|The Sengoku period|
Sengoku jidai, or Warring States period, was a period in Japanese history starting in around 1467 and ending over a hundred years later around 1603. The last time we looked solely at Japan was when we discussed the Heian period which saw the rise of Japan's first shogunate. Until 1868 the emperor held de jure power but the shogun was the de facto ruler. The Sengoku jidai threatened all of this and remains one of the most cultural significant parts of Japanese history. Key players in the Sengoku jidai remain the most well know samurai and even the ninja originated during this time. How though did the Sengoku jidai begin?
The Ōnin War
|The Onin War|
The Sengoku jidai started with the Ōnin War. Since the early-fourteenth century the Ashikaga shogunate had been ruling Japan but there were issues for them. Their capital, where the emperor also was, of Kyoto had gone over 100,000 people meanwhile over areas of Japan saw a population increase as well. Trade with China had made several areas very prosperous which gave the daimyo (regional lords answering to the shogun) increased autonomy. Meanwhile, periodic famines and earthquakes had caused peasant protests. However, central authority remained strong until arguably 1441 with the death of Ashikaga Yoshinori, the ruling shogun. Yoshinori was known for his bouts of tyranny and when he was visiting the Akamatsu family they feared they would be next so they killed him. Yoshinori was followed by two relatively weaker shoguns with the Ōnin War starting under the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Yoshimasa was not a military leader but as he was a great patron of the arts Ashikaga rule remained intact. By 1464 he did not have a heir so he asked his younger brother, Yoshimi, to end his life as a monk and instead become the shogun when he died. Things went downhill when Yoshimasa had a son in 1465, Yoshihisa. A squabble between the brothers developed between who would succeed Yoshimasa: Yoshimi or Yoshihisa. Japan's most powerful families waded into the debate with the Hosokawa, Yamana, Ōuchi, Hatakeyama, and Shiba clans wading into the debate where some - like the Hatakeyama - went into a civil war. In 1467 the debates turned into a full blown war. For the next ten years the clans went to war mostly around Kyoto with it being burnt several times. With the authority of the bakufu (shogun court) evaporating Yoshimasa stayed in his complex writing poetry to cope with what was happening. By 1477 both sides had become exhausted and eventually Yoshihisa became shogun under the thumb of the Hosokawa.
However, the bakufu was weakened and with Kyoto devastated central authority had practically ended in Japan. The war had allowed regional daimyo and shugo (constables) to become powerful as their overlords had lost their power fighting during the war. Peasants also became increasingly autonomous with the Ikkō-ikki which was a 'mob' of peasants, Buddhist monks, Shinto priests and local nobles to defend their communities. In particular they followed the teaching of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism - which taught that all believers can be saved by the Amida Buddha's grace. Now that regionalism had surpassed the power of the court in Kyoto (under Hosokawa rule) the bakufu had little direct control. If one of the regional daimyo could control Kyoto this would therefore give them legitimacy to conquer the rest of Japan. To make this confusing we have the emperor in theory exercising power but they really answered to the Ashikaga shoguns who answered to the Hosokawa, and those fighting were originally just fighting to control the Ashikaga.
Economy and Culture
One would imagine that with daimyo in control cultural and economic life would have disintegrated but in reality it didn't. First off we'll look at the economic life during the Sengoku jidai. As the bakufu went into decline powerful clans took over the economy - so much so that in 1500 the funeral rites of Emperor G-Tsuchimikado had to be postponed. Regional daimyo instead stopped sending taxes to the bakufu and instead kept resources for themselves. Gold, silver and copper could be mined and traded between different regions, and miners would become so valuable that daimyo used them as sappers when attacking enemy fortifications. There was also the growth of the jōkamachi - towns-below-the-castle - which became the center for local trade in Japan. As mentioned when we looked at Heian Japan society was heavily based on Confucian values, imported from China, which placed samurai and peasants at the top, followed by artisans, and finally the merchants (who were seen as parasites). At the jōkamachi samurai offered protection to merchants and artisans as it helped enrich their own coffers - social values could be set aside in favor of profit. Meanwhile, the larger families of the Hosokawa and Ōuchi could replace the bakufu as the center of trade with China. Being powerful clans and having bases on the sea - like Sakai and Hakata - they were the prime position to take control of the Chinese trade until the Ming emperor ended it 1549. Traders from Sakai and Hakata developed an intense rivalry which lead to fighting in the Chinese port of Ningpo in 1523. Something which we'll discuss later is the origins of trade with Europe.
