Samurai Gaiden: Court Ranks and Titles

A topic I’ve brought up a handful of times is the court rank and title of various samurai. Akechi Hidemitsu is most often known as Samanosuke, Takayama Shigetomo is usually known as Ukon, and Yamamoto Haruyuki is usually referred by his court title of Kansuke.

So what exactly are these court titles and why did all these samurai have them? Well, today we’re going to take a very basic look at Japanese court titles and examine how they worked and what they meant.

And the answer is…they often meant nothing. But we’ll get to that closer to the end of today’s discussion on Japanese Court Titles.

So the first thing to note is that the Japanese Imperial Court went through several different incarnations as far as rank structure, what ranks meant, and how ranks were signified. In the early days the system strongly mimicked the Chinese style in a form known as Kan’i where each position correlated to a particular rank and that rank was noted by wearing a different colored cap. However eventually this was replaced by wearing different colored clothing when at court.

Now without getting caught up in the drudgery of a century of Asuka-Nara minor and major political changes, let’s look at the system instituted during the reign of Emperor Mommu in the early 8th century.

The divisions of court ranks at this time were divided into princely ranks and official ranks, that is ranks for officials within the empire. Rarely will we be dealing with princely ranks, because for most of what we’re dealing with just know that those would be for the Imperial family and the like. They came in four levels: Ippon, Nihon, Sanbon, and Yonhon – that is First, Second, Third, and – you guessed it – Fourth.

The official ranks were set up in a similar fashion classed from highest to lowest as Ichi’i, Ni’i, San’i, Shi’i, Go’i, Roku’i, Shichi’i, Hachi’i, and Sho’i. The lingering ‘I’ sound on all of those the character ‘I’ which simply means rank. So from high to low that equates to First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Beginner Ranks.

The first second and third ranks were also split into two parts: Senior and Junior. So that means that you had ranks like Shoni’i, Senior Second Rank and Jusan’i, Junior Third Rank.

Ranks within the spectrum of fourth through eighth were even split into four subsections: High Senior, Low Senior, High Junior, and finally Low Junior. Can you imagine being made High Junior Sixth Rank? You’d have to introduce yourself as Juroku’i-ju.

Now I’ve just told you all of that to tell you not to worry about it much. Rarely will you see someone actually referring to themselves as Oda Shoichi’i Nobunaga. And not just because he had been dead for over three hundred years before the court posthumously awarded him the right of Senior First Rank.

“I’m what?!”

No what you always hear are actually the opposite of these things. What we’ve just talked about were Court Ranks, but things like Samanosuke and Ukon were Court Titles. These titles equated to jobs within the Imperial Court…although by the time of the Sengoku period and beyond really very few of the people who held those ranks probably actually did the jobs inherent of that position.

For instance the Ii family held the post of Kamon no-kami which can be translated as Director of the Palatial Cleaning Department or…Captain of the Janitors. Did he actually command the palace’s cleaning crews on a day-to-day basis? No, he was busy running Hikone-han. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was beneath Lord Ii to sign his name Ii Kamon no-kami Naosuke.

It was an honor to be given a post within the Imperial Court and one that many samurai wore as a badge of honor and pride. Remember that through most of the Japanese civil wars it was still ostensibly ‘fact’ that the Emperor was divine. The wars to become Shogun was essentially Head Samurai, but on paper they were still subservient to the Emperor; kind of like being Prime Minister of a monarchy. On paper the King is the highest authority in the land, but really the Prime Minister runs the government.

Now as I said – each title was basically a post in the Imperial Court and was associated with a particular court rank. Hence why I bothered to tell you anything about that court rank. So you could be given the rank of Shugoku no Jou, or Secretary of the Prisons, only if you had the equivalent court rank of Senior Eighth Rank.

So if somebody wanted to then promote you to Assistant Director of the Department of Poetry, or the Uta no-suke, you would generally have to be promoted to the court rank of Senior Sixth Rank. That is not to say that in rare occasions it didn’t work without the dual promotion, but generally how it would work is you would be given a Court Rank and that would allow you to hold a position within that rank which you could hope to be given. If you did something meritorious and earned yourself a promotion to a higher court rank, you may be given a nicer title.

