Japanese Feudal Wars (Sixteenth Century)

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Japanese Feudal Wars (Sixteenth Century)

Major Figures

Imagawa Yoshimoto

Imagawa Yoshimoto (1519–1560) was a samurai warrior who ruled parts of central Japan during the waning days of the Warring States Period in the mid-sixteenth century. Attempting to expand his territory, Imagawa was defeated by Oda Nobunaga.

Rise to Power

Since the Shiba family had fallen in 1467, Imagawa’s family controlled the provinces of Suruga and Totomi. To Imagawa’s west and south along the Pacific Coast were two adjacent provinces controlled by parallel daimyo. Immediately bordering Totomi was Mikawa, controlled by the Tokugawa family, and the next province was Owari, held by the Nobunaga family.

Early in life, Imagawa left his home to study religion. His father passed the vassalage onto his firstborn, but when this firstborn died, a controversy began among the surviving sons as to who would inherit the rule of Suruga and Totomi. Imagawa entered the competition for this right and eventually obtained it.

Imagawa was in a likely position to rule beyond these two provinces. He was married to the daughter of an Ashikaga court noble, a member of the family who ruled from Kyoto since 1338. The Ashikaga had turned the city into a cultural center. Imagawa followed suit with his castle town of Sumpu, giving it a beauty that echoed Kyoto’s glamour. Imagawa and his court held flower-viewing parties, made the tea ceremony integral to daily life, and enjoyed paintings and poetry.

Desire to Expand

Imagawa was a romantic first and a warrior second, but with the influence and assistance from his uncle (a samurai as well as a monk), Imagawa became an eager, power-hungry warlord who hoped to dominate additional provinces. After an encounter between two neighboring rivals (Tokugawa Hirotada and Oda Nobuhide), the damaged Tokugawa Hirotada asked Imagawa for military assistance. Imagawa responded positively to this request, as he saw this as an opportunity to take on the Oda clan and a chance to bring Tokugawa Hirotada into his service. Part of the agreement was that Tokugawa Hirotada give his son, Tokugawa Ieyasu, to Imagawa as a hostage. Reluctantly, Tokugawa Hirotada agreed. In transit, Oda Nobuhide kidnapped the young Tokugawa Ieyasu. Now Imagawa’s collateral to control Tokugawa Hirotada was in the hands of his target; this only made their alliance stronger.

By 1549, Tokugawa Hirotada and Oda Nobuhide had died, but Imagawa still wanted to expand his lands and rescue Tokugawa Ieyasu from captivity. Supported by the Tokugawa military, Imagawa led his forces against Oda’s sons, Oda Nobuhiro and Oda Nobunaga. The campaign against Oda Nobuhiro was successful, and by 1550 Imagawa had pinned him up in his castle. Oda Nobunaga agreed to terms, and a freed Tokugawa Ieyasu was taken back to “Little Kyoto.”

An Eye for Art, Not Military Matters

From 1555 the fortunes and military prowess of Imagawa began to decline. His samurai-monk uncle had died, leaving Imagawa with little military direction. The elegant lord now had to lead his army. He realized that Tokugawa Ieyasu had not only the lineage for greatness, but proved at an early age to show skills on the battlefield. So Imagawa named him a commander at age seventeen. By keeping the Tokugawa heir close under his influence, Imagawa was also able to control these lands and the military that remained after the elder Tokugawa died.

Imagawa and Tokugawa Ieyasu (referred to now as Tokugawa) returned to lead campaigns against Oda Nobunaga (referred to now as Oda), now clearly in charge of the Owari region and the greatest threat to Imagawa’s plans. After a semi-successful raid on Oda’s castle (burning and destroying its outer defenses), Imagawa awarded Tokugawa with a fine sword and the Tokugawa lands to which he was entitled. Not content, Imagawa kept Tokugawa by his side for bigger and better acquisitions.

Imagawa had his eye on Kyoto, something he had desired for most of his life. He planned on taking the Ashikaga capital, but he knew he must first eliminate Oda, the major obstacle between Imagawa and his destiny. In July 1560, Imagawa departed with a force of roughly 25,000 samurai warriors to crush Oda. The battle plan included a series of attacks on Oda’s chain of forts.

Things began well. Imagawa and his detachment took the fort at Washizu, while Tokugawa brilliantly took the stronghold of Marune. Tokugawa had charged the fort and was repulsed with little surprise. Unconcerned at this initial setback, he had lined up archers on either side of the fortress entrance. As Tokugawa retreated, Oda’s warriors charged out of the fortress gates; they were greeted by a downpour of flying arrows and the occasional bullet. Tokugawa took this garrison, and with Imagawa’s defeat of the fort at Washizu, the road to Oda was open.

Defeated by a Superior Samurai

Imagawa and Tokugawa were still in separate camps on their way to Oda. This gave Oda the opportunity to defeat the forces in detail, before they could join up. Oda sent scouts to determine the location of his attackers. They reported that Imagawa and his forces were resting near the village of Okehazama. Feasting in preparation for later battle and with little guard on this camp, Oda saw the opportunity to end sixty years of local daimyo rivalry.

Outnumbered by at least twelve to one, Oda sent a decoy of his army with flags and banners to one side of Imagawa’s camp. Then, with the vast majority of his two thousand warriors, Oda sneaked up behind Imagawa’s distracted force. On that brutally hot day, a thunderstorm struck immediately before the two sides met, further hiding the sneak attack. Within minutes, Oda had defeated and killed Imagawa.

