Matsunaga Hisahide stands out in Japanese history as an infamous schemer and in later works of fiction as an out-right villain.
A companion of Miyoshi Chokei since childhood, Hisahide first notably appears in 1549, when he assisted Chokei in the defeat of Miyoshi Masanaga and acted as his spokesman in Kyôto (he first appears as a Miyoshi retainer in documents dated 1541). During the 1550’s Matsunaga acted as the Miyoshi’s governor of the capital, and stayed close to the shôgun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru. Hisahide was later tasked with the conquest of Yamato province, an endeavor that made him, by 1564, essentially an independent daimyo. Already, Matsunaga was working to undermine his former masters; between 1561 and 1564, three of Chokei’s brothers and his heir died. Matsunaga Kazunari (1561) and Matsunaga Jikkyu (1562) passed on under what may be considered mysterious circumstances while Atagi Fuyuyasu (1564) was murdered. In 1563 Chokei’s son and heir Yoshioki also died what was probably unnatural death. The extent to which Hisahide had a hand in all of this will never be known, but he was rumored to have poisoned Yoshioki. Furthermore, some said that he framed Fuyuyasu and goaded Chokei into having him killed. Regardless of how bloody his hands may have been, Matsunaga was essentially the heir to Chokei’s domain when the latter died in August of 1564. In point of fact Chokei had adopted the young Miyoshi Yoshitsugu as heir after Yoshioki’s death, and this young man was presently under the guardianship of the so-called Miyoshi triumvirate: Miyoshi Nagayuki, Miyoshi Masayasu, and Iwanari Tomomichi, who held Sakai, the Miyoshi’s Settsu headquarters. While animosity existed between the triumvirate and Hisahide, for the time being they acted in unison. Shôgun Yoshiteru had lately attempted to rid himself of the pervasive Miyoshi influence he had been saddled with for years; his efforts at independence cost him his life. On 17 June 1565 troops sent by Matsunaga and the Miyoshi closed on the shogun’s palace and forced Yoshiteru to commit suicide after a heroic struggle. In his place the infant Yoshihide was installed, an act that prompted Yoshiteru’s brother Yoshiaki to flee and seek out a patron. In the meantime Matsunaga and the Miyoshi came to a parting of ways and began fighting. In 1566 Matsunaga’s warriors were defeated outside Sakai, and Hisahide himself failed in attempts some time later to reduce the Miyoshi presence in Kwatchi. A truce was arranged that allowed Matsunaga to leave the Sakai area, and fighting continued further inland. In the course of the conflict, Matsunaga is reputed to have burned down the Great Buddha Hall of the Todaiji (Nara), to this day considered a needless act of near-villainy.
In 1568 Yoshiaki secured the services of Oda Nobunaga, the up-and-coming lord of Mino and Owari; in November of 1568 Nobunaga marched on Kyôto. Faced with this unexpected danger, Matsunaga cannily decided to submit and was allowed to keep his lands in Yamato. Most likely Nobunaga was him as a useful tool both against the Miyoshi and to expand Oda influence into Yamato. In addition, Matsunaga had sent, as a token of his sincerity, a renowned tea item known as Tsukumogami, a gesture which no doubt effected Nobunaga (a bit of a tea enthusiast himself). Matsunaga did prove useful over the next few years, serving Nobunaga in his wars with the Asai and Asakura and against, of course, the Miyoshi.
By 1573, however, Matsunaga was conspiring against Nobunaga with, of all people, Miyoshi Yoshitsugu. This arrangement did not last long, and soon Matsunaga was back on Nobunaga’s side, helping to destroy Yoshitsugu and the remaining Miyoshi. Hisahide then became involved in the siege of the Ishiyama Honganji. In 1577 Hisahide rebelled once again; he and his son Hisamichi abandoned their positions around the Honganji and returned to Yamato, possibly hoping that other Yamato daimyo, such as Tsutsui Junkei would follow. This proved not the case, and Tsutsui and Oda Nobutada soon surrounded Matsunaga in Shigi castle. Word came that Oda sought two things from Matsunaga - his head and a certain valuable tea item, ‘Hiragumo’, which Matusnaga defiantly smashed before killing himself. Hisamichi was captured alive and taken to Kyôto, where he was executed.
At once a habitual schemer and a cultured man of tea, Matsunaga Hisahide came in some ways to embody the spirit of the 16th Century - albeit largely the worst qualities. His plots and the manner of his dying (in addition to the smashing of the tea item, it is said that he ordered his head be blown up to deny that to Oda as well) became the stuff of Edo dramas. An ardent Nichiren adherent, Matsunaga was also vilified in contemporary western accounts of the day, especially after he banned the Jesuits from Kyôto in 1565.
- Initial text from Samurai-Archives.com FWSeal & CEWest, 2005