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  • James Houser

January 25, 1573: The Battle of Mikatagahara

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

January 25, 1573. It is Japan’s Age of War – the age of the great samurai warlords, the Sengoku. Two great samurai warlords clash on a snowy field called Mikatagahara. One will learn the limits of new technology; the other will learn that success is fleeting. But only one will go on to rule Japan.

In the 1500s, Japan had an Emperor. This Emperor had almost no power; all the power in the land wass in the hands of the great samurai families. The greatest of them were known as the “Sengoku.” There used to be a great warlord who ruled in the Emperor’s name, known as the Shogun. Lately, though, even the Shogun himself has lost all power over the warlords. In 1568, the reigning Shogun was overthrown and replaced by a puppet. A puppet, of course, has a puppetmaster.

The puppetmaster was Oda Nobunaga – the brilliant and ruthless leader of the Oda clan. Nobunaga dominated south-central Japan and was well on his way to unifying the realm. Besides his prowess in battle, he benefited from the division amongst his enemies and a handful of excellent subordinates.

Very simple map via Wiki. We aren't all up on our Japanese geography. (I know I'm not.)

One of these subordinates was the clever and calculating Tokugawa Ieyasu. Even though this was an age where backstabbing is the norm, Oda inspired ferocious loyalty, and Tokugawa was as loyal as anyone.

Two other great warlords had vied for control of north-central Japan for the last couple of decades. Takeda Shingen, the “Tiger”, was aggressive and mighty; his well-trained shock cavalry were the best in all of Japan. His opponent, Uesugi Kenshin, was famed both for his honor and for his economic and strategic sense. Uesugi may (MAY) have been a woman. But that’s neither here nor there.

See, everyone hates the frontrunner. Nobunaga, having the Emperor and Shogun in his pocket, was the most powerful Sengoku in Japan, and at this time only Uesugi or Takeda had the necessary strength to challenge him. They had been preoccupied with each other so much that neither had the ability to just turn south and confront Oda Nobunaga.

In 1572, however, Takeda had a plan. He secured his flanks with alliances and waited for winter. As soon as the mountain passes between his and Uesugi’s territories were filled with snow, he struck. Takeda moved south with 30,000 men to engage the Oda alliance. By January 1573 he was rampaging through Tokugawa and Oda territories. Nobunaga was tied down fighting the Ikko-Ikki monks in the west, so he sent Tokugawa Ieyasu to confront his new foe.

Tokugawa only had about 8,000 men, but war had changed in Japan. Tokugawa’s men were armed with matchlock muskets. Though gunpowder weapons had originally been bought from the Portuguese, many Japanese warlords had begun to produce them on their own, and no one had made better use of the musket than Oda Nobunaga and his allies. The use of gunpowder was one of Oda Nobunaga’s hallmarks on the battlefield, and it had given him a distinct advantage in every battle.

Tokugawa leads his army to Mikatagahara. From Stephen Turnbull "Tokugawa Ieyasu," illustrated by Giuseppe Rava.

On January 25, 1573, Tokugawa and Takeda confronted each other at Mikatagahara. The heavy musket fire blasted through the Takeda ranks, but their warlord was ready for the new weapon. He sent his horsemen around the flanks, crashing in amongst the gunners, forcing the defenseless men to break. The slow reload time of the muskets and the open terrain of the battlefield prevented the musketeers from dealing with the heavy cavalry of their opponents. Tokugawa’s army was shattered. Tokugawa’s samurai charged into the cavalry to allow their leader to escape to safety.

Japanese tripytch (ukiyo-e) of the Battle of Mikatagahara.

It looked like Tokugawa was finished. When he retreated to his nearby castle, he had only five men – five – of his original army still remaining. Nevertheless, he rallied what he could from the castle’s garrison and moved out that same night. Under cover of darkness, he ambushed and attacked the advance guard of Takeda’s army with his tiny band.

Takeda was puzzled, and concerned. Even after this great victory, he kept looking back over his shoulder, fearing what his old foe Uesugi Kenshin might be doing back on their border, and worried about what lay ahead. Tokugawa’s pinprick attack made it seem like more resistance could be waiting. Could Tokugawa have allied with Uesugi? Takeda Shingen lost his nerve. Withdrawing his army north, he vowed to try next year. Next time.

There would be no next time. A few days later, Takeda Shingen would be dead, killed during a siege. His son Katsuyori came south two years later in 1575, and his cavalry would be blasted to pieces by Oda Nobunaga’s musketeers at the Battle of Nagashino. Oda Nobunaga would continue his bloody, ruthless rise. The last man who could have stopped him was dead, and the unification of Japan was on the horizon.

Over thirty years later, the title of Shogun would come to Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that would rule Japan for 200 years. The man who almost lost everything at Mikatagahara had shown one quality above all – the ability to survive. That, it seemed, was enough.

No really good one-volume work on the Sengoku Wars/samurai in Japan, I'm afraid! Any of the works of Stephen Turnbull should be your first stop, though. I referenced Turnbull's Command #24: Tokugawa Ieyasu (London: Osprey Publishing, 2012), which is part of the excellent Osprey military history line.

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