Japan, the home of the samurai, had been no stranger to war since the time of the rise of the samurai warrior.
The samurai warriors were a distinctive social class and their establishment as a ruling elite during the 12th century, when the Battle of Dan no Ura in 1185 concluded a bitter time of clan rivalry and reduced the emperor to being a mere figurehead. In his place now ruled the Shogun or military dictator.
Several rebellions did take place against the rule of the Shogun over the next few centuries, but all were quelled successfully until 1467, when a quarrel between two samurai houses developed into a military and political disaster. The resulting Onin War, named from the conventional year period in which it happened, was fought largely around Kyoto, Japan’s capital city, and even in its streets of Kyoto itself, which were soon reduced to being vague boundaries amid a smoking wasteland. The Shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was totally unable to prevent the slide into anarchy. Instead, Yoshimasa contented himself with artistic pursuits, and was in fact one of the early devotees of the tea ceremony. He also built the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in an attempt to emulate an illustrious ancestor who had built a pavilion of gold, but such was the current poverty of the Shogunate that it was never covered in silver. Yoshimasa’s cultural achievements were many, but the power of the Shogunate declined as never before.
A time of opportunity
With such a vacuum lying at the heart of Japanese politics, many samurai warriors took the opportunity provided by the Onin War to develop their own local autonomy in a way that had not been seen for centuries. It was as if the powerful pre-Shogun landowners of ancient times had been reborn, and throughout Japan there was a scramble for territory.
Some ancient families disappeared altogether and were replaced by men who had once fought for them but now sought their own local power through war, intrigue, marriage, or murder. Other ancient lines prospered anew, but found themselves having to share Japan with vulgar upstarts who may have started their careers as ashigaru (foot soldiers) but who now owned a considerable amount of territory, which they defended using wooden mountain-top castles and a band of loyal followers.
These petty warlords, whose only claim to fame was skill at fighting, called themselves daimyo (great names), and were constantly being challenged by neighbours. Literally scores of battles took place, leading to the century and a half between 1467 and 1600 being dubbed the Sengoku Jidai (‘Period of Warring States’), by analogy with a similar turbulent period in ancient China.
Five battles – one battlefield
A good example of this trend was to be found in north-central Japan where the territories of the Takeda and Uesugi families were located. They were at war for half a century. Their most famous members, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, ruled like princes in their own provinces, and led thousands of fanatically loyal samurai.
Takeda Shingen is customarily credited with being the finest leader of mounted samurai in Sengoku Japan.
At Uedahara in 1548 and at Mikataga Hara in 1572, the Takeda cavalry rode down disorganised infantry units. For cavalry charges to succeed, the old samurai tradition of singling out a worthy opponent for a challenge to single combat had to wait until the enemy line was broken, so group operations gradually became the norm. Individual challenges could follow.
The Takeda and Uesugi fought each other five times at a place called Kawanakajima (‘the island within the river’), a battlefield that marked the border between their territories. In addition to this intriguing notion of five battles being fought on one battlefield, Kawanakajima has also become the epitome of Japanese chivalry and romance: the archetypal clash of samurai arms. In its more extreme form, this view even denies the possibility that anyone actually got hurt at the Kawanakajima battles, which are seen only as a series of ‘friendly fixtures’ characterised by posturing and pomp. In this scenario, the Kawanakajima conflicts may be dismissed as mock warfare. During some of the encounters, admittedly, the two armies disengaged before committing themselves fully to a fight to the death, but the wounds and the dead bodies were real enough, and the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561 produced many casualties on both sides.
The glorious Hojo
Neither Takeda Shingen nor Uesugi Kenshin managed to produce a successful dynasty to follow them. By contrast, the Hojo family of the Kanto plain (where modern Tokyo now stands) built a firm and lasting base where family relationships rather than vassalage were most highly valued and trusted. Hojo Soun (1432-1519), the founder of his line, was to be found fighting in 1467, while the fifth generation of the Hojo daimyo finally capitulated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590. The most noticeable development over this time was in the size of the army that the Hojo daimyo could lead into battle. In 1467, Hojo Soun had only six men under his command. By the time of the death of his great-great grandson in 1590, that original group had grown to tens of thousands, who defended the Hojo domain from within several formidable castles.
