Four centuries before Tokugawa Ieyasu arrived at Edo, a fierce band of mounted warriors had already fortified the hill where Ieyasu would build his magnificent Edo Castle, and on which the Imperial Palace now stands.
In the late 12th century, the Edo clan, as these warriors called themselves, had moved south from Chichibu in present-day Saitama Prefecture led by their patriarch, Edo Shigetsugu. Seizing Edo, they rapidly built up their military presence in the southern Kanto Plain to such a point that, in 1180, Shigenaga, the second clan head, was asked by Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-99) to cooperate in his uprising against the great Taira family in Kyoto.
Shigenaga was not easily persuaded, but eventually lent his power to Yoritomo in overthrowing Taira rule. In appreciation, Yoritomo granted Shigenaga seven new estates in Musashi Province, including Kitami in what is now Tokyo’s western Setagaya Ward.
Little is known about the Edo clan in the turbulent Kamakura Period that began with Yoritomo’s founding of a shogunate in that city in 1192; nor do we know of their fate during the Kyoto-based shogunate known as the Muromachi Period, that ran from 1338-1573. However, records show that in 1457, Edo Shigeyasu surrendered his main base at Edo to Ota Dokan (1432-86), a vassal of Uesugi Sadamasa, Governor of the Kanto Plain, and moved to Kitami. Dokan then built a castle on the site with views of Mount Fuji and Edo Bay, before being killed by an assassin sent by his own master in 1486. The castle was then abandoned until it was taken over by Ieyasu in 1590.
In a pledge of obedience to Ieyasu, Edo Katsutada changed the clan name to Kitami in 1593. Katsutada was employed by the first and second shoguns, reaching the position of Magistrate of Sakai, south of Osaka.
His grandson-in-law, Shigemasa, bathed in the special favor of the fifth shogun and rose to the rank of daimyo by 1682. Promoted to a sobayonin (grand chamberlain), whose influential role was to relay messages between the shogun and his senior councilors, he was awarded a further large domain in 1686.
From this zenith of happiness, however, Shigemasa’s fortunes plummeted — and with them, those of the Edo clan. In 1689, Shigemasa’s nephew violated the shogunal taboo on bloodshed and the family was held collectively responsible. As punishment, Shigemasa forfeited his status and all property and was banished to Ise, where he died in 1693 at age 36. His kin was similarly punished, and with that the 500-year-old Edo clan vanished.
To this day, however, memories of the first possessor of Edo linger on at Keigen-ji in Kitami, Setagaya Ward, an impressive Buddhist temple founded in 1186 by Edo Shigenaga. Tombstones of several generations of the clan, some quite eroded but others recently renovated, huddle together in a corner of the graveyard, tied eternally by their invisible bond of kinship.