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SEPTEMBER 2, 2009 11:52PM

Gracia Hosokawa, A Samurai's Samurai

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Gracia Hosokawa
and her husband, Tadaoki

The Sengoku era of Japanese history (roughly the entire 1500s) was a time of a complete crumbling of the power structure followed by the great drive for final unification led by me, Oda Nobunaga. Right smack dab in the middle of all this came the Portuguese in 1549, and with them came Christianity (the religion, not the real thing, of course). But the word played well with the Japanese populace, even gaining powerful warlords as converts who in some cases ordered those under their power to also convert.

The Japanese were open minded in their religious beliefs, often taking an a la carte approach, grabbing whatever suited them from each religion to form a spiritual world view unique to each person. The strict Catholicism of the Jesuits and Franciscans disdained all other forms of belief, however, requiring complete rejection of competing theologies. This was the first introduction of religious fanaticism to Japan and it played out in the seventeenth century when Christianity was banned and a popular uprising was brutally repressed. But in the totality of Japanese history, Christianity did not play a huge role even though its influences can still be seen today in religious ceremonies.

One such convert in the Sengoku era was Gracia Hosokawa. Gracia was born into a samurai family. In a samurai household, all members are considered samurai, not just the men (there are even some famous fighting female samurais). As a samurai, she too was bound by a code of honor and was expected to uphold it. But it did not preclude her from converting to Christianity and taking the name Gracia (her birth name was Tama).

St. Francis Xavier brought Christianity to Japan

Lady Gracia lived up to her name, being a person of grace and refinement. She learned the foreigners' words of both Spanish and Latin to help in learning her new faith. Her intelligence and beauty made her a popular and highly respected person among the Japanese elite. She was also married into the house of Hosokawa, an historic and strong house, serving directly under the most powerful warlords of the times over the past centuries. And her father was a high ranking general as well - he served under me.

Akechi Mitsuhide was one of my finest generals and a man of great intellect. He was no me or my right hand man Hideyoshi - he lacked the imagination for that. But I respected this man who had educated himself so well. And yet, because he relied solely on mere intellect, it drove me to beat him down in withering verbal abuse. Eventually it reached the point I drove him too far, to where he feared for his own safety. Always over-thinking, he became convinced I was going to kill him. Inflamed by his retainers who convinced him his intellect was worthy of ultimate rule, they attacked me while I stayed at a lightly guarded temple in the capital.

And there I died.

Shortly after, Hideyoshi hunted down the now notorious traitor Akechi and killed him. This left Gracia in an extremely tenuous position as his daughter. Normally, all the family of a traitor is put to death as well. But her husband interceded for her, keeping her alive through the influence of his position. She was hidden until finally being allowed to return to Osaka, the power base of Japan in the late sixteenth century. It was during this time she converted and her devotion was never questioned as she was quite revered by the priests.

A statue of the great Lady

Inevitably, samurai honor and Christian principles came into conflict. Her husband's life was in danger as political alliances swirled and it looked like he was going to end up on the wrong side. He left orders for her to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) if he were to die. Knowing suicide was against Christian principles, she wrote to the Jesuit priests only to find on this point they would not bend. But her husband's danger passed - this time.

Picking up where I left off, Hideyoshi finalized the unification of Japan but chaos threatened once more with his death. The nation basically split in two between the loyalists to Hideyoshi's family and the usurper Tokugawa Ieyasu. Spearheading the loyalists was Ishida Mitsunari. And by virtue of this he had control of Osaka castle, an impregnable stronghold built by Hideyoshi. With the ability to garrison tens of thousands of troops and its Byzantine walls, Ishida considered the castle to be his trump card in the coming power play for control of Japan.

It was in this castle Gracia was stationed and for all intents and purposes, trapped. In fact, many members of high ranking families of the time were stationed there as well, part of a long standing tradition of hostage-taking to ensure peace between the different factions. Ishida looked to build upon this and take the family members of his opposition directly into his control, to threaten his enemies to either join him or at least to swear off attacking him.

Legendary Osaka castle

The great prize of Lady Gracia was who he first sought to seize. To neutralize the great house of Hosokawa would be a huge coup on his part. But Ishida was a mimicker, not a thinker in his own right. He couldn't see how such a move might blow up in his face. And blow up it did, for Lady Gracia was a samurai.

She refused to be taken hostage, to betray her husband and also by implication, her liege lord above him. There are several accounts of her final demise but this much is known: she had herself put to death (to avoid suicide) and her mansion burned to the ground (death for a samurai woman was by a knife through the throat). Lady Gracia was supremely devout in all her beliefs, be they Japanese or Christian.

News of her death caused such an outrage Ishida was forced to abandon his plan and subsequently went on to be defeated in the great battle of Sekigahara, consolidating once and for all the power in Tokugawa's hands.

You can visit her grave today -
as I surely would were I to reach the shores
of the Japans once more...

Wikipedia claims Lady Gracia is a popular person in Japanese culture, listing her as a character in over 40 stage dramas, movies, TV dramas, etc. from 1887 to 2006. She was also the basis for the Mariko character in Shogun, James Clavell's classic novel. It was through researching Clavell's novel I found out about the great Lady Gracia, and I know I too found her to be a person for all time, a person of both substance and deep conviction, never to be forgotten.

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This story never fails to move me.
Wow. So many things I would never have known - this story being one of them. What an amazing woman, living in extreme times. Then again, times are extreme for someone on any given day in history, I suppose.
Just one more reason why I love the Sengoku era, Owl. Things got really stagnant after that as the government grew more and more corrupt and conservative.

Everyone's a romantic, CA. It's just a matter of having the guts to admit it. And outside of any chicks I might be scoping out, I've never thought of church as being anything but a dark place - especially after I saw the horror of the white gloved handbell choir.

Sengoku may not be my favourite period of Japanese history, but you do have a way of bringing it to life in wonderful ways.

Thank you...
Thanks for posting this.
I know you like the Heian period, WS, so it's gratifying to draw you into Sengoku.

Thanks Con. Is your samurai pitcher book out yet?
This may be your finest Japanese post yet. You're right: It is a deeply moving story with everything: clashing cultures and religions, a female samurai, death, and a literary legacy. Great pics too! Thanks, Harry.
Glad you enjoyed it, Steve. It was my pleasure.
Wow, I've never heard this story before. Very interesting!