Samurai Gaiden: Ota “Dokan” Sukenaga


Ota Dokan Sukenaga (1432-1486)

Had I not known that I was dead, I would have mourned the loss of my life.”

Tokyo, the capital of Japan. A city unmatched in the current day for its size and wealth within the Japanese world. It has surpassed the older capitals and cultural centers of the nation: Kyoto, Nara, and nearby Kamakura.

But it wasn’t always this way. Before Tokugawa Ieyasu united the country and founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, placing his own capital in a small castle called Chiyoda, there was just a handful of loosely assembled fishing villages.

The Ogigiyatsu-Uesugi clan ruled this area and their lord, Sadamasa, wanted to reinforce Kamakura and the areas around it. He needed someone to build new fortresses and guard the province.

Sadamasa put a certain samurai to the task, his name was Ota Sukenaga, known as Ota Dokan later in his life. Dokan was a retainer of the Ogigiyatsu who was known as a good general and valiant warrior. You see Dokan was an amazing architect and had already designed and overseen the building of castles at Kawagoe and Iwatsuki.

Ota Dokan by Toyohara Chikanobu

Dokan built a castle at what is now known as Tokyo. A backwater conglomerate of fishing villages that eventually became the capital of Japan. But though Dokan’s building of Chiyoda castle is definitely his most famous achievement, it was certainly not his only achievement.

For instance…twenty years after he built Kawagoe, Iwatsuki, and Chiyoda castles he was attacking the Toshima family. He fought against Toshima Yasutsune at Hiratsuka castle who had formed an alliance with Sadamasa’s enemies, the Nagao clan. Toshima received reinforcements from the nearby castles of Shakuji and Nerima, the former being the Toshima clan’s capital.

Dokan met the combined Toshima forces in the field and defeated them, forcing the Toshima to flee back to their castles. Dokan was to meet with Toshima a week later to negotiate peace, presumably pushing for his surrender or to break his new alliance with the Nagao.

When he arrived at the location for the peace talks, the Toshima ambushed him. Dokan soundly beat back the ambush and chased them back to Shakuji, capturing the castle.

But long before that, when he was just a youthful samurai known for being a good hunter, we get the most interesting story about Ota Dokan.

He had been out hunting and was returning to his home, but a sudden rainstorm had forced him to take refuge at a run-down roadside inn. There he was met by a young waitress named Benizara. He asked the woman if he could borrow a Mino, a type of straw raincoat. The mi in mino means fruit.

Benizara went into the back and return with two things, a bundle of yellow mountain roses, called Yamabuki, and a poem. Stories differ on whether she simply wrote the poem down or actually recited it to Dokan, but the poem was one by the Heian Prince, Kaneakira (914-987).

The poem goes like this…

The mountain roses enrich our house with flowers, yet there is sadness here, for those riches are an illusion, and our flower has no fruit.”

In the poem she uses the word mi to say fruit referencing the straw raincoat, a Mino, that Dokan had asked for.

Dokan was confused and fumed at her; all he had asked for was to borrow a straw raincoat and she brought him a useless poem and a bundle of flowers? How stupid could this – surprisingly well-educated – peasant girl be?


When he returned to his castle one of his retainers explained the poem to him. He said that the family was too poor to be able to afford straw raincoats to lend to passersby, hence the usage of Prince Kaneakira’s poem and the giving of the yellow mountain flowers as a polite apology.

Dokan realized the error of his ways and decided to devote himself to the study of intellectual things, such as poetry and architecture. Some sources suggest he even went back to the roadside inn and apologized to Benizara, inviting her to his home and either keeping her there as a servant or actually taking her as a consort or wife.

They wrote poetry together and because of their meeting Dokan was able to become a well-mannered, properly educated samurai, who was eventually able to build the foundation for Japan’s capital city. He was highly esteemed by his peers and well respected by his master, Sadamasa.

Sadly for Dokan, Sadamasa felt that he was too highly esteemed by his peers and invited Dokan to his castle under the pretense of having a party. Once the party was over Dokan was lying in a nice warm bath that had been prepared for him by Sadamasa. Suddenly one of Sadamasa’s soldiers broke into the bath and stabbed Dokan in the chest.

While he lay in the tub bleeding to death, he composed his final poem.

Kakaru toki

Sakaso inochi no

Oshi karame

Kanete nakimi to

Omoi shirazuba

Had I not known that I was dead, I would have mourned the loss of my life.”


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