3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
Barbarians at the Gate More Worlds to Conquer


Ch 12 - Japanese Invasions

Under a Single Sword

Fifteenth century Choson's prejudice against foreign trade and commerce contributed to financial problems and the suspension of trade relations with Japan. Oda Nobunaga emerges as the strongest of Japan's daimyo, intent upon unifying the Japanese under a single ruler.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as the Europeans hotly pursued trade and colonialism in India, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia, the Korean kingdom of Choson lived in relative isolation, deeply embroiled in factionalism and power politics. While Choson's neighbors sought new ways to deal with the changing nature of foreign relations in the Far East, the Yi dynasty faced disastrous economic problems at home. Political factions fought to displace or eliminate their perceived enemies and, in the process, virtually neglected the country's economic health and the people's welfare.

The rising affluence of Choson's yangban landlords in the countryside compounded the country's existing economic problems as land tenure, tax laws and the military all declined in a state of confusion. Choson royalty, addicted to lives of luxury and pleasure-seeking, contributed a great deal to the massive squandering of Choson's financial resources. Not even the royal court was immune from the capacity to drain the nation's treasury. With each new king on the throne came new appointees to an expanding Merit Subjects roster, and with each new appointee came the obligatory awards and land grants needed to support them.

The Yi government's attempts to reform Choson's economy, driven largely by an intense desire to increase revenue, led to a further increase in the already steep financial burden borne by the populace. The bureaucrats in Seoul apparently never anticipated the dramatic impact of the almost punitive level of land taxes, tribute taxes and other special levies they imposed on the country. Faced with the sudden rise in taxes, many peasants simply gave up trying to meet the demand for ever more government revenue. In frustration, or because of economic necessity, thousands of peasants unable to make a living simply abandoned their farms and property. The inevitable result was a dramatic reduction in the nation's tax base and the government had few practical alternatives to make up the loss.

In the realm of foreign relations, the early Yi dynasty maintained a vassal relationship with Ming China, but behaved as an equal partner in its relations with other nations in the region. The Confucian-oriented government in Seoul, which disapproved of private trade, conducted its foreign relations almost exclusively under the guise of tribute and gifts. Their deeply-entrenched Confucian prejudice against commerce and finance contributed much to Choson's economic trouble during this period, since it effectively inhibited the growth of foreign trade and prevented the government from deriving any significant income from a potentially rich resource. The Yi government carefully maintained this fiction of "tribute" and the "exchange of gifts" throughout most of the fifteenth century.

Despite the government's strict adherence to Confucian philosophy, numerous secret business deals and private agreements existed just beneath the surface that supported a growing volume of covert commercial trade. Japanese vessels sailed into the treaty ports of Pusanp'o (modern Tongnae), Naeip'o (modern UngChon) and Yomp'o (modern Ulsan), and carried away large cargos of foodstuffs and dry goods to enrich the daimyo and merchants of western Japan. By 1510, the volume of goods moving through this "underground" market between grew to such an extent that King Chungjong's ministers felt it necessary to impose tight restrictions to stop it. Japanese traders reacted almost immediately to the government's crackdown on trade by staging violent protests in the treaty ports. Many of these demonstrations actually developed into armed uprisings against local Choson garrison commanders and it took the use of military force to suppress them. Choson responded to furor raised by the Japanese over the trade restrictions by closing its trade ports altogether and suspending trade with Japan.

The head of the So clan on Tsushima Island, who had become quite dependent on Choson imports, voiced his indignance over this action. After numerous entreaties to the Choson government, Tsushima and Choson reached a new trade agreement two years later, in 1512. King Chungjong permitted the resumption of trade under strictly limited terms, permitting only twenty-five ships per year to visit Choson. Nevertheless, one treaty port and two of the permanent Japanese trade missions remained closed. With the lone exception of vessels sent by the Shogun, King Chungjong made no allowances for ships sailing on special missions. Even under the trade restrictions imposed by Choson however, Japan maintained fairly widespread commercial relations in the Far East.