Tokugawa, stranded and with little choice, learned that his master was dead and that Oda was closing in. Imagawa had left his lands and empire to an ineffectual heir who knew the good points of a tea bowl rather than the skills of a field command. Tokugawa, now still only nineteen years old, considered his options and swore allegiance to Oda. Oda would prove a successful warrior who expanded his empire. In due course, he would be followed by Tokugawa, the great unifier of Japan.

Oda Nobunaga

Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) rose to power in the late Warring States Period (1467–1590). In a time of warlords overthrowing warlords, Oda began to build an empire in central Japan with loyal daimyo under him, which led to the reunification of the nation. His pursuit of extended lands and securing samurai loyalties began the unification process, while his followers completed the job within twenty years of his death.

Inheriting the Domain

Born in Nagoya in Owari Province, Oda’s family ruled a small domain. His father, Oda Nobuhide, was a vassal to the Shiba house; Japanese folklore portrays him as a bold and romantic leader. By the time Oda Nobuhide died in 1551, he had secured for his son a modest following and a marriage to the daughter of Saito Dosan, a ruthless daimyo.

From an early age, Oda stood out as a unique figure. As a teenager he dressed in an eccentric fashion and soon earned the fitting nicknames, “Great Fool” and “Idiot.” Disparaging remarks aside, it is likely that he played foolish so as to jump ahead of others who assumed he lacked fighting skills. After his father’s death, Oda vied for control of Owari with his older brother, Oda Nobuhiro. Starting with an initial force of one thousand foot soldiers, Oda eventually ran his brother out of the province. Oda Nobuhiro later died, leaving Owari solely to Oda.

Expansion and Control

Beginning in 1560, Oda rose to power like a phoenix. His first major victory was against Imagawa Yoshimoto, who held the adjacent provinces of Suguru and Totomi. On his way to take Kyoto, Imagawa first had to eliminate Oda. After taking two of Oda’s fortresses, Imagawa was resting and feasting with his forces that numbered as many as 25,000. Oda preempted any possible attack against him and outsmarted Imagawa and his army at Okehazama. There, his forces soundly defeated the neighboring army, and Imagawa was killed. As a result of this victory, Oda gained an important ally: Tokugawa Ieyasu, Imagawa’s former vassal and the future unifier of all Japan.

Defeating Imagawa was rather quick and decisive, and it gave Oda the provinces of Surugu, Totomi, and Mikawa. By 1567 he had defeated Saito Tatsuoki for control of Mino Province. He soon built a castle in the city of Gifu and established that as his capital. He chose as his motto, “The whole country under one military power.”

Oda could not inherit the title of shogun himself, for he lacked the lineage. Therefore he developed a relationship with Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the last of the Ashikaga shogun of Japan. This relationship became stormy, and by the early 1570s Oda overthrew the Ashikaga.

Why Oda Succeeded Where Others Failed

Oda’s many victories were the result of multiple factors. First, his geographic location was favorable. Stationed in central Honshu, he was able to divide competing warriors to the east and west of him, preventing dangerous enemy alliances. Secondly, Oda was one of the pioneers of European firearms. The Portuguese had introduced the musket in Japan in the 1540s, and Oda became fond of this weapon from an early age. He refused to keep to traditional weaponry as some of his adversaries did. His decision to rely upon infantrymen with a large arsenal of muskets in deference to the mounted warrior showed Oda’s great foresight. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, Oda confronted the powerful Takeda daimyo, and Oda’s musket wielding soldiers annihilated the enemy samurai cavalry that charged his defensive line.

In addition, Oda’s long-term tactics and strategies proved brilliant. He developed faithful alliances and loyal vassals, and he chose his enemies wisely. Through lifelong friendships and arranged marriages, Oda forged loyal relationships with powerful assistants who might otherwise make possible adversaries.

In warring with other samurai, Oda did not face multifront battles, taking on only one neighboring warrior at a time. When he did acquire adjacent fiefs, he would offer lands and rank to his defeated enemy’s vassals first, guaranteeing a mutual protection while dissuading them from leading attacks on him.

Death and Legacy

Oda’s victories and reputation caused more and more daimyo to think twice about challenging him, but he was still occasionally opposed. His last confrontation occurred when Oda and his trusted ally Toyotomi Hideyoshi were trying to pacify an uprising in his western region. While taking shelter at a temple in Kyoto, Oda was attacked by thirteen thousand troops led by one of his own vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Whether Akechi or one of his underlings killed Oda directly or not remains a mystery. His body burned up inside the temple on June 21, 1582.

By the time of his death, Oda had gained fairly solid control of about one-third of Japan. Toyotomi would assume his realm and avenge his death by killing Akechi. One of his other followers, Tokugawa Ieyasu, would eventually take the empire that Toyotomi would expand. Within twenty years of Oda’s death, Japan had become largely unified under one of his disciples.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) rose from peasant to military ruler of Japan in 1582. His life is characterized by a unique case of social mobility and near unification of the nation.

Humble Beginnings

Toyotomi was born into a peasant farming family so poor he did not even have a surname. He began his military career at age fifteen under the daimyo Imagawa Yoshimoto, his first job being that of a minor servant.

As Toyotomi learned the way of the warrior, Imagawa and the Oda clan competed for additional lands and greater power. His relationship with Oda Nobunaga, a ruthless warlord, began in 1558 when Toyotomi entered Oda’s army as a common foot soldier. He soon worked his way up to become his master’s most trusted vassal. All told, Toyotomi’s roles ranged from basic messenger and attendant to field commander of over three thousand men. A relationship of trust and understanding between the two men lasted over twenty-four years.

