Ii Naotora: The Imperceptible Female Daimyo

Though Japan may be known today as a peace-loving country with the lowest crime rates, history proves that wasn’t always the case. A little over 500 years ago, Japan underwent a period called the “Sengoku Period”, which lasted from the year 1467 until 1603 AD. 

Because Japan worked within the bounds of a feudal system, feudal warlords (called “Daimyo” in Japanese) often fought amongst each other, triggered mostly by the Onin war, which occurred for 10 years from 1467 until 1477. This war occurred because the shogunate they had at that time, named Ashikaga Yoshimasa, had no successor. Thus, the hunger for this seat drove many daimyo and clans to battles.

By 日本語: 伝土佐光信 English: Attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Refresher Course on the Sengoku Period

During the Sengoku period, many daimyos made history because of the decisions they made, and the wars they joined. It was a violent period in Japanese times, with men mostly leading the fights – with a few exceptions. Despite Japanese culture clearly giving males more overall value than females (they were allowed and allocated more power, education, and other privileges), there were still a few headstrong women who made it to the top ranks of society and were in charge. One of them was Ii Naotora.

The History of Ii Naotora

Ii Naotora was born on the 12th of September 1582. Her father was the famed Ii Naomori (“井伊 直盛” in Japanese), who lived from 1525 until his death on the 12th of June 1560. He was the retainer of his clan, which was known as the Imagawa clan. 

More Than A Retainer

What is a retainer, exactly? To put it simply, a retainer is a term for someone who holds a rank that is inferior when it comes to others in that clan and mainly serves the leader of that clan. The very idea of the word “retainer” is someone who supports (or retains) a post ranked above, them (like a warrior), thus helping them retain their position, purpose, power, and goals – be it through whatever had to be done to retain it. 

By Doricono (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Ii Naotora’s father, she would grow to hold much more power than a simple retainer. Her father passed away in 1560, in the process of shielding Imagawa Yoshimito (who was his lord) from a surprise attack from the enemy, led by Oda Nobunaga, in the rainy and foggy Battle of Okehazama. Through his death, had fully accomplished his service of being Imagawa’s vassal. 

Fated to Lead

Because she had no other sibling to become successor for the Ii clan, and her father was the first in line, Ii Naomitsu, her uncle, insisted that she should marry her male cousin Ii Naochika so that he could become the ruler of the clan. Before she could act upon his wishes, it was revealed that he had planned to rebel against the Imagawa, revealed by the surviving retainers of the Imagawa clan. Because of his uncovered insurrection, both Ii Naomitsu and Ii Naochika were made to kill themselves by a special Japanese suicide ritual called “Seppuku” (切腹), where one slits his own stomach and bleeds to death. 

By signed Kunikazu Utagawa (歌川 国員), pupil of Kunisada [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Glimpse of Hope

While both father and son were ordered to commit seppuku, only one of them fully carried through with the act – and that was Ii Naomitsu. Because of Ii Naochika’s young age, he was able to escape both Innoya and his death by heading to a place called “Shinano”. It was all thanks to the help of the help he received from Nankei, a man who was a Buddhist priest. 

During those 10 years in hiding, Ii Naochika had built his own life and married someone else, thus nulling the possibility of marrying Ii Naotora when he decided to return after one decade. By this point, Ii Naotora’s name was changed to “Jiro Houshi” by the very same man who helped Ii Naochika escape – Nankei. She also pursued the priesthood. Despite him not marrying Ii Naotora, Ii Naochika still assumed leadership of the clan.

Like Father, Like Son – So Naotora Takes Over

Just as his father before him, Naochika planned another rebellion against Imagawa that was, yet again, exposed by an anonymous source. In 1560, he was murdered by Imagawa Ujizane. Some say that the “anonymous” source who told on Naochika was a man named Ono Michiyoshi, a Japanese samurai who dedicated himself to serving both the Imagawa and Ii clan – although rumor has it he did not take a liking to Naochika.  Because of the continuous murders of the men in her clan, Ii Naotora quit her priesthood duties and took over the responsibilities of being head of her clan. 

Those responsibilities had much to do with many different battles that were waged in behalf of the Tokugawa clan. Because she had no choice, as she was the only child of her father, who so happened to be the 18th head of the clan, she became a daimyo and held much more power than most women did during that era. 

