3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
The Final Showdown The End Game


Ch 13 - The Hermit Kingdom

The Battle of Sekigahara

On October 21, 1600, the Eastern and Western Armies clashed near the small village of Sekigahara on the Nakasendo Road in central Honshu. The dramatic battle established Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu as hegemon over all Japan and ended any claim to supremacy by the Toyotomi family. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the last of Japan's three great unifiers, became Shogun in 1603 and established the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The morning of October 21, 1600, began in cold, gray silence. The heavy rains of the night had diminished to a light drizzle, laying a bone-chilling fog over the hills and valleys around Sekigahara. With visibility restricted to just a few yards at best, no one could see what the other side was doing, so most samurai on both sides were preoccupied with getting warm and drying out clothing soaked during the previous night's maneuvering.

As the dense fog slowly lifted, the front ranks of the two armies on the valley floor saw each other for the first time. Rival generals, eager to fight, anxiously awaited orders to commence the battle. General Ii Naomasa waited for no one. Adorned in bright red armor and a golden-horned helmet, General Ii took the initiative without warning and impetuously charged across the Hokkoku Road just north of Sekigahara, just as Lord Ishida had hoped. At 8 o'clock in the morning, staccato musket fire erupted across the valley as General Ii's "red devils" thundered directly into the front lines of General Ukita's position. General Fukushima Masanori immediately joined the fight, taking his samurai headlong into the center of the Western army's defensive line. The battle had begun.

From his headquarters camp east of Sekigahara, Lord Tokugawa could hear the start of fighting, but with heavy fog still hanging in the valley there was little chance that he saw any of these first developments. By the time visibility improved enough for him to actually witness the developing battle, the pattern of fighting had already been set. His troops were already advancing all along the line against fierce resistance from Ishida's numerically superior troops. The premature start of the battle by General Ii Naomasa committed the Eastern Army to heavy fighting long before Lord Tokugawa's entire command had reached the area. Thousands of Eastern Army troops were still strung out along the Nakasendo Road to the east and had yet to reach the battlefield.

In the northeast, Generals Kuroda, Tanaka, Hosokawa, Kato, and Tsutsui attacked Lord Ishida's forward positions near Mount Sasao. General Kuroda had a personal grudge to settle with Lord Ishida and was determined to reach him first. The 2,000 samurai commanded by Gamo Bitchu and Shima Sakon took cover behind their defensive palisade and unleashed heavy gunfire against the charging Easterners with little effect. After overrunning the palisade defense line, Kuroda led his warriors up the slopes of Mount Sasao towards Ishida's camp. The charge finally halted after absorbing heavy fire from arquebus gunners. Ishida quickly ordered five of his artillery cannon to open fire on the Easterners, who began to withdraw from the slopes. Lord Ishida led a counterattack against General Tanaka, but was turned away when Generals Kato and Hosokawa attacked Ishida's exposed flanks.

On General Ii's left flank, samurai under Kyoguku, Todo, and Terasawa thundered into Otani Yoshitsugu's combat veterans at the western edge of the valley. General Otani stoutly defended his position against all attacks. Commanders on both sides ordered their warriors into the fight all along the fluid front as fighting degenerated into a battle of attrition throughout the rest of the morning.

At around 10 o'clock that morning, the Kikkawa leader was supposed to give the signal to bring the Mori into the battle, but he did nothing. Before the fighting began, he had sent a messenger to Lord Tokugawa with word that the Kikkawa would defect. Without help from the Mori, the fighting west of Sekigahara slowly turned in favor of the Easterners. By now, most of Tokugawa's men were committed to the fight. Despite the bloody battle raging around the valley floor, the Shimazu, Kobayakawa, and Wakizaka clans had yet to see any action. Lord Ishida saw an opportunity to swing the battle in his favor and decided to make a strong push from the south. When he sent word to the Shimazu to join the fight, he received the following reply;

In this battle each clan must look to it's own affairs and fight it's own battles with all it's might. There is no time to be concerned with the affairs of others in front, behind, or on either flank.

Stunned by the response, all Ishida could do was rely on the dubious loyalty of General Kobayakawa Hideaki and hope he would do his duty.

Lord Ishida ordered a signal fire lit about 11 o'clock that morning to send General Kobayakawa into the battle to relieve the pressure on Otani by attacking the Easterners from the rear. There was no reaction. A second signal fire was lit soon afterward, but still there was no response. General Otani Yoshitsugu was not surprised by Kobayakawa's lack of movement, for he had suspected treachery all along. The Mori also saw the signal, knowing it was time for Kikkawa to order them into battle, but still there was no movement.

Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu kept a wary eye on developments at the southern end of the battle front. His mounting tension was already tinged with fury against his own son, Hidetada, who had yet to arrive with his 38,000 troops. If Kobayakawa Hideaki's 15,600 men suddenly moved from their hillside position overlooking the bloody battlefield at the southern end of the line and attacked Lord Tokugawa's exposed southern flank, the Eastern Army's cause would probably be lost. Tokugawa was not a man who depended on luck to win battles. He relied on his own shrewdness, patience and unscrupulous native cunning. Tokugawa's spies had been in action well before the first shots were fired at the Battle of Sekigahara and cleverly convinced Kobayakawa Hideaki to betray Lord Ishida and join Lord Tokugawa's forces.

The dramatic turning point in the battle came shortly after noon. Puzzled by the lack of movement, Lord Tokugawa sent a squad of arquebusiers to fire a volley at Kobayakawa's men and stir them into action. General Kobayakawa leapt to his feet and yelled to his men, "Our target is Otani Yoshitsugu!" After watching the morning's killing from their hillside position, Kobayakawa's 15,600 samurai finally charged down the hill, directing their blood lust against the ranks of the brave General Otani, whose battle weary men had held their position for the past four hours. Despite being heavily outnumbered by fresh troops, Otani's men held out for a while longer. Soon, Admiral Wakizaka's loyalists decided to follow Kobayakawa's lead and joined the fight against Otani. As his troops were being overrun and before he could be captured, General Otani commanded a retainer to hide his severed head and committed ritual suicide, seppuku.

Having broken Ishida's southern flank, Lord Tokugawa realized that victory would be his. The loss of Otani's strong position and added defections to the Easterners resulted in a rapid collapse of Lord Ishida's battle line in the southeast. General Ukita Hideie had just managed to reestablish his own lines when the Easterners and defectors attacked them in force. By 2 o'clock in the afternoon, Westerners began to break and run all along the front. As the Westerners saw their fleeing comrades, many, including Lord Ishida himself, simply dropped their weapons and fled the battlefield to the safety of the forested northern slopes and the shelter of Mount Ibuki. Only General Shimazu Toyohisa remained, engaged in a fierce melee with General Ii Naomasa's infamous "red devils."

Eventually, Shimazu realized the inevitability of defeat and was persuaded to quit the field of battle. With his escape route to the north cut off, Shimazu's only option was to charge through the center of Lord Tokugawa's lines and try to reach the Ise Road to the south. His boldness paid off. After exchanging helmets with his nephew to confuse the Easterners, he led his surviving 200 samurai in a desperate race to freedom right past the bemused Lord Tokugawa, hotly pursued by Ii Naomasa's warriors. After reaching the Ise Road, Shimazu's brave nephew turned to fight a delaying action with General Ii's samurai. The young man was quickly overwhelmed and his head was taken, but the fatal skirmish allowed his uncle to escape, eventually returning to Kyushu with eighty of his men.

The Battle of Sekigahara was decisive victory. Among the final pursuits of the battle, when the Easterners mopped up remaining pockets of resistance, Lord Ishida's home castle at Sawayama was captured and his brother killed. Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu had to be restrained by his own commanders from taking similar vengeance against his own son, Hidetada, who showed up with his 38,000 samurai just after the end of the fighting. A "heads inspection" was performed at Lord Tokugawa's final encampment just north of Sekigahara along the Hokkoku Road, where he viewed the nearly 40,000 enemy heads taken in battle. Within three days, Lord Ishida Mitsunari was captured in the area of Mount Ibuki and taken to Kyoto with other captive leaders of the Western Army. All were executed on the river bed within a matter of days. Having cleared the path to become the next shogun, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu sat back on his stool and mused to those in his presence, "After victory, tighten the cords of your helmet."

The Battle of Sekigahara represented the last great leap out of generations of bitter civil warfare in Japan. First and foremost, it established Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu as hegemon over all Japan and ended any claim to supremacy by the Toyotomi family. He permitted the young Toyotomi Hideyori and his mother Yodogimi to retain his residence in Osaka Castle along with 650,000 koku of land in three nearby provinces, but he confiscated the domains of some ninety daimyo outright and reduced the land holdings of many others. Before Sekigahara, all the daimyo had submitted to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Now, they would have to submit to Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Tokugawa Ieyasu spent the next three years establishing the foundations for a new form of government in Japan. The Tokugawa family made many enemies in their ascent to power. An unsuccessful assassination attempt against Tokugawa Ieyasu following a banquet to celebrate his victory at Sekigahara, left no doubt about the depth of the opposition A Deadly Dessert.