Toyotomi became the leading samurai after Oda Nobunaga was killed by a rival vassal Akechi Mitsuhide in 1582. Toyotomi beheaded Akechi, an act that avenged his fallen leader and solidified Toyotomi’s ascendancy to the top of the Japanese feudal ladder.

As leader, Toyotomi continued the reunification that his master had begun. Toyotomi’s approach to guarantee the allegiance of his vassals was a bit gentler than his tyrannical predecessor. Toyotomi did indeed carry out military campaigns within the interior of central Japan, but he found it much more effective to simply convert a defeated enemy into a loyal ally. The lure of land rewards and his gentle hand with former foes, encouraged daimyo across central Japan to serve the new hegemony. By the time of his death, Toyotomi had amassed some two hundred faithful followers.

The World Beyond Japan

Toyotomi established unique policies that included interaction and desired expansion beyond the Japanese islands. He encouraged foreign trade with European states, and Japanese commercial vessels traveled as far from Japan as Malaya and Siam. However, he did not accept the European package of trade with Christian missions. Portuguese and Spanish voyagers wanted to spread Christianity, and unlike his predecessor Oda, Toyotomi viewed the invasion of Christianity and European principles as a threat to Japanese culture and full unification. He was shocked to see the degree to which the Catholic Church had settled in Kyushi, especially in the port of Nagasaki. He issued a decree ordering the missionaries out of Japan, but did not spend much effort enforcing it.

Controlling Japan resulted not only from his earlier diplomatic appeals with potential rivals, but also from an extensive land survey that Oda had begun. When Toyotomi finished, for the first time in Japanese history, the government had a uniform system of measuring land and wealth, and an accurate plot-by-plot count of the nation’s productive capacity. This allowed for more effective administration of taxing and enabled Hideyoshi to shift his lords around, properly rewarding or punishing his vassals. Toyotomi also ordered a mass confiscation of weapons from the peasantry. This eliminated any chance of an armed rebellion and further defined a class structure that he had once transcended.

The later days of Toyotomi’s rule were characterized by an attempt to expand the Japanese Empire into Korea and China and to set up a familial line of inheritance. Neither succeeded. Toyotomi laid plans for his five-year-old son to take over his expanded empire, but these plans failed after his death when Tokugawa Ieyasu exerted his power to take Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

A samurai warrior, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616) rose through the ranks in feudal Japan to become shogun. He is largely credited with unifying the Japanese nation at the beginning of the seventeenth century, which would go through a cultural, economic, and military transformation. The Tokugawa Era, also known as the Edo Period, lasted from Tokugawa’s ascendancy in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s.

Life in the Enemy’s Camp

Tokugawa was son of a minor daimyo who controlled the Mikawa Province (near the modern day Aichi Prefecture). From an early age, the young Tokugawa was exposed to the way in which feudal rivalries exploited each other, and the manner in which warring samurai battled to expand their holdings. His father’s key rivals were the Oda and Imagawa families. As a child, Tokugawa was given to Imagawa as a hostage to guarantee his father’s loyalty. While being transferred, Oda Nobuhide captured the boy. He became a lure for the senior Tokugawa’s surrender. Eventually, Tokugawa Ieyasu was given to Imagawa, his intended captor, in a hostage swap. (Oda Nobunaga traded the boy for his own brother’s release.) Now the young Tokugawa was under the control of the ambitious Imagawa.

For a total of thirteen years, Tokugawa remained a hostage to the Oda and Imagawa houses. At age seventeen, Tokugawa was given a ranking command of Imagawa’s army, partly because of his own military skills and partly because of his master’s lack thereof. In 1560, Oda soundly defeated the Imagawa house while his men killed Imagawa in the Battle of Okehazama. Now nineteen, Tokugawa took a realistic view of his future and offered his services to the strong and ruthless Oda Nobunaga.

Tokugawa became a faithful daimyo to Oda and maintained control over his province of Mikawa. Oda is credited with beginning the military unification of Japan during his reign, assisted by two of his most loyal daimyo, Tokugawa and Toyotomi. Toyotomi had risen from peasantry to one of Oda’s most trusted samurai. After Oda was assassinated by one of his not-so-faithful warriors, Toyotomi became heir-apparent to his estates, roughly one-third of the lands in Japan.

A Waiting Game

It was at this point that Tokugawa made the wise decision to yield to Toyotomi. Tales of how the two agreed upon a peaceful transition of Oda’s lands make for good folklore, but one historian recounts their sporadic war that lasted eight months in 1584. At least twice their troops engaged in confrontation. However, by the end of 1584, they made peace. Toyotomi began to control Oda’s holdings, and Tokugawa became one of his most reliable vassals.

Toyotomi defeated other lords and gained additional lands, continuing the unification process that Oda had begun. By 1590, he awarded Tokugawa the entire Kanto plain, the traditional area of conquest in feudal Japan and the area that surrounds modern-day Tokyo. This made Tokugawa the second strongest daimyo in Japan. Toyotomi, however, became sidetracked with conquering lands on the mainland in North Korea and China. These attempts were largely unsuccessful.

Toyotomi died in 1598, leaving his five-year-old son as heir. Toyotomi had appointed a council of five regents to administer the lands during his son’s youth. Tokugawa, the most powerful member of this council, saw his opportunity. Another servant of Toyotomi, Ishida Mitsunari, formed a coalition against Tokugawa, but the experienced and powerful Tokugawa defeated this group in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Tokugawa confiscated the lands of Ishida and the other daimyo conspirators. The empire assembled by Oda, Toyotomi, and Tokugawa had finally become his.

