Nitta Yoshisada (1301
) was a 14th century
warlord who helped Emperor Go-Daigo
overthrow the Hojo Bakufu
and briefly place Japan
under direct imperial rule.
Yoshisada was born into the Nitta clan of Kozuke province in 1301. That the Nitta were a branch line of the Minamoto gave them great status, but their failure to promptly side with Yoritomo at the start of the Gempei War led them to be excluded from holding high office in the Kamakura administration. Nevertheless, by the 1330s the Nitta had become a strong regional power that commanded the favor of the Hojo.
Nitta Yoshisada emerges from the historical sources as a mediocre general and a calculating opportunist. When Emperor Go-Daigo put out a call to the warrior clans to support him in his insurrection against the Hojo in 1331, Yoshisada declined to back him - judging that the rebellion had no hope of success, he remained loyal to his Hojo overlords. The revolt was eventually put down, and Go-Daigo was exiled to the island of Oki.
In 1333, Go-Daigo escaped and started a new revolt. Once again, Yoshisada declined to join, biding his time. Then, in July, while the Hojo armies were engaged elsewhere fighting against Ashikaga Takauji, Kusunoki Masashige, and Prince Morinaga, Yoshisada suddenly saw his chance, switching sides and capturing the relatively undefended Hojo capital at Kamakura. Thus Yoshisada recieved much of the glory and credit for Go-Daigo's triumph, while others did most of the hard fighting.
For two years Yoshisada enjoyed the favors of Go-Daigo's court at Kyoto, but trouble began brewing in 1335, after Takauji put down a rebellion by Hojo Tokiyuki in the east. In an act that all but signaled open rebellion, Takauji refused Go-Daigo's order to return to Kyoto and installed himself at Kamakura where he began to redistribute lands to his followers, including giving the Nitta's ancestral lands in Kozuke to the Uesugi. Yoshisada set out at the head of an imperial army to punish Takauji. He defeated Takauji's brother Tadayoshi in Mikawa, only to be crushed by Takauji himself at Ashigara pass in the Hakone Mountains and again in Suruga. His army broken, Yoshisada fled, and it fell to Kitabatake Akiie to drive Takauji out of Kyoto.
Takauji fled to Kyushu, but returned in June of 1336 with an even bigger army than before. Go-Daigo turned to Yoshisada and Kusunoki Masashige for advice. Yoshisada, hoping to fight a definitive battle and finish off Takauji once and for all, wanted to take the imperial army out into the field and intercept Takauji's advance at Minatogawa. Masashige disagreed, arguing that it was folly to face Takauji's numerically superior force in a pitched battle. Instead, he suggested that Go-Daigo retreat to Mount Hiei and the protection of the Enryakuji yamabushi, whence the imperial forces could harrass Takauji with guerilla operations until a more opportune time to fight arose. Yoshisada was Go-Daigo's favorite, however, so his plan won the emperor's approval. Go-Daigo ordered Masashige to accompany Yoshisada to Minatogawa, and the loyal Masashige obeyed.
Just as Masashige predicted, the Battle of Minatogawa proved to be a disaster. When Takauji outflanked Yoshisada's army, he panicked and retreated, leaving Masashige's force exposed and unprotected against an overwhelming assault by Tadayoshi. After holding out for more than six hours, Masashige's men were surrounded and slaughtered, and Masashige himself committed suicide. Yoshisada's army was routed, and although Yoshisada himself escaped, Takauji's road to Kyoto was clear.
Takauji entered Kyoto in triumph and crowned a new emperor, Komyo. Go-Daigo belatedly fled to Mount Hiei, as Masashige had originally suggested, and later fled again to Mount Yoshino where he continued to issue loud if empty claims to the throne. Meanwhile, Yoshisada and Prince Takanaga holed up in the Nitta stronghold of Kanagasaki in Echizen. Takauji launched several assaults against the fortress and finally captured it in April of 1337, but Yoshisada escaped again. But his luck had been all used up, and Takauji's forces finally caught up with him and killed him at Battle of Fujishima in August, 1338. Go-Daigo's last general was dead, and Takauji's hegemony was secure. That summer, Emperor Komyo named Takauji shogun, and the Ashikaga bakufu began.