I think it's not really much of a surprise that my last post here will be about the Uesugi. My treatment of the Uesugi, however, has been less-than-fair. While by all means Uesugi Kenshin was brilliant - that part I will not allow dispute - the rest of the clan was hardly of a caliber that was necessary. This, coupled with several other factors, are directly responsible for the massive implosion of the Uesugi, permanently removing them as an effective contender for unification.
Before we begin, it is important to note a critical thing. Unlike the Oda and other clans who soon followed, the Uesugi never fully managed to separate their military and economic affairs. This, in itself, meant that no matter how powerful the Uesugi was, it was ultimately still functioning at a prior tech level. In that sense, the Uesugi towards the end of Kenshin's life could be seen as representative of the old order - one that will quickly lose its place in the years to come.
As we are well aware, the Kanto regions were famed for their cavalry. The Military Records of Northern Etsu suggests that a healthy portion of the Uesugi and their vassal clan military consisted of mounted units. Teppou, while not plentiful, was not in short supply either. Being in possession of nearly five provinces, strong maritime trade, and the exceptionally defensible position of Echigo meant that the Uesugi was in excellent shape to contend the shogunate even after Kenshin's death.*
*This is actually debatable - but sufficient to say that it WOULD be possible for the Uesugi to carry out such an endeavor.
So, what went wrong?
Otate no Ran.
With Kenshin's sudden demise due to whatever reason (in which I'm not going to discuss here), the issue of the Uesugi succession was in significant dispute. If there's one thing that he/she is to blame for, it is perhaps his/her idealism. Merely a few months ago a retainer inquired into the issue of succession: Which one, Kagetora or Kagekatsu, would be taking over the Uesugi?
(Uesugi Kagekatsu was the son of his (now deceased) brother, Masakage. Uesugi Kagetora, on the other hand, was adopted from the Hojo during the Sagami-Echigo treaty of 1570. Kagetora was then given to him a few months later.)
Kenshin simply laughed and stated that he was sure that the two would be able to work it out amongst themselves. "One can have the title of Kanto Kanrei. The other, the head of the clan. I think that would be enough to satisfy both."
Yes, from Kenshin's perspective, Kagekatsu's sister was married to Kagetora. The two have never displayed any kind of open hostility. Perhaps the Dragon of Echigo genuinely thought that the two would be able to cooperate with each other - after all, didn't his brother Masakage support him for all those years?
(Masakage was traitor vs. Sadamitsu was traitor vs. happy boating accident vs. super assassination GO GO not discussed here. I will point out that Masakage had at least three opportunities where the entire military might of Echigo was under his control. In other words, if he wanted to take out Kenshin, he would have had ample chances to do it.)
Nope, turns out it didn't. Two days after Kenshin's death, on the 15th of march, Kagekatsu took over the keep of Kasugayama (which contained both the treasury and the armory), declared himself as the rightful successor (because supposedly that's what Naoe's mother heard Kenshin's last words were. Supposedly.), and then told Kagetora that he submit or perish.
Kagetora, not to be cowed, surrounded the outer city. This first engagement ended with the destruction of a substantial portion of Kasugayama itself after two months, and the end result was that Kagetora was forced to retreat and set up government elsewhere. The reason why this rebellion was named Otate no Ran was because Kagetora took over the castle of Otate, which was something Kenshin built with the intent of taking over the Kanto Kanrei.
It's worth mentioning that this rebellion wasn't just a random derpy little thing. Many prominent Uesugi retainers - Honjo, Hojo, Koshi-Nagao, Kanamari, etc, all backed Kagetora. Kagetora himself was no slouch in military matters either (why'd you think Kenshin gave him his/her name? Kid knew his stuff), and managed to coordinate both the Hojo and the Takeda in an attempt o pincer in Kagekatsu. The Hojo attack makes sense, as the current head of the Hojo clan was Kagetora's brother by blood. The Takeda, on the other hand...
So, here's where things get really murky. Surviving documents are far and few between, and many, many contradictions exist between each one. Kagekatsu's accounts seem to suggest that he managed to bribe Takeda Katsuyori, thus averting an attack from northern Shinano. Kagetora's account suggests that Katsuyori was a coward, and backed out on the deal the second the Tokugawa made a move. Whatever the reason (probably both), the Takeda attack never came, which gave Kagekatsu much-needed breathing space.