Shogun and Unifier

Now that Tokugawa had gained control of Japan, he began programs and policies to ensure his grip on the nation. These included a refined foreign policy, measures to ensure heightened loyalties, and an emphasis on the arts. These steps finalized unification and made strong the Tokugawa line until 1868.

Tokugawa decided quickly that the attempted exploits by his predecessor were impractical. Rather than seek out foreign lands across the sea, Tokugawa concentrated on securing adjacent lands on Honshu and the other Japanese Islands. His new foreign policy of isolationism would define Japan for the next 250 years.

Tokugawa did accept some traders that came into Japan in 1600, but he soon took steps to eliminate the invading Christian religion. Missionaries had gradually made their way into Japan since Oda ruled the central region. Tokugawa felt a growing political threat that accompanied the Christian religion, so he eventually ordered all foreign priests to leave the country.

Dividing Daimyo

Having waited a lifetime to secure absolute rule, Tokugawa was not going to risk losing it. He secured the title of shogun from the emperor in 1603 and soon began establishing policies to guarantee loyalty from his vassals. To guarantee that he would remain overlord of the new confederation of daimyo, Tokugawa divided these daimyo into three groups: fudai, or main vassals; tozama, or outside daimyo; and shimpan, or related daimyo. The fudai were rather loyal and served under Tokugawa at the Battle of Sekigahara. Some of these and others were rewarded with the title for their service on the battlefield.

Tokugawa was more wary of the tozama, for many of this group had already held the daimyo rank under the prior shoguns. These potential rivals worried him. The final group consisted of warriors and vassals who were of blood relation. The first of these being Tokugawa’s two sons. He made a point to place them and other relatives close to him, as they would be heirs to the shogun office if the main Tokugawa line died out.

For all these vassals, Tokugawa required a direct oath of loyalty. Even samurai who had inherited lands prior to his rule still had to confirm their right to rule it through Tokugawa.

Keeping Friends and Enemies Close

The shogun also relocated the capital to Edo, which was central to his established holdings in the Kanto plain. He required personal attendance at his court there. This practice was not born with Tokugawa, but expanded. His vassals, especially the more distant ones, were required to reside in Edo and build mansions.

At times when the vassals were away, their wives, heirs, and principal retainers remained in these mansions as collateral. Tokugawa was not the first lord to use this practice; perhaps it resulted from his early experiences as a hostage himself. At any rate, it prevented conspiracies and allowed him to keep an eye on his subordinates.

After establishing a strong control from Edo, Tokugawa handed his rule over to his son and controlled Japan to a degree from behind the scenes. By 1614, Tokugawa wanted to ensure against any lingering threats and make sure his family dynasty was set to begin. With his son, he led an assault on Toyotomi’s son, Toyotomi Hideyori. Tokugawa offered him a peace agreement whereby he could keep his domains and castle if the outer works and moat systems were eliminated.

Later, it appeared to Tokugawa that these defense works were being strengthened. Worried about an uprising, the shogun moved against it with a strong force, causing Toyotomi Hideyori and his mother to commit suicide to avoid capture. To complete the elimination of any heirs to his former lord, Tokugawa sought out Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s eight-year-old grandson and had him killed.

Major Battles

Okehazama, June 1560

The Battle of Okehazama was fought near a village by the same name in Owari Province, pitting Imagawa Yoshimoto against Oda Nobunaga. Imagawa was killed during the fighting. Just as important as the victory itself, Oda gained the future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu—who was serving under Imagawa—as a vassal.

Thirst for Lands

In the final years of the Warring States Period, Imagawa and Oda were competing to gain land on the island of Honshu. Imagawa had his eyes on the capital of Kyoto and planned to march on the ancient capital to take it. His rival Oda controlled Owari, the province between Imagawa’s castle town of Sumpu and Kyoto and thus stood in his way. Imagawa decided to eliminate Oda on his march to Kyoto.

Imagawa had gathered an army of 25,000 warriors, and he had the allegiance of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Tokugawa family controlled Mikawa Province, located between Oda’s Owari and Imagawa’s lands. Tokugawa Ieyasu had already gained the confidence of Imagawa, who had made him a ranking field commander, and the geographic position of the Tokugawa fief would make a comfortable buffer between Imagawa and Oda. In July 1560, the determined and well-equipped Imagawa set off to defeat Oda.

The first challenge was a series of forts that protected Oda. Imagawa took one column toward the fort in Washizu, while his trusty general Tokugawa Ieyasu headed toward the fort at Marune. With minimal losses, both strongholds were taken. The road into Nobunaga’s province was cleared, giving Imagawa the upper hand.

Learning of his losses from his castle in Kiyosu, a confident Oda showed no genuine signs of concern. The next morning he rose at daylight, ate a full breakfast, and prepared for battle. Before departure, Oda stated, “Man’s life is fifty years. In the Universe what is it but dream and illusion? Is there any who is born and does not die?”

With only six close companions and a few hundred men, Oda set off to meet Imagawa. Along the way, however, Oda picked up two thousand additional men ready to fight for him. Tokugawa Ieyasu and Imagawa were still separated when Oda received word from his advance scouts that Imagawa’s men were resting and feasting in preparation for their attack. Imagawa was not the most skilled warrior, and he had left his camp unguarded. This gave Oda a chance to decisively end a daimyo rivalry that had existed for over sixty years.

Imagawa is Outmaneuvered

Oda arrived and took a position opposite Imagawa’s camp on the Tokaido Road. Here he set a dummy army as a decoy, complete with banners and flags so to make this small detachment look like his main army. As soon as the diversion was set, he rushed his remaining samurai—some reports say up to three thousand by this point—secretly behind the hill where Imagawa camped.

