Shogun: 3 generals. © Nikko Toshogu Shrine

The Life of Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu

The following essay is not intended to be a comprehensive biography of Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, but an outline of some of the military exploits that led him to the pivotal battle of Seki ga Hara and beyond.

Late in the year 1542 an event took place that was to have a momentous impact on Japanese history; a son was born to a nobleman named Matsudaira Hirotada, Lord of the province of Mikawa. Just a half a year later another significant event occurred on the island of Tanegashima off the southern tip of Kyushu. On 25 August 1543 on board a Chinese vessel seeking shelter from a violent storm were three Portuguese traders, who carried guns. The Japan into which Matsudaira Hirotada’s son was born, on 26 December 1542, and in which the three Portuguese found themselves, was one torn by civil wars. Internal wars had been common enough throughout Japanese history, but the civil wars that were then raging were exceptional. Territorial lords, the daimyo (‘great names’), had been fighting each other for land, and for the power it brought, for almost a century. Constantly shifting patterns of alliances were formed and reformed to take advantage of every changing circumstance, yet nobody had achieved the ultimate prize of creating a sufficiently large power base to take overall control. Unlike the nobility, who had dominated warfare in the past, the daimyo fighting these civil wars were perfectly happy to recruit farmers and peasants to swell the ranks of their armies. Firearms, brought by the Portuguese, introduced a new factor into the equation.

The Arrival of the Gun

Literary references indicate that a gun of some kind had been introduced from China decades earlier, and that it had been copied and used by the Japanese, but whatever it was it failed to make any significant impression. In contrast, the gun introduced by the Portuguese, almost certainly of the type being produced in their base in Goa, India, was recognized by a few farsighted daimyo as being of immense value. It was true that an archer could shoot about as far as these guns, and could loose off about a dozen arrows in the time it took to reload the gun, but he needed years of training. A gun in the hands of a common soldier, with only a few days practice, made him an effective adversary of the most highly trained warrior. It did however require a complete revision of military thinking. These new and expensive weapons were given to the lowest ranking troops and warriors, skilled in the more traditional weapons of bow and sword, had to take a supporting role.

Within a very few years gun production had become a major industry in towns such as Sakai and Kunimoto as orders were placed to equip the armies. Only six years after their introduction, a noble called Oda Nobuhide (+ 1549) was able to place an order for 500 guns in Kunimoto. Twenty years later, armies equipped with thousands of guns were commonplace. It has been estimated that by 1600 there were still some 200,000 guns in Japan. During the second half of the 16th century Japan was the world’s largest manufacturer and user of guns. In the wake of these first Portuguese traders came priests of the Society of Jesus, eager to gain converts to Christianity. It did not take the Portuguese long to appreciate that the diplomatic tensions that then existed between Japan and Ming China could be turned to their advantage. Raw silk and Chinese brocades were in great demand in Japan, a demand that was only partially met by pirate traders. Soon Portuguese ships were sailing from their base in Goa, carrying goods such as textiles, ivory and wine to trade with the Chinese in Macao. There they loaded the raw silk, brocades and similar luxury goods for sale in Japan, returning to Goa with silver and items for shipment onwards to Europe.
The arrival of the Portuguese, and the introduction of the gun had little immediate effect on most of the daimyo, who continued fighting for power and land. Lord Matsudaira Hirotada’s province of Mikawa was bordered by two powerful neighbours, one being the above-mentioned gun-buying Oda Nobuhide and the other Imagawa Yoshimoto (1519 – 60). In 1547 Matsudaira Hirotada’s uncle, Matsudaira Nobutaka, attacked him in a struggle for the leadership of the Matsudaira, prompting Matsudaira Hirotada to approach the Imagawa to form a coalition.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Rise to Power

One of the conditions of the coalition, a perfectly normal demand at the time, was that Lord Matsudaira Hirotada should send his young son, whom he had called Matsudaira Takechiyo, to stay with the Imagawa in their capital at Sumpu as a hostage. Unfortunately for the alliance, and for the young child, news of the transfer leaked out and the party was ambushed by Oda forces and spirited away to their castle at Kowatari in Owari. Despite Oda Nobuhide’s threats to murder the child, Matsudaira Hirotada, to his credit, ignored the threats and refused to break his agreement with the Imagawa. Seizing the opportunity Imagawa Yoshimoto dispatched an army to the Oda fort at Anjo and captured Oda Nobuhide’s son, who was lord of the castle. Then Imagawa Yoshimoto negotiated an exchange of prisoners, and thus rather than attacking he agreed to withdraw if the young Matsudaira Takechiyo was handed over. Thus the child finally reached Sumpu after a delay of nearly a year. Once established in his new home he was afforded the comforts of an honoured guest, he was given an education and lived in a style befitting a young Japanese noble of the time.

On coming of age in 1555 Matsudaira Takechiyo took the adult name of Matsudaira Nobumoto and later still changed it to Matsudaira Motoyasu; the character ‘Moto’ being bestowed upon him by Imagawa Yoshimoto himself and the ‘Yasu’ from his grandfather Kiyoyasu. With his father dead he was now head of the Matsudaira family. Matsudaira Motoyasu and his men were expected to fight as allies alongside the Imagawa army. In 1558 Imagawa Yoshimoto tested the 17-year-old Matsudaira Motoyasu in action for the first time. He was asked to attack a castle held by Suzuki Shigetatsu, who had defected from the Imagawa to the Oda. To avoid depleting his forces Matsudaira Motoyasu simply fired the castle. Within a few days he had defeated four other forts and had gained a countrywide reputation.

