Oda Nobunaga (1534~1582) , The Uniter of Japan I

After the Onin war (1467 ~1477) the shogun system collapsed and all the daimyos declared their independence. Japan had been in total chaos and no daimyo could establish any significant superiority over others.
The hopeless situation would one day be ended by the Demon King Nobunaga who was born in Nagoya Castle in 1534.
He was brave but unpredictable and sometimes acting bizarre. He was so disrespectful during his father’s funeral so that one of his retainers committed seppuku to protest him.
To take over the leadership the Oda clan, he first killed his uncle and younger brother.
Then he attacked an army of 25,000 men from the Imagawa clan with only 3000 men. He first intimidated them by using dummy soldiers in the dark and then ambushed them in a narrow gorge.
In 1568 The Ashikaga Shogun invited Nobunaga to Kyoto in order to protect him from other daimyos. Nabunaga helped him and announced him as the new shogun but it was an act. Nobunaga wanted to be the shogun himself so he restricted the powers of the Ashikaga shogun. Historians call this moment the end of the Muromachi (Ashikaga) period and the beginning of the period of Azuchi-Momoyama.
Even though he won many battles, his brother was killed by the warrior monks. Nobunaga also lost against the Ikko Ikki warrior monks a few times in his life. But in 1571 he burned one of the biggest temples in Japan slaughtered thousands of monks in Mount Hiei, north of Kyoto city. He repeated the same thing in 1574, he burned the Nagashima settlements of Ikko Ikki, slaughtering about 20,000 people.
In 1575, Oda Nobunaga’s forces crushed the Takeda clan’s army (famous for its cavalry) by using arquebuses Nobunaga acquired from Westerners. About 10,000 Takeda forces were killed near the Nagashino Castle. Although the leader of the Takeda clan survived, Nobunaga got all of their territories in 1582.
Nobunaga is known as the person who introduced and promoted Christianity in Japan. Some historians also claim that he converted to Christianity.
In 1578 , Oda Nobunaga built the Azuchi Castle, the biggest and perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing castle back then. It was on top of a hill overseeing the Eastern and Western Japan.
The only little problem in Central Japan was the ninja clans in the Iga region. They defeated Nobunaga’s son in 1579 and they were completely independent. 2 years later, Nobunaga surrounded the region with 44 thousand-strong army and slaughtered thousands of ninja’s in the region.
Nobunaga also was sometimes disrespectful to men around him. He called Toyotomi Hideyoshi Saru (Monkey) and Akechi Mitsuhide Hage (baldy). He also killed some high ranking war prisoners, whose relatives in turn killed Akechi’s mother.
on June 21, 1582, while resting at the Honnoji Temple with a few dozen servants, Nobunaga realized that thousands of samurai troops waiting outside to kill him. The temple was set on fire and Nobunaga and his close servants committed seppuku. These samurai troops were led by no-one else but Akechi Mitsuhide, one of Nobunaga’s closest generals.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537~1598) The Uniter of Japan II


Hideyoshi’s story was rags to the riches. He was a son of a peasant and he was just a sandal bearer for Oda Nobunaga.
He proved himself to be a smart and good warrior and he became one of Nobunaga’s generals. He avenged his master just 11 days after his death and killed Akechi Mitsuhide.
The chiefs of Oda clan did not want Hideyoshi to be the next leader since he was not from the Oda family. Hideyoshi appointed the infant son of Nobunaga as the new leader on purpose and then destroyed the forces of Katsuie, the chief of the Oda clan. Later he declared himself the head of the Oda clan and started ruling the largest territory in Japan.
In 1583, Hideyoshi built the largest castle in Japan back then: the Osaka castle. The daimyos from each region competed carrying large stones to show there loyalty to Hideyoshi.
In the following years Hideyoshi captured the lands of Shikoku island and Kyushu Island. In 1590, he captured the Odawara castle in Tokyo. Nobunaga’s dream was fulfilled, Japan was finally unified for the first time in 100 years achieved by a son of a peasant. Hideyoshi was never appointed as “shogun” by the emperor because he did not belong to the Minamoto clan.
Hideyoshi prohibited peasants from carrying swords, he confiscated all their swords and melted them into a Buddha statue. He killed 26 Christian missionaries and Japanese converts In Nagasaki to discourage people from converting.
Hideyoshi also asked Sen no Rikyu, the founder of tea ceremony and one of Hideyoshi’s closest friends, to commit seppuku, for the reason we still don’t know today.
He invaded Korea twice (1592, 1597), both incursions were somewhat successful but the Japanese forces never made it into Mainland China and eventually withdrew. The Japanese army attacked China in 1931 by following the same route used by Hideyoshi’s forces.
He could not have a child to take over after him so he declared that his nephew was the heir. But He eventually had a son 5 years before his death. He then killed his nephew and all of his family members including women and kids.
Before he died, he set up the elders council to rule Japan temporarily until his 5 year old son grows up. The elderly council, consisting of 5 generals including Ieyasu, promised to protect his son and obey his rule in the future.

