Lifespan: Daiei 6 (1526) to 8/27 of Tenshō 1 (1573)
Rank: sengoku daimyō
Title: Governor of Shimotsuke, Assistant Vice-Minister of the Sovereign’s Household
Lord: Rokkaku Yoshikata
Father: Azai Sukemasa
Mother: Daughter of the Amago clan
Siblings: Hisamasa, Takamasa, Masahiro, Hidemasa, Kaizu-dono (wife of Taya Akimasa), Ōmi-no-kata (wife of Saitō Yoshitatsu)
Wife: Ono-dono (daughter of Iguchi Tsunemoto)
Children: Nagamasa, Masamoto, Masayuki, Okazaki Ankyū, Chisei, Akuhime, Daini-no-tsubone (wife of Rokkaku Yoshisane), Kyōgoku Maria (wife of Kyōgoku Takayoshi), Ōmi-no-kata (adopted daughter)
Azai Hisamasa served as a sengoku daimyō in northern Ōmi Province and the second lineal head of the Azai clan.
In 1526, Hisamasa was born as the eldest son of Azai Sukemasa. His mother was a consort named Amago Keian from Ōmi. Alternatively, his mother may have been Azai Chiyozuru, a consort of Rokkaku Munetaka, and he was then adopted by the Amago. Hisamasa was married to Ono-dono, the daughter of Iguchi Tsunemoto, a wealthy family from Ōmi.
In 1542, Hisamasa became head of the clan following the death of Sukemasa. Unlike his father who had been known as a ferocious warrior, Hisamasa did not have an affinity for military affairs. Consequently, Sukemasa may have desired Taya Akimasa, the husband of Sukemasa’s daughter, Tsuruchiyo (later known as Kaizu-dono), become his successor. Tsuruchiyo was the younger sister of Hisamasa born to the formal wife of Sukemasa, while the Taya were a branch family of the Azai. As a result, Hisamasa’s older brother-in-law, Akimasa, opposed succession by Hisamasa and launched a rebellion, planting the roots for discord in the clan.
After Hisamasa became head of the family, sustained pressure from the Rokkaku clan gradually brought the Azai under their control. Hisamasa’s eldest son, Katamasa (later known as Nagamasa) received one of the characters in his name from Rokkaku Yoshikata, head of the Rokkaku. Katamasa wed the daughter of Hirai Sadatake, a retainer of the Rokkaku. These steps served to formalize the subservience of the Azai to the Rokkaku.
Hisamasa’s tepid diplomacy caused dissatisfaction among many of his retainers. In 1560, Katamasa prevailed against Rokkaku Yoshikata in the Battle of Norada. This victory liberated the Azai from the Rokkaku and generated support among retainers for Katamasa to succeed Hisamasa as head of the clan. Hisamasa was temporarily confined to the island of Chikubu in the northern portion of Lake Biwa, while Katamasa returned Hisamasa’s formal wife (the daughter of Hirai Sadatake) to the Rokkaku. The details of this take-over resembling a coup d’etat are uncertain. Although Hisamasa was forcibly removed as head of the clan, he continued to exercise influence, preserving friendly relations with the Asakura clan that had been established by his father while opposing the formation of an alliance with the rising Oda.
While Hisamasa maintained his opinion of the Oda, the confrontation between the Oda and the Asakura deepened. Although not allied with the Oda, the Azai were not in open conflict, and the friction between the Oda and Asakura compelled them to take sides. Hisamasa insisted the clan support the Asakura. Nagamasa (having changed his name from Katamasa) complied with Hisamasa and rebelled against the Oda even though Nobunaga was his older brother-in-law. Following years of resistance, the allied forces of the Azai and the Asakura were defeated by the Oda.
In 1573, after the Oda captured and burned down the home base of the Asakura at Ichijōdani in Echizen Province, the Oda assaulted the Azai at Odani Castle in the Azai District of Ōmi Province. While the defenders put up stiff resistance, a unit led by Kinoshita Hideyoshi breached the perimeter, causing Hisamasa and Nagamasa to be separated in different portions of the fortress. Aware that the end was near, Hisamasa called upon Wakisaka Hisauemon, Iguchi Echizen no kami, and Akao Kiyosada to ward-off the attackers long enough for him to commit seppuku. After a ceremonial drink with Azai Koreyasu and Morimoto Tsurumatsu (an artisan), they killed themselves in succession. Upon hearing the news, Hisauemon followed in kind.