Inevitably Matsudaira Motoyasu came up against Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 82), the second son of Oda Nobuhide, who had taken control of Owari after his father’s death against considerable opposition from his relatives. He even fought a battle against his younger brother, eventually ordering him to commit suicide.

The encounter with the Matsudaira occurred because Oda Nobunaga was laying siege to a minor outpost that was rapidly running out of supplies. It fell to Matsudaira Motoyasu to re-supply the beleaguered garrison. As young as he was, he could see that a direct attack on the Oda army would have been a futile gesture. Instead he sent out false intelligence that tricked Oda Nobunaga into dispatching the bulk of his force to counter a non-existent attack, supposedly approaching from a different direction. As soon as Oda Nobunaga and the majority of his troops had left the fortress, the Matsudaira forces swept in and relieved the garrison of Odaka virtually unopposed.
Although these attempts by the Oda to encroach onto the Matsudaira and Imagawa lands needed careful monitoring and swift action, to Imagawa Yoshimoto they were simply a distraction. He had set his sights on a far higher goal. By 1560 he had assembled an army of some 20,000, including the Matsudaira men, with which he hoped to support the emperor in Kyoto, the imperial capital and the location of the court of the shogun.

The Origins of the Civil Wars

Japan has had an unbroken line of emperors for well over a thousand years but for much of this time the real government of the country was in the hands of military rulers. At the head of this alternative government was the shogun, or more properly Seii Taishogun, ‘Barbarian- destroying Great General’; a title with its origins in Japan’s ancient past. The first of these military rulers was Minamoto Yoritomo who, in the 12th century, led his clan in the defeat of their military rivals and was granted permission to rule by the emperor. Minamoto Yoritomo is also one of the gods of the Nikko Toshogu Shrine because he is an ancestor of the Tokugawa family. He set up his military government, called the bakufu, in Kamakura and delegated the administration of the provinces to land stewards called jito and constables called shugo. By the mid 14th century the shogunate was in the hands of the Ashikaga family and under their rule the power of the shogunate grew until they controlled virtually all military and political affairs. Similarly the shugo also expanded their roles until they had become, in effect, the military governors of the provinces. Subsequent generations of Ashikaga shoguns gradually lost much of their power, preferring to indulge themselves in the pleasurable life of the imperial capital rather than managing the affairs of state. Similarly many of the shugo found life in Kyoto far more amenable than a rustic existence in some rural backwater. They preferred to appoint deputies called kokujin to reside in the various territories and manage them on their behalf.

It had been shugo who had been partly responsible for the civil wars. In 1467 a dispute had arisen between rival shugo that led to a protracted urban war fought almost entirely within the city of Kyoto. By the time the conflict petered out, some ten years later, these urban shugo, their armies depleted and exhausted, were in a parlous state. Their placemen around the country, who had governed their fiefs without interference for ten years, resented all attempts to re-impose control from the centre, and were quite prepared to fight for what they held. Noble families, who had been in power for centuries, suffered defeat and extermination when they tried to reclaim their holdings. It was the beginning of an era that is now known as the Senkoku Jidai or the ‘age of the country at war’, one consequence of which was the phenomenon of gekokujo or the overthrow of the traditional nobility by those of lower rank.

It was this weakened central authority that Imagawa Yoshimoto had hopes of reinforcing. Hardly had his army of 20,000 left their base and headed towards Kyoto, when Matsudaira Motoyasu and a small contingent of Matsudaira soldiers were detached from the main column to attack a minor fort called Marune. Although the defenders put up considerable resistance, the fort was eventually taken. While Matsudaira Motoyasu was occupied with this task, Oda forces swept down on the main Imagawa army at Okehazama, decimating it and killing Imagawa Yoshimoto in the process.

With the Imagawa now a spent force, Matsudaira Motoyasu retreated to Mikawa where he sensibly entrenched for a while, allowing the Matsudaira fortunes to build up and giving his war-torn province an opportunity to recover. In 1566 he petitioned Kyoto to allow him to change his family name from Matsudaira to Tokugawa, that being the name of the area that his family originated from. He also set down his family’s pedigree, tracing it back to the Nitta clan and through them to Minamoto Yoritomo who had first held the title of shogun. At the same time he changed his personal name finally settling on Ieyasu, the name by which he is known to history. He was now known as Tokugawa Ieyasu, Lord of the province of Mikawa.

The Alliance of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga

In 1567, with his new name and his armies refreshed, Tokugawa Ieyasu now sought an alliance with Oda Nobunaga. When Oda Nobunaga decided to march on Kyoto in 1568, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his men joined him in the venture. Being allied to the Oda did not however inhibit Tokugawa Ieyasu from sounding out other potential allies. One such was Takeda Shingen (1521 – 73), Lord of Kai and Shinano provinces. Takeda Shingen was a commander who was renowned for the size and effectiveness of his army, particularly his cavalry, as well as the efficiency of the administrative system that supported it. He placed great faith in the Chinese military classics and had as his standard a flag with the characters fu (wind), rin (forest), ka (fire) and zan (mountain) on it; interpreted as ‘move as fast as the wind, as silently as the forest, strike like fire and be as steady as a mountain’. Had Takeda Shingen not spent much of his time fighting his neighbour and fellow Buddhist, Uesugi Kenshin, he may have made an even greater mark on Japanese history. In 1568 Tokugawa Ieyasu and Takeda Shingen together conquered and divided up the old Imagawa territories. Having acquired this new land, Tokugawa Ieyasu moved his base from his old capital at Okazaki in Mikawa to the castle of Hamamatsu, situated on the Tokaido road that connected Kyoto to the North.

