Left to right: Kamakura clan; Oda clan; Tokugawa clan
In the late 1100s, Minamoto no Yoritomo became Japan’s first shogun (military commander; general) when he established the Kamakura Shogunate, deriving its name from the city in which he resided. In doing so, he essentially usurped the political power of the Emperor, with it then passing to a succession of Regents drawn from the allied Hojo clan. The Kamakura period was notable for the transition from centuries-old reliance on Confucian principles, to feudalism derived from a very strict, well defined set of laws derived from military code, the subsequent emergence of the Samurai, and two very ill-fated Mongol invasions! In both cases, the Japanese were quite possibly saved from eventual defeat by large storms that effectively destroyed the Mongol fleets!
In 1338, shortly after Emperor Go-Daigo’s short-lived Kenmu restoration failed to permanently re-establish civilian/imperial rule in Japan, marking the last time the Emperor would hold real power until the Meiji restoration of 1867, Ashikaga Takauji became the first in what was to be a long line of succession when he founded the Muromachi or Ashikaga Shogunate. The Ashikaga Shogunate would continue until 1573 when the 15th and last Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, was driven from Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga.
The Ashikaga Shogunate, although they re-instituted the military system of government that was put in place during the Kamakura/Hojo era, struggled to maintain the loyalty of many daimyo (regional military warlords who ruled territories throughout Japan), especially those whose domains were distant from the capital region of Kyoto. Increased trade with China, the appearance of trade-based cities, the growth of local economies and developments in agriculture all added to a growing desire for greater local autonomy on the part of peasants and nobles alike.
More than a century after the founding of the Ashikaga Shogunate, civil war loomed as a result of a conflict between Hosokawa Katsumoto (a Kanrei - deputy shogun, part of the Ashikaga Shogunate) and his father-in-law Yamana Sozen, who may have resented his son-in-law’s power and connections. The heirless shogun at the time, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, had convinced his brother to act as heir. The brother, Ashikaga Yoshimi, had been a monk, and had required some convincing to assert a claim to the title Shogun. Unexpectedly, the shogun had a son, and Yoshimi didn’t want to give up his claim. Hosokawa Katsumoto supported one claim, Yamana Sozen the other.
Timeline of the Sengoku Period 1467 - 16001192 Kamakura Shogunate founded
1274 Mongol Invasion fails
1281 Mongol Invasion fails
1333 Kenmu Restoration - lasts until 1336
1338 Ashikaga Shogunate founded
1467 Ōnin War begins - the beginning of the Sengoku Period
1477 Ōnin War ends
1551 Oda Nobuhide dies; Nobunaga takes over
1573 Oda Nobunaga ends Ashikaga reign
1582 Oda Nobunaga commits seppuku rather than face defeat
1590 Toyotomi Hideyoshi unifies Japan
1600 Tokugawa Shogunate founded
The shogun did little to discourage the fighting, spending his time instead involved in more courtly pursuits like poetry reading, possibly the tea-ceremony and in planning a follow up to his grandfathers “Gold Pavilion”; the “Silver Pavilion”, or Ginkaku-Ji. Eventually (almost 10 years later), with Kyoto now greatly smoldering ruins and both Sozen and Katsumoto dead, the Yamana clan left Kyoto and went home, with neither clan achieving any real “victory”.
The shoguns relative apathy/ineptitude in dealing with the conflicts surrounding the Onin War signaled to daimyos (feudal warlords) across Japan that there would be little or no imperial repercussions, should they choose to engage in their own little private wars for territory. And so they did. Widely. The conflict that had enveloped Kyoto spread to the surrounding provinces, and onward to outlying provinces as well.
Thus began the “Warring States” or “Sengoku” period as we’ve come to know it, a long series of regional conflicts that saw daimyos from across Japan vying for power, with little regard for the will of the emperor. The term “Warring States” is derived from the Era of Warring States, a violent period in ancient China that concluded with the victory of the state of Qin in 221 BC, creating a unified China under what we would come to know as the Qin Dynasty. It is popularly believed incidentally, that Qin, pronounced “chin”, is the origin of the modern word China.
With the further dilution of the already ineffective centralized imperial authority that resulted from all the regional conflicts, many old and already powerful clans, like the Takeda and the Imagawa, were able to further consolidate their power and expand their spheres of influence. As well, various religious groups were able to capitalize on the relative anarchy and gain political power by uniting peasants against the rule of their local daimyo, forming numerous Ikkō-ikki.
Ikkō-ikki were loosely organized groups (or mobs) of peasants, monks, farmers, priests and local nobles who wanted out from under the military rule they were subject to. Though their popularity and rebelliousness tended to attract the attention of powerful military leaders (as you might imagine), the most successful of these groups remained independent from military rule (and a thorn in the side of ambitious daimyo) for nearly 100 years.
Gekokujō and the OdaAnother manifestation of the social upheaval brought about during the Sengoku period, is known as “Gekokujō”, which translates to “low conquers high”, in reference to the tendency during this period for those of lower rank, but considerable ambition and ability, to forcefully overthrow those above them who were unable to hold on to power, whether due to luck or ineptitude. An especially historically noteworthy example of this involved the subjugation of the Shiba clan by the Oda clan.
A power vacuum formed in the relatively obscure Owari Province in 1551, home of the Oda clan, when magistrate Oda Nobuhide died. His legitimate heir, Oda Nobunaga, faced internal opposition to his ascending to the leadership of the clan. Nobunaga’s uncle, Oda Nobutomo, used the support of the impotent Shugo (governor), a member of the Shiba clan to back his own claims of legitimacy.
