Date Masamune: The One-Eyed Dragon of Japan

Every country or nation has its own set of people that are quite well-known, some locally while others internationally. These people are known due to a number of factors such as their intellect, their ideas, or their contribution to society. In the country of Japan, there are various men and women that are famous for certain things that they have done either for their clan or for their country. Several of them have taken actions that shaped the course of the history of the Land of the Sun. One of the many famous people in the country is Date Masamune.

The Early Life of Date Masamune

By 狩野安信 (仙台市博物館所蔵品[1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born on the 5th of the month of September in the year 1567, Date Masamune was a well-known regional strongman in Japan during the Azuchi-Momoyama period all the way through the early parts of the Edo period. Recognized as an heir to a considerably long line of daimyos who were powerful in the region of Tohoku. Date Masamune was the founder of the modern-day city of Sendai. Considered as a brilliant tactician, he was an icon in Japan who was made more famous due to his missing eye. Hence, he was otherwise also known as dokuganryu, which translates to the “one-eyed dragon.”

As the eldest son of Date Terumune, Date Masamune was born in Yonezawa Castle, which is now known as Yamagata Prefecture. In the year 1581, Date Masamune commanded his first campaign at the young age of 14. His campaign assisted his father’s fight against the Soma family. Three years later, Terumune decided to retire from his position as daimyo of their region. Hence, in the year 1584, Masamune succeeded his father’s position as daimyo at the age of just 17.

Due to Date Masamune’s fame as both a legendary warrior and leader, several characters of various Japanese period dramas were based on his personality. One of the many popular shows that included the character of Date Masamune was the 1987 NHK series called Dokuganryū Masamune. His character was played by Ken Watanabe.

Date Masamune’s Alliances and Military Campaign


While there were several daimyos living and ruling at the time, Date Masamune stood out for a number of reasons. For one, his famous helmet that bore a crescent moon gained the daimyo a fearsome reputation among the masses. There are also many speculations as to what happened to his right eye though many believe that it was due to the smallpox that he had when he was a child. However, it is still unknown how he lost this organ entirely.

There are several theories as to how Masamune lost his eye entirely. One theory suggests that it was Masamune himself who plucked his eye out. This was because a senior member of his clan suggested the possibility of an enemy being able to grab his right eye in the midst of a fight. Another theory suggests that Masamune actually had his trusted retainer known as Katakura Kojuro gouge his eye out for him.

During the time of Date Masamune, local disputes were quite common. Hence, it was imperative for many clans to build alliances with neighboring clans to ensure that they were protected from enemies. These alliances were built through marriages over former generations. Just after Masamune succeeded his father as daimyo, a retainer to the Date clan by the name of Ouchi Sadatsuna defected to another clan known as the Ashina clan of the region of Aizu.

Because of this utter betrayal, Masamune declared war on both Ouchi and the Ashina clan. Masamune began a campaign to hunt down Ouchi Sadatsuna to make him pay for his mistakes. He started attacking and later on conquering the lands of the allies of Sadatsuna. Even those of his kin located in the provinces of Mutsu and Dewa were not safe against his attacks while previously amicable alliances were set aside.

One of these allies was Hatakeyama Yoshitsugu. Instead of still fighting against Date Masamune, he already felt the forthcoming defeat and decided to surrender instead during the winter of the year 1585. Masamune conceded with the heavy condition of the Hatakeyama surrendering most of their territory to Masamune as well. Finding the condition unacceptable, Yoshitsugu kidnapped Date Terumune during their meeting in Miyamori Castle, which was the residence of Terumune at the time. Date Masamune and his troops pursued the assailants, which resulted to both Yoshitsugu and Terumune being killed as the party of Hatakeyama tried to flee near the Abukuma River.

There were several other battles that were fought by the Date clan under Masamune. One of these battles include the Battle of Hitotoribashi, which occurred in the year 1585. Upon defeating the Ashina clan in the year 1589 during the Battle of Suriagehara, Date Masamune chose the Aizu domain to be his base of operations.

Date Masamune Serving Under Hideyoshi

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was in the year 1590 that the daimyos of the region of Tohoku were compelled to participate in the campaign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi upon his seizing of Odawara Castle. While Masamune initially refused the demands of Hideyoshi, the former did not really have a choice in the matter as the latter was virtually the ruler of Japan. Nonetheless, Masamune still delayed in his following of Hideyoshi, which angered the latter. With the expectation of execution, Masamune fearlessly faced his overlord, even wearing his finest clothes to boot. Still, Hideyoshi decided to spare the life of Masamune, claiming that the latter could still be of some use to the former.

Eventually, Date Masamune served Hideyoshi. After some time, Iwatesawa and the lands surrounding it were given to Masamune to serve as his home domain. It was in the year 1591 that Masamune moved to this home domain wherein he also rebuilt the castle within the land and renamed it as Iwadeyama. He further supported the growth of a town in the land as its base.