Oda knew these lands as a young boy, which helped him prepare his attack. On this very hot day, his men made a sneaky approach to Imagawa’s rear as a rapid rain began to fall, which further concealed their movement. As the rain ceased, Oda and his samurai charged into Imagawa’s camp.

One of Oda’s samurai came face to face with Imagawa. The daimyo thought it was one of his own, and as soon as the attacker realized it was Oda’s foe, he thrust his spear at him. Imagawa deflected the weapon, but before he could act further, another warrior charged and sliced off Imagawa’s head. Within minutes, more than 2,500 of Imagawa’s men became casualties.

Soon after the defeat at Okehazama, Imagawa’s heir assumed his position as daimyo, and his field commander Tokugawa Ieyasu was faced with a difficult decision. The chosen daimyo, Ujizane, was not very savvy in the field or as an administrator. Tokugawa Ieyasu weighed his options and decided to join Oda. The decision created an alliance that would begin the unification of the Japanese state.

Nagashino, June 1575

This battle was a decisive victory for Oda Nobunaga (and his vassals Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi) against Takeda Katsuyori. This victory proved Oda’s strength as the fasting rising daimyo in Japan and placed a stronger grip on his domain in his quest to gain control of the whole of Japan. The battle also proved that the musket—introduced into Japan only a generation before—was more than just a novel weapon for the battlefield.

Daimyo Dispute Control of Nagashino Castle

As early as 1560, Oda had already defeated neighboring warlords and begun a fierce expansion of his vassalage. He had also gained the allegiance of Tokugawa and Toyotomi, and now controlled lands beyond his original Owari Province, including those of Mino, Mikawa, and others. Since 1571, Tokugawa held the Nagashino Castle, located in Mikawa.

One of Oda’s rivals, the Takeda family, had shown interest in taking Nagashino, so Takeda Katsuyori (with roughly fifteen thousand troops) began a siege in early May 1575. The siege was not quick for the castle was situated on a well-fortified hill at the confluence of two rivers. Some five hundred soldiers were garrisoned inside the castle, though neither Tokugawa nor Oda were in the vicinity. The men inside were capable defenders; in one of his first attempts, Takeda lost eight hundred of his own. As the days passed, Takeda realized that the best strategy was to starve those inside by cutting off supplies of food and ammunition to the castle.

Word was sent from Nagashino to Tokugawa and Oda that the castle needed reinforcements, but no help was immediately forthcoming. Some of Oda’s counselors thought it too risky to try and defeat the penetrating Takeda. Eventually, Oda decided that if Takeda took the castle, Tokugawa might ally himself with the victor, making Oda susceptible if he had to face such a large, combined force later.

Tokugawa, too, got word of the danger his castle was in and went to lift the siege. Tokugawa and Oda arrived within days of each other, Tokugawa with a force of eight thousand and Oda with thirty thousand. They outnumbered Takeda, who would have been wise to retreat to his own province. Yet pride and his excellent, skilled cavalry convinced Takeda to stay and fight Oda.

Musket Beats Horse

Though Takeda had one of the best mounted forces in Japan, he failed to realize the impact of Oda’s muskets. Before heading to Nagashino, Oda had carefully selected three thousand marksmen for the mission. This made it the largest firing force ever mustered in Japan at that time.

Oda equipped his men with stakes and rope to create makeshift stockades. After constructing these fortresses in the short hills beyond the castle, he instructed his sharpshooters to hold their fire until the enemy was in close range. He also organized these musketeers into a system of alternate firing, rotating so that while one-third fired into their charging enemy, the other two groups would have a chance to reload.

When Takeda’s cavalry charged, Oda’s marksmen popped up behind their palisades and decimated them. Takeda’s warriors went down in heaps. The fighting ended in the afternoon with only about three thousand of Takeda’s force escaping.

The Battle of Nagashino proved that gun warfare, though a departure from traditional Japanese warfare, was a force to be reckoned with. The victory brought Oda a step closer to dominating the region and much of Japan, and it strengthened the relationship between Oda and Tokugawa that led to additional victories.

Yamazaki, 1582

The Battle of Yamazaki, and the events that followed, effectively placed rule of central Japan in the hands of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Daimyo Vie for Land and Power

Since 1560, ruthless warlord Oda Nobunaga had controlled the lands from the capital city of Kyoto to Suruga Province. Faithful vassals (such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and others) maintained these lands and served their lord. Yet in the uncertain age of war in samurai Japan, a lord could rarely predict when one of his military servants might turn on him or ally with another vassal to overthrow their superior. This was the case for Oda in 1582.

The vassal Akechi Mitsuhide strategically attacked Oda at Honnoji Temple in Kyoto, and Akechi is credited with assassinating his lord Oda. Oda was either burned alive or he committed suicide in the ritual known as seppuku; whatever the cause, Akechi had murdered the most powerful daimyo in Japan.

By destroying Oda’s guards as well, Akechi gave himself some additional time to continue his power play. He went on to plunder the nearby province of Omi to try and take control. Akechi also sought to create alliances with enemies of Oda. For eleven days Akechi went untouched.

When Toyotomi got word of his mentor’s death, he vowed to remove Akechi from power. Toyotomi discovered the assassination of Oda through an emissary that Akechi had sent to advise his ally (the Mori clan) in the southwest of the island of Honshu. Toyotomi was already in a military campaign against the Mori house and nearing victory. After flooding one of their key castles and securing recognition of his power, Toyotomi shifted his focus from winning control of the Mori’s Bitchu Province to killing the warrior who killed his lord and mentor, Oda.

