Lifespan: 9/24 of Tenbun 2 (1533) to 8/20 of Tenshō 1 (1573)
Rank: sengoku daimyō
Title: Junior Fourth Rank (Lower), Chief of the Left Division of Outer Palace Guards
Bakufu: Military Governor of Echizen Province
Father: Asakura Takakage (Munekiyo Takakage)
Wives: [Formal] Daughter of Hosokawa Harumoto, [Second] Daughter of Konoe Taneie, [Consort] Kozaijō (Ashikaga) (daughter of Kuratani Tsugutomo), [Consort] Koshōshō (daughter of Saitō Hyōbu Shōyū)
Children: Kumagimimaru, Aiōmaru, Yohira (engaged to Kyōnyo from the Hongan Temple), daughter (a nun), Matsu (wife of Kenkō of the Shōkō Temple), daughter (wife of Yamaura Kagekuni – adopted daughter of Uesugi Kagekatsu), Nobukage
Successor to the clan
Yoshikage was born in 1533 as the eldest son of Asakura Takakage, the tenth lord of the clan and a sengoku daimyō. His mother, Kōtokuin, hailed from the Takeda clan of Wakasa Province. Yoshikage was the only biological son of Takakage, and born when Takakage was forty years old. Yoshikage inherited the role as lord of the clan at the age of sixteen after the passing of his father in the third month of 1548, and adopted the name of Nobukage. Owing to his young age at the time of succession, Asakura Norikage (Sōteki), the highly capable chief of staff, served as Yoshikage’s guardian and as the de facto political and military head of the clan until his death in 1555. The loss of Norikage was a major setback for the Asakura, magnified by the absence of sons or brothers who could otherwise support Yoshikage during a crucial period for survival. Noikage’s tenure as chief of staff paralleled the peak of stability, peace, and prosperity for the Asakura clan of Echizen. Nobles from Kyōto such as Sanjōnishi Kineda expressed envy and delight at the cultural life of Ichijōdani.
On 9/9 in 1548, Yoshikage made a courtesy visit to Kyōto. This was a precarious time for the ruling Ashikaga in Kyōto. In 1547, Ashikaga Yoshiharu, the twelfth shōgun, transferred the role of shōgun to his eldest son, Yoshiteru, who was only eleven years old. At the time, Yoshiharu and Yoshiteru were living in Sakamoto in Ōmi Province, having earlier fled Kyōto following a power-struggle with Hosokawa Harumoto, the kanrei, or deputy shōgun. In 1548, Yoshiharu and Yoshiteru returned to Kyōto after reconciling with Harumoto, and Harumoto recognized the transfer of authority to Yoshiteru.
On 6/16 of 1552, Yoshikage received one of the characters from the name of the Ashikaga Yoshiteru, and changed his name from Nobukage to Yoshikage. At this time, he was awarded the Court title of Chief of the Left Division of Outer Palace Guards. Receiving a character from the name of the shōgun and the senior title marked an unprecedented level of recognition among lords of the Asakura clan. This owed to the elevated status attained by his father, Takakage, comparable to the otomoshū and shōbanshū of the bakufu who served as close associates of the shōgun. Moreover, Yoshikage established an intimate relationship with the bakufu by receiving as his formal wife the daughter of Harumoto, the deputy shōgun. In addition, the Muromachi bakufu was in a period of decline, and relied upon preferential treatment from the Asakura clan as traditional protectors of the ruling family. As a symbol of their goodwill, the Asakura presented Yoshiteru with a falcon nest for his garden.
On 11/9 of 1559, Yoshikage was officially conferred the title of Junior Fourth Rank (Lower), equivalent to a high-ranking courtier. In the eighth month of 1563, he attacked Awaya Katsuhisa, lord of Kuniyoshi Castle in Wakasa Province. During this time, the military governor of Wakasa, Takeda Yoshizumi, had lost control over his retainers. Katsuhisa and Henmi Masatsune colluded with Matsunaga Nagayori of Tanba Province to launch a rebellion. From 1563, the Asakura army repeatedly dispatched soldiers to attack the Awaya clan in Wakasa. On 9/1 of 1564, Asakura Kageakira and Asakura Kagetaka led their army into Kaga Province. On 9/12, Yoshikage joined the campaign, and over the course of several weeks, burned down Motoori and Komatsu, then Miyukizuka, then Minatogawa, advancing as far as the Daishō Temple before returning to the Asakura home base of Ichijōdani in Echizen.
