Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Rise to Power

portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu

On January 31, 1543, a boy was born to a daimyo family. He would be known as Tokugawa Ieyasu. His destiny would be to change Japan forever. As an elite member of the samurai class, this boy inherited a world of tradition within a feudal realm of samurai warriors who ruled by birthright and sword. The son of the daimyo lord, Ieyasu would soon have to give up children’s games for the politics of war.

Early Years

When Tokugawa Ieyasu was still a child, the daimyo ruled Ieyasu’s father to send the young boy to him as a hostage, insurance that all orders would be obeyed. When children were taken captive in this way, it did not mean that they were prisoners. This was all part of the political negotiation in which alliances had to be formed. As a hostage, the young samurai boy traveled in the style befitting his daimyo rank. He could not know his destiny, nor could he know that he would never see his father again. He would grow up a hostage, his life captive to the turmoil of the constant civil war that embroiled the Japanese nation during this era.

Training in Kendo

To endure the rigors of never-ending training, to remain clear-minded in the face of great danger, to face death matter-of-factly — this is the art of kendo, also known as the way of the sword. Master swordsman taught young samurai the skills of sword fighting, and the traditions of the samurai code of honor. This was the education the young Ieyasu would receive, even as a hostage. The entire life of Ieyasu was one of patience and forbearance. Tokugawa Ieyasu would learn what it meant to be a samurai.

There is timing in everything — timing in strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of practice. There is timing in the entire life of the warrior, in his thriving and declining, in his harmony and accord. These are the enduring principles which guided the life of the samurai warrior. For Tokugawa Ieyasu and his achievements, patient strategizing would become his most powerful weapon. He was now 18 and married with two children but he was still a hostage of the ruling daimyo warlord. As time passed, Ieyasu strengthened his skills as a warrior, fighting alongside his daimyo master. When his master was killed in battle Ieyasu was finally free to determine his own destiny.

A Return Home

Soon after he completed his training, Tokugawa Ieyasu was forced to decide whether to stay with the former daimyo’s family or to go back to his original castle and to regain all the territory of his father’s family. Ieyasu reclaimed his title as an independent lord, a daimyo. He returned to his family estate. He could now fight on his own terms, for his own people. The years of captivity had honed his discipline. He now carefully plotted his strategy.

In a crucial move, Tokugawa Ieyasu began reaching his achievements when he allied himself with the man who killed his Daimyo master, Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga had become the most powerful warlord in Japan, feared and ruthless. João Rodrigues documented Nobunaga’s campaign to unify Japan, saying ‘Nobunaga was the first to begin cutting through the thick forest of wars and discord in Japan. He subdued about half the country and fear of him made the remaining parts ready to obey him in anything.

Nobunga’s Battle Tactics & Downfall

Samurai wielding muskets

In the battle of Nagashino, Nobunaga armed 3,000 of his foot soldiers, three ranks deep. As 10,000 enemy warriors charged, Nobunaga’s musketeers fired in succession, decimating the opposing army. Nobunaga’s innovations in the use of firearms completely changed the face of samurai warfare. He continued to amass power until one night; treachery within his inner circle caught him off guard.

A missionary was nearby ‘We began to hear musket shots and see flares. We learned that it had not been a brawl, but that one of his generals had turned a traitor. Some say he cut his belly, while others believe that he set fire to the palace and perished in the flames. What we do know, however, is that of this man, who made everyone tremble, not only at the sound of his voice but even by the mention of his name, there did not remain even a small hair that was not reduced to dust and ashes.

As the flames burned, Nobunaga’s loyal general Toyotomi Hideyoshi seized the moment. Hideyoshi immediately sprung into action, killing the murderer of his own lord which then gave him the right, in essence, to claim leadership of Nobunaga’s vast coalition of armies. Tokugawa Ieyasu watched from a distance. Would he subordinate himself to Hideyoshi’s command or was it time to fight for control?

Ieyasu Versus Hideyoshi

After Nobunaga’s death, Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hideyoshi faced off in a measured game of strategy, each in his own way trying to outsmart the other. As a military leader, Ieyasu was a courageous man who never hesitated in battle, but he was also cautious. In one famous story, Ieyasu and his troops had to cross a very narrow bridge over a raging river. Everyone was watching to see how the great Ieyasu would ride his horse over this dangerous bridge. To his men’s surprise, Ieyasu dismounted, took the horse’s reins in his hands, and carefully led the horse over the bridge to the other side of the river. That’s how vigilant he was. This kind of caution helped him to become victorious in battle.

While Ieyasu practiced restraint and careful strategizing, Hideyoshi acted quickly and decisively. Hideyoshi was from peasant stock, the son of a lowly foot soldier. He worked his way up through the ranks. Hideyoshi became known as a brilliant general and held the same grand vision of himself.

In a letter he sent to Taiwan after the fall of the Korean capital of Seoul, he claimed ‘When my mother conceived me, she was given a miraculous omen. On the very night that I was born, the room was suddenly aglow with sunlight thus changing night to day. They finally divined that the child whose birth was attended by these miracles was destined to become a man of unusual attainments. This prediction is fulfilled in me.

