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Japan, the homeland of the samurai in Japanese history and Japanese culture, was no stranger to warfare since the days of the rise of the samurai warrior.

Samurai warriors were a distinct social class and their establishment as a ruling elite in the 12th century, when the Battle of Dan no Ura in 1185 concluded a bitter period of clan rivalry and reduced the emperor to a mere figure of bow. In his place now reigned the Shogun or military dictator. The way of the warrior and man-at-arms was the bravery, loyalty and nobility of all the noble fighters for their warrior qualities and warrior practices with the handling of the martial art in the empire of the rising sun.

samurai 1

Several rebellions and battles took place against the Shogun’s rule over the following centuries, but all were successfully suppressed until 1467, when a feud between two samurai houses turned into a military and political disaster. The resulting Onin War, named after the conventional time of year in which it occurred, was fought largely around Kyoto and Kamakura, the capital of feudal Japan, and even in its streets of Kyoto itself, which were soon reduced to vague borders amid a smoldering wasteland. The Shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was totally unable to prevent the slide into anarchy. Instead of that, Yoshimasa was content with artistic pursuits like Martial Arts and he was in fact one of the first followers of the tea ceremony. He also built the Ginkakuji (silver pavilion) in an attempt to imitate an illustrious ancestor who had built a golden pavilion, but the current poverty of the shogunate was such that it was never covered in silver. Yoshimasa’s Japanese cultural achievements were many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before. was never covered in silver. Yoshimasa’s Japanese cultural achievements were many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before. was never covered in silver. Yoshimasa’s Japanese cultural achievements were many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before.

A moment of opportunity

With such a vacuum at the heart of Japanese politics, many samurai warriors seized the opportunity presented by the Onin War to develop their own local autonomy on the field in a way not seen for centuries. . It was as if the mighty pre-Shogun landowners of ancient times had been reborn, and throughout the Land of the Rising Sun there was a rush for territory.

Some families of ancient villagers and peasants disappeared completely in the provinces and were replaced by men who had fought for them but now sought their own local power through war, intrigue, marriage, or murder. Other ancient lineages flourished again, but found themselves forced to share Japan with vulgar upstarts who may have started their careers as ashigaru (foot soldiers) but now owned a considerable amount of territory, qu they defended using wooden castles on top of the mountains and a band of loyal followers.


These petty warlords, whose only claim to fame was combat skill and warrior virtues, called themselves daimyo (great names) and were constantly challenged by their neighbors. Dozens of battles took place, leading to the century and a half between 1467 and 1600 being dubbed the Sengoku Jidai (“Warring States Period”), by analogy with a similarly turbulent period in ancient China.

Five battles – one battlefield

A good example of this trend is found in north-central medieval Japan, where the territories of the Takeda and Uesugi families are located. They have been at war for half a century. Their most famous members, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, ruled like lords in their own provinces and ruled thousands of fanatically loyal samurai.

Takeda Shingen is usually credited with being the best mounted samurai leader in Sengoku Japan.

At Uedahara in 1548 and Mikataga Hara in 1572, Takeda cavalry rode down disorganized infantry units. For cavalry charges to be successful, the old and Japanese-origin samurai tradition of nominating a worthy opponent for a challenge in single combat had to wait until the enemy line was broken, so group operations gradually became Standard. Individual challenges may follow.

The Takeda and the Uesugi clashed five times at a place called Kawanakajima (“the island in the river”), a battlefield that marked the boundary between their territories. In addition to this intriguing idea of ​​five battles taking place on one battlefield, Kawanakajima also became the epitome of Japanese chivalry and romance: the archetypal clash of samurai weapons like armor or Japanese swords. In its most extreme form, this view even denies the possibility that anyone was harmed during the battles of Kawanakajima, which are considered merely a series of “friendly matches” characterized by postures and martial artistry. In this scenario, the conflicts of Kawanakajima can be seen as mock wars. At certain meetings, of course,

