Nanbu Nobunao: A Japanese Samurai from the Sengoku Period

Clans and relation by blood are important aspects of the culture of Japan. Many alliances were forged through familial ties especially during the period of feudal Japan. There were several families or clans that are either allies or enemies. Some powerful and influential clans had control over vast lands and estates. Some members of these clans also had conquests of their own, which forged their position in the history map of Japan. One of these people is Nanbu Nobunao.

The Nanbu Clan: Where Nobunao Belongs

By Mukai (Mukai's file) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

More commonly known as Nanbu-shi in Japanese, the Nanbu clan was a well-known Japanese samurai clan. The family served as the lord of the majority of the northeastern portion of Honshu located in the region of Tohoku. The clan ruled over these lands for more than 700 years beginning from the Kamakura period through the Meiji restoration that occurred in the year 1868.

The origins of the Nanbu clan can be traced back to the Seiwa Genji of the province of Kai. Hence, it can be stated that the Nanbu clan is related to the Takeda clan. Initially, the Nanbu clan ruled from their seat in the province of Kai. However, after some time, the Nanbu clan decidedly moved to the province of Mutsu during the early parts of the Muromachi period.

During the Edo period, the Nanbu clan was also recognized as the daimyo of Morioka Domain after the clan again moved its seat. This was also under the Tokugawa shogunate. While the Morioka Domain enjoyed several alliances with other clans, it was in a continuous conflict with its neighbor, the Hirosaki Domain. This said domain was under the rule of the Tsugaru clan, which was composed of former retainers of the Nanbu clan.

The Boshin War transpired from the year 1868 to the year 1869. During this time, the Nanbu clan was involved and fought on the site of the Ouetsu Reppan Domei. This served as their way of assisting the Tokugawa clan and supporting its regime. Following the Meiji restoration, a majority of the lands previously ruled by the Nanbu clan was confiscated.

To worsen the situation of the clan, the heads of its branches were also removed from their positions in office in the year 1871. This action showed the decreasing power of the Nanbu family. The previous daimyo of the clan also became a member of the kazoku peerage during the Meiji period.

Moreover, Nanbu Toshiyuki was also granted the title of hakushaku or “Count.” At present, the primary Nanbu line still exists in Japan. One of its members is Toshiaki Nanbu, who used to be the chief priest of Yasukuni Shrine. Thankfully, their clan did not end even after centuries of battles.

The Nanbu clan had several conquests during its ruling. Several members of the clan also became well-known for their great leadership and developments that improved the state of the country. One of these many members is Nanbu Nobunao.

The Early Life of Nanbu Nobunao

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Born on the 1st of April in the year 1546, Nanbu Nobunao was a Japanese samurai hailing back to the Sengoku period. He also served as the 26th hereditary chieftain of their clan. As the daimyo of the Nanbu clan, Nobunao had several responsibilities not just to himself but to his family as well. Nobunao was granted the courtesy title of Daizen Daibu. Furthermore, the Court rank of Nobunao was Junior Fourth Rank, Lower Grade.

The second son of Nanbu Masayasu, the biological father of Nobunao served as the 22nd chieftain of the Nanbu clan. Nobunao was born at the Ikatai Castle of the Nanbu clan in the year 1546. This castle is currently located in the town of Iwate.

His father passed away early on. Instead of being fatherless, his father’s brother, Nanbu Harumasa, decided to adopt Nobunao in the year 1565. At this time, his uncle Harumasa was serving as the 24th chieftain of the Nanbu clan. Also during this time, Harumasa did not have any heir of his own that would take his place one day. As a result, Nanbu Nobunao became the heir of Harumasa.

Upon becoming the heir to the lordship of the clan and its estates, Nobunao began to reside at Sannohe Castle. He was trained to become a skillful samurai as well as a future great leader of their clan. The forces of Ando Chikause attempted to invade the territory of the Nanbu clan in Kazuno at one time. This attempt was successfully thwarted by Nobunao in the year 1566 and the year 1568, which showed his strength and leadership. It also served as a testament to how well a chieftain Nobunao would be upon succeeding his adoptive father.

However, one of the concubines of Harumasa became pregnant with Harumasa’s child. The concubine gave birth to Harumasa’s biological son in the year 1570. This son was named Nanbu Harutsugu. Despite this event, Nanbu Nobunao still remained as the heir of Harumasa. However, the wife of Nobunao, who was the daughter of Harumasa, passed away in the year 1576. This led to Nobunao fearing that he may no longer have the right to be the heir of Harumasa.

As a result, Nobunao made a formal announcement of his renunciation as the heir of Harumasa. Then, he went into hiding for fear of his life. He took refuge at Ne Castle where one of the branches of the Nanbu clan, the Hachinohe branch, welcomed him with open arms and treated him well.

Years passed and Nanbu Harumasa eventually passed away in the year 1582. Naturally, his biological son Nanbu Harutsugu succeeded Harumasa and become the 25th chieftain of the Nanbu clan. However, his rule was nothing but short, as Harutsugu passed away within a single year upon attaining his daimyo position.

There are several speculations about how Nanbu Harutsugu died. Many believe that Harutsugu died of smallpox. However, there was also a rumor that went around the members of the clan. This rumor stated that Harutsugu was actually assassinated by his cousin, Nobunao, in order to get his position and power.

