August 6, 2019 In the 16th century, the Oda and Tokugawa clans sought to unite feudal Japan under their rule. These were big and dangerous boys, but the biggest threat to their political alliance wasn’t any enemy clan, but a rude mother-in-law and a young woman who would do anything to protect her family.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
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Music on this week’s episode:
David Szesztay – In The Sun
Lee Maddeford – Back to Bulgaria
Sergey Cheremisinov – Fog*
Jahzzar – Liar*
Circus Marcus – Cadiquo tu noï*
*modified for the podcast.
How far would you go for your family? Would you eat a bug? Kiss a bug? For Tokugawa Ieyasu, warlord leader of the Tokugawa clan, the answer was neither that easy, nor sensual.
It was the sixteenth century, and political control of Japan was bitterly contested by various warring clans. One of those clans had even kidnapped Tokugawa Ieyasu’s wife, Lady Tsukiyama, and young son, Nobuyasu, and was holding them hostage. Tokugawa Ieyasu would not surrender, but because his armies were constantly embattled, he lacked the manpower to rescue them on his own. And so, he turned to another enemy for help.
Not just any enemy, but his family’s bitterest rival. The Oda clan, led by the frightening and ambitious Oda Nobunaga, a whirlwind conqueror.
The prospect of an alliance with the Oda clan was a tough bug to swallow. They had held Tokugawa Ieyasu hostage when he was just a small boy, and later killed his father. But their combined forces could save his family, and Ieyasu would do anything for family. The timing was perfect: The current shogun who ruled over the country was weak, and Oda Nobunaga wanted to displace him, taking control of the country for himself.
‘Look,’ said Ieyasu, ‘it’s no secret that our daddies despised each other. Your daddy killed my daddy. But we are not our daddies. We need each other. More than that, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity here to unite and rule this country. Let's put emotions and traditional rivalries aside and get what we want. Together.’
With Nobunaga’s help, not only did he get his wife and son back, but he was in line to become one of the most powerful men in the country. He was throwing out the old—his father’s rivalries, and the shogun, who sucked—and embracing the new. And the best thing about it, he thought, is that he would never have to pay any kind of price.
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. This week’s episode: Okaasan.
The alliance between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga was cemented with a marriage. Ieyasu’s son, Nobuyasu, to Nobunaga’s daughter, Tokuhime. Both children were four years old. Tokuhime thought Nobuyasu was nice and cool, and he thought that she stopped existing when she went out of the room.
Once wed, the children went to live with Ieyasu and his wife, Lady Tsukiyama at Okazaki Castle, a stronghold where Ieyasu had been born and where his father was now buried. Normally, they’d never allow Tokuhime, an Oda, in a place like that, but her presence was critical to the success of the alliance.
An alliance that was yielding great results on the battlefield: The Oda-Tokugawa forces were smashing other clans left and right. Oda Nobunaga even invaded Kyoto and displaced the current shogun. It really seemed possible that Nobunaga could go all the way to the top, with Ieyasu right beside him.
Things were going well for the newlyweds, too. Tokuhime and Nobuyasu’s union had been borne of cold political opportunity, but as they grew older, acquiring critical thinking skills and spatial awareness, they found that they actually liked one another.
But whenever Ieyasu was off doing a war, life at Okazaki Castle wasn’t so rosy. Lady Tsukiyama was always interfering in her son and daughter-in-law’s business. Tokuhime hated her. She always had to be right! She was always nagging! Why couldn’t she just leave them alone? To make things worse, when Nobuyasu turned sixteen, he began spending more time out of the castle, fighting alongside his father, and distinguishing himself in epic battles against the enemy. Which was great for him, but left Tsukiyama and Tokuhime at home alone together.
‘Tokuhime, I still don’t have a grandson, and it’s almost three o’clock!’ said Tsukiyama. ‘Who are you, Anne Boleyn?’
Tokuhime protested. ‘Listen, you old bat, I have given birth to two daughters, and they are both excellent! You think calling me Anne Boleyn is an insult? Henry VIII had her killed and basically tore his country apart all so he could get one lousy son—and that son was on the throne for, like, nine minutes and then he died! He sucked shit! And now, the Queen is Anne Boleyn’s daughter, and she’s fantastic!’
But Tsukiyama was having none of it. She warned Tokuhime: ‘If you don’t give your husband a son, I’m going to do something about it myself.’
Which she did. When Nobuyasu returned to Okazaki Castle during a brief pause in the war, his mother had hired him some mistresses.
‘Oh, mama, you shouldn’t have!’
Tokuhime was pissed. She was only 20! She could have kept trying. But unfortunately, Tsukiyama’s plan worked: One of the mistresses actually did give birth to a son.
