The period of warring states or Sengoku created modern Japan


The period of warring states

The period of warring states or Sengoku began in the late 15th century and ended one hundred years later when Tokugawa Ieyasu put the entire country under his control. For many people it was a period full of hardships, but it was also a period of emancipation from the medieval bondages and a period of drastic social change involving economic growth.

The whole gamut of samurai kept the flag flying throughout the country by ordering about their foot soldiers, who were usually ravenous for food and ran riot wherever they went. Farmers got their field wasted and fled to the nearby mountains with only the barest necessities. Otherwise they were taken alive and peddled into slavery.

Merchants made a fortune by frequenting the battlefields to trade everything ranging from food to loot including people or by providing land and sea logistics services. Meanwhile, court nobles deprived of source of income drifted into the coutry counting on the powerful families, spreading the cultures of the capital city to local countries.

• Birth of big cities

image-castletown Samurai warlords stepped up building big cities or castle towns in their home bases. Around the castle in the center, stood side by side the retainers' residences and houses of samurai servants and soldiers. And the houses of various merchants and artisans encompassed the central area. Big cities drew a crowd, and markets were created. The protective policy for merchants such as tax benefits encouraged this trend.

Let's take the local castle town of Uesugi Kenshin, the Sengoku ruler of Echigo province, for example. Some record shows that Kasugayama-jo town had nine thousand houses and forty thousand people to become the biggest town at the time even from a world perspective. Japanese castle towns did not have defense fortifications as different from Western walled cities, giving room for expansion of scale. Many of Japan's big cities of today date back to the castle towns built in Sengoku.

Along with the birth of big cities, distribution routes were created inevitably to connect these cities. With the increasing traffic of people and products, information moved in and out. The network of goods and information began to work powerfully throughout the country.

• Evolving castles

image-azuchi-castleThe castle, built atop a 110-meter-high mountain beside Lake Biwa based on careful planning, had a splendid structure and glowing castle tower, showing off his prominent power. The sidehills and foot of the mountain were seats for well-defended homes for his generals, Buddhist temples, and a number of homes for commoners. People on a trip to the east and west, to the north and south, dropped by the town for sight-seeing and trade, making it the busiest town in Japan.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga's successor, developed his lord's idea, and built a real gorgeous, extended castle called Osaka-jo on the site of the Buddhist temple complex. Its imposing appearance as the symbol of power eclipsed even the majesty of the imperial court, making people think the end of Sengoku was near.

• Golden age of Japanese culture

Toward the end of the sixteenth century when the successive efforts of two powerful warlords, Oda Nobunaga, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, brought Japan under a single, unified authority, a splendid style of culture called Momoyama made a sudden appearance. Momoyama culture was marked by prodigious building and magnificent display. Castle complexes epitomized both the dynamic spirit of the age in their great size, ostensible splendor, and dominating presence. Interestingly enough, there also appeared sophisticated people who loved, of all others, the quality of brevity and impermanence called wabi-sabi.

The art of tea, an ultimate refinement of spiritual culture, spread among samurai and rich merchants, and Western culture and products fueled people's longing for foreign countries. One could argue that Momoyama culture marked the watershed between the medieval and early modern periods in Japan. Although the golden age of culture, sorry to say, pulled back under the austerity and close-door policy of the Tokugawa military government, Momoyama culture continued to lie beneath the cultural activities in later years.

Samurai's Sengoku

• Samurai and followers

image-samurai-warriors If for instance, there was one-hundred-soldier troop, the number of samurai on horseback would be ten, and the rest would be the following:

1. Samurai on foot called kasemono, wakato, or ashigaru. They fought with their masters on horseback. They were in the samurai rank having both family and personal names.

2. Genin (low rank soldier) called cyugen, komono, or arashiko. They led horses and carried spears for their masters, They usually had no family names, and supposedly did not need to fight.

3. Drafted commoners called jinbito or bumaru. They took care of logistics and all of chores.

Soldiers in the category 1 to 3 were generically called zohyo (common foot soldier), and it was those soldiers that actually fought the war and rampaged through the countries.

• Sonae or the structuring of military forces

Although sonae in Sengoku varied according to times and each warlords' personality, it began to converge into a standard type in the late Sengoku and early Edo periods. For details, visit this page for sonae which is the webmaster's English translation of the Wikipedia article written only in Japanese.

• Battles in the field

The following are typical examples showing changing styles of fighting.

1. In the period of rising samurai, they charged up each other and began shooting arrows at a distance of around one hundred meters. After passing through the opponent, they turned back and did the same until either of them accepted defeat and left the scene of battle. Unlike the descriptions found in old narrative literature, clean one-on-one fight was rare.