Oda is Avenged

Thirteen days after Oda’s death, Toyotomi faced Akechi in the vicinity of Yamazaki in Yamashiro Province on his way toward Kyoto. Akechi’s army was quickly and decisively destroyed. Toyotomi was able to defeat Akechi for a handful of reasons. His army, roughly twenty thousand, doubled that of his opponent, as he had been joined by Oda’s son and other leading daimyo and their soldiers. In addition, Akechi’s potential allies had refrained from assisting him. They saw the writing on the wall and gambled that their chances were best in not challenging Toyotomi.

Survivors, including Akechi, fled the battle. However, he was stopped to the north of the battle by a band of peasants, and then promptly executed. Toyotomi gathered the assassin’s head and delivered it back to Honnoji to complete the task of avenging his master’s spirit.

The battle eliminated the key challenger to Toyotomi’s right to inherit Oda’s lands, but it did not instantly make him overlord of the central provinces of Japan. A conference of daimyo was held at Kiyosu within a month to determine how the kingdom should be divided and governed. Most of Oda’s men were present. Toyotomi used his performance at Yamazaki to argue that Oda’s grandson should inherit his estate, effectively putting Toyotomi at the helm of the military and making him ruler of the Japanese lands that Oda had obtained. Toyotomi got his way at the conference, but soon had enforce his wishes in the Battle of Shizugatake.

Shizugatake, 1583

The Battle of Shizugatake in 1583 further solidified Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s power over a partially unified Japan. His mentor and lord, Oda Nobunaga, had proven a ruthless, powerful, and respected warrior and had begun unifying Japan in a militant fashion with the help of his trusted vassal, Toyotomi. After one of his vassals attacked Oda while within the Honnoji Temple in Kyoto, Toyotomi became heir apparent to Oda’s military empire. This ascendancy was not, however, instant; it took a series of negotiations, battles, and alliances. After the Battle of Shizugatake, it became clear that Toyotomi would inherit control of the provinces (about one-third of Japan) that he helped Oda secure over the prior twenty-four years.

Oda’s Death Creates a Power Vacuum

Toyotomi had proven a faithful servant to Oda Nobunaga and within thirteen days of his master’s death, he defeated Oda’s assassin Akechi Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki. Toyotomi returned to Honnoji with Akechi’s decapitated head to lay it where Oda was killed. Toyotomi’s master was avenged.

A conference of Oda daimyo followed at Kiyosu where Toyotomi, Shibata Katsuie (an elder conferee), and other daimyo determined who would inherit family leadership. Katsuie pushed for Oda’s son, Nobutaka, as the recipient of this power, but Toyotomi argued for Oda’s grandson, Samboshi.

Bolstered by his heroics at Yamazaki and his honoring Oda, Toyotomi had more than average clout at the Kiyosu conference. Even so, the conference ended with a degree of uncertainty. The daimyo simply reconfirmed their lands, and though Toyotomi (the leading daimyo at the time) was able to garner support for Oda’s three-year-old grandson, other daimyo and Nobutaka departed the meeting with other plans in mind.

The Opposing Sides Coalesce

By fall of 1582, the conflict between Toyotomi and Shibata grew. Nobutaka had wed his aunt to his supporter Shibata, which only strengthened their already tight alliance. Toyotomi then sent a well-crafted letter that reached Nobutaka, signaling that a diplomatic solution could be reached, while at the same time asserting that he meant business.

As Toyotomi pointed out in the letter, Nobutaka (Samboshi’s guardian) had not installed Samboshi into Azuchi castle, even though he should have. Such delay, along with scheming between Shibata and Nobutaka, signaled their ulterior motives and disrespect to Toyotomi. The letter also reminded Nobutaka of Toyotomi’s strong bond with the great Oda and asserted how his wishes, and the agreements ironed out at Kiyosu, should be honored.

The letter did nothing but infuriate Nobutaka and Shibata. In early 1583, Toyotomi began to prepare for a fight against these new opponents. He raised armies and announced his intentions to his other vassals.

Events did not begin well for Toyotomi. He soon learned of a defeat of one of his armies in Omi Province against Shibata. Toyotomi’s response was swift and decisive, and some argue that his next moves were the most important in his military career.

Toyotomi’s Bold Strike

Again, Toyotomi set off for vengeance, covering over thirty miles from Mino to Shibata’s camp in an amazing five hours. He brought nine of his most loyal vassals and a total of about thirty thousand soldiers. In a field outside a fortress at Shizugatake, the enemy scattered, including Shibata. The immediate victory showed Toyotomi’s military might, but his key competitor, Shibata, escaped.

Toyotomi pursued his adversary to Shibata’s castle in Echizen. Shibata climbed to the ninth floor of this structure where he realized his inevitable fate. Rather than let Toyotomi take his life, he took it himself. After uttering some words to his tearful followers there assembled, Shibata stabbed his wife, children, and other family members before committing seppuku.

Nobutaka had lost his most important ally, while Oda’s other son, Nobukatsu, had joined forces with Toyotomi. Soon they together moved against Nobutaka at Gifu castle. Nobutaka, too, took his own life rather than allow his brother and Toyotomi to take it.

Toyotomi’s attack at Shizugatake became a memorable imprint of his daring, speed, and resolve. He won congratulations from daimyo including Tokugawa Ieyasu, and others who were present at Kiyosu. His wishes from the conference realized, Toyotomi ruled Japan until his death in 1598.

Sekigahara, 1600

The Battle of Sekigahara took place in a valley along one of the ancient roads that connected Edo and Kyoto. In this bloody encounter in Mino Province, Tokugawa Ieyasu prevailed and soon became the undisputed leader and shogun of Japan.

