The Three Tragedies of Tama River

These three stories are all from the Warring States Period in Japanese history, 1467 – 1573 CE. A name that pops up in all 3 of the stories is Hojo. The Hojo clan were the most powerful clan in the Kanto region until they were unseated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. And…I have totally been wondering about this forever, but I just discovered the family crest of the Hojo clan is….*opens treasure chest* ♫chalala chalala chalala laaaa♫ the triforce!!!  Now I finally know why it keeps showing up on shrines and old armor out and about the country.

These stories are relatively well-known and there are several versions floating around on the internet. The versions below are a kind of amalgamation.

Fringed Orchids

The version below draws mostly from Meguro City’s site. I like the version in Ishii’s book, but it removes some of the more unpalatable elements, such as concubines. The lord in the story, Yoriyasu Kira, was an actual lord who died in 1561. He’s in Japanese Wikipedia, but not English yet. This site also has a version, which depicts Yoriyasu as a horrible. He doesn’t seem particularly better or worse than other men of the time period though, so I went with Meguro City’s version.

Hojo-monFor some background on the story, as mentioned above, the Hojo clan was very powerful, and the Kira clan was a kind of vassal to Hojo. However, there is evidence that Yoriyasu Kira received special treatment from Hojo and Yoriyasu’s official wife was a member of the Hojo family.


The lord of Okuzawa village castle, named Dewanokami Oodaira had a daughter named Princess Tokiwa (Tokiwa Hime). Tokiwa was renowned for her beauty and was given as a concubine to the nobleman Yoriyasu Kira. Yoriyasu loved Princess Tokiwa very much and soon his other concubines became jealous of her.When Tokiwa became pregnant they spread rumors that the child was not Yoriyasu’s. Although Yoriyasu denied the rumors at first, eventually he believed them and began to treat Tokiwa coldly.

Eventually, Tokiwa could no longer bear the cruel treatment around her and decided to show her innocence through suicide. But before she killed herself, she tied a note to the leg of a white heron that she had kept since childhood. She released the heron so it would return to her father and tell him of her death.

At the same time, Yoriyasu was hunting with falcons near the Tama River. He saw the heron and killed it. It fell dying to the river bank. Yoriyasu found the note and was horrified. He hurried back to his castle, but it was too late, Tokiwa had killed herself and beside her lay her stillborn son.Sagisou

To this day, the white flowers called fringed orchids grow where the heron fell on the banks of the Tama River. The flowers are white with delicate petals that look like the wings of a heron as a symbol of Princess Tokiwa’s innocence.

*Ishii’s version is quite different. There is no heron and Princess Tokiwa is Yoriyasu’s wife. Yoriyasu loves her deeply, but he leaves her alone for a long time and cheats on her with other women. Fearing other armies in his absence, she flees to Shoin Shrine where she kills herself. Yoriyasu dies in battle and the flowers grow as her spirit trying to reach out to him. I think the heron story is more common, so I used that one above, but I’m not actually sure which is older.

**In some versions, the other concubines spread rumors that Tokiwa Hime is planning a rebellion with her father and Yoriyasu throws her out of the castle.

The Flute Princess

This one is also available in several versions online.

At this time, three families were fighting, the Hojo clan, the Takeda clan, and the Uesugi clan.

mita-monA man named Ujideru Hojo was the lord of Takiyama Castle north of Hachioji.
There was a warlord upstream the Tama River in Ome named (Danjo) Tsunahide Mita (you’ve probably also seen their family crest. It’s the triskelion — left image). The Mita clan was fighting for the Uesugi clan, so they were at war with the Hojo clan.

Tsunahide knew that the Hojo clan was stronger, and he predicted the downfall of his castle to Ujideru Hojo. So he sent his children and grandchildren far away to live deep in the mountains, at Fuefuki River. Tsunahide was an excellent flute player, and among his grandchildren, he had a granddaughter whose skill rivaled his own. She was nicknamed “Fue-hime” (flute princess). To her he gave his most prized flute. And told her to play it when she missed him or her father. As Tsunahide had predicted, soon thereafter Ujideru Hojo overran the Mita clan’s castle and Tsunahide killed himself. Tsunahide’s family line was nearly wiped out by Ujideru.

One day, Ujideru went hunting with his hawks up in the mountains near Fuefuki River. He heard the most wonderful flute playing and went to see who it was. Seeing a young woman, he was confused and asked her who she was and why she was living in the mountains. When she told him she was the granddaughter of Tsunahide Mita for whose death Ujideru was responsible, he took pity on her and had her brought back to his castle.

