A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Discussions on all aspects of the Japanese Empire, from the capture of Taiwan until the end of the Second World War.
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A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by hisashi » 02 Nov 2009 15:27

A brief history of Japan for military buffs.

When I was a high school boy, I had a term exam for 'world history'. A question said 'What happened in 1861 as a consequence of tension between the Britain and her colonies in America?'. I wrote 'Battle of Fort Sumter' but I reminded my world history teacher did not seem a military buff. I parenthesized my first answer and added 'the Civil War'.

Ordinal Japanese History is too lengthy for most military buffs. I selected topics related to military, samurai and the royal family in the chronicle of Japan. It would help understanding the backgrounds of japanese behaviors, writings and sayings in WWII.

1. Ancient era

In the middle of A.D. 4th century the royal family today seized most of Japan. The balance among powerful tribes was the key of their government because the royal family seemed to lack any troops independent of tribes.

Tribes and the royal family members made and broke coalitions until 7th century. In 663, Japan and Baekje fought in Korea against Silla and China (Tang) and lost. In spite of the war, Japan continued to send national mission to China from 600 to 838, apploximately every 20 years.

During this period Japan edited the history book Kojiki (712) and Nihon-Shoki (720). No evidence, but perhaps for diplomacy with China, mythological long history from 660 B.C. was set.


This period was a peak of royal family's power. Princes occupied important posts in the government and government could ration the supply of soldiers/workers on the families everywhere in Japan.

Also in that period, the government had had most cultivated land. Farmers were lent lands of a certain area and returned it on their death. It sounded ideal but moral hazard on maintenance of old farmers' lands and new cultivation grew more and more severe.

On the other hand, the farmers newly cultivated a land often colluded with servants of local government office and/or politically influential nobles, temples and shrines. Landowners dedicated the land to big bugs with an agreement of tax, and refused the tax and governance by the government. In government-reign area, landowners gradually fixed and the local government gave them entitlement as officials reigning their own land.

But it meant the collapse of soldier recruitment system. And now major farmers must defend their belongings at their cost.

2. The origin of samurai

Today samurai and bushi refer to the same notion. In early days, samurai (=servant) meant lower class officer and bushi was rank and filer.

Conscription soldiers from farmers in local government remained for long time and gradually volunteer army from samurai family and farmers replaced old troops. Their weapons were at their own cost, so perhaps they merged into local power (taxing/possession) structure and state-owned armed force disappeared.

Perhaps many families succeeded to samurai position but the highest class samurai came from the royal family. Princes too distant from the emperor of the day became nobles with one of traditional family names for ex-princes.

One name was Minamoto (源). This character had another pronunciation gen, so they often called Minamoto family/strain as Genji (源氏). Taira (平) or Heishi (平氏) was also typical.

They used those names repeatedly so Genji and Heishi included many families from different emperor. Genji from the Emperor Seiwa and Heishi from the Emperor Kanmu were the most notable as samurai.

They served in local governor team as military officer, and later they themselves became the chief governor (zuryo 受領) of an area, for security and tax collection. On the other hand, local armed farmer group appeared and powerful families among them allied with Genji and Heishi by marriage and the immigration of family members.

Now they afford their own weapons, and especially, horses. Long-time training by family made samurai warriors. As knights in Western Medieval Era, servants on foot and a cavalry made a team with strong tie. Samurai cavalrymen's weapon was relatively heavy, aiming enemy cavalry to cropper, passing the enemy at hands of his servants on foot. Highly trained samurai was a sharpshooter of yumi (Japanese long bow).


3. Power conflicts in pre-samurai era

In area distant from Kyoto (Heiankyo), rebel by Emishi (people in north-east part of Japan, the geneological difference is not clear), local dispute among powerful families and disobedience of samurai leader caused military conflicts. Genji and Heishi deepend the relationship with local powers. Genji was superior in eastern Japan and Heishi was popular in the west, but because confronting local force relied on the other side, it was no more than rough superiority.