Whether this rumor was true or false, the result was still the same. With Harutsugu not having any heirs of his own, the many branches of the Nanbu clan came up to the decision of making Nobunao the daimyo of the Nanbu clan. Hence, Nanbu Nobunao became the 26th chieftain of the Nanbu clan.

Despite this decision being accepted by the majority of the Nanbu clan, there was still opposition to this decision. A faction of the Nanbu family headed by Kunohe Masazane highly opposed this decision. A well-known warrior, Masazane believed that his blood ties to the succession were actually so much stronger than that of Nobunao’s. Nonetheless, his opposition was for naught, as Nobunao still remained as the chieftain of their clan for many more years.

Nobunao During the Siege of Odawara

By 狩野光信 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous moments of Nanbu Nobunao was during the Siege of Odawara in the year 1590. During this battle, Nobunao led a force of a thousand men. The majority of these men were from the Sannohe branch and the Hachinohe branch of the Nanbu clan. It was also at this time that Nobunao pledged allegiance to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having seen this as an opportunity that would benefit him and his clan.

As a reward for this pledge of allegiance to Hideyoshi, Nobunao was confirmed as the lord of his current holdings that were located in the northern portion of the province of Mutsu. These holdings included several districts. Namely, these were the districts of Nukanobu, Kazuno, Iwate, Tono, Hei, Kuji, and Shiwa.

On the other hand, Nobunao was denied the control over Tsugaru. Tsugaru was initially a holding of the Nanbu clan before it was seized by the Oura clan in the year 1571. Because the Oura clan pledged allegiance to Hideyoshi before Nobunao did, Tsugaru remained under the control and governance of the Oura clan much to the chagrin of Nobunao.

Another battle was budding to take place that would have removed Nobunao from his position. This battle was the Kunohe Rebellion. Thankfully, Hideyoshi was able to suppress this revolt. As a result, Nanbu Nobunao was able to secure his position as the daimyo of their clan and their lands. Because Nobunao was not able to secure Tsugaru, Hideyoshi compensated Nobunao’s loss with additional territories. These were Hienuki and Waga.

Geographically, the lands of Nanbu Nobunao and his clan were vast. However, if one were to assess the lands based on kokudaka, their territory was only worth 100,000 koku, which was considered paltry at the time. This was because a major portion of their territory was not ideal or suitable for growing rice. Hence, it was harder for the lands to generate monetary value for the clan.

Under the orders of Hideyoshi, Nobunao provided support to his overlord by sending a thousand troops to Nagoya located in the province of Hizen in the year 1592. This was to help fight off the forces of Korea as they tried to invade Japan. On the other hand, these troops were not ordered to cross over. Hence, they all eventually returned home to their families unscathed.

Nobunao originally had his seat at Sannohe Castle. After some time, he decided to move his seat to Morioka, which was considered to be the more central location than Sannohe Castle. Because Morioka was relatively new to be the residence of the daimyo, Nobunao decided to build Morioka Castle in the year 1592. At the same time, he also started to build the town that would surround the castle.

Sadly, Nanbu Nobunao was not able to live to see his Morioka Castle, as well as his other aspirations, completed. He passed away on the 22nd of November in the year 1599 at Kunohe Castle. He left his son Nanbu Toshinao behind, who went on to follow the footsteps of his father. Toshinao became the next chieftain of the Nanbu clan as well as the first daimyo of Morioka Domain under the Tokugawa shogunate.

Nanbu Toshinao: Nobunao’s Next in Line

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Suffice it to say, Nanbu Nobunao left his position and clan in good hands. Born in the year 1576, Nanbu Toshinao was the son of Nanbu Nobunao. He became the warlord of the province of Mutsu. He was also the first lord of Morioka during the Edo period. Being under the guidance of his father while Nobunao lived, Toshinao was trained well in terms of leadership and fighting skills.

Toshinao highly supported Tokugawa Ieyasu during the Sekigahara Campaign. This was proven by Toshinao when he led his forces and provided support to Mogami Yoshiaki and Date Masamune. This battle was against the forces of Uesugi Kagekatsu. Following the end of this campaign, Nanbu Toshinao was recognized in his 100,000 koku fief.

Aside from the Sekigahara Campaign, Nanbu Toshinao was also involved in the Osaka Winter Campaign. Because of his unwavering loyalty to the Tokugawa shogunate, Toshinao held the trust of Tokugawa Ieyasu. This was proven when Toshinao was entrusted with the supervision of the education of one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s sons, Tokugawa Yorinobu. Nanbu Toshinao, later on, passed away in the year 1632.

Nanbu Toshinao sired two sons, namely, Nanbu Shigenao and Nanbu Shibenobu. After the passing of Toshinao, his eldest son Nanbu Shigenao succeeded his father’s position as the daimyo of the Nanbu clan. He became the lord of the Morioka domain, which was worth 130,000 koku.

Shigenao had two sons: one was biological and one was adopted. Sadly, his biological son passed away in the year 1651 while his adopted son named Nanbu Katsunao, who was the third son of Hotta Masamori, passed away just eight years later. With no heirs to leave his position to, Nanbu Toshinao passed away in the year 1664. Because Toshinao had no sons to leave his position to, he was succeeded by his younger brother Nanbu Shigenobu as the daimyo or lord of the Nanbu clan.