The mess of conflicts and confusions has led to the near complete breakdown of the weak Ashikaga Shogunate, and Japan breaks into a 30-sided civil war.
It mixed intense and deep public-facing honor-bound traditions with undercurrents of treachery and secrecy.
It pitted traditional Japanese martial arts against newly imported weapons, with the advent of rapidly advancing gunpowder, siege warfare, and different tactics and formations.A very hierarchical structure with traditional duties and customs is torn apart by social upheaval. Ostensibly Buddhist warrior monks such as the Honganji used all the protections and privileges of religion to raid and destroy enemies in exchange for bribes and privileges, and then retreated to sacred holy ground when counterattacked.
Born from that chaotic mix were some of the greatest figures in Japanese history.
Oda Nobunaga was a target of those warrior monks. When his Honganji assailants attacked Nobunaga and retreated to Mount Hiei -- the holy mountain containing the most Buddhist Temples in one area -- Nobunaga surrounded the mountain and set flame to it, burning 17 temples to the ground, warrior monks and holy artifacts alike.
For perspective, that'd be a lot like the King of England invading and burning Vatican City to the ground. Sengoku was an interesting era.
But it's damn hard to learn about.
See, there were three "Great Unifiers" of the era: Oda Nobunaga (aforementioned burner-of-sacred-mountain), Hideyoshi Toyotomi (perhaps the greatest politician in all of history, he went from barely above a slave to ruling Japan), and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Nobunaga and Hideyoshi are both extremely beloved figures. Nobunaga laughed in the face of death. When he had only newly inherited his lands and was still only a teenager, his neighbor Imagawa Yoshimoto declared war and invaded.
Oh, and Yoshimoto commanded one of the most powerful forces in Japan at the time. He had something like 40,000 troops... compared to Nobunagas 2,500.
All of his retainers advocated surrender.
Nobunaga is having none of it.
He thunders out -- "So, Sado, you want me to surrender. What if we do surrender? Will you get content with losing your life that way? Or what if we hold on like Katsuie wants me to? What if we stay here in this castle, lock it up, and wait until the Imagawa lose appetite and stop the siege and go home? We will be able to prolong our lives for five or ten days, and what we cannot defend will still be undefendable. We are at the bottom of the pit, you know. And our fate is interesting. Of course the misery is too great, too. But this is how I see it: this is a chance in a lifetime. I can't afford to miss this. Do you really want to spend your entire lives praying for longevity? We were born in order to die! Whoever is with me, come to the battlefield tomorrow morning. Whoever is not, just stay wherever you are and watch me win it!"
In an example of meteorology changing history... it rains that day.
Nobunaga leaves a shadow force manning his outposts and making lots of noise and waving banners, and he has his vanguard sneak through the forest, rain, and mud to the rear of the Imagawa camp.
With gale winds blowing and in the driving rain, the Oda emerged in the camp like demons pouring from the abyss.
The Imagawa break into disorder, and Yoshimoto's head is delivered by one of Nobunaga samraui to their commander.
All leadership destroyed, the Imagawa troops joined their new lord. And just like that, Oda Nobunaga -- the teenager -- has a force 40,000 strong and was very wealthy.
But just like would happen with Alexander or Napoleon on the other side of the world, Nobunaga keeps up his aggressive sweeping personality, raw action, and intense violence. And while the details differ, the result is the same. Just like Alexander and Napoleon, Nobunaga shows little restraint and caution, and eventually is destroyed.
His eldest son and groomed heir died at the same time, and Nobunaga's generals -- who had learned from the best -- broke into a multi-sided power struggle. Eventually Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who had started as Nobunaga's sandal-bearer, barely above a slave, came to claim Nobunaga's position as most powerful warlord in Japan.
Their personalities could not be more different. Hideyoshi was one of the greatest negotiators of all time, giving rise to the Japanese idiom,
"If the bird does not sing, what do you do?
Nobunaga says kill the bird.
Hideyoshi says make the bird want to sing.
Ieyasu says -- wait."
We'll get to Ieyasu in a moment.
Whereas Nobunaga is defined by his raw strength of character, with many acts of bravery and great power, and also many acts of cruelty and violence, Hideyoshi is known as a great diplomat and politician. Similar to Augustus 1600 years earlier on the other side of the world, he was able to recognize, recruit, and retain the best in strategy, logistics, and leadership to build his vision.
He had a remarkable knack for cultivating fantastic lieutenants, captains, and generals, developing connections, and making the bird want to sing. Whereas Nobunaga would kill any offending bird that didn't obey his commands, Hideyoshi would look to understand, persuade, and get into the bird's confidence, and take the bird into his own confidence.
He, too, overreaches. After unifying all of Japan and being named Kampaku -- Grand Regent of All Japan -- he attempts to go on to the conquer China, which ends disastrously, unhinges his base of support in Japan, and after his death power goes to the final of the Great Unifiers.
Sengoku is incredibly difficult to learn about because we're not dealing with pure facts; we're dealing with mythologies and ethics and morals, origin stories and archetypes. Far more is at stake than plain facts.
The vast majority of Japanese respect Nobunaga or Hideyoshi more than Ieyasu. They see in Nobunaga a man of incredible courage, a man of pure action, a man of pure bravery, the manifestation of pure will. And Nobunaga was a brilliant innovator in military terms, and it's no surprise that all the significant claimants for rulership of Japan came from his generals and allies, who had directly observed and learned his tactics.
Hideyoshi represents overcoming impossible odds, he shows that anything is attainable to everyone, and this is a distinctly un-Japanese attitude, at least in mainstream terms. He's a hero among heroes, a story that a young man can immerse in and take comfort from when feeling the burden of the oft-times stifling Japanese society.
And then, there's Ieyasu. The guy that won.
Sengoku is more than a grand and sweeping epic; it's an entwined series of many grand and sweeping epics, clashing and colliding, merging and dissolving. Brilliant storylines in their own right that would be worthy of a Shakespearean drama -- like the struggle between the Uesugi and Takeda -- are interrupted by the grand an even grander steamrolling epic, pouring forth likes demons from the abyss opened at Okehazama..
It would be as if the American Civil War was interrupted by a European invasion by an alliance of England, Spain, and France. Insane. And electrifying. As in most times of great upheaval, the arts and technologies of Japan advanced rapidly, producing many masterworks among the artists and artisans of the day.
In the end, the man left standing from Sengoku was not the bravest, nor the cleverest, nor the most personable. He certainly doesn't have the most intriguing story or the high drama.
It's hard to study Sengoku, because the end of the story is the Tokugawa, but the Tokugawa do not have the vast base of support and popular works that the other daimyo had.
To understand Sengoku, really understand it, you want to get a Tokugawa perspective and understand how he outlasted the raging storms and gale winds. But there's no great accounts of that in English that I've found, so you're left gradually piecing the histories together.
When understanding how it ends, and what stability post-Sengoku looks like, you have a focal point, a sense of gravity that pulls the story down to its final moments, the mouth of the river pouring into the ocean.
It is a straight line from Tokugawa's first brief war against Hideyoshi to the settling of his capital in a little fishing village called Edo.
The gates of the abyss were finally shut at Sekigahara, and welded firmly shut at the Siege of Osaka Castle. And from there, the chaos is contained for 250 years until it erupts once more from the Japanese Isles.
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