On the top of government, Fujiwara family continued to seize power by marriage with the royal family. They liked to control young emperor as a regent or prime minister (they were grandpa of the emperor), and to change the emperor to younger prince when he grew up. This strategy depended on getting baby in the right timing, so it was unstable. On the other hand, emperors deviced a counter strategy. As abdicated emperor some of them intervened in the politics and Fujiwara family could not do anything because their entitlements were to the emperor. At last, abdicated emperor was frankly called as chiten-no-kimi (governor of the world). With abundant revenue of Fujiwara family from dedicated farms, the power game continued with no winner.


The problem for samurai was that they involved Genji and Heishi into the political battle. Cabals in court killed nobody from 810 to 1156. Though many rebel leaders were killed in action, no nobles and royal family members killed each other even as sentence to death. Samurais' involvement again brought war in the capital.

4. Early philosophy of samurai and the rise of Heishi

Early samurai was opportunistic and emotional in comparison with ideal images in more recent era. They brutally fought each other, even among family members. The government was too weak to enforce the law on them. Samurai was really a local warlord, frequently reconsidering their alliance.

Two conflicts in 1156 and 1159 were both an amalgum of confrontation in the royal family and in Fujiwara family on succession. Two of coalitions called aggressive samurai leaders for help, and after a short, small combat in Kyoto a group won. Each of the conflicts was rather a coup, or a suppression of a coup, than a war.

As a result, the most aggressive group in Genji lost most of major members. A leader in Heishi, Taira-no-Kiyomori kept a successful alliance with an abdicated emperor and Fujiwara family. Gradually he himself became a major noble and his daughter married with the emperor. Eventually his grandson became a new emperor in 1980 at 3 years old. Kiyomori broke with his old ally, abdicated emperor Goshirakawa, and 'promoted' his son-in-law emperor Takakura as new chiten-no-kimi. On the other hand he kept relationships with local samurai as the landkeepers of areas dedicated to Heishi.

The balance changed when Takakura and Kiyomori were dead and old Goshirakawa remained active. After bloody civil war, Genji family leader Minamoto-no-Yoritomo defeated Heishi army and secured Japan by military power. He was named as Sei-i-tai-shogun in 1192 just after the death of Goshirakawa. Goshirakawa made every effort to rank him as a noble, but Yoritomo wanted to remain 'the president of all Japan samurai union' permanently. Sei-i-tai-shogun was originally a title for the commander of Eastern-expeditionary army against Emishi, convenient for Yoritomo because he need not live in Kyoto.


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Re: A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by hisashi » 03 Nov 2009 16:14

5. Kamakura Shogunate as night watchman state

Samurai's battle style in this period stems from the fact their life depends on the land. In the battlefield they give out their name loudly, and fired signal arrow before the battle. Impressive individual achievement leads him reward, hopefully new land.


Yoritomo's office in Kamakura city was authorized to name shugo for all areas in Japan. Though common translation of shugo is governor, he only defended and secured. Most task of local administration, and partial rights of taxation, was on the hands of officials appointed in Kyoto by the royal family.


But gradually this night watchman government grew to the prime government of Japan. They supressed Kyoto by force, and by appointing shugo and lower class guardian jito, created feudal system of loyality among samurais.

Yoritomo's family could not enjoy this success. Because Heishi killed Yoritomo's father and his clan members, Yoritomo relied on the patronage of a powerful local samurai, Hojo family. After Yoritomo's death, Hojo family created a new post shikken, a deputy leader 'supporting' shogun, and seized the power of shogunate.

6. Mongol invasions of Japan and the decline of Kamakura shogunate

It was Hojo family who led the battle against Mongol-China in 1274 and 1281. Individual battle style of samurai was inferior to Mongol's teamwork, and it is said Mongol already had some grenades. Japan barely defended herself owing to luckily bad weather (kamikaze).


Heavy burden of expense in mobilized samurai was not conpensated because there was no gain in defensive battle. Because Hojo family enjoyed large share of good appointments, they attracted envies and malices.

On the other hand, improved productivity helped the development of commerse and transport. The wealth and manpower of new industries, coupled with childs of samurai excluded from land suuession, became a cradle of players in the coming 'new deal' civil war.

