Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

In the last half of the fifteenth century, Japan’s imperial power base fragmented into scattered regional strongholds controlled by samurai overlords, each vying for military supremacy.

Summary of Event

During the bitter and inconclusiveŌnin War of 1467-1477 Ōnin War (1467-1477)[Onin War (1467-1477)] , fought to resolve a succession dispute among rival factions of the Ashikaga Ashikaga shogunate clan, the centralized authority of the military dictator, or shogun, faded to a ghostly shadow of what it had once been. In the last years of the Ōnin conflict, the fighting had spread from the city of Kyōto (especially the area west of the Kamo River) outward to the surrounding countryside. This displacement of the conflict allowed the decimated city of ravaged palaces, burned shops, and improvised battlements to return slowly to life. In Kyōto’s Muromachi district (after which the historical era of 1333-1573 takes its name), the figure of the once powerful shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435-1490), continued to live on, but in an impoverished, politically impotent condition, his imperial status diminished to the level of a mere figurehead. Nor did circumstances improve for his six successors, the last of whom was finally deposed in 1573. Warring States period (Japan, 1477-1600)
Ashikaga Yoshimasa
Takeda Shingen
Uesugi Kenshin
Ashikaga Yoshimasa
Takeda Shingen
Uesugi Kenshin
Xavier, Saint Francis

In the aftermath of theŌnin War and to fill the resulting political and military voids left by the erosion of the Ashikaga shogunate’s power, there arose in Yamashiro Province beyond the gates of Kyōto a class of strong local lords, called daimyo, Daimyos who exercised absolute control within the limited boundaries of their own regional strongholds. These small “principalities” backed their own favorites, playing at their own power games of grabbing at land and power while ignoring the decisions and proclamations that issued from Kyōto. The regional power of these daimyo effectively brought an end to any semblance of a national authority. Nobles who had once ruled their provinces in abstentia from the effete cultured confines of the imperial court at Kyōto found themselves suddenly dispossessed of their holdings.

Decentralized authority and subsequent power struggles immediately following the Ōnin War (1477) came to be called the Sengoku Jidai, the Warring States period or Age of the Country at War, a name that alludes directly to a similar period in Chinese history. Social organization in Japan during this period was not unlike the nearly contemporary feudal system that evolved in medieval Europe. In Japan, as in the European feudal system, an elaborate network of rights and obligations all revolved around a status hierarchy tied directly to land tenure. Peasant farmers were permitted to inhabit and to work the estate lands of the daimyo and lived under his protection, but in exchange for these privileges, the peasant farmers surrendered a considerable portion of their harvest to the lord and were also expected to take up arms in his service should the need arise.

Notably lacking in this Japanese form of feudalism, however, were two of the romanticized aspects of European medieval knighthood: the cult of the adoration of women and the knightly code of chivalry—both of which were indirectly inspired in Europe by the medieval Church, hence their absence in this context. In stark contrast, daughters of the samurai Samurai daimyo were traded like horses to further regional alliances. In place of the code of chivalry, the Japanese warrior was bound by the highly disciplined warrior code of bushidō
Bushidō[bushido] , which emphasized responsibilities of loyalty, personal duty, and a rigorous code of honor that, if breached, demanded the terrible penalty of seppuku, the ritual act of self-disembowelment.

Samurai warriors, already well established as members of the Japanese military caste, held a prominent place in the conflicts of this period. Many of the daimyo arose from the numbers of masterless samurai (rōnin), from disinherited or adopted sons, or from disaffected retainers who revolted against their overlords and seized control by force when favorable circumstances presented themselves; indeed, such were the origins of some of the best-known names of the period, among them Takeda Shingen and his great military rival Uesugi Kenshin.

