Good questions from a reader -
There are some questions I want to ask you about the shogun era.
Why didn't the generals around Tokugawa Ieyasu aim for more power?
What were their end game?
Can a follower also be great, if so how?
So, we're talking about the Sengoku and post-Sengoku era of Japanese history.
Some really quick background we get to these excellent questions -
From the early 1300's to late 1500's, the Ashikaga family controlled Japan's Shogunate. The "Shogun" was the head of the shogunate and responsible for taxation and military affairs, but was officially the chief servant of the Emperor. In reality, power went back and forth in a number of ways, but the Emperor usually was more of a symbolic figure, with the Shogun ruling. After all, the Shogun had the revenue from taxes and the military authority.
The Ashikaga shogunate slowly declined in power, and like Britain after WWII, once you start closing one military base, you lose all your military bases. It was a tough cycle for the Ashikaga - lower tax revenues due to local feudal lords starting to rebel. When they couldn't reassert authority, they now had to live with less revenues - and thus, less soldiers and officials and equipment. Thus, more rebellion. Thus, less revenues. Thus, less authority. Thus, more rebellion. Thus, less revenues...
It was ugly, and so began "The Warring States" era of Japanese history - Sengoku.
I already wrote a long-ish piece on Sengoku, it's here if you're interested. But do an ultra-quick recap, a civil war broke out with 30+ sides fighting. The Ashikaga were one faction. There were 2 or 3 strong groups of warrior monks that had their own factions. There were 20-30 local warlords or coalitions that fought for territory.
Massive land grab, fighting, chaos. Assassination. Betrayal. Just like the chaos and fighting from the Era of the Italian City-States contributed in part to the Renaissance, Sengoku contributed to massive advances in Japanese art, culture, governance, trade, language. A lot of great people came out of the era.
Out of this came three "Great Unifiers" -
The short version is - Ieyasu won. Want to know why? I wrote about it in the article "Studying Patience" - worth reading if you want to learn more about Tokugawa.
But to answer your question, "Why didn't the generals around Tokugawa Ieyasu aim for more power?" - the answer is the actions of his predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
I think it's fair to say that Hideyoshi is the greatest general in Japanese history. There's 2-3 other generals in the conversation, but none of them had the complimentary ability as lawmakers, diplomats, and statesmen that Hideyoshi. Incredible ability. One of the strongest and most talented men in Japanese history.
Hideyoshi won, conquered and unified all of Japan, and took the title of "Kampaku" - Grand Regent. Because he wasn't of high birth, he wasn't able the take the title of Shogun.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Domestic Consolidation, Crackdown, and Over-Expansion
Hideyoshi was the classical "expansionary leader" - like Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. The major flaw of an expansionary leader is that they frequently don't know how to stop - thus, they expand broadly, but frequently their empire is built on weak supports and a weak foundation. If the succession to the next leader goes smoothly and the next leader consolidates, then the empire could hold.
He consolidated domestic power quite heavily during his rule - Hideyoshi cracked down on weapons outside of samurai hands, ordering a "katanagari" - a sword hunt.
This disarmed all non-samurai, making it harder for a merchant company or village to lead an uprising. Christianity was starting to spread through Japan at the time, and Hideyoshi cracked down on it too. He made Christianity officially illegal and limited foreign trade to a small number of ports.
Toyotomi made a number of treaties, and arranged it so his most dangerous threat to him - Tokugawa Ieyasu - was sent to provinces far away from the capital. The two strongest men in Japan at the time who weren't Toyotomi loyalists - Date Masamune and Tokugawa Ieyasu - also were rather far away from the most important and wealthiest areas in Japan. Masamune's capital, Sendai, and Ieyasu's capital, Edo (modern day Tokyo) were both small and relatively non-wealthy at the time, especially compared to Osaka, Kyoto, and the south/southwestern ports where the foreign trade occurred. Masamune and Ieyasu were north/northeast, considerably away from the important parts of Toyotomi's power base.