When Emperor Godaigo (1288-1339) began his action, the situation was ready to move.


7. The rise and fall of Emperor Godaigo

Still Kamakura shogunate made use of the royal authority, and in court political battle on royal succession continued. Emperor Godaigo was relatively powerless in court, and his atheling was his nephew. Kamakura shogunate backed up those arrangement on agreements in royal family. Godaigo wanted to upset the shogunate and eventually many group supported him hoping for new deal.

In 1333 Kamakura fall, but new government dealt discontent for everyone. Ashikaga Takauji, a powerful ex-Kamakura servants amoung collaborators of Godaigo, occupied Kyoto and made a coalition with other members of royal family.

Nobody was powerful enough to settle the situation. Combination of alliance changed several times. Even Godaigo and Takauji once restored their alliance. Peace agreement was made in 1392 by a grandson of Takauji, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Godaigo's heir finally gave up their succession (exactly, Yoshimitsu and royal family members deceived the heir).

During this deal, a prince close to the emperor was excluded from royal succession as a victim of political deal. Later the emperor gave the successor of that prince a privileged title of prince (shin-no). This is the origin of Prince Fushiminomiya family.

8. Muromachi Shogunate and gekokujo

Ashikaga family's Muromachi shogunate had its office in Muromachi, Kyoto city. It was in many aspect in the halfway of Edo shogunate and Kamakura shogunate. During long cifil war, several warlord appeared and inevitably the shogunate was an alliance among them. Yoshimitsu was good at making up conflict among them to fight mutually and hopefully to get weak. But also he raised his permanent army loyal to shogun. He named shugo but he broadened their task of criminal investigation into more common violation of personal belongings. It helped shugo to tie with samurai in his assigned area.

Eventually his shogunate became powerless among the struggle of major warlords. Gradually the warlords and shugo became interested in everything in his area; commerse, industry and even civil engineering. They became a true governor, daimyo.

From the war in Godaigo's era, infantry troops effectively fought especially in mountaneous area. well trained pike troop and specialized bow troop emerged. As in Europe, knights on horse did not easily disappear.

Even if samurai himself was not a farmer, his servants and column transporters were farmers. So in a season conbat frequently occured and in other season it stopped for maintaining their farms.

Gekokujo was a word for this period. In short, Japaneses in those era was emotional than they are. They loved, hated, get brutal and especially sensitive to their honor.


The royal family in this period was the most miserable in the history og Japan. They barely continued to exist among local warlords around Kyoto.

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Peter H
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Re: A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by Peter H » 04 Nov 2009 01:00

Thanks hisashi

Some samurai clans/families either joined the army or the navy at the start of the Meiji era?


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Re: A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by Peter H » 04 Nov 2009 04:37

Many in Australia got their first glimpse of samurai history with the release of the TV series in the 60s and 70s.For some reason I don't think this was shown in Europe or the States.


From youtube,8dramaqueen

SBS TV in Australia are running a documentary on it tonight.The series success in Australia,just 20 years after the war,suggests a lot of bitterness due to the war had ceased by then.

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Re: A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by hisashi » 04 Nov 2009 16:55

Peter, thank you for joining discussion on such an irregular approach.

>Some samurai clans/families either joined the army or the navy at the start of the Meiji era?

The answer is yes and no. IJA kicked off samurai as a soldiers except some officers who won the meiji restoration. But amyway samurai leaders in meiji restoration were mostly lower-class samurai. Jobless samurai rebelled and were shot by ex-peasant new army. For several years, however, IJA was so little in number and they relied on old samurai clan for local security. gradually new police, including many lower-class ex-samurai, replaced them.

This program is 'Onmitsu Kenshi' (隠密剣士 = Spy swordsmen) on air 1962-1965.

Swastika-shaped shuriken and many stereotyped representation of nunja began from this program -- not from the facts.

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Re: A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by Peter H » 06 Nov 2009 21:44

Thanks hisashi.