Hojo Soun had been born in 1432 and benefited from the marriage of his elder sister to Imagawa Yoshitada, an illustrious daimyo from Suruga province. This happened while the Onin War was still raging, and gave Soun the opportunity toescape from the devastation of Kyoto in 1469 to serve his in-laws in Suruga. When Yoshitada was killed in battle in 1476, his son Ujichika’s rightful inheritance was placed in great peril, so the ‘sevensamurai’ of Soun and his six followers went to the assistance of Soun’s nephew.
Their military skills settled the matter, for which Soun received from the grateful heir the reward of a castle. Continued service brought further reward, and in 1495 Soun acquired for the Hojo the site that was to be the family’s future capital: Odawara on Sagami Bay.
Hojo Soun died at the ripe old age of 87 and was succeeded by his son Hojo Ujitsuna (1487-1541), who protected his position in three ways. First, he ensured the continued loyalty of Soun’s old retainers by honouring the memory of his father, a programme given concrete expression by the memorial temple of Soun-ji in Yumoto. Second, he developed a legal and administrative system for the domain that began to institutionalise the systems that under Soun had relied mainly on the daimyo’s own personality. Third, he continued his father’s programme of conquest, leading an army in 1524 against Edo castle, which lay in the centre of the important rice growing area of the Kanto plain.
Edo castle is now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The capture of Edo set in motion 17 years of war between the Hojo and the Uesugi for control of the Kanto, and the initiative continued to swing from one side to the other and back again. Soon
the Hojo had rivals on their western flank as well, because when Imagawa Yoshimoto succeeded to the headship of the Imagawa in Suruga province, he turned his back on the service once provided to his ancestors by Soun, and made an alliance with the Takeda against the Hojo. Ujitsuna handed over the succession to the third generation in 1540. This was Hojo Ujiyasu (1515-1570), who is generally regarded as the finest of the five Hojo daimyo.
He was the contemporary of Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen, and Imagawa Yoshimoto, all of whom kept the Hojo armies very busy during his long reign. In 1561, Uesugi Kenshin laid siege to Odawara castle, but he could make no impression on it after two months of fighting, and withdrew when the Takeda threatened his own territories. Two years later, Hojo Ujiyasu and Takeda Shingen were to be found as allies besieging Uesugi’s castle of Musashi-Matsuyama, just one example of the shifting pattern of alliances between the ‘three kingdoms’ during these turbulent times.
Hojo Ujiyasu died in 1570, and the fourth daimyo Hojo Ujimasa (1538- 1590) was to find himself as busy with diplomatic negotiations as his father had been with fighting. This was the decade that saw the notable victories of Oda Nobunaga. Secure behind the Hakone Mountains, the Hojo stayed well out of Nobunaga’s affairs, but when Hideyoshi took over Nobunaga’s domains, the balance of power in Japan changed rapidly.
Once Shikoku and Kyushu were added to Hideyoshi’s territories, the Hojo began to wonder if their mountain passes and strong castles would be likely to hold back Hideyoshi any better than stretches of sea. The answer came in 1590. Odawara Castle fell, and with the exile of Hojo Ujinao (1562-1591), five generations of the most consistently successful Sengoku daimyo came to a final and bloody end
The ultimate prize
As the years went by, most minor daimyo were forced to seek alliances or to pledge allegiance to the emerging strong men of the provinces such as the Takeda, Hojo, and Uesugi, any of whom had the potential to re-unite Japan under his sword. There was still a Shogun in Kyoto while such petty local wars were going on, but his existence was of little consequence except for providing the traditional legitimacy for a potential power struggle for ultimate supremacy. If a samurai lord could control the Shogun, his power was confirmed, but to succeed in such a scheme a daimyo had to capture Kyoto, and if any of them was rash enough to
try and march on the capital, he could almost guarantee that one of his local rivals would rush to attack his province and try to take possession of the territory he had left lightly defended. None out of the Takeda, Uesugi, or Hojo ever dared to risk such a venture.
In 1560, one particular daimyo had felt sufficiently secure to risk such a move by making a march on the capital. His name was Imagawa Yoshimoto. He had a huge army and was based on the Tokaido, the Pacific coast road, which gave him excellent communications towards Kyoto.
The only obstacle in his way was Owari province, the territory of a comparatively minor daimyo called Oda Nobunaga, whose army Imagawa outnumbered by a factor of twelve to one.
