Two outstanding political institutions dominate most of Japanese history until 1867: the samurai warrior class and the shogun military dictators.
Two outstanding political institutions dominate most of Japanese history until 1867: the samurai warrior class and the
However, the government, unable to control the activities of the remnants of the local uji clans in certain distant provinces, sent officials to these areas to oversee its interests and supervise the local administrations. The government also began granting land and tax exceptions to loyal subjects and to the younger sons and relatives of the court who, under the system of
A two-year smallpox epidemic beginning in 735 decimated the country, killing at least a quarter of the population and causing a severe labor shortage. As a result the government was economically unable to provide for a standing army, and landowners and aristocrats–as well as the officials previously sent by the government–began recruiting kinsmen to form bands of warriors to guard their own estates. Eventually, these blood ties lessened, but the permanent use of groups of such soldiers, called
Although it was nominally a monarchy, medieval Japan actually was not ruled by the reigning emperor. Since the mid-700’s, true power had lain in the hands of the
Under the shogunate system, power was divided between court and regent, allowing social or political instability as each disputed matters of jurisdiction. Because the shogun ostensibly governed on behalf of the emperor, his control was never absolute. Often disgruntled daimyo warlords would have their own ambitions and might rebel. Some samurai were never even vassals of the shogunate to begin with and were reluctant to obey its commands. Occasionally emperors themselves would try to assert direct authority and start revolutions of their own. Of course, too, there were many disputes over shogunal succession, both from within the ruling families and from outsiders.
Much of Japanese history centers on the struggles of the various shogunates and the resulting countrywide conflicts. Civil war was rampant, brutal, and endemic.
The Sengoku, or Warring States,
The Battle of Sekigahara is considered the most important Japanese battle in premodern times, ending the almost constant warfare that had preceded it and finally uniting the country. Ieyasu moved the Japanese capital to present-day Tokyo and established a reign of peace that lasted some 250 years. During this time of peace, the samurai evolved from warriors to government bureaucrats, administrators, scholars, and intellectuals. Though still an armed elite, the samurai warrior caste had, after a thousand years of struggle, finally been tamed in probably the greatest military achievement in Japanese history.
Swords came in a number of sizes, weights, and lengths. During the Muromachi period of government (1338-1573), it became common for samurai to carry matching pairs of swords: a long katana
A collection of Japanese swords, which, from the tenth to the nineteenth century, were considered the best in the world.
Even as late as the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 the Japanese system of military organization differed from the regimental models found in Europe. The main operational unit was the individual daimyo’s
A group of samurai warriors, a class that served as Japan’s military elite throughout the medieval period.
Unit specialization in the Japanese army was not particularly pronounced. Japanese armies generally consisted of foot soldiers and archers. Japanese
The famous battles of the Gempei Wars
This form of battle owed much to the samurai ethos of personal bravery and honor. For example, Daidoji
Japanese warfare before 1570, then, was a highly unstructured affair; troops underwent little training and few drills. Samurai leaders, too, paid little attention to a campaign’s supposed military goals. In the mid-sixteenth century, however, all this changed. A century of protracted civil war had altered the political climate and power dynamics in Japan. The central government and the shogunate were now vastly weakened, and the daimyo sought to enlarge their individual domains by force of arms. War came to be defined as warlord against warlord, clan against clan. To maintain this constant state of siege and countersiege, larger armies were needed. As there were not enough samurai (never more than 5 or 10 percent of the population), more and more peasant troops had to be used. These
By the 1580’s Nobunaga had realized the need for major changes, and his initial successes were due at least in part to his new ways of military thinking. Previously, a general in command of a smaller army had been able personally to inspire his troops with his own charisma, persuasion, and bravery. Now, with 20,000- to 50,000-man armies often commonplace, a leader’s method of training, tactics, and command control were as important as his swordsmanship. Nobunaga, for example, realized the importance of uniforms and unit insignias for his troops, both to make identification during battle easier and to instill a sense of unit cohesion and identity.
Another major sixteenth century development was the introduction of
Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated a coalition of generals and warlords at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, unifying Japan.
These new weapons forced major changes in tactics, as Nobunaga was quick to realize. Nobunaga pioneered the use of
After a series of power struggles throughout the late sixteenth century, Ieyasu defeated a coalition of generals and warlords at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and established peace in the land. At this point he issued an unprecedented series of decrees that would eventually remove firearms from the country. Gun manufacturing first was restricted to one location and eventually was abolished altogether. The decision to eliminate firearms had several possible motivations. First, there was a generally negative feeling at this time toward all things Western, including guns. Second, according to samurai ethics, it was considered cowardly to kill someone from a great distance without meeting him face-to-face on the battlefield. Third,
There are many surviving documents, books, images, and artifacts from medieval Japanese times that tell a great deal about the lives of the samurai, daimyo, shoguns, and emperors. For example, illustrated training manuals of the era include guides to musket marksmanship, fencing, hand-to-hand combat, and even ninja assassination techniques. Also, the extensive writings of individual warriors tell much about their personal lives and philosophies. For instance, the loneliness of the sakimori frontier guards is reflected in the Man’yō-shū, an anthology of sakimori poems collected around 800
Farris, William Wayne. Heavenly Warriors: The Evolution of Japan’s Military, 500-1300. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Friday, Karl F. “Oda Nobunaga.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. _______. Samurai, Warfare, and the State in Early Medieval Japan. New York: Routledge, 2004. Kure, Mitsuo. Samurai: An Illustrated History. Boston: Tuttle, 2002. Miller, David. Samurai Warriors. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Ratti, Oscar, and Adele Westbrook. Secrets of the Samurai: The Martial Arts of Feudal Japan. Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 1999. Sugawara, Mokoto. The Ancient Samurai. Tokyo: The East Publications, 1986. _______. Battles of the Samurai. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1992. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Invasion of Korea, 1592-98. Illustrated by Peter Dennis. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2008. _______. Samurai Warlords: The Book of the Daimyo. London: Blandford Press, 1992. _______. Strongholds of the Samurai: Japanese Castles, 250-1877. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2009. _______. Warriors of Medieval Japan. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2005. Varley, Paul. “Warfare in Japan, 1467-1600.” In War in the Early Modern World, edited by Jeremy Black. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Varley, Paul, with Ivan Morris and Nobuko Morris. Samurai. New York: Dell, 1970. Samurai Japan. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 1997. The Seven Samurai. Feature film. Toho, 1954. Shogun. Television miniseries. NBC, 1980.
World War II: Japan
India and South Asia: Medieval