Officer with old armour 1931.
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Re: A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by hisashi » 07 Nov 2009 05:28

9.Go up to Kyoto!

Kamakura shogunate was originally an alliance of armed landlord groups in Kanto area (roughly, middle-eastern part of Honshu Island, nearby Tokyo). Hojo jamily mercilessly supressed and kicked out rivals in Kanto area, but nobody in other area could compete with Hojo by alone.

For Muromachi shogunate, many warlords already existed over Japan. One by one they occupied Kyoto by power but while they spent time and resource for seizing the government their own land became defenseless.

As in Europe, Japan moved from feudal era to autocracy. Permanent army by newly hired professional soldier appeared from rich part of Japan, leaving many daimyo with old-styled armed farmer group.

10.Rifle and the end of war

Rifle was introduced to Japan in 1543. Japanese warlords introduced hayago (paper cartridge) and by 1600 individual gunner could fire every 20 seconds. They shortened this timelap more by shooting one after another in two or three teams, by attaching loader to every shooter, or placed bowmen for cross-range rapid shooting against approaching enemy. Daimyo had well trained long lance troop, but they seemed not deploy combination of pike and gun, nor bayonet. It might be because in Japan massive use of rifle was near the end of civil war, and battle between warlords of balanced strength was rare.

Oda Nobunaga seized highly industrialized area and delegated his permanent army to his subordinates. He was a talented reformer of old stereotyped government but got too merciless. He was killed in 1582 by one of subordinates and many hypothesis have been presented who suggested/pressured him to do so. The answer remains unclear because Nobunaga had too many reasons to be killed.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the most successful man from lowest class servant of Nobunaga to the dominator of Japan. He was one of Nobunaga's leading subordinates and a genius in negotiation and management. He backed up a grandson of Nobunaga to defeat rivals in Oda family, and finally he became prime minister (kanpaku) in the royal court. Nobunaga and Hideyoshi restored the royal family financially for their authority.

But Hideyoshi did not have reliable servant group. He must give something for his popularity to maintain his power. He invaded Korea and failed. After his death, his government was too weak as an alliance.

The upper half of Tokugawa Ieyasu's life was very dramatic but I omit it here. He had been a feudal lord placed on the east of Nobunaga's. Ieyasu sincerely defended Nobunaga's back while he fought westward to Kyoto. Ieyasu became consideerably stronger but in the last days of Nobunaga they were like a lord and a servant. After Nobunaga's death he went under Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi gave him Kanto area in exchange for all his old lands. His troop remained strong against Hideyoshi's hope, in newly developed Edo (Tokyo).

After Hideyoshi's death, his secretary Ishida Mitsunari led the government. Mitsunari was a civilian official and Hideyoshi's field officers disliked him. As the most powerful daimyo Ieyasu backed con-Mitsunari daimyo group, so we can interpret the confrontation as between pro- and con-Ieyasu group.

Sekigahara is even today an alias of decisive battle. Two groups collided in Sekigahara plain. Though English Wikipedia quotes detailed figures on strength, it is impossible to get actual strength on such a great battle. Ieyasu's alliance won. Eventually Ieyasu attacked Hideyoshi's young son in 1615 and established his autarchy.


11.Daimyo related to Meiji restoration

Some powerful daimyo survived a series of politic confrontation in Nobunaga-Hideyoshi-Ieyasu era, but shogunate eyed them as potential insurgents. Two of them led the new government in 1867.

Han refered to each of daimyo's feudal land in Edo era.

Satsuma-Han (Shimazu family) was originally a servant of Minanoto-no-Yoritomo. Shimazu family became the shugo of Satsuma and Osumi (Kagoshima prefecture today). They remained there after they lost the appointment by Hojo family, and restored the governance eventually.

Choshu-Han (Mouri family) was a descendant of a large turf by Mouri Motonari (1497-1571). InSekigahara Mouri was on the side of con-Tokugawa side, but they remained in their initial position as if they were neutral. Ieyasu lessened their land to Yamaguchi prefecture today, and took up Horoshima and Shimane.