The Final Challenge

Shortly after Hideyoshi took control, Tokugawa Ieyasu challenged him, but Ieyasu soon realized there was more to be gained as Hideyoshi’s ally then as his enemy. Hideyoshi rewarded Ieyasu for his loyalty with a vast domain of land and ordered him to make his headquarters in the remote fishing village of Edo, 300 miles east of Hideyoshi’s castle in Osaka. Some might have thought the gift an insult, but in Edo, the village that would later become Tokyo, Ieyasu busied his troops building a massive five-story castle fortification.

The Power of Osaka

top of osaka castle

Within the walls of the city of Osaka, Hideyoshi was consumed with fortifying his own castle. Reputed to be the most impregnable fortress of his time, it was also one of the most ostentatious. Osaka Castle had a strategic location, close to the emperor’s palace in nearby Kyoto.

For centuries the emperor had remained a ruler in name only, ignored by those who truly held power, like Tokugawa Ieyasu. He wiled away his days with court gossip, calligraphy, and poetry. By Ieyasu’s time, the court was still powerless, but it was only the court that could appoint the shogun. Because in a crucial symbolic sense the court was still the arbiter of final resort, all of the warlords aimed their might at conquering Kyoto. They had to get the emperor to recognize that they were the most powerful of all the combatants on the field of battle.

Hideyoshi curried the emperor’s favor, inviting him to plays and musical performances, but the emperor would not grant this warrior of peasant stock the title of shogun. Ieyasu also never relinquished his desire for power. He offered the emperor more than invitations. He arranged the marriage of one of his granddaughters to the emperor’s son. All the lords in Japan used family to cement political alliances.

Climbing the Political Ladder

Tokugawa Ieyasu was particularly effective in currying favor and building up himself due to his abundance of sons. He could use them to support his nascent government as independent military lords he could then call upon for help. In contrast, Ieyasu’s rival, Hideyoshi, failed to produce a male heir. He did adopt a nephew and groomed him as his successor, and at 60 years of age, Hideyoshi finally fathered a son of his own. He called him Hideyori, and he was the jewel of his life.

Hideyoshi’s thoughts now turned to the safety and survival of his young son. “I cannot describe the endless tedium, as if I were guarding an empty house when Hideyori is not here with me. I say again, strictly order that all be vigilant against fire. Each night have someone make the rounds of the room two or three times,” he says in his memoirs.

Hideyoshi’s Downfall

As Hideyoshi obsessed over his biological son, his adopted son, now an adult, was in peril. It’s clear that by the end of his life, Hideyoshi was acting more and more erratically. He became increasingly cruel if not sadistic; when he finally produced an heir of his own, he ordered this adult male who had been his heir to commit suicide. Hideyoshi then ordered his adopted son’s entire family to be put to death.

A missionary recounted “They were drawn along the street in carts, to the open view of the world. 31 ladies and gentlemen, with the two sons and one daughter of his adopted son, the oldest of whom was not more than five years old. All their bodies were thrown into a pit for which was built a little chapel with a tomb in it, with this inscription... ‘The Tomb of The Traitors’.”

Soon after, Hideyoshi’s health began to fail. He wrote his death poem “Ah… As the dew, I fall, as the dew, I vanish. Even Osaka fortress is a dream within a dream”. Hideyoshi then called Tokugawa Ieyasu and four of the most powerful daimyo to his deathbed. He appointed them legal protectors of his five year old son Hideyori, his heir and the future ruler of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu pledged to protect the boy with his own life; a pledge that would become very difficult to keep.

Plots Against Ieyasu

Tokugawa Ieyasu was always on guard. Those Daimyo who feared his growing power began to plot against him. Ieyasu’s territory now extended throughout most of Japan. He was determined to maintain his holdings and expand his base of power which led to one of Ieyasu’s nicknames as the ‘Old Badger’. It reflected his craftiness as well as his famed ability to wait, two traits that led to some of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s best achievements. In fact, he waited until after Hideyoshi’s death to consolidate his power and make his move to become the dominant military leader of Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Rise

Battle of Sekigahara

Ieyasu mobilized his troops and sent one division to Ōgaki castle where his enemies were gathering. When the battle began, women and children rushed to the safety of the castle, as Ieyasu sent a large force to lay siege to them, forcing them to fight day and night. One of the young girls at the castle later told her family of the terrifying experience. “Mothers, concubines, and daughters stayed in the tower and cast bullets. There was panic. A bullet struck my younger brother, killing him on the spot. It was a cruel sight, indeed it was. We felt as if we should die. There was nothing but fear and horror left.

As the battle wore on, heads of slain warriors were brought to the castle to be prepared for the ritual presentation to the victor. It was believed that even in death, the samurai should be viewed as a worthy opponent. Those people who were in the castle would wash the heads and put some cosmetics on the face of the dead corpses, because they were proof of having killed someone important. “All the decapitated heads were brought into the tower. We weren’t a bit afraid of the heads and used to sleep in the midst of the nasty smell of bloody heads.