2. The surest way to win was to enclose the enemy with a larger troop and crush them.

3. With the increasing awareness of reward rather than honor, shooting of horses, not the rider, and close combat using spears and kogusoku* was on the rise. This was because samurai aimed to take back the heads of enemy he killed, hopefully those of commanders, as physical evidence of their performance.
*Close combat techniques of samurai with a dagger, knife, or short sword.

4. In Sengoku when thousands of troops engaged in war, after the exchange of arrows the forefront foot soldiers carrying spears made a charge at the enemy followed by samurai on foot and horseback. Many long spears as long as six meters were laid in lines and used to beat the enemy soldiers.

5. Matchlock guns came into use and gradually replaced the bows and arrows. Specific units like spear unit and bow unit were formed by drawing foot soldiers from their masters.

6. At the Battle of Sekigahara, the decisive and last big battle in Sengoku, a barrage of gunfire and arrows was followed by the rough-and-tumble fights between main foot soldier units with the samurai on foot and horseback mingled pell-mell.

• Road to unification

For the distribution of feudal domains in the early Sengoku, visit this page of Samurai Archives and click 'Sengoku Daimyo - Circa 1525'. The names on the map are the family names of samurai warlords.
Then, click 'The Unification of Japan 1560-1590'. The map shows the process of unification achieved by the three powerful warlords.

People's Sengoku


Wars were started not just to expand territories. They were also measures taken to feed the people in the dominion. In the medieval period, low farm productivity and continuing cold weather wore out people, forcing them to go to town for begging.

Wars gave them an opportunity to loot villages and kidnap people. Uesugi Kenshin launched a military campaign more than twenty times, and well over half of them he did it in winter and early spring through snow when his people had virtually nothing to eat.

Zohyo's Sengoku

• Rampaging zohyo

Samurai and samurai servants served their lords and received in return hereditary stipends, and even if they died, their stipends were taken over to their successors. On the other hand, ashigaru made up a majority of zohyo and performed the central role in the war, but they were hired men or mercenary. Their backgrounds were varied from volunteers, bandit members, bankrupt farmers, to rogues and robbers.

If their side wins, commander-sanctioned rampaging began. They wasted farmlands, rummaged out for food, plundered villagers' humble homes, and abducted men and women of all ages.

• Rowdy fellows' custom

Some zohyo switched masters easily, others served another master on the side. They would swagger about the streets dressed in flamboyant clothing, doing all the violent and rude things. But their free-wheeling way of life became so popular among not only commoners but respectable samurai that some masters issued a ban to enforce discipline.

Commoners' Sengoku

• Miserable lives during wartime

Besides fighting, zohyo's job included arson and looting and damaging farmland in the enemy territories. Farmers and people of various professions ran off into the nearby mountains, strongholds, or into the castle to survive. Some farmers deserted their ancestral villages forever.

Kidnaped people were traded at hastily-formed markets in the occupied land, and many of them were sold to overseas as slaves. Some samurai warlords busied themselves with war for the purpose of kidnapping to cover the increasing costs of war and gunpowder.

People were also afflicted by natural disasters such as cold weather of Little Ice Age, earthquake, flooding, mudslide, and drought, to name a few. To make matters worse, measles and smallpox hit them. The devastated people headed off to town searching for food, and joined troops to engage in plundering themselves. It was almost miracle that people survived in Sengoku.

• Die-hard commoners

'Anyone will do. We take sides with the larger force.' It was commoners' only strategy to stay alive. They gave money to the advancing enemy commanders to stave off plundering, or paid duties equally to the opposing forces wanting to conquer their farmland. It was the commoners' way of life, as it were, as opposed to the samurai's way of life which was only self-centered assumption in commoners' eyes.

Merchants' Sengoku

• Merchants in the field

According to the words of seasoned ashigaru, famine ruled in any battlefields. Wherever there were wars there were merchants who sold water, rice, weapons, and everything else at ridiculous prices. Arms traders played both sides of the fence to earn a bumper profit, while other merchants enjoyed recession-proof human trafficking. Traffickers profited handsomely too from buy-back business of abducted people.

• Wealthy merchants in town

With the rise of cities, free trade promotions, and growth of money trade, merchants and large landowners amassed money by selling the products at markets. Then they started moneylending with the saved money to become such wealthy merchants that even warlords bowed their heads.

• Political merchants

As the scale of war was getting larger, the military leaders needed a sizable sum of money for mobilizing a great army and civil engineering work laborers. Wealthy merchants such as those based in Hakata and Sakai provided fund to the warlords in exchange for special treatment for business dealings, moneylending, and foreign trade. it was those political merchants that supported the Sengoku warlords from behind and played the leading part in developing Momoyama culture.