On October 21st, in the year 1600, the battle whose outcome would establish the hegemony of the Tokugawa Shogunate for the next 268 years was fought at a place called Sekigahara, Here, a river runs through a broad open area surrounded by hills, approached by narrow passes.
It was on this battlefield, then, that the Tokugawa clan would finally achieve absolute military dominance in Japan.
For many years before the battle, the reins of power were held by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. During his long career, as Imperial Regent and then Chancellor of the Realm, much power was held by the two most powerful clans, the Tokugawa and the Ishida. They had the job of keeping the peace and unity of the realm for the descendants of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
In 1598, he died. The rule was passed on to his infant son Hideyori, and the powerful Daimyo of the most powerful clans quickly moved to increase their influence and power.
Conflicts of Interest, Birth Of Alliances
Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Tokugawa Daimyo, quickly moved to dominate the council. He was the most powerful lord in Eastern Japan, and he held the loyalty of many other Eastern clans secure in his grip.
His most powerful challenger was the Western Ishida clan. The Ishida Daimyo declared that Tokugawa would seize power from the young regent. He declared his allegiance to the boy and to his birthright to rule. Many others allied with the Ishida Daimyo and backed him after this announcement. Ishida claimed that all he did was for the young son of the former ruler and the interest of the country.
Before the battle, Ishida had gathered an army of as many as 80,000 men, maybe even more. Many of them were well-known and respected warriors and renowned Daimyo of their clans.
Before the battle, Tokugawa’s Ieyasu’s army was around 74,000 strong. Tokugawa, too, was supported by notable families and clans. Several well-respected generals took his side, along with powerful Daimyo of the Kato, Kuroda, and Hosokawa clans.
The Inevitable Battle of Sekigahara
The months before the decisive battle of Sekigahara were marked by political and military maneuvers, during which the two alliances would try to outsmart each other. However, neither Ishida nor Ieyasu’s operations led to any outcome. The fight reached the point of escalation on 20th of October when Ishida decided to occupy the passage of Sekigahara, which was the main road Ieyasu could take to reach the capital cities. Ishida took the defense of Sekigahara and prepared to meet the advancing forces of the Eastern army. Little did he know that Ieyasu hoped for such moment, and already had planned his victory.
Unfortunately for the western army, the night before the battle, the weather was extremely unpleasant, and the conditions quickly deteriorated under the feet of the marching soldiers. As the warriors were fixing their camp, drying clothes and such in the thick mist that followed the rain, they had little to no idea the enemy was on their very doorstep. The fog limited their range of vision, and around the early morning hours, without warning, they found themselves in battle. Ieyasu’s army had launched their attack.
The sounds of firing muskets thundered across the valley. Ieyasu’s vanguard attacked the central defensive line of the Army of the West, pushing it with a fierce charge. The morning saw heavy losses for the defenders and the attackers. The eastern army managed to make some progress on the northern side of the battle. The southern side kept their position firmly, and it seemed like the victory could belong to Ishida and the Western Alliance, if only they could hold their ground.
At noon, the tides turned. Ishida had allies, who had not yet engaged in the battlefield, but they just stood and watched from their hill. He sent signals to them several times, to outflank the Tokugawa army, for this would help the defenders to prevail and possibly end the battle. But it was no good. Ieyasu had already made his move.
In secret, spies had entered the camp of Ishida’s allies. Ieyasu’s plan was to persuade them to convert to his side and abandon Ishida. At some point, they descended from their position and charged into the battlefield, but now the charged against their former allies. For some time, the commanders of the defensive forces held their ground, even though they were heavily outnumbered and pressed from all sides, but the defeat was now inevitable. They were captured or killed, one committed ritual suicide, some few managed to escape.
The End of the Battle of Sekigahara
With the southern line of defenders routed, the outcome was clear. Ishida’s men began dropping their weapons and fleeing the battlefield, and so did he. The last of the defending commanders, Shimazu, made some attempts to continue fighting for the cause. Eventually he, too, was overwhelmed, although he succeeded in holding up the forces of Ieyasu for a while. At the end, his head was taken and his men captured, routed, or killed. Ishida himself was caught by the Tokugawa army some days later after his final attempt to defend himself at the Battle of Mount Ibuki. Ishida and his remaining commanders were executed a few days after.
Even though he had won the decisive stroke, Ieyasu was furious at his son, who had arrived late to the battle. Ieyasu’s son Hidetada, after all, was to be his successor and that lateness was inexcusable! Ieyasu was persuaded to forgive Hidetada’s late arrival and the actions he had taken without his father’s permission.
The outcome of the battle strengthened established the Tokugawa clan as the rulers in Japan. Following the battle, a period of stability in the country lasted for the next two and half centuries. The hegemony of the Tokugawa clan was a remarkable period of peace and prosperity.
- Davis, Paul (1999). “Sekigahara, 21 October 1600”. 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford University Press.
- Bryant, Anthony (1995). Sekigahara 1600: The Final Struggle For Power. Osprey Campaign Series 40. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.