The So clan daimyo dealt directly with Seoul in part because the Ashikaga Shogunate had been in decline for years. The authority of Japan's central government had virtually disappeared early in the fifteenth century and the former stability and power of the shogunate gradually dissipated to the point where, by mid-century, it had lost all authority and control over the provinces. Neither the shogun nor the emperor had the power to restrict, let alone control, the growth of Japan's feudal houses.

With no powerful central administration to adjudicate disputes, political newcomers moved into the resulting power vacuum. Members of small, landowning, military families, many of whom were ambitious military men, gradually surpassed provincial constables to achieve influence over entire provinces. They frequently engaged each other in armed conflict to exert the actual control over different parts of Japan. As military men fell in combat, others rushed in to fill the void. Men who realized that all they needed to join the battle was a military force surrounded themselves with strong fighting men who held similar aims. Peasant farmers, oil sellers and blacksmiths built secure fortresses atop neighboring hills from which they could defend their rice crops. Unhindered by the shogun's forces from Kyoto, these men quickly began building small provincial kingdoms of their own, hoping to make a name for themselves, a "big name" - a daimyo. That is how the majority of Japan's daimyo came into being.

The political and territorial situation in mid-fifteenth century Japan was highly volatile. Nearly 260 independent feudal domains existed across the country, each each ruled by an autonomous daimyo who maintained his own army and lorded over his own small fiefdom. It was as if Japan had become a nation comprised of some 260 separate countries. The wealthier daimyo, those who could afford the new weapons and defenses, dominated the weaker and less affluent domains. Many of the civil wars fought during the Ashikaga Shogunate were fairly small-scale battles that involved neighboring warlords choosing up sides whenever a dispute broke out over succession to a warlordship. One of these disputes however, eventually erupted into open warfare.

For many years, Japan's two most powerful families, the Hosokawa and the Yamana, largely occupied themselves in succession disputes of other warlords, while managing to keep their own conflicts below the level of open warfare. In 1464 however, the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa resigned his position because it interfered with his desire to pursue personal pleasures. Yoshimasa and the Hosokawa family wanted Yoshimasa's younger brother, Yoshimi, to assume the title of shogun. Yoshimasa's wife, Tomiko, and the Yamana family wanted the shogunate to pass to Yoshimasa's son, Ashikaga Yoshihisa. As both sides maneuvered for advantage, the Hosokawa were busy interfering in a raging conflict between two members of the Hatakeyama family over who would be the new shogun's deputy, kanrei. When the Yamana asked Shogun Yoshimasa for permission to "chastise" the Hosokawa, the shogun refused. The Hosokawa tried to force the issue of succession when they took Yoshimi, occupied the shogunate headquarters in Kyoto and set up a fortified defense. Ashikaga Yoshimasa realized that if fighting broke out, the entire country would plunge into war because the shogun, occupied with a war in his own capital, would be seen as powerless to control regional conflicts.

Open warfare erupted in May 1467, as fighting broke out in the streets of Kyoto between the Hosokawa and Yamana. In late September, the powerful warlord Ouchi Masahiro joined forces with the Yamana and the fighting turned into true carnage. Little by little the raging battles slowly destroyed the capital city and reduced many of its buildings to ashes. By the end of the year much of Kyoto had been devestated and the war was largely being fought in trenches dug out of the rubble. Despite the fierce combat, no clear winner emerged. Both sides settled down for a protracted political and military fight.

In the midst of the fighting, Ashikaga Yoshimi, who was supported by the Hosokawa family, switched his allegiance to the Yamana, who supported his nephew, Ashikaga Yoshihisa. When the shogun declared his son to be a rebel, the Onin War shifted to a major conflict between the shogun (supported by the Hosokawa) and his brother (supported by the Yamana). The ten year long struggle known as the Onin War (1467-1477) spread into the provinces, where military families fought each other to extinction. The dead numbered in the thousands. In one grisly engagement at the Shokokuji monastery in 1467, Ouchi Masahiro reportedly collected over eight cartloads of severed Hosokawa heads.

