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The Sengoku period (Japanese: 戦国時代, Hepburn: Sengoku Jidai, lit. 'Warring States period') is the period in Japanese history in which civil wars and social upheavals took place almost continuously in the 15th and 16th centuries. Though the Ōnin War (1467) is generally chosen as the Sengoku period's start date, there are many competing historiographies for its end date, ranging from 1568, the date of Oda Nobunaga's march on Kyoto, to the suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638, deep into what is traditionally considered the Edo period. Regardless of the dates chosen, the Sengoku period overlaps substantially with the Muromachi period (1336–1573).
The Sengoku period was initiated by the Ōnin War in 1467 which collapsed the feudal system of Japan under the Ashikaga shogunate. Various samurai warlords and clans fought for control of Japan in the power vacuum, while the Ikkō-ikki emerged to fight against samurai rule. The arrival of Europeans in 1543 introduced the arquebus into Japanese warfare. Japan ended its mission to Ming China in 1547, which had been carried out 19 times since 1401 due to the need for trade. Oda Nobunaga dissolved the Ashikaga shogunate in 1573 and launched a war of political unification by force, including the Ishiyama Hongan-ji War, until his death in the Honnō-ji Incident in 1582. Nobunaga's successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed his campaign to unify Japan and consolidated his rule with numerous influential reforms. Hideyoshi launched the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592, but their eventual failure damaged his prestige before his death in 1598. Tokugawa Ieyasu displaced Hideyoshi's young son and successor Toyotomi Hideyori at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and re-established the feudal system under the Tokugawa shogunate.
The Sengoku period was named by Japanese historians after the similar but otherwise unrelated Warring States period of China. Modern Japan recognizes Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu as the three "Great Unifiers" for their restoration of central government in the country.
During this period, although the Emperor of Japan was officially the ruler of his nation and every lord swore loyalty to him, he was largely a marginalized, ceremonial, and religious figure who delegated power to the shōgun, a noble who was roughly equivalent to a general. In the years preceding this era, the shogunate gradually lost influence and control over the daimyōs (local lords). Although the Ashikaga shogunate had retained the structure of the Kamakura shogunate and instituted a warrior government based on the same socio-economic rights and obligations established by the Hōjō with the Jōei Code in 1232,[clarification needed] it failed to win the loyalty of many daimyō, especially those whose domains were far from the capital, Kyoto. Many of these lords began to fight with each other for control over land and influence over the shogunate. As trade with Ming China grew, the economy developed, and the use of money became widespread as markets and commercial cities appeared. Combined with developments in agriculture and small-scale trading, this led to the desire for greater local autonomy throughout all levels of the social hierarchy. As early as the beginning of the 15th century, the suffering caused by earthquakes and famines often served to trigger armed uprisings by farmers weary of debt and taxes.
Historians most often consider the Ōnin War (1467–1477), a ten-year conflict wrought by political turmoil, to be the trigger for what would come to be known as the Sengoku period. This civil war would clearly exemplify the Ashikaga Shogunate’s waned authority over its shogunal administration, the provincial daimyo and Japan as a whole; thereby a wave of unbridled conflict would spread across Japan and consume the states in an age of war. It is suggested by both scholars and authors that “these succession disputes still might not have led to war were it not for the shōgun’s lack of leadership.”
The Ōnin War, which devastated two-thirds of Kyoto, was an event that rippled disarray across Japan. In addition to the military confrontations between separate states, there was also domestic fallout. In contempt of the shogunate, the daimyo who were subjected to remain in Kyoto instead returned to their provinces. Consequentially, some of these daimyo found that their designated retainers or shugodai, representatives of their states appointed in a daimyo’s absence, rose in power either to seize control of the domain or proclaim independence as a separate domain.
Furthermore, weariness of war, socioeconomic unrest and poor aristocratical treatment invoked the wrath of the peasant class. Farmers, craftsmen, merchants and even villages would organize uprisings (known as “ikki”) against the ruling class. An extraordinary example of this can be observed in the Kaga Rebellion, in which the local ikki had staged a large-scale revolt with the support of the True Pure Land sect (thereby establishing the term ikkō ikki) and assumed control of the entire province of Kaga.
