The Ashikaga shogunate, a dynastic and feudal military dictatorship, had been in power in Kyoto since 1336. Emperors, also in Kyoto, had been without political power. The power established by the founder of the Ashikaga shogunate, Ashikaga Takauj, eventually declined relative to the power of Japan's great landowning families (daimyo), who had their own armies. The Ashikaga shogunate failed to establish an effective central government with which to arbitrate conflicts, and by the 1490s the Ashikaga shoguns had become the puppets of the Hosokawa family, a samurai clan. The reign of Emperor Go-Kashiwabara, from 1500 to 1526, marked a low point in influence by the emperors. In 1525, court ceremonies were suspended for lack of funds.
Regional lords exercised what power they could. Well established clans, such as the Takeda and the Imagawa, expanded their spheres of influence. And amid the absence of central authority, piracy grew. Japanese pirates plundered Korean and Chinese coastlines. As an armed group they asserted power within Japan. They were recognized as legitimate warriors and recognized as having the right to tax passing ships, making themselves economic parasites – as armed men elsewhere had in ancient times.
Peasants were eager to protect themselves from armies that passed through their lands, and to this end some of them organized, forming a common front and making it more difficult for landowners to maintain control over their lands. Recognizing the importance of unity to their strength, the militant peasants drove from their community anyone who did not cooperate. Wars between local lords and various other military chieftains from the middle of the 1400s through much of the 1500s, to be called by historians the "Warring States" (Sengoku) period. It is a name borrowed from China's history and is more appropriately called Japan's "Warring Warlords period." It was a period of chaos, rebellion and social fluidity to be portrayed with a focus on peasants and masterless samurai (ronin) in Akira Kurosawa's film, Seven Samurai.
These wars weakened Japan and most daimyo families. Numerous guns had arrived in Japan, said to have been introduced on various occasions and various places by pirates and armed merchants – from Southeast Asia rather than from three Portuguese sailors as has been claimed. Initially guns were gifts and used for hunting, but soon gunnery-masters spread gun technology through Japan.
Oda Nobunaga. Portrait by the Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A feudal lord, Oda Nobunaga (family name first), armed his soldiers with guns. He could afford guns in significant number, which helped him dominate other feudal lords. Oda Nobunaga, lord of the Nagoya castle, gradually gained control of the region around Kyoto and conquered that city in 1568.
Oda Nobunaga defeated a coalition of rival daimyo. And he defeated armies of Buddhist sects, slaughtering numerous Buddhists. Where he ruled he encouraged Christianity, seeing it as a counter force against Buddhism.
In 1573 he drove the last Ashikaga shogun out of Kyoto, and with the surrender of the last great Buddhist fortress-monastery in Osaka in 1580, he became master of all of central Japan. The Ashikaga Period of Japan's history had come to an end.
In 1582, at the age of 48, Oda Nobunaga was forced to commit suicide by one of his generals. Another general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, avenged Oda Nobunaga death, defeating the offending general in battle. In a conflict over the position vacated by Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, son of a foot-soldier/peasant, won against Oda Nobunaga's descendants.
Oda Nobunaga had been using the emperor as a mediator when fighting his enemies. Hideyoshi and the Imperial Family entered into a mutually beneficial relationship. In 1585, Emperor Ogimachi declared Toyotomi Hideyoshi imperial regent. In 1586, Emperor Ogimachi abdicated in favor of his 14-year-old grandson, Imperial Prince Katahito, who became the Emperor Go-Yozei. And Hideyoshi at this time was overpowering opposing lords and uniting Japan by military force.
Like China's emperor-conquerors, Hideyoshi, the real power in Japan, was inventing new rules for society – in the name of the emperor. Some Japanese had been taking to European dress, and Christianity in Japan had been growing. These foreign ways were not welcomed by all and not welcomed by Hideyoshi. In 1587 Hideyoshi prohibited Christianity and expelled Jesuit missionaries from Japan. In 1588 he won from all daimyo a pledge of allegiance to the emperor and to himself.
Hideyoshi aimed at disarming potential adversaries, and he launched what was known as the great "sword hunt." Also, in order to discourage uprisings, he wanted a distinct line between various social classes. Peasants, he proclaimed, were "strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms or other types of weapons." He followed this with a promise to melt down the weapons collected for building a great statue of the Buddha.
In 1591 he extended his rules, forbidding the hiring of masterless samurai: ronin. And he ruled against farmers settling down in towns and becoming merchants or craftsmen. Those born into a peasant family were to die as a peasant – unlike himself. If you were a samurai in the service of a particular daimyo lord, you were obliged to stay with that lord. The concept of "samurai of the land" (ji-zamurai), who tilled the soil when not at war, was at an end. Samurai were forbidden to do village work.
And Hideyoshi ruled that the wives and children of the daimyo were to reside in the capital city – Kyoto – in effect making them his hostages and pressuring daimyo cooperation. The daimyo lords would spend alternating years in the capital city with their families and in their fiefs – a system "alternate attendance" (sankin kotai).
Hideyoshi acquired a reputation among Japanese not only as a man of great power but a man of cruelty. It was rumored that he journeyed into the countryside and for practice with his musket he would shoot peasants in their fields.
By 1591, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had crushed the last resistance to his power. For historians, this was to mark the end of the Warring States Period. He then turned to conquest abroad. Drawing from his military successes he thought himself invincible. His appetite for conquest had become too enlarged and he foresaw himself as conquering the rest of the world, beginning with China by way of Korea, which he invaded in 1592. There Toyotomi Hideyoshi met with determined resistance from the Koreans and Chinese. His army became bogged down in a stalemate, and unable to deliver supplies it suffered from starvations. In 1593 he evacuated his troops but continued to dream of an expanded empire. He died in 1598 at the age of 62.
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