At the end of sixteenth century Japan, a warlord by the name of Tokugawa Ieyasu (Ieyasu being his first name), was able to unite Japan and started a dynasty of shoguns (the military head of Imperial Japan). This era is known as the Edo or Tokugawa Period, lasting for over 200 years until the late 1800s when the old system of government was overthrown and the Meiji Restoration restored power to the Imperial Household.
Like most strong men, there is always a strong woman to back them. And for Tokugawa Ieyasu, that woman was Lady Saigo. She was born Tozuka Masako but was also known by the nickname, Oai, meaning “love”.
In historical sources, she is known as “Saigo-no-Tsubone”, which is more of an offical title than it is a name (it was common in those times and in the Heian period to refer to a woman by her husband or father’s ranking or the place where she was from). When she was an adult, she was adopted into the Saigo clan and allowed to use their surname. According to Wikipedia:
“Later, when she was named first consort of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the title “tsubone” (pronounced [tsu͍bone]) was appended to the surname. The title was one of several titular suffixes conferred on high ranking women (others include -kata and -dono). The bestowal of a title depended on social class and the relationship with her samurai lord, such as whether she was a legitimate wife or a concubine, and whether or not she had had children by him. The word tsubone indicates the living quarters reserved for ladies of a court, and it became the title for those who had been granted private quarters, such as high-ranking concubines with children. This title, tsubone, was in use for concubines from the Heian Period until the Meiji Period (from the eighth century to the early twentieth century), and is commonly translated to the English title “Lady””
She was born in 1552 at Niskikawa Castle where she lived with her two siblings. In 1554 her father died at the battle of Enshu-Omori, and two years later her mother remarried Hattori Masanao. Her mother had four children from this marriage but only two lived into adulthood.
It is unclear if Oai married when she reached adulthood since her husband’s name is not mentioned and there were no children. But in 1567, she did marry Saigo Yoshikatsu, her cousin, who already had two children from his previous late wife. Oai had two children by Yoshikatsu- a son, Saigo Katsutada and a daughter, Tokuhime. But in 1571, Yoshikatsu was killed at the Battle of Takehiro and soon after, Oai was adopted by her uncle, Saigo Kiyokazu, the head of the Saigo clan. Despite this, she lived with her mother and her stepfather.
Oai was 17 or 18 when she met Tokugawa Ieyasu for the first time while he was visiting the Saigo family and she served him tea. She apparently caught his attention then, but because she was still married nothing happened. But after her husband’s death, friendship and genuine affection developed. Around this time though, he was officially married to Lady Tsukiyama who was known to be jealous, had tempestuous moods, and eccentric habits. Her personality made if difficult for Ieyasu to live with her. The marriage had been arranged by her uncle of the Imagawa clan.
Around the time of the Battle of Mikatagahara in 1573, Ieyasu started to confide in Oai and sought her advice and it is believed that during this time that they started a romantic relationship. She is thought to have advised him on the Battle of Nagashino which was a major turning point in his career and in the history of Japan.
In 1578, Oai moved to Hamamatsu Castle where she was in charge of the kitchen. Here she became very popular with some warriors from her native home country who admired her for her beauty and thought of her as an exemplary example of the women from Mikawa. Despite this, she could be outspoken or sarcastic. But the court of Tokugawa Ieyasu, was filled with prospective concubines who each wanted to bear a child to the samurai warlord.
During this time period, it was a common way for an ambitious young woman to elevate her status, ensure a comfortable life, and make sure that her family was successful. Women like these usually used their physical attributes, sexual prowess, and sometimes aphrodisiacs. But unlike them, Oai already had Ieyasu’s attention.
Because of this, she probably became a target of resentment and hostility from the other women.
Oai became described as the “most beloved” of Ieyasu’s women and he valued her for her intelligence, sound advice, and enjoyed her company, calm demeanor, and their common background from the Mikawa province. Then on May 2nd, 1579, she gave birth to his third son, Tokugawa Hidetada, who would become the second shogun. Oai’s place at his court was more secure after this and she became his first consort, and was known respectfully now as Lady Saigo.
But within the same year, Ieyasu’s ally, Oda Nobunaga, became aware that Lady Tsukiyama was conspiring against him with the Takeda clan. And even though he didn’t have much evidence, Ieyasu had her executed and ordered her son to commit ritual suicide, known as seppuku. Now Lady Saigo’s position was secure and her son, Hidetada, became his heir. Oai had Ieyasu’s fourth son, her second, on October 18, 1580. He was called Matsudaira Tadayoshi after he was *adopted by the head of the Matsudaira clan.
It was common during this time for families to send their children to other samurai homes as a means of establishing good relations with those warlords and in hopes that they would receive a good education. And it was not uncommon for someone to be adopted into another family, even late in life, to help advance their position even if their family was still living.
In 1586, Oai was at Ieyasu’s side when he triumphantly entered the newly rebuilt Sunpu Castle. This was symbolic of his victories and was a visible and symbolic gesture to Oai that meant Ieyasu could credit her for her assistance and publicly show how highly he thought of her.
Lady Saigo is also well known for her charity. She too suffered from myopia and so she often donated money, clothing, food, and other necessities to blind women and organizations. She eventually founded an co-operation school with living quarters near the temple she worshiped at, that assisted visually impaired women by teaching them how to play the samisen (a traditional three stringed instrument) and helped them find employment. These women became known as goze and were like traveling minstrels in Japan.
They became a part of a guild-like organization with apprentices. They played pieces from an approved list and operated under a strict code of rules on behavior and permissible business transactions intended to maintain an upstanding reputation. Upon her death, she wrote a letter pleading for the continued maintenance of the organization.
Lady Saigo died at a young age though at 37 on July 1, 1589. Although the cause of her death was never discovered, there was suspected foul play but no culprits were ever found. There were rumors that she had been poisoned by a maid loyal still to Lady Tsukiyama who wanted revenge. When she died, her remains were interred at Ryusen-ji. the temple that she had founded her school at and worshiped frequently at.
After her death, the Emperor Go-Mizunoo gave her the name Minamoto Masako, posthumously adopting her into the Minamoto clan, the extended branch of the Imperial line. Later after being inducted into the Lower First Rank of the Imperial Court, her status was later upgraded to the Senior First Rank. This is the highest award then or now that the Emperor can give to subjects outside the Imperial family who have had significant and positive impact on the history of Japan.
Lady Saigo became the ancestor for seven Tokugawa shoguns and was also connected to the Imperial line. In 1620, Hidetada’s daughter, Masako (1607-1678) married Emperor Go-Mizunoo. As empress consort, she also had considerable influence on court, helping to maintain the court, supporting the arts, collecting antiques, was skilled in calligraphy and poetry, and she influenced the next three monarchs.
Masako’s daughter and the Emperors Go-Komyo and Go-Sai, who were sons of Emperor Go-Mizunoo by different concubines. Masako’s daughter was the great-granddaughter of Lady Saigo, known as Princess Okiko before she came into the throne in 1629 as Empress Meisho. She reigned for fifteen years and was the seventh of only eight empresses regnant in Japan’s history.
Wikipedia (Picture credits go to Wikipedia except for the maps which I took screen shots from Google Maps).
Japan : History of Japan’s Ancient and Modern Empire (Full Documentary)
Tokugawa Japan : the social and economic antecedents of modern Japan edited by Chie Nakane and Shinzabur Oishi ; translation edited by Conrad Totman.
Volume Two: Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600 to 2000 Compiled by WM Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur E. Tiedemann