The Glorious Hojo

Neither Takeda Shingen nor Uesugi Kenshin managed to produce a successful dynasty to follow them. In contrast, the Hojo family of the Kanto Plain (where modern Tokyo now stands) built a strong and enduring foundation where family relationships rather than vassalage were most valued and trusted. Hojo Soun (1432-1519), the founder of his lineage, was to fight in 1467, while the fifth generation of the Hojo daimyo finally surrendered to Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590. The most notable development of this period was the size of the army that the daimyo Hojo could lead into battle. In 1467, Hojo Soun had only six men under his command. By the time of his great-great-grandson’s death in 1590, this original group had grown to tens of thousands,


Hojo Soun was born in 1432 and had benefited from the marriage of his elder sister to Imagawa Yoshitada, an illustrious daimyo of Suruga province. This happened while the Onin War was still raging and gave Soun the opportunity to escape 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 put in great jeopardy, so Soun’s “sevensamurai” and his six followers went to the rescue of Soun’s nephew.

Their military skills settled the matter as it is a code of honor, 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 which was to become 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 former servants by honoring his father’s memory, a program brought to life by the Soun-ji Memorial Temple in Yumoto. Second, he developed a legal and administrative system for the domain that began to institutionalize the systems that under Soun relied primarily on the daimyo’s own personality. Third, he continued his father’s program of conquest, leading an army in 1524 against Edo Castle, which lay at the center of the important rice-growing area of ​​the Kanto Plain.

Edo Castle is now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The capture of Edo sparked 17 years of war between the Hojo and the Uesugi for control of the Kanto, and the initiative continued to swing from side to side and back again. Soon

the Hojo also had rivals on their western flank, for when Imagawa Yoshimoto succeeded as leader 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 versus the Hojo. Ujitsuna handed over the succession to the third generation in 1540. This was Hojo Ujiyasu (1515-1570), who is generally considered the best of the five Hojo daimyo.

He was the contemporary of Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen, and Imagawa Yoshimoto, all of whom occupied the Hojo armies during his long reign. In 1561, Uesugi Kenshin laid siege to Odawara Castle, but he could make no impression after two months of fighting and retreated when the Takeda threatened his own territories. Two years later, Hojo Ujiyasu and Takeda Shingen were to be found as allies besieging Musashi-Matsuyama’s Uesugi Castle, just one example of the changing pattern of alliances between the “three kingdoms” during these turbulent times.

Hojo Ujiyasu died in 1570, and the fourth daimyo Hojo Ujimasa (1538-1590) would find himself as busy with diplomatic negotiations as his father had been with fighting. It was the decade that saw the notable victories of Oda Nobunaga. Safe behind the Hakone Mountains, the Hojo remained well out of Nobunaga’s affairs, but when Hideyoshi took over Nobunaga’s domains, the balance of power in Japan shifted rapidly.

Once Shikoku and Kyushu were added to Hideyoshi’s territories, the Hojo began to wonder if their mountain passes and strongholds would hold Hideyoshi better than stretches of sea. The answer came in 1590. The Odawara Castle fell, and with the exile of Hojo Ujinao (1562-1591), five generations of the most successful daimyo Sengoku met a final and bloody end. 


The ultimate prize

Over the years, most minor daimyo were forced to seek alliances or pledge allegiance to emerging provincial strongmen such as the Takeda, Hojo, and Uesugi, each of whom had the potential to unite Japan under their sword. . There was still a Shogun in Kyoto while such petty local wars were going on, but his existence was of little consequence other than giving traditional legitimacy to a potential power struggle for ultimate supremacy. If samurai warlords could control the shogun, his power was confirmed, but to succeed in such a plan, a daimyo had to capture Kyoto, and if one of them was foolhardy enough to try to march on the capital, he could almost guarantee that the one of his local rivals would rush to attack his province and attempt to take possession of the territory he had left lightly defended. None of Takeda, Uesugi or Hojo ever dared to risk such a venture.