However, Fue-hime was consumed with thoughts of revenge for the deaths of her father, grandfather and countless other relatives. Fue-hime waited for a chance for revenge by playing her flute by the Tama River at Ujideru’s castle. Ujideru enjoyed listening to her flute playing and one day after he had drunk quite a lot of sake while listening to her flute playing, Fue-hime decided it was her chance to kill him. She pulled out a dagger that she had been saving for this moment, and moved to stab him. However, being a seasoned soldier, he dodged her easily and took the weapon. Rather than being angry, he had sympathy for her and told her he understood her feelings. But that killing him would not bring back her family and that she should consider hating the war-torn situation she was born into rather than himself. Fue-hime felt utter despair and began to cry. When she returned to her room, she decided to kill herself by cutting off her tongue. However, an elderly woman stopped her and reminded her that she was the last of the Mita family, so killing herself would not be a great tragedy.

Fue-hime was unhappy, but eventually Ujideru’s consistent kindness won her over. Ujideru also played the flute and he began to invite Fue-hime to play with him in the evenings by the river. However, as the two grew closer, Ujideru’s wife Hisa became jealous. She could not understand why the granddaughter of her husband’s enemy enjoyed such a position in their home and plotted to end Fue-hime’s life.

One day, while Fue-hime played her flute waiting for Ujideru to return, Hisa approached her and stabbed her in the chest with a dagger. She had the servants discard Fue-hime’s body off the castle grounds.

When Ujideru learned of Fue-hime’s death, he was overcome with grief. He lamented the emptiness of war that had led the talented young woman to live such a short and tragic life. He soon followed after her in one of the many battles of the Warring States period.

The Tragedy of Hyogo Island

Nitta_Yoshioki_at_the_Yaguchi_ferryLate in the Warring States period there were two brothers of the Nitta clan (enemies of the Hojo and Ashikaga clans). The older one’s name was Yoshisada and the younger one’s name was Yoshioki. Their clan’s army had been defeated by the Ashikaga and they were forced to retreat to Echigo. However, Yoshioki raised an army and fought his way back to the Tama River. He asked two members of allied clans to help him cross the river, Totonokami Edo and Ukyonosuke Takezawa.

However, unbeknownst to Yoshioki, the two men had changed sides from the Nitta clan to the Ashikaga clan. They pretended to help him and gave him a boat. They boarded one of their members on the boat and had him open a hole in it in the middle of the river.

As the boat sank, the Edo and Takezawa warriors on the river banks fired arrows at Yoshioki and his men. Yoshioki killed himself and his men swam to the shore where they fought the enemy, some of them also killed themselves. Two of his men, Hyogonosuke Yura and Emon Shinza stood on the side of the boat and cut off each others’ heads to kill themselves. It is from Hyogonosuke’s name that Hyogo Island in the Tama River gets its name.

After betraying Yoshioki, it is believed that his vengeful spirit came after Totonokami.

Both Totonokami and Ukyonosuke received an award of lands and titles from the Ashikaga clan. But while Totonokami was crossing the land he had received, a terrible storm blew up. The boat coming to pick him up sank and so he rode on a horse towards Kawasaki. However, he fell off his horse, vomited blood and lost consciousness. His servants took him to a house nearby, but on the 7th day he died. They said he thrashed his arms and legs about as though he was drowning before he died.

The above story is certainly exciting, but according to Setagaya City’s website, the name of the island is Hyogo, because Ukyonosuke Takezawa went into the river to find Yoshioki’s corpse to show to the Ashikaga as evidence of the defeat, but the only body he could find was Hyogonosuke’s. Later, Hyogonosuke’s body appeared again to the local fishermen, and they felt sorry for the warrior and enshrined him on the island. Ergo: Hyogo Island.

Also, in some versions it seems Totonokami died 7 days after being struck by lightening.

*Wikipedia’s English page says Yoshioki Nitta was sentenced to death and executed by drowning. That doesn’t really make sense or match with the story above, and I could not verify this in Japanese. The Japanese Wikipedia story roughly matches that above, as does Setagaya City’s website (he was betrayed by the two men, his boat was sabotaged, and they shot arrows at him). And there is a famous painting of him being struck by arrows in a sinking boat with his men around him. So I think the English page is a mistranslation. However, the source for the English page is a log-in site that requires payment, so I can’t easily check why the author wrote that. You will have to live in suspense.

Main Reference: Tama River Folktales by Sakuhira Ishii, Arimine Shoten Publishing, 1976

0 thoughts on “The Three Tragedies of Tama River”

  1. Oh wow. I’ve been researching Kira Yoriyasu in Japanese like a chump and here you had the whole story in English the whole time. Awesome!

    Will definitely give your blog a shout out.

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