Some of the best stories we’ll ever hear come from history. Without understanding history, we fail to understand our society today, and we might find ourselves repeating patterns that we shouldn’t be repeating. While all that’s important, another reason why we should be more informed about history is because some historical periods are just epically awesome. One such period in world history that’s pretty darn epic is the Sengoku Jidai. This was a time in Japan’s history (from the 15th to 17th centuries) where the whole country was basically broken into much smaller pieces, and those pieces were ruled by powerful samurais.
This is a time in history where an entire country was at war, and Japan’s central government was largely made of puppets who held no real power. In actuality, the power was held by warriors, and whoever managed to control the most land. This time in history gave us some of the most interesting characters in Japanese and world history, and honestly, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a blockbuster movie made about the Sengoku Jidai, especially about the reunification of Japan, which we’re going to be spending the most time on here. Here’s what you need to know about the Sengoku Jidai and the eventual reunification of Japan.
15 The Daimyos
First, we need to talk about what the daimyos actually are. The daimyos were incredibly powerful Japanese feudal lords who ruled most of Japan during the era of the Sengoku Jidai, from lands that they inherited from the generations before them. The daimyos were second only to the shogunate, which during the Sengoku Jidai were basically puppets since Kyoto wasn’t under the rule of any specific lord. They’d hire samurai to help them guard their lands and potentially take over their neighbors, and they’d pay them in food or land because they very rarely had the money to pay them in cash. This era went on for hundreds of years, until the Meiji Restoration.
14 Before The Unification
The Sengoku Jidai really kicked off during the Onin War, which we’ll talk about a little more later. Basically, what was happening before the unification really kicked itself into high gear was a bunch of tiny countries living together and fighting each other. They were all sworn to the Emperor of Japan, sure, but since the emperor was more of a puppet than anything else, that loyalty was largely ceremonial. It was then a big race to the capital, and everyone was tripping each other up to try and get themselves there. Back then, the capital was Kyoto, and every daimyo wanted to have influence over it. At the same time, the economy was growing thanks to trade with China, so different territories within Japan wanted more autonomy. After all, each little chunk of the country was running itself in all but name. All of those factors contributed to the Onin War, which was ten years of a conflict over economic issues. They fought over Kyoto for something like eleven years, and by the time a victor was declared, the city was basically destroyed. There are some really interesting people you need to know about, but for the moment, the people you need to hear about are Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa, Ieyasu, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
13 Oda Nobunaga
The first of the unifiers of Japan was Oda Nobunaga. He, along with the other two, went by a few different names throughout his life. Naming conventions in Japan made it so that every time someone did something cool, he could take on a cooler name for himself, basically. When we talk about these guys, we’re going to be using the names that history remembers them by. Speaking of which, Oda Nobunaga is considered to be one of the most brutal people in all of history. He was a skilled businessman and a good ruler, but the thing he was really known for was his ability to wage war. His life was a bloody affair, and out of the three heroes that we’re going to talk about, his death was the bloodiest. However, before we talk about the fate of Oda Nobunaga, we need to talk about the other two major players in our story.
12 Tokugawa Ieyasu
Tokugawa Ieyasu was a guy who knew how to survive. He spent his early life as a prisoner of the Oda clan. He was part of the Matsudaira clan, and when he was taken, the Oda clan went to his father and threatened to kill him if he didn’t sever his ties with his allies, the Imagawa clan. His father basically called their bluff and said: “Go ahead. Kill my son. You’ll only be showing the Imagawa how committed I am to them.” That left the Oda clan with a problem: whether they killed Tokugawa or not, his father would still win. They didn’t kill him, but they had no idea what to do with him at that point. He grew up with the Oda clan until Oda Nobunaga made a deal with them to give him back to the Imagawa clan, because, by that time, the Matsudaira clan had lost his father. He lived with them for a few years before taking on the mantle as leader of the Matsudaira and was even Oda Nobunaga’s son in law.
11 Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Toyotomi Hideyoshi started off as a peasant. Actually, his job was to carry Oda Nobunaga’s shoes. He started out as a young man who was sent off to study at a temple but decided he was an adventurer instead. He joined the Imagawa clan and spent some time with them before coming into the service of Oda Nobunaga, where aside from carrying shoes, he helped repair castles and managed kitchens. His claim to fame was constructing a fort in Sunomata that went up overnight, according to legend. While there’s no way a whole fort went up overnight, the legend suggests that it went up fast enough that the other side couldn’t really do anything about it. He was also a really good negotiator, often stepping into situations where Oda Nobunaga’s skill on the battlefield wouldn’t have worked as well.
