JAPANESE SAMURAI / Katsuie Shibata

1522 – 1583

柴田 勝家 Katsuie Shibata

Childhood name: Gonroku

The Oda family is one of the most powerful families in Japanese history.

Katsuie Shibata was a vassal of the Oda family.

He was such a strong warrior that he was also called “Oni Shibata,” which translates to “demon-Shibata,” and played a major role in expanding Oda Nobunaga’s power.

Katsuie and the Oda Family

Katsuie was born in 1522 in Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture) as a wise and courageous young boy. Oda Nobuhide, the father of Oda Nobunaga, took notice of his talent and began teaching him literary and military skills.

This nurturing of his talents deepened the relationship between Katsuie and the Oda family. After Nobuhide’s death, Katsuie served Nobuyuki, the younger brother of Nobunaga.

When Nobunaga took over as the head of the Oda family, he gained a reputation for eccentric behavior, including his clothing and demeanor. This eccentricity made Nobuyuki and his retainers uneasy about their new leader.

In response to their concerns, Katsuie and his companions raised an army with the aim of making Nobuyuki the successor to the family’s leadership. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain, as they were defeated by Nobunaga, leading to their surrender.

They apologized to Nobunaga and obtained his forgiveness by pledging their loyalty.

Katsuie came to recognize Nobunaga’s ability. On the other hand, Nobuyuki did not give up. He once again planned to defeat Nobunaga.

However, Katsuie betrayed Nobuyuki and informed Nobunaga about his plans. Consequently, Nobuyuki was killed by Nobunaga’s retainers. After Nobuyuki’s death, Katsuie began serving Nobunaga, but he found it challenging to gain Nobunaga’s trust. As a result, he disappeared from the public eye for a decade. Unfortunately, his thirties and forties proved to be a time of misfortune.

Katsuie’s Battle Exploits

After defeating Nobuyuki, Nobunaga rapidly expanded his power. Katsuie, at the age of around 45, once again went to war. Upon hearing of a battle, he immediately rushed to the battlefield and took on the most dangerous leadership role in the team. There is an episode that exemplifies his remarkable bravery.

“Katsuie Cracking A Water Bottle”

Rokkaku Yoshitaka launched an attack on Chokoji Castle, where Katsuie was stationed. The Yoshitaka team had the advantage with its large numbers, but Katsuie’s defense was formidable.

Yoshikata, realizing that he could not win a head-on battle, decided to cut off the waterway used by Katsuie’s team and let the castle soldiers die of thirst. Katsuie and his team suffered from a lack of water and lost strength with each passing day.

Inside the castle, only three bottles of drinking water remained. Without rain, their situation became dire. Katsuie finally made a decision and addressed his retainers:

“If this continues, we will all die of thirst. I am prepared to face that fate, but I won’t impose it on you. Anyone who wishes to return to their beloved family may leave the castle. Those who choose to stand and fight with me, gather around this vial. I will give you as much water as you want to drink. Let us quench our thirst and fight to the bitter end!”

His words roused the retainers. They gathered in front of the water bottle without one running away.

Katsuie made them drink all the remaining water and broke all the water bottles.

Rehydrated and filled with energy, the soldiers stormed out of the castle en masse. Yoshitaka’s team was caught off guard and fell into chaos.

As a result, Katsuie’s forces achieved a resounding victory, claiming 800 enemy heads.

A Quarrel with His Ally

Katsuie was recognized by Nobunaga for his achievements in battle and was appointed commander of the Hokuriku area army with the mission to pacify Kaga. However, his path was obstructed by Uesugi Kenshin, known as the Dragon of Echigo and revered as a military god due to his formidable strength.

Nobunaga attempted to counter Uesugi by getting Toyotomi Hideyoshi to support Katsuie. Katsuie and Hideyoshi, who had been friends and fought together, had a falling out during this time. Hideyoshi became angry and left the battle.

The consequences were dire; Katsuie suffered a defeat at the hands of Kenshin, resulting in approximately 1,000 casualties among his team. Fortunately, Kenshin later succumbed to illness, allowing Katsuie to proceed with the conquest of the Hokuriku region.

Katsuie’s notable achievements earned him the position of the first retainer of the Oda family.

The Honnoji Incident

In 1582, while Katsuie was fighting Kenshin’s team in Toyama Prefecture, a major incident occurred in Kyoto. Mitsuhide Akechi, the chief vassal of the Oda family, committed treason, leading to Nobunaga’s tragic suicide. Nobunaga’s son, Nobutada, also met his demise in what became known as the ‘Honnoji Incident.’ With both men gone, the Oda family plunged into chaos. 

Katsuie received this news the following day and hurried to Kyoto with the intention of defeating Akechi Mitsuhide. 

However, Kenshin’s team stood in his way and he could not get to Kyoto right away. During this challenging period, Hideyoshi managed to defeat Akechi Mitsuhide. 

Hideyoshi’s avenging of Nobunaga granted him a significant advantage.

Approximately 20 days after the Honnoji Incident, there was a discussion about the Oda family called the Kiyosu Conference.

The meeting concluded with the decision to have a three-year-old boy, Sanposhi, the grandson of Nobunaga, as the successor to the Oda family. However, Hideyoshi effectively assumed power, and the territories were redistributed, with him becoming the first retainer of the Oda family. This marked a reversal of positions between Hideyoshi and Katsuie.

On the other hand, Katsuie married Oichi, who was the sister of Nobunaga and considered the most beautiful woman of the time, to protect the Oda family. It is said that Hideyoshi orchestrated this marriage in order to suppress Katsuie’s dissatisfaction at the Kiyosu Conference.

While it was Oichi’s second marriage, it was Katsuie’s first, and there was a significant age difference of 25 years between them. Katsuie, who had long-standing feelings for her, must have been elated.

Katsuie’s Last Moment

People surrounding Katsuie rebelled against Hideyoshi’s self-serving behavior, which seemed to have taken control of the Oda family. Katsuie made the decision to confront Hideyoshi to quell this turmoil, leading to a battle between them.

During the battle, Katsuie’s forces faced challenges, including the unexpected departure of Maeda Toshiie, a key warrior in his ranks, and the lack of support from other shoguns who had been called upon for support. Everyone was afraid to fight against the overwhelmingly powerful Hideyoshi.

Following the battle, Katsuie retreated to Kitanosho Castle but was soon surrounded by Hideyoshi’s forces. Realizing his defeat, he made the fateful decision to take his own life, along with his wife Oichi, and his loyal retainers. He began by ending the lives of Oichi and his men before ultimately committing seppuku, or ritual suicide. 

He was 62 years old. 

Katsuie must have experienced immeasurable regret as he witnessed the Oda family, which he had faithfully served, being taken over, ultimately leading to the sacrifice of his own family. But despite his loss, he did not blame his men who fled in the final battle.

In an act of remarkable compassion, Katsuie allowed his vassals who remained loyal to him until the end, to escape and continue their lives. This gesture reveals a different side of Katsuie, a man often labeled as an ‘ogre,’ was full of humanity and kindness.