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"Be a Friendly Neighbor"

The castle town of Kiyosu was now deserted. There were few shops and samurai residences. Nevertheless, through that very desolation there shone the satisfaction of shedding a skin. It is a principle of all living things: once the womb has carried out its function, it must be content to decay and fall away. And very much in this way, it was a joy to everyone that Nobunaga was not going to be trapped forever in his hometown, even if it meant the town's decline.

And here, such a woman who had given birth was growing old. This was Hideyoshi's mother. She would be fifty this year. For the moment she was peacefully tending to her old age, living with her daughter-in-law, Nene, at their house in the samurai district of Kiyosu. But until two or three years before she had been a farmer, and the joints of her earth-chapped hands were still calloused. Having given birth to four children, she was missing many of her teeth. Her hair, however, was still not all white.

One letter that Hideyoshi wrote to her from the field was typical of many:

How is your hip? Are you still using moxa? When we lived on the farm you always said, "Don't waste food on me," no matter what it was. So even here I worry that you're not eating properly. You must live a long life. I'm worried that I won't have time to take care of you as I'd like, because I'm such a dunce. Happily, I have not been sick here. My fate as a warrior seems to be blessed, and His Lordship holds me in high regard.

After the invasion of Mino, it would be difficult to count the letters he sent.

"Nene, read this. He always writes like a child." Hideyoshi's mother said to Nene.

Every time, his mother would show the letters to her daughter-in-law, and Nene would show the old lady the letters that came to her.

"The letters he sends to me aren't nearly as tender. It's always things like 'Be careful of fire,' or 'Be a dutiful wife when your husband is away,' or 'Look after my mother.'"

"That boy is clever. He sends a letter to you and one to me; one strict, the other tender. So I guess he divides his letter writing just right when you consider that he covers both sides."

"That must be it," Nene said, laughing. She looked after her husband's mother with devotion. She did her best to serve her as though she, like Otsumi, were her natural daughter. Above all other things, however, the old lady's pleasure came from Hideyoshis letters. Just at the point when they were worrying because they hadn't received one for a long time, a letter arrived from Sunomata. For some reason, however, this letter was just for his wife, with nothing addressed to his mother.

Sometimes letters from Hideyoshi came just to his mother, with nothing for his wife. His messages to her were ordinarily just postscripts to the letters to his mother. He had never sent one strictly to his wife until today. Nene suddenly thought that something must be wrong, or that there was something he did not want to worry his mother about. Going into her own room and cutting open the envelope, she found an unusually long letter:

For a long time it has been my hope that I could have you and my mother living here with me. Now that I have finally become the lord of a castle and have been awarded ageneral's standard by His Lordship, the situation is tolerable enough to invite my mother to Sunomata. I wonder, however, if it wouldn't discomfort her. She was concerned before that her presence would be a burden to me in my service to His Lordship. She has also always said that she is just an old farm woman, and that this life would be far beyond her status. For this reason, she is certain to refuse with some exccuse, even if I ask her.

What should I say? Nene had no idea. She thought that her husband's implied request was grave, indeed.

Just then the old lady's voice called to her from the rear of the house. "Nene! Nene Come here for a moment and look!"

"Coming!" Again today she was hoeing the earth around the roots of the autum eggplants. It was afternoon and still rather hot. Even the clods of earth in the garden were hot. Sweat shone on her hands.

"My goodness! In this heat?" Nene said.

But the old lady always replied that that was what farm people liked to do, and not to worry. No matter how many times Nene heard this, however, since she did not have farmer's upbringing and did not know the real flavor of farming, to her it had always looked like nothing more than backbreaking work. Still, she had recently felt that she was beginning to understand, at least a little, why her husband's mother was unable to stop working.

The old lady often referred to crops as "the gifts of the earth." The fact that she had been able to raise four children in great poverty and that she herself had not starved to death was one of those gifts. In the morning she clapped her hands toward the sun in prayer and said that this, too, was a habit from her time in Nakamura. She would not forget her former life.

Occasionally she said that if she suddenly became used to gorgeous clothes and sumptuous meals and forgot the blessings of the sun and earth, she would certainly be punished and become sick.

"Oh, Nene, look at this!" As soon as she saw her daughter-in-law, Hideyoshi's mother put the mattock down and pointed happily at her work. "Look at how many of the eggplants are ripe. We'll pickle them so we can eat them this winter. Bring the baskets over, and let's pick a few now."

When Nene returned, she gave one of the two baskets to her mother-in-law. As she began picking eggplants and putting them into the baskets, she said, "With all your hard work we're going to have enough vegetables for all the soup and pickles the house will need."

"I imagine the shops we patronize are going to be annoyed."

"Well, the servants say you enjoy it, and that it's good for your health. And it's certainly economical, so it must be a good thing."

"It won't be good for Hideyoshi's reputation if people think we're doing it just to be stingy. We'll just have to try to buy something else from the merchants so they won't think that way."

"Yes, let's do that. Well, Mother, I feel badly speaking about this, but a letter arrived from Sunomata just a little while ago."

"Oh? From my son?"

"Yes but this time it wasn't addressed to you; it came just for me."

"Either way is just fine. Well, is everything as usual? Is he all right? We haven't received any news for a while, and I thought this must be due to His Lordship moving to Gifu."

"That's right. In the letter he asked me to tell you that His Lordship has made him the governor of a castle, so he thinks the time is right for us to join him. He asked me to persuade you to come, and said that you should definitely move to Sunomata Castle in a few days' time."

"Oh that's wonderful news. That he should become the lord of a castle is like a dream, but he shouldn't go too far and overstep himself."

As she listened to happy news about her son, her mother's heart worried lest his good fortune should prove to be short-lived. The old lady and her daughter-in-law worked together in the garden, picking eggplants. Soon the baskets were full of the bright purple vegetables.

"Mother, doesn't your back hurt?"

"What? Why, to the contrary. If I work bit by bit like this all day, my body stays fit."

