As Japan continued to stumble through decades-long cycles of war in the 16th century, one clan in the northern province of Mutsu gradually consolidated and expanded its military and political power. Marching under the now-iconic sparrows-in-bamboo crest, it produced many courageous warriors and leaders whose names endure to the present. If you’re thinking of the Date clan, famed as founders of the modern city of Sendai, you’re on the right track. But if you’re thinking this is another article about Date Masamune, the one-eyed warlord renowned in his time for flamboyance and skilled politicking (and among modern anime fans for rocking an eyepatch and an occasional motorcycle horse), you’re close but not quite there.
Meet Date Onami, Masamune’s aunt, and one of the women missing from most popular depictions of the Date family’s Warring States era history.
Fearsome Ladies of House Date
Many Date clan women appear in live-action dramas like the NHK Taiga series Dokuganryu Masamune or Tenchijin that focus on or feature the family. Sadly, anime, manga, and game depictions aren’t as good at representing Date women in general, and Onami in particular.
Tamura Mego, Masamune’s wife, appears in the Youtube-exclusive Masamune Datenikuru series by GAINAX, and in Capcom’s Onimusha: Soul. Then there’s Katakura Kita makes a cameo in the Voltage, Inc. game Samurai Love Ballad Party. She was many things; Masamune’s wet nurse, and a tutor in literary and martial arts to both her half-brother Kojūrō and Masamune himself. Later, she was even instrumental to the clan’s politics in Kyoto at Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s court. Her influence on the clan’s politics and future, both directly and through these two men she taught, cannot be overstated. Iroha, Masamune’s eldest daughter, was a vital presence in the clan’s political deliberations in the early 17th century. Likewise, she has appeared in some of the same titles above.
The women in these depictions regularly take a back seat to the men; they’re either extensions of the men, love interests, or little more than eye candy. Their agency in these depictions is all too often missing. This is part of a broader trend in popular depictions featuring women in the historical fiction genre. It is likewise an extension of a broader, systemic tendency to write women out of history, so the state of popular depictions is not too surprising. But any history that does not take account of women and their agency in the past is incomplete, and we must do better.
Japanese Women at War
While the list of women to rule their clans and castles may be short, there is a long and fascinating history of women at war in Japanese history. The 12th-century Tomoe-gozen has a brief but visible role in the forces of Kiso no Yoshinaka, in Heike Monogatari, where she rode to war alongside her partner in battle after battle. Much later, in the Aizu domain during the Boshin War, the exploits of sharpshooter-turned-educator Yamamoto Yae in 1868 and beyond are well known. These women existed; they were active participants in the history, and to leave them out, or relegate them to bit parts or to window dressing, is to do a disservice to historical fact.
Meet Lady Onami
With that being said, who was Lady Onami of Sukagawa?
Lady Onami was born at Kōri-Nishiyama Castle in 1541, in modern-day Kōri, Fukushima Prefecture. At the time, Kōri lay in Date county of Mutsu Province. Date county had been the home of the Date clan since their 12th century status as Kamakura Shogunate retainers; the family took its name from the county.
Onami was one of three siblings born to Date Harumune and his wife Iwaki Kubo. Her older brother Chikataka was adopted into their mother’s Iwaki family, and her younger brother Terumune eventually received headship of the Date family. For context against more famous historical figures: Onami was seven years younger than Oda Nobunaga, four younger than Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and two older than Tokugawa Ieyasu. Thus, she was old enough to live through– and remember– the entirety of Japan’s gradual unification. Her more famous Date nephew, on the other hand, was born 26 years later, once the reunification was already underway.