Siege of Akasaka, c.31 October-20 November 1331

The siege of Akasaki (c.31 October-20 November 1331) saw the forces of the Shogunate attack and capture the castle of Kusunoki Masashige, a supporter of the Emperor Go-Daigo, although Kusunoki escaped and continued the fight from nearby mountains.

Ever since coming to the throne the Emperor Go-Daigo had been preparing for a clash with the Shogunate as he attempted to restore Imperial power. That clash came in 1331 when his plot was uncovered. The Shogunate (or Bakufu) sent an army to the Imperial capital at Kyoto with orders to force the Emperor into exile, but he was warned and managed to escape to the mountain fortress of Kasagi. The army of the Bakufu followed, and after a short siege Kasagi fell. Go-Daigo escaped from the siege but was captured a few days later. This meant that a large Bakufu army approaching from the east didn’t arrive in time to take part in the siege.

During his brief period of liberty Go-Daigo had managed to win over a number of reinforcements, including Kusunoki Masahige, a medium ranked warrior from Kawachi province. The Bakufu reinforcements coming from the east learnt that Kasagi Castle had fallen as they were approaching Omi Province. Their pride was stung by the early fall of the castle, and so instead of heading for Kyoto they decided to head directly to Kusunoki's castle at Akasaka. The Taiheiki describes this as a very weak fortification, without a proper ditch, with a single wall plastered over with mud and only one or two hundred yards around, and containing twenty or thirty recently built towers.

The attacking army is described as having been 300,000 strong while Kusunoki is given 200 archers within the castle and 300 riders that he had posted in nearby mountains under the command of his brothers. Encouraged by the apparent weakness of Akasaka the attacking troops launched an immediate attack. They dismounting, advanced into the castle ditch and preparing to rush the defences.

At this point Kusunoki's archers appeared and opened fire, 'smiting more than a thousand men in an instant' (each archer apparently hitting five opponents!). The Bakufu troops decided to withdraw and begin a more formal siege. They withdrew a distance from the castle, removed their armour and then camped.

At this point Kusunoki's cavalry from the mountains attacked in two parties each of 150 men, one from the west and one from the east. They were aided by a mist, which made it difficult for the Bakufu troops to tell if they were enemies or part of their own army. This allowed the attackers to get close enough to launch a surprise attack, forcing their way into the centre of the Bakufu army and causing chaos. At this point Kusunoki launched a sortie from within the castle and his 200 mounted archers added to the confusion. The attacking army was forced into a chaotic retreat from the immediate vicinity of the castle.

After this first setback the attackers held a conference at which they initially decided to take the siege much more seriously, but were swayed into making a second assault on the castle by the men of Homma and Shibuya, who had suffered the heaviest losses in the first attack. This time the army was split in two, with 100,000 men being posted in the nearby mountains to guard against surprise attacks, while the remaining 200,000 made a second attack on the castle (this is a good example of the mixed reliability of the Taiheiki - the figures given for the size of the attacking army are clearly far too high, but the idea of a two-to-one split between assault troops and a screening force is perfectly reasonable).

Once again Kusunoki had a cunning plan. The apparently weak single wall of his castle was actually a double wall, with the outer wall held to the inner wall by ropes. The second attack was made on the second day of the siege. This time the attacking troops reached almost reached the top of the false outer wall before the defenders cut the ropes holding it up. The outer wall fell to the ground, crushing more than a thousand of the attackers. The defenders then threw logs and boulders onto their trapped enemies. The attackers lost 700 men in this second attack. Kusunoki gained a great reputation as a cunning thoughtful leader.

After these two setbacks the defenders settled into a more regular blockade, but after four or five days their pride got the better of them again and they decided to launch a third, more careful attack. This time they prepared reinforced shields to guard against attack from the castle, and prepared grapnels to pull down the false outer wall. They then advanced into the ditch, but just as they were about to pull down the outer wall the defenders used long ladles to pour boiling water over them. The water ran inside their armour and inflicted terrible burns on 200-300 of the attackers.

After this third setback the attackers decided not to launch any more assaults on the castle, but instead to starve the defenders out. This tactic proved to be more effective. Twenty days into the siege supplies were beginning to run out. Kusunoki decided that there was no point dying in the ruins of his castle, and that he could do more good for the Imperial cause if he escaped and fought a guerrilla campaign from the mountains. He also decided to fake his death, and prepared a massive funeral pyre over the bodies of twenty or thirty fallen attackers. The idea was that the attackers would see this fire and assume that Kusunoki and his men had committed suicide and had their bodies burnt.

A suitably dark night soon came. A single man was left in the castle to light the pyre, and then the rest of the defenders disguised themselves as members of the attacking army and sneaked through the enemy lines in groups of threes and fives. Kusunoki was nearly shot by a sentry who thought he was a horse thief, but the arrow is said to have bounced off an amulet. He then reached safety, from where he watched his castle burning. As hoped the besieging troops assumed that Kusunoki had died in castle, and went away celebrating a key victory.

Sadly the Taiheiki doesn't give any firm dates for these events, but the siege must have started soon after the fall of Kasagi on 31 October, and ended twenty days later, on or around 20 November 1331.

Kusunoki soon returned to his castle, re-capturing Akasaka in a suprise attack on 28 April 1332.

Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan, trans. Helen Craig McCullough. A modern English translation of the first twelve chapters of the Taiheiki, covering the period of the Genko War, a civil war that saw the Emperor Go-Daigo briefly overthrow the Shogunate and restore direct Imperial rule.
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A History of Japan, 1334-1615, Sir George Sansom. A classic history of Japan, covering the period from the fall of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 1330s to the battle of Sekigahara of 1615. A little dated now, but it still provides an excellent narrative history of this period, with more detail on the military events than in most more modern works.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 October 2012), Siege of Akasaka, c.31 October-20 November 1331 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_akasaka_1331.html

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