Iwadeyama served as the residence of Masamune for 13 years. During this time, the region grew into a primary economic and political center in Japan. Under the commands of Hideyoshi, Masamune and his men served with merit against the Korean invasions at the time. Upon the death of Hideyoshi, Masamune eventually went on to support Tokugawa Ieyasu, which was said to be the advice of Masamune’s trusted retainer Katakura Kojuro.

Due to this support by Masamune, he was awarded with the lordship of the Sendai Domain, known to be not just huge but also highly profitable, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. This, in turn, made Masamune one of the most powerful daimyos of Japan. On the other hand, despite Tokugawa’s promise of a one-million koku domain, the land was only able to produce 640,000 koku despite the substantial improvements that were made. Most of this koku was utilized to feed the region of Edo.

Come the year 1604, Masamune moved the then small fishing village of Sendai, along with his 52,000 vessels and their families. In order to keep Iwadeyama running, Masamune left his fourth son by the name of Date Muneyasu to supervise the land. As for Masamune, he proceeded on to turning Sendai into a huge and highly prosperous city.

Being a patron of the arts and a sympathizer to foreign causes, it would be expected that Masamune be a mild, benevolent daimyo. However, he was, in fact, very aggressive and ambitious. Not only that, but Masamune was also recognized by many as reckless. Hence, his defeats from other influential and powerful clans were attributed to this recklessness of his.

Due to Masamune being a major power in the northern part of Japan, it was only natural that Masamune was seen with suspicion. Just like any potential rival would be seen, Masamune was regarded with distruct even by toyotomi Hideyoshi. It was because of this that Hideyoshi decreased the size of the land holdings of Masamune just after the latter’s late attendance to the Siege of Odawara against Hojo Ujimasa. Tokugawa Ieyasu reversed this by increasing the size of lands of Masamune. Nonetheless, even Tokugawa was also suspicious of Masamune and his actions.

Despite this distrust from both Tokugawa and Toyotomi, it was believed that Masamune still served both overlords, which are basically his bosses, loyally. He continually served under Hideyoshi against the Korean invasions and supported the latter in his Osaka campaigns. Even on the deathbed of Tokugawa, Masamune still continued to support Tokugawa by visiting him and reading him Zen poetry, which he also loved. Date Masamune later on passed away on the 27th of June in the year 1636.

The Famous Sword and Armor of the Date Clan

By 玄史生 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Every clan had its own design of swords and armor. For Date Masamune, his army was famous for its black armor as well as golden headgear. Up to this day, this type of armor is associated with its owner, Date Masamune, with these being depicted in various movies with Masamune as a character, such as the Sengoku BASARA series that also includes Sanada Yukimura. Cosplay costumes have also been based on Masamune's armor.

As for the words, Date Masamune was known to have two famous swords, namely, the Shokudaikiri Mitsutada and the Ookurikara. Being probably the most prominent samurai load in the Date clan with Masamune serving under two Unifiers of Japan, namely, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, it was only natural that even his swords were given such high notice. When the Date clan eventually relocated to the Sendai Domain, the family became responsible in developing the region. Hence, the clan was also often known as the Sendai Date family.

Another sword associated with the Date clan is the Taikogane Sadamune. It is a tantou that bears no inscription. Nonetheless, Taikogane still has the blessings of Buddhist carvings, similar to the Ookurikara. On the other hand, after the retirement of Mitsutada from the service of Masamune, the sword was handed over to the Mito branch of the then-ruling Tokugawa clan during the period of Edo.

Both the Ookurikara and the Taikogane remained in the hands of the Date clan until sometime between the year 1716 and the year 1736 when another sword called Tsurumaru Kuninaga joined the duo. However, the Tsurumaru was given away to the Meiji Emperor in the year 1901 as a present when he visited the Sendai Domain. Up to this day, this swords is still part of the Imperial Collection.

Sadly, the Mitsutada that was supposed to stay in the Tokugawa Mito clan was believed to be destroyed due to the Great Kanto earthquake that occurred in the year 1923, which hit the Mito Domain badly. The Mito Domain is now known as Ibaraki Prefecture. As for the other two swords, Ookurikara and Taikogane, they are being maintained as part of a private collection today. For the people who wish to see the magnificence of the swords, they probably would have to pull some strings to gain access to it.

There are still, of course, many more things to learn about Date Masamune. He fought a lot of battles against other clans as well as invasions by foreign countries. His service not just to his overlords but to the country, in general, is not to be forgotten. His battles portrayed not just Masamune’s courage and bravery but also his strength and wisdom as a tactician. Though not all of his battles were a success, many future clans learned from the mistakes of Masamune, including Masamune himself. Through this, he was able to improve his swordsmanship as well as his strategies in battle.

While not many people may be a fan of Date Masamune due to the amount of bloodshed that he and his clan have caused to many people, it cannot be denied that his contributions to the country were also paramount. Many people have perished in his hands but many also prospered due to this strategies and wisdom. Thanks to Date Masamune and his governance, the city of Sendai today is as prosperous as can be. Without him, many locals cannot imagine what would have happened to the Sendai Domain. Documented by historians, Date Masamune remains to be a prominent character in the rich history and heritage of Japan.