Hideyoshi had effectively consolidated domestic power, but then he declared war on China and Korea which... seems insane to me. Classic over-expansion. You know, I'm not such an admirer of Alexander the Great - yeah, he had some impressive accomplishments in his short life, but what did it amount to in the end?
If I have any major beef with history, it's that totally stable, peaceful, excellent consolidation leaders don't get much credit. Calvin Coolidge was an exceptionally good American President, but who remembers him? Not many people. Bill Clinton was an exceptionally good American President, but will he be remembered much in the year 2111?
I think we should celebrate consolidation leaders who refine the legal code, govern in prosperity, and are good stewards... but we don't, we lionize expansion-minded leaders - Alexander types. Well, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, for all his brilliance, had the over-expansion flaw. This is perhaps because he was low born. Very successful low born people frequently over-expand - my theory is that because they've done it all themselves with minimal help from those that came before them, they don't trust their descendants to carry on their work. Whereas someone groomed to lead from a young age trusts that he can groom one of his children to do the same.
Anyways, Hideyoshi declares war on Korea and China, and it's a disaster. Hideyoshi dies while his forces are deployed in Korea, and many of his generals don't hear about his death until months afterwards - thus really ticking them off at the wasted resources, death, and lack of respect that entails.
Tokugawa Triumphs, Keeps Most of the Toyotomi System, and Fully Consolidates
We won't go through the full set of conflicts and battles here, but Hideyoshi's Governor-General of Korea - Ishida Mitsunari - winds up commanding the Toyotomi loyalist forces against the Tokugawa forces.
Interestingly, Mitsunari was captured by Tokugawa forces and released... Ieyasu guessed, correctly, that there was lingering hostility against Mitsunari over the failed Korean campaign. He was right - a number of Toyotomi generals defected to the Tokugawa side, including a couple defecting during the decisive battle, leading to Tokugawa victory.
Ieyasu was named Shogun, but then immediately went into consolidation mode.
He kept the basic Toyotomi legal code - Hideyoshi had already disarmed and destroyed many of the most dangerous factions in Japan, and otherwise put limits and constraints against others.
Ieyasu's brilliance was in his ability to consolidate - he only officially reigned as Shogun for three years before retiring and passing the position to his son Hidetada. He lived for 11 years longer - so when he finally died, there was no need for a transition. People were used to listening to Hidetada.
This also free him up from day to day administration to work on further consolidating the legal code. He worked on and released the Buke Shohatto, "Various Points of Laws for Warrior Houses." Here's a partial list from Wikipedia:
1. The samurai class should devote itself to pursuits appropriate to the warrior aristocracy, such as archery, swordsmanship, horsemanship, and classical literature.
2. Amusements and entertainments are to be kept within reasonable bounds and expenses for such activities are not to be excessive.
3. The han (feudal domains) are not to harbor fugitives and outlaws.
4. Domains must expel rebels and murderers from their service and from their lands.
5. Daimyō are not to engage in social interactions with the people (neither samurai nor commoners) of other domains.
6. Castles may be repaired, but such activity must be reported to the shogunate. Structural innovations and expansions are forbidden.
7. The formation of cliques for scheming or conspiracy in neighboring domains must be reported to the shogunate without delay, as must the expansion of defenses, fortifications, or military forces.
8. Marriages among daimyō and related persons of power or importance must not be arranged privately.
9. Daimyō must present themselves at Edo for service to the shogunate.
10. Conventions regarding formal uniform must be followed.
11. Miscellaneous persons are not to ride in palanquins.
12. Samurai throughout the realm are to practice frugality.
13. Daimyō must select men of ability to serve as administrators and bureaucrats.
You'll see a number of consolidation points in there - the traditional ways to arm for war or build alliances are all either forbidden or must be reported to the Shogunate, including marriages and building new fortifications. Interestingly, the code also appeals to samurai honor, by requiring things that samurai held in high esteem anyways - training, being able administrators, and so on. Thus, the code looks less like a set of restrictions only, and more like a way of life... at first there might've been discontent at some of the clauses (especially no expansion of castles or fortifications). But over time, in any nation, the law becomes "the way things are" - the Tokugawa legal codes here aren't too repressive, and mix restrictions with practical good governance and appeal to samurai culture.
