I’m Paul Willson I am a brown belt in Ju Jutsu, a centuries old Japanese martial art.
Netflix recently released the documentary Age of Samurai telling the story of the end of the Sengoku period or Warring States period from 1467 to 1615. The documentary dramatises the story, with commentary from historians, of the rise to power of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu and their eventual unification and control of the whole of Japan.
The Sengoku period was a period of constant warfare in Japan where any semblance of control dissolved and the various lord or daimyo fought amongst themselves for power, land and wealth. Think of Game of Thrones or War of the Roses. For over a thousand years Japanese Emperors, with a few exceptions, have held only ceremonial position. Real political power was in the hands of hereditary Shoguns who were really military dictators who gained control of Japan normally by defeating the previous Shogunate in battle.
In martial arts we often have a romanticised idea of Bushido. The Sengoku period was a last man standing civil war. Military defeat meant death by beheading or seppuku (ritual suicide) of the daimyo and their family (including their children even if they were young). Quite often if a daimyo fell those in their pay simply switched sides. Obedience of weaker daimyo and important families and adherence of agreements was gained by the taking of hostages. Loyalty was given only to the strong and honour was rare. The winner of course was someone nobody ever expected.
The story begins with the rise of Oda Nobunaga the heir to the daimyo of the small and unimportant Owari province. Oda Nobunaga was a belligerent and opportunistic character who first secured power in Owari province after the death of his father then ambushed and defeated the far superior army of Imagawa Yoshimoto as they marched through Owari province on their way to the then capital of Kyoto at the Battle of Okehazama and then began a blood thirsty campaign to unify Japan slaughtering anyone who who stood in his way earning himself the nickname the Demon Daimyo after the massacre on Mount Hiei in his destruction of the warrior monks of the Enryaku-ji monastary. We then had a perfect storm of three men coming together who were the only ones with the vision, strategic talent and greater tactical ability to unite Japan.
You would have noticed my use of the words blood thirsty, massacre, slaughter and destruction. These words are not exaggerating events. The death toll of Oda Nobunaga’s campaigns, killing men, women and children and civilians and combatants alike, were horrific and his nickname of the Demon Daimyo was well deserved as he shocked even those in a time when violent deaths and atrocities were common.
The reason of their success was down to what they did. Early on Oda Nobunaga saw the value of arquebuses (early fire arms) introduced previously by the Portuguese. His innovative use of arquebuses at the Battle of Nagashino defeated the Takeda clan who had the one of the best if not the best cavalry in Japan at the time. Also Oda Nobunaga had the ability to spot and promote talent. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was only a foot soldier but he was able to rise through the ranks to become one of Oda Nobunaga’s most trusted advisors at a time when this was virtually impossible and Tokugawa Ieyasu fought for Imagawa Yoshimoto and probably have been beheaded after the Battle of Okehazama but again he became an important advisor to Oda Nobunaga.
Even Oda Nobunaga’s death in the Honno-ji incident couldn’t stop the unification of Japan as we moved to the next stage of the story as Toyotomi Hideyoshi became Shogun and completed the unification of Japan. Now don’t think Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu liked or trusted each other. However, they did respect each other and came to the conclusion that being allies would serve both their interests. The pair were joined by the highly talented tactician Date Masamune, the One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu. A man who cut out his own deformed eye ball after suffering smallpox to prove he was worthy to be a daimyo when even his own mother wanted him killed. His brazen disregard of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s authority and his tactical ability forced Toyotomi Hideyoshi to offer an alliance and prestige to Date Masamune which allowed Toyotomi Hideyoshi to exert control of northern Japan without having to face resistance and spill a large amount of bloodshed.
After the disastrous invasion of Korea and death of the now mentally unstable Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power as Shogun after patiently waiting for decades by outmaneuvering Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son’s 4 other guardians and winning the Battle of Sekigahara and Seige of Osaka bringing the end to the Sengoku period and creating an hereditary shogunate bringing over 200 years of peace to Japan.
The dramatising of events did a good job of bringing the Sengoku period to life. Obviously the makers of the documentary could only do so much of bring the horrors of battle to life but the smaller events were very well done. What the dramatising of events could not do the historians did well to fill in. They really made an effort to emphase the horrific nature and size of late Sengoku era battles were with a battlefield where bullets flew through the air as two large armies slashed and stabbed each other and strip away any romanticised notions of the period. Their passion for the era was on full display.
If you, as I am, have an interest in history and want to learn about this violent and complex period which really brought to an end of the age of the age of samurai as during the Edo period under the Tokugawa Shogunate the samurai became bureaucrats rather than soldiers it is really worth watching.