Japan’s history is one that is rich in character, deep in intrigue and littered with interesting characters. From the pre-history Jōmon period to today’s modern hyper-technological age, dynasties have come and gone, innovations have shaped the world, and many a great man and woman have imposed their personalities on the land.
But perhaps none have been so influential as the man who took a war torn land of disperate, battling domains, bent them to his will, and cemented the idea of how the world sees Japan. That man is the great warrior and shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Ieyasu’s early days
Though the reign of the Tokugawa bakufu over Japan is synonymous with the capital city it developed, Edo (later Tokyo), their story in fact begins in Okazaki Castle in what is now Aichi Prefecture. Born as Matsudaira Takechiyo in 1542 (it was standard practice for samurai to change names at significant moments in their lives), Ieyasu was kidnapped at the age of five by the neighboring Oda clan, rivals to his father, a minor warlord ruling over Okazaki province.
At the age of nine he was released into the holding of the Imagawa clan, where he was given an education – both academic and military – suitable for a nobleman.
Following the death of his father and his coming of age, at 13 Ieyasu became head of the Matsudaira clan and, under the instructions of the Imagawa, set about battling his one time captors, the Oda. However by the time he had changed his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu (in doing so, claiming connection to the ancient Minamoto clan, more on which later) in 1567, he had switched loyalties and joined forces with the powerful Oda Nobunbaga, and together they battled, expanding their wealth, power base and their reputations for fearsome combatants, with Nobunaga becoming the most powerful of Japan’s samurai warlord ‘daimyos’.
Though their bond was strong and mutually advantageous, the Oda and Tokugawa relationship was put to the test in 1579 when Ieyasu’s wife and his eldest son and heir, Nobuyasu, were accused of a plot against Nobunaga’s life. The discovery of this plan lead to Ieyasu having his wife executed and his son commit ritual suicide, cementing both the Oda-Tokugawa alliance as well as his reputation for merciless retribution.
The death of the unifiers
Although Nobuyasu’s plot was unsuccessful, three years later Nobunaga was eventually murdered by his closest aide, Akechi Mitsuhide. Though Ieyasu raced battle Mitsuhide’s troops, by the time he returned to the Mikawa region, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another mighty daimyo, had already defeated Mitsuhide. Though he once took up arms against battling with Hideyoshi, Ieyasu, astutely understanding which way the ind was blowing, eventually allied himself with the powerful daimyo, and moved out to the Kanto region, taking over the small port town of Edo. Following the coming battles for conquest, the victorious Hideyoshi would become the most powerful warlord in Japan, effectively making him the nation’s ruler.
As his health faded with old age, Hideyoshi convened five of the most powerful daimyo to, as the “council of five elders”, rule the nation as regents until his young son, Hideyori, came of age. The idea of the council had been that these powerful men opposed each other with such vehemence that they would be unable to agree sufficiently to form alliances strong enough to challenge Hideyori’s ascension. However, following Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, the squabbling regents eventually settled into two camps: the increasingly powerful Ieyasu on one side, and everyone else on the other under the leadership of Hideyori loyalist, Ishisa Mitsunari.
The battle for Japan
In 1599 Ieyasu’s army took Osaka Castle, residence to the young heir Hideyori, by force. Enraged by this perceived act of treachery Mitsunari planned to have Ieyasu killed, but hearing of the plot Ieyasu’s men turned on Mitsunari. In order to escape, Mitsunari, with the assistance of Ieyasu, disguised himself as a woman and hid within a palanquin fleeing the castle. It is unsure as to why Ieyasu helped his greatest rival cheat death in this way, though it is thought that, in the battle he knew was to come, Ieyasu preferred to face Mitsunari rather than one of the council members, who would have had greater legitimacy.
Two great forces now formed: the Western Army, lead by Mitsunari, and the Eastern Army, under Ieyasu, and following skirmishes along the way, the two great forces met on October 21, 1600 on the rice fields of Sekigahara, in modern day Gifu Prefecture.
With 75,000 men to his opponent’s 120,000, things initially looked bleak for Ieyasu. However, he was known for being a master tactician, and had prior to the battle made arrangements for certain members of the Western Army to turn on Mitsunari and fight for the East. It was this ability to encourage treachery in others, as well as the foresight of arming his forces with the 19 cannons taken from the same Dutch ship that had brought with it the first western samurai, William Adams, that assured victory for Ieyasu.
And to the victor…
The title of ‘shogun’, military dictator of Japan, was one reserved only for those who could prove a direct lineage to historical royalty. However thanks to his foresight in changing his name to Tokugawa – in doing so claiming an unsubstantiated connection with the Minamoto clan – the honor of the title was bestowed upon him by the Emperor in 1603, giving him absolute unrivaled power in the country.
Two years later, Ieyasu abdicated in favor of his son, Hidetada, as a way of ensuring a smooth transition and creating a lasting legacy. However, this did not mean that Ieyasu retired from public life. In fact as ‘oshogo’ (retired shogun) he continued as de-facto ruler of the country, and set about planning massive reconstructions of the nation. In Edo, the city in which he was now settled, he supervised the construction of Edo Castle – a massive project that would become the largest castle in the country – as well as the building of Nagoya Castle and the reconstruction of Kyoto’s Imperial court. As the nation blossomed under his control in relative peace (Hideyoshi continued to be a thorn in Ieyasu’s side until he was killed in 1615’s Summer Siege of Osaka), Ieyasu expanded Japan’s reach of influence by increasing trade with England, in part due to the influence of the aforementioned Adams, while diminishing the power of the Spanish and Portuguese, who he had angered with his 1615 Christian Expulsion Edict.
Death of Ieyasu, birth of an era
Tokugawa Ieyasu died 1617, aged 73, and posthumously deified as Tōshō Daigongen, the “Great Gongen, Light of the East”. Whereas the death of the previous unifiers – Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi – had seen other damiyos battling to claim power for themselves, through his forward planning, his cunningness, and his merciless treatment of those who would oppose him, not only did Ieyasu’s heir continue to rule over Japan, but his antecedents held power for more than 250 years after his death.
This time, the Tokugawa era, came to be considered not only a time of peace and prosperity for the nation, but also the cementing of the notion of the samurai way of honor, loyalty and artistic endeavor. It is somewhat ironic that the man who ushered in this era was brutal, cunning, and used treachery to attain his ends. But as the Japanese saying goes, you can’t make omurice without breaking a few eggs.
By Mark Guthrie