The war began losing steam in 1473 when the leaders of the Hosokawa and Yamana families died. One by one, the various daimyo factions submitted to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. The Onin War finally ended in 1477 when Ouchi Masahiro finally submitted to Yoshimasa and went home with his troops. Ten years of civil war had left the imperial city of Kyoto in ruin, virtually destroyed the Ashikaga bakufu and made the Hosokawa family puppetmasters of the Ashikaga shoguns. Although fighting had ceased in and around Kyoto, civil strife remained endemic throughout Japan, with vassals battling to overthrow their daimyo or where succession disputes began drawing in the forces of outside daimyo to shift the balance of power. For nearly three generations, numerous wars were fought for control of the puppet government of the shogunate. Although this period is commonly referred to as the Warring States Period (sengoku jidai), it had little to do with "warring states." It was really a time of warfare among competing families and warlords.

As the daimyo grew in power, they began carving up the country into clearly defined domains over which they held complete control. In the majority of cases, daimyo built their small empires through outright usurpation. Existing military families were murdered by their subjects. Brothers, even fathers, were deposed. Daughters were traded like horses to secure alliances. Estates slowly grew in size from one hilltop fortress to two, then three, surrounding a fertile valley. Next, a neighbor's lands were seized, further expanding the territory, and so it went. One by one, estates were surrounded and captured, then they themselves were swallowed within someone else's expanding territory, until at the end there were no more lands left to occupy, and there is only one winner. Individual daimyos paid a tremendous price to play this deadly game, and a century of conflict so weakened the bulk of Japanese warlords, that by the end of the Warring States period, only a dozen or so warlord families still held power in Japan.

Each daimyo became a paternalistic and absolute ruler within his own realm. Their feudal kingdoms varied greatly in size, but each tended to be a compact, well-defined political unit, perhaps subordinate to some other local domain, but entirely independent of the emperor or shogun. Headquartered in a central castle, a class of military officers and governing officials formed a small court that assisted in ruling the territory. These men lived on the hereditary lands or the salaries their daimyo assigned them. The peasantry formed the backbone of each kingdom's economic life and served as a manpower reservoir for the military.

The warrior aristocracy furnished administrators for the government and officers for the army. The daimyo's army was manned by well-trained samurai warriors, the elite of the military class. The daimyo himself stood as the elite of the samurai. Before the arrival of the Portuguese, these armies were composed primarily of units of foot-soldiers and armed cavalry. Especially trained foot-soldiers carried the bow, the original samurai prestige weapon, and most were effective as sharpshooters.

In the struggle for national supremacy among Japan's numerous feudal kingdoms, the larger and stronger daimyo either conquered or dominated their weaker neighbors. This process exemplified the notion of gekokujo, "the low overcome the high," the savage principle of opportunistic rebellion that swept away Japan's old order. The most critical of the daimyo battles during the Onin War took place in the region between the Kanto Plain and Kyoto, an area controlled by four powerful and well-entrenched clans:  the Uesugi clan of Echigo Province, the Takeda clan in Kai Province, the Imagawa clan of Suruga Province, and the Hojo clan led by Ujiyasu, Lord of the Kanto.

Oda Nobunaga was born in 1534, to the off-shoot of an old daimyo family of south central Honshu whose hereditary fiefdom comprised some three provinces to the east of Kyoto near the modern city of Nagoya. He inherited his father's domains at the age of 15, including an "army" that may have numbered only a few hundred men. From these meager beginnings, he launched his bid for supremacy with ruthless ambition. Using his family's small kingdom as a base for further operations, he set about consolidating his power. This fast-rising daimyo used charisma, skill, and luck to subdue any combination of rivals that stood in the way of his ultimate goal in life;  to bring all of Japan "under a single sword," tenka-fubu."

A high-minded, extremely self-driven man, Oda Nobunaga's rise to power was slow, deliberate and unforgiving. This iron-fisted ruler once accused a young maid-servant of improperly cleaning a room and had her executed for no reason other than she had left a small fruit stem on the floor. Known for his ruthless vindictiveness, Nobunaga once captured a man who had taken a shot at him years earlier, had the man buried in the ground with only his head exposed, then had it sawed off.

Oda Nobunaga strongly disliked esoteric Buddhism and carried on a running battle with the secular power of the Buddhists. To their dismay, he openly encouraged foreign trade and eagerly embraced expanded contact with the West. He was fascinated with Christianity and welcomed Portugal's Jesuit missionaries to Japan. His long-standing battle against Buddhist secular power contributed in large part toward his friendly attitude toward the Jesuits, an attitude that may have played a role in the success of Christian missionary activity around the Kyoto area during this period. The loyalty that developed between Japanese Christians and a distant, alien pope however, caused many Japanese to see Christianity as a potentially subversive influence in Japan.

