A Forgotten Tohoku “Tree War” and an Enduring Rivalry

A Forgotten Tohoku “Tree War” and an Enduring Rivalry

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To this day, a rivalry exists between the northern Japanese prefectures of Aomori and Iwate. And its source? A bunch of trees.

One of the things I learned when I first lived in Sendai, the biggest city in the Tohoku region, was that people from Iwate Prefecture and neighboring Aomori Prefecture are rivals. As a Philadelphian now residing in Pittsburgh, I can tell you that urban legends about regional rivalries are common the world over. Yet I was surprised to learn many years later, during my graduate studies in Tohoku history. that the Iwate-Aomori rivalry has its roots in the history of Tsugaru and Nanbu, two feuding fiefdoms in the area. One particular episode of that rivalry is the 18th-century Hinokiyama Incident.

Aomori and Iwate prefectures, highlighted in red. Aomori is to the north.

A History of Enmity

The first thing to remember about the Nanbu and Tsugaru families, who were both lordly daimyo in the Edo period, is that the Tsugaru clan — once known as Ōura– used to be vassals to the Nanbu. Toyotomi Hideyoshi recognized the Ōura family as an independent daimyo in the 1590s, during the headship of Ōura Tamenobu. Hideyoshi’s recognition effectively severed Ōura’s ties to the Nanbu clan, the latter of which was embroiled in a factional split that left it without a clear, single leadership. Ōura was able to take action with the help of intermediaries like the daimyo Mogami Yoshiaki and Ishida Mitsunari. His former Nanbu overlords, who reestablished unity under Nanbu Nobunao, never forgave him for this. This can help contextualize the Hinokiyama Incident.

After all, friendly or even neutral neighbors — much less the commoners who lived in their villages — might not have so easily come to this sort of confrontation.

Cypress used in the construction of Taka-no-miya, at Ise Grand Shrine
(source, by Kajikawa, provided under CC 3.0 license)

Letter Versus Spirit of the Law

A second point is that appearing to follow the law rather than the letter of the law was the operational basis of the Tokugawa system. Luke Roberts argues this in Performing the Great Peace, which analyzes the collective political fictions of the Edo period. The Shogunate was a decentralized administration; what that meant in practice was that you could do what you wanted, as long as you didn’t get caught.

The Shogunate caught the Nanbu clan in the Hinokiyama Incident. And if the Shogunate has to arbitrate, that’s bad news in general; especially if in the affairs of a tozama (unfavored) daimyo far to the north.

Let’s back up and start from the beginning.

The Simpler Version of the Story

The year was 1713.

Now, there are two versions of this story. The first version, as many popular versions of stories from Japanese history go, focuses on the daimyo families. It tells what is ultimately a neater, cleaner version of the story. Incidentally, this is the story as I first heard it.


The Shogunate put out a call for the daimyo to contribute cypress wood– hinoki, in Japanese– as tribute. Cypress is important for making shrine buildings and Noh stages, so it’s still important in traditional Japanese architecture. And it just so happened that the Nanbu clan had some in a forest on its border with Tsugaru. Eboshidake, also known as Hinokiyama (Cypress Mountain), is the key mountain in the area.

Edo period portrait of Tsugaru (Ōura) Tamenobu. (source, in PD)

Cypress Deceit

But the Nanbu clan, with a straight face, told the Shogunate it had no cypress. Given historical facts, this makes sense. The Shogunate didn’t always project power that far away from the Shogunal capital without a major, earthshattering crisis to justify it. It might’ve ended there, had the Nanbu– on that side of their territory– bordered anyone but the Tsugaru. Tsugaru got wind of this deceit. It responded by moving its clan’s troops into said forest and declaring a new border. Clearly, the border was on the other side! In fact, the Tsugaru clan had already delivered a great deal of cypress from its territory that year and saw an opportunity to even out its losses.

The Nanbu objected. They called upon Shogunal arbitration to iron out the issue. The Tsugaru won, and the Shogunate redrew the border in Tsugaru’s favor.