In 1560, one daimyo in particular had felt safe enough to risk such a move by marching on the capital. His name was Imagawa Yoshimoto. He had a huge army and was based on the Tokaido, the Pacific coast route, which gave him excellent communications to Kyoto.

The only obstacle in his way was the province of Owari, the territory of a relatively minor daimyo called Oda Nobunaga, whose Imagawa army outnumbered twelve to one.

The advance to Kyoto began with the capture of the Nobunaga border castles, which Imagawa celebrated in style with the usual head inspection ceremony in a small valley called Okehazama.

His success had made him reckless, and Oda Nobunaga took advantage of the situation to launch a surprise attack under cover of a thunderstorm. Imagawa Yoshimoto first thought a fight had broken out between his own troops, but no sooner did he realize what was really going on, his head was off his shoulders and young Oda Nobunaga had won one. least expected victories in Japanese history with warlike exploits and military virtues.

As had happened so often in Japanese history, success begot success, and Oda Nobunaga soon found other samurai families too eager to ally with him. This gave him the opportunity to carry out his own march on Kyoto, where he deposed the current shogun in 1568 and gave himself regency powers.

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. of military engineering. Setting aside the traditional contempt for samurai and distrust of foot soldiers, Nobunaga trained his ashigaru to fire arquebuses (match muskets) in controlled volleys. This broke the charge of Takeda’s famous horsemen, and even though the Battle of Nagashino lasted another seven hours, a new trend and code of conduct had taken hold in samurai warfare.

death and revenge

Oda Nobunaga also encouraged trade with newly arrived European merchants, supplies of firearms and gunpowder being their most valuable commodity. But even Nobunaga’s exceptional skills on the battlefield 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 several miles away when the coup took place.


Hearing the terrible news, Hideyoshi rushed to Kyoto and defeated the usurper at the Battle of Yamazaki. As Nobunaga’s avenger, Hideyoshi felt 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 like Shizugatake (1583), Hideyoshi swept all local opposition to one side. After an indecisive meeting with another promising daimyo called Tokugawa Ieyasu, with whom Hideyoshi reached a peaceful agreement, Hideyoshi felt safe in central Japan. In 1585 he felt both confident and strong enough to expand Nobunaga’s former territories even further.

This last operation was an enormous undertaking, as he transported a massive army, the largest Japan had ever seen, along the roads of Japan and through the Shimonoseki Strait to the southern large island of Japan. . With the defeat of the Hojo and a largely peaceful submission of the northern daimyo in 1591, Japan was united again, under the sword of a man who had begun his military career as Nobunaga’s foot soldier. Unfortunately for Japan, Hideyoshi’s military ambitions included a fierce desire to conquer China. An invasion force was sent in 1592 with the intention of moving up the Korean peninsula and taking Beijing, but Korea was as far away as it could get.

Japanese lines of communication were cut at sea by the turtles of Korea’s famous Admiral Yi, while on land the Chinese crossed the border to launch a massive counterattack. After a few years of defensive warfare of the coastal fortresses, the Japanese occupants withdrew definitively in 1598; a decision that was partly prompted by the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who died in a way that all dictators dread.

His son and heir Toyotomi Hideyori was only five years old, and the resulting feud among his board members threatened to plunge Japan into chaos once again. Two rival factions emerged: a coalition of generals loyal to Hideyoshi’s memory and Hideyoshi’s former ally Tokugawa Ieyasu who controlled much of eastern Nippon 

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 dawn. of modern Japan. Besides the need to eliminate Toyotomi Hideyori (an operation successfully concluded at Osaka Castle in 1615), the era of war was over.

last samurai

Two centuries of peace under strict martial law followed, and it was a testament to Tokugawa control that the famous incident of the Forty-Seven Ronin Revenge Raid became a cause celebre – it was so unusual in the era of the peace. 

If you want to know more about Japan like Japanese specialties, Japanese gastronomy you can read the article on the best Japanese dishes.

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