Reassessment of subservience to the Rokkaku clan
While Hisamasa was referred to as feeble-minded in certain historical accounts, his actions provide the basis for an alternate view.
The alliance between the Azai and Asakura arose in the era of Hisamasa’s father, Sukemasa. Sukemasa fostered the relationship as a means to counter the Rokkaku, shugo of southern Ōmi, who descended from the Kyōgoku, shugo of northern Ōmi and former masters of the Azai. During this period, the Rokkaku were a rising power under the leadership of their capable lord, Rokkaku Sadayori. The threat from the Rokkaku caused Sukemasa to flee on multiple occasions to Mino and Echizen provinces. Despite his own abilities, Sukemasa could not overcome the imbalance in power. Meanwhile, the Asakura were at the peak of their prosperity. Occupied with uprisings by adherents of the Ikkō sect in Echizen and in neighboring Kaga Province, the Asakura did not seek a direct confrontation with the imposing forces of the Rokkaku. An alliance with the Azai proved a wise strategy owing to the Azai’s control of northern Ōmi to shield them from the Rokkaku. Thus, the alliance represented an alignment of interests of both clans.
Thereafter, in the era of Hisamasa, the Azai became subservient to the Rokkaku. This occurred after the Asakura lost Asakura Norikage (Sōteki), their highly-capable military chief of staff who served as a pillar and de facto leader of the clan on behalf of several generations of lords. The consequence of this event may have caused Hisamasa to re-evaluate the relationship with the Asakura and align with the Rokkaku instead. At this time, the Azai were under frequent attack by the Kyōgoku who sought to restore their power. Submitting to the Rokkaku offered the protection needed to keep the Kyōgoku at bay as well as an opportunity to negotiate a settlement from a position of superior strength.
This arrangement allowed Hisamasa to focus efforts on the economic development of his domain, create a stable political environment, and govern the dogō, or local landowners, who Sukemasa had brought under control through military force in the previous generation. He thereby succeeded in building the foundation for the Azai to rise from their role as a leader of uprisings by kokujin with the limited aim of securing land rights to a sengoku daimyō. Further, although the Azai were under the governance of the Rokkaku, Hisamasa maintained control over his territory through alliances with the kokujin of northern Ōmi, while benefiting from the protection of the Rokkaku to the south.
From this perspective, Hisamasa did possess a diplomatic vision, and while subservience to the Rokkaku could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, it enabled him to protect his territory and accomplish his diplomatic mission.
Reassessments of domestic affairs
In addition to his diplomacy, Hisamasa achieved results in the arena of domestic affairs.
First, with respect to riparian works and irrigation, Hisamasa issued notices and regulations to mediate disputes among villages north of Lake Biwa with regard to the use of water from nearby rivers for irrigation, and he imposed restrictions on wealthy families who attempted to interfere with these rules. As an example, there was a severe water shortage in the villages at the base of Odani. A powerful family known as the Iguchi had control of the tributary to the Takatoki River that was the source of water for irrigation. Upon request of the villagers, Hisamasa applied pressure on the Iguchi, but the Iguchi responded with splendid offerings in an attempt to gain relief. Instead, the dogō from Nakano who purportedly lost a daughter received these gifts so the Iguchi reluctantly complied. Included in the gifts were mochi and, owing to this contribution, the clan was nicknamed Mochi no I. Having secured the irrigation channels, Hisamasa expanded the irrigation work but disputes over water persisted among villagers. To address their concerns, measures were taken to consolidate water sources and establish access priority among the villages.
Hisamasa expanded Odani Castle and constructed embankments on the grounds. He ordered the construction of temple dwellings on the mountain top near the castle, provided security services for the lands occupied by temples and shrines, and reinforced tax policies. In 1553, he issued debt cancellation orders originated by his father, Sukemasa, and introduced a set of twenty-three local laws. He protected the rights of creditors in connection with the payment of annual rice taxes with partial modification of a system initiated by his father.
Hisamasa’s ability to concentrate on these activities was made possible by his arrangement with the Rokkaku. Meanwhile, the Rokkaku themselves were implementing new policies such as tax-free markets known as raku-ichi raku-za and issuing proclamations independently of the bakufu. Hisamasa even adopted a stylized seal resembling the seal of the Rokkaku, and by exercising governance in northern Ōmi with the intention of remaining free from the clutch of the Kyōgaku, laid the foundation for the rise of the Azai clan to the status of sengoku daimyō.
Finally, Hisamasa was known to take an active interest in cultural pursuits including nō drama, falconry, and renga, or linked-verse poetry.