In 1568, while Tokugawa Ieyasu and Takeda Shingen were busy in the old Imagawa lands, Oda Nobunaga had gained control of Kyoto and had made his own man, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, shogun. He now turned his attention northwards but found his route threatened by the military monks based in the Buddhist temple of Enryakuji on Mount Hiei. These and other monasteries had been a significant military and political threat for centuries as a result of a piece of ill-conceived legislation that had granted tax-free status to the land they owned. Imaginative monks had devised a profitable tax-mitigation scheme whereby, for a fee, the owners of land could nominally sign over title to the monks and receive the income from it tax-free. To protect these holdings, and other business ventures, many monasteries maintained considerable armies, the warriors being only thinly disguised as novices. Oda Nobunaga had little regard for religion and a positive dislike of the more militant Buddhists. On 12 September 1571, showing his usual ruthlessness, Oda Nobunaga had Mount Hiei surrounded by his troops who, at a signal, climbed the pathways to the summit, burning the buildings and killing everyone they encountered.

In December 1572 Oda Nobunaga’s move north-ward and Tokugawa Ieyasu’s relocation to Hamamatsu was interpreted by Takeda Shingen as being distinctly provocative. In a pre-emptive move he marched his army of 35,000 men by a circuitous route towards Hamamatsu. Word of this manoeuvre soon reached Oda Nobunaga who dispatched reinforcements to Tokugawa Ieyasu with the suggestion that he exhibit caution. Tokugawa Ieyasu, although considerably outnumbered, insisted on leaving his stronghold and facing Takeda Shingen a few miles to the north of Hamamatsu Castle at Mikata ga Hara. Late in the afternoon the two armies met and the fighting continued until long after nightfall. Despite the bravery of the Tokugawa army, Takeda Shingen’s superior forces gradually gained the upper hand. Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had narrowly escaped death at least twice during the fighting, finally gave the order to withdraw back to Hamamatsu. He then did something totally unexpected. Rather than shutting the gates of Hamamatsu, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered them left open and ordered fires to be lit to guide the stragglers in. This ruse took Takeda Shingen entirely by surprise and caused him to hesitate. The signs indicated that there were far more defenders inside than he had estimated. Instead of driving home his advantage, he chose caution and withdrew to review the situation in daylight. During the early hours of the following morning, a small band of Tokugawa men quietly left the castle and harried the Takeda forces in their camp, an action that only compounded Takeda Shingen’s uncertainties. With the weather closing in and winter coming on, Takeda Shingen decided to withdraw back to his mountain provinces and leave Tokugawa Ieyasu for a later date.

Takeda Shingen died the following year leaving his army to his ambitious but rather impetuous son Takeda Katsuyori (1546 – 82). By May 1575 Takeda Katsuyori felt that he was ready to deal with his father’s unfinished business and laid siege to one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s castles at Nagashino in Mikawa. Once again Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga combined their forces and assembled an army of about 38,000 men to relieve the garrison. Takeda Katsuyori had no intention of fighting near the castle, moving his troops some distance away to a more open location that would allow him to exploit his famous cavalry. The allies anticipated this strategy and built palisades to protect their 3,000 or so musket-armed soldiers, siting them not far from a stream that they reasoned would slow the horses. This tactic proved decisive as wave after wave of Takeda forces were gunned down as they slowed to negotiate the ditch. The once mighty Takeda army was decimated by the intelligent use of volley fire. Takeda Katsuyori himself managed to escape with the remnants of his forces and retreated to his mountainous homelands to recover.

By May 1582 Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga had jointly annihilated the remnants of the Takeda army and Tokugawa Ieyasu added the former Takeda province of Suruga to his domain. Together the two allies had conquered, and were occupying, a consider-able portion of Japan. This successful partnership was abruptly terminated by the assassination of Oda Nobunaga in Kyoto by another of his supposed supporters, Akechi Mitsuhide. One of Oda Nobunaga’s most able generals, Hashiba Hideyoshi (1536 – 98), a peasant who had risen by his abilities, rallied his troops and rushed to Kyoto to avenge his lord.

Japanese Visit Europe

Whilst Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga were making their mark on Honshu, the main island of Japan, trade with the Portuguese had continued unabated in Kyushu. All was not well however with the Europeans in the East. In 1580 an event in Europe caused them considerable consternation. King Philip II of Spain had moved into Lisbon and had taken the vacant throne of Portugal. With Philip in control of the whole Iberian Peninsula there was a very real fear amongst the Portuguese in the East that he would favour the Spanish and allow them to take over control of the Portuguese operations.
In a move to forestall him, four Japanese youths from the Arima, Omura and Otomo families, all baptized Christians, journeyed to Europe in 1582 to demonstrate to the devoutly catholic king how successful the Jesuits had been in spreading the Christian faith in Japan. Hashiba Hideyoshi learned of this expedition and recognized its importance to the maintenance of the silk trade. To this end he sent personal gifts for King Philip II that included weapons and armours, in Japanese eyes the only proper gifts between statesmen.

