Oshu Fujiwara clan (奥州藤原氏)

The Oshu Fujiwara clan was the clan whose power stretched over the entire Tohoku region, which centered on Hiraizumi in Mutsu Province (later Rikuchu Province) and included Dewa Province, from 1087 after the Zenkunen War (the Early Nine Years' War) and the Gosannen War (the Later Three Years' War) to 1189, when it was destroyed by MINAMOTO no Yoritomo. It was a local ruling family which claimed to be the descendants of FUJIWARA no Hidesato, who had quelled the Johei and Tengyo Wars.

Origin of the Oshu Fujiwara clan

According to some genealogies, FUJIWARA no Yorito, a remote ancestor of the Oshu Fujiwara clan, was "Taro (a word used to express the first, biggest or best things) Taihu (officers whose rank were Goi [Fifth Rank] or above), a resident of Shimousa Province," but it is not clear how and why he moved to Mutsu Province (later, Rikuchu Province). However, from the fact that Yorito bore no official title while his father, FUJIWARA no Masayori, was titled Jugoinoge (Junior Fifth Rank, Lower Grade), it is inferred that Yorito was demoted to Mutsu Province by the Imperial Court for his having taken Tadatsune's side during the revolt of TAIRA no Tadatsune and became an official of Taga no Kou (the provincial office in Mutsu Province). Yet, there is an opposing opinion to it, which claims that it is unthinkable that Yorito was punished for his implication in Tadatsune's revolt on the ground that even Tadatsune's sons were not punished on this occasion.

At the time of Yorito's son, FUJIWARA no Tsunekiyo (Gon no daibu [a provisional master] of the Watari region), the clan managed a shoen (a manor in medieval Japan) in the Watari region, which is the implication of the expansion of the clan's power. Additionally, Tsunekiyo married a daughter of ABE no Yoritoki, a member of the local ruling family who controlled Okuroku-gun (six counties in the middle of Mutsu Province) in Mutsu Province, to form a relative alliance with them and took charge of the south side defense of the Abe clan's family territory. There is a theory which says that he had worked as shurishiki (a government officer responsible for the construction and repair of buildings in the Imperial Palace) in Kyoto for several years since 1040 on the recommendation of kokufu (a provincial office) and that he returned to his hometown accompanying Mutsu no Kami (the governor of Mutsu Province), FUJIWARA no Narito.

The question whether the Oshu Fujiwara clan was actually related to the Fujiwara clan had not been settled for a long time. However, a recent study has identified the name "FUJIWARA no Tsunekiyo" on the list of the names of the Fujiwara clan members whose official ranks were Goi (Fifth Rank) or above, written in 'Zo Kofuku-ji ki' (the document about the reconstruction of Kofuku-ji Temple) made in 1047. Moreover, in this document, Tsunekiyo was treated on an equal basis with FUJIWARA no Tokisada, who resided in Mutsu Province around the time and later became Gon no kami (a provisional governor). From these facts, although whether the Oshu Fujiwara clan was in fact related to the Fujiwara clan is still not clear, at least it was validated that the Sekke family (a lineage of regents and advisers, namely the Fujiwara clan at that time) recognized Tsunekiyo as someone who had a relation to the Fujiwara clan (Kofuku-ji Temple was an uji-dera temple [a temple built to pray for a clan's glory] of the Sekke family). It is also thought that Tsunekiyo was an influential person in Watari County who was titled Goi (Fifth Rank) and that it is very likely that he was a candidate for Gon no kami (a provisional governor) of Mutsu Province among zaichokanjin (locally hired government officials during the Heian period), although there are no historical materials that can validate it for sure.

Prehistory of the appearance of the Oshu Fujiwara clan

In and after the Yayoi period, people who belonged to the Jomon culture (an ancient culture in Japan) or the Satsumon culture (an ancient culture in Hokkaido) continually moved southward from Hokkaido to settle in the Tohoku region; therefore, historically the Tohoku region followed a different path from that of the region south of Kanto. Although the central government had less control there than in the south of the Kanto region, it set up Mutsu and Dewa Provinces in the area during the era ruled under the ritsuryo system. There, descendants of Ezo (peoples formerly of northern Japan with a distinct language and culture) called "Fushu" and those who had moved from the region south of Kanto were mixed in together and having their lives.

