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A History of Japan, 1134-1615

George Sansom

Stanford University Press, 1961; Pages: 442

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

This is the second book in Sansom's superb tour de force on Japanese history. It covers the period from Go-Daigo's Imperial restoration to the establishment of the Tokugawa state. It thus relates about 280 years of events, mostly betrayal, bloodshed, and not much else. The Age of Warring States has received relatively scant attention compared to the Heian, Kamakura, and Edo periods. Why Muromachi is neglected in Western historiography is not easy to understand and I don't profess to know the reason. Fortunately in this volume, we have an entire book on the period, and it is a treatment of highest quality. Despite his emphasis on political and economic developments, Sir George does dwell on social, artistic, and religious developments as well. Interestingly, this period is also a source of constant inspiration for postwar Japanese cinema and literature. Two of the epic novels by Yoshikawa Eiji deal with historical events set in the 16th and 17th century (Hideyoshi's life in TAIKO and Miyamoto Musashi's life in MUSASHI, set after the Battle of Sekigahara). There are many jidai-geki that deal with events from this period as well. This book is most definitely recommended. What follows is a short summary, mainly for my own consumption.

The Kemmu Restoration

In 1334 the Hojo Regency was destroyed, Kamakura fell, and with it came the end of the Bakufu that had ruled the country since the 12th century. The trouble had its roots in the dynastic succession dispute between the senior and junior lines descended from Go-Saga (who died in 1272). The Kamakura Bakufu had reluctantly interceded in the selection of emperors and had solved the problem by having the two lines alternate. However, in 1331 Go-Daigo (junior line) refused to submit to this and was determined to rule in truth, by which he provoked a crisis in the state. Go-Daigo was exiled but managed to return to the throne with the help of Ashikaga Takauji, who helped defeat the Hojo. This is known as the Kemmu Restoration (1334-36).

The triumph was short-lasting. The Emperor soon found out that the great struggle against the Bakufu had saddled him with few many claimants and few territories to redistribute or offices to dole out. As Sansom notes, Chikafusa's conclusion that the warfare following Go-Daigo's reign was due to the "claims of an unlimited number of persons on a limited amount of land" is an apt summary of the entire history of Japan (p. 30). The discontent grew and Ashikaga Takauji finally turned against the Emperor, who found himself a fugitive once again in 1336 when he was driven from Kyoto. However, under the talented leadership of Nitta and Kusunoki (especially the latter, whom the author exclusively praises for strategic and tactical genius), Takauji was pushed West. There the Ashikaga hit upon a plan to legitimize his struggle against the Emperor by getting a commission from the cloistered Emperor of the senior line Kogon-In. Takauji managed to gather strength in Kyushu and returned to fight the loyalists, with the decisive confrontation known as the Battle of Minatogawa (July 5, 1336), where he routed Nitta and Kusunoki.

The Ashikaga Bakufu (Muromachi Era)

Although the battle was decisive, the internecine civil war continued for the next 50 year unabated, mostly because the Southern Court ensconced in Yoshino since 1337 was relatively safe from direct attack and could muster sufficient resources to mount campaigns against the Bakufu using the strategic skill of Chikafusa and exploiting the weakness of the Ashikaga rule caused by internal dissent. During this time Kyoto changed hands several times, but the loyalists gradually lost ground and finally collapsed with the defeat of Prince Kanenaga in Kyushu at the hands of the poet general Imagawa Sadayo. This was from 1370 to 1383, during the rule of the third Ashikaga Shogun, Yoshimitsu.

The struggle ended with the Courts arriving at a compromise, but Go-Kameyama (Southern Court) was duped and forced to abdicate and return the Regalia. The civil war, ostensibly about the succession, had failed to resolve it. As Sansom observes, however, the true cause of the struggle was the redistribution of power: from the ruins of the old feudal state rose the new "order" that was to dominate Japan until the end of the 17th century (p. 119). Very good discussion of the new system (Ch. XI) that relates the rise of the trading economy based on monetary exchange (primarily copper coins imported from China and Korea). The beginnings of emancipation of peasants under the Ashikagas. Trade with Ming China. Despite the frequent wars, Sansom contends that the influence of warfare was beneficial to the country because it did not involve great destruction (such was the nature of medieval warfare, which especially preserved rice fields and forests and generally did not kill civilians) and it required the economic products of large numbers of people to maintain the numerous armies in their long campaigns. Also, the fragmentation of the manorial system resulted in ever diminishing personal holdings, which encouraged intensive cultivation, which replaced the predominantly extensive one.

