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Tokugawa Ieyasu versus Ishida Mitsunari: A Western army under Ishida awaits an Eastern army under Tokugawa on the high ground of a valley. With the favourable terrain, Ishida is confident he can attack Tokugawa on all sides and destroy him, but Ishida does not know that Tokugawa has received promises from some Western generals to defect. Will these promises to Tokugawa prove their value on the battlefield?
Like all warring-states’ periods of any regional history, the Sengoku period of nearly incessant warfare in Japan 1467-1603 eventually came to an end with a more stable, somewhat lasting dynasty consolidating its power. While the Siege of Osaka of 1615 was a massive, violent epilogue with potential to alter the outcome, the Battle of Sekigahara was the key battle towards the end of this period to decide which dynasty would hold such power.
Characteristics of Sengoku Period armies
The key factor in this battle was clearly Ishida’s inability to exert command and control over Western-allied daimyo, first with Shimazu’s refusal to attack when ordered to, then with the defection of Kobayakawa and others, not to mention Mori’s inaction. This is not surprising, given how the period was characterized by fluctuating alliances and an army structure lacking a formal rank structure:
On many occasions this nebulous organization, combined with the egos of the generals, nearly led to disaster; occasionally it did so, when the generals refused to follow the orders of a commanding general. For example, during the Sekigahara campaign, the Eastern Army (the Tokugawa faction) was attacking the Western stronghold of Gifu Castle. Two of the attacking generals, Ikeda Terumasa and Fukushima Masanori, argued over who would attack the castle first, and finally challenged each other to a duel over the issue. Fortunately cooler heads suggested that one should attack the front and the other attack the rear.
This highlights a problem the Japanese armies had during this period. No matter how well laid, plans were at the disposal of those with more interest in personal reputation and honour than overall outcome. (Bryant, 1995: 27).
I would argue that reputation, ego, and honour are not exactly exclusive to politics and war during Sengoku period Japan. For example, consider recent theories on the causes of World War I among European powers, particularly Russia’s insistence of upholding its reputation of defending Serbia, a fellow Slavic country, after its failure to do so in the 1908-1909 Balkan crisis, and writings such as Richard Ned Lebow’s Why Nations Fight. However, none of this explains why at Sekigahara all of these factors went against Ishida. While Tokugawa was in “undisputed command” of a “cohesive force of loyal vassals and allies,” his orders carried out “without hesitation,” Ishida led a “disjointed and quarrelsome . . . coalition of rival lords” (Bryant, 1995: 84).
Assessment of Ishida as a commander
For starters, Ishida was not a well-respected general. He gained influence in with Toyotomi Hideyoshi for his precision during the tea ceremony which Toyotomi placed so much emphasis on, and then proved his talents as an administrator (Bryant, 1995: 17). During the Korean campaign he had served “with no special distinction” and while “He had fought, and he could command troops . . . ultimately his gifts were not those of a strategist or tactician” (Bryant, 1995: 20). Referred to by some “as a civilian butting into military affairs,” he simply did not command the respect of other generals. In the case of Shimazu, this is likely the reason he did not engage Eastern forces when Ishida deemed appropriate (Davis, 1999: 207), and also because Ishida’s messenger apparently did not dismount before giving him Ishida’s messenge, insulting Shimazu (Bryant, 1995: 64).
In the case of Kobayakawa, the most significant defecting daimyo, his decision appears to be heavily based on an incident from 1597 when Kobayakawa commanded an army during the Korean campaign:
When the generals under [him] quarreled and thereby brought about the failure of the campaign, one of their number, Ishida Mitsunari, had denounced [Kobayakawa] as an incompetent, and the taiko had ordered the latter to resign and return home in disgrace. In Japan, [Tokugawa] had intervened on [Koboyakawa’s] behalf . . . It is safe to say that [Kobayakawa] never forgot the slight by [Ishida], and never forgot the favour he owed to [Tokugawa]. (Bryant, 1995: 23)
Kikkawa’s motivations for switching sides, thus preventing the Mori from attacking the Eastern army, are also based on a mix of personal slight and likely self-interest (Bryant, 1995: 38). Many historians would comment on how Ishida had enough forces on the side of Mount Nangu (about 25,000) to change the outcome even with the defections, but this ignores the fact that Tokugawa had enough forces in reserve (30,000 from his clan alone) to meet any attack from Mount Nangu. This battle is fairly unique in terms of the low proportions of forces actually committed to battle. Had Kobayakawa reneged on his promise to defect or planned it as a ruse, it is quite likely Ishida’s plan to destroy the Eastern army may have been successful, given his favourable terrain advantage. For a commander not respected for his military abilities, Ishida showed surprising prowess in his battle plan.
This period of Japanese military history is a great one in terms of tactics and strategy. I could animate an entire year’s worth of battles based solely on this period. If you would like to see more Japanese battles from the samurai era, please let me know.
This is not the only battle animation to feature a defection; check out the Battle of Ankara if you want to see another battle where a commander defected on the day of battle.
Numbers for both sides are based on the map in Bryant’s Osprey title on the battle (1995: 58-59). This book actually includes three different estimates of forces for each side on separate pages so I have used to most exact one that appears to reflect forces actually on the battlefield that day. I did not come across any casualty estimates for the Eastern Army so they are estimated very roughly by taking the proportion of casualties from other samurai battles such as Nagashino and applying that percentage to the total number of Tokugawa forces actually engaged in fighting.
– Jonathan Webb
Bryant, Anthony J. Sekigahara 1600: The Final Struggle for Power. Oxford: Osprey, 1995.
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Turnbull, Stephen. Battles of the Samurai. New York: Arms and Amour, 1987.
Map of Japan: http://www.edmaps.com/html/japan.html
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
Tokugawa Ieyasu: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Tokugawa_Ieyasu.jpg
If you enjoyed the Battle of Sekigahara 1600 battle animation, you may also enjoy these other battle animations:
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