The period culminated with a series of three warlords – Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu – who gradually unified Japan. After Tokugawa Ieyasu's final victory at the siege of Osaka in 1615, Japan settled down into over 200 years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate.
The Ōnin War in 1467 is usually considered the starting point of the Sengoku period. There are several events which could be considered the end of it: Nobunaga's entry to Kyoto (1568) or abolition of the Muromachi shogunate (1573) or entry into Azuchi Castle (1576), Hideyoshi's promulgation of the Sōbujirei (ja) law prohibiting war (1587), the siege of Odawara (1590), the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603), the siege of Osaka (1615), or the suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion (1638).
|1467||Beginning of Ōnin War|
|1477||End of Ōnin War. The effective independence of the Iga ikki is noted|
|1485||The Yamashiro uprising results in the formation of the Yamashiro ikki|
|1487||Battle of Magari: Rokkaku Takayori, assisted by ninjas from the Iga and Kōka ikkis, defeats Ashikaga Yoshihisa|
|1488||The Kaga Rebellion establishes the Kaga ikki|
|1493||Hosokawa Masamoto succeeds in the Coup of Meio|
|Hōjō Sōun seizes Izu Province|
|The Ashikaga shogunate destroys the Yamashiro ikki|
|1507||Beginning of the Ryo Hosokawa War (the succession dispute in the Hosokawa family)|
|1520||Hosokawa Takakuni defeats Hosokawa Sumimoto|
|1523||China suspends all trade relations with Japan due to the conflict|
|1531||Hosokawa Harumoto defeats Hosokawa Takakuni|
|1535||Battle of Idano The forces of the Matsudaira defeat the rebel Masatoyo|
|1543||The Portuguese land on Tanegashima, becoming the first Europeans to arrive in Japan, and introduce the arquebus into Japanese warfare|
|1546||Siege of Kawagoe Castle: Hojo Ujiyasu defeats the Uesugi clan and becomes ruler of the Kanto Region|
|1549||Miyoshi Nagayoshi betrays Hosokawa Harumoto|
|Japan officially ends its recognition of China's regional hegemony and cancels any further tribute missions|
|1551||Tainei-ji incident: Sue Harukata betrays Ōuchi Yoshitaka, taking control of western Honshu|
|1554||The tripartite pact among Takeda, Hōjō and Imagawa is signed|
|1555||Battle of Itsukushima: Mōri Motonari defeats Sue Harukata and goes on to supplant the Ōuchi as the foremost daimyo of western Honshu|
|1560||Battle of Okehazama: The outnumbered Oda Nobunaga defeats and kills Imagawa Yoshimoto in a surprise attack|
|1561||Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima: The legendary battle between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin|
|Portuguese vessels bombard Moji at the request of Otomo Sorin, who fails to take it in a siege.|
|1562||Omura Sumitada converted to Christianity, becoming the first Japanese lord to do so.|
|1565||Portuguese and Japanese vessels belonging to the Matsura clan clash at the Battle of Fukuda Bay.|
|1568||Oda Nobunaga marches toward Kyoto forcing Matsunaga Danjo Hisahide to relinquish control of the city|
|1570||Battle of Anegawa and the beginning of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji War|
|1571||Nagasaki is established as a trade port for Portuguese merchants, with authorization of daimyo Ōmura Sumitada|
|1573||The end of the Ashikaga shogunate|
|1574||The Rokkaku clan and Kōka ikki surrender to Oda Nobunaga|
|1575||Battle of Nagashino: Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu decisively defeat the Takeda clan cavalry with innovative arquebus tactics|
|1577||Battle of Tedorigawa: The epic battle between Uesugi Kenshin against Oda Nobunaga|
|1578||The Imperial court makes Oda Nobunaga Grand Minister of State (Daijo daijin)|
|1580||End of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji War. Oda Nobunaga unifies central Japan under his rule|
|1581||The Tenshō Iga War ends with the destruction of the Iga ikki.|
|1582||Akechi Mitsuhide assassinates Oda Nobunaga in the Honnō-ji Incident; Hashiba Hideyoshi defeats Akechi at the Battle of Yamazaki|
|1583||Chosokabe Motochika extends his power to all of Shikoku island|
