Warring States Japan
Feudal Japan
Ashikaga Shogunate
Kamakura Shogunate

Japan Glossary
Daimyo


   The Ashikaga Shogunate(1338-1567) was never an extremely powerful shogunate as the Kamakura Shogunate(11-1336) had been. Neither the shogun nore the emperor had enough power to restrict or control the feudal houses (daimyo), which by 1467 had grown to almost 260 in number. So, for all practical purposes, Japan by 1467 was in fact 260 separate countries, for each daimyo was independent and maintained separate armies. The political and territorial picture in Japan, then, was highly volatile. With no powerful central administration to adjudicate disputes, individual daimyo were frequently in armed conflict with other daimyo all through the Ashikaga period.


Onin War   With the Onin War (1467-1477), this volatile situation exploded, and within a few years after the start of this war, practically every province in Japan was wracked by warfare, thus beginning what the Japanese call "sengoku jidai," meaning "the age of the country at war," or Warring States Japan. This period was a long protracted struggle for domination by individual daimyo and would result in a powerful struggle between various houses to dominate the whole of Japan. What would emerge from this struggle are three individuals who would become the three great heroes of Japan—Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu—who in the latter part of the sixteenth century devoted their martial energies to the unification of Japan under a single powerful house.

   The Onin War was initially nothing more than a conflict between the two most powerful daimyo families, the Hosokawa and the Yamana. Although these two families managed to keep their conflict below the level of open warfare, and largely occupied themselves in succession disputes of other warlords. In fact, a large part of the civil wars fought during the Ashikaga shogunate involved neighboring warlords choosing up sides whenever a succession to a warlordship was in dispute. However, in 1464 the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, resigned the shogunate because it interfered with the pleasures he wanted to pursue. Both the shogun Yoshimasa and Hosokawa wished for Yoshimasa's younger brother to become shogun, but Yoshimasa's wife, Tomi-ko, and Yamana wished for the shogunate to pass to Yoshimasa's son, Yoshihisa.

   Meanwhile, Hosokawa was busy interfering in the conflict raging between two members of the Hatakeyama family over who would be Kanrei, and Yamana asked the shogun for permission to "chastise" Hosokawa. The shogun turned him down, but Hosokawa took Yoshimi, the shogunate succession candidate he favored, and brought him to the shogunate headquarters and fortified the buildings. It looked increasingly like war would break out right in the shogun's capital, and the Yoshimasa realized that if such a war broke out, the entire country would plunge into war because the shogun, occupied with a war in his own capital, would be seen as powerless to control regional conflicts.

   Fighting finally did break out in May of 1467 in the streets of Kyoto itself; the fighting slowly burned down and destroyed the city so that by the end of 1467 much of the city had been devestated and the civil war was largely being fought in trenches dug out of the rubble of Kyoto. In late September, Yamana was joined by the powerful warlord, Ouchi Masahiro, and the fighting turned into carnage. Still, by the end of 1467 there was no clear winner, and the two sides settled in for a protracted political and military fight. In a twist of fate or betrayal, Yoshimi, who was supported by Hosokawa, switched allegiances to Yamana (who supported his rival, Yoshihisa). The shogun declared Yoshimi to be a rebel and the Onin War then became a clash between the shogun (supported by Hosokawa) and the shogun's brother (supported by Yamana). But fate intervened yet again, and in 1473 both Hosokawa (who was forty-three years old) and Yamana (who was seventy years old) died, and the conflict slowly lost steam as the various daimyo factions submitted to the shogun Yoshimasa. In 1477, Ouchi Masahiro also submitted to Yoshimasa and went home with his troops. The conflict had produced thousands of dead; in Ouchi's raid on Hosokawa, fortified in the Shokokuji monastery, in 1467, it was reported that Ouchi collected over eight cartloads of severed enemy heads. The conflict also left the imperial city of Kyoto in ashes.

   After the Onin War, the Ashikaga bakufu completely fell apart; for all practical purposes, the Hosokawa family was in charge and the Ashikaga shoguns becamse their puppets. When Yoshimi's son Yoshitane was made shogun in 1490, the Hosokawa Kanrei soon put him to flight in 1493 and declared another Ashikaga, Yoshizumi, to be shogun. In 1499, Yoshitane arrived at Yamaguchi, the capital of the Ouchi, and this powerful family threw its military support behind Yoshitane. In 1507, the Kanrei Hosokawa Matsumoto was assassinated and in 1508, Yoshizumi left Kyoto and the Ouchi restored the shogunate to Yoshitane. Thence began a series of strange conflicts over control of the puppet government of the shogunate. After the death of Hosokawa Matsumoto, his adopted sons Takakuni and Sumimoto began to fight over the succession to the Kanrei, but Sumimoto himself was a puppet of one of his vassals. This would characterize the wars following the Onin War; these wars were more about control over puppet governments than they were about high ideals or simply greed for territory.

   The Hosokawa family would control the shogunate until 1558 when they were betrayed by a vassal family. The powerful Ouchi were also destroyed by a vassal in 1551; by the end of the Warring States period only a dozen or so warlord families still remained standing. But the most important development to come out of the Onin War was the ceaseless civil war that ignited outside the capital city. Hosokawa tried to foment civil strife in the Ouchi domains, for instance, and this civil strife would eventually force Ouchi to submit and leave. From the close of the Onin War, this type of civil strife, either vassals striving to conquer their daimyo or succession disputes drawing in outside daimyo , was endemic all throughout Japan. So the Warring States period (which is the Chinese term borrowed by the Japanese in calling this period "sengoku jidai"), really wasn't a "warring states" period at all, but a "warring warlords" period.

   The cost for the individual daimyo was tremendous, and a century of conflict would so weaken the bulk of Japanese warlords, that the three great figures of Japanese unification, beginning with Oda Nobunaga, would find it easier to militarily assert a single, unified military government.


Oda Nobunaga

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1993, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-31-97