October 21st, 1600 marks one of, nay, arguably THE most important battle in Japanese history. This event led to the eventual end of the Sengoku period, and helped establish the Tokugawa Shogunate, which would forever alter Japanese history and culture – essentially making Japan what it is today.
It was an ideological battle between two of the greatest Damyos of the time, namely Ishida Mitsunari, leader of the western armies loyal to the child ruler Toyotomi Hideyori; and Tokugawa Ieyasu who would come to unite Japan under his and his family’s rule until the feudal era collapsed in 1868 through the Meiji restoration, and the Emperor assumed a leadership role over Japan.
The battle was fierce and extremely bloody, fraught with drama and betrayal by people who trusted each other. In the course of the battle, some 30,000 soldiers lost their lives in the span of only 6-7hrs. By all accounts, it was the greatest Samurai battle of all time, and determined the fate of Japan for the next 250 years.
It was a misty morning on October 21st, 1600, when 160,000 warriors were getting ready to charge headfirst into this decisive battle over the control of Japan. Visibility was still limited to a few feet due to the fog. It was around 8am when it lifted and both sides could finally see their respective positions. A crack and subsequent echo of musket shots shattered the still soon after. The battle had begun.
How did it get to this fateful day?
As the supreme general Toyotomi Hideyoshi lay dying in the summer of 1598, he left quite a legacy, having completed the unification of Japan, which was started by his master, Oda Nobunaga. His only worthy heir was a young boy, still too young to rule, so Hideyoshi commanded five of the country’s top generals to govern Japan as a council until his 5-year-old son, Hideyori, could assume power. The insecurity following Hideyoshi’s death, however, created a power vacuum, and saw the most implacable of the five regents, Tokugawa Ieyasu, eager to usurp power and establish the supremacy of his own family and heirs.
He would have a formidable rival in the form of another commissioner, Ishida Mitsunari.
Gradually over time, Tokugawa tried to seize more and more power which lead to a confrontation from Mitsunari, challenging his power as the most formidable of the regents. This power struggle ripped Japan in two with the result culminating in the greatest samurai battle in history at Sekigahara.
The location of Sekigahara is at the west end of Gifu Prefecture, near the border with Shiga Prefecture. Sekigahara is the bottleneck between West and East Japan. The route through Sekigahara was the only route for large armies to march between Nagoya and Osaka in the past.
So, on Oct, 21st in the year 1600, an 80,000-strong coalition of soldiers under the command of daimyo feudal lords of the western province faced off against an equal number of troops from the east under the command of Ieyasu.
The forces pitted friend against friend and family against family on the plains of Sekigahara, which was a crossroads between the east and the west of Japan.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t just sword-swinging samurai going at each other in deadly one on one combat, however. There were quite a few technologies and strategies employed, ranging from gunners to horse-mounted archers, all the way to foot soldiers.
Ieasu was eventually able to seize control and win the battle, thus allowing him to also seize control of the country. He moved to Tokyo and established the Tokugawa Shogunate. A few years later, in 1603, he was awarded the coveted Shogun title by the Emperor, and became supreme military commander of Japan.
Mitsunari was eventually captured and marched through Kyoto and beheaded. Toyotomi Hideyori, the remainig heir of Hideyoshi, mounted a final rebellion and eventually committed seppuku within the flames of Osaka castle. This sealed the fate of the Toyotomi Clan and consolidated Tokugawa rule for the next two hundred and fifty years.
This lead to a period of calm in Japan after years of previous civil war during the Warring States Period and ushered in the isolation of the Edo period, which would last until the Meiji Emperor took back power in 1868. This was a period of stability, where peace prevailed for over 250 years, and Japan regained its national pride allowing traditional arts, crafts, and customs to flourish.
Should you want to wander in the footsteps of history and experience the battlefield for yourself, the Sekigahara Town History & Folklore Museum is a great place to start. Here you can brush up on the details of this battle, and admire some (replica) armor, weapons, artifacts, and artwork from that era.
With that background information at the ready, head out to the actual battlefield itself, where you can see firsthand where this decisive battle took place. You can visit the individual camps and other battle-related landmarks.
Should you be so lucky to go there during mid-October, you can see a reenactment of the actual battle, along with lectures, music, and various activities.
Additional in-depth information
A short story like this cannot possibly do the entire history of this battle any justice, but our guide for the day was none other than Chris Glenn, who is a very well-known (local) celebrity, historian, Radio Host, DJ, and expert on all things Sekigahara. So, if you’d like to get all the juicy details of this battle, make sure to check out his excellent book on this topic, in which not only the events are presented in painstaking detail, but also all the interesting insider tidbits of information are laid bare and add an even more pronounced air of authenticity.
The Battle of Sekigahara – The Greatest Samurai Battle in History
It’s a bit of a trek, but if you hop on a JR Tokaido train from Nagoya, you can get straight to the town. The trains pass through the area on the way to Osaka.
If you’d like to partake in your own tour, please be sure to check out SEKIGAHARA TOURS on FB for the latest information about events in the area.
And of course, the page dedicated to the excellent book described above: THE BATTLE OF SEKIGAHARA by Chris Glenn, which always has updated information and very interesting historical tidbits to offer.
Thanks for reading, and see you guys in the next article!