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  • James Houser

June 28, 1575 - The Battle of Nagashino

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 28, 1575. A great army of knights approach the line on the hill, where they are about to gain a harsh introduction to the modern world. A line of peasants wielding muskets is assembled behind the barricade to stop them. The two armies are Japanese, the place is Nagashino, their leaders are samurai, and the crux of Japanese history – and the fate of the Shogun – is here.

The siege and battle of Nagashino are one of the critical events in the history of the samurai. It was a turning point in the long struggle for power that had begun with the collapse of the Ashikaga Shogunate in the 1460s, and would end with Japan reunified under the Tokugawa clan and sliding into its long isolation from the 1610s until Commodore Perry arrived in Tokyo harbor. First, though, it is worth asking…how did we get here?

For most of the Medieval age Japan had been ruled by a succession of dynasties of Shoguns, military dictators who exercised authority on behalf of a figurehead Emperor. The fortunes of the Shoguns suffered many a rise and fall, dynastic upheavals and changes in the balance of power. By the 1460s, though, the power of the reigning Ashikaga Shogunate was crumbling. With the outbreak of the Onin War in 1467, most of Japan’s capital of Kyoto was destroyed and the Shogun’s authority slipped into chronic eclipse.

Whenever central authority falls apart in a country, local authority comes to dominate, and that is what happened in Japan when the Shogun lost his grip on the country. The samurai warlords that had ruled the various provinces of Japan in the name of the Shogun realized that, since the central power had failed, nothing stopped them from using force and violence to expand their territory and achieve their ends. Over the next few decades, Japan disintegrated into a number of petty kingdoms ruled by men who history has referred to as “daimyo,” (literally “great names”) who began their interminable series of wars. Some were old families, some were ambitious upstarts; some seized power by murder, some by intrigue, and some by military might. Some sought to hold onto one province with all their might, others sought to take it all.

This turbulent and violent period of Japanese history is known as the “Sengoku-jidai,” or “Warring States Period.” All the classic images of feudal Japan – samurai in big armor, katanas, ninjas, geishas, what have you – stem from this colorful and violent period, full of characters, love affairs, and brutal struggles for power.

As the Sengoku-jidai continued it was inevitable that smaller daimyo would be absorbed by bigger ones, until by 1560 Japan consisted of a few powerful clans that constantly shifted alliances with and against each other. In the middle of all these clans stood the Shogun, who had virtually no power on his own but was enormously powerful as a symbol. Whoever controlled the Shogun controlled Japan.

In 1560, a daimyo named Imagawa Yoshimoto decided to march on Kyoto to seize the capital and turn the Ashikaga Shogun into his puppet. To accomplish this, he had to pass through the territory of a very small and weak daimyo named Oda Nobunaga. The Imagawa army marched arrogantly through Oda’s territory – until Oda launched a surprise attack on them at the Battle of Okehazama and destroyed the invading force. This victory flung Oda Nobunaga into the big leagues, and soon his military prowess and convenient proximity to Kyoto brought him alliances and support.

One of Oda’s strongest and closest alliances was with his neighbor, a young nobleman who had been freed from captivity by his victory at Okehazama – Tokugawa Ieyasu. Oda’s brilliant but ruthless nature was balanced by Tokugawa’s cold cunning, and they made an excellent alliance. For the next 15 years, Oda won many battles, made marriage alliances, built strategically sited castles and arranged murderous coups. In 1568 he was able to march into Kyoto and assume power over the Shogun. Oda spent his life at war; he was merciless, charismatic and terrifying, but unlike many failed daimyo he knew how to build a loyal cadre of subordinates and followers.

In spite of his control of the Shogun, Oda still faced powerful enemies. To the west, the Mori clan controlled Japan’s Inland Sea; to the north were the Uesugi, and to the east were the mightiest clan of all – the Takeda. Of all the powerful daimyo, Takeda Shingen was the strongest military leader, a fire-breathing cavalry commander who controlled the best heavy horse regiments in Japan. The patented Takeda cavalry charge was a tactic feared across the nation, and his powerful attacks were well-respected and feared. Only his isolated territory in the mountains and his personal and passionate rivalry with the Uesugi clan had prevented Takeda from breaking out and marching on Kyoto himself. By the 1570s, Takeda was setting himself up as Oda’s main rival for power.

