Kamachi Akimori: A Faithful Retainer in the Sengoku Period

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Japan’s history spans over many different periods that signify term changes when it came to politics, culture, and lifestyle within the country. The Heian period (794 to 1185 AD) saw a rise in cultural privacy, manifesting in literature and independence from Chinese influence, as Japan was starting to get on its own two feet, lead mostly by the Fujiwara clan. That was followed by the Kamakura period, dating 1185 to 1333 A.D., which saw a change in governance style to “bakufu” (幕府). 

The period that followed the Kamakura period, which was the Muromachi period, would be known for having the most amount consistent battles and bloodshed that Japan had faced. Clans all around Japan fought each other over power and land, with each prominent and powerful name still reverberating in history. One of those clans is the Otomo clan. However, to understand the importance of the Otomo clan in its play in Japanese history, one must first understand the background of the bloody Sengoku period.

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An Overview of the Sengoku Period: Learning About the Ashikaga Clan

The Ashikaga clan (their surname) ruled Japan with the dream of taking control of the entire country, but success eluded them. The weak Ashikaga regime descended into factional fighting and civil wars. The one most successful Ashikaga ruler was the third Shogun, Yoshimitsu.  He managed to unify a long-standing divide in the imperial line and eliminated many of his rivals creating an era of peace and stability that lasted several decades. Many years later, however, a succession dispute within the Ashikagas led to the Onin War (1467-1477) Ashikaga power eventually ended with the start of the Onin War.

What Is the Onin War? 

In 1467, the decade-long Onin War broke out. This quickly turned into a civil war that involved the entire country, with clans and daimyo fighting for the privilege of naming the next heir to the Ashikaga shogunal throne. The Onin War was the start of what would become a century of military battles and struggles becoming known as “the age of the country at war “(Sengoku jidai) or the Sengoku Period. The uncertainty of who would come next as the new ruler caused a rift among the warrior clans and a struggle for military supremacy then ensued. 

There was no peaceful way around it until a victor emerged. The factional armies just continued to fight to exhaustion for decades. Parts of Kyoto were lit aflame, and much of the area was almost destroyed due to the fighting in and around it for nearly 11 years. This conflict in Kyoto started to spread to the outlying provinces. The emperor of Japan was officially the supreme ruler, but he delegated most of the power to shoguns. Eventually, the shogunate lost control and influence over the daimyos (feudal warlords) especially those whose domains were far from the capital, Kyoto. 

The Hierarchy of Power

There were different levels of leaders and warriors during this time, depending on the socio-economic and political category you fell in. The samurai played such an important part in the history of Japan, coming from selection variants. They protected people and served under the emperor. They followed the Bushido code which taught them how to live and fight. “Samurai” means “to serve.” 

The Shogun was the ultimate commander and military head of the Emperor. While the Emperor did have power, it was mostly symbolic. Truth was, the shogun had full control over everything. 

The daimyos had no choice but to comply with the ruling shogunate, however, they oversaw their lands almost as though they were separate kingdoms. They were feudal lords who had private armies made up of samurai warriors and retainers. They gave their oaths to the daimyo that they will serve him during wartime and in return, they will be given land as payment. 

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More About the Otomo Clan

The Otomo Clan was a major clan whose power spiked particularly during Kamakura period (particularly during the Sengoku subperiod) lasting over 400 years. Their lands lay in Kyushu alongside with the Shoni Clan and the Shimazu Clan. The Otomo Clan had powerful positions in the government as the Otomo warriors helped Ashikaga Takauji win many key battles. The large Otomo clan had participated in feudal politics in Japan for hundreds of years. 

Coming from the home provinces of Bungo and Buzen, the titles of the leaders of this clan ranged from “daimyo” (feudal warlord) to “Shugo” (governor). One of the notable accomplishments this clan is known befriending foreigners – particularly Europeans, and forging ties as traders with them.

It was in Kyushu where Portuguese ships came because they were set off course by a typhoon. They so happened to dock at the coast of Tanegashima, where they met the Otomo clan and established relations. It only took 10 years for them Portuguese products to be a common sight around the area. Not long after, in the year 1549, Francis Xavier - a Spanish Jesuit missionary, came to Japan. Otomo Sorin, governor or “Shugo” of both Buzen and Bungo in Kyushu, welcomed this person and even turned Roman Catholic himself. 

The Otomo clan benefitted from Otomo Sorin’s openness to this globalization, as there were many advantages that came with trading information and supplies with European travelers. Many residents of the province of Bungo were not apprehensive of the presence of the Roman Catholic missionaries in their territory. In fact, many of them converted to Roman Catholicism. 