"I'm learning from you, too. Since you've let me help you in the garden off and on, Ive learned to enjoy picking the greens for the soup in the mornings, and working with he cucumbers and eggplants. Even after we move to Sunomata Castle, there's bound to be a place somewhere on the grounds to plant a vegetable patch. We'll be able to work all we want."

The old lady covered her mouth with her earth-stained hand and chuckled. "You're just as clever as Hideyoshi. You decided to move to Sunomata even before I knew what was happening."

"Mother." Nene prostrated herself, pressing her fingertips to the earth. "Please grant my husband's wish!" The old lady hastily took Nene's hands and tried to put them to her forehead.

"Don't do that! I'm just a selfish old woman."

"No, you're not. I understand your thoughtfulness very well."

"Please don't get mad at an old lady's willfulness. It's for that boy's sake that I dont want to go to Sunomata. And so he won't be lacking in his service to His Lordship."

"My husband understands that well."

"Even if that's true, Hideyoshi will be among people jealous of his early success, an they'll call him things like 'the monkey from Nakamura,' or 'the son of a farmer,' if shabby farm woman is working a vegetable plot in the middle of the castle grounds. Eve his own retainers will laugh at him."

"No, Mother. You're worrying about the future needlessly. That might be for someone whose character it is to dress up appearances and to worry about what people say but my husband's heart is not controlled by public censure. And as for his retainers"

"I wonder. The mother of a castle lord who looks like mewouldn't it harm his reputation?"

"My husband's character is not that small." Nene's words were so frank that the old lady was surprised, and finally her eyes filled with tears of joy.

"I've said unpardonable things. Nene, please forgive me."

"Well, Mother, the sun's going down. Wash your hands and feet." Nene walked ahead carrying the two heavy baskets.

Together with the servants, Nene took a broom and swept. She was especially diligent in the old lady's room, which she cleaned herself. The lamps were lit, and the dishes for the evening meal prepared. In addition to places for the two of them, a place was set both morning and evening for Hideyoshi.

"Shall I massage your hip?" Nene asked.

The old lady had a chronic condition that troubled her from time to time. When the evening winds blew in the early fall, she often complained of the pain. As Nene massaged her legs for her, the old lady seemed to slip gently into sleep, but during that time she must have been thinking something over. Finally she sat up and spoke to Nene.

"Listen, my dear. You want to be reunited with your husband. I'm sorry to have been so selfish. Tell my son that his mother would like to move to Sunomata."

The day before Hideyoshi's mother was due to arrive, an unexpected but very welcome guest came through the gate of Sunomata. The guest was dressed in plain clothes with a sedge hat pulled over his eyes, and was accompanied by only two attendants, young woman and a boy.

When he sees me, he'll understand," the man said to the guard, who relayed word to Hideyoshi.

Hideyoshi hurried out to the castle gate to greet his guests, Takenaka Hanbei, Kokuma, and Oyu.

"These are my only followers," Hanbei told him. "I have a fair-sized household living in my castle on Mount Bodai, but I cut my ties with them when I withdrew from the world. As for my previous promise to you, my lord, I thought that perhaps the time had come, so I left my mountain retreat and came down to be among men once again. Would you please take in these three wanderers as the lowest of your attendants?"

Hideyoshi bowed with his hands to his knees and said, "You are much too modest. If you had sent me just a note beforehand, I would have come to the mountain myself to greet you."

"What? You'd come to greet a worthless mountain ronin who has come to serve you?"

"Well, anyway, please come in." Leading the way, he beckoned Hanbei inside; but when Hideyoshi tried to give him the seat of honor, Hanbei absolutely refused, saying, That would be contrary to my intention of being your retainer."

Hideyoshi responded with his innermost feelings. "No, no. I don't have the talent to place myself over you. I'm thinking of recommending you to Lord Nobunaga."

Hanbei shook his head and refused adamantly. "As I said from the very first, I haven't the least intention of serving Lord Nobunaga. And it isn't just a matter of loyalty to the Saito clan. If I were to serve Lord Nobunaga, it would not be long before I would be forced to leave his service. When I consider my own imperfect personality together with what I have heard about his character, my intuition is that a master-retainer relationship would not be mutually beneficial. But with you I don't have to temper my disposition, you can tolerate my innate selfishness and willfulness. I'd like you to consider me the lowest of your retainers."

"Well, then, will you teach strategy not just to me but to all my retainers?"

With that, the two men seemed to arrive at a compromise, and that night they shared sake, talking happily until a late hour, with no thought of the time. The next day was the day of Hideyoshi's mother's arrival at Sunomata. Accompanied by attendants, he traveled a little more than a league from the castle to the outskirts of the village of Masaki to greet his mother's palanquin.

There was an azure sky, the chrysanthemums at the rough-woven fences around the people's houses gave off their fragrance, and shrikes sang their shrill songs in the branches of the ginkgo trees.

"Your honored mother's procession has come into view," announced a retainer.

Hideyoshi's face shone with a pleasure he was unable to conceal. His wife's and mother's palanquins finally arrived. When the escorting samurai saw their master coming out to greet them, they immediately dismounted. Hachisuka Hikoemon quickly drew near to the side of the old lady's palanquin and informed her that Hideyoshi had come to neet her.

Inside the palanquin, the voice of the old lady could be heard asking them to let her down. The palanquins were brought to a halt and lowered to the ground. The warriors knelt at either side of the road and bowed. Nene got out first and, going over to the old lady's palanquin, took her hand. When she glanced at the face of the samurai who had quickly placed straw sandals at the old woman's feet, she saw that it was Hideyoshi.

Deeply moved and with no time to say a word, Nene greeted her husband with a quick glance.

Taking her son's hand, the old lady pressed it to her forehead reverently and said, "As the lord of a castle, you are much too gracious. Please don't be so solicitous in front of your retainers."

"I'm relieved to see that you look so healthy. You tell me not to be solicitous, but, Mother, my very own Mother, I did not come out to greet you today as a samurai. Please don't worry."

The old lady stepped out of the palanquin. The other samurai had all prostrated themselves on the ground, and she felt too dazed to walk.

"You must be tired," Hideyoshi said. "Rest here for a little while. It's no more than a league to the castle." Taking his mother by the hand, he led her to a stool under the eaves of a house. The old lady sat down and gazed at the autumn sky that spread above the solid yellow line of ginkgo trees.