Musashi Miyamoto (1584~1645)

Musashi did not have a master daimyo so he was a ronin. He had more than 60 sword duels, the highest number recorded. He is said to have killed 17 people in his battles. His first battle was when he was 13. He was very strong and a skilled carpenter, architect and an artist. He was about 180 cm while an avg. samurai was 150 cm tall. He is famous for his technique of using two swords in his two hands as usually katana is held with both hands. He wrote a book to train the samurais and the swordsmen. The book is recommended to everyone including martial arts practitioners and business leaders. Miyamoto emphasized that the techniques are less important than the overall goal. The same fighting principles apply to not only one-on-one conflicts but also army battles. The 5 rings represent the five episodes Musashi wrote:
“Do nothing that is of no use” ; “If you wish to control others you must first control yourself”; “from one thing, know ten thousand things”; “It is difficult to understand the universe if you only study one planet” ; “In battle, if you you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.”; “Do not regret what you have done”; “If you do not control the enemy, the enemy will control you” ; “Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help”; “The important thing in strategy is not to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions”; “Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”; “Accept everything just the way it is.”; “Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.”

Sanada Yukimura (1567- 1615)

Sanada Yukimura was the most famous samurai of the Sanada clan, being called “A Hero who may appear once in a hundred years“ and “Number one warrior in Japan,“ who is famous for his participation in the Siege of Osaka Castle in 1614 (Winter campaign) and 1615 (Summer Campaign). In the events preceding the Battle of Sekigahara, Yukimura and his father decided to side with Ishida Mitsunari, against Tokugawa Ieyasu, parting ways with Yukimura’s brother Nobuyuki. He participated in the Winter and Summer sieges of Osaka Castle, successfully defending the Castle with only 6000 men against Tokugawa shogunate attacked by 30,000 troops. He was killed near the Yasui Shrine right by the Tennoji temple in Osaka during the Summer siege of Osaka castle. His armor had a symbolic meaning: deer horns (deers are messengers of Gods), red color (red is the purifying color that keep evil spirits away, 6 coins (after death our spirits should pay 6 coins to the devil waiting by the river, the 6 coins on the helmet to remind the readiness for death).

Yoshitsune Minamoto (1159-1189)

Yoshitsune Minamoto faced hardship already as a 1-year-old boy, when his father and two older brothers were murdered in the Heiji Rebellion, while he and his mother managed to flee. He was raised by the monks in Kurama Temple, but did not want to become a priest himself. His famous companion was Benkei (1155-1189) who was sohei ( warrior monk). One night, Benkei was wandering around Kyoto, in his quest to take 1000 swords from samurai warriors. Having managed to take 999 swords, he faced up to the man much smaller than himself and lost- that man was Yoshitsune Minamoto. Out of respect, he became Yoshitsune’s retainer and fought alongside him in his battles against the Taira clan, becoming known in Japanese folklore for his honor, bravery and loyalty. When Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother Yoritomo and had to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in the castle of Koromogawa, Benkei died defending him, pierced by a barrage of arrows on the bridge leading towards the castle.

Takeda Shingen (1521- 1573)

Takeda Shingen, Haronubu, was one of the most famous feudal lords of Japan, during a difficult Sengoku (warring states) period. He was known for his rivalry with another famed warrior Uesugi Kenshin. Born into a clan of military governors, he forced his father to step down as a head of the clan and took over. He started expanding into neighboring areas, acquiring a lot of land for his family. In 1551, he became a Buddhist priest and took the name Shingen. Around that time, he started his rivalry with Uesugi Kenshin, with whom he fought five times in the Battles of Kawanakajima. During the only single combat between the two, Kenshin attacked him with a sword, while Shingen fought back with an iron war fan. He also defeated Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Battle of Hamamatsu. There are many accounts of his death, but the most popular is offered in Kurosawa’s movie “Kagemusha“, according to which he died of a single sniper shot wound.

Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199)

Yoritomo Minamoto is one of the most important historical figures in Japan, being the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate, the first shogunate in Japan’s history. As a member of the Minamoto clan, he was destined for a clash with the rival Taira clan. His father and numerous family members were killed by the Taira clan during the Heiji rebellion, and young Yoritomo spent his youth in a Buddhist temple, preparing his revenge. His opportunity came when Prince Mochihito urged him to take up arms and rebel against the Taira. After a series of battles in the Genpei War, he managed to defeat the Taira and set up his base in Kamakura, where he was appointed as shogun and allowed to establish the offices of jito (stewards) and shugo (military governors). The conflict between the Taira and the Minamoto clan is chronicled in “Tale of the Heike“.

Date Masamune (1567- 1636)

Date Masamune was a regional ruler who founded Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. He was known as “One-eyed Dragon of Oshu“, having lost his right eye to smallpox he had as a child. In battles, he wore his well-known crescent-moon helmet, which only added to his reputation as a frightening warrior. He fought his first battle at the age of 14, fighting alongside his father in the clash against the rival Soma family. After his father’s death, Masamune became the head of the Date clan. He served shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi who once spared his life in admiration of his bravery in the face of death, but after his death pledged allegiance to Tokugawa Ieyasu who made him the lord of the Sendai Domain and one of the most powerful regional rulers in Japan.

Tomoe Gozen (c.1157-1247)

Tomoe Gozen was onna-bugeisha (female samurai), admired for her swordsmanship, bravery and strength, in addition to her extraordinary beauty. She fought in the Genpei War alongside Minamoto no Yoshinaka, to whom she was either a wife or a mistress. Her moment of glory came in the Battle of Awazu, in which Yoshinaka was killed. Yoshinaka told her that he wanted to die fighting, and urged her to leave the battlefield, because he did not want to die with a woman. There are many accounts of what happened next. According to some, she beheaded one samurai warrior and obliged by escaping the battlefield. Uchida Ieyoshi, a samurai warrior who betrayed Minamoto no Yoritomo, also died at her hands.

Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578)

Uesugi Kenshin, born in Nagao Kagetora, was the most powerful feudal lord of the Sengoku period, along with Takeda Shingen. He was not only an exceptionally skilled warrior, but also a great administrator and trader. He had a longstanding rivalry with Takeda Shingen over the province of Kanto. Uesugi took the name Kenshin (meaning new sword) and become a Zen-Buddhist, taking a vow of celibacy and becoming vegetarian. He identified with the Buddhist god of war- Bishamonten. By defeating Oda Nobunaga he managed to prevent him from taking over Japan. Kenshin either died of a stomach cancer, or was murdered by a ninja who was hiding under the latrine.

Ishida Mitsunari (1559- 1600)

Ishida Mitsunari was the general of the Western army during the Sekigahara battle. When he was a 13-year-old boy he met Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who appointed him to his staff after enjoying three cups of tea that the boy served him. He went on to become Hideyoshi’s financial manager and administrator, in charge of diplomatic relations with foreigners, among other things. After Hideyoshi died, Tokugawa Ieyasu became one of the five rulers to rule in the name of Hideyoshi’s five-year-old son, and Mitsunari soon became disillusioned with him. He was caught by peasants and executed in Kyoto.

Kato Kiyomasa (1562- 1611)

Kato Kiyomasa, was instrumental in helping Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu to unite Japan. He was the relative of Hideyoshi, and fought alongside him in the Korean campaign, earning the nickname “Devil Kiyomasa“. He was one of the Seven Spears of Shizugatake, Hideyoshi’s bodyguards at the Battle of Shizugatake, and was awarded a lot of land for his service. He built a number of Buddhist shrines and was suppressing Christianity. Having acted as a mediator between Hideyoshi and Ieyasu on many occasions, Kiyomasa fell ill and died after one such meeting.

Sakamoto Ryoma (1836- 1867)

Sakamoto Ryoma was one of the most beloved and admired Japanese heroes, known as a “Japanese Che Guevara“ and celebrated in Japan’s popular culture. He fought against the Tokugawa shogunate, and was known for his visionary work and reforms striving for a more democratic Japan, based on equality. The fact that he managed to forge an alliance between Choshu and Satsuma provinces, proved instrumental in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate in the Boshin war. He is also known as the “Father of the Imperial Japanese Navy“, since he established the flotilla to fight against the Tokugawa. He was assassinated by a band of assassins in the Omiya Inn at the age of 31 (only 5-minute walk from this museum.. The Kochi Ryoma Airport is named after him and there is a Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum in the same city.