Tokugawa also established the sankin kotai policy - every ruling family must spend half their time in the capital and half the time in their home province, and the key family members had to stay in the capital all the time. This did a few things - it limited the ability for a local lord to fight any extended border skirmishes or oversee a buildup, guaranteed instant death/retribution against his family if he rebelled, and cost a significant amount of money for both the travel and maintenance of two residences.
To answer your question, though, I think history could've gone differently. The decisive battle - Sekigahara - was by no means guaranteed to be a Tokugawa success. If Tokugawa Ieyasu had been killed, a number of things could have happened. The Toyotomi clan might've kept power, multi-sided civil war might've broken out again, or someone else might have come to power.
I'm personally of the belief that Date Masamune was exceptionally strong, and if history had gone differently, perhaps he becomes the ruler of Japan. There were a number of other strong clans that could have come to power, but Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi Toyotomi systematically destroyed or constrained all opposition... it would be fair to say that after the Toyotomi bloodlines were extinct after the final Osaka campaign, there weren't many candidates left who could oppose the Tokugawa.
Ieyasu was diligent about consolidating though - how many men could come battle and persist their whole lives, come to an illustrious title such as Shogun, but then give it up after only three years? Yes, he was the power behind his son even after that, but most people have far too much arrogance to do such a thing - he officially retired after only three years in the highest office.
Can a follower also be great, if so how?
Obviously I think so, yes - my desired role and profession in life is as a strategist, which is a servant's role, not a ruler's role.
But before I could fully answer that question, you'd have to define what "great" means to you. It's much less likely you'll be famous if you're a follower, unless your cause is exceptionally successful or you personally achieve some incredible feats that also make good stories.
But if you want to be famous, it's less likely you'll be so if you're not at the head of the organization or movement... I don't know, I personally am pretty averse to fame, and see it as an unfortunate requirement for the things I want to do. Ah well, I've come around on it - fame is useful to the extent that it helps me bring the world I want to live in into existence.
It comes with a cost - I haven't written about this yet very much, but there is definitely a burden to command and leadership. When the final decision is yours and yours alone, you take much more control of your destiny, but it induces neurosis like nothing else. It's paradoxical - you're truly free, but once you are truly free and in full command, you see that it's not all it's cracked up to be.
I'd advise anyone who has the slightest, tiniest sliver of an idea that they could lead to try. Even the slightest little twinkle of a thought in the back of your mind... try. But having your own ethics is lonely.
Can a follower become great? Oh, absolutely. My standard baseline for a successfully lived life is having two children and raising them to have more opportunities than you did. If you do that, you've moved humanity forwards. Anything on top of that - any innovation, any excellent service, any creation, any more children - that's just gravy.
Additionally, there's other ways to a successful life, though I'm personally of the opinion that raising a strong and successful family is truly underrated these days. Raising and grooming your kids to be excellent servants of humanity goes a long way in my book, and I respect anyone who does that.
I can't define greatness for you - it's something you define personally. If you want your name in the history books, it becomes harder to do as a follower, but still very possible. Either pick a cause that's headed for immense greatness (if you can predict such a thing) or do exceptional things that also make good stories.
But that's just for the history books, which isn't necessarily true greatness. Depends on your definitions. But it's certainly possible. Leadership and command are exceptionally harder and more burdensome than anyone could imagine and crafting your own ethics is extraordinary lonely... I wouldn't hold it against anyone who decides that it's not for them. But I'd encourage anyone who has the slightest tiniest sliver of a feeling that more is possible - to go for it, and see if you can.
Very good questions. Thanks.