The Alliance of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyashi

After catching and defeating Akechi Mitsudehide, Hashiba Hideyoshi took command of the former Oda army, an action that Tokugawa Ieyasu viewed as an outrage. He felt that command of the Oda forces should properly have passed to Oda Nobukatsu, one of Oda Nobunaga’s sons. In response to this takeover, Tokugawa Ieyasu sent an army into Owari in 1584 to make a stand against Hashiba Hideyoshi at Komaki. There followed a series of actions that culminated in the battle of Nagakute in 1584. Although there were losses on both sides, it was a campaign in which neither side could be said to have gained any real advantage. Having experienced Hashiba Hideyoshi’s ability to command an army at first hand, Tokugawa Ieyasu wisely reached the conclusion that it would be better to join Hashiba Hideyoshi than oppose him. In an act of conciliation, Tokugawa Ieyasu arrived the following spring at Osaka Castle, Hashiba Hideyoshi’s stronghold, to make peace. Not unnaturally, Hashiba Hideyoshi was deeply suspicious and, although courteous, declined Tokugawa Ieyasu’s offer to assist in his campaign to conquer the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu.

By 1585 Hashiba Hideyoshi had gained control of a large part of the country but was unable to receive the title of shogun because of his lowly birth. Instead he was granted the title Kampaku, implying ‘one who assists the emperor’. He was also given the name Toyotomi, meaning ‘prosperous subject of the emperor’, the name by which he is known to history. It was not until Toyotomi Hideyoshi turned his attention north-wards to the Kanto region that he called on Tokugawa Ieyasu and his troops to join with his armies. In 1590 the combined forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu moved northwards to take the province of Odawara from the powerful Hojo family.

The illustrious and ancient name of Hojo had been adopted by a warrior family, one which had acquired territory through aggression and treachery, to give themselves at least a superficial appearance of respectability. The Hojo stronghold, garrisoned by some 56,000 defenders, was besieged for three months by the combined force of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu numbering some 200,000 men. Eventually, by mining and aided by a violent storm, a breach was finally created that could be exploited, and the Hojo capitulated. Toyotomi Hideyoshi suggested to Tokugawa Ieyasu that he might exchange the eight Hojo provinces situated in the fertile Kanto plain for his five mountainous provinces. As a result, in August 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu moved out of Mikawa, Totomi, Suruga, Shinano and Kai. He was now immensely wealthy; the lord of the fertile Kanto plains with an income of around 1,000,000 koku of rice per annum (one koku being approximately the amount of rice needed to feed a man for a year). He set up his new headquarters in a small fishing village that was later to become the city of Edo and eventually Tokyo.

Although there was now peace, Kampaku Toyotomi Hideyoshi was faced with the problem of trying to maintain it in a country that contained a vast number of armed men who had known no other life but fighting. Traditionally, loyal allies and vassals had been given grants of land for their military service, but land was now scarce. Instead Toyotomi Hideyoshi instituted the practice of giving fine swords as rewards, as well as introducing a series of reforms to minimise the threat of insurrection. He reformed the taxation of rice production and established a survey that established who had the right to bear arms. Tenants, who in the past had put on their armour and marched off to join their lord in battle, were forced to make the choice of becoming an armed retainer or living the simple life of the farmer. Inspectors were appointed to tour the provinces confiscating weapons from all but those who could show they were of military class.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Invasions of Korea

There was also a growing problem, particularly in Kyushu, that some Japanese who had been baptised Christians faced a conflict of loyalty between the Japanese authorities and the church. It may be for these reasons, as well as the need to conquer new territory, that in 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to give the unemployed warriors some fighting to do, but not on Japanese soil. His plan was to conquer China and the way into that vast country was to be through Korea. The first of these ventures, in 1592/3 involved around 140,000 men and the second, in 1597/8, about 150,000 men. Although the invasions had considerable military successes, they could not be sustained because the Korean navy disrupted the Japanese supply lines. During the second invasion Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent one of his administrators, Ishida Mitsunari (1560 – 1600) to inspect the forces in Korea. His report criticised Kuroda Yoshitaka (1546 – 1604) and Kobayakawa Hideaki (1577 – 1602) for laxity; it was a report he would later bitterly regret.

While some Japanese ships were ferrying men, food and the materiel of war to Korea, others were venturing into South East Asia to trade. Vessels called goshuin, or ‘red seal ships’ after their official licence, sailed to Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaya and the Philippines trading Japanese produce, particularly swords and staff weapons, for goods such as deer skins, rayskins, feathers, ivory and incense woods. Thousands of masterless samurai (ronin) with no prospect of fighting in Japan left their homeland and found employment as bodyguards with the potentates of these countries, and with the European trading factories in them. The king of Thailand in particular had a considerable Japanese bodyguard and at a later date he even appointed a Japanese man, Yamada Nagamasa, as his viceroy.

In 1598, during the second of the Korean invasions, Toyotomi Hideyoshi died, leaving his young son Toyotomi Hideyori (1593 – 1615) in the care of five warrior guardians: Maeda Toshiie, Uesugi Kagekatsu, Mori Terumoto, Ukita Hideie and Tokugawa Ieyasu. He also appointed Ishida Mitsunari, who had sent such a critical report from Korea, as one of five administrators of civil affairs. In 1599 Maeda Toshiie died and Tokugawa Ieyasu moved into Osaka Castle to be close to his young ward, being the most effective intermediary between the child and his other guardians.

