The battle of Sekigahara, Chris Glenn

The battle of Sekigahara, Chris Glenn

The Greatest, Bloodiest, Most Decisive Samurai Battle Ever

The first thing to note about this book is that you do need to read the introduction. In most cases this is a couple of pages explaining the authors interest in the topic, but here it is actually the first chapter, looking at the careers of the first two of the three unifiers of Japan (Odo Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi) and plays an essential role in setting up what is to follow.

Once the introduction has set the scene, we move on to the start of Ieyasu’s bid for power, which eventually split the former Toyotomi forces into two competing sides – the Western and Eastern alliances. This part of the story took a couple of years, before Ieyasu’s objectives became clear and the sides prepared for battle. This part of the story soon makes it clear that any idea that the Samurai were motivated by loyalty isn’t terribly accurate – indeed throughout the book a fairly constant theme is the willingness of individual Samari lords to switch sides, to break their word (in one case murdering someone they had promised to protect in order to try and win favour with Ieyasu). This is demonstrated most clearly at Sekigahara itself, where the Tokugawa victory owed much to the treachery of several sizable Loyalist lords, who had already decided to change sides before the battle, refused to take part in the early part of the battle and then turned on their own allies at a key moment.

Most of the time it is clear who is on which side, but there are moments in the early phases of the battle in particular when that isn’t the case, with so many different Samurai contingents involved and some of the more minor ones getting into action first. The account of the battle is fascinating. At one point the author examines the various formations that were meant to be used in Samurai battles, but the impression one gets here is that none of them were of any relevance – instead of forming into the carefully organised lines of these battle formations, the various contingents each clustered around their lord’s flags and effectively operated independently. Ieyasu’s own contingent actually stayed out of the battle for some time, leaving his allies to take the brunt of the early fighting, with most appearing to follow their own inclinations more than any orders from above. The European battle it most reminds me of is the battle of Bosworth Field, another battle where the rebel (Henry Tudor) won after several powerful feudal lords switched sides, and where several of the major contigents fought their own battle without taking much notice of their official leader. Ieyasu’s most significant contribution appears to have come before the battle itself, where he was able to convince some of his enemies to change sides at the right moment, and the selection of the right moment to commit his powerful forces to the battle. 

The author does acknowledge that Tokugawa Ieyasu was actually the rebel in this conflict – indeed if he has stayed loyal to his former master’s family then Japan wouldn’t have needed a third unifier! Toyotomi Hideyoshi had actually completed the job that Odo Nobunaga had started, and the civil war that featured Sekigahara and the battles of Osaka only happened because Ieyasu betrayed Hideyoshi’s heirs in an attempt to seize power for himself. It is also worth pointing out that Sekigahara didn’t actually end the civil wars – it was the winter and summer sieges of Osaka some fifteen years later that finally eliminated any serious military opposition to the Tokugawa,

This is an excellent account of this crucial battle, from the introduction which sets up the world in which Ieyasu and his opponents operated, through the early stages of the wider war to the brutal battle itself and on to the almost as brutal aftermath. Between them Sekigahara and Osaka established the power of the Tokugawa, which would last for over two and a half centuries, so an understanding of how that came about is of great value.

1 – The Roads East and West
2 – The Flight from Ogaki
3 – The Battle
4 – Aftermath
5 – Epilogue: Shogun!

Author: Chris Glenn
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 248
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2021

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