Ito Hirobumi (1841- 1909)

Ito Hirobumi was the first prime minister of Japan who was coming from a samurai family. He drafted the Meiji Constitution, looking up to Western models, owing to his England-based education. He became the first Prime Minister of Japan in 1885, and held the same position three more times, the longest tenure in the history of Japan. Following the Japan-Korea Treaty in 1905, he became the first Japanese Resident-General of Korea, and the President of the Privy Council of Japan, following Korea’s subsequent annexation. He was murdered at the Harbin Railway station, by a Korean nationalist and independence activist.

Hijikata Toshizo (1835- 1869)

Hijikata Toshizo born into a wealthy family in Musashi, went on to become the vice-commander of the Shinsengumi. He was practicing kenjutsu when he met Kondo Isamo, the fourth master of the Tennen Rishin-Ryu martial art, and became his disciple. He fought alongside his teacher at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi and replaced him at the Battle of Yodo-Senryomatsu, because Kondo was wounded. It is said that, after having lost many men in these battles, Toshizo realized that he would no longer have any luck in battles. After Kondo’s death, Hijikata announced the new “Republic of Ezo“. He was killed in the final conflict with the Imperial Forces, while riding on a horseback in combat.

Akechi Mitsuide (1528~1582)

Akechi Mitsuide was a daimyo of the Akechi clan and a general under Oda Nobunaga. He betrayed his master Nobunaga and ordered his troops to kill him. Soon after he was killed by a ronin and Toyotomi Hideyoshi started ruling Japan. Although this kind of betrayal is uncommon some say he was infuriate because Nobunaga insulted him publicly and Nobunaga killed the rulers of a major clan who in turn kidnapped Akechi’s mother and killed her.

Yasuke (1555-1590)


(an artist’s illustration of Yasuke)

Yasuke was a black samurai of African origin (from Ethiopia, Mozambique or South Sudan), described as being a foot taller than other men of his time and “having the strength of ten men“. He was brought to Japan in 1579, by Jesuit missionaries and made a bodyguard to Oda Nobunaga. Upon seeing him for the first time, Nobunaga found it hard to believe that his skin was really black, so he asked him to take his shirt off and scrub his skin to prove that it was not ink. Yasuke’s career as a samurai ended when Nobunaga committed a seppuku (ritual suicide), after being defeated by his former general Mitsuhide.

Kondo Isami (1834- 1868)

Kondo Isami was a swordsman and a renowned commander of the Shinsengumi. He was adopted by Kondo Shusuke, master of the Tennen Rishin-Ryu (Japanese martial art practiced by the Shinsengumi), who was impressed by the bravery of then a 13-year-old boy who saved his family home from a group of thieves. Isami went on to become the fourth master of the Tennen-Rishin-Ryu. He was wounded at the battle of Toba-Fushimi and nearly escaped the Imperial Forces at the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma. He was finally caught by surprise during training in 1868, arrested by the Imperial Forces and beheaded at the Itabashi execution grounds. His head was put on public display, but it was stolen and buried behind an ancient shrine in Okazaki.

Saigo Takamori (1828- 1877)

Saigo Takamori, known as the last true samurai, resisted modernism and is hailed as a national hero in Japan. When he was a young man, his master died, and he, wanting to follow an old tradition of junshi, attempted to commit a suicide by jumping into a lake, but survived. When Japan was forced to signed the Treaty of Kanagawa and open its ports to American ships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry, it ended Japan’s 220-year-old policy of seclusion (sakoku) and exposed the weaknesses of military dictatorship (shogunate). This event triggered the Meiji Restoration, with Emperor Meiji attempting to modernize the country and dismantle the old system of rule. When the reforms threatened samurai way of life, forbidding them from carrying their swords in public, ordering them to wear their hair in Western fashion, Saigo resigned from his government positions and established his own school, attracting as many as 20.000 young samurai. From there, he led the Satsuma rebellion against the central government. Details surrounding his death during the rebellion are not completely known, but it is believed that he committed a seppuku, either by himself or assisted by another samurai.

 

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