The Arrival of the First Englishman

On the other side of the world the visit by the four Japanese youths to Europe back in 1582 had not been forgotten. English merchants had considered attempts to trade with Japan from time to time and had persisted in trying to reach Asia by a northern route but had been frustrated by their way being blocked by ice. These ventures were formalised in 1600 by the establishment of the East India Company to finance expeditions to trade in Asia. Another great maritime nation, the Dutch, was also showing considerable interest in the East. The first Dutchmen to reach Japan were part of a fleet of five ships that had set sail to trade in South America. Having rounded Cape Horn they were caught in a violent storm that separated the fleet and blew the ship Liefde far from the American coast. After months of hardship crossing the Pacific, the pathetic survivors finally made landfall in the province of Bungo in Kyushu, in April 1600. Liefde’s pilot was an Englishman named William Adams, who had taken part in repulsing the Spanish Armada during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Tokugawa Ieyasu interviewed Adams and was impressed by this Englishman whom he saw as a useful source of knowledge about Europe and a counter to the Portuguese catholics. Adams was eventually made a Tokugawa retainer and although he became very much involved with visiting Europeans, and even made diplomatic voyages for Tokugawa Ieyasu, he was never allowed to return to England.

Japan Polarizes

By 1600 the situation inside Osaka Castle was becoming dangerous for Tokugawa Ieyasu. Antagonism against him culminated in an assassination attempt initiated by Ishida Mitsunari. Tokugawa Ieyasu managed to escape the castle and made his way back to his own residence in Edo. Realising he had made a powerful enemy, Ishida Mitsunari began to recruit support, using the safety of the young Toyotomi Hideyori as his excuse. The coalition of daimyo and their armies he managed to form became known as the Western Army. In Edo Tokugawa Ieyasu, learning of Ishida Mitsunari’s actions rallied his own supporters to form what was to become known as the Eastern Army. Japan was dividing and war between these two great forces became inevitable.

It was Ishida Mitsunari who made the first move, but it was poorly planned. Uesugi Kagekatsu, one of the Toyotomi guardians who had sided with Ishida Mitsunari, held a vast swathe of land to the north of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s domain in the Kanto. Ishida Mitsunari felt confident that he would be able to keep Tokugawa Ieyasu occupied on his northern border while the Western Army moved into and consolidated central Japan. At Ishida Mitsunari’s request, Uesugi Kagekatsu began a spate of fort building to provoke Tokugawa Ieyasu into action. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s reaction was to leave the two northern daimyo, Date Masamune (1566 – 1636) and Mogami Yoshiaki (1546 – 1614) to deal with the Uesugi while he concentrated on watching Ishida Mitsunari. Ieyasu had already requested that Torii Mototada (1539 – 1600), commanding the garrison of Fushimi Castle, block any attempt by Ishida Mitsunari to move north. Heavily outnumbered, the Torii forces fought off attack after attack before the castle was taken and Torii Mototada committed suicide. They had managed to delay Ishida Mitsunari by ten days and to reduce his army by 3,000. Nobody could have done more. Ishida Mitsunari now had to wait in Ogaki, near Gifu Castle in the province of Mino, whilst other contingents of the Western Army joined him.

On 1 September Tokugawa Ieyasu finally moved. He was keen to prevent the two strategic castles at Gifu and Kiyosu falling into Ishida Mitsunari’s hands. Kiyosu was already held by Tokugawa Ieyasu’s supporters but Gifu was not, so an advanced party of about 16,000 men was dispatched to reinforce Kiyosu and take Gifu. By the time Tokugawa Ieyasu himself arrived, both castles were securely in the Eastern Army’s hands. Unsure how to proceed, Ishida Mitsunari remained at Ogaki, some 16 miles from Gifu to assess the situation. The two castles now under Tokugawa Ieyasu’s control dominated the major roads, the Tokaido and the Nakasendo, that were only some 20 miles apart at this point. With Tokugawa Ieyasu in control of this strategic position he could easily overwhelm Ishida Mitsunari. Against all the advice of his military advisors, Ishida Mitsunari decided to move his army so as to block the road south to Osaka and provoke Tokugawa Ieyasu into action. The place he chose for the ambush was a small mountain-ringed cluster of houses at an important junction of the Nakasendo and Hokkokukaido roads some 12 miles from Ogaki, a village called Seki ga Hara.

Battle of Seki ga Hara

Ishida Mitsunari marched his troops out of Ogaki into the teeth of a violent storm, arriving in Seki ga Hara around 1 a.m. on 15 September 1600. Throughout that dreadful night the higher ranks were able to take shelter in the villagers’ houses but the troops had to make do with whatever shelter they could find. During the early hours, other contingents of the Western Army arrived and stationed themselves on the hills and valleys surrounding the village. Dawn broke on a scene of utter desolation. Although the rain had finally stopped, the valley was filled with mist and the troops were desperately trying to cook food and dry their clothes and weapons. Tokugawa Ieyasu had delayed moving his troops until about 3 a.m. when the storm had abated, but they were in only slightly better condition than those of the Western Army. By 7.00 a.m. the Eastern Army was still struggling to draw up its battle lines, hampered by the mud and bad visibility. One detachment actually collided with a contingent from the Western Army in the fog but managed to pull away before any real fighting could take place.