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

Ii Naotora decided to adopt the son of her cousin, Naochika. That boy would grow up to be Ii Naomasa, who would grow up to serve under Tokugawa Ieyasu, and earn a reputation enough to be considered a part of the “Four Guardians of the Tokugawa”. After Ii Naotora’s death on the 12th of September 1582, Naomasa took over her position as head of their clan. 

The Power That Comes with Being A Daimyo

The power that came with being a daimyo was no joke, especially during the Sengoku period, which was almost like a chaotic situation as clans wrestled it out to make it on top. Daimyo ruled Japan from as early as the 10th century – and it was only during the Meiji restoration, which occurred only within the last 150 years, did they lose their grip on politics and land. In fact, “daimyo” stems from two concepts: “dai”, which is Japanese for large, and “myo”, from “myoden”, which means private land. A daimyo, essentially, is one who holds a lot of private lands. 

A Daimyo was so powerful mainly because they only listened to one authority – that was the shogun. Other than that, they were left to oversee their domains and positions however they wanted, with a few rules to follow (especially during the Edo period under the Tokugawa shogunate), placed by the ruling Shogun. It is important to note that not all daimyo have the same responsibilities and backgrounds, as some of them grow up to become daimyo because they are descendants/relatives of the imperial family, part of influential clans, or earned the name by being a high-ranked samurai.

A Female Daimyo?

Because of events that had happened during the 13th century and an influential female Japanese leader named Hojo Masako, women enjoyed the same rights when it came to inheritance as their male counterparts and were not treated as inferior as they previously had been. As for Ii Naotora, there isn’t much information listed in encyclopedias about her, despite her rare predicament of being a female daimyo. Her real name was never indicated in any document.

Some say that she pretended to be a man – much like the story of Mulan – to make sure that her authority was respected, as no one would pay attention to a female daimyo. Other sources say that she was less of a daimyo, took more of a role as Naomasa’s regent, preparing him so he could take responsibility of the clan. No matter which version of the story is true – one thing is for sure – Ii Naotora did her job and was very good at it. 

The Ii Clan in Pop Culture: Featured by NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai)

Historical figures are often used as inspiration to create T.V. shows, using elements of their real lives while adding a fictional twist. The Ii clan is no exception to this, as Ii Naotora was featured by NHK in a Taiga drama named “Onna Joshu/Joushu Naotora”, which in Japanese is written as “おんな城主 直虎”. It was directed by Kazutaka Watanabe. 

A “Taiga drama” is a special series that usually lasts for a year, held especially by Japan’s NHK, that features fictional historical dramas. They have been airing a different series following the same historical theme since 1963 and continue to do so. “Onna Joshu Naotora” is the 56th show, and was shown from January 8, 2017, until December 17, 2017. 

The Story of the Ii Clan in the Taiga Drama

In English, this show is called “Naotora: The Lady Warlord”. It stars Kou Shibasaki, who plays the part of Ii Naotora, the star of the series. Just like her story in real life, the series features her hardships as she has to take on a hard role that is usually occupied by male successors – all of which had died in several wars. There’s even an addition of her fiancé, who inspires her and gives her strength through the challenges she faces.  

Ii Naotora in The Fighting Video Game Series Called “Dead or Alive”

Though there isn’t that much information available for Ii Naotora, she sure is included in a lot of popular cultures, going beyond television shows, and being a character for a video game. She was first included in a game series “Samurai Warriors”, known as “Sengoku Musou” (戦国無双) in Japanese. That was in 2004. Her appearance on the video game “Dead or Alive” came in 2012, in the Sengoku Musou Chronicles 2nd. She also goes by the name of “Female Landlord” or “The graceful ruler of the Ii clan”. 

As most video game characters are, her appearance was very much stylized to fit the theme of most video games (like having a significantly bigger bust than usual), but it still somewhat pays homage to the era that the historical character is from. She wore red, ribbed Japanese armor, with blades behind the heels of her feet. 

As for her personality, she seems to be the shy kind, who always apologizing for problems that occur – even in-game, during a fighting round. She doesn’t have that much faith in herself and is constantly in a worried and concerned state about the affairs of her clan – but she will fight. She fights characters like Shingen Takeda, and more. She has many kinds of attacks, but one of the more powerful ones is her kick – because of the blades sticking out.

She was ranked number 57 when it comes to the most popular characters of Gamecity. There was a poll held by Nobunaga no Yabou, and she scored 8th place as an officer ranking four stars.