In 1572, Takeda tried to attack into the Oda alliance’s lands and take Kyoto. His route took him through the lands of Oda’s ally, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and his cavalry nearly destroyed Tokugawa’s army at the Battle of Mikatagahara in 1572. Tokugawa escaped, though, and was able to rally his troops and prevent complete disaster. When Takeda came back in 1573 and besieged one of Tokugawa’s castles, he was killed by a sharpshooter; his clan fell to his impulsive and arrogant son, Takeda Katsuyori. It is no enviable task to inherit the reputation of a father who is a living legend, and Katsuyori, arrogant and impulsive, was not up to it.

By the 1570s, almost all factions in Sengoku Japan were making heavy use of firearms like the one that had killed Takeda Shingen. Very primitive firearms had been known from China since the 1200s, but only with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1540s did the early musket or “arquebus” spread to Japan. Portuguese traders worked mainly through the port of Nagasaki from 1543 onward, and the new firearms were first used in battle by the Shimazu clan in 1549.

Soon the Japanese were manufacturing their own arquebus, but the Portuguese-supplied weapons were always of the highest quality. Connections with Portuguese traders proved to be an important resource for any budding daimyo, and Oda Nobunaga bent over backwards to sponsor them. This often came hand-in-hand with the promotion and protection of Christian missionaries, and those daimyo that tolerated or even converted to the faith of the Jesuit priests gained a leg up on their opponents.

The secret to success with firearms in Japan was the same as it was in Europe: good discipline, quality training, and a change in social attitudes. Many samurai resented the military power of the musket since it replaced the traditional sword and bow of their lineage – much the same way that the European knight hated and discounted the firearm. Most of the Japanese musket corps was composed of peasants, and it took a radical and forward-thinking leader to give them pride of place in what was still a very hierarchical nation.

Oda Nobunaga was lucky in the course of his career to get some hard lessons that changed his ways of thinking on firearms. Foremost among these was his long struggle against the warrior monks of the Ikko-Ikki, who thanks to their unique social structure had none of the same hangups about guns that samurai leaders did. Oda observed and adopted the disciplined use of peasant musket troops by the Ikko-Ikki, and his final capture of their fortress at Nagashima proved how much he had learned. Oda was nothing if not adaptable – one of the things that made him such a dangerous opponent.

Takeda Katsuyori was determined to finish his father’s work: the final defeat of Oda and his Tokugawa allies, the conquest of Kyoto, and the subduing of the Shogun to make the Takeda clan the dominant power in Japan. In 1575, he decided to launch another campaign into Tokugawa territory to try and force his way to Kyoto. Instead of taking the path his father had taken in 1572 and 1573, though, he decided to make a beeline for the Tokugawa capital of Okazaki, where a traitor was willing to open the gates for him. The traitor was discovered and killed, and Katsuyori flailed around at several other castles before settling on a consolation prize: the small fortress of Nagashino, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking a river.

Nagashino was a critical fortress, held by a samurai named Okudaira Sadamasa. Okudaira had defected to Tokugawa from the Takeda, and Takeda Katsuyori had his entire family executed as punishment; Tokugawa Ieyasu had put Okudaira in charge of the castle of Nagashino, knowing that no one would have more reason to hate and resist the Takeda than him.

On June 16, Takeda’s force of 15,000 men surrounded the castle of Nagashino. Miners began to tunnel under the walls, bridges were built across the river, and siege engines were built to assault the parapets. Soon Takeda had blocked the river and completed a circling line of trenches, isolating Nagashino from outside help. Regardless, the defenders managed to slip a messenger out to bring help. Kamehime, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s daughter, sent a personal appeal with the messenger to bring to her father begging for aid.

This messenger (not saying his name, there are already enough names floating around in here) reached Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, and they agreed to march immediately to save the fortress. On his return trip, the messenger – a Christian – was captured and crucified in view of the walls, but managed to shout to the defenders of Nagashino that help was on the way before he died.