10 The Onin War
Before we get into the reunification, we need to get to the event that started the Sengoku Jidai: the Onin War. This war started off because no one knew who was going to succeed the recently deceased shogunate. He didn’t have an heir when he asked his brother to stop being a monk to succeed him, but when his brother did that, he had an unexpected child. When he died, the kid was still a baby, so there was this controversy as to who was going to take the title of shogun, the shogun’s son or his brother. War broke out, but nobody won. The armies involved just kind of fought themselves into exhaustion. That was what made the country of Japan basically break into pieces and kicked off the Sengoku Jidai, which went on for a full century.
9 Europeans in Japan
Europeans weren’t really involved in the Sengoku Jidai, but they were around in their own way. They weren’t trying to take over or anything, they just wanted to trade. The Portuguese came to a part of Japan called Tanegashima and brought the Japanese guns in the middle of the Sengoku Jidai, which was a real game changer. Samurai are some of the most fearsome warriors in all of history, and the Portuguese gave them guns, which just served to make them that much more fearsome. They didn’t just get guns, either. The Japanese were able to trade soap, tobacco, and a ton of other things that medieval Japan just didn’t have at the time. In return, they gave the Europeans things that could only be found in Japan. Tanegashima became the place to trade with the Europeans, which was a big deal for that particular clan at the time. The Tanegashima clan had ties to both Chinese trade and a connection to the Honno-Ji Temple in Kyoto. This temple will come up again later, so keep it in the back of your head.
8 The Tainei-Ji Incident
This doesn’t have much to do with our three main characters that we mentioned earlier, but it’s still an interesting milestone in this time of history. The Tainei-Ji incident was a coup that happened in September of 1551 by Sue Harukata. The victim was Ouchi Yoshitaka, and this betrayal resulted in him being forced to commit suicide in the temple of Tainei-Ji, an act known as seppuku. The Ouchi clan was basically done after this, but they would rule western Japan, at least in name, under a figurehead that wasn’t actually related to the Ouchi clan at all, for something like six years. This incident ended up allowing the Portuguese traders coming in to become the most successful people to intermediate in the trade between Japan and China, and it took a peaceful clan and threw them into violence as other clans tried to take their territory. This also shows the savagery of the times, and how for these clans, it was every man for himself.
7 The Battle Of Okehazama
The battle of Okehazama kicked off in May of 1560 and went on for a month. At this point, not all of our three main characters were on the same team. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a trusted commander serving under Oda Nobunaga at the time, but Tokugawa Ieyasu was still on the side of the Imagawa clan, who he was living with at the time. The Imagawa and the Oda clans were fighting over territory like always, but the Imagawa clan had the decisive advantage with 25,000 warriors to the Oda clan’s 2,000-3,000 men. Oda Nobunaga won the battle decisively, despite very long odds, because he set up a dummy army to make the Imagawa think that he had a lot more troops than he actually did. This allowed his smaller army to take the Imagawa by surprise from behind, decisively winning the battle. All but two of the Imagawa clan’s commanders joined the Oda, including Tokugawa Ieyasu. From there, he was loyal to Oda Nobunaga, who, with that battle, had established himself as a major frontrunner in the Sengoku Jidai. You can actually visit the site of the battle if you go to Japan because it’s a park now.
6 The Ishiyama Hongan-Ji War
This was another war that went on for ten years (1570-1580). This was the war where Oda Nobunaga and his allies made a run for Kyoto. He didn’t actually fight too many clans on this one: his main opponent were the warrior monks of Ikko-Ikki. We’re not getting too much into it, but warrior monks were a major problem for these guys. They’d show up and just throw wrenches into the best-laid plans. They fought for a really long time, but the battle eventually swung in favor of the Oda clan. Nobunaga spared the lives of the defenders holed up in the fortress, but burned the fortress itself to the ground. Later on, Toyotomi Hideyoshi would begin construction to fix up the site, building Osaka Castle. A replica would eventually be made during the 20th century, but now’s not the time to talk about that. Now, we need to get to the end of Oda Nobunaga’s part of the story.
5 The Assassination Of Oda Nobunaga
This part of Japanese history is often known as the Honno-Ji incident, and it talks about how Oda Nobunaga was put into a position where he had to commit seppuku at the hands of a samurai general at the game of Akechi Mitsuhide. He was at the height of his power at the time, coming off of the victories at Ishiyan Hongan-Ji and Tenmokuzan. Central Japan was very firmly under his control, and his only rivals had internal issues to deal with and weren’t coming after him. He was on vacation with Tokugawa Ieyasu at the time as well, touring the Kansai region in celebration of the Takeda clan’s demise. Nobunaga got a call from Toyotomi Hideyoshi for reinforcements because he was stuck dealing with a siege. He left Ieyasu, who kept on with the tour, while he himself started to go back to go help out on the front lines, stopping off at Honno-Ji.