"It's just like a dream," she whispered. The words made Hideyoshi reflect on the years. He was unable to feel that this moment was like a dream. He saw very clearly the steps connecting the present reality and the past. And he felt that this moment was a natural milestone in his career.

The following month, after Hideyoshi's mother and wife had moved to Sunomata, they were followed by his twenty-nine-year-old sister, Otsumi, his twenty-three-year-old half brother, Kochiku, and his twenty-year-old half sister.

Otsumi was still unmarried. Long before, Hideyoshi had promised that if she looked after their mother, when he became successful, he would find her a husband. The following year, Otsumi married a relative of Hideyoshi's wife in the castle.

"They've all grown up," Hideyoshi said to his mother, looking at the satisfaction in her face. This was his happiness, and his great incentive for the future.

It was late spring. Cherry blossoms fell in profusion from the eaves onto the armrest on which Nobunaga was napping.

Ah that's right." Recalling something, Nobunaga quickly jotted down a note and had a messenger take it to Sunomata. Because Hideyoshi had become the lord of a castle, he was no longer on hand to respond immediately whenever Nobunaga called, and this seemed to make his lord a little lonely.

Crossing the large Kiso River, Nobunaga's messenger delivered the note to the gate of Hideyoshi's castle. Here, too, the spring had passed peacefully, and the flowers of the mountain wisteria swayed in the shade of the artificial hill in the garden. Behind this hill, on the edge of the wide garden, were a newly built lecture hall and a small house for Takenaka Hanbei and Oyu.

The lecture hall was a dojo where Hideyoshi's retainers could practice the martial arts. With Takenaka Hanbei as their teacher, the retainers were lectured on the Chinese classics in he morning, and vied with one another in techniques of the spear and sword in the afternoon.

Later Hanbei would lecture on the military precepts of Sun Tzu and Wu Chi late into the night. Hanbei applied himself zealously to the education of all the young samurai in order to discipline them in the martial habits and customs of the castle; most of Hideyoshi's retainers were the wild ronin who had once been members of Hikoemon's band.

Hideyoshi knew that he had to work constantly to improve himself, to overcome his faults, and to increase his capacity for self-reflection, and he was determined that his samurai must be made to do the same. If he was to play an important role in future, retainers armed with brute strength alone were not going to be useful. Hideyoshi was anxious about this. Thus, along with embracing Hanbei as a retainer, he also bowed to him as his own teacher and looked up to him as his instructor in military science, and entrusted to him the education of his retainers.

Martial discipline improved greatly. When Hanbei lectured on Sun Tzu or the Chinese classics, men like Hikoemon could always be seen on the listener's platform. The only problem was that Hanbei was not very robust. Because of that, the lectures were canceled from time to time, and the retainers were disappointed. Today, too, he had exerted himself during the day and said that he was canceling the evening lectures. When evening came, he quickly had the sliding doors of the house shut.

The evening wind from the upper reaches of the Kiso River chilled Hanbei's weak constitution all the more, even though the season was late spring.

"I've laid out your bed inside. Why don't you sleep?" Oyu placed a medicinal decoction next to his desk. Hanbei was reading, his usual occupation when he had some leisure time.

"No, it's not so much that I feel bad. I canceled the lecture because I think a summons may come from Lord Hideyoshi. Rather than preparations for bed, arrange my clothing so that if there is a call, I can go out quickly."

"Is that it? Is there a meeting in the castle tonight?"

"Not at all." Hanbei sipped the hot decoction. "A little while ago when you closed the door, you yourself told me that a boat with a messenger's flag from Gifu had crossed the river, and that someone was coming toward the castle gate."

"Is that what you're talking about?"

"If it's a message from Gifu for Lord Hideyoshi, there's no limit to what or where this business may lead. Even if I'm not summoned, I can hardly loosen my sash and sleep."

"The lord of this castle respects you as his teacher, and you venerate him as your lord, so I hardly know whose respect is greater. Are you really so resolved to serve this man?"

Smiling, Hanbei shut his eyes and turned his face toward the ceiling. "I guess it's finally come to that. It's a frightening thing for a man to be trusted by another. I could never be led astray by the beauty of a woman." Just as he was saying this, a messenger arrived from the keep. He announced Hideyoshi's request that Hanbei come quickly, and left. Shortly thereafter a page came before Hideyoshi, who was alone in quiet contemplation, and made an announcement. "Master Hanbei has come."

Hideyoshi looked up from his musings and quickly left the room to welcome Hanbei. The two returned to the room and sat down.

"I'm sorry to have called you here in the middle of the night. How do you feel?"

Hanbei looked squarely at Hideyoshi, who, for his part, was apparently going to treat him as his teacher to the very end. "This consideration is uncalled for. If you, my lord, speak to me like that, how am I going to be able to respond? Why don't you say something like, 'Oh, it's you, Hanbei'? I think this kind of solicitude toward a retainer is inappropriate."

"Really? Well, do you suppose this is no good for our relationship?"

"I just didn't think my lord should respect someone like me the way you do."

"Why not?" Hideyoshi laughed. "I'm uneducated, and you're quite learned. I was born in the country, and you're the son of the lord of a castle. Anyway, I think of you as my superior."

"If that's the way it's to be, I'm going to be more careful from now on."

"All right, all right," Hideyoshi said playfully. "We'll gradually become lord and retainer. If I become an even greater man."

For the lord of a castle, he was going to extraordinary lengths not to stand on his own dignity. In fact, he was willing to stand completely naked before Hanbei in terms of his own foolishness and ignorance.

"Well, then, why did you summon me, my lord?" Hanbei asked politely.

"Oh, yes," Hideyoshi said, suddenly recalling the object of their meeting. "I've just received a letter from Lord Nobunaga. This is what it says: 'With a little leisure, I've suddenly grown bored even with the prize of Gifu. The wind and clouds are peaceful, and I would like to look at them once again. The beauties of nature have still not become my friends What shall we do about this year's plans?' How do you suppose I should answer it?"