So lets take a look at Akechi Hidemitsu’s title…and that is not to say he was the only one known by this title. Many samurai were known to have held by the title of Samanosuke. Samanosuke can be translated several ways such as…Vice-Commander of the Left Stables, Lieutenant of the Left Cavalry Division, or Deputy Director of the Left Stable Department. Literally it comes out to mean Assistant Head of the Left Horses.

So we can assume that Hidemitsu held the court rank of Senior Sixth Rank, since that is the equivalent post within the court. Yamamoto Haruyuki, was known by the title of Kansuke; which near as I can tell means he was an Advisor. Kansuke translates as Giving Aid, formed of the characters Kan and Suke which mean Intuition or Perception and Assistant, respectively. So an Assistant of Intuition…or an Advisor.

Takayama Shigetomo was known as Ukon this means that he held a rank in the Ukan’e, the Palace Guards-Right Division. I don’t know his formal rank in the department, but that was the department his rank came from.

The prolific writer, Murasaki Shikibu gets her name from her father’s position within the Imperial Court: Shikibu no Daijo. Shikibu no Daijo means Senior Secretary of the Department of Ceremonies and in all likelihood he would signed his name as Fujiwara Shikibu no Daijo Tametomo.

At one point in his life the aforementioned Nobunaga was known as Oda Kazusa no-suke Nobunaga, or Lieutenant Governor of Kazusa Province. Proving that court titles really meant nothing…Nobunaga did not rule over Kazusa at any point in his life – as a matter of fact, it is unlikely he ever set foot in the province.

Similarly Nabeshima Naoshige held the court title of Echizen no-Kami, however that province was ruled by the Maeda family. Naoshige was a Ryuzoji retainer who defected to the Toyotomi when Hideyoshi came aboard Kyushu and was eventually given much of their territory for himself. The Ryuzoji lands were on the other side of the country from Echizen so its unlikely he ever even went there for a visit, even less likely he ran anything in the province. But he was still considered to be the governor of that province by the Imperial Court, which by this point in time had no real power to its name.

“I’m governor of where?
…never heard of it.”

So hopefully that helps you to better understand a bit about the Imperial Ranks and Titles that we throw around all the time. If you have any questions on a particular rank or title…or you just want to know more about court ranks and titles in general, let us know in the comments. You can also check out our last video which was answering a viewer question on how Japanese swords were made or check out the playlist of all of our other videos.


Samurai Gaiden: Takayama Ukon Shigetomo

Here in December many will celebrate the Christian Holiday of Christ’s Mass. The celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Christianity. This coming year will also probably lead to a celebration for Japanese Christians as the Vatican plans to perform a beatification of a martyred samurai, that’s fancy Catholic speak for a type of formal acknowledgement of completion of miracles or martyrdom in the name of Christ; Latin for “To Make Blessed”.

That samurai in question is the Sengoku Daimyo….Dom Iustus, also known as Takayama Ukon Shigetomo.

Takayama Shigetomo (1552-1615)

Takayama Shigetomo (1552-1615)

Shigetomo, as we’ll refer to him for the duration of this post, was born Takayama Hikogoro, the son of a relatively small regional lord in Yamato province, Takayama Tomoteru. Tomoteru was the lord of Sawa castle and served the Matsunaga family, whom you might remember from the Ashikaga Yoshiteru video as the main force behind the attack and murder of Yoshiteru.

Tomoteru was an early adopter of Christianity and had his son, Shigetomo, baptized a year before Matsunaga Hisahide led the assault on Yoshiteru’s mansion at Nijo. Shortly thereafter the Matsunaga and the Miyoshi came to blows over how to puppeteer the new Shogun and the Takayama castle at Sawa was easy prey for the Miyoshi advance.

The Takayama were now ronin, but got hired into the Oda forces through the good graces of another Christian daimyo, Wada Koremasa, who allied with Oda Nobunaga after he became Ashikaga Yoshiaki’s patron to make him Shogun.

A few years later when Oda came to serious blows with the Miyoshi the Takayama were stuck in the middle of things, again. One of the Miyoshi samurai, Araki Murashige, besieged the Takayama castle and their new master, Wada Koremasa came to their aid.

Unfortunately for the Takayama, Koremasa died fighting against Murashige’s forces. Even with Koremasa’s death, though, Murashige wasn’t able to capture the castle. Once the initial war was over the elder Takayama became one of the chief advisors to Koremasa’s son, Wada Korenaga.

