Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Period of Warring States

Warfare was a major part of Japanese history from ancient times until 1945. But there is one time period that was dominated by warfare like no other time in Japanese history. This period was called the Sengoku Jidai or Period of Warring States, a term taken from Chinese histories. This period of almost continuous warfare was between 1467 and 1600. The difference however was that the Japanese wars were between clans and families rather then between states as in China.

The warring states period in Japan began with the bloody Onin War from 1467 to 1476. The Onin War ushered in a century and a half of conflict. Many clan leaders during this period, called daimyo, made great names for themselves in history such as Takeda Shingen, Date Masamune and Uesugi Kenshin (currently being portrayed in an NHK drama called Tenchijin).

These wars were also a time of great development in samurai warfare. Only the strongest survived which required fielding huge armies armed with the best weapons. The most successful daimyo used large numbers of ashigaru (footsoldiers), whom they trained to use bows, long spears, and the newly introduced firearms such as the European arquebuses which were introduced in 1543.

Date Masamune (1566-1636) was one of the greatest daimyo of the Period of Warring States. In spite of having only one eye he triumphed in numerous battles in Northern Japan, and only yielded to the overwhelming force mounted by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Masamune is known for his crescent-moon crest atop his battle helmet.

Date Masamune

The struggles for power between the most powerful daimyo would eventually give rise to one winner. Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) was the first daimyo to move towards total control of all Japan when he occupied Kyoto and abolished the Ashikaga shogunate in 1568. However, Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582 and it was one of Nobunaga's samurai generals who ultimately unified Japan under one rule. That general was Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi is unique because he rose through the ranks from the lowly ashigaru.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Hideyoshi obtained power through both loyalty to Nobunaga and opportunism. In a series of political moves and battles, Hideyoshi asserted his authority. Some daimyo became his allies after failing to beat him in battle. The future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was defeated in battle in 1584 by Hideyoshi, is the best example of this accommodative approach.

The end of the Period of Warring States was near after the passing of Hideyoshi in 1598. Hideyoshi's son Hideyori became the nominal ruler of Japan but he was only five years old. Soon two rival factions emerged: those loyal to Hideyori and those aligned with Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) was the final victor in the Period of Warring States. Ieyasu and his rivals met in the battle at Sekigahara in 1600. Ieyasu was victorious in one of the most decisive battles in Japanese history. Ieyasu claimed Minamoto decent which allowed him to pronounce himself Shogun. The Tokugawa Shoguns would rule Japan for another two and a half centuries.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

The mausoleum and shrine for Tokugawa Ieyasu is located at Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture north of Tokyo.


  1. From what I understand, Hideyori's army was tricked. Their castle withstood the assault and Ieyasu sued for peace. The castle disarmed themselves. At that point the moat was filled in and all inside the castle were slaughtered.

  2. I would not be surprised. Not because Ieyasu was underhanded. But because this kind of trickery or scheming happened a lot among warlords in Japan. They often would even switch sides in the heat of battle.

    I plan to read more about Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi.

  3. When you read a good book about this period please recommend it.

  4. I have only started reading about this period. One very informative book that covers the medeival period of Japan including the Warring States period is called "The World Turned Upside Down" by Pierre Fran├žois Souyr.