"Well, the meaning is clear, so you should be able to answer it with a single line."

"Hm. I understand it, but how could I answer it in a single line?"

"Be a friendly neighbor; make plans for the future."

'"Be a friendly neighbor; make plans for the future'?"

"That's it."

"Hm. I see."

"I suspect that Lord Nobunaga is thinking that, having taken Gifu, this year is the time to put his internal administration in order, rest his troops, and wait for another day, Hanbei said.

"I'm sure that's what his plans are, but with his disposition, he can't just let the day pass in idleness. That's why he sent this letter asking about policy."

"Planning for the future, allying himself with his neighborsI think the present is probably a splendid opportunity for that."

"So?" Hideyoshi asked.

'It's just my humble opinion, because you, rather than I, are the one who is said to be capable in so many areas. First, answer with just one line: 'Be friendly with neighbor; make plans for the future.' Then, at a convenient moment, go to Gifu Castie and explain your plan in person."

Why don't we each write down which province we think it would be best for the Oda to ally itself with, and then compare to see if we're thinking the same thing?"

Hanbei wrote something first, and then Hideyoshi put the brush to a piece of paper.

When they exchanged the papers and unfolded them, they found that they had both Written "Takeda of Kai," and they broke out in laughter, delighted that they were both thinking along the same lines.

The lamps were bright in the guest room. The messenger from Gifu was given the seat of honor, and Hideyoshi's mother and wife were also in attendance. When Hideyoshi took his seat, the lamps seemed suddenly even more cheerful and the room more lively.

Nene thought that her husband seemed to be drinking a good bit more sake these days, at least compared with the past. She watched his easy attitude throughout the banquet as though she saw nothing at all. He was entertaining his guest, making his mother laugh, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. Even Hanbei, who never drank, put the sake cup to his lips and sipped a little to toast Hideyoshi.

Others joined the banquet, and it soon became quite boisterous. When his mother and Nene had retired, Hideyoshi walked outside to sober up. The blossoms of the young cherry trees had already fallen, and only the fragrance of the mountain wisteria filled the night.

"Ah! Who's that under the trees?" Hideyoshi called out.

"It's me," replied a woman's voice.

"Oyu, what are you doing here?"

"My brother is so late in coming back, and he's so weak, I was worried."

"It's a wonderful thing to see such a beautiful relationship between brother and sister."

Hideyoshi walked up to her side. She was about to prostrate herself, but he caught her hands. "Oyu, let's walk over to the teahouse over there. I'm so drunk that I'm not sure of my footing. I'd like you to make me a bowl of tea."

"My goodness! My hands! This isn't right. Please let go."

"It's all right. Don't worry."

"You-you shouldn't be doing this."

"It's really all right."

"Please!"

"Why are you being so noisy? Please whisper. You're being cruel."

"This is not right!"

At that moment Hanbei called out. He was on his way back to his house. When Hideyoshi saw him, he immediately let go of Oyu. Hanbei stared at him in amazement. "My lord, what kind of drunken craziness is this?"

Hideyoshi slapped his head with his hand. Then, either laughing at his own foolishness or at his lack of elegance, he opened his mouth wide and said, "Yes, well, what's wrong? This is 'being friendly with neighbors and planning for the future.' Don't worry about it."

Summer turned to fall. One day Hikoemon came with a message for Hanbei, requesting that Oyu become a lady-in-waiting for Hideyoshi's mother. When Oyu heard the request, she shrank in fear. She burst into tears. That was her answer to Hideyoshi's request.

A tea bowl that has no imperfections is said to be lacking in beauty, and Hideyoshi's character, too, was not without blemish. Though the elegance of a tea bowl, or even human frailty itself, may be interesting to contemplate, from a woman's point of view this flaw cannot be "interesting" at all. When his sister broke into tears just at the mention of the matter, Hanbei thought her refusal was reasonable, and conveyed it to Hikoemon.

Autumn, too, passed without incident. In Gifu, the principle of "being a friendly neighbor and planning for the future" was put into practice. For the Oda clan, the Takeda of Kai had always been a threat at the rear. Arrangements were soon made for Nobunaga's daughter to be married to Takeda Shingen's son, Katsuyori. The bride was a young girl of thirteen and an incomparable beauty. She had been adopted, however, and was not one of Nobunaga's natural daughters. Nevertheless, after the marriage ceremony, it seemed that Shingen was extraordinarily pleased with her, and the union was soon blessed with a son, Taro.

For the time being at least, the Oda clan's northern border would have seemed to be secure, but the young bride died giving birth to Taro. Nobunaga then had his eldest son Nobutada, betrothed to Shingen's sixth daughter, to prevent the weakening of the alliance between the two provinces. He also sent a proposal of marriage ties to Tokugawa Ieyasu of Mikawa. Thus, the military alliance that already existed between the two was strengthened by family bonds. At the time of their engagement, Ieyasu's eldest son, Takechiyo, and Nobunaga's daughter were both eight years old. This policy was also used with the Sasaki clan in Omi. And so the castle at Gifu was busy with celebrations for the next two years.

* * *

The samurai's face was hidden in the shadow of a broad hat of woven sedge. He was tall, around forty years of age. Judging from his clothes and sandals, he was a wandering swordsman who had been on the road for some time. Even from behind, his body seemed to leave no opening for attack. He had just finished his midday meal, and was stepping out into a street in Gifu. He walked about, looking around, without any particular purpose. From time to time he would comment to himself how much such-and-such a place had changed.

From any spot in the town, the traveler could look up and see the towering walls of Gifu Castle. Holding the rim of his low, conical hat, he gazed at them for a while in fascination.

Suddenly a passerby, probably a merchant's wife, turned and stopped to look at him. She whispered something to the clerk accompanying her, and then hesitantly approached the swordsman. "Excuse me. It's rude of me to stop you in the street like this, but arent you Master Akechi's nephew?"

Caught off guard, the swordsman quickly responded, "No!" and walked off in great strides. After going ten or so steps, however, he turned and looked at the woman, who was still staring at him. That's Shunsai the armorer's daughter, he thought. She must be married by now.

