YAMAGATA AND THE FOX OF DEWA
Yamagata Castle lies in the middle of Yamagata City in eastern Yamagata Prefecture, a bullseye at the heart of nested rings of Yamagatas. Cupped in a mountain basin, this whole area is brutally hot and humid in the summer, even by Japanese standards—but it’s gorgeous in the winter, when heavy snow turns the castle and the surrounding city into a pristine urban snowscape (and in the spring, when the rows of cherry trees lining the castle moat burst into sprays of pink and white blossoms).
By far the largest castle in the Tohoku region by land area, Yamagata Castle nevertheless lies relatively flat, featuring none of the high walls and majestic towers so iconic to other Japanese castles. Still, it more than served its purpose for Mogami Yoshiaki, the samurai warlord who ruled from this fortress.
An impressive statue of Yoshiaki mounted on horseback stands in Kajo Park within the castle grounds. On my approach, his head appeared to be rather comically covered in snow from the recent blizzard, which drew a chuckle from me at first; circling around the statue, however, I found myself suddenly looking up into a dashingly handsome face, partially shadowed under his wintry war helm. With his lance raised to pierce the arc of the sun, he seemed immortally, disdainfully indifferent to the cloak of snow and the icicles gathered on his shoulders.
Known in his time as the “Fox of Dewa” for his political and military cunning, Yoshiaki was also a man who knew deep personal tragedy. His daughter Koma-hime was supposedly the most beautiful young woman in all the northeast; for this, she was desired as a concubine by Toyotomi Hidetsugu, the Imperial Regent and nephew to the great Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the military dictator of Japan. Yoshiaki opposed this arrangement from the start, but he could not long resist the Regent’s demands, and in the end, he sent his daughter down to the capital to become Hidetsugu’s concubine.
Disaster struck soon after. Hidetsugu became implicated in a treasonous conspiracy, for which his powerful uncle arrested him and forced him to commit suicide. The dictator then set about purging Hidetsugu’s allies, friends, and other close associates in a wave of executions, including Hidetsugu’s wife, children, and concubines. Though Koma-hime had only just arrived in Kyoto and hadn’t even met Hidetsugu yet, she was arrested along with the others and paraded through the streets to the place of execution. Once there, she beheld Hidetsugu’s severed head on display—the very first and last time she would ever see the man’s face. Then she was made to kneel and was beheaded, along with the rest of Hidestugu’s women, and buried in a mass grave marked as “The Tomb of Traitors.” She was fifteen years old.
Her senseless death plunged Lord Yoshiaki into grief. He never forgave the Toyotomi Regime for killing her, and five years later he joined forces with their enemies in the Sekigahara campaign, which finally wrenched the country from the Toyotomi’s grasp and put the Tokugawa Clan in power. The victorious Tokugawa rewarded Yoshiaki for his aid by increasing his lands, making his domain among the largest and wealthiest in the entire country.
From grieving father to honored vassal, Yoshiaki saw his fates careen between some of the best and worst that a lord of his era could know. By the time of his death in 1614, he had managed to make the most of Fortune’s gifts, spurring the growth of his castle town into what would one day become Yamagata City and securing for himself and his clan a legacy that lasts to the present day.