The Asakura clan rose in prominence to become sengoku daimyō of Echizen Province. This branch of the clan originated from the Asakura of Tajima Province, a wealthy family that originally served the Kusakabe clan dating back to the Heian period. The Asakura of Echizen served the Shiba clan, military governors of Echizen. The Asakura were one of three deputy military governors along with the Kai and Oda clans. In 1471, Asakura Takakage (known as Eirin Takakage – the seventh head), with the acquiescence of the Muromachi bakufu, dispossessed the Shiba of their role and became the next military governor of Echizen. These events illustrated the phenomenon of gekokujō, whereby families of lower rank usurped the political and military power of their former lords. His eldest son, Asakura Ujikage, cemented the clan’s control of the province through ingenious political maneuvering, despite persistent appeals by Shiba Yoshihiro to the bakufu to restore his authority.
The governance of Shiba Takatsune
During the Nanbokuchō period, Asakura Hirokage was the first member of the clan to serve the Shiba who were affiliated with the Ashikaga clan. In the next generation, Asakura Takakage (the second lineal head) served Shiba Takatsune in the role of hikan, or administrator. In 1333, Takatsune was awarded the role of military governor and assigned Echizen Province in recognition of his support to overthrow the Kamakura bakufu. This enabled Ashikaga Takauji to become the first seiitai shōgun of the Muromachi bakufu, a position of authority beyond those provided for under the ritsuryō system. Decades later, in 1366, Ashikaga Yoshiakira, the second shōgun of the bakufu, removed Takatsune from his position as shugo owing to conflicts with other influential daimyō, including the Kyōgoku and Akamatsu. This event is known as the Jōji no hen. Takakage sided with the bakufu army to reassert control of the central authorities in Wakasa, Echizen, Etchū, and Settsu. Yoshiakira sought to restore relations with local temples and shrines, and promote stability in the region.
Establishing a presence in Echizen
In 1367, Yoshiakira suddenly died of illness, after which Ashikaga Yoshimitsu became the third lineal shōgun, while Hosokawa Yoriyuki became the kanrei, or deputy shōgun. However, Yoriyuki’s arbitrary decision-making generated opposition that led to his ouster in an event known as the Kōryaku Political Incident in 1379. Takatsune’s son, Shiba Yoshiyuki, became the new kanrei, providing the Shiba clan the authority needed to restore its position as military governor of Echizen. The Asakura returned to the service of their former lords, the Shiba. Nevertheless, the Asakura were in a stronger position as a clan in Echizen than under Takatsune, having taken advantage of the decade under the bakufu to steadily establish their influence and overcome their origins as bushi from the province of Tajima. By this time, the Shiba had no choice other than to take account of the strength of the Asakura who, along with the Kai and Oda clans, became the deputy military governor in Echizen.
The Ouster of Shiba Yoshitoshi
In 1458, a conflict arose between Kai Jōchi, a shugodai, and Shiba Yoshitoshi, military governor of Echizen. Asakura Takakage, the seventh lineal head of the clan, then joined with Kai Toshimitsu (Jōchi’s eldest son) to set-up a base in Ōmi, and awaited provisions. Meanwhile, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shōgun of the Muromachi bakufu, attempted to mediate, but to no avail owing to opposition from the military governor. Early in 1459, Takakage and Toshimitsu entered Echizen, while Yoshimasa ordered the military governors from the surrounding provinces of Wakasa, Noto, and Ōmi to support Jōchi. Yoshitoshi ignored an order from Yoshimasa to deploy to the Kantō Region, instead opting to attack Kanagasaki Castle defended by allies of the Kai. Unable to topple the castle, Yoshitoshi fled to the protection of Ōuchi Norihiro in Suō Province while forces hailing from Etchū, Noto, and Kaga invaded Echizen in the Battle of Chōroku. Takakage (Eirin Takakage) prevailed on behalf of the deputy military governor of Echizen in a final showdown against Horie Toshizane at the Wada manor in the Asuwa District of Echizen.
In the aftermath of the battle, the victors had to resolve issues of succession. Yoshitoshi’s son, Shiba Yoshihiro, was only three years old at the time. In 1461, a decision was made to have the son of Shibukawa Yoshikane, a court official serving Ashikaga Masatomo (the first Horigoe kubō) assume the name of Shiba Yoshikado and inherit the clan. He was then appointed the military governor of Echizen, Owari, and Tōtōmi provinces. Yoshikado’s appointment, however, was aimed, in part, to enable Yoshimasa to order the Shiba army to support the operations of the bakufu in the Kantō, and he was beset by internal challenges to his authority.
