnerable to the threat posed by the encroaching army.

This year, on 1/16 of 1587 (Gregorian calendar), the Satsuma forces assaulted the castle of a Christian noble called Toshimitsu (Toshimitsu Sōgyo) located three ri (approximately 12 kilometers) away from Funai.  With support from Funai, the lord of the castle fought valiantly, but after unyielding attacks, the enemy forces eventually entered the castle and killed the lord along with many of the defenders.

Without knowing for certain whether Toshimitsu’s castle was occupied by the enemy forces, allies of Toshimitsu in Funai continued deliberating whether to head toward the castle to break the siege.  In the end, they decided to move ahead and departed Funai on 1/20, a celebratory day for the honorable martyrs of Saint Sebastian and Saint Fabian.

From Funai, Sengoku Hidehisa led soldiers accompanied by Chōsokabe Motochika (the provincial lord of Tosa) and his eldest son, Chōsokabe Nobuchika.  Pandalian (Tawara Chikamori) also led soldiers along with other designated lords from Bungo.  Orders were given for persons from Kiyota and Takada.

The Satsuma forces appeared to have earlier been informed of the movements of the Bungo forces so had ample time to prepare and to formulate their strategy.  They positioned only a small number of troops out front and the remaining forces were artfully concealed. 

The Bungo forces arrived at the fast-flowing Takada River (the Hetsugi River), and after seeing a small number of Satsuma forces on the other side, without hesitation, traversed the river.  Upon commencing hostilities, the Bungo forces initially believe they had the advantage over their opponents.

This, however, was the plan of the Satsuma forces to lure all of the Bungo forces across the river.  Once the Bungo forces completed the crossing, the concealed Satsuma forces charged out of their hiding places and launched a ferocious attack of alarming speed and power.  The infantry battalion from Tosa upon which the other forces were depending did not even have time or a location from which to fire their arquebuses.  Meanwhile, the Satsuma troops wielded long swords and bow and arrow to violently attack their opponents unhindered by return arquebus fire.  In this manner, allies were easily repelled and forced to flee in defeat, abandoning their arquebuses and other weapons on the battlefield as each man for himself scrambled to escape.

The troops from Bungo were familiar with river currents so were saved, but the pitiable soldiers led by Sengoku Hidehisa and Chōsokabe Motochika lacked experience with river crossings so many drowned during the retreat.

In the course of this battle, it was testified that more than 2,300 soldiers were killed in action.  Among the fallen were Chōsokabe Nobuchika (the lineal heir of Motochika) and Lord Sogō (Sogō Masayasu), the former landlord of Awa, in addition to numerous nobles and prominent persons.

In the afternoon, the Satsuma forces arrived near Funai and destroyed everything in their path.

Chōsokabe Motochika of Tosa abandoned all of his horses and fled along with several of his retainers by boat.  While en route, he also set aside his belongings.

An individual called Sengoku who was the provincial lord of Sanuki and a commanding general attempted to depart by boat from Hiji.  Although he was sent by the kanpaku (Toyotomi Hideyoshi) to defend the Bungo forces from their enemies, he acted malevolently, deriding the people from Bungo and governing with impunity.  He was deeply hated so there was a risk he would be killed by those on land.

Lord Sengoku sustained injuries to one leg but, together with twenty others, fled, abandoned his belongings, and arrived in Myōken.