A bold military tactician, Oda Nobunaga shrewdly embraced Western technology - firearms, in particular. Firearms, primarily the bulky European arquebus, had been appearing in Japan since the late fifteenth century. Although these heavy, unwieldy weapons could not be used in rain or snow and had a disturbing tendency to explode when fired, Oda Nobunaga saw the promise they held as a new military weapon. He became the first Japanese to develop both offensive and defensive tactics built around the use of firearms. In addition to retraining his armies to use the new tactics, he built massive stone forts that would resist the new firearms. He was also the first Japanese leader to put iron-cladding on his warships, a modification that made them virtually unbeatable.

The introduction of matchlock rifles into Japan in 1542 by the Portuguese changed the whole character of Japan's military force. To some samurai, the rifle represented an encroachment of foreign culture onto the battlefield, the most traditional of all Japanese social arenas. They believed the use of this rather crude weapon defiled both the user and the victim, who was thereby deprived of an honorable death. Noble beliefs aside, wars were fought to be won, and the daimyo who resisted the use of firearms tended to be either very rare, or very dead. The rifle quickly became an ideal weapon, highly valued by samurai warriors. The average foot soldier needed only a minimum amount of training to be able to fire it with all the accuracy it could provide. The more creative swordsmiths in Japan became gunsmiths and produced vast quantities of the matchlock rifles.

Protected on their eastern flank by a politically beneficial alliance with Tokugawa Ieyasu, forces under Oda Nobunaga seized Kyoto in 1568, and the remnants of its imperial and shogunal courts in some twenty other provinces. He masterfully used his Western cannon and rifle-equipped army in battles against the Hojo and Takeda daimyo. At the Battle of Nagashino, Oda Nobunaga lined up three ranks of matchlockmen to face down Takeda's cavalry. Volley-firing troops virtually destroyed the hard charging horsemen on such a colossal scale that it produced a revolution in tactical thinking among the daimyo.

From as far back as Japan's medieval period, beginning after the Heike War, the monks of the Mt. Hiei monastery just outside Kyoto had played a significant role in the political and military course of Japanese history. Unlike the Buddhists at Nara, the Mt. Hiei Buddhists did not exercise direct control over their followers in the imperial court. The best students remained in the monastery, while the others graduated into official positions in the government or the imperial court. The Mt. Hiei monastery, officially known as the "Center for the Protection of the Nation," became the most influential institution in Japan. While Oda Nobunaga consolidated his position in the Kyoto region, local forces including monks from the Tendai Buddhist stronghold on Mt. Hiei arose in strong opposition.

Seeing Mt. Hiei as a "wild card" threat to the nation's future stability, Oda Nobunaga turned his wrath against the Buddhists. In 1571, he attacked the sprawling complex and university at Mt. Hiei. In the process of destroying the great monastery and burning some three thousand buildings to the ground, his warriors hunted down and slaughtered every single Mt. Hiei monk regardless of their age or innocence. Nearly sixteen hundred monks and villagers died in the terrifying bloodbath, including a number of women and children. In less than five years, Oda Nobunaga's warriors destroyed the power of the great Buddhist monasteries and forced other centers of monastic power into submission.

More than a century of incessant localized civil war had split Japan among a score or so of the leading daimyo and their domains came to represent a unified and efficient system of local government. Because of their military heritage however, most of these daimyo concentrated on developing their military strength rather than strengthening their administrative skills. In the process, the more powerful daimyo, those who ruled several provinces, built very efficient samurai armies. Oda Nobunaga confiscated the lands of those he conquered and either absorbed them into his own domain or assigned them to his vassal daimyo. He cemented the loyalty of his growing force of retainers with grants of property seized from defeated daimyo and revoked the peasantry's right to bear arms so that no daimyo could forge an instant army out of local conscripts. Through victory after victory, Oda Nobunaga established himself as the first of Japan's "super daimyo."


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Barbarians at the Gate More Worlds to Conquer