It’s August 28, 2018, the finals day of the Miss World Japan contest of 2018. And the winner is a glamorous law student, Kanako Date. She’ll now compete in the Miss World 2018 pageant in China in December 2018. But something sets Ms. Date apart from her fellow contestants. Her distant ancestor is the legendary samurai overlord, Date Masamune, known as the “One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu.”
We’ll come back to her illustrious ancestor, but for the moment let’s get to know Kanako Date better. The phrase “not just a pretty face” could have been coined specifically for Ms. Date. As well as having stunning good looks, she is obviously a woman of many talents. For a start, she can speak an astonishing variety of languages, including English, French, Italian and Korean.
Date is also a skilled archer, enjoys spending time on the ski slopes during the season and is an accomplished swimmer. Other talents include the ability to play the koto, a complex Japanese musical instrument with 13 strings, which the player plucks with the index finger, middle finger and thumb.
Just to add to the super-achiever mix, Date is also a talented singer. And at the time she won the 2018 Miss World Japan title against 29 other hopefuls, the 21-year-old was in the fourth year of a law degree at the prestigious Keio University.
Date, who was born in Tokyo, has spent time volunteering with the Red Cross and World Vision International, a humanitarian Christian aid and development charity. When she’s finished her studies, she hopes to work for some kind of international outfit.
Having won the title of Miss World Japan in August 2018, the next stop for Date was the full Miss World contest in China in November. Speaking to Kyodo News Date said, “I’m just surprised, I believe it (the Miss World contest) will be a world I’ve never seen. I’ll do my best.”
Obviously, Date was a hot property in the media after her Miss World Japan win. But there was another fact about the young woman that attracted the attention of the press. It turns out that, separated by 21 generations, one of Japan’s best-known samurai warlords, Date Masamune is her direct ancestor.
We’ll come back to Kanako Date presently, when we’ll find out how she got on in the Miss World 2018 pageant, but first let’s find out a bit more about her venerable ancestor. Date Masamune came into the world in 1567 in Japan’s modern-day Yamagata prefecture in the splendor of Yonezawa Castle. He was the first-born son of Date Terumune.
Date Terumune was the 16th leader of the Date clan, which was based in the province of Mutsu. Masamune was clearly set to follow in his father’s footsteps as a warlord and clan leader. He started early when, aged just 14, he joined one of his father’s campaigns in 1581 fighting a rival clan, the Soma.
Historians see this era of Japanese history towards the close of the 16th century as the end of the Sengoku period. This time, also known as the Age of Warring States, was characterized by almost continual armed conflict and social unrest within Japan. So it’s no surprise that Masamune’s first experience of battle came when he was still a young teenager.
And not long after that early battlefield experience, Masamune was thrust into the position of leader of the Date clan. His father had decided to retire in 1584, so the son now became the head of the clan. He was still only 17 years old, but now he had his own battle standards.
But there were things other than the battle standards that marked out Masamune’s identity. One of those was his helmet emblazoned with a crescent moon. Another was the black armor that his soldiers wore. And then there was his fearsome alias, the One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu.
As a youngster, Masamune had suffered from a bout of smallpox resulting in the loss of his right eye. There are different versions of the story of how exactly he lost his eye. One tale even relates that he gouged the offending organ out himself.
Another tale claims that he ordered one of his faithful retinue of samurai warriors, a certain Katakura Kojuro, to pluck the eye out for him. However the damaged eye was removed, the name One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu was calculated to instill terror in Masamune’s enemies.
Just a year after Masamune took the leadership of the Date clan, serious conflict broke out leading to the Battle of Hitotoribashi in 1585. This was a grudge match of epic proportions with its origin in the treachery of a Date clan retainer, Ouchi Sadatsuna.
In 1584 this Sadatsuna had defected to a rival clan, the Ashina Enraged by this perfidious treason, Masamune vowed to kill Sadatsuna and wage war on the Ashina. The outraged warlord now attacked not only the Ashina but also other clans associated with them.
One of those clans was the Nihonmatsu, led by Nihonmatsu Yoshitsugu. Believing that defeat by Masamune was imminent, Yoshitsugu surrendered to him. Masamune’s ruthless reply was that he would only accept the surrender if the bulk of the Nihonmatsu lands were handed over to him.
But Yoshitsugu now double-crossed Masamune, kidnapping his father Terumune into the bargain. The One-eyed Dragon of Oshu now pursued the forces of Yoshitsugu, catching up with them not far from the Abukuma River. In the confusion of the ensuing clash, both Terumune and Yoshitsugu ended up dead.
And this Abukuma River incident now sparked off a major conflict between the Date and the Nihonmatsu and various clans allied to the latter. But Masamune now found himself in a precarious position to say the least. His 7,000 warriors were faced by a force of 30,000. And he now lost one of his most important commanders, Oniniwa Yoshinao, killed in the fighting.
Masamune was forced on the retreat and sought refuge in one of his strongholds, Motomiya Castle. He may well have believed that, though still so young, this might be his last battle. But then he had a stroke of luck. One of the attacking clans left in a hurry because their lands were under assault. The rest of the clans faded away.