|An example of suiboku painting|
Cultural life flourished during the Sengoku jidai. Kyoto had been for generations dominated Japanese cultural life but like with the economy it expanded outside the city. A priest Sesshū (1420-1506) had been in China during the Ōnin War and when he returned to Japan he brought a new style of painting with him called suiboku - here black ink and water are used to produce varying shades on white absorbent paper. After finding Kyoto ravaged Sesshū traveled west getting patronage from the Ōuchi. One scroll which he drew was fifteen meters long showing rural scenes through spring to winter. Sesshū and other suiboku painters drew heavily from Zen Buddhism. The tea ceremony is one aspect of Japanese culture best known in the West and owes much of its history to daimyo patronage during the Sengoku jidai. It had originated in ancient times but it developed during this period.
Japan and Europe
History enthusiasts or those who have read the previous World History posts will notice that the Sengoku jidai coincided with when Europe colonialism began. At this stage Europe was the weaker partner as they came into contact with India, China and Japan. However, Europeans, in particular Iberians, had slowly started establishing themselves in Asia - Portugal established itself in 1556 while Spain did so in Manila in 1571. From the 1540s Europeans traded with Japan and for the most part Japan used Iberians as an intermediary. China had blamed Japan for the wakō, pirates, so had been barred from trading whereas the Europeans were free to trade. In exchange for silver Iberians would bring back Chinese silks which were seen as possibly the best in the world. Meanwhile, Japan was largely disinterested in European goods so originally it was just luxury goods like clocks which were traded. However, later on, although it remained limited, Japan exported swords, lacquer ware, and copper in return for gold, certain plants and most importantly guns. Tobacco was first taken from the Americas and planted in Japan by 1600, cotton was reintroduced, and potatoes and sweet potatoes got the name jaga-imo (Jakarta potatoes) as they came to Japan via Dutch settlements in Indonesia. Tempura is believed to be of Portuguese origin while the Japanese for bread is the same in Spanish and Portuguese (pan). Christianity was also introduced by Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier. The Portuguese poet Camões even wrote in his poem Lusiadas:
O Japan, land of fine silver, In future you will shine with the Divine Law.
It would decades though for Christianity to become so important that Japanese rulers were to notice it, or see it as a threat. Missionaries were largely limited to north Kyushu where it did not displace Buddhism or Shintoism.
We'll focus the reunification of Japan on the three 'Unifiers of Japan' as the wars of the Sengoku jidai can be extremely confusing at times - just like the Chinese Warring States period or the War of the Roses in England. The first figure is Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga has left as complicated legacy in Japan: some see his military prowess and see him as a great figure, whereas others look at his intense brutality to enemies and Buddhists. A change in his personal history could have drastically changed Japan's history. At the age of 25 Nobunaga became head of the Oda clan in Owari after an eight year succession conflict in 1559. Just a year later Nobunaga decided to take part in the wars for Kyoto and therefore Japan as a whole. Daimyo of Suruga and Totomi, Imagawa Yoshimoto, also had designs on Kyoto so he decided to go through Owari to get there. With a much smaller force at the Battle of Okehazama Nobunaga's force of 3,000 defeated Imagawa's force of 25,000. Nobunaga split his army in two and sent one half into a mountain temple where they set up a dummy army. Imagawa was certain of his abilities and began his siege, and Nobunaga launched a surprise attack. Imagawa even thought the attack was his own forces being rowdy so gave an order to keep it down as he watched a play. He was soon killed by some of Nobunaga's soldiers. Before marching west to Kyoto he decided to secure his east flank by making alliances with important clans including the Hojo in Sagami, Tokugawa Ieyasu in Mikawa, and Takeda Shingen in Kai. Using European firearms Nobunaga began easily winning battles until he captured Kyoto in 1568 where he put the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, and the emperor, Ogimachi, under his control.