Theoretically, Ishida Mitsunari had every advantage, having blocked the roads out of the valley and surrounded the Eastern forces by troops stationed in the surrounding hills and mountains. What he failed to appreciate was that many of his supporters had serious doubts about his intentions and his ability as a military leader. In particular Kobayakawa Hideaki, who still harboured a grudge against him for that critical report from Korea, was in a strong strategic position in the hills to the south. He had indicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu that he might be willing to change sides. Mori Terumoto, who had also been insulted by Ishida Mitsunari, was also less than enthusiastic about fighting for him. Mori Terumoto drew the line at betrayal, deciding instead to hold his position and take as little part in the action as he could.

Finally, at 8.00 a.m. the Eastern Army made its move and the troops opened fire. At the same time Ii Naomasa and about 30 of his men, wearing their distinctive red-lacquered armours, rushed a group of Western Army skirmishers before being joined by the rest of his men in an attack on Ukita Hideie’s forces. By noon the Eastern forces although holding their own were becoming anxious that Kobayakawa Hideaki should begin his move. To goad him Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered his troops to open fire on the Kobayakawa forces up on the hillside. Stung into action, 16,000 men swept down the mountain and charged the forces of Otani Yoshitsugu. Other doubters, including the Wakisaka, Kuchiki, Ogawa and Akaza, seeing what was happening also switched sides. The Otani were now hopelessly outnumbered and Otani Yoshitsugu chose to commit suicide rather than face defeat.
Within a relatively short time, the Western Army’s fortunes had swung from almost certain victory to certain defeat. Ishida Mitsunari himself decided to break off the engagement and left the field. By 2.00 p.m. only the Shimazu contingent of the once mighty Western Army remained, reduced to 200 men but still fighting. Deciding that further resistance was futile, yet determined not to surrender, Shimazu Yoshihiro ordered his men to attack the Tokugawa forces head on and fight their way straight through them. This tactic was assisted by a suicidal feint led by Shimazu Toyohisa wearing Shimazu Yoshihiro’s clothes. Mori Terumoto, whose 30,000 men had stood their ground, but had taken no real part in the battle, slipped away towards Kyushu. By 3.00 p.m. the battle was over and Tokugawa Ieyasu was in total control of the field. Seated on his campstool and surveying the carnage, he made his famous statement: ‘It is after the battle that you should tighten the cords of your helmet’.
The aftermath of Seki ga Hara was terrible. The total number of casualties on the day was 36,000 dead and seriously wounded. Those defeated daimyo who had escaped from the battlefield were hunted down and killed, their retainers becoming ronin. Ishida Mitsunari himself was captured a few days after the battle and taken to Kyoto where he was beheaded on the Rokujo ga Hara execution ground. In all, the lineages of 87 lords were terminated and their lands confiscated. The villagers of Seki ga Hara, some 900 people, also suffered; their fields were torn up, their houses were destroyed and their harvest for that year totally lost. The dead left lying around the battlefield became a serious health hazard, which the villagers were left to overcome. It took them six months to clear up the debris and bring some semblance of normality back into their lives. For years afterwards travellers would avoid entering the village at night, fearing that the souls of the dead were still abroad.

Tokugawa Ieyasu was now, in effect, the ruler of Japan, but there was still opposition to him. Some daimyo he stripped of all title to land, others he reduced their holdings and some were uprooted and moved to territories overlooked by those of his followers. Daimyo were divided into three groups: the shimpan daimyo, of direct Tokugawa descent, those who had been allies were known as fudai daimyo (‘inside lords’) and those whose loyalty could not be counted on became known as tozama daimyo (‘outside lords’). For the first time it was established that the term daimyo should only be restricted to those nobles whose lands gave them an income of 10,000 koku or more per year.

On 12 February 1603 the Emperor granted Tokugawa Ieyasu the title of shogun. Chiyoda Castle, his stronghold in Edo, now became the seat of the shogunal court and the city around it grew as merchants and craftsmen flocked to it. He reigned as shogun for only two years, taking the characteristic Japanese step of retiring and sharing the running of the country with his son Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada (1579 – 1632). Tokugawa Ieyasu chose Sumpu as the site of his retirement home, a familiar location where he had spent his childhood with the Imagawa. Although he filled his days hunting and hawking he was still very much the power in the land. In 1611 he marched into Kyoto with a force of 50,000 to attend the retirement of Emperor Go Yozei. Whilst there he ordered the building of extensions to the imperial palace and had the daimyo of western Japan sign a declaration of fealty. A similar pledge of loyalty was extracted from the northern daimyo the following year.

English Merchants Reach Japan

In that same year, 1611, an English trading fleet of three ships left for the Far East with instructions that the commander, Captain John Saris, should continue onwards to Japan should he fail to fill all three vessels with spices. It was late in the season when he finally reached the Spice Islands and he managed to fill only two ships. So as instructed, Saris dispatched the two laden ships back to England and sailed onward himself in the ship Clove, landing on the island of Hirado in June 1613. As soon as news of his arrival reached Sumpu, Tokugawa Ieyasu dispatched Will Adams to meet Saris and escort him to Sumpu and ultimately to Edo to meet the shogun. It is clear from Saris’s diary that he and Adams did not get on well together, yet despite this Adams played his role as the shogun’s representative with professionalism, helping Saris choose suitable gifts and explaining the niceties of Japanese diplomatic protocol.