When the Sengoku period ended, and the Tokugawa shogunate ruled supreme, the Otomo clan was not as active in helping them achieve their positions, and neither were they opposing them. Japan soon lessened contact with outsiders, and the Otomo clan faded in terms of intimidating power, however, continued to rule their designated provinces up until the Meiji restoration. 

Who Is Kamachi Akimori?

Kamachi Akimori was born in 1520 during the Japanese Muromachi Period which ran from 1336-1573 (though within this period existed a subperiod called the Sengoku period, running from 167 until 1603, which it is more popularly known as). It was also known as the Ashikaga Period. Kamachi Akimori served under Otomo Sorin and became a skilled commander and a retainer for the Otomo Clan.

Kamachi Akimori grew up during all the turmoil of the Sengoku Period. His military skills made him a brave warrior, so much so that the Otomo clan recruited him. Although he was simply a retainer – a usually inferior position compared to the rest of the leaders in the clan – he carried out his duties diligently. 

Considered as a pillar of the Otomo House since he served loyally in all their major campaigns or battles, Kamachi Akimori supported his lord until his dying day. He did not only fight in battles but also sometimes remained behind to protect their master’s castle.

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More About Otomo Sorin

As for Otomo Sorin, he was known as Fujiwara no Yoshishige or Otomo Yoshishige. He was born on January 31, 1530, and passed away on June 11, 1587. Sorin was the daimyo or lord of the Otomo Clan. He was the eldest son of Otomo Yoshiaki and he inherited from his father the Funai Domain on Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island. 

The height of power of the Otomo clan was during the reign of Sorin (also known as Otomo Yoshishige), who, by 1568, had ruled over Bungo, Buzen, northern Hyuga, Chikuzen, and Chikugo. Towards the end of his reign, Sorin went into battle with the Shimazu family which was another major daimyo clan remaining in control of large portions of Kyushu. The Shimazu clan were the daimyo of the Satsuma han spreading over the Satsuma Osumi and Hyuga provinces of Japan. 

The Shimazu clan, a wealthy and powerful clan for centuries was becoming a threat as they were expanding their conquests and influence over Otomo. The powerful Shimazu clan was known to be large and strong due to their strong economy, good organization of their troops and the steadfast loyalty of their retainers. The Shimazu clan’s sixteenth leader in 1566 was Yoshihisa and together with his brothers, Yoshihiro, Toshihisa and Shimazu Iehisa, they launched and worked on a campaign to unify Kyushu. They won victory after victory. 

Sorin attacked the Shimazu clan in 1578, but Yamada Arinobu, a very trusted, loyal, and excellently skilled retainer of the Shimazu clan, gathered 500 troops and held their ground at Taka Castle. This show of strength led to the overall decrease in troop morale. 

Otomo Sorin felt threatened by the expanding conquests of the Shimazu Clan. He implored for aid from Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a superior daimyo who was also a general, warrior, samurai and politician who tried to unify Japan. Hideyoshi was the successor of the most powerful lord Oda Nobunaga. When the Shimazu clan discovered that Sorin was enlisting for help from Hideyoshi, they went into battle with the Otomo. Unsuccessful in getting aid from Hideyoshi, the Shimazu Clan defeated the Otomo Clan at the Battle of Mimigawa. The Otomo clan retreated under heavy losses. Kamachi Akimori, the aforementioned skilled and loyal commander of the Otomo clan lost his life in this battle on December 7, 1578. He was 58 years old. 

A Continuation of Battles

The Shimazu clan continued to win more victories. In 1583, they won against the Ryuzoii clan, and in 1584, they won against the Aso clan. They controlled most of Kyushu, but they still were not able to control the Otomo domain. 

Toyotomi Hideyoshi began his Kyushu campaign in 1586 by overtaking the entire island, now with the help of the Otomo and other families which willingly sided with him. Hideyoshi invaded the Shimazu clan territory and Arinobu, the trusted and ever so loyal retainer of the Shimazu clan, fought and made a defensive stand even after the main body of the army led by his lord Shimazu Yoshihisa had lost. Arinobu only gave up his post in the end when Yoshihisa ordered him to surrender. 

Toyotomi Hideyoshi restored the Otomo clan to their domains and their lands which were taken from them by the Shimazu clan.  A peace agreement among all the families was made. Hideyoshi officially now owned the rest of the lands and domains. After about a year, Hideyoshi left Kyushu, successful in his campaign to dominate Japan. 

Otomo Sorin (January 31, 1530 – June 11, 1587) was eventually succeeded by his son Otomo Yoshimune who inherited back the ancestral lands upon the defeat of the Shimazu Clan.