Nobunaga could be brutal when he wished. In 1573 Yoshiaki resented the apparent upstart from Owari so started intriguing against him. Nobunaga soon discovered this and chased him from Kyoto where Yoshiaki was forced to become a Buddhist monk. Thus the Ashikaga shogunate came to an end. Nobunaga lived by the motto 'Rule the Empire by Force' and he firmly lived up to this with his attitude to Buddhists. Periodically through Japan's history rulers have begrudged the important role of Buddhists in society and during this period many had become important through the collapse of central power. One group included the Tendai monks who lived in the Hieizan mountain overlooking Kyoto and due to it being a sacred site it had often been spared from attack as a result. Nobunaga didn't care about this. In 1571 he set fire to the thickets around the mountain and had soldiers massacre everyone there. Ten of thousands of monks, women and children were slaughtered while burning to the ground a major site of religion, art and culture. He also began a siege in 1570 of Shinshu temple on an island in Osaka which was virtually impregnable as long as the monks could get supplies. Nobunaga refused to budge so much that it took until 1580 for the defenders to surrender. Not even a year later he sent an expedition to wipe out the Buddhists in the Shingon monasteries in Koyasan until the emperor personally intervened to spare them.
While Nobunaga was waging war in the west against independent daimyo he actually started ruling. He opened trade with Europe, Siam, the Philippines, and Indonesia while continuing trade with China and Korea. Domestically he wanted to preserve the jōkamachi economy by banning monopolies and banned guilds in an early version of the free market - although I would not apply the idea of the free market as we now know it to Sengoku jidai Japan. Meanwhile, Nobunaga was eager to preserve this military gains by having a series of fortifications made, as well as securing musket factories to ensure he had the superior firepower. Furthermore, he changed the warrior system so those who had proved their loyalty and prowess, including those from a lower class, could become retainers. However, in 1582 this did not stop one of his best generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, from sieging Nobunaga's palace. He was forced to commit seppuku (suicide) as his son died in battle. This was not the end of the story.
The second unifier is Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Like Nobunaga he has a mixed legacy where the brutality of the last years of his life has overshadowed the successes of his early life. We know little of Hideyoshi's life before 1570 indicating that he must have been from a lowly family, likely the son of a peasant, from Owari. It would take until the late-1800s for someone to rise as rapidly as he did again. Through his loyalty and military prowess he rose to be Oda's second-hand-man so he was sent west with Akechi. When he heard about Akechi's coup Hideyoshi made a quick peace to return east where he destroyed Akechi's force, and Akechi himself, at the Battle of Yamazaki. Over the next eight years Hideyoshi finished the reunification of Japan but he did so strangely more peacefully than Nobunaga. Although he often was ready to fight Hideyoshi he rather laid siege to castles and forts with a huge force forcing the defenders to surrender. Unlike Nobunaga who brutally treated those who surrendered Hideyoshi spared them but reduced their lands instead. Even with his allies he was cautious not to let them become too power: he got Tokugawa Ieyasu to surrender his ancestral lands (to redistribute among over loyal subjects) in return for new rich lands. The only time he did not spare those who surrendered was with his final battle. In 1590 the Odawara castle in Sagami of the Hojo family finally fell so Hideyoshi had them commit suicide and gave their lands to Tokugawa. This has been interpreted in two ways: one being Hideyoshi losing his mind and becoming more violent, or that the Hojo had plenty of chances to surrender but always refused to. After the unification of Japan finished.
Hideyoshi effectively became the new shogun - although he did offer the last Ashikaga to be shogun but he refused. European kings wrote to him on the same level as the Chinese emperor saw him as de facto emperor. It is hard to imagine a peasant son becoming so important. In 1590 he also finished Nobunaga's construction of a castle in Osaka. Now with central authority secure Hideyoshi ordered a census and wanted to return back to tradition. During the Sengoku jidai many peasants had decided to arm themselves but traditionally only the samurai were meant to hold swords. To rectify this and make society more clear cut Hideyoshi passed a decree in 1588 called the 'sword hunt'. Peasants had to chose whether to be a warrior or a farmer. The metal from the collected swords were melted down to form the Buddha statue in the Asuka-dera monastery in Nara. Finally, Hideyoshi banned slavery but did allow indentured labor to continue. We mentioned the tea ceremony earlier and one reason why it became so important was due to Hideyoshi: he used the ceremony to show his own power.