The advance towards Kyoto began with the capture of Nobunaga’s border castles, which Imagawa celebrated in some style with the customary head inspection ceremony in a little valley called Okehazama.
His success had made him careless, and Oda Nobunaga took advantage of the situation to launch a surprise attack under the cover of a thunderstorm. Imagawa Yoshimoto at first thought a brawl had broken out among his own troops, but no sooner did he realise what was actually happening than his head was off his shoulders, and young Oda Nobunaga had achieved one of the least expected victories in Japanese history.
As had happened so often in Japanese history, success bred success, and Oda Nobunaga soon found other samurai families only too eager to ally themselves with him. This gave him the opportunity to carry out his own successful march on Kyoto, where he deposed the current Shogun in 1568 and gave himself powers of regency.
There were many challenges following this impertinence, but in battles such as Anegawa (1570) and Nagashima (1574), Nobunaga defeated all his rivals, and his victory over the mighty Takeda at Nagashino in 1575 sealed his reputation as a military genius. Setting to one side the traditional samurai contempt for, and mistrust of foot soldiers, Nobunaga trained his ashigaru to fire arquebuses (matchlock muskets) in controlled volleys. This broke the charge of the renowned Takeda cavalrymen, and even though the Battle of Nagashino lasted another seven hours, a new trend had been set in samurai warfare.
Death and revenge
Oda Nobunaga also encouraged trade with the newly arrived European merchants, the supplies of guns and gunpowder being their most highly valued commodity. But even Nobunaga’s superlative battlefield skills could not save him from falling victim to an assassination attempt, and in 1582 he and his bodyguard were suddenly overwhelmed by one of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Nobunaga’s ablest general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was campaigning many miles away when the coup happened.
On hearing the awful news, Hideyoshi rushed back to Kyoto and defeated the usurper at the Battle of Yamazaki. As Nobunaga’s avenger, Hideyoshi felt that he had the right to inherit his late master’s empire. Nobunaga’s own family naturally objected, and once again the matter was resolved by force. In a furious year of sieges, marches, and battles such as Shizugatake (1583), Hideyoshi swept all local opposition to one side. After an indecisive encounter with another up-and-coming daimyo called Tokugawa Ieyasu, with whom Hideyoshi reached a peaceful agreement, Hideyoshi felt secure in central Japan. By 1585 he felt both confident and strong enough to extend Nobunaga’s former territories still further. Invasions of Japan’s other main islands of Shikoku and Kyushu followed.
The latter operation was a huge undertaking, as he transported a massive army, the largest Japan had ever seen, along the roads of Japan and across the Shimonoseki Strait to Japan’s great southern island. With the defeat of the Hojo and a largely peaceful submission of the northern daimyo in 1591, Japan was re-united once again, and under the sword of a man who had started his military career as one of Nobunaga’s foot soldiers. Unfortunately for Japan, Hideyoshi’s military ambitions included a wild desire to conquer China. An invasion force was despatched in 1592 with the intention of marching up the Korean peninsula and taking Beijing, but Korea is as far as it got.
The Japanese lines of communication were severed on the sea by the turtle ships of Korea’s famous Admiral Yi, while on land the Chinese crossed the border to deliver a massive counter-attack. After a few years of defensive warfare from coastal fortresses, the Japanese occupiers final pulled out in 1598; a decision that was partly prompted by the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who died in a manner that all dictators dread.
His son and heir Toyotomi Hideyori was only five years old, and the resulting squabble between the members of his board of regents threatened to plunge Japan into chaos once again. Two rival factions had emerged: a coalition of generals loyal to Hideyoshi’s memory, and Hideyoshi’s former ally Tokugawa Ieyasu, who controlled much of eastern Japan.
Ieyasu marched west to confront the hostile alliance, and defeated them in battle in the narrow valley of Sekigahara.
This engagement in 1600 proved to be one of the most decisive battles in Japanese history and established the Tokugawa family in a position of power as Shoguns for the next two and a half centuries until the dawn of modern Japan. Apart from the need to eliminate Toyotomi Hideyori (an operation successfully concluded at Osaka castle in 1615), the Age of War was over.
Two centuries of peace under strict martial law followed, and it is testament to the control exerted by the Tokugawa that the famous incident of the revenge raid of the Forty-Seven Ronin became a cause celebre – it was just so unusual in the Age of Peace.