The troubles of the Bakufu were not so much caused by incompetent and spendthrift government (of which there was an abundance, especially under Yoshimasa) but by the "inevitable" (in Sansom's styling) march of events in the 15th century. First, the Constable daimyos that were appointed by Takauji following precedent of Kamakura, gradually expanded their power, which initially consisted of policing their provinces but later included collecting taxes for the Bakufu. This was originally intended as an expedient measure, but was never abolished and eventually the Constables arrogated sufficient rights to challenge the Bakufu. Most importantly, this source of tax revenue dried up. Second, the emancipation of peasants, the creation of small landowners (ji-samurai or kokujin), and the natural calamities that combined with depredations by government officials, caused the first large-scale agrarian uprisings that became endemic during this century. The Bakufu was forced to issue many edicts (Acts of Grace, or tokusei) that were originally forms of amnesty in times of plague or famine, but later became instruments of financial policy. The tokusei thus undermined the credit system. The problem with the ikki (league) uprisings was that they were directed mostly against creditors and whenever they succeeded, they invariably injured the system of credit, which is necessary for trade. In addition, the arrogation of powers by the daimyo involved levying various taxes and fees, and especially the onerous barrier fees, which were harmful to travel and trade as well.

Thus, the reasons for the decline of the Ashikaga Bakufu were mostly connected to the fiscal insolvency of the government. The slipping grip on the daimyo simultaneously undermined the tax revenue of the center and encouraged resistance, often successful, against its attempts to levy more taxes.

The Onin War and the Age of Warring States

The Onin War (1467-77) arose out of quarrels between the families of Hosokawa and Yamana and was the bloodiest war of the middle ages, involving some 165,000 men and bitter fighting that devastated Kyoto. The victory of Hosokawa, although in the name of the Ashikaga Shogun, was the beginning of the complete breakdown of the Bakufu and the Shoguns following Yoshimasa were mere puppets (except Yoshihisa, who died for his efforts).

The civil wars that engulfed Japan in the 16th century were the result of the emergence of new social and economic classes, especially the local warriors, independent farmers, and rich traders. The seizure of power by former vassals led to the collapse of the great families and the emergence of about twenty powerful warlords who controlled one or more provinces.

Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu

The unification of the country began under Oda Nobunaga who started from his home province of Owari and managed to conquer (or draw to his side) the provinces of Mino, Mikawa (Tokugawa), Kai (Shingen, marriage), Sagami (Hojo), Omi (Asai, marriage), and Ise. Nobunaga entered Kyoto on November 9, 1568 and installed Yoshiaki as the 15th Ashikaga Shogun. Nobunaga then spent his time pacifying the provinces around Yamashiro and in 1573 deposed Yoshiaki, who was plotting against him (the wandering Shogun stirred much trouble later too). In 1575 Nobunaga defeated Takeda Katsuyori (Shingen's son) at Nagashino by skillful application of firepower against traditional attacks, which completed the subjugation of Echizen. Then, in 1580 he finally subdued Honganji, the seat of the militant Ikko sect and set out to pacify the Western provinces, where he sent Hideyoshi and Akechi Mitsuhide. In 1582, however, Akechi suddenly attacked and killed Nobunaga (Sansom gives no explanation why). Thus ended the first phase of unification. The author notes the bloodthirsty character of Nobunaga, especially his needless slaughter of monks, women, and children, which was in marked contrast with his two successors.

Having punished Akechi one week after learning of his treason, Hideyoshi set out to consolidate his power as Nobunaga's successor and with his victory at Shizugatake (against Shibata and Nobutaka) was undisputed master. He was involved in two great campaigns, both successful, which established his dominion over the entire country. First, in 1587 he subdued Shimazu and gained control over Kyushu; and second, in 1590 he reduced the fortress of Odawara (Hojo) and thus subdued the Northern provinces. Unlike his great success domestically, Hideyoshi's foreign adventures were disastrous, especially the ill-advised invasions of Korea 1592 and 1597. Two important political measures he undertook were the land survey, which took about 10 years to complete, and the Sword Hunt. The land survey tied the land tenant to the land and made his responsible for tax payments directly. This measure was bitterly resisted by peasants and landlords, who did not realize its benefits. The Sword Hunt furthered the social division between warriors and peasants by proscribing the latter from carrying weapons of any kind. In his later years Hideyoshi became erratic and murderous, very much unlike the patient and clever man he had used to be, probably owing to a mental illness. He died on September 18, 1598 after naming his son Hideyori to succeed him.

Of the three great generals only Tokugawa Ieyasu remained and he immediately set out to solidify his own power. The daimyo loyal to Hideyori eventually revolted against him, led by Uyesugi Kagekatsu and Ishida Mitsunari. The two armies met at Sekigahara in 1600 and fought one of the most important battles in Japanese history. Due to treachery in the Western Army, Ieyasu was victorious, destroying the main opposition. He confiscated the fiefs of some 90 families and redistributed them among his loyal supporters. He moved his capital to Yedo (Edo) and finally in 1614 captured Osaka, forcing Hideyori to commit suicide. This was the end of the house of Toyotomi and the beginning of the Tokugawa Bakufu, which was the last for the next 250 years.

June 30, 2001. BLS

    TITLE     = {A History of Japan, 1134-1615},
    AUTHOR    = {George Sansom},
    YEAR      = {1961},
    PUBLISHER = {Stanford University Press},
    ADDRESS   = {Stanford},
    ISBN      = {0-8047-0525},
    NOTE      = {Pp. 442, bibliography, index}