War doesn’t discriminate by gender. Politics does. But in 16th century Japan, Katakura Kita was a hero on both fronts.
From the Onin War’s start in 1467, the Japanese islands were almost continuously at war for a full century. Kita came from two high-ranking samurai families in northern Japan, the Oniniwa and Katakura, who served local lord Date Terumune. At the time, the Date clan was but one among many in the region, with far more powerful, blue-blooded, influential and potentially dangerous ruling clans for neighbors.
Like many warrior-caste daughters during this era of civil upheaval, Kita knew how to fight. What set her apart was a pronounced interest in and aptitude for the martial arts and military science. She was so skilled that she took it upon herself to act as a teacher to her half-brother Kagetsuna, who was heir to the Katakura headship. The family had climbed from shrine priest to senior Date vassal in their father’s generation, and maintaining respectability in the eyes of other samurai families with longer and more illustrious histories was no doubt a concern for the Katakura. Thanks in part to Kita’s hand in his education, Kagetsuna was soon a rising star in Date service.
The Date clan was slowly putting itself back together after infighting nearly destroyed it when, in 1567, a new heir, Bontenmaru, was born. Terumune ordered, Kita, then 29, to serve as wet nurse to the newborn. His birth mother, Yoshi, showed little interest in being maternal, and at certain times even tried to have him murdered to advance her own family’s political interests.
Kita, by contrast, was especially close to Bontenmaru. Over the years, she nourished not only his body but also became one of his earliest teachers in both the literary and martial arts, helping shape him into a leader whose reputation in battle and politics earned him the moniker of One-Eyed Dragon. With strong opinions and powerful support from men of privilege and influence, Kita advocated for the young heir’s succession to Date headship. And in 1584, despite Yoshi’s best attempts to prevent it, she got her wish. Bontenmaru transcended both battlefield injury and illness — including a small-pox outbreak that claimed his right eye — to become Date Masamune, the clever, stylish, internationalist warlord who took the Date clan from obscurity to fame as the fourth wealthiest family in Japan.
Though the monk Kosai Soitsu eventually took over the task of Masamune’s education, Kita remained an important part of the Date family and its politics both internal and external. When Masamune’s overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered all his vassals to send their families to his Kyoto palace as hostages, Kita went with Masamune’s wife, Mego. True to form, Kita made a name for herself there, as well. She so thoroughly impressed Hideyoshi with her cleverness that he called her “Shonagon” — normally a title referring to one of the high councilors serving the emperor.
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Masamune and Kita’s relationship was close for many years, until the 1590s, when Kita acted unilaterally in matters that affected the Date family’s future and threatened to incur Hideyoshi’s wrath. Hideyoshi fancied one of Masamune’s concubines, and asked for Masamune to send her to him. Masamune refused, but one day while Masamune was away from his Kyoto mansion, Kita sent this concubine to Hideyoshi. Though this act saved the Date family from danger, it was an overreach on Kita’s part. According to one source, when an angry Masamune confronted her, Kita calmly replied: “I’ll gladly die for being so presumptuous as to have done this. Take my head if it’ll satisfy you.” He sent her to his domain in the north and placed her under house arrest. It would be several years until she was pardoned, and until their relationship thawed, but perhaps it’s significant that Masamune didn’t undo Kita’s actions.
Back in the Date lands, Kita — who rather unusually never married — lived with her brother Kagetsuna before moving to a small house near Kagetsuna’s castle in Shiroishi. She continued to play an active role in the Katakura family’s affairs. She discovered what might’ve been a life-threatening gap in Shiroishi Castle’s defensive architecture, which Kagetsuna corrected on her suggestion, and which made it one of the strongest castles in the region. Kita is even said to have suggested that her brother use one of the particularly valuable temple bells in the family’s possession as a motif for its battle flag. The black bell flag remained a Katakura banner through 1871, and it remains the Shiroishi City emblem today.
Kita died in her house near Shiroishi Castle in 1610, at age 72. Several years after her death, Masamune’s son Tadamune summoned one of Kita’s distant relatives to the Date lands and ordered him to take up the Katakura name as her posthumous successor. The man also became a Date vassal and received a hereditary stipend.
Kita lived long enough to see Date Masamune, the boy she’d believed in when few others had, and ensure the family’s success for generations to come. He built a mighty domain, a still vibrant castle town, a powerful army, and an indisputable reputation as a political and military leader respected by both his overlords and his enemies. Though the domains and the samurai caste are gone, the land endures, and the Date and Katakura families still survive: a testament to the woman who helped shape their onetime leaders.
About the author:
Nyri A. Bakkalian is a young historian specializing in Japanese and military history, trained under the tutelage of renowned political historian Richard Smethurst. She has a soft spot for local history and unknown stories, preferably uncovered during road trips. When not hunting for unknown history, Nyri can most often be found sketching while enjoying a good cup of Turkish coffee. Follow her on Twitter at @riversidewings.