He wound his way through the streets. Two hours later he was near the Nagara River. He sat down on the grassy riverbank and gazed at the water. He could have stayed there forever. The reeds rustled in desolate whispers under a pale, chilly autumn sun.

Master Swordsman?" Someone tapped him on the shoulder.

Mitsuhide turned around to see three menmost likely a patrol of Oda samurai on police duty.

"What are you doing?" one asked casually. But the faces of the three men were tense and suspicious.

"I was tired from walking, and stopped to rest a bit," the swordsman answered calmly. "Are you from the Oda clan?" he asked, standing up and brushing the grass from his clothes.

"We are," the soldier said stiffly. "Where have you come from, and where are you going?"

"I'm from Echizen. I have a relative at the castle and have been looking for some way to get in touch."

"A retainer?"

"No."

"But didn't you just say that it was someone at the castle?"

"She's not a retainer. She's a member of the household."

"What's her name?"

"I hesitate to say it here."

"What about your name?"

"That too."

"You mean you don't want to talk in the open?"

"That's right."

"Well then, you'll have to come with us to the guardhouse."

They probably suspected him of being a spy. Just in case he was going to put up a struggle, one of the men called out toward the road, where a mounted samurai, who appeared to be their leader, and another ten foot soldiers were waiting.

"This is just what I'd hoped for. Lead on." With that, the swordsman started off quickly.

In Gifu, as in every other province, security checks at the river crossings, in the castle town, and at the borders were strict. Nobunaga had only recently moved to Gifu Castle, and with the complete change of administration and laws, the duties of the magistrates were numerous. Although some complained that the patrolling was too strict, there were still many former retainers of the deposed Saito clan in the town, and the plots of enemy provinces were often at an advanced stage.

Mori Yoshinari was well suited to the post of chief magistrate, but like any warrior, he preferred the battlefield to civilian duties. When he went back home in the evening, he would heave a sigh of relief. And he would show his wife the same weary after-work expression every night.

"A letter came for you from Ranmaru."

When he heard the name Ranmaru, Yoshinari smiled. News from the castle was one of Yoshinari's few pleasures. Ranmaru was the son he had sent as a child to serve in the castle. It was clear from the very beginning that Ranmaru would be of no real service, but he was an attractive boy and had caught Nobunaga's eye, and so he had become one of his personal attendants. Recently he had been mixing with the pages and seemed to be performing some sort of duties.

"What was the news?" Yoshinari's wife asked.

"Nothing, really. Everything is peaceful, and His Lordship is in a good mood."

"He didn't write anything about being sick?"

"No, he said he was in excellent health," Yoshinari replied.

"That boy is cleverer than most. He's probably being careful not to make his parents

worry."

"I suppose so," Yoshinari said. "But he's still a baby, and it must be a strain for him be at His Lordship's side all of the time."

"I imagine he'd like to come home from time to time and be spoiled a little."

At that point a samurai appeared and announced that soon after Yoshinari had returned home something had occurred at his office, and that some of his subordinates had come to confer with him even though it was late at night. The three officers were waiting at the entrance.

"What is it?" Yoshinari asked the three men.

The leader made his report. "Toward the end of the day, one of our patrols arrested a suspicious-looking swordsman near the Nagara River."

"And?"

"He acted very obediently all the way to the guardhouse. When we questioned him he stubbornly refused to give his name or native province, and said that he would only do so if he could speak to Master Yoshinari. He went on to say that he was not a spy, and that a relative of hisa womanhad been working in the Oda household from the time His Lordship resided in Kiyosu. But he would not say any more unless he could meet with the man in charge. He was very stubborn."

"Well, well. How old is he?"

"About forty."

"What kind of man is he?"

"He's rather impressive. It's difficult to think of him as being just one of these wandering swordsmen."

A few moments later the arrested man was brought in. He was led to a room at the back of the house by an elderly retainer. A cushion and some food were waiting for the guest.

"Master Yoshinari will be with you soon," said the old retainer, taking his leave.

Incense smoke drifted into the room. The swordsman, his clothes stained from the journey, realized that the incense was of such quality that had the visitor not been cultivated enough to have a refined sense of smell, it would have been wasted. He waited silently for some sign of the master of the house.

The face that had been obscured by the sedge hat that afternoon was now silently contemplating the flickering light of the lamp. No doubt, he was too pale for the patrol to believe that he was a wandering swordsman. Also, his eyes were peaceful and mildnot what you would expect of a man whose daily life was the sword.

The sliding door opened, and a woman, whose clothes and demeanor showed that she was not a servant, gracefully brought him a bowl of tea. She placed the bowl in front of him without a word, then withdrew, closing the sliding door behind her. Once more, if the guest had not been important, such courtesy would not have been extended.

A few moments later the host, Yoshinari, came in and, by way of greeting, excused himself for having kept his guest waiting.

The swordsman shifted from the cushion to a more formal kneeling position. "Do I have the honor of addressing Master Yoshinari? I'm afraid I created a bit of trouble for your men with my thoughtlessness. I have come on a secret mission from the Asakura clan in Echizen. My name is Akechi Mitsuhide."

"So it is you. I hope you'll excuse the rudeness of my subordinates. I was surprised myself by what I heard a little while ago, and I hurried to meet you."

"I didn't give my name or home province, so how did you know who I am?"

"You spoke of a certain ladyyour niece, I believewho has served in His Lordship's household for some time. When this was reported to me, I guessed it must be you. Your niece is the Lady Hagiji, I believe. She has served Lord Nobunaga's wife since she accompanied Her Ladyship from Mino to Owari."

"Indeed! I am impressed by your knowledge of such details."

"It's only my job. We routinely look into such things as the home province, lineage, and the relatives of everyone from the senior ladies-in-waiting to the servant girls."

"That's sensible enough."

"We looked into Lady Hagiji's family background as well. At the time of Lord Dosan's death, one of her uncles fled Mino and disappeared. She always spoke sadly with Her Ladyship about a certain Mitsuhide from Akechi Castle. This much has come to me. So when my subordinates informed me of your age and appearance, and told me that you had been walking around the castle town for half a day, I put it all together and guessed that it was you."