During the middle of the eleventh century, two powerful families existed in the area; the Abe clan (Oshu [Mutsu province]) ruled Mutsu Province, and the Dewa Kiyohara clan ruled Dewa Province. Both Abe and Kiyohara clans were the families who were descended from Fushu; they were, so to speak, descendants of aboriginal peoples of the Tohoku region. Then, one of them, the Abe clan, started a fight against kokushi (provincial officers dispatched by the central government) of Mutsu Province, and MINAMOTO no Yoriyoshi from Kawachi-Genji (the Minamoto clan) intervened in it; this led to the battle known as the Zenkunen War (the Early Nine Years' War), which continued for as many as twelve years in total. The Abe clan maintained superiority during the most time of the Zenkunen War; however, at the final stage, MINAMOTO no Yoriyoshi won the Kiyohara clan over to his side and defeated the Abe clan, and thus the war ended.

During the first half of the Zenkunen War, Yoritoki was the head of the Abe clan. Yoritoki was killed in battle in 1057, and his son, Sadato ABE, was defeated and killed in 1062 either, but the bloodline of ABE no Yoritoki did not die out. One of Yoritoki's daughters had married Tsunekiyo, the aforementioned local ruler of Watari County. Tsunekiyo was also captured and decapitated by Yoriyoshi when the Abe clan was destroyed, but his wife (that is, a daughter of Yoritoki) remarried KIYOHARA no Takesada, the first son of KIYOHARA no Takenori who had joined the war with three times as much military power as Yoriyoshi's and so immensely contributed to Yoriyoshi's victory. On this occasion, Tsunekiyo's son (Yoritoki's grandchild) was brought with the daughter of Yoritoki and adopted by Takesada, and was called KIYOHARA no Kiyohira when he grew up.

In 1083, an internal conflict broke out between KIYOHARA no Sanehira (a son of Takesada) who had succeeded to the family head of the Kiyohara clan, Kiyohira, and KIYOHARA no Iehira, a younger brother by a different father. MINAMOTO no Yoshiie, an heir of MINAMOTO no Yoriyoshi, intervened in it, and partly because of the death of KIYOHARA no Sanehira, once the conflict was settled. Nevertheless, shortly after six counties in the possession of the Kiyohara clan were divided between Kiyohira and Iehira under the rule of Yoshiie so that each could inherit three counties, Iehira, dissatisfied with this decision, took up arms against Kiyohira. Yoshiie again intervened in the war, took Kiyohira's side and defeated Iehira. This series of internal conflicts is known as the Gosannen War (the Later Three Years' War).

After the deaths of Sanehira and Iehira, Kiyohira inherited the territories of the Kiyohara clan. Kiyohira renamed himself FUJIWARA no Kiyohira, adopting his real father's family name, Fujiwara. This is how the Oshu Fujiwara clan began.

Establishment of the rule by the Fujiwara clan

Kiyohira never missed paying tributes or offerings, such as gold and horses, to the Imperial Court and the Sekke family (a lineage of regents and advisers). Because of this, the Imperial Court trusted the Oshu Fujiwara clan and permitted them actual control over the Oshu region. Behind this decision of the Imperial Court, there was a situation where the Imperial Court had no time to deal with affairs in the Oshu region because the political strife between the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan had arisen inside the Imperial Court. However, it is believed that it happened more likely due to the attitude of the Oshu Fujiwara clan that it tried to move forward the ruling of the Oshu region according to the principal of local control of the central government. The Oshu Fujiwara clan had never changed its attitude throughout its life that it would never refuse to accept kokushi (provincial officers) dispatched from the central government and cooperate with them as the most influential clan in the Oshu region.

Thus, the Oshu region incurred no effect from the political strife which occurred in the Imperial Court, and even during the middle of the Genpei War, the Oshu Fujiwara clan enjoyed a peace through which it established independent politics and culture backed by its political neutrality and huge military forces, which is said to have reached 170,000 cavalry.

