Siege of Yoshino Castle, February 1333

The siege of Yoshino Castle (February 1333) saw a large Bakufu army capture the castle after an eight day siege, forcing Prince Norinaga to flee to safety.

At the start of 1333 the Bakufu (another word for the Shogunate) brought together a vast army at Kyoto. This army was split into three divisions, and one of those divisions, under the command of a Hojo general called Osaragi, was sent south towards Yoshino Castle, where Prince Norinaga was based.

According to the Taiheiki, our main source for this siege, the attacking troops arrived at Yoshino on the 16th day of the 1st month (or of the New Year) of 1331 (1 February 1333). The fighting started on the 18th day (3 February) and lasted for eight days, ending on the 25th day (10 February).

The dates preserved for this siege would appear to be at fault. Elsewhere the Taiheiki has the army split into three divisions at Kyoto on 30 January, while Akasaka falls on around 14 March. The fall of Akasaka is said to have been one of the motives for the final assault on Yoshino

One possible solution is that the month has been recorded incorrectly. If the second month was meant then the siege of Yoshino still ends too early, on around 11 March. Two months off would put the siege of Yoshino in April.

For the moment we will use the dates from the Taiheiki. The besieging army, 60,000 men commanded by Nikaido Doun, arrived at Yoshino on the sixteenth day of the first month of 1333 (1 February 1333). They were faced with a difficult task. Yoshino Castle was defended by 5,000-6,000 men commanded by Prince Norinaga, the most able of Go-Daigo's sons. The castle itself was high on a mountain, and was accessed via a narrow path. Whatever the size of the attacking army really was, Yoshino would not be easy to capture.

On the 18th day (3 February) the two sides fired the ritual arrows that marked the start of a battle. The defenders were able to take advantage of the terrain and for seven days and seven nights held off a series of constant attacks. Three hundred of the defenders and 800 of the attackers were killed and many more wounded.

The stalemate was broken by Iwagikumaro, an abbot of Yoshino monastery who was part of the attacking army. He suggested that attackers should send a small force onto the highs behind the castle, taking advantage of his local knowledge to find a way up the cliffs. This force of 150 men would attack at dawn, hitting the defenders from an unexpected direction.

The plan worked perfectly. The small force of 150 men reached the high ground and discovered it was undefended. At dawn on the eighth day of the siege 50,000 horsemen launched a fresh attack on the castle. Five hundred monks of Yoshino fighting with the defenders came out to drive them off. At this point the hidden 150 launched their own attack, lit fires around the castle and caused chaos amongst the defenders.

Prince Norinaga believed that he was doomed. He gathered twenty men and threw himself into the battle. He was able to drive off the troops attacking his residence, but the damage had been done. The outer walls had been taken by the attackers, and the defenders were being pushed back. Prince Norinaga decided to try and escape. One of his followers offered to dress in the Prince's armour and try and delay any pursuit by publically committing suicide. The attacking troops were fooled by this, and in their rush to try and be the first to the body they created gaps and allowed the real Prince to escape and reach relative safety at Mount Koya. The victorious attackers then moved on to take part in the long siege of Chihaya.

Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan, trans. Helen Craig McCullough. A modern English translation of the first twelve chapters of the Taiheiki, covering the period of the Genko War, a civil war that saw the Emperor Go-Daigo briefly overthrow the Shogunate and restore direct Imperial rule.
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A History of Japan, 1334-1615, Sir George Sansom. A classic history of Japan, covering the period from the fall of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 1330s to the battle of Sekigahara of 1600 and the end of the civil wars in 1615. A little dated now, but it still provides an excellent narrative history of this period, with more detail on the military events than in most more modern works.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 October 2012), Siege of Yoshino Castle, February 1333 ,

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