Sadly for them, Korenaga didn’t much like the Takayama clan. Korenaga plotted the murder of Tomoteru and young Hikogoro, now known by his adult name, Shigetomo. Tomoteru decided to make the first move and he invited the young lord over to the Takayama home. Korenaga arrived with an armed escort and this is where we first get to see young Shigetomo in action.

You see Shigetomo led a group of fifteen samurai in a brutal assault on Korenaga’s escort and in the end Korenaga was dead. During this time the elder Takayama had been negotiating with Araki Murashige, who had recently defected to the Oda side.

Murashige made no argument against the Takayama taking over the Wada lands, centered around Takatsuki castle, and neither did their overlord, Oda Nobunaga. Most likely because Nobunaga had originally won over the Wada clan by supporting the Ashikaga Shogunate and this was the same year that Nobunaga chased Yoshiaki out of the capital and usurped his throne.

Five years passed with the Takayama ostensibly retainers of the Araki clan, until Araki Murashige led a revolt against Nobunaga. This was a very inopportune time for Nobunaga, as he had his forces spread out toward his borders, and Murashige was in the middle of his realm. Nobunaga had also just completed blockading the besieged temple-fortress of the Ishiyama Honganji.

If the Araki revolt wasn’t dealt with quickly and efficiently, dissension could brew elsewhere in the Oda realm and the Honganji might actually be able to break the stranglehold on them; the stranglehold that it had taken Nobunaga years to plan and carry out.

Murashige’s home base of Itami was surrounded by several smaller castles which protected it from assault, chiefly of these against Nobunaga were Ibaragi, held by a certain Nakagawa Kiyohide, and Takasaki Castle…held by our very own Takayama clan.

Nobunaga had a Jesuit missionary brought to negotiate with the Takayama, knowing that both Tomoteru and Shigetomo were devout Christians. Nobunaga gave simple terms: If Takasaki surrenders, Nobunaga will aid the Jesuit churches in the area. If the fort doesn’t surrender…then Nobunaga will wipe the churches out and expunge the Christian influence in the area.

Shigetomo refused to endanger the Christian populace of Takasaki and fled the castle in the night, much to the chagrin of his father. Tomoteru sent messengers to Araki Murashige apologizing for Shigetomo’s lack of loyalty; most likely because Murashige currently held several members of the Takayama clan as political hostages.

The Takayama were in an especially precarious situation when Shigetomo and his new priest friend went to Ibaragi and convinced the castellan there, Nakagawa Kiyohide, to surrender to Nobunaga.

In the end Nobunaga was successful and Murashige’s home of Itami was besieged and Murashige wound up fleeing his imminent destruction. To his credit, Murashige released the Takayama hostages unharmed even with Shigetomo’s betrayal.

At that point Nobunaga rewarded Kiyohide and the young Shigetomo. Kiyohide got to keep his castle at Ibaragi and Shigetomo’s father was forced to retire in favor of his son.

Tomoteru shaved his head, denounced his Christian faith, and became a Buddhist monk by the name of Zusho. This is ironic for two reasons. The first of which is that when Christianity first spread to the capital region, Tomoteru had been an ardent foe, trying to convince Matsunaga Hisahide to expel the Christians. The second reason you’ll discover as we continue to talk about his son, Shigetomo.

Now Shigetomo owned Takatsuki…and he immediately set to work on converting the population to Christianity. Christian history applauds Shigetomo’s work as just and holy, however many Japanese of the time and certainly now, believe that Shigetomo was basically a Japanese Torquemada.

They believe that he forcefully converted the populace of Takatsuki to Christianity. Shigetomo spent five years there in power and in that short time he converted 72% of the populace, that’s 18,000 people, to Christianity. That’s a lot of ‘willing’ converts.

Especially taking into account the fact that Shigetomo reportedly looted and destroyed numerous Buddhist temples, converting the ones he didn’t tear down into Catholic Churches? Ehhh… either way it irked the local population of Buddhist monks who petitioned Nobunaga to force an end to the conversion.