He gave Akechi Mitsuhide an order to go help out Hideyoshi, but instead of doing that, Mitsuhide betrayed him, and no one actually knows why. He took his army towards Kyoto, where Nobunaga was, under the pretense of showing off a procession. They did that a lot, so no one really batted an eye. When they got to Honno-Ji, Mitsuhide said: “The enemy waits at Honno-Ji!” and the Akechi army took over the place. Nobunaga saw that there was no way he could win, so he committed seppuku and made his young page burn the temple to the ground so they wouldn’t get his head. Moro Ranmaru, his page, did so, and then killed himself too, making him one of the most revered figures in history. His remains weren’t found, which no one really knows what to make of.
4 The Crowning Of Toyotomi Hideyoshi
After Oda Nobunaga’s death, there was chaos. Akechi was trying to get the Imperial Court to recognize him as the new master of the Oda. Hideyoshi, for his part, came back from his battle after making peace with the clan he was fighting against, and handily defeated Akechi and took over himself. No one really had the chance, ability, or the resources to challenge him, so Toyotomi Hideyoshi ended up succeeding Oda Nobunaga in political supremacy and spiritual inheritance. This actually raises a question of whether he or Tokugawa Ieyasu had something to do with pushing Akechi to rebel against Nobunaga. After all, Akechi’s reasoning for betraying Nobunaga is a total mystery, and Hideyoshi and Ieyasu had a lot to gain from Nobunaga being gone. Hideyoshi was ruling the country at the time and Ieyasu was the second in command and exacted revenge for the death of his wife and child. That being said, whether they were involved is pretty much irrelevant now.
3 The Death Of Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Toyotomi Hideyoshi accomplished a lot in his eleven years in office. He’s noted for a ton of cultural legacies. A fun fact about him: he was an avid supporter of gun control, making it so the only samurai could bear arms. He also authorized the construction of a lot of the temples in Japan we see today. On a less fun note, his contribution to Christianity in Japan was executing 26 Christians via crucifixion, and those guys are known as the Twenty-Six Martyrs Of Japan. He had dreams of invading and conquering Korea and China, but he didn’t end up doing that.
He eventually died at the age of 61, on September 18th, 1598. However, before he died, there was a little succession dispute. He had a young son at the time, Hideyori, which was an issue for his official heir. Hideyoshi exiled his nephew and made him commit seppuku, and murdered his family members who didn’t fall in line, including 31 women and more than a few kids. His death was kept secret by the Council of Five Elders to keep up morale, and they were also in charge of keeping his son safe.
2 The Council of Five Elders And The Tokugawa Shogunate
The Council of Five Elders was charged with ruling Japan in place of his young son Hideyori, who was too young to rule on his own. The five members of the Council were Ukita Hideie, Maeda Toshiie, Uesugi Kagekatsu, Mori Terumoto, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Hideyoshi wanted the five of them to balance each other out and rule together, but that wasn’t what happened. Tokugawa Ieyasu very swiftly made a play to become shogun, and the other elders quickly divided themselves up into two teams: Team Tokugawa and Team Other People. Tokugawa won the day at the battle of Sekigahara with a decisive victory, and from there, Hideyoshi’s Japan was over. From there, the Tokugawa Shogunate was born.
1 The Siege Of Osaka
Hideyoshi’s son Hideyori hadn't been left with anything when Tokugawa Ieyasu forcefully disinherited him. He was left with Osaka Castle, but eventually, Ieyasu wanted that too. The Tokugawa shogunate established their capital over at Edo, which would later become Tokyo. Ieyasu wanted to establish a stable regime, but with a now fully grown Hideyori over at Osaka, he couldn’t do that. After a series of battles that made up the siege, Ieyasu won. After that, Hideyori’s son was beheaded and his daughter became a nun. Toyotomi Kunimatsu, Hideyori’s eight-year-old son, was a brave kid, too: before he got executed, he blamed Ieyasu for his brutality against the Toyotomi clan. Once that was all done, Ieyasu ruled for several years, eventually dying in 1616 and leaving Japan to his descendants. Thus ends the Sengoku Jidai. There’s a lot more to talk about with this time in history, but hopefully, this gave you a good enough primer to get you started if you’re interested in finding out more!