Additionally, FUJIWARA no Motohira formed a friendly relationship with FUJIWARA no Motonari, who was one of close aides of the cloistered emperor and had been sent as Mutsu no Kami (the governor of Mutsu Province), and had Motonari's daughter marry Hidehira (Motohira's son); thus he expanded his influence on the cloistered emperor. It is inferred that Motonari and Motohira brought strong pressure on the cloistered emperor from the fact that most kokushi (provincial officers) who were sent from the central government afterward were close relatives of Motonari.

Some take the view that the original political system developed by the Oshu Fujiwara clan influenced the Kamakura shogunate.

In addition to Hidehira holding the position of Chinjufu Shogun (Commander-in-Chief of the Defense of the North), successive members of the Oshu Fujiwara clan inherited the position of Oryoshi (a government post responsible for policing and military affairs): Kiyohira became the Oryoshi of Mutsu Province; Motohira, the Oryoshi of the Six Counties of Mutsu Province and Dewa Province; and Yasuhira, the Oryoshi of Dewa Province and Mutsu Province. In this way, the Oshu-Fujiwara clan gained permission to officially command its forces, which was the ruling principle of the Oshu Fujiwara clan. Additionally, seemingly the Oshu Fujiwara clan was entrusted with the management of shoen (manors in medieval Japan) of the Sekke family located in the Oshu region. It is said that there were many copies of administrative documents, such as shocho (account books or registers managed by central administrative offices) concerning Mutsu and Dewa Provinces and tabumi (registers of areas or ownerships of rice fields), left in Hiraizumi at the end of the Oshu Fujiwara clan. By the rule, however, these documents were to be maintained in a kokuga (an ancient provincial government office). These facts suggest that Hiraizumi was as strong an administrative city as a kokuga.

On the other hand, based on the fact that there were many local ruling families which were empowered to rule their local lands as gokenin (immediate vassals of the shogunate) in Dewa Province even after the battle of Oshu, some point out the difference in the influence of the Oshu Fujiwara clan between Mutsu and Dewa Provinces—local lords in Mutsu Province had been vassalized by the Oshu Fujiwara family, while it was merely allowed military command as Oryoshi in Dewa Province. Especially in the northern part of Dewa Province, there were no shoen but only koryo (public lands), so some people say it cannot be asserted that the Oshu Fujiwara clan extended its power this far in the region.

Its political power based on gold which was mined abundantly in the Oshu region and trade between northern part of Japan and Northern Song Dynasty China. Also, it is thought that it independently traded with foreign countries such as the Northern Song Dynasty and Enkaishu (Russian Maritime Provinces). Some researchers believe that the image of the golden country of Jipang, which is mentioned in "The Travels of Marco Polo," was brought about through trade with the Asian continent through the port of Tosaminato by the Oshu-Fujiwara clan (later the Ando clan).

Hiraizumi culture

In 1105, Kiyohira built Saisho-in Temple (later Chuson-ji Temple) in his base, Hiraizumi.

In 1117, Motohira restored Motsu-ji Temple. Afterward, Motohira continued the construction of Motsu-ji Temple, and finally the magnificent scale of its temple structures and garden was said to exceed those of temples in Kyoto. It is said that the statue of Yakushi Nyorai (the Healing Buddha) made by Unkei, a sculptor of Buddhist statues, to the order of Motohira who intended to make it the honzon (a principal object of worship at a temple) of Motsu-ji Temple was so marvelous that the Emperor Toba attempted to arrogate it to make it the honzon of the temple he had built.

In 1124, Kiyohira built Konjikido (Golden Hall) of Chuson-ji Temple. With its roof, internal walls and pillars all coated with gold, it is said to be the symbol of political and financial power of the Oshu Fujiwara clan.

The Oshu Fujiwara clan prospered over a hundred years for four generations, FUJIWARA no Kiyohira, FUJIWARA no Motohira, FUJIWARA no Hidehira, and FUJIWARA no Yasuhira; and Hiraizumi became the second biggest city in Japan next to Heiankyo (ancient Kyoto). Hiraizumi continued to develop in contrary to Kyoto, where battles incessantly went on.