Tokugawa Makes His Move

Tokugawa had served in the armies of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi for decades. When Toyotomi died in 1598, a board of regents began to oversee his empire as his young son became the official heir. Tokugawa was the leading daimyo on this board and desired a greater share of the power. He began accepting oaths of allegiance from daimyo that had served Toyotomi. This proved his ambition and upset other warlords who served on this board. As their jealousy and tensions increased, all Tokugawa needed to finalize his quest was a chance to prove his military might, which came at Sekigahara.

By the middle of 1600, a key rival for Tokugawa, Ishida Mitsunari, formed a coalition against him. This coalition planned on forcing Tokugawa away from the Osaka and Kyoto regions, where he held great support, and into the north of Japan. They did so by leading a revolt in the Uesugi region. This tactic would bring their enemy away from the capital and allow them to take over. The mighty Tokugawa, however, had his suspicions. As he headed north, he gathered attritional troops from loyal provinces to enhance his already strong army. After handling the revolt, Tokugawa turned back to Kyoto.

The most strategic point in this affair was where two primary roads neared. The parallel roads—the Tokaido in the mountains and the Nakasendo along the east coast—came close to each other at the village and valley of Sekigahara. A series of castles and fortresses also dotted the region. Whoever controlled these structures would have the upper hand in controlling the region. When Tokugawa returned from Edo, he knew he needed to take these strongholds, and he did so.

The Path to Shogun is Swept Clear

On his way from Osaka, Ishida marched his army up the Tokaido Road and met Tokugawa’s soldiers at Sekigahara. A heavy fog from a prior rain had set in, muddying the terrain and obscuring the movements of both forces. When the fog lifted in the morning, the largest battle of samurai against samurai in Japanese feudal history began.

The basin of the valley, muddy from the earlier storms, made the heavy fighting treacherous. It was a fairly even bout until a host of Kobayakawa samurai, originally allied with Ishida, entered the fray on the side of Tokugawa. This was the deciding factor that forced Ishida to retreat.

Tokugawa thus became the undisputed heir to Toyotomi’s military rule and began to unify Japan. His line would rule the nation from 1600 until 1868 during a rather peaceful era.

Key Elements of Warcraft


In Feudal Japan, the samurai warlord and his band of soldiers relied on several unique tools in their arsenal and employed various techniques to overcome their enemy. These tools and tactics developed and changed over the long period, but a few are worth noting.

The Way of the Blade

Among the Samurai’s tools, perhaps the most identifiable weapon was the sword. It was what some, including Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, have called “the soul of the samurai.” The time-consuming and artful process whereby the artisan forged the sword, an almost ritualistic procedure, made the swordsman appreciate it that much more.

The goal of the sword maker was to create a weapon that cut well and did not break in battle. While Japanese put great emphasis on ornate decoration in architecture and on tea bowls, the sword was functional first, decorative second. Samurai purchased swords knowing that this piece was to kill in order to protect.

A distinct sword etiquette developed during the peaceful, unified Japan of the Tokugawa Era. Bumping into a samurai’s sword—even if by accident and while the sword was in its sheath—was a very serious offense. Carrying a sword into a fellow friend’s house would violate the friendship. The visitor would typically leave the sword outside, but sometimes carry his smaller sword, the wakizashi, inside. Showing the blade was also a breach of etiquette, unless swordsmen were admiring each other’s weapons.

As the samurai class began to fade in the late nineteenth century, so too did the sword. Samurai were put into retirement and in 1876, the wearing of swords by anyone other than those in the new armed forces was illegal.


Armor for the samurai, while not so symbolic, was highly important. Initially, armor was much heavier, but the Mongol horses that the samurai had come to use required the horseman to be light. Since speed was his prime defense, lamellar armor became the standard. The lamellae were small scales of iron tied tightly together to make a horizontal strip, which was then lacquered. These strips were then laced together, overlapping one another to make a solid breastplate that would repel an arrow or deflect a sword.

Over the soldier’s arms were long cloth socks, sewn with metal plates. On his head was a helmet, typically a heavy metal bowl made from a series of iron plates riveted together. There was much loyalty that came with armor. During the Warring States period, samurai wore a colorful sashimono, a little banner on the back of the armor, to acknowledge his loyalty to his lord.


These essential pieces of warcraft assisted and encouraged warlords throughout the land and throughout the times. The samurai’s strategy in the field to protect or gain additional domains altered with technology. Initially, a samurai and his archers would launch a volley of arrows to commence a formal battle. Champion fighters from each side would engage each other; one might issue a challenge, typically picking a worthy opponent, and likely chant out his lineage of ancestors whom he honored in the fight.

Over time, military strategy moved from formal feats of swordsmanship and close combat to frontal assaults by large armies. Advances in weaponry largely caused this shift. For instance, the Portuguese introduced the gun in the 1540s; soon Japanese artisans began to mimic and mass produce weapons. The common model was the lightweight musket, fired by lighting a touch hole. The accuracy was not so great, but the availability of the gun encouraged many field commanders to send large volleys of ammunition into opposing forces. The musket eventually replaced the bow and arrow, a device that took more strength and skill.

When rival daimyo could not coordinate open battle in the field, or when an aggressive samurai lord wanted to press another into a fight, a siege proved useful. The primary skill necessary in siege success was patience. Samurai, with their archers, footsoldiers, and cavalry surrounding a castle, would wait out their victim. Eventually the inhabitants of the castle would run out of supplies or be starved out of the fortress. Some who staked out the castle would make large-scale attacks, sometimes using cannon that they had acquired from the Europeans.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was known for his expertise with the siege. In the late sixteenth century, he carried out a series of attacks that brought several domains under his control. His practices included everything from bribery to flooding—he once diverted a river into a castle, flooding out his enemy.