"I must congratulate you on your powers of deduction," Mitsuhide said with a relaxed smile.

Yoshinari glowed with satisfaction. More formally he asked, "But, Master Mitsuhide, what business brings you so far from Echizen?"

Mitsuhide's expression turned grave, and he quickly lowered his voice. "Is anyone else here?" He looked toward the sliding door.

"You don't need to worry. I've sent the servants away. The man on the other side of the door is my most trusted retainer. Other than a man keeping guard at the entrance to the corridor, there is no one else here."

"The fact is that I have been entrusted with two letters for Lord Nobunaga, one from Shogun Yoshiaki, and the other from Lord Hosokawa Fujitaka."

"From the shogun!"

"This had to be kept secret from the Asakura clan at all costs, so I'll leave you to imagine how difficult it's been to come this far."

The previous year, Shogun Yoshiteru had been assassinated by his vice-governor-general, Miyoshi Nagayoshi, and Miyoshi's retainer, Matsunaga Hisahide, who had usurped the shogun's authority. Yoshiteru had two younger brothers. The elder, the abbot of a Buddhist temple, was murdered by the rebels. The younger brother, Yoshiaki, who was then a monk in Nara, realized the danger he was in and escaped with the help of Hosokawa Fujitaka. He hid for a while in Omi, renounced the priesthood, and took the title of fourteenth shogun at the age of twenty-six.

After that, the "wandering shogun" approached the Wada, the Sasaki, and various other clans for assistance. From the very beginning, his plan was not to live on other peoples charity. He planned to defeat his brother's murderers and restore his family's office and authority. He sought help, appealing to distant clans.

This was, however, a great matter involving the entire nation, because Miyoshi and Matsunaga had seized the central government. Although Yoshiaki was shogun in name, he was in fact nothing more than a penniless exile. He had no money, much less an army of his own. Nor was he particularly popular with the people.

Mitsuhide took up the story from Yoshiaki's arrival at Asakura Yoshikage's castle in Echizen. Just at that time, there was an ill-fated man in the service of the Asakura who had not been admitted as a full retainer of the clan. This was he himself, Akechi Mitsuhide. It was there that Mitsuhide had met Hosokawa Fujitaka for the first time.

Mitsuhide went on, "The story is a little long, but if you'll do me the favor of listening to me, I'll ask you to tell it in detail to Lord Nobunaga. Of course, I must hand the shogun's letter to Lord Nobunaga in person."

Then, in order to make his own situation clear, he talked about events from the time he left Akechi Castle and fled to Echizen from Mino. For over ten years, Mitsuhide tasted the hardships of the world. An intellectual by nature, he was easily drawn to books and scholarship. He was thankful for the reverses he had suffered. The time of his wandering, the period of his distress, had certainly been long. Akechi Castle had been destroyed during the civil war in Mino, and only he and his cousin, Mitsuharu, had escaped to Echizen. In the years since Mitsuhide had dropped from sight, he had lived as a ronin and made a scanty living by teaching farm children to read and write.

His only desire was to find the one right lord to serve, and one good opportunity. As he looked for a way to come up in the world, Mitsuhide studied the martial spirit, economics, and castles of various provinces with the eye of a military strategist, preparing for a later day.

He traveled far and wide and visited all the provinces of western Japan. There waa a good reason for this. The west was always the first place to receive foreign innovation and it was there that he was most likely to gain new knowledge on the subject he had made his specialtyguns. His knowledge of gunnery had led to several episodes in the western provinces. A retainer of the Mori clan, Katsura by name, arrested Mitsuhide in the town of Yamaguchi on suspicion of being a spy. On this occasion he spoke openly of his origins, his situation, and his hopes, and even revealed his evaluations of the neighboring provinces.

While he questioned Mitsuhide, Katsura was so impressed by the depth of his knowledge that he later recommended the traveler to his lord, Mori Motonari. "I think he is quite clearly uncommonly talented. Were he given employment here, I suspect he would accomplish something later on."

The search for talented men was the same everywhere. Certainly such men who 1eft their homes and served other provinces would someday end up as the enemies of their former lords. As soon as Motonari heard of Mitsuhide, he wanted to see him. One day Mitsuhide was summoned to Motonari's castle. The next day Katsura visited Motonari alone, and asked him for his opinion of his guest.

"As you said, there are very few men of talent. We should give him some money and clothes, and send him courteously on his way."

"Yes, but didn't he impress you in some way?"

"Indeed. There are two kinds of great men: the truly great and the villain. Now, if a villain is also a scholar, he is liable to bring ruin upon himself and harm to his lord." Motonari went on, "There is something shifty about his appearance. When he speaks with such composure and clarity in his eyes, he has a charm that's very enticing. Yes, he's truly a captivating man, but I prefer the stolidity of our warriors of the western provinces. If I put this man in the middle of my own warriors, he'd stick out like a crane in a flock of chickens. I object to him for that reason alone." And so Mitsuhide was not taken in by the Mori clan.

He traveled through Hizen and Higo, and the domains of the Otomo clan. He crossed the Inland Sea to the island of Shikoku where he studied the martial arts of the Chosokabe clan.

When Mitsuhide returned to his home in Echizen, he found that his wife had taken ill and died, his cousin, Mitsuharu, had gone to serve another clan, and after six years his situation had not improved. He still could not see even a flicker of light on the road that lay ahead.

At this low point, Mitsuhide went to see Ena, the abbot of the Shonen Temple in Echizen. He rented a house in front of the temple and began to teach the children of the neighborhood. From the very beginning, Mitsuhide did not see schoolteaching as his life's work. Within a couple of years he had become conversant with the administration and problems of the province.

During this period the area was regularly disturbed by uprisings of the warrior-monks of the Ikko sect. One year, when the Asakura troops were wintering in the field during a campaign against the warrior-monks, Mitsuhide asked Ena, "It's just my own humble thought, but I'd like to present a strategy to the Asakura clan. Whom do you suppose it would be best to see?"