A lost opportunity
On 5/19 of 1565, Ashikaga Yoshiteru, the shōgun, was assassinated by Matsunaga Hisahide. Yoshikage learned the day after the incident in a letter from Takeda Yoshizumi. In the eighth month, the Asakura deployed to Wakasa. Based on a letter dated 8/5 of 1565 from Yoshiteru’s uncle (Ashikaga Yoshitoshi of the Daikaku Temple in Kyōto) to Uesugi Kenshin, Yoshiteru’s younger brother, Yoshiaki, escaped from confinement in Nara to Ōmi Province. Yoshikage may have played a role based on communications at the time with Yoshiteru’s retainers including Wada Koremasa, Hosokawa Fujitaka, and Komeda Motomasa in regard to the breakout. Yoshiaki was then chased out of his base at the Yajima Gosho by Matsunaga Hisahide, relying on the protection of the Takeda in Wakasa to move to the Tsuruga District of Echizen. Yoshikage used Yoshiakira as a messenger to welcome Yoshiaki to Echizen.
Seeking the support of the Asakura, Yoshiaki sought to mediate a settlement between the Asakura and the Ikkō sect of Kaga Province, but owing to the long duration of the conflict, he could not quickly reconcile their differences. In the third month of 1567, one of Yoshikage’s retainers, Horie Kagetada, colluded with members of the Ikkō sect to plan a rebellion. A contingent of warrior monks led by Sugiura Gennin launched a surprise attack from Kaga, whereupon Yoshikage ordered Yamazaki Yoshiie and Uozumi Kagekata to counterattack the Horie family. Kagetada fought valiantly, but ultimately settled and was banished to Noto Province. Based on one source, the rebellion may have been triggered on the basis of slander by Asakura Kageakira. On 11/21, Yoshiaki was received by the Anyō Temple in Ichijōdani, and, on 11/27, Yoshikage came to offer ceremonial greetings. In the twelfth month, Yoshiaki facilitated a settlement between the Asakura and the Ikkō-ikki of Kaga.
Yoshiaki sent letters to Uesugi Kenshin and other daimyō encouraging them to march upon Kyōto, but those same daimyō found that to be a difficult proposition owing to the unstable political situation in surrounding provinces. Yoshiaki then turned to Yoshikage to support an effort to capture Kyōto, making an unofficial visit on 12/25 to Yoshikage’s residence. A gonaisho, or written opinion, issued by Yoshiaki, included an addendum from Yoshikage, suggesting that Yoshikage had attained a status equal to that of a kanrei, or deputy shōgun. On 3/8 of 1568, Yoshiaki conferred the title priestess of the second rank to Kōtoku-in. In the fourth month, he held his coming-of-age ceremony at the Asakura residence. Thereafter, he frequented the Asakura residence, formed bonds with other members of the family, and urged support to march upon Kyōto. In the sixth month, Yoshikage’s eldest son, Kumagimaru, suddenly died of illness at the age of six, causing Yoshikage to become severely depressed. Even with support from the Azai, Yoshikage hesitated at the prospect of battling against the Miyoshi for control of the capital. In the seventh month, Yoshiaki turned to Oda Nobunaga in the wake of Nobunaga’s recent conquest of Mino Province. Yoshikage attempted to dissuade him from appealing to the Oda, but Yoshiaki left a letter of heartfelt thanks for the hospitality provided by the Asakura in Echizen and departed.
Under attack by Oda Nobunaga
In the eighth month of 1568, Yoshikage took advantage of internal discord among the Takeda, shugo of Wakasa Province, to intervene and capture Takeda Motoaki in the town of Obama under the pretext of protecting him. Instead, Yoshikage had the army spirit Motoaki away to Ichijōdani, confine him, and impose control over Wakasa. Some retainers of the Takeda, including Awaya Katsuhisa and members of the Kumagai clan refused to obey the Asakura, and put up stiff resistance so that the Asakura could not garner full control of the province. These actions may have been in support of Azai Nagamasa just as Oda Nobunaga was progressing with his plans to march upon Kyōto. Yoshikage, however, gradually delegated responsibility for political affairs to Asakura Kageakira and Asakura Kagetake, while he turned his attention to the arts and entertainment.
In the ninth month of 1568, Nobunaga led his forces to Kyōto and pledged allegiance to Ashikaga Yoshiaki. Nobunaga designated Yoshiaki the shōgun, and twice ordered Yoshikage to come to Kyōto upon the directive of Yoshiaki, but Yoshikage refused. This owed to the disfavor among the Asakura of submitting to the Oda and concerns about having the army absent from their home province of Echizen for an extended period. Moreover, Nobunaga had a need to subjugate Yoshikage because Echizen was positioned like a spear between the Oda territory of Mino Province and Kyōto.