Even in the present age, this Hiraizumi culture was quoted as the symbol of the culture of the Tohoku region in the Diet when the gaffe committed by the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Osaka Prefecture (an inappropriate remark on residents of the Tohoku region calling them "Kumaso" [a discriminatory word which originally means the tribes who lived in the ancient Kyushu district]) was discussed.


Hidehira sheltered MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune, a son of MINAMOTO no Yoshitomo who had lost in the Heiji war. In 1185, Hidehira sheltered Yoshitsune again when Yoshitsune was pursued by MINAMOTO no Yoritomo.

Hidehira had refused Yoritomo's demand for the surrender of Yoshitsune, but Yasuhira, a son of Hidehira, could not refuse the demand any longer after Hidehira's death. In May 1189, Yasuhira attacked and made Yoshitune commit suicide, and sought to reconcile with Yoritomo by delivering Yoshitune's head to Yoritomo.

However, being afraid that independent political power existed to the north of the Kanto region, in August that year, MINAMOTO no Yoritomo dispatched his troops to the Oshu region, officially accusing the clan of having sheltered Yoshitsune for a long time. At Nienosaku (Kazuno, Akita Prefecture), FUJIWARA no Yasuhira was rebelled and killed by his vassals; thus, the Oshu Fujiwara clan ended.

The causes of the downfall of the Oshu Fujiwara clan were that the Minamoto clan strengthened its power through the downfall of the Taira clan, and that it failed to maintain its neutrality because Yoshitune, who had had a close relation with the clan, became opposed to Yoritomo.

Members of the Oshu Fujiwara clan

FUJIWARA no Kiyotsuna (Gonjuro WATARI), the fourth son of Kiyohira, resided in Nakajima Yakata (a castle) in Watari County at first and later relocated to Hiraizumi. Kiyotsuna's son resided in Hizume (written as 樋爪 or 比爪) Yakata in Hizume in Shiwa County and called himself Taro Toshihira HIZUME, adopting "Hizume" as his family name. During the battle of Oshu, the Hizume clan set fire to their own castle after Hiraizumi fell and went underground, but the family head Toshihira HIZUME and some others presented themselves in the military camp of Yoritomo at Jingaoke and surrendered. Toshihira kept chanting the Hokke-kyo Sutra sincerely without saying a word during the interrogation by Yoritomo and surrendered his life. Judging his behavior to be righteous and also considered his advanced age, Yoritomo approved his continuous possession of the territories of the Hizume clan. However, Toshihira vanished from the center stage of history after that. His children and younger brothers were also exiled to Sagami Province or other places.

Takahira, the fourth son of FUJIWARA no Hidehira, was exiled to Sagami Province too after he surrendered, and took the same path as the Hizume family clan. In this way, all the members of the Oshu Fujiwara clan were punished.

Meanwhile, Watari Go (Watari County), which the Oshu Fujiwara clan had controlled for generations since FUJIWARA no Tsunekiyo (Gon no daibu [a provisional master] of the Watari region), was put under the rule of Tanemori CHIBA, a staff officer of Yoritomo, after the fall of Kiyotsuna (Gonjuro WATARI).

Otowakohime, a daughter of Kiyotsuna, married Motoharu SATO, the Shoji (an administrator of a manor) of Shinobu County. Afterward, she resided in Otori-jo Castle in the Shinobu County (presently, Tate no Yama Park near Iizaka Hot Springs in Fukushima City), mothering the brothers of Tsugunobu and Tadanobu SATO (vassals of Yoshitsune). They were one of the roots of the family name "Sato" in Japan.

FUJIWARA no Hidehisa, a younger brother of FUJIWARA no Hidehira, moved out to reside in the Tosaminato region, and started a branch family known as the Tosa clan (the Tosa-Fujiwara clan). The Tosa clan remained there during the Kamakura period until they were defeated by the Ando clan in 1229, at which point Hidenao TOSA was the head of the Tosa clan.

[Original Japanese]