In later life Hideyoshi became more brutal and erratic. In 1587 he banned Christian missionaries as he feared they would create an alternate form of authority for Christian daimyo - something especially dangerous in Japan as the emperor was believed to be descended from the goddess Amaterasu. For a long time he overlooked individual Christians until 1597 he had 26 Christians (including three children) publicly crucified in Nagasaki. Then in 1592 he began an invasion of China. Historians still do not understand why whether it is due to fulfilling a dream of Nobunaga, delusions of grandeur, or a desire to renew trade with China. He wrote letters to Ryukyu, the Philippines, Goa, and Taiwan detailing his honors and importance. One even said 'When my mother conceived me, she was given a miraculous omen with respect to the sun, and on the very night I was born the room was suddenly aglow with sunlight, thus changing night to day.' As Korea refused to give Hideyoshi access (being a vassal of China) so his forces could quickly move onto Beijing the Japanese empire became bogged down in Korea. His forces easily won battles but the Sengoku jidai had few naval battles meaning the Korean navy easily destroyed the Japanese one. Also, the tactic of sieging castles into submission didn't work well in Korea as they were an invading force so couldn't rely on a possibly loyal population. Meanwhile, there was a succession crisis. Hideyoshi had made his nephew his heir but then in 1593 he had a son, Hideyori. Due to his nephew's public brutality and corruption Hideyoshi could have easily disinherited him but instead he chose to have his nephew's entire family executed. In 1598 he finally died.
The Creation of a new Shogunate
|The Battle of Sekigahara on a screen commissioned by Tokugawa Ieyasu|
Before his death Hideyoshi appointed five leading daimyo to a regency council called the Council of Five Elders: Tokugawa Ieyasu, Ukita Hideie, Maeda Toshiie, Uesugi Kagekatsu, and Mōri Terumoto. All swore to respect Hideyori as much as they respected Hideyoshi but in reality each vied for power. Ieyasu had a large family and the largest domain making him the best placed to move in. A son, an adopted daughter, and two granddaughters were married into strategically placed families creating lots of powerful allies. Maede was in ill health before Hideyoshi died and died himself in 1599 causing accusations of foul play. Soon Ieyasu was challenged by a group led by the young Hideyori and leading daimyo Ishida Mitsunari. In 1600 the two sides, both professing loyalty to Hideyoshi, fought at the Battle of Sekigahara. Tokugawa won a decisive victory beginning the Tokugawa shogunate. Although it would take until 1615 the Tokugawa would reshape Japanese history.
The Sengoku jidai shaped Japan greatly. Thanks to a breakdown of central authority during the Ōnin War new social structures emerged to cope. Then the 'Unifiers' of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu went on to change how politics worked in Japan. Meanwhile, this period has greatly influenced thought in Japan, and also how the West views pre-Meiji Japan. As mentioned earlier the ninja were active during this period but they were mostly peasants acting as spies and mercenaries. The current view on ninjas evolved through a romanticism of this era during the nineteenth-century. When you hear the names of many famous samurai they often refer to this period. Despite being over a hundred years of being fractured Japan was greatly shaped by the Sengoku jidai.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-R.H.P. Mason and J.G. Caiger, A History of Japan, Revised edition, (Singapore: Tuttle, 1997)
-Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)
-Philip C. Brown, 'Unification, Consolidation, and Tokugawa Rule', in William M. Tsutsui, (ed.), A Companion to Japanese History, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009)
-H. Paul Varley, The Ōnin War: History of Its Origins and Backgrounds with a Selective Translation of The Chronicle of Ōnin, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967)
-John Whitney Hall, Nagahara Keiji, and Kozo Yamamura, (eds.), Japan before Tokugawa: Political Consideration and Economic Growth, 1500 to 1650, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981)
-Conrad Totman, A History of Japan, Second Edition, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005)
Thank you for reading. Before we look at the Tokugawa we'll be heading west to look at the Three Gunpowder Empires. The first of which we'll look at is the Ottoman Empire. For future World History posts please see our list. For future blog posts please see our Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.