These were the essential weapons and methods that Japan relied on throughout its feudal period, until a modernized, conscripted armed forces was created with the Meiji Restoration in the late nineteenth century.

Impact of the Japanese Feudal Wars

Japan came into its national character during the feudal era, especially during Tokugawa times. This created an insular nation that intrigued outsiders—outsiders who ultimately forced Japan to open foreign relations and to modernize.

For centuries, the way of the samurai, the feudal hierarchy, and Japan’s isolation created both a sense of loyalty to the state and a rather ordered society. After the unifiers—especially Tokugawa Ieyasu—expanded centralized rule in Japan, a long peace followed. During the peace, Japan flourished. Now that samurai were not competing, the government could focus its efforts and resources on enhancing Japan. Internal improvements and government regulations on trade brought a strong Japanese economy. There was an emphasis on the arts, and samurai were now meant to be chivalrous, intellectual, Renaissance men.

As this thriving nation was coming into its own, it established a policy of seclusion that shut out foreigners who were interested in Japan and kept its native Japanese on the islands. In the early seventeenth century, Tokugawa Ieyasu had encouraged a degree of open trade and communication with Asian nations and some European powers. By the 1630s, Japan commonly traded as far away as Burma, and Japanese settlements could be found in Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, and other parts of Asia. Ieayasu’s grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu, however, saw fit to stop such relations.

Tokugawa Iemitsu issued a series of edicts from 1633 to 1639 that restricted the people of Japan from interacting with those abroad. Several factors contributed to this ruling. Many Japanese believed that in trading thus far, the foreigners had only brought luxuries that their people did not need, and they took items that the Japanese could not spare. Additionally, the imperial court and the shogun felt the new isolationist policy was necessary for internal security. The more that daimyo traveled abroad acting as the shogun’s vassals, the less control the bakufu, or military government, would have on them.

Iemitsu also did not want an influx of Western and other foreign ideas into Japan. He prohibited people from traveling overseas to the west of Korea, or south beyond Okinawa. Finally, he also wanted to stop Christianity, which was seen as a meddling infiltration of the West. No longer could those living in Japan teach Christianity, nor could any Catholics enter Japan. Iemitsu’s bakufu suppressed an uprising against this policy in 1637–1638, killing some 37,000 people.

In 1633, a memorandum was issued to the provincial governors that emphasized three points: no vessel without a valid license could leave Japan; no Japanese subject could leave for a foreign country; and any Japanese who returned from abroad would be put to death. One year after the Portuguese were expelled, an illegal Portuguese mission arrived, only to have its members executed. At one point, coastal daimyo were ordered to shoot at any visiting vessels on sight.

Such drastic measures were enough to repel the foreign devils and to isolate Japan into a very unified and peaceful nation. Traders and foreign ambassadors lost interest in pursuing a friendly trade relationship with an unwilling partner. But after about two hundred years—enough time for a peaceful Tokugawa period to establish a handsome market for foreign traders—the West began looking at Japan with more and more interest.

Russia, Britain, the United States, and others encroached on Japan, hoping to open her shores. These industrializing nations felt that Japan should be part of the process. One Scottish newspaper editorialized that the seclusion of Japan was wrong not only to themselves, but to the outside world. Many believed that though Japan had a right to its lands, it should not bar all other nations of its riches and virtues. The British, Dutch, and Russians tried to penetrate Japan’s coast during the early and mid-nineteenth century, but the Japanese government responded with unequivocal denials.

It would take two major events to change the course of isolated traditionalist Japan. Commodore Mathew Perry’s arrival and opening of Japan, and a revolution in governance, industry, and thought in Japan known as the Meiji Restoration.

Mathew Perry, of the U.S. Navy, arrived with a strong message: agree to trade peacefully or suffer consequences. The United States had special interests in a relationship with Japan, as did the other countries that wanted the same ends. Whalers and other commercial ships had been traveling the Pacific Ocean and needed Japan as a possible stop. By this time, the United States had expanded to the Pacific Coast and had a new sense of military and imperial ambition. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy and Perry wanted the Japanese to sell the United States coal for its naval ships.

Perry appeared in Edo Bay (modern Tokyo) in 1853, with a show of military might and a promise to return the next year for negotiations. He did so with nine ships, and America won some rights in the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa to allow some ships to stop over in remote Japanese ports. Other European powers soon benefited from Perry’s negotiations and received these same rights. The treaty opened eight ports of trade and placed the administration of justice in courts operated by foreign judges applying foreign law.

At the time as Perry’s visit, Japan’s Tokugawa legacy was giving way to a modernizing of Japan. When major gunboats arrived from the West, the sword was still the common weapon in Japan’s military. Outdated, the samurai had become as much a burden to the state as a benefit. No longer were military campaigns in Japan going to be civil wars with encounters between sword-wielding samurai on horseback. Many Japanese leaders realized that they had to start thinking like the other nations who were now at Japan’s ports.

Understandably, a thirst for modern industry, education, and transportation came over the elite government class; Tokugawa hegemony and the samurai warriors gave way to the Meiji Restoration. In this movement, a conscripted national army replaced the traditional samurai warriors. National universities were established, and Japan began to study and emulate Western industry.

Sadler, A. L. The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1937.

Turnbull, Stephen R. The Book of the Samurai: The Warrior Class of Japan. New York: Bison Books, 1982.

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Japanese Feudal Wars (Sixteenth Century)

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