Nobunaga had recently torched and murdered the entire populace of the Enryakuji Temple Complex and was currently fighting three separate fronts of fanatical Buddhist Warrior Monk sects. Needless to say he really didn’t seem to care about what Takayama did to the temples in Yamato.

Now, regardless of whether Shigetomo was just a brilliant Sermon-writer or was actually holding a Japanese Inquisition he also managed to convert several other prominent men and women to Christianity. Kuroda Kanbei and Hosokawa Tadaoki’s wife, Tamako, among them.

Now we have arrived in the year 1582 when Akechi Mitsuhide betrays Nobunaga at Honnoji. Toyotomi Hideyoshi races back into the capital region and along the way he passes through the province of Settsu where both Kiyohide and Shigetomo have brought their armies and they joined the Toyotomi vanguard, eventually leading troops on the frontline during the Battle of Yamazaki.

When the Toyotomi and Shibata went to war later in the year over a succession dispute on which of Nobunaga’s sons would succeed him, Shigetomo and Kiyohide were sent north to be the first line of defense against the Shibata.

The Shibata lord, Katsuie, sent his nephew, Sakuma Morimasa to make an opening break into the campaign. Sakuma attacked Shigetomo’s post of Iwasakiyama which Shigetomo apparently decided was an untenable position and he abandoned the fort, fleeing to the castle at Tagami where Toyotomi’s half-brother, Hidenaga was stationed.

Sakuma went on to assault nearby Shizugatake and actually managed to kill poor Kiyohide who was guarding it, however this put Sakuma too far south compared to the rest of Shibata’s army. Toyotomi counterattacked and defeated Sakuma, paving the way for Shibata’s eventual defeat.

Shigetomo is largely considered to have been a coward during this campaign, however he may have been charismatic enough to convince Toyotomi that it was in his benefit in the end. After all, if Iwasakiyama hadn’t fallen so easily, Sakuma might not have been so hot-headed and arrogant as to march all the way to Shizugatake and get taken by surprise.

This is surprising given the fact that he was actually on fairly bad terms with Toyotomi at the time, because he refused to light incense at Nobunaga’s funeral; citing the fact that Christians were not permitted to participate in the rituals of infidel religions.

Either way Shigetomo got the chance to redeem himself in 1584 when he participated in Toyotomi’s invasion of Shikoku. He apparently performed well and was awarded a fief at Akashi in Harima province, worth roughly 60,000 koku.

As with Takatsuki, Shigetomo immediately went about tearing down or converting temples and converting the populace. And once again the cries of the local monks were ignored. That is until after Toyotomi managed to diminish the power of the warrior monks in the capital region, something he depended on Shigetomo to help with, and decided that Christianity was gaining too much ground in Japan.

Shigetomo participated in Toyotomi’s invasion of Kyushu in 1587 and before he even got back from helping to win that war, Toyotomi had him removed from his fief at Akashi and made a ronin. Shigetomo took up with the far more politically powerful Konishi Yukinaga, another Christian daimyo that was given a large fief in Kyushu.

Shigetomo eventually wound up wandering his way to the Maeda lands and took up under Maeda Toshiie, whose wife we talked about a few months ago, and remained there for several years, even after Toyotomi and Toshiie’s deaths.

In 1614 when Tokugawa Ieyasu banished the Christians from Japan Maeda Toshitsune, Shigetomo’s lord at the time, believed he would be troublesome. However in the end Shigetomo acquiesced to the Shogunate and boarded a ship to be removed from the country.

He was exiled to the Philippines where he was welcomed by the local Jesuit missionaries and some reports suggest that he was offered the chance to lead a Spanish-funded invasion of Japan, but turned down the offer, instead opting to remain peacefully in Manila.

Which he did for the next 40 days, wherein he died of illness.

Shigetomo was, and still is, a polarizing figure in Japan. Christians laude him as a pillar of faith and heroism and many others despise him as a cruel betrayer and coward. Either way he must have been well-regarded by some back in his day to have accomplished all that he did.

The conversion of notable samurai and their wives and servants, not to mention being welcomed into Maeda Toshiie’s ranks, suggest that he was a skilled and well-spoken man. He is considered to have been good with poetry and the Tea Ceremony as well.

So in the spirit of Takayama Dom Iustus Shigetomo…Merry Christmas for you Christians out there and Happy Rohatsu Day for everyone else.