Nagao Tamekage: The Father of Uesugi Kenshin

There was a time in the history of Japan when clans formed alliances and went into battles in the pursuit of power and influence. This was especially true during the time when the country was being ruled by a military government. There were several clans all over Japan fighting over which one was the most powerful. Within these clans, there were also various factions. Among the many known clans at the time, the Nagao clan was among the good ones when it came to power.

The Life and Conquests of Nagao Tamekage

Utagawa Kuniyoshi [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There were several members of the Nagao clan who were well-known for their different pursuits. One of these members was Nagao Tamekage. Born in the year 1489, Nagao Tamekage had his own conquests during his lifetime. He was a retainer of another Japanese feudal lord who went by the name of Uesugi Fusayoshi. However, Tamekage was actually most famous as the biological father of Uesugi Kenshin.

According to one researcher known as George Bailey Sansom, Tamekage served as one of the representatives of the beginning of daimyos. His career as a retainer of Fusayoshi, as well as a daimyo in his own right, showed the start of the career of the daimyos. It also showed the transfer of power from the Shugo and other officials in the government to independent lords of several regions.

His son was originally born as Nagao Kagetora. However, after a number of events that took place, his son was adopted into the Uesugi clan, the family of his overlord Fusayoshi. His son was renamed to Uesugi Kenshin. Kenshin became one of the most well-known daimyos from the Sengoku period.

As a loyal Shugo-dai, Tamekage served as a deputy to Fusayoshi, who was the Shugo of the province of Echigo. Under the orders of Fusayoshi, Tamekage led the Yamanouchi Uesugi forces to fight against the Ogigayatsu Uesugi forces. This battle went on from the year 1500 to the year 1505. Finally, Tamekage and his forces emerged victorious in this series of battles.

On the other hand, Tamekage was not a hundred percent loyal to Fusayoshi. Eventually, he turned his back on his overlord and wanted to usurp Fusayoshi. He went into battle against Uesugi forces during the first decade of the 16th century. Eventually, he was able to defeat Fusayoshi at Matsunoyama in the year 1507. During the siege, Fusayoshi was slain.

Tamekage went on to pursue power and territory. He gathered forces and went on to several campaigns. Together with Jinbo Nagakiyo, Tamekage plotted to defeat the Jinbo clan from the inside in the year 1510. He thought to use his position as Shugo-dai to forge an alliance with Nagakiyo.

On the other hand, Nagakiyo conspired to bring his brother Nagatsuna along. Both brothers wanted to overthrow Jinbo Yoshimune. Moreover, they also wanted to forge an alliance with the Uesugi clan. The planning of this overthrow took more than a year to just complete. Having grown impatient, Tamekage thought of another option to weaken the Jinbo clan.

While it was not verified, many believe that Tamekage had a hand in the discovery of his correspondence with the plotting Jinbo brothers. An ally of Yoshimune found these letters and told Yoshimune of his discovery. Both brothers were executed for treason, which weakened the Jinbo clan. As such, the goal of Tamekage was still achieved.

With the support of Hojo Soun, Nagao Tamekage was also able to fight and eventually defeat Uesugi Akisada. At the time, Hojo Soun was becoming a powerful man in the region. Together, Tamekage and Soun were able to bring about the fall of the Uesugi clan in just a span of a few years.

Ultimately, Nagao Tamekage lost in the Battle of Sendanno in the year 1536. He was slain during this battle against the Ikko-ikki of the province of Kaga. On the other hand, the Senran-ki denoted a different outcome for Tamekage. In their record, it stated that Tamekage relinquished his throne to his third son. Finally, Nagao Tamekage opted to become a monk in the year 1540.

Fighting Against Uesugi Fusayoshi

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

One of this most well-known battles was the one with Uesugi Fusayoshi. Under his father’s guidance and training, Nagao Tamekage was able to grow up a warrior with great skills in fighting. There was even a rumor that surrounded stating that Tamekage participated in more than 100 battles during his lifetime. He was able to forge numerous alliances with local warriors thanks to the way he conducted himself in battles.

Aside from this physical strength, Tamekage was also known for his fierce determination. One of his driving forces was to be free from his master Uesugi Fusayoshi. After years of serving Fusayoshi, Tamekage found an opportunity to make a move towards his goal when his father died.

Under the orders of his lord, Tamekage suppressed several local uprisings. However, through this, he was also able to form a secret rebellion. As he was able to win several battles, more and more warriors wanted to be under Tamekage’s wing. These small successes were, of course, not unnoticed by Fusayoshi. Sensing a threat, the master also made moves to remove Tamekage out of his way.

Having sensed that something was up with his lord, Tamekage initiated and launched a full-scale attack against Fusayoshi. According to Tamekage, the reason why he betrayed Fusayoshi was that the latter left the former’s father to fight for his life alone against the Ikko-ikki. By doing this, Fusayoshi did not act the way a responsible ruler should; ultimately, Tamekage’s father died due to the negligence of Fusayoshi.

Whilst both Tamekage and Fusayoshi were in conflict with each other, Tamekage was also able to win over the adopted son of Fusayoshi, Uesugi Sadazane. Both of their forces attached Fusayoshi in the autumn of the year 1507. Caught off-guard, Fusayoshi did not stand a chance against the two. He tried to escape the attack but it was for naught. Having been trapped by enemies, Fusayoshi eventually committed seppuku to end his misery.

