The Father of Edo Castle

Ōta Sukenaga (太田資長, 1432-1486), better known under his Buddhist name Ōta Dōkan (太田道灌), was a daimyō in Musashi Province and the eldest son of Ōta Sukekiyo (太田資清, 1411-1493) who served the Ōgigayatsu Uesugi as major-domo (執事 shitsuji). When Sukekiyo was defeated in the conflict between the Uesugi kanrei (管領, shogunal deputies) and Ashikaga Shigeuji, he relinquished his office and became a monk, taking the name of Dōshin. Sukenaga succeeded his father in 1455 and became a monk three years later, adopting the name Dōkan.


Statue of Ōta Dōkan at the Tokyo International Forum in Yūrakuchō (photo credit)

In 1457, Sukenaga attacked Edo Shigeyasu (江戸重康), a local warlord from the Chichibu clan (hailing from modern-day western Saitama). Shigeyasu's ancestor Shigetsugu had established his residence on a hill near to where Sumida Rivers used to flow into Tokyo Bay, in what is today the Chiyoda District (千代田区) of Tōkyō. The popular narrative that Ōta Dōkan was the builder of Edo Castle holds only partial truth. Dōkan realised the strategic position of Shigeyasu's residence and fortified the area where the former Edo residence had once stood for his lord Uesugi Sadamasa. He also improved the local infrastructure by rerouting Nihonbashi River (日本橋川) and thereby planted the seeds for what would later become Tokugawa Ieyasu's powerbase Edo (江戸) and the capital Tōkyō. Dōkan also constructed the castles in Kawagoe and Iwatsuki.

Around 1475, Nagao Kageharu (長尾景春, 1443-1514), another Uesugi vassal, was planning a revolt against the kanrei. After several failed attempts at deterring Kageharu, Dōkan revealed the plot to Uesugi Akisada, who attacked Kageharu but was ultimately defeated and pushed back to Kōzuke Province (present-day Gunma Prefecture). Kageharu forged an alliance with other Kantō warlords opposed to the Uesugi (the Toshima, the Narita, and the Chiba clans) and established a stronghold that reached from Sagami (central and western Kanagawa) to Shimōsa (parts of modern-day Chiba and Ibaraki ). Although Kageharu received military support from Ashikaga Shigeuji, Dōkan invaded Musashi Province and defeated several of Kageharu's allies. After routing the castles at Nerima and Shakuji, he annihilated the Toshima clan at their headquarters in Hiratsuka Castle.

In 1486, however, Ōta Dōkan fell victim to an internal conflict between the Ōgigayatsu and the Yamanouchi branches of the Uesugi family. Kanrei Sadamasa (上杉定正, 1443-1494) falsely accused Dōkan who like his father, had served the Ōgigayatsu of disloyalty and had him assassinated at the Uesugi residence in Sagami.


Ōta Dōkan (from the collection of Daiji-ji Temple, Isehara; public domain)

Dōkan was not only a distinguished warrior but also a poet and a well-respected Buddhist scholar. One famous episode relates to a well-known waka (a Japanese poem that consists of 31 syllables) written by Prince Kaneakira (兼明親王 Kaneakira Shinnō) compiled in the Goshui-Wakashu (後拾遺和歌集) anthology of waka poems in 1086.


Nanae yae
hana wa sakedomo
yamabuki no
mi no (mino) hitotsu dani
naki zo kanashiki.

The yamabuki blossoms are abundant with petals;
Despite this,
Sad to say
they bear no fruits (straw raincoat)

One day, when Dōkan had gone out for a walk, it started to rain. He came across a humble peasant hut surrounded by beautiful shrubs of Japanese marigold (Kerria japonica, 山吹 Yamabuki). He knocked at the door, and a young girl stepped out. He asked her if he could borrow a straw raincoat (蓑 mino). Without uttering a word, she broke a twig of marigold and handed it to the puzzled Dōkan. Later, when he found Prince Kaneakira's waka, he grasped what she had intended to convey: the roses in full bloom might have made her house look wealthy, but they bear no fruits. Her family was too poor even to afford a raincoat. Humbled by the girl's noble gesture, Dōkan devoted himself to the study of poetry.

Dōkan's death poem (辞世の句 jisei no ku) has attained fame, too. According to legend, he was slain in the bath, composing the poem while bleeding to death.


Kakaru toki
sakoso inochi no
kanete nakimi to

Had I not known
that I was dead
I would have mourned
my loss of life.

The Ōta clan

The Ōta family crest
The Ōta clan (太田氏) descended from the Seiwa-Genji line through Minamoto no Yorimasa (源 頼政, 1106-1180) and his son Minamoto no Hirotsune. Ōta Sukekuni was a descendant of Hirotsune in the fifth generation and settled down at Ōta in Tanba Province (present-day Kyōto and Hyōgo prefectures), adopting the name of that locality. In the Muromachi Period, the Ōta served the Ōgigayatsu Uesugi and were appointed shugodai (守護代, vice-governors) of Sagami Province.

Other branches of the family served the Satomi, the Late Hōjō, the Satake, and the Nabeshima in Kyūshū. Ōta Sukemune (太田資宗, 1600-1680) was a hatamoto under Tokugawa Ieyasu and later served as wakadoshiyori (若年寄, "Junior Elders") under the third shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu. His sister Okaji no Kata (お梶の方) was one of Ieyasu's favourite concubines and later founded Eishō-ji (英勝寺) Temple in Kamakura.

The Ōta were fudai daimyō (hereditary vassals) under the Tokugawa and installed in various domains, such as Yamakawa, Nishio, Hamamatsu, Tanaka, Tanagura, Tatebayashi and finally Kakekawa. The last daimyō of Kakegawa, Ōta Sukeyoshi (太田資美, 1854-1913), became a viscount (子爵 shishaku) under the kazoku peerage system.


  • What does Edo mean? (Japan This!)
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard 2002
  • Papinot, E., Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan; Tuttle 1972
  • Turnbull, Stephen, The Samurai Sourcebook, London 1998
  • Hoffmann, Yoel, Japanese Death Poems written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death, Tuttle 1986