In 1603, Lord Tokugawa realized his life-long ambition when the Imperial Court assigned him the honored title of Shogun. In a purely political gesture, more for show than for practical impact,Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered Lady Yoda and Lord Hideyori to attend his inauguration in Edo as Shogun. After reluctantly accepting the invitation, etiquette demanded they make the trip, they left the safety of Osaka Castle and attended the ceremony without incident under the constant protection of their loyal samurai bodyguard. Thus began the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Tokugawa family sustained a dynasty of fifteen Shoguns and remained the governing power in Japan until 1868, supported by the descendants of the original daimyo warlords.

The last of the three great "unifiers" of sixteenth century Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first shogun in 150 years to exercise the real power of the office. After establishing his new government in Edo, the new shogun set about building a new ruling government, one that sharply defined the foundation of future political relationships in Japan. Putting politics and loyalties aside, he wisely recognized the many skills and management systems the daimyo used to build and maintain their territories and saw the potential of incorporating these well-managed domains under his rule. The Tokugawa Shogunate operated under the baku-han system, which uniquely blended the best of the traditional centralized bakufu, or "tent government" of the shogun, with the local administrative duties of the daimyo's domain, or han. The shogun held national authority and the daimyo held regional authority.

It was essential that Tokugawa Ieyasu maintain dominance and control over his rivals. Building strong alliances and eradicating all opposition became a deadly serious game that Lord Tokugawa played without mercy. He rapidly abolished numerous enemy daimyo houses, reduced others, such as that of the Toyotomi, and redistributed the spoils of war to his family and allies. He ensured his family's supremacy by bringing the entire country under tight control through a combination of forced submission and written oaths of fealty from the daimyo, bringing his friends and loyal allies in close and pushing his opponents away. Those who would not submit were put to the sword. The price the daimyo had to pay to keep their heads and ensure the continuation of their families, was to be resettled far from their traditional domains to an area where they had no local loyalties that could spark a rebellion. The kunigae, or "changes of provinces," made Japan's great warlords a very mobile class during the first few years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. By carefully separating, even isolating the daimyo, Ieyasu established a very clear feudal hierarchy in Japanese society.

Twenty-three daimyo, all directly related to Tokugawa Ieyasu, were resettled on the borders of the shogun's lands. These were the shinpan or "related houses," families with the closest ties to the Tokugawa lineage. The shinpan were awarded mostly honorary titles and advisory posts in the bakufu. The next class in the feudal hierarchy were the fudai daimyo, or "house daimyo," those who had shown consistent loyalty to Lord Tokugawa, many of whom adopted the family name Matsudaira. They were given small, strategic fiefs close to Tokugawa's holdings for their faithful service, lands that controlled the country's vital communications lines. Many fudai daimyo staffed most of the major bakufu offices, which evolved an increasingly large bureaucracy to administer the mixture of centralized and decentralized authorities. By the eighteenth century, 145 fudai daimyo helped ensure the security of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Ninety-seven daimyo who had no traditional loyalty to Tokugawa or whose loyalty had only been won by force of arms, the tozama daimyo, or "outer lords," were relocated to the outermost provinces of Japan, far from their original fiefs and far from each other. The tozama daimyo were the least trusted of the daimyo, and were relocated mostly on the periphery of central Honshu, where they collectively controlled nearly 10 million koku of productive land. They were cautiously managed and generously awarded increased land holdings, or at least permitted to hold on to their original estates. The tozama daimyo were rigidly excluded from holding positions in the central government. The distinction between fudai and tozama daimyo remained in effect for the next two-and-a-half centuries.

Although Tokugawa Ieyasu directly controlled one fourth of all Japanese land and regulated all commercial activity, he failed to achieve complete control of the western daimyo. To ensure the success of his new baku-han, he instituted a subtle, yet ingenious arrangement known as sankin kotai, or "alternate attendance" to keep the daimyo in line. The sankin kotai required all daimyo to leave their wives and children permanently in Edo, the Shogun's capital, while they alternated their own residence between Edo and their own han every other year.

The daimyo were not taxed directly, but they were regularly tapped for contributions to provide military and logistical support and for such public works projects as roads, bridges, castles, and palaces. The various regulations and levies combined with sankin kotai, not only strengthened the Tokugawa Shogunate, but depleted the wealth of the daimyo, thus weakening their threat to the central government. The han, once the military-centered domains of warlords, became mere local administrative units for the bakufu.

As the Tokugawa family consolidated its control over a reunified Japan, it also took on unprecedented power over the emperor, the imperial court, all daimyo, and religious orders in the country. The emperor was elevated as the ultimate political sanction for the shogun's ruling power, who ostensibly was the vassal of the imperial family. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan enjoyed the longest period of uninterrupted peace in its history. The brilliant and ruthless administration of the Tokugawa Shoguns and their strict policy of seclusion created the crucible that spawned a flowering of Japanese culture and ultimately forged the temperament of modern Japan.


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The Final Showdown The End Game