Japanese History/The Warring States Period

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The Sengoku period (戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai) or Warring States period in Japanese history was a time of social upheaval, political intrigue, and nearly constant military conflict that lasted roughly from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century. The name "Sengoku" was adopted by Japanese historians in reference to the Warring States period in Chinese history which preceded the unification of China. Likewise, the Sengoku period in Japan would eventually lead to the unification of political power under the Tokugawa shogunate. Although the Ashikaga shogunate had retained the structure of the Kamakura bakufu and instituted a warrior government based on the same social economic rights and obligations established by the Hōjō with the Jōei Code in 1232, it failed to win the loyalty of many daimyo, especially those whose domains were far from Kyoto. As trade with China grew, the economy developed, and the use of money became widespread as markets and commercial cities appeared. This, combined with developments in agriculture and small-scale trading, led to the desire for greater local autonomy throughout all levels of the social hierarchy. As early as the beginning of the 15th century, suffering and misery caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes and famines often served to trigger armed uprisings by farmers weary of debt and taxes. The Ōnin War (1467–1477), a conflict rooted in economic distress and brought on by a dispute over shogunal succession, is generally regarded as the onset of the Sengoku period. The "eastern" army of the Hosokawa family and its allies clashed with the "western" army of the Yamana, and fighting in and around Kyoto lasted for nearly 11 years, after which it spread to outlying provinces.



The upheaval resulted in the further weakening of central authority, and throughout Japan regional lords, or daimyo, rose to fill the vacuum. In the course of this power shift, well established clans such as the Takeda and the Imagawa, who had ruled under the authority of both the Kamakura and Muromachi bakufu, were able to expand their spheres of influence. There were many, however, whose positions eroded and were eventually usurped by more capable underlings. This phenomenon of social meritocracy, in which capable subordinates rejected the status quo and forcefully overthrew an emaciated aristocracy became known as gekokujō (下克上?), which literally means "the underling conquers the overlord." One of the earliest instances of this phenomenon was Hōjō Sōun, who rose from relatively humble origins and eventually seized power in Izu province in 1493. Building on the accomplishments of Sōun, the Late Hōjō clan remained a major power in the Kantō region until its subjugation by Toyotomi Hideyoshi late in the Sengoku period. Other notable examples include the supplanting of the Hosokawa clan by the Miyoshi, the Shiba clan by the Oda clan, and the Toki by the Saito. Well organized religious groups also gained political power at this time by uniting farmers in resistance and rebellion against the rule of the daimyo. The monks of the Buddhist True Pure Land sect formed numerous Ikkō-ikki, the most successful of which, in Kaga Province, remained independent for nearly 100 years.

Unification of JapanEdit

After nearly a century and a half of political instability and warfare, Japan was on the verge of unification by Oda Nobunaga, who had emerged from obscurity in the province of Owari (present-day Aichi Prefecture) to dominate central Japan, when in 1582 Nobunaga himself fell victim to the treachery of one of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. This in turn provided Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had risen through the ranks from ashigaru (footsoldier) to become one of Nobunaga's most trusted generals, with the opportunity to establish himself as Nobunaga's successor. Hideyoshi eventually consolidated his control over the remaining daimyo and, although he was ineligible for the title of Seii Taishogun because of his common birth, ruled as Kampaku. When, in 1598, Hideyoshi died without leaving a capable successor, the country was once again thrust into political turmoil, and this time it was Tokugawa Ieyasu who took advantage of the opportunity. This topic will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

Notable People of the Sengoku PeriodEdit