The truth of the matter was probably closer to the former, as the Takeda did enjoy a (short-lived) alliance with the Uesugi. The alliance ended in 1582, a mere few years later, with the fall of the Takeda.
Meanwhile, many Uesugi retainers were pissed at the fact that this OUTSIDER dared to drag our NEMESIS into an UESUGI affair. Steadily, many prominent members defected back to Kagekatsu. In a series of climatic engagement on September of the same year, the Hojo reinforcements were annihilated. Now, Kagetora was alone.
In the coming spring, Kagekatsu begun the siege of Otate on February 11th. Kagetora was forced to abandon his city on March 17th, and fled towards Odawara. Unfortunately, he was betrayed by Horie Munechika on the way. There, Kagetora committed suicide with his wife after a last-ditch effort to negotiate peace failed.
Wanna know the kicker? The person who was the mediator was none other than Uesugi Norimasa, the man gave Uesugi Kenshin his/her rightful claim to Kanto. He, along with Kagetora's young son, was assassinated by Kagekatsu before they could even reach Kasugayama.
I cannot pass up the opportunity to comment on Kagekatsu here. If anything, he was definitely a skilled politician. But I think it takes a special kind of coldness to do what he did. Piece by piece, Kagekatsu exterminated the rest of Kagetora's allies, killing off many vassals, most of whom were considered to be Uesugi Kenshin's hatamoto. This includes, incidentally, the Kakizaki and the Honjo.
This rebellion lasted a mere three years. The damage done, however, was irreversible. The Shibata - an Uesugi vassal who was very active in Otate no Ran - became dissatisfied with their treatment, and started to rebel. Immediately after the fall of the Takeda, in 1582, the Oda returns in full force. Kagekatsu was effectively surrounded, and with the loss of Ikegami castle (3800 Uesugi vs. 40000 Oda. Complete Oda victory. Consider it the Uesugi Thermopylae. ), Oda was capable of directly threatening Kasugayama without a single defensive city stopping their advance.
Some say that the hand of Uesugi Kenshin himself stopped the Oda advance with the incident at Honnoji. Whatever it was, it certainly gave the Uesugi a much-needed breather. But the Uesugi's fall from grace was complete. Afterwards, it took Kagekatsu six years to stop the Shibata rebellion - further evidence to show how weak the Uesugi became.
The rest, as we know it, was history.
Who is to blame?
Probably no one. The circumstances likely forced everyone's hand.
Though, objectively, Kagekatsu did eliminate pretty much all of his adopted "father"'s Hatamoto. In other words, he effectively killed off half of the Uesugi power-base right there off the bat. He lost most of Noto and Kaga, and lost Echizen soon after. Then there was the matter of forgery. Kenshin was in a coma. How could s/he have written a detailed letter, telling Kagetora to surrender most of his power base?
Hell, Muteki-sama, did you even read the letter you (we have good evidence that Kanetsugu wrote the forged letter - the tone and word choice sounds exactly like him) wrote? Shouldn't you know that Kenshin never really talked like that?
Kagetora's not exactly innocent, either. He was proud - much like Uesugi Kenshin when he was younger. Perhaps too proud. He was a hostage. A political prisoner. We do not know why Uesugi Kenshin adopted him - especially when the norm there is to execute hostages when the alliance turned sour (as the Hojo broke off the alliance [some say a few months] after. This was a man who had no political foresight, and acted purely on what he thought would be appropriate. Does Kagetora not know that he'd alienate all of Kenshin's "other" old guard - his generals that fought the Hojo and the Takeda at battles like Kawanakajima?
What if Kagetora would be able to swallow his pride and follow Kagekatsu? Or, what if Naoe haven't forged Kenshin's letter, and all of Uesugi fell under Kagetora's control?
Just who did Kenshin want to appoint as successor, anyways?
I think short of time-traveling, there is no answer to any of those questions. Nonetheless, that's why history is fascinating to me. It is fascinating not because of what did happen, but sometimes, what could have had happened.