On 4/20 of 1570, the spirit of rebellion shown by Yoshikage provided the pretext needed to deploy soldiers in Echizen, so Yoshikage was attacked by the allied forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Prior to the invasion, members of the Awaya and Kumagai clans, former retainers of the Takeda in Wakasa, surrendered to the Oda. Outlying defenses at Tenzutsuyama and Kanagasaki castles also fell before the forces attacked. Yoshikage proceeded to Asamizu to serve as a rear guard, but a disturbance in Ichijōdani caused him to return home.
Azai Nagamasa betrayed Nobunaga and assaulted the Oda army from behind, causing Nobunaga to withdraw to Kyōto. The Asakura army pursued the Oda, but Kinoshita Hideyoshi led the rear guard of the Oda on a counterattack, enabling Nobunaga and the senior commanders to flee. This gave Nobunaga a later opportunity to raise arms against the Asakura and the Azai.
On 6/28 of 1570, the allied forces of the Oda and Tokugawa engaged the Asakura and Azai at the Battle of Anegawa. Asakura Kagetake served as the supreme commander of the Asakura forces totaling 8,000 men. The Asakura clashed with the Tokugawa, but lost after incurring a pincer attack by soldiers commanded by Sakakibara Yasumasa. The Asakura and Azai are noted as having incurred over 1,100 casualties, but the losses may not have been as high as rumored given that the Asakura army deployed again three months later. Nevertheless, the loss to the Oda of numerous castles formerly under control of the Azai placed the Asakura and Azai armies at a significant strategic disadvantage.
On 8/25, while Nobunaga deployed to Settsu Province in conquest of the Miyoshi Group of Three and monks from the Ishiyama-Hongan Temple, leading to the Battle of Noda and Fukushima Castles, Yoshikage himself led Asakura forces together with the Azai to attack, on 9/20, the Oda territory of Sakamoto in Ōmi Province. This led to the death of Oda Nobuharu (Nobunaga’s younger brother) and Mori Yoshinari, a senior commander, and the invaders torched the town of Ōtsu, advancing to Daigo – Yamashina on 9/21. Nobunaga pulled back with his army to Ōmi, confronting the Asakura and Azai laying siege to Oda soldiers taking refuge on Mount Hiei. This is known as the Battle of Shiga. Nobunaga requested the monks on Mount Hiei to ally themselves with the Oda, but his appeal went unanswered. On 10/20, following an initial skirmish between the Asakura and the Oda, Nobunaga requested Yoshikage to agree to a date and time for a final showdown, but was ignored. On 11/25, Nobunaga sent forces to Katata to cut-off the return route for the Asakura. On 11/26, skirmishes between the Oda and Asakura on the following day were indecisive. On 11/28, Ashikaga Yoshiaki and Nijō Haruyoshi, a kuge, traveled from Kyōto to Sakamoto in an effort to mediate a settlement. In the twelfth month, Nobunaga maneuvered with the Court and reached an officially-sanctioned peace deal with Yoshikage. This settlement may, however, been limited to the confrontation in regard to the Enryaku Temple on Mount Hiei.
In the first month of 1571, Nobunaga ordered Hideyoshi to cut-off or block all routes between Echizen and Ōmi. On 6/11, Yoshikage reconciled with Kennyo, head of the Hongan Temple, and arranged for his daughter to wed Kennyo’s son, Kyōnyo. In the seventh month, after Rokkaku Yoshikata launched an attack against Kyōto, Yoshikage sent a letter requesting that his army not set fire to the capital. In the eighth month, Yoshikage joined Azai Nagamasa to assault Yokoyama and Minoura castles in Oda territory, but Nobunaga countered by threatening their supply lines and causing them to retreat. Nobunaga then proceeded to burn down the Ishiyama-Hongan properties on Mount Hiei.
In the seventh month of 1572, the Oda army surrounded Odani Castle, and began to establish fortresses on Mount Toragosen, Mount Hassō, and Miyabe. The Azai provided misinformation to the Asakura that the Ikkō monks from Nagashima had blocked the routes between Mino and Owari, so now would be an opportunity for the Asakura to attack the Oda. Based on this input, Yoshikage headed to provide support, but did not initiate a clash. After sporadic attacks from the Oda, several senior retainers including Maeba Yoshitsugu and Toda Nagashige switched allegiance to the Oda. In the ninth month, the fortresses were completed. Once again, Nobunaga requested a date and time for a final showdown, but Yoshikage refused to reply. On 9/16, Nobunaga left Kinoshita Hideyoshi in charge of the fortresses and went with his soldiers to Yokoyama Castle.