On their arrival in Sumpu, Saris gave Tokugawa Ieyasu gifts of cloth, gold-decorated guns, and silverware and, rather curiously, a wooden bow made by the ship’s carpenter whilst at sea. Both Tokugawa Ieyasu and Adams tried to persuade Saris to set up the English trading station in the Kanto region but he could not be convinced and insisted on using the southern island of Kyushu like the other Europeans. In Edo, Saris was given audience with Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, again presenting gifts of cloth, guns and silver, but noticeably of lower value than the gift to Tokugawa Ieyasu. In return he was granted the right to trade, and was given gifts for King James I of England including two armours made by Iwai Yosaemon, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s personal armourer, a long sword and a number of painted screens. Saris, himself, received a short sword. A footnote to this gift is that when it finally reached London, the members of the East India Company felt that the screens were hardly of a quality suitable for the king and substituted others from their store.

Tokugawa Ieyasu Makes Contact with the Monarchs of Europe

In this same year, 1613, a decision was made to send a delegation from Japan to Spain to obtain permission to trade in Mexico as well as trying to persuade the Spanish to move their trading station northwards to the Kanto. The person chosen to undertake this voyage was Hasekura Tsunenaga, a relatively minor vassal of Date Masamune of Sendai. Both Tokugawa Ieyasu and the shogun provided Hasekura Tsunenaga with gifts for important people in Europe. Hasekura Tsunenaga set sail with Father Luis Sotelo on a ship commanded by the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, travelling first to Mexico, before transferring to another ship bound for Havana and then on to Spain. In Madrid Hasekura Tsunenaga was baptized in the presence of King Philip III, presenting him with many gifts that included armours from Tokugawa Ieyasu. There is documentary evidence that Tokugawa Ieyasu also dispatched two armours to the king of France, despite the fact that the French had no contact with the Japanese. This is corroborated by the fact that two Japanese diplomatic armours appear in the inventory of the French Royal Collection and are still preserved in Paris. Further gifts of armour and weapons were given to the Duke of Piedmont and Savoy who provided Hasekura Tsunenaga with a ship to take him to Rome to meet the Pope. There is little doubt that Tokugawa Ieyasu was, by these gifts, trying to establish links with the rulers of Europe and put Japan firmly on the diplomatic map of the world. However, Hasekura Tsunenaga returned to Japan in 1620 to find this liberal view overturned.

The Siege of Osaka Castle

By 1614 Tokugawa Ieyasu was beginning to be con-cerned about the Europeans and by the political intrigues of the Portuguese in particular. He was also worried about the support being shown to Toyotomi Hideyori, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son, who was now an adult. Once this concern became widely known it only aggravated the situation and thousands of ronin, made masterless at Seki ga Hara and other battles, flocked to Osaka to support the Toyotomi cause.

Osaka Castle, the largest in Japan, had been built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi on the site of the Buddhist temple Ishiyama Hongan-ji, defeated by Oda Nobunaga. At this period the outer works were some 13 kilo-metres in circumference with moats 300 metres wide, more than adequate to accommodate the 113,800 or so defenders who rallied to the Toyotomi cause. Tokugawa Ieyasu assembled an army of over 190,000 men and marched on Osaka. He had also obtained a large number of cannon from the Europeans, which he used to bombard the castle from the Tokugawa lines. After weeks of siege the attackers had inflicted no real damage on the mighty fortress so Tokugawa Ieyasu made offers of peace. The outcome of these discussions with Toyotomi Hideyori and his mother was that the Tokugawa forces would withdraw provided Toyotomi Hideyori remained in Osaka and agreed to make no further rebellious moves against the Tokugawa. It was also agreed that the outer defences of the castle should be removed. Tokugawa Ieyasu retreated back to Edo feeling confident that he had diffused the situation.

The Toyotomi supporters spent the remainder of that winter and early spring re-excavating the moats, an action that prompted Tokugawa Ieyasu to accuse them of breaking the treaty. Once again ronin and other rebels assembled on the pretext of giving support to the Toyotomi line. This time the rebels adopted the strategy of attacking the Tokugawa forces before they reached the Osaka, a decision that had some minor successes. Despite the bravery of the rebels in trying to delay him, Tokugawa Ieyasu finally assembled his army on the outskirts of Osaka. Toyotomi Hideyori felt that it would be unwise to attempt to sit out another siege in a much-weakened castle and decided to commit everything on a major battle in the open. Although the defenders fought valiantly, the might of the Tokugawa forces prevailed and Toyotomi Hideyori finally retreated back to the castle, burned the main tower and together with his mother committed suicide.

Tokagawa Ieyasu Becomes a Deity

Tokugawa Ieyasu now felt that the Tokugawa line was secure and that the civil war was finally over. There was now no-one strong enough to oppose the Tokugawa and the three branch lines that had been established in Owari, Kii and Mito would supply future shoguns should the main family in Edo fail to produce an heir. In January 1616 Tokugawa Ieyasu fell ill. Whilst on his sickbed Emperor Go-Mizuno-o honoured Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu by conferring on him the title of Dajyodaijin, roughly equivalent to the post of a European prime minister and giving control of the politics, judiciary and economics of Japan. On 17 April 1616 Tokugawa Ieyasu died quietly in his bed, content in the knowledge that he had done all he could to ensure the continuation of his lineage.

Shrines are built to honour Tokugawa Ieyasu

He was initially buried at Kunozan Shrine in Shizuoka (formally Sumpu) until his final resting place could be completed according to his will. The place he had chosen for his last resting place was Nikko, in order to comply with the belief that a warrior should be buried to the north of his residence and to protect the provinces of the Kanto Plain. Shogun Tokogawa Hidetada duly built a shrine for his father on the hillside adjacent to the river Daiya, to which Tokugawa Ieyasu’s remains were transferred. Emperor Go-Mizuno-o declared that Tokugawa Ieyasu should henceforth be Tosho Daigongen, or ‘Great Incarnation illuminating the East’. Tokugawa Ieyasu was now a god revered throughout the country.