‘See, I told you!’ Tsukiyama beamed. ‘Tokuhime, she’s useless! She never had the goods! But you don’t need her anymore.’ Tsukiyama's power play was complete, and Tokuhime was side-lined. Or was it complete? Could Tsukiyama go further? Really give her the full Boleyn?
It was a terrifying prospect for Tokuhime. Tsukiyama wanted to separate her from her husband, her children—her family! But she couldn’t let that happen. And perhaps she was inspired by the lesson of her father-in-law, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had shown the country that you don’t let anything stand in the way of your family. Especially not if it’s some old fart.
And so, she wrote to her father, the now enormously powerful Oda Nobunaga, to set in motion for poor Lady Tsukiyama a kind of parent… trap.
‘Hey dad,’ she wrote. ‘How are you? How is mother? I am doing well. My daughters are well. I am 20 years old now and into lots of different types of music. Also, I’m sad to say that my mother-in-law is secretly conspiring with your enemies. Lots of love, Tokuhime.’
Nobunaga read his daughter’s letter and arched his eyebrows. Both of them. If that allegation was true, which it wasn’t, it would be a bombshell—treasonous! But Nobunaga knew he would have to verify the claim. He summoned an ally who had spent a lot of time with the family in Okazaki Castle. If Lady Tsukiyama was up to anything fishy, he must have noticed it.
‘You know, hypothetically’, said Nobunaga, ’if someone said that Lady Tsukiyama was conspiring with my enemies, would you buy that?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.’
‘You don’t feel like taking a firm side on this one?’
‘I just feel like I don’t have a preference either way, you know?’
‘Okay, but just to be really clear, this is a two-eyebrow situation. I can’t overstate how serious this would be, or how critical this moment is, and you’re not denying an allegation of treason.’
‘Well, nobody can be mad at me if I don’t take a side.’
Emboldened, Nobunaga brought the allegation to Tokugawa Ieyasu. ‘Ieyasu, I am sorry, but I’ve got a real double-brower on my hands. My daughter has made these claims about your wife, and of course, being a “proud pops”, I side with my daughter. How do you respond?’
Ieyasu read the allegation with horror. His own wife, for whom he’d sacrificed so much, conspiring against him? He couldn’t believe it. He probably didn’t believe it. But on the other hand, if he stuck by his wife, he risked angering Nobunaga. This was a man who had coldly slaughtered innocents at a monastery when they stood in his way, and now he was more fearsome than ever. And, you know, together, they were this close to unifying Japan! A whole country! An empire! It was in their grasp!
So, Tokugawa Ieyasu gave the order, to take his wife into custody.
As they dragged her out of Okazaki Castle, Tokuhime shook her head. ‘Well, well, Tsukiyama! It looks like the parent has become the trapped!’
Tsukiyama was imprisoned, and then, in September 1579, taken to the shores of Lake Sanaru, and beheaded.
Which was a bit drastic. Tokuhime would probably have been cool if her mother-in-law had simply rotted in a prison cell. But at least she was out of her family’s life. Tokuhime and Nobuyasu and their children would be together, and at peace, forever. But one day, Ieyasu sent his men for Nobuyasu, too. His own son. Tokuhime’s husband. ‘No,’ Tokuhime thought, ‘No, this is not what I wanted!’
Ieyasu wrote his son a letter to explain the situation.
‘Look. I killed your mother. Let’s just get that one out there. And I understand how you’re feeling: probably bad, and that you must avenge her death. I get it. But you know that you can’t. We are on the precipice of something historic. The Tokugawa are about to rule Japan and if there’s this bad blood between you and me, then we will fall. So, I must deny you your vengeance. And still, even as I write this order I know it is futile. You are obligated to avenge your mother. Of course you are! You are my son, and there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for family. So, I can see only one solution: You have to kill yourself. For the sake of the clan, and for the sake of our family, in a kind of more long-term, general sense. I do understand that in the short term, this is pretty awful.’
Nobuyasu read the letter, and then nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said, and committed suicide.
It was not exactly what Tokuhime had had in mind. Her audacious plan to save her family, had been the very thing to destroy it.
A few years later, her father, Oda Nobunaga, died in a coup, but despite this, the momentum of his conquest carried on. Tokugawa Ieyasu charged forth and completed their work. By 1603, he had subjugated all the clans, and the Emperor proclaimed him shogun. The shogun of all Japan.
But back in Okazaki Castle, the only adults still standing were Tokuhime and Ieyasu. The two people who would do anything for family were, in the end, each other’s only company. But it’s hard to appreciate irony, when you are very, very sad.
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net where you can also find a full transcript of this story. Follow us on Twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: The Trip to Telegraph Creek.