|1584||Shimazu Yoshihisa succeeds in controlling the entire Kyushu region|
|1585||Hashiba Hideyoshi is granted the title of Kampaku, establishing his predominant authority; he is granted the surname Toyotomi a year after.|
|1587||Toyotomi Hideyoshi announces the first anti-Christian edict.|
|1590||Siege of Odawara: Toyotomi Hideyoshi defeats the Hōjō clan, unifying Japan under his rule|
|1592||First invasion of Korea|
|1597||Second invasion of Korea|
|1598||Toyotomi Hideyoshi dies|
|1600||Battle of Sekigahara: The Eastern Army under Tokugawa Ieyasu defeats the Western Army of Toyotomi loyalists|
|1603||Tokugawa Ieyasu unifies all of Japan under his rule and establishes the Tokugawa shogunate|
|1614||Catholicism is officially banned and all missionaries are ordered to leave the country|
|1615||Siege of Osaka: The last of the Toyotomi opposition to the Tokugawa shogunate is stamped out|
The upheaval resulted in the further weakening of central authority, and throughout Japan, regional lords, called daimyōs, 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 emancipated aristocracy, became known as gekokujō (下克上), which means "low conquers high".
One of the earliest instances of this 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 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 Toki by the Saitō, and the Shiba clan by the Oda clan, which was in turn replaced by its underling, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a son of a peasant with no family name.
Well-organized religious groups also gained political power at this time by uniting farmers in resistance and rebellion against the rule of the daimyōs. 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.
After nearly a century 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. In 1582, while in Kyoto at the temple of Honnō-ji, Oda Nobunaga committed seppuku during an invasion of the temple led by one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, in order to assassinate Oda. This allowed Toyotomi Hideyoshi the opportunity to establish himself as Oda's successor after rising through the ranks from ashigaru (footsoldier) to become one of Oda's most trusted generals. Toyotomi eventually consolidated his control over the remaining daimyōs but ruled as Kampaku (Imperial Regent) as his common birth excluded him from the title of Sei-i Taishōgun. During his short reign as Kampaku, Toyotomi attempted two invasions of Korea. The first attempt, spanning from 1592 to 1596, was initially successful but suffered setbacks from the Joseon Navy and ended in a stalemate. The second attempt began in 1597 but was less successful as the Koreans, especially their navy, led by Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, were prepared from their first encounter. In 1598, Toyotomi called for retreat from Korea prior to his death.
On his deathbed, Toyotomi appointed a group of the most powerful lords in Japan—Tokugawa, Maeda Toshiie, Ukita Hideie, Uesugi Kagekatsu, and Mōri Terumoto—to govern as the Council of Five Regents until his infant son, Hideyori, came of age. An uneasy peace lasted until the death of Maeda in 1599. Thereafter a number of high-ranking figures, notably Ishida Mitsunari, accused Tokugawa of disloyalty to the Toyotomi regime.
This precipitated a crisis that led to the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, during which Tokugawa and his allies, defeated the anti-Tokugawa forces. Generally regarded as the last major conflict of the Sengoku period, Tokugawa's victory at Sekigahara made him the leading foce inside the Toyotomi regime, the last remnants of which were finally destroyed in the siege of Osaka in 1615.
Three unifiers of Japan
- List of daimyōs from the Sengoku period
- List of Japanese battles
- Horses in East Asian warfare
- Warring States period – a similar period in Chinese history
- Crisis of the Third Century – a similar period in Roman history
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- Warring-States Japan Battle Dataset – 2,889 battles occurring within Japan during the Sengoku period
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