So Masamune had lived to fight another day. But then wider Japanese political events intruded on his life and that of his clan. A major warlord more powerful than Masamune, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, seized national power. Hideyoshi ordered Masamune to join him and reluctantly, after a delay, he did so.
In fact, this delay had so angered Hideyoshi that Masamune believed that the overlord would probably order his death. So Masamune donned his most lavish costume and presented himself to Hideyoshi expecting his worst. But Hideyoshi decided that killing Masamune would cause more trouble than it was worth.
Furthermore, Hideyoshi believed that Masamune could probably to be more useful as a live ally than as a dead enemy. And so it proved. In fact, he rendered himself so useful that he earned Hideyoshi’s favor. The overlord went on to give Masamune the lucrative position of overlord of the Sendai Domain territory.
In fact, it seems that this Hideyoshi was probably a good thing for Japan since he brought some peace to the nation and busied himself in building temples and restoring ruined ones instead of wreaking havoc across the land. He also introduced a law that said that only samurais could bear weapons, which may well have served to lessen armed conflict in the land.
When Masamune took over Sendai Domain, arriving there with 52,000 followers with their families in tow in 1604, the village of Sendai was an obscure fishing port. Masamune set about transforming it into a wealthy and thriving city. Masamune not only brought prosperity to the city but to the surrounding territory, which had been noted for its backwardness.
But before he could set about bringing development and prosperity to his new fiefdom, Masamune had to spend some time doing what we already know he was very good at – smiting his enemies. Various clans set themselves in opposition to their new overlord, but he successfully suppressed them all.
Now secure in the Tohoku region, Masamune turned his attention to construction projects, building a range of handsome palaces. Unlike many Japanese of the time, he was also keen to cultivate links with the wider world outside of Japan. And he seems to have had a positive attitude towards Christianity.
It may well be that Masamune’s motives in his openness to foreigners and Christianity were not entirely based on mere goodwill. He probably also had an eye on getting his hands on some of the technical marvels that he saw that the foreigners had. Nevertheless, his curiosity about foreign culture seems to have been genuine enough.
Although Masamune tolerated and even encouraged Christians and Western traders, the Japanese ruler Hidetada Tokugawa outlawed Christianity and missionary work in 1612. He decreed that all the Catholic missionaries must leave Japan or be killed. This was the start of many years of harsh persecution of Christians, both foreign and Japanese.
And the horrors faced by Christians in Japan in the 17th century were brutal indeed. A practice called tsurushi involved dangling a person upside down in a pit by a rope tied to the ankles and lashing one arm with another rope. The torture would only stop if the victims renounced their religion.
One Christian who traveled to Masamune’s territory for sanctuary from persecution by Hidetada Tokugawa was Padre Luis Sotelo, a Spanish missionary. Sotelo had gained Masamune’s favor by curing one of his concubines of an unknown malady. But the padre returned to Edo, modern-day Tokyo, a city controlled by Tokugawa, and was arrested.
But Masamune successfully made a special plea to Tokugawa for the release of Sotelo. Masamune now commissioned the building of a ship called the Date Maru, designed along European lines. Sotelo traveled aboard this vessel to his home country after it embarked on its voyage in 1613, acting as an ambassador for his savior.
And this vessel didn’t just sail to Spain. It cruised around the world, stopping off at various other destinations including Mexico, the Philippines and Rome. Sotelo, who spoke good Japanese, was accompanied on the voyage by some 180 of Masamune’s men. These included one of his senior retainers, Hasekura Tsunenaga, who led the expedition.
At the behest of Sotelo, the Japanese aboard the Date Maru, also known as the San Juan Bautista, were christened in the Spanish capital of Madrid. The party then continued their journey, arriving in Rome for an audience with Pope Paul V.
In an interesting historical footnote, six of the Date Maru’s samurai crew stayed behind in Spain, settling in the town of Coria del Rio. Today there are some 700 residents of the town with the surname Japón, the Spanish word for Japan. They’re said to be the descendants of those six Japanese who arrived in the 17th century.
So this 17th century warlord, capable of ruthlessly vanquishing his enemies was also a man who saw the benefits of international trade and cultural exchanges. And as we’ve seen, his distant descendant, the multilingual beauty pageant queen Kanako Date was also an individual with a taste for the international.
And it seems she has a keen appreciation of her historic connection to the aristocratic samurai warrior, Date Masamune, the One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu. In an interview with Kyodo News she was asked if she saw any parallels between her character and that of her ancestor, the 17th century warlord.
“I hate to lose,” was Date’s immediate reply. “I’m sure he brought his best to whatever he faced. I also have thick eyebrows like him!” she added. We can only wonder what Masamune, who died in 1636, would have made of her response.
But how did Kanako get on in the 2018 Miss World Contest? Well she had some early success in the talent section of the contest. She sang the “Vissi d’Arte aria” from Tosca, an opera by Puccini. And her outstanding performance won her a standing ovation and that part of the competition.
But alas, Date didn’t go on to become Miss World 2018. That honor went to Miss Mexico, Vanessa Ponce, the first Mexican ever to take the award. Still, with her numerous accomplishments, not to mention her illustrious ancestry, no doubt Kanako Date will go far in the world.