Motonari and his three arrows

A Sengoku daimyō and military leader in the Chūgoku Region of western Japan.


Mōri family crest
Mōri Motonari (毛利元就, 1497-1571), the second son of Mōri Hiromoto (d. 1556), became head of the Mōri clan of Aki Province (安芸国 Aki no kuni) or Geishū (芸州, modern-day Hiroshima Prefecture) in 1523. To maintain their independence during the turmoil of the Sengoku Period, the Mōri had allied themselves first with the neighbouring Amago clan (尼子氏 Amago-shi) and later with the Ōuchi family (大内氏 Ōuchi-shi).

Mori Motonari's expansion

Motonari captured extensive domains in Aki and Bingo provinces with the help of the Ōuchi and, in 1540, defeated the Amago clan. When his ally Ōuchi Yoshitaka committed suicide in the wake of a plot instigated by a vassal named Sue Harukata (陶晴賢, 1521-1555), Motonari declared war on Sue, defeating him in 1555 in the Battle of Miyajima near the island of Itsukushima (厳島合戦 Itsukushima Kassen). In 1557, Motonari annihilated the remains of the Amago, occupied the lands of the Ōuchi, and challenged the Ōtomo clan (大友氏) in Kyūshū. By the time of his death, he ruled over the provinces of Aki and Bingo, Suō and Nagato (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture), Bitchū (now part of Okayama), Inaba and Hōki (modern-day Tottori Prefecture), and Izumo, Oki, and Iwami (now Shimane Prefecture), as well as over parts of Kyūshū and Shikoku.

Three Arrows

Motonari would have been strong enough to present a serious challenge even to an influential leader such as Oda Nobunaga. He was not only considered to be a successful military leader, but also a skilled diplomat and an accomplished poet. Every pupil in Japan is aware of the anecdote relating to Motonari's use of three arrows to show his three sons the strength of alliance: each arrow could be broken separately, but the three arrows – when held tightly together – could not be broken. Two of his sons, Kobayakawa Takakage (小早川隆景, 1533-1597) and Kikkawa Motoharu (吉川元春, 1530-1586), were adopted as the heirs of neighbouring daimyō and thereby added to the strength of the Mōri domain.

In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's new economic policy of "Abenomics" has been illustrated by using the analogy of Motonari's "Three Arrows", namely aggressive monetary easing to create inflation, increased public spending, and a bundle of economic reforms resulting in economic growth through private investments.


  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
  • Stephen Turnbull's The Samurai: A Military History, 1977

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