Victorious Tokugawa Ieyasu

Victorious at Ogaki castle, Ieyasu’s troops now pursued the rebellious daimyo and their armies. They faced off in a narrow valley just west of the village of Sekigahara. This would be the battle that changed the course of Japanese history. Tokugawa Ieyasu set up his command post atop a hill overlooking the valley, waiting through the night for the rest of his armies to arrive. At dawn, Ieyasu’s attendant physician hastily noted in his journal, ‘Slight rain, dense fog in the mountain valley. Can’t see ninety yards. Barely made out enemy banners. On horseback, Lord Ieyasu made out their positions. Estimate distance at two and a half miles.

Tokugawa Ieyasu was outnumbered. With only 50,000 troops challenging his enemies’ 80,000, he waited for his son to arrive with reinforcements. But at eight in the morning, the fog suddenly lifted, and the two opposing armies found themselves within striking distance. Ieyasu could not wait any longer. Rallying his troops, it was said he set them forward with his famous battlecry “There are only two ways to come back from the battlefield, with the head of the enemy, or without your own.

Ieyasu watched as his troops faced what seemed insurmountable odds. Then suddenly, the tide turned. Several enemy daimyo and their armies, convinced of Ieyasu’s ultimate victory, defected and joined Ieyasu’s forces. By two in the afternoon, Ieyasu’s troops had defeated the rebellious army. Ieyasu’s victory at Sekigahara brought an end to the warring states and signaled a beginning of a new era.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Achievements

In recognition of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s achievements and power, the emperor rewarded him the title of shogun, the barbarian-subduing generalissimo. Tokugawa Ieyasu now had the authority to rule Japan in all military matters. He ruled unchallenged, but always there was the specter of Hideyoshi’s young son Hideyori growing up in Osaka castle. Tokugawa Ieyasu had sworn with his life to protect the boy, the boy who could someday lay claim to all Ieyasu had won.

Threats from the Past

As the young boy Hideyori approached manhood, a daimyo warned “Although he is Hideyoshi’s heir, Ieyasu would never let him rule Japan. Sooner or later some ambitious character will ferment a rebellion in his name, and even if Hideyori knows nothing about it, he will be blamed and forced to commit suicide to the grief of Hideyoshi’s ghost.

By the time Hideyori reached adulthood, Ieyasu could no longer ignore him. He was a threat simply because he existed. He was the legitimate heir of Hideyoshi. Ieyasu was supposed to be supporting him until he became an adult, but he posed an intrinsic threat to the legitimacy of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Ieyasu came to one conclusion; he could no longer honor his pledge to a dead ally to protect his son. Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to go into battle once more. The many samurai who still owed loyalty to Hideyoshi’s family gathered in Osaka castle, which was considered impenetrable, to prepare for Ieyasu’s arrival.

Battle in Osaka

osaka castle and moat

In the winter of 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu accused Hideyori of subversion and ordered his troops to advance against Osaka Castle. Hideyori’s supporters, nearly 100,000 men, held strong. Ieyasu retaliated with a devious plan; he sent a woman samurai to negotiate a truce with Hideyori’s mother. Ieyasu offered a safe haven for Hideyori’s garrison if he agreed not to mount further rebellion against Ieyasu’s rule in return. To prove his intentions, Ieyasu signed the pledge in blood. Hideyori’s mother convinced her son to accept the offer. Ieyasu’s ploy worked and the sacking of Osaka became one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s biggest achievements.

As soon as the fighting stopped, Ieyasu filled the deep motes of Osaka castle and ordered his troops to storm the castle. Thousands of defeated soldiers, women, and children, fled the castle compound. A European merchant recorded the event in his journal ‘We had news today that Ieyasu hath taken the fortress of Osaka and overthrown the forces of Hideyori. They say that the taking of this fortress hath cost above 100,000 lives and that no dead man of account is found with his head on, but all cut off.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s army set the castle on fire. As the flames raged around him, Hideyori refused to surrender and was left with no other option — he committed seppuku. It was a cold-blooded strategy, but Ieyasu wanted to establish a dynasty that would last through the ages. There is reason to believe that Ieyasu genuinely regretted having to kill the son of his former lord. Ieyasu is said to have paid penance by writing the name of the Buddha 10,000 times on scrolls of parchment.

The Future of Japan

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s achievements had wiped out the last threat to his power, or so it seemed. But not everyone was under his control. There were the western traders who he valued, but mistrusted and the Christians who he considered a threat. Tokugawa Ieyasu had won the wars within Japan, but his struggle to control the future had just begun.

At Swords of Northshire, we seek to honor the history of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his achievements. Through the creation of traditional Japanese weapons that he and his soldiers would have worn, we bring his legacy back to life. Join in the celebration of a great empire when you add a real samurai sword to your home.

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