The Early Life of His Younger Son Nagao Kagetora

By (unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nagao Tamekage sired a son named Nagao Kagetora. Born on the 18th of February in the year 1530, Kagetora grew up to become a daimyo in his own right. In fact, he was recognized as one of the most influential and powerful daimyos during his time. He was adopted into the Uesugi clan and changed his name to Uesugi Kenshin. He was the ruler of the province of Echigo for a certain period of time.

Kenshin was quite well-known for his prowess on the battlefield. However, he was also highly regarded in the field of administration. He was highly skillful when it came to administering the growth of local trade and industries. In fact, locals witnessed a rise when it came to the stand of living in the province during the rule of Kenshin.

The man was also known for his honorable conduct as well as his military expertise. Kenshin was also famous as the long-time rival of Takeda Shingen. Moreover, Kenshin also led several campaigns as the Kanto Kanrei for the restoration of order in the region of Kanto. He was also known to believe and pray to the Buddhist god of war called Bishamonten. His belief in his god was so intense that most of his people actually believed that Kenshin was the Avatar of Bishamonten.

As a son of a warrior, Kagetora led quite an interesting life. In fact, the events that transpired in his life were heavily influenced by his father Tamekage. Tamekage, a noted warrior during his time, grew famous for his military victories while he was still under the command of the Yamanouchi branch of the Uesugi clan.

There was a power struggle between the Uesugi clan and the Ikko-ikki clan. This struggle resulted in the deterioration of the province of the Uesugi clan. Several events took place such as the betrayal of Tamekage. It reached its peak when Tamekage led an attack westward in the year 1536. On December of that year, Tamekage and his forces were able to arrive at Sedanno in Etchu. However, they were caught by surprise as Enami Kazuyori led the attack against them. They were defeated and Tamekage was murdered.

This defeat created a huge impact in Echigo. The eldest son of Tamekage, Nagao Harukage, wanted to be the next heir of Tamekage and bid for his control of the clan. However, a power struggle took place because other members of the clan also wanted to take control of the family. Eventually, Harukage emerged victorious but at the expense of another son of Tamekage, Nagao Kageyasu.

In the midst of it all, Kenshin was still young to get involved in the fight. As a result of his older brother becoming the next head of the Nagao clan, Kenshin was relocated to Rinsen-ji Temple at the age of seven. He spent seven years of his life in the temple where he focused on his studies, martial arts, and Zen Buddhism.

The Rise of Uesugi Kenshin, a Son of Tamekage

By Raisa H from Tokyo, Japan (Tick) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Out of all the son of Tamekage, probably the most famous one is Uesugi Kenshin. Kenshin was living peacefully at the temple when he received correspondence from Usami Sadamitsu as well as some acquaintances of Tamekage. They saw potential in Kenshin and wanted him to return to Echigo to challenge his older brother’s control over the clan.

Probably because of ill health, it was apparent that Harukage was not able to prove himself as an effective ruler of his clan. He was also unable to gain support from powerful and influential kokujin clans. Because of this, the province of the Nagao clan was in shambles. Harukage was seen as an ineffective and uninspiring ruler of the Nagao clan.

Initially, Kenshin did not want to go back to Echigo and challenge his older brother. However, he realized the importance of his role in the survival of their province. He was already able to make a name for himself when he was able to successfully defend Tochio Castle with his comrades at the young age of 15. In the year 1548, he was also successful in gaining control over their clan from Harukage.

After five years, Harukage eventually passed away. Kenshin served as the head of the Nagao clan. Moreover, he remained a retainer of the Uesugi clan. He was also able to enter the Kasugayama Castle. Kenshin provided support to Uesugi Norimasa in the year 1551 when the latter sought refuge while he was fighting against the Hojo clan. At the time, Kenshin was not yet powerful enough to fully take on the Hojo family.

This support was not without any conditions. Kenshin negotiated that for him to help Norimasa, the latter must adopt the former and name the former as the latter’s heir. Norimasa agreed to Kenshin’s terms. Eventually, the Uesugi clan was able to wage war against the Hojo family in the year 1552.

Kenshin ultimately had control over both the Nagao clan and the Uesugi clan. However, this did not seem to be enough for the young lord. Rather, Kenshin wanted control over the whole province of Echigo. Hence, he sought to solidify his power and influence in the region. He provided support to several lords who needed his help, including two lords from the province of Shinano, namely, Ogasawara Nagatoki and Murakami Yoshikiyo. At the time, the two lord needed help to fight against Takeda Shingen.

Aside from military experiences, Kenshin also proved to be a great leader who made efforts on the reformation of trade and transportation networks. He eventually gained control over commerce in the region, which the previous government was not able to achieve before. He also played an instrumental role in the establishment of feudal ties with the population of warriors by granting lands.

There were much more that Tamekage’s famous son was able to accomplish during his lifetime. These achievements were not just for him or his clan but for the entire country as well. With these improvements in the system of the government, Tamekage must truly be proud of how his son Kenshin was able to grow up and contribute immensely to the family and to society.