In fact, however, the majority of military forces of this period consisted largely of light infantry, called ashigaru
Ashigaru , drawn from the peasant farmer class. Given a modicum of training and inexpensively outfitted with long wooden or bamboo-shafted spears resembling European pikes, the ashigaru fought in coordinated groups for maximum combat effectiveness. They became so celebrated as a military force that manuals were written concerning their training and battlefield deportment. Military;Japan

In later years, the ashigaru were raised to a new rank of distinction, being regarded as the lowest status of samurai (rather than the highest status of peasant). The more battle-hardened samurai often acted as mounted field officers over the ashigaru, directing them at the tactical level. In the conflicts of this period, the defeat of a main body of ashigaru usually proved catastrophic for the daimyo. At the conclusion of a successful military campaign, the ashigaru disbanded, returning to their rice fields until such time as they were, once again, summoned by the overlord. As a result, conflicts tended to be sporadic, of short duration, and self-limiting. Such were the vicissitudes of life during the Sengoku era that many samurai were reduced to becoming part-time farmers, laboring ankle-deep in mud with their spears stuck upright in the dirt windrows, never farther than an arm’s reach.

As conflicts between neighboring daimyo dragged on, a new class of rebellious peasant leagues, called ikki
Ikki , gradually emerged to challenge the power of the samurai warlords. In the confused atmosphere of the later Muromachi period, the rural ikki directed their aggression against the urban merchants, or doso (literally “warehouse keepers”), who, in turn, formed urban ikki of their own to protect themselves and their interests. Similar ikki leagues arose among sects of Buddhist “warrior monks” who involved themselves in the fierce skirmishes of the rival samurai clans. Such leagues eventually supplanted the individual samurai as the principal military force.


Ironically, the fragmentation of power among scattered regional daimyo during the Age of the Country at War did not result in widespread social chaos; in fact, quite the opposite was true. The collection of tribute taxes, for example, was greatly facilitated by the localization of authority in the person of the local chieftain, rather than in some abstract political entity headquartered at several days’ traveling distance. As the borders of the individual daimyo estates tended to follow natural geographic boundaries (especially mountain ridges and rivers), their compact size tended to make these lands easier to control.

Over time, power came to be consolidated in fewer, more capable hands. The lesser daimyo were gradually absorbed by more powerful neighbors or succumbed to attacks of encircling rivals. In the unsettled atmosphere of precarious alliances and rapidly shifting military advantage, additional fortified towns and castles were built. To supply the necessary raw materials, mines and quarries were dug, which, in many instances, yielded unanticipated finds of rich metallic ores. Roads were constructed to facilitate more efficient traffic of goods and people. As a consequence, communication between geographic regions improved along with the general economy, stimulated by trade, tariffs, and the formation of merchants’ and craftspeople’s guilds.

Finally, by the mid-sixteenth century, the first Portuguese explorers Exploration and colonization;Portugal and Spain of Japan had arrived by sea (1543), followed by Saint Francis Xavier and the Jesuits (1549), the Spanish (1587), and the Dutch (1609), bringing the Sengoku and Muromachi periods to a close on or around 1600. Centralized government would reemerge during the Tokugawa period (mid-sixteenth to nineteenth centuries), but only after long and costly struggles.

Further Reading

  • Dolan, Ronald E., and Robert L. Worden, eds. Japan: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1992. Especially useful for its concise historical survey presented in chapter 1, with additional valuable background information in subsequent chapters pertaining to topography, climate, and social and cultural trends. Includes regional maps.
  • Henshall, Kenneth G. A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A remarkably readable history of Japan that emphasizes the human dimension of conflict and historical change. Includes chapter summaries in concise table format for each era’s key developments, values, and practices.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook. London: Cassel, 2000. Another fine reference work by the author of Samurai Warriors, but treats more fully the particulars of the subject through thumbnail biographies of principal samurai and detailed data on weapons, heraldry, strategy and tactics, great battles, and more. Well illustrated.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Warriors. New York: Blandford Press, 1987. An episodic treatment of the samurai tradition. Very well illustrated with both historical and contemporary drawings, paintings, maps, diagrams, and photographs.

1457-1480’s: Spread of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism

1467-1477: Ōnin War

1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

Mar. 5, 1488: Composition of the Renga Masterpiece Minase sangin hyakuin

Beginning 1513: Kanō School Flourishes

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

Sept., 1553: First Battle of Kawanakajima

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

1587: Toyotomi Hideyoshi Hosts a Ten-Day Tea Ceremony

1590: Odawara Campaign

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

1594-1595: Taikō Kenchi Survey

Oct., 1596-Feb., 1597:
San Felipe Incident

Oct. 21, 1600: Battle of Sekigahara