Ena immediately understood what was in Mitsuhide's mind. "The man most likely to listen to you would be Asakura Kageyuki."

Mitsuhide entrusted the temple school to Ena and went off to Asakura Kageyuki's camp. Because he had no intermediary, he simply walked into the camp, carrying his plan written down on a single piece of paper. He was arrested, not knowing whether the plan had been given to Kageyuki, and he heard nothing for two months. Although he was a prisoner, Mitsuhide inferred from the movements in the camp and the morale of the troops that Kageyuki was carrying out his plan.

At first Kageyuki had been suspicious of Mitsuhide, which was why he'd been arrested; but since there was no way to break the deadlock in the fighting, he decided to test Mitsuhide's plan. When the two men finally met, Kageyuki praised Mitsuhide as a warrior with an extensive knowledge of the classics and of the martial arts. Giving Mitsuhide the freedom of the camp, Kageyuki summoned him from time to time. It seemed, however, that Mitsuhide was not going to be so easily granted the status of retainer, and so one day he spoke out rather forcefully, even though he was not given to boasting:

"If you loan me a firearm, I'll shoot the enemy general in the middle of his camp."

"You may take one," Kageyuki said, but, still harboring some doubts, he secretly appointed a man to watch Mitsuhide.

It was an age when, even for the wealthy Asakura clan, a single firearm was extremely precious. Thanking him for the favor, Mitsuhide took the gun, mixed in among the troops, and went to the front lines. When the fighting started, he vanished deep behind enemy lines.

Hearing about the disappearance, Kageyuki later demanded to know why the man who was watching Mitsuhide had not shot him in the back. "Perhaps he was an enemy spy after all, feeling out the internal conditions here."

But a few days later it was reported that the enemy general had been shot by an unknown assailant as he inspected the battle lines. The morale of the enemy was said to have been thrown suddenly into confusion.

Soon afterward, Mitsuhide returned to camp. When he appeared before Kageyuki he was quick to ask him, "Why didn't you call out the entire army and rout the enemy? you call yourself a general when you let an opportunity like this slip by with your arms folded?"

Mitsuhide had done what he had promised: he had gone into enemy territory, shot the general, and returned.

When Asakura Kageyuki went back to Ichijogadani Castle, he told the story to Asakura Yoshikage. Yoshikage took one look at Mitsuhide and asked him to serve him. Later, Yoshikage had a target put up in the castle grounds and asked for a demonstration. Mitsuhide, though he was by no means a skilled marksman, demonstrated his skill putting sixty-eight out of one hundred rounds into the target.

Mitsuhide was now given a residence in the castle town and a stipend of one thousand kan, one hundred sons of retainers were put under his instruction, and he again organized a gunners' regiment. Mitsuhide was so grateful to Yoshikage for rescuing him from adversity that for several years he worked tirelessly with no other intention than torepay him for his blessings and good fortune.

His devotion, however, finally brought objections from his peers. They accused him of being conceited and putting on highbrow airs. No matter what the topic of conversation or the activity, his refinement and intellect shone brilliantly for all to see.

This attitude did not sit well with the retainers of this provincial clan, who began to complain about him: "He's plainly conceited."

"He's just a snob."

Naturally, these complaints reached the ears of Yoshikage. Mitsuhide's work also began to suffer. Cold by nature, he was now the target of equally cold looks. It might have been different if Yoshikage had protected him, but he was held back by his own retainers. Winding its way even through Yoshikage's many favorite concubines, the dispute twisted through the castle. Mitsuhide himself was without connections and had just found temporary shelter. He was miserable, but there was nothing to be done.

I made a mistake, Mitsuhide thought. He had food and clothing but was now bitteerly regretting his decision. Having been in such a hurry to escape adversity, the bank he had crawled out on was the wrong one. Such were his despondent thoughts after spending nothing but unhappy days. I've wasted my entire life! This depression seemed to affect his health, and he began to suffer from a scablike skin disease, which, in time, became serious. Mitsuhide asked Yoshikage for a leave of absence to go for a cure at the spa town of Yamashiro.

While he was there, travelers reported that rebels had attacked the Nijo Palace and murdered Shogun Yoshiteru. Even there, in the mountains, people were shocked and unsettled.

"If the shogun has been murdered, the country's going to fall into chaos again."

Mitsuhide immediately made preparations to return to Ichijogadani. Confusion in Kyoto meant confusion in the whole country. Quite naturally, this event would have aftereffects in the provinces. Undoubtedly, hurried preparations were being made at that very moment.

I could sulk and be depressed about trivialities, but it would be shameful for a man in his prime, Mitsuhide decided. His skin disease had cleared up at the spa and now Mitsuhide quickly presented himself before his lord. Yoshikage barely acknowledged his return, and Mitsuhide withdrew before his lord's indifference. He was not summoned after that. He had been relieved of his command of the gunners' regiment in his absence, and everywhere the atmosphere seemed to be hostile. Now that Yoshikage's former reliance on him had completely changed, Mitsuhide was once again prey to mental agony.

It was then that he received the visit from Hosokawa Fujitaka, who could only be described as a heaven-sent visitor. Mitsuhide was so surprised that he went out to greet the man himself, overawed that a person as exalted as Fujitaka had come to his house.

Fujitaka's character was exactly to Mitsuhide's liking. He certainly had the air of a noble and learned man. Mitsuhide had long lamented that he was unable to meet men of real quality, and such a guest naturally brought joy into his heart. He felt doubt, however, about the purpose of Fujitaka's visit.

Although his lineage was noble, at the time he secredy visited Mitsuhide's home, Fujitaka was really nothing more than an exile. Having been driven out of Kyoto, the refugee shogun, Yoshiaki, was fleeing through the provinces. It was Fujitaka who approached Asakura Yoshikage on the shogun's behalf. Touring the provinces preaching loyalty and trying to stir the provincial lords to action, Hosokawa Fujitaka was the only man who suffered with Yoshiaki, trying to overcome his master's pitiful reverses.

"Surely the Asakura clan will declare itself his ally. If fhe two provinces of Wakasa and Echizen joined us, then all the clans of the north would rush to our cause."