Nobunaga ultimately recruited a different uncle to support him, slew Nobutomo, and ascended to the leadership of the clan, as was his legitimate right. He then used the head of the Shiba family, the son of the former governor, (murdered by his now deceased uncle) to make peace with several rival daimyo, taking advantage of Shiba clan alliances. The Shiba family were eventually cast out of the Oda clan once it was revealed that they were plotting their own return to power.
Oda Nobunaga had ambitions to unify Japan under one ruler. He continued to consolidate his power, and was the dominant force in central Japan for more than two decades, conquering province after province with ruthless efficiency. In 1573, Nobunaga drove Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki into exile, bringing an end to the 150-year reign of the Ashikaga Shogunate.
As he became increasingly powerful, coalitions of rival daimyo formed to try to put an end to his ambition. They succeeded eventually in 1582, on the eve of Nobunaga’s invasion of Shikoku, aided by the betrayal of one of Nobunaga’s generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, who led a small force to kill Oda well behind his own lines. Rather than face the shame of defeat, Oda committed seppuku before his would be assassins could reach him. Mitsuhide’s army was defeated in turn less than two weeks later by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who would become Nobunaga’s effective heir.
At the time of his death, Nobunaga controlled more than half of Japan’s provinces, in particular, those closest to the capital region of Kyoto. Minus the treachery of Akechi Mitsuhide, he would likely have succeeded in his goal of a unified Japan. Especially considering Hideyoshi would go on to unify Japan less than a decade later, in 1590. A decade after that, Tokugawa Ieyasu, another Nobunaga loyalist, would establish the Tokugawa Shogunate. A Tokugawa shogun would rule a unified Japan for more than 250 years during a time of relative peace that came to be known as the Edo period, until the Meiji Restoration restored imperial rule in 1868, under Emperor Meiji.
Popular Culture InfluencesThe Sengoku period has influenced countless media and popular culture projects. Some of the ones I found most interesting include:
Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic Seven Samurai s one of the most well known. It follows the story of a village of farmers that hire seven masterless Samurai (Ronin) to fight off bandits who will return after the harvest to steal their crops. It’s been included on short lists of “the best films ever made” on several occasions. Seven Samurai was remade in a western setting and also did very well in North America as The Magnificent Seven, starring Yule Brenner, and Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen, among others.
One of the less well known is its sexploitaion equivalent, “Naked Seven”, a 1972 entry in what has been dubbed The Roman Porno era. In this version, the samurai are beautiful women, and… well… there’s a lot less fighting in this one.
Nobunaga's Ambition is one of the first ever “turn-based grand strategy role-playing simulation video games”, released by Koei in 1983. Interestingly, the box reads “Nobunaga’s Ambition. Be Ruthless – Your rivals will be!” I wonder if the developers were aware of Oda’s reputation for ruthlessness?
Shogun the BoardGame
Shogun was a strategy wargame like RISK but with different kinds of pieces, representing different kinds of units. It was first released in 1986 by Milton Bradley, and has been re-released subsequently under three or four different titles. This game is unrelated to James Clavell’s book of the same name.
James Clavell’s Shogun
This game, on the other hand, is based entirely on the Clavell novel. Released by Infocom in 1989, the events in the game take place near the end of the Sengoku period, at the dawn of the relatively peaceful Edo period.
Shogun Total War Franchise
This 2000 RTS allows players to lead one of several clans vying for the Shogun's seat of power. Amongst these are the famous clans Tokugawa, Oda, Hojo and Takeda.
Samurai Warriors Franchise
This 3rd person hack-n-slash game, released in 2004, features fifteen different playable characters based on historical figures from the Sengoku period, including Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen, and Oda Nobunaga.
This 2012 game is an interesting mash-up of Pokémon and Nobunaga’s Ambition. The player travels around the game world, recruiting Pokémon and battling a variety of opponents, in an effort to conquer the region and unite it as one nation. Like Pokémon, the gameplay is turn-based strategy, but unlike the main-series Pokémon games, it is also a tactical RPG.
After centuries of political instability and warfare, the Sengoku period ended around 1600 with a unified Japan, under the Tokugawa, its final Shogunate, ushering in the Edo era, a time of relative peace and stability.The power of the military class would wane over time, with the Meiji restoration in 1868 heralding the final days of the Shogun, and of the Samurai, putting power back in civilian hands, with Japan emerging as a modern, industrialized nation and military power in the early twentieth century.
Streich P. Civil Wars, Sengoku Era (1467–1570) [e-book]. 2013. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 25, 2013.
Beasley W. The Meiji Restoration [Electronic Resource] / W. G. Beasley [e-book]. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1972.; 1972. NEOS's Catalog, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 25, 2013.
Turnbull, S. War In Japan 1467-1615. 2002. Osprey. Oxford, UK.
Clode, G. Timeline of The Sengoku Period: Japan’s Age of War, military-history.org, 19 Feb. 2011, Web, 24 Oct. 2013
Clode, G. Timeline of The Sengoku Period: Japan’s Age of War, military-history.org, 19 Feb. 2011, Web, 24 Oct. 2013
Wikipedia contributors. "As listed below", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
- Minamoto no Yoritomo
- Kamakura Shogunate
- Kenmu Restoration
- Ashikaga Shogunate
- Onin War
- Oda Clan
- Oda Nobunaga
- Akechi Mitsuhide
- Toyotomi Hideyoshi
- Tokugawa Ieyasu
- Meiji Restoration
- Seven Samurai
- James Clavell’s Shogun
- Shogun Total War Franchise
- Samurai Warriors Franchise
- Pokémon Conquest