In the West, we think of Japan as a single, unified country. But that’s a very recent development. In practice, it existed for hundreds of years as a series of loosely confederated territories ruled by local warlords. During the Muromachi period, the samurai managed to gain control and rule with some degree of unity. However, that unity soon fell apart, and Japan found itself embroiled in the Warring States Period (戦国時代; sengokujidai), a period of radical tumult and violence. (Anime fans who have watched shows like Inuyasha, Nobunaga The Fool and Brave10 should be familiar with this period.) To this day, sengoku jidai lingers in the Japanese language as a metaphor for a period of intense conflict.
One man eventually seized a key historical moment, unified the country, and quelled the bloodshed. His name was Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), and his victory ushered in a period of 264 years of peace, right up until the fall of the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. The bedrock of modern Japan rests upon Ieyasu’s accomplishments.
And yet, Ieyasu remains the Rodney Dangerfield of Japanese history. Despite his great accomplishments, he gets no respect. Why is Japan so sour on a figure who did so much for the country?
The Early Days of Tokugawa Ieyasu
Japan’s Warring States Period began around 1467 and lasted a grueling 150 years. Ieyasu was born into this mess in 1543 in the city of Okasaki in Aichi Prefecture. Born as Matsudaira Motoyasu, he was born the son of a minor daimyou (大名), one of the feudal rulers who controlled a specific region of Japan. Ieyasu’s young life was inauspicious; in fact, he spent most of it as a prisoner of the Ichigawa clan. At age 15 he had his coming of age ceremony (元服; genpuku); a year later, he was married, and a year after that, he was entrusted by Ichigawa Yoshimoto with his first battle.
Ichigawa Yoshimoto died three years later at the battle of Okehazama. In the ensuing years, rather than distance himself from Oda Nobunaga, his one-time enemy, Ieyasu and Nobunaga ended forming a powerful alliance that would last for over 20 years. In 1566, Ieyasu managed to earn a rank in the country’s Imperial Court. With this came an investiture, as well as a new surname: Tokugawa – the name by which history would forever remember him. Ieyasu continued to avail himself as a commander, losing only a single battle – the battle of Mikatagahara in 1572, at age 31, where he was defeated by Takeda Shingen. Legend has it that the famous painting of Ieyasu below was painted at his behest as a form of self-admonishment.
Ieyasu’s Post-Nobunaga Triumph
In 1582, the alliance between Oda and Ieyasu was ended by Oda’s death. One of Oda’s generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, turned against Oda and staged a rebellion at the Honnouji Temple. It was held that Oda took his own life, but many believe that Akechi murdered him or forced him into suicide.