Yoshikage was of a mind to refuse. Regardless of what Fujitaka preached about loyalty, Yoshikage was not inclined to fight for a powerless, exiled shogun. It was not for a lack of military strength or resources, but because Yoshikage supported the status quo.

Fujitaka quickly perceived that the situation was not in their favor and, aware of the nepotism and internal struggles within the Asakura clan, abandoned his efforts there. Yoshiaki and his retainers, however, were already on their way to Echizen.

Although the Asakura clan felt greatly annoyed about having him as a dependent, they could not mistreat the shogun, and designated a temple as his temporary residence. They treated him well but also prayed for his early departure.

Then, quite suddenly, here was Mitsuhide, receiving a visit from Fujitaka. He was, however, still unable to guess the reason for the visit.

"I've heard that you have a taste for poetry. I saw one of your works when you went to Mishima," Fujitaka said by way of an opening remark. He did not look like a man whose heart was suffering. His countenance was absolutely mild and benign.

"Oh, I'm ashamed to hear it." Mitsuhide was not just being modest; he was sincerely embarrassed. Fujitaka, of course, was famous for his verses. That day their conversation began with poetry and went on to Japanese classical literature.

"Gracious, the conversation was so interesting, I forgot this was my first visit here Apologizing for his long stay, Fujitaka took his leave.

After Fujitaka had left, Mitsuhide was even more perplexed. Gazing at the lamp, he became lost in thought. Fujitaka called on him two or three times, but the subjects of conversation never departed from poetry or the tea ceremony. But then one daya day of drizzling rain so dark that lamps were needed insideat a quiet moment, Fujitaka was more formal than usual.

"Today I have something very serious and secret to discuss," he began.

Mitsuhide, of course, had been waiting for him to break the ice like this, and answered, "If you trust me enough to tell me a secret, I certainly promise to keep it. Please speak freely, on any subject."

Fujitaka nodded. "I'm sure that someone as perceptive as you has already quickly guessed why I have been visiting like this. The fact is that those of us in attendance on the shogun came here depending on Lord Asakura as the only provincial lord who would be his ally, and until now we have secretly negotiated and appealed to him a number of times. His final answer, however, has been put off from day to day, and a decision does not seem to be in the offing. In the meantime we have studied the internal administration and affairs of Lord Asakura, and I know now that he does not have the will to fight for the shogun. Those of us who have appealed to him understand that it is futile. However" Fujitaka spoke as though he were an entirely different man from the ne who had visited before. "Who among all the provincial lordsbesides Lord Asakura is a man upon whom we could rely? Who is the most reliable military leader in the count today? Does such a man exist?"

"He does."

"He does?" Fujitaka's eyes shone.

Mitsuhide calmly wrote a name on the floor with his finger: Oda Nobunaga.

The lord of Gifu?" Fujitaka caught his breath. Raising his eyes from the floor to Mitsuhide's face, he said nothing for a short while. After that, the two men discussed Nobunaga for a long time. Mitsuhide had been a retainer of the Saito clan, and in serving his former master, Lord Dosan, he had observed the character of Dosan's son-in-law. Thus there was a certain authority in what he said.

A few days later, Mitsuhide met Fujitaka in the mountains behind the temple that had become the shogun's lodging. From him he received a personal letter written by the shogun and addressed to Nobunaga. That night, Mitsuhide quickly left Ichijogadani. Naturally he abandoned both his residence and retainers, expecting never to return. The next day the Asakura clan was in an uproar.

The he cry went up, "Mitsuhide has disappeared!" A punitive force was sent out to bring him back, but he could no longer be found within the boundaries of the province.

Asakura Yoshikage had heard that one of the shogun's followers, Hosokawa Fujitaka, had visited Mitsuhide, and so now Yoshikage turned on the shogun, saying, "Assuredly he's incited Mitsuhide in this matter, and has probably sent him off to another province as a envoy." And Yoshikage drove the shogun from the province.

Fujitaka had guessed this outcome beforehand. Thus, taking it rather as an opportunity, he went with his entourage from Echizen to Omi and found shelter with Asai Nagamasa in Odani Castle. There he waited for good news from Mitsuhide.

And this was why Mitsuhide had come to Gifu. Carrying the shogun's letter, he had risked his life many times along the way. Now he had finally completed half of his objective. He had found his way to Mori Yoshinari's residence, and was this very evening quietly seated across from Yoshinari himself, explaining in detail the aim of his mission and asking Yoshinari to act as an intermediary with Nobunaga.

It was the seventh day of the Tenth Month in the ninth year of Eiroku. One might, perhaps, call it a fateful day. Mori had interceded for Mitsuhide, and the details of the situation had reached Nobunaga. This was the day that Mitsuhide entered Gifu Castle and met Nobunaga for the first time. Mitsuhide was thirty-eight, six years older than Nobunaga.

"I have carefully looked over the letters from Lord Hosokawa and the shogun," Nobunaga said, "and I see that they have requested assistance from me. Unworthy as I am, I will give them whatever strength I can."

Mitsuhide bowed and responded to Nobunaga's words. "Risking my insignificant life for the nation has been a mission far exceeding my own low status." There was nothing false in Mitsuhide's words.

His sincerity impressed Nobunaga, as did his bearing and conduct, his perceptive use of words, his admirable intelligence. The more Nobunaga watched him, the more he was impressed. This man should prove to be of service, he thought. Thus Akechi Mitsuhide came under the wing of the Oda clan. Soon, he was granted a domain in Mino of four thousand kan. Moreover, as the shogun and his followers were now with the Asai clan, Nobunaga sent a number of men under Mitsuhide's command to escort them to Gifu Castle. Nobunaga went to the provincial border himself to greet the shogun, who had been treated as such a troublesome man in the other provinces.

At the castle gate, he took the reins of the shogun's horse and treated him as an honored guest. In truth, Nobunaga was not just holding the reins of the shogun's horse, but taking hold of the reins of the nation. From this moment on, whatever road he took, the storm clouds and winds of the times were in the fist that held those reins so tightly.


The Master of Mount Kurihara | Taiko | The Wandering Shogun