Who Shall Be Shōgun?

By | November 22, 2019

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The Battle of Sekigahara. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Japan since its earliest recorded histories had been ruled by an emperor. However, starting in the late 12th century their powers were stripped with true ruling authority falling into the hands of a military dictator called a Shōgun.  This is short for Sei-i Taishōgun meaning “General of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians.” The Shogunate changed hands among various clans from the 12th century until 1467 when Japan entered a period of civil war known as the Sengoku or “Warring States” period.

The ruling Ashikaga Shogunate rapidly lost power as local lords, called daimyōs, each strove against each other in a ceaseless civil war. It took three legendary characters in Japanese history to unite the country and restore peace: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. But only one of these three would attain the ultimate prize and become Shōgun.

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A copy of a portrait of Oda Nobunaga painted by Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolò. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The first unifier, Oda Nobunaga, was born in 1534 the son of a fairly obscure daimyō near Nagoya. A successful warlord, Nobunaga came to dominate the Ashikaga shogun, turning him essentially into a figurehead. He used military force with divide and conquer tactics to subdue his enemies. He massacred thousands in his quest for power. A popular epigram attributed to Nobunaga sums up his personality. In answer to how the warlord would get a caged bird to sing. Nobunaga’s responded, “If the bird doesn’t sing, kill it.”