In 1636 Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604 – 51), rebuilt the original complex of buildings, creating a new shrine of magnificent buildings decorated by the finest artists of their day that has survived virtually unchanged to the present day. Nikko Toshogu Shrine is now a World Heritage Site.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Legacy

Shortly after the battle of Seki ga Hara (1600), Tokugawa Ieyasu summoned various daimyo to his court and dispatched others to their domains. By the reign of Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu this system had been formalized into the sankin kotai, whereby every daimyo had to spend half his time at the shogun’s court and half in their own provinces. The duration and frequency of these visits were varied depending upon whether a daimyo was fudai or tozama and the distance of their province from Edo. Some might have to remain at court six months, others a year. Each daimyo had to maintain a residence in Edo where their wives and children had to live permanently. It was these processions between Edo and the provinces that became such a major feature of the Tokugawa era. Depending on the income of their fiefs, the daimyo had to provide a suitable entourage that might number thousands. Equipping, feeding and accommodating these numbers for a journey that might take months was, as it was designed to be, enormously expensive. In the case of the Maeda, Daimyo of Kaga, a tozama daimyo with an income of well over 1,000,000 koku, years are recorded when over 3,000 people were involved in the procession. On average the number would be closer to 2,000, broken down into 185 immediate retainers, 830 more distant vassals, 686 servants and pages and 286 grooms and handymen. Such a journey would involve about 32 Kaga horses and 188 horses hired from post stations.

Under the Tokugawa shoguns the stratification of society begun by Toyotomi Hideyoshi was codified and strictly enforced. At the top of the system were the warrior class, the buke, followed in order by farmers, artists and craftsmen and finally merchants. Never satisfactorily defined were a few minor categories such as priests, doctors, leather workers and similar groups. Emphasis was placed on mutual responsibility for good behaviour and the payment of taxes. Should a member of a particular local group fail in some way, retribution fell on the group as a whole. Whilst the Tokugawa shoguns governed the large cities, it was left to the daimyo to manage their territories according to broad guidelines set down by the government.

During his life Tokugawa Ieyasu had, by and large, been tolerant of the foreigners in Japan, and had actively sought diplomatic contact with the crowned heads of Europe. His son and especially his grandson Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu were less tolerant being particularly suspicious of the political ambitions of the Portuguese. In 1638 the Portuguese merchants were forced to move their trading activities to an artificial island called Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. By the following year, after the Japanese had ensured that the Dutch could maintain imports of Chinese silk, the Portuguese were expelled from Japan itself and the Dutch were moved to Dejima to replace them. By this time the English, with little to offer the Japanese other than woollen cloth, had given up hope of establishing a profitable trading base in Japan and had closed their factory.

The Closing of Japan

Within a few years Japan had been shut off from the rest of the world, a situation called sakoku. The building of ocean-going ships was forbidden and nobody was allowed to leave the country. Anyone who was out of the country at the time of the closure was forbidden to return. The sole exception to this policy of total isolation was that the Dutch were permitted to send one trading ship to Dejima each year. Providing the Dutch were prepared to maintain foreign imports and to supply suitable gifts to the shogun, the Japanese were prepared to tolerate their presence.

With Japan in isolation the Tokugawa government succeeded in imposing a stability that Japan had not seen for centuries. The arts, particularly those cultivated by townsmen, flourished; textiles, lacquer-work, decorative metalwork, ceramics, the theatre and woodblock prints all reached levels of sophistication the world had never seen before. During the 250 years of Tokugawa rule Japan developed in its own way, receiving only a trickle of news of the outside world from the Dutch. Occasionally some exotic foreign import, generally in the form of a gift to the shogun, would cause excitement. In 1725 three Arab stallions arrived in Edo at the request of Tokugawa Yoshimune and a demonstration of Western riding skills was organised. These and later imports of horses were bred with the native horse stock. By the 1760s the Dutch were also importing objects such as electro-static devices and air guns that gave the population of Japan a glimpse of the developments in physics and mechanics taking place in Europe.

The End of an Era

By the early 19th century the Japanese learned from the Dutch that the Americans were seeking a coaling base for their steam ships crossing the Pacific, a threat that materialized in 1853 when three warships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay. Faced with the shipboard guns and marines armed with the latest rifles, the Japanese could do little. The gunmaking industry in Japan had been virtually closed down centuries before in a deliberate move to prevent the daimyo from acquiring these weapons. There was no real alternative but to accept America’s demands and open ports to foreign ships. In a matter of only a few years the whole system that had been so carefully maintained by the Tokugawa shogunate for 250 years began to collapse. Although there was resistance, the shogun finally abdicated in favour of the emperor and the daimyo handed over their power to a central government and to a national army. The rule of the Tokugawa was over but to the Japanese the legacy of Tokugawa Ieyasu was not. Followers of Shinto believe he still resides in Nikko Toshogu Shrine and guides Japan and its people in the modern world, exactly as he did in the years after his victory at Seki ga Hara.

Did you know?

A flash in the pan

This expression originates with the misfire of a flintlock or similar gun. The powder in the pan was supposed to ignite the main charge in the barrel. Sometimes only the powder in the pan flashed without firing the main charge.