Oda and Tokugawa indeed were on the way, but they were cautious. The last time Tokugawa had faced the heavy cavalry of Takeda, he had suffered a humiliating defeat in spite of his superior musket infantry. The infantry had been exposed and, in the age before bayonets, unable to defend themselves; in between shots they had been cut down by the fast-moving samurai horsemen. The drawbacks of the musket in this period were amply demonstrated: a volley could tear through an enemy force, but after the volley your men were defenseless.

Oda and Tokugawa brought a force of nearly 30,000 men to relieve the castle. Even though they outnumbered the Takeda two to one, their force were mostly peasant militia and rabble, while Takeda’s was largely elite samurai and heavy cavalry, so the numbers didn’t tell the whole story. The Takeda cavalry were undefeated in battle. Oda and Tokugawa set their men up behind a small stream, an obstacle to protect them from the cavalry charge.

Oda realized the limitations of his gunpowder infantry, and decided to shape the battlefield to annul those weaknesses. He built a wooden palisade in a zig-zag pattern along the crest of the hill. Also, for the first time in Asian military history (or possibly world history, jury is still out), he had trained his men to fire not in ragtag bursts but in disciplined, controlled volleys, combining the lethal fire of the arquebus with the sudden shock of a simultaneous discharge. The power of the mass volley would become a hallmark of infantry combat for centuries, and its first recorded usage MIGHT have been here, at Nagashino.

On June 28, 1575, Takeda led his cavalry from the forest to drive away the enemy, just as he and his father had done together at Mikatagahara three years before. The Takeda cavalry found themselves about 400 yards from Oda’s barricades, and they saw a bunch of peasant rabble on top of them. There had been a heavy rain the previous night, and Takeda believed that this would render Oda’s matchlock muskets useless – he would have been right, if Oda hadn’t trained his troops to keep their powder dry. The short distance and the power of Takeda’s cavalry convinced him that the attack would succeed. He ordered the charge.

The great mass of Takeda cavalry surged forward, but had to slow down in order to cross the stream. As the horses splashed through the stream bed, Oda set his gunners to firing. They delivered volley after volley into the ranks of the onrushing horsemen. Every cavalry charge in history has relied on breaking the morale of the infantry facing them, forcing them to flee so the cavalry can destroy their formation and hunt them down. This does not work if the enemy does not break.

Oda’s men did not break. They loosed volley after volley into the faces of Takeda’s cavalry. The Takeda horsemen that reached the barricades were engaged in single combat, or stabbed at with spears from behind the defenses. Takeda Katsuyori led his troopers left and right to try and flank the line, but failed due to Oda’s strong defenses and the withering fire of the musketmen. With no alternative, the Takeda broke and fled, and Oda’s men pursued. The Siege of Nagashino was broken, and the ravaged Takeda army fled back into their territory.

Takeda had lost almost two-thirds of his army; most of them lay in great heaps of colorful armor, demon masks, and dead horses in front of Oda’s barricades. The Battle of Nagashino – the “slaughter at the barricades” – was the first truly modern battle fought in Japan. In a way it resembles the 1503 Battle of Cerignola between the Spanish and French that I talked about in April. A power famed for its cavalry and aggressive tactics confronts a brilliant tactician who has learned to nullify the weaknesses and amplify the strengths of the new gunpowder weaponry.

After the overwhelming defeat at Nagashino, it is surprising that Takeda Katsuyori held on, but hold on he did, defending his territory under Oda’s and Tokugawa’s attacks until he died with his last 300 men at the pass of Temmokuzan. Katsuyori’s young wife committed suicide by stabbing herself, and Katsuyori and his son committed hara-kiri. When Oda was presented with his foe’s head, he was moved to tears. “All agreed that Nobunaga may have been victorious in battle, but was defeated by the head of Katsuyori.” The young man had inherited his father’s title but proved unable to hold it.

At Nagashino, Oda Nobunaga defeated the last rival that could seriously challenge him, and revolutionized warfare in Japan through his innovative gunpowder tactics. Though Oda only survived Katsuyori by a few months, his successors Toyotomi Hideyoshi and, finally, Tokugawa Ieyasu would build on his reputation to reunify Japan and turn it into the centralized state we know today. This course was laid in stone, and set in blood, by the slaughter at the Nagashino barricades.

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