The Asakura and Azai appealed to Takeda Shingen to place Nobunaga in check. In the tenth month, he dispatched Yamagata Masakage and Akiyama Torashige to lead 3,000 soldiers to attack territory controlled by Tokugawa Ieyasu in Mikawa Province. Shingen himself deployed from Kōfu with a contingent of 22,000 men and launched an attack from Aokuzure Ridge into Ieyasu-controlled Tōtōmi Province, capturing numerous castles. Shingen requested support from Yoshikage for the deployment. Yoshikage responded by joining forces with the Azai to break out after Nobunaga withdrew to Gifu, but lost in battle against Hideyoshi’e men at their fortress on Mount Toragosen. On 12/3, exhaustion and snowfall caused the Asakura to return to Echizen. Shingen then sent a letter severely criticizing the forces for their retreat.
On 2/16 of 1573, while continuing to express frustration in regard to their earlier withdrawal, Shingen requested Yoshikage to send forces to counter Kennyo, the leader of the monks from the Ishiyama-Hongan Temple. At the same time, Kennyo sought support from Yoshikage. In the third month, Yoshiaki formally parted ways with Nobunaga and it was rumored that Yoshikage may march to Kyōto, but Yoshikage did not make a move. On 4/12, Shingen died from illness and the Takeda army returned to their home base in Kai Province. This provided an opportunity for the Oda to direct their aim at the Asakura.
The destruction of Ichijōdani
On 8/8 of 1573, Nobunaga led an army of 3,000 men to invade Ōmi, leading to the Siege of Ichijōdani Castle. Yoshikage responded by departing for the front, but after committing numerous errors, Yoshikage was losing the trust of his soldiers. Senior retainers including Asakura Kageakira (Yoshikage’s cousin) and Uozumi Kagekata proclaimed they could not join owing to fatigue and refused his orders. Yoshikage then summoned Yamazaki Yoshiie and Kawai Munekiyo to command an army of 20,000 soldiers.
On 8/12, Nobunaga took advantage of stormy weather to assault the Ōzuku fortress held by the Asakura. Overwhelmed by the surprise attack, the defenders fled the fortress. On 8/13, the Oda toppled the Yōnoyama fortress, preventing Yoshikage from connecting with the Azai forces. Yoshikage decided to retreat, but Nobunaga had anticipated this outcome. Under his command, the Oda army attacked the fleeing forces, and the Asakura lost at the Battle of Tabeyama in Ōmi, taking refuge in Yanase. The Oda carried out an intense pursuit, catching up to and devastating the Asakura soldiers at Tonezaka. Yoshikage himself escaped to Hikida Castle near the border between Ōmi and Echizen provinces, but commanders including Saitō Tatsuoki, Yamazaki Yoshiie, and Yamazaki Yoshinobu died in battle.
Yoshikage aimed to flee Hikida Castle and return to Ichijōdani, but his soldiers fled one after another, and only ten close retainers led by Torii Kagechika and Takahashi Kageakira remained. On 8/15, Yoshikage returned to Ichijōdani, but knew his army had been destroyed, and a majority of the soldiers left behind to protect Ichijōdani had fled. Despite ordering another deployment, no one other than Kageakira offered to join the cause. Yoshikage attempted to take his own life, but Kagechika and Kageakira intervened. Upon the recommendation of Kageakira, On 8/16, Yoshikage abandoned Ichijōdani and went to the Tōun Temple and, on 8/17, requested warrior monks from the Heisen Temple as reinforcements. Nobunaga, however, had earlier convinced them not to support Yoshikage, and, instead, the monks launched an assault against Yoshikage at the Tōun Temple. Out of Kageakira’s concern whether he could mount a defense, on 8/19, Yoshikage moved to the Kenshō Temple.
On 8/18, the Oda army led by Nobunaga with Shibata Katsuie in the vanguard entered Ichijōdani, setting fire to the residences, temples, and shrines. This conflagration continued for three days and nights, burning down the once peaceful and thriving community of the Asakura. Even though Kageakira had encouraged Yoshikage to flee to the Kenshō Temple, in the end he betrayed Yoshikage in favor of Nobunaga, and two hundred mounted soldiers attacked the temple, whereupon, early in the morning on 8/20, Yoshikage killed himself while members of his family, including Kōtoku-in, Koshōshō (a mistress) and her son, Aiōmaru, were captured. Upon orders of Nobunaga, Niwa Nagahide executed the family members en route to the Nanjō District. This marked the end of the Asakura clan which had attained the status of a sengoku daimyō.