This book covers the Sengoku or Warring State’s period of Japanese history, a century and a half of near constant warfare, triggered by the collapse of the authority of the shogun and only ended by the victories of the three unifiers of Japan – Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Togugawa Ieyasu. In many ways this period is what we think of when we think of Samurai era Japan – a disunited country with rival daimyo fighting a series of endless and confusing wars, swapping alliances at the drop of a hat, all supported by a cast of samurai, ronin, courtiers, tea masters and even hints of ninja.
Turnbull has chosen to take a thematic approach to this large topic rather than attempt to track every one of the many small wars of the period. This generally works well, giving us an idea of the overall pattern of events without getting bogged down in what could have been a repetitive chronicle of battles of the period. Instead he focuses on the Hojo family, who for five generations fought to maintain and extend their power in the Kanto area of Honshu (now the location of Tokyo, but then a largely rural area so way to the east of the capital at Osaka). We trace the exploits of this family over five generations as its leaders took advantage of the chaos to create their own little kingdom before finally being swept away by Toyotimi Hideyoshi. Another section provides examples from different areas of Japan.
The approach changes when we reach the process of re-unification or fusion, where the main activities of the three great unifiers are covered in more detail. This does make sense, as their activities tend to form a more coherent whole (although we still only get something of an overview here).
One flaw with this book is that we don’t get any real details about the Onin War, the conflict that triggered the longer period of warfare. The two families who started it are mentioned in passing, but the background to war section spends more time looking at much earlier conflicts, the changing nature of Japanese armies etc than on the actual outbreak of war.
Overall this is an excellent account of this often confusing period, written by an acknowledged expert on the period. The thematic approach works well, and the brief interludes to look at individual careers or sub-topics help give a feel for the period.
Background to war - Loyalty to the shogun collapses
Warring sides - Rival samurai armies
Outbreak - The age of fission
The fighting - Samurai at war
Portrait of a soldier - Kata Kiyomasa (1562-1611)
The world around war – The end of the farmer-warrior
Portrait of a civilian – Sen Rikyu (1522-91)
How the war ended – The triumph of the Tokugawa
Conclusion and consequences – Japan closes its doors
Author: Stephen Turnbull