Asakura Takakage becomes shugo
In the battles that raged in Kyōto from 1467 to 1477, known as the Ōnin-Bunmei War, Asakura Takakage initially supported the Western Army led by Yamana Sōzen. Takakage, however, traveled from Kyōto to Echizen to negotiate switching sides to the Eastern Army led by Hosokawa Katsumoto. In 1471, a letter from the Muromachi bakufu to Takakage confirmed the appointment of the Asakura as the military governors of Echizen in lieu of the Shiba, and it became known that Takakage had joined the Eastern Army, which eventually prevailed in the Ōnin-Bunmei War. While restraining the Kai clan in Echizen, Takakage promulgated provincial laws known as the Seventeen Covenants of Asakura Toshikage, marking the clan’s attainment of the status of sengoku daimyō.
Takakage promptly ordered construction of Ichijōdani Castle and the surrounding village that would serve as the headquarters and cultural home for the ruling Asakura family and their retainers for generations. Prior to moving to Ichijōdani, the Asakura were based at Kuromaru, located either in the Sakai or Asuwa districts of Echizen.
The appointment of the Kuratani kubō as shugo
Shiba Yoshitoshi and his eldest son, Yoshihiro, made incessant appeals to Yoshimasa to restore the Shiba to the role of military governor of Echizen. Knowing that the Shiba maintained close ties with the Ashikaga family, Takakage accepted a proposal from Saitō Myōjun of Mino Province to offer support to the son of Shiba Yoshikado, a former rival of his father (Takakage), who had earlier been appointed as military governor in 1461. The plan entailed having the Kuratani kubō, or the political administration of the Kuratani, become successors of the Shiba, and assign the name of Ashikaga Yoshitoshi to Yoshikado’s son. The Kuratani were an offshoot of the Ashikaga, descended from the son of Ashikaga Yoshitsugu (the younger brother of Ashikaga Yoshimichi, the fourth lineal shōgun). This would have Echizen ostensibly become the territory of the Kuratani kubō, impeding the ability of the Shiba to maneuver in an attempt to restore itself as the military governor of Echizen.
Thereafter, the Asakura became the military governor of Echizen, causing the Kuratani kubō to be treated as a kakushō, or guest shōgun of the Asakura, while the Asakura became the recognized daimyō of the province.
Governance of the Asakura
Beginning early in the Sengoku period, governance under the Asakura clan brought relative peace and stability to Echizen Province, enabling the clan and their followers to prosper from their provincial capital in Ichijōdani. Rather than seek to expand their domain, the Asakura protected their own. Asakura Norikage (Sōteki) served as the highly capable chief of staff for three generations of clan leaders. Military ventures led by Norikage into the neighboring provinces of Wakasa, Kaga, Ōmi, Mino were often performed upon orders of the central authorities in Kyōto to resolve provincial conflicts and promote stability.
The Asakura fostered a peaceful environment in Ichijōdani, enabling the cultural arts to flourish. Nobles, artisans, priests, and other cultural figures traveled from Kyōto and the surrounding provinces to participate in a wide range of musical, literary, and cultural activities, including kadō, waka, renga, sadō, kaiga, sarugaku, inuōmono, ceramics, glass, and landscape gardening. Locals possessed valuable ceramic tea sets and vases from the Ming dynasty in China and from Thailand. In his memoirs, Luís Fróis, a Jesuit missionary residing in Japan during this period, praised Echizen as one of the most noble and important provinces in the country, observing that the citizens spoke a more sophisticated language than their counterparts in the Kinai Region. In support of these activities, the clan initiated direct trade with the continent rather than rely solely on income from transit trade.
Asakura Yoshikage, the eleventh head of the clan, offered refuge to Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the younger brother of Ashikaga Yoshiteru (the thirteenth lineal shōgun), following Yoshiteru’s assassination. Yoshikage did not, however, support Yoshiaki’s plan to march to Kyōto, nor did he offer allegiance to Oda Nobunaga of Owari Province after he established a new political order in Kyōto. Yoshikage allied with Azai Nagamasa to battle against Nobunaga. In 1573, the Oda forces surrounded the Asakura in the Siege of Ichijōdani, burning down the castle and village, while Yoshikage took his own life. The reign of the Asakura as sengoku daimyō of Echizen came to a tragic end.