But, alas, this is a myth. The real story is messier — and far more interesting. It focuses just as much on the commoners as on the daimyo who controlled either side of the border.

Unclear Borders and Feuding Villages

It all began August 2, 1713, when 6 villagers from Hiranai, a village on the Tsugaru side of the border, complained to the Shogunate. They asked for intervention concerning cross-border intrusions committed by people from the Nanbu side. Makado was the nearest Nanbu village, known even in later years for its hot springs. Meiji-era General Shiba Gorō’s memoir Remembering Aizu is partly set in the vicinity during the defeated Aizu samurai‘s early Meiji exile.

Eboshidake today. (source, by らんで, provided under CC 3.0 license)

Hiranai’s villagers alleged that Makado villagers went up the mountain, felled cypress trees, and gathered firewood at will, irrespective of borders. The boundary ran along the mountains on the west side of the Horisashi River. Nobody clearly delineated it. The confusion is understandable; this wasn’t even the only unclear Nanbu border. Far to the south, the Nanbu border with the lands of house Date of Sendai domain was once similarly ill-defined until a late 17th-century survey clarified it. The clans marked the border with a series of paired mounds, with the border running in the space between the mounds. Some of the mounds even still exist.

The Shogunate Takes the Case

Rather than ignore this complaint by villagers in a remote village on a distant border, the Shogunate instead chose to intervene. It ordered representatives from both villages to report to Morikawa Toshitane’s estate. Morikawa was a daimyo who served as the Shogunate’s Magistrate of Temples and Shrines. He convened a hearing there on 9 January 1714. Morikawa was at first of the opinion that the blame lay more on the Nanbu side. The Makado villagers provided sufficient evidence to sway Morikawa’s opinion; he ordered further investigation.

The Shogunate then sent surveyors to the border in the spring of 1714. The surveyors appraised the land, further investigated the dispute, and more clearly mapped the territory. After Shogunate arbitration, and regardless of the Nanbu protest, the Shogunate’s Deliberative Council (Hyōjōsho) issued its verdict on 10 October 1714. The Temple and Shrine Magistrates, the City Magistrates, and the Finance Magistrates made up this Council. They were some of the Shogunate’s most important offices. The Council’s decisions were not to be taken lightly.

In the end, the villagers from the Tsugaru side of the border won. The Shogunate redrew the border in Tsugaru’s favor. Hinokiyama, just west of what’s now Noheji, Aomori, was now clearly on the Tsugaru side. However, in recognition of the fact that they’d come to rely on trips to the mountain, the Shogunate allowed Makado villagers to continue crossing into Tsugaru territory and to use the timber on the mountain. So long, that is, as the village paid for the privilege — to the tune of three thousand copper mon yearly, deliverable to the village authorities in Hiranai.

A Complicated Aftermath

This arbitration on the part of the Shogunate settled the dispute between the border villages. It did not end the enmity between the houses of Nanbu and Tsugaru, even if the incident involved commoners rather than bushi (warriors). A later Hinokiyama Incident happened in May 1821, also known as the Sōma Daisaku incident for the assumed name of its Nanbu ringleader. In this incident, Nanbu retainers attacked the homebound procession of the Tsugaru daimyo Tsugaru Yasuchika (1765-1833) in an unsuccessful assassination attempt.

While Tsugaru and Nanbu were, briefly, allies in the Northern Alliance of 1868 during the Boshin War, enmity won out even there. When Tsugaru saw which way the wind was blowing and left the Alliance, Nanbu turned its army north and fought Tsugaru in the Alliance’s last battles, the Noheji Campaign. With the first Hinokiyama Incident in mind, the Northern Alliance’s last battles are strangely ironic. The battles were Nanbu clan tactical victories won in a last-ditch effort at evening the score. Today, both sides of the old border are part of Aomori Prefecture.

This real history was the proverbial nine-tenths of the iceberg beneath what I heard, back in Sendai in 2005, about the rivalry between the peoples of Aomori and Iwate.

And who was the first to tell me of that rivalry?

Why, an Aomori-born friend, of course.

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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