12.Edo (Tokugawa) Shogunate

Measured by kokudaka (estimated rice production capacity), in 1697 Edo (Tokugawa) shogunate controlled 4 hyakumangoku (hyakumangoku = 180,000 kL of rice production) of roundly 26 hyakumangoku in all Japan. Along with 2.5 hyakumangoku for hatamoto (servants of Tokugawa family with smaller land than daimyo), about one fourth of land productivity belonged to Tokugawa family. Moreover, shogunate dominated all mines in Japan. Japan was a major producer of gold in 16th and 17th century, so shogun's revenue outnumbered all daimyo.

Source: in Japanese

When this system was reconsidered in 1868, Satsuma and Choshu procured modern weapon by the help of Britain. After shogunate army (allied troops of hans mobilized by shogunate) invaded Choshu and failed in 1865, shogunate renewed their armament by the aid of France. Both sides were conscious of First Opium War (1839-1842). When the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu failed to maintain the support of hans, nobles and the royal family, He did not stick to the power by force. It would soon become the war between pro-Britain power and pro-France power. It was not financial rpoblem, a little it was armament superiority, and above all it was political situations which fell the shogunate.


By the conquer of Nobunaga, each daimyo more or less used espionage. Iga, a mountaineous region, was a supplier of mercenary, deployed for local battle as a sudden attacker troop, or in smaller team as espionage. Iga and neighboring region Koga, respectively confronted to invasion troops and harrassed a few years till retreat (Koga) / kicked back (Iga). For individual weapons/skills well-known stories contain myths, but it is based on true story. They rather resembles ranger troops good at guerilla warfare.

When Tokugawa family won the power, they brought many men from Iga to Edo and used them as guardians of Ooku and a castle gate (Hanzo-Mon). castle gate guardians were later disbanded and indevedually reassigned into other sections, mainly riflemen team.


Ooku was shogun's private area, so it was possible to order something to Iga men secretly. Little is known on the espionage in the early days of Edo shogunate. 4th shokun Ietsuna and 5th Tsunayoshi did not have male child, but named their heir while he was alive and invited to Edo castle.

8th shogun Yoshimune was named in 1716 from major relative daimyo after 7th Ietsugu was dead at the age of 8. He desparately needed information and created oniwaban (garden keeper). He introduced staffs from his Kishu-Han as garden keeper in Edo castle, and occasionary ordered to observe and gather rumors. No reliable evidence remains to persuade they used special weapons/skills.

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Re: A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by hisashi » 11 Nov 2009 14:34

14.Military System in Edo shogunate

Officially Edo shogunate prohibited samurais' auxiliary business. For the first time samurai lost links to farming by themselves. Shogunate required all daimyo and hatamoto to prepare rifle, lance, cavalry etc. roughly proportional to their income. Organization was to be ordered on mobilization. In other words, standardization and team training lacked in most samurai during peacetime.

Even in bloody 16th century, coordinated team combat was for lowest class samurai or hired/mobilized farmer (ashigaru). Some of them succeeded their position and kept theor specialized teams, such as rifle team. Eventually shogunate and daimyo created modern infantries newly near the end of shogunate era.

In the peacetime shogunate maintained 30 (the number differed on period) teams of permanent army (sakitegumi = lead-off troops), each of which consisted of a samurai leader, 10 samurai officer and 30-50 ashigaru-level infantries, half of which were equipped with bows and the rest with rifles. They were originally rapid reaction forces, but in reality they often served as security troops in disquiet situations. One or two team(s) usually joined in the crime (mainly robbery) investigation in Edo, paralleling samurais the city office.

Sakitegumi (in Japanese)
http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%85%88% ... B%E7%B5%84

15. The royal family in Edo shogunate

Shogunate assigned some farmlands mainly nearby Kyoto for the royal family and high-class nobles. Government of such lands were by shogunate agents and they got only revenues. As previous shogunates the authority of Edo shogunate came from teh royal family, but Edo shogunate intervened in the life of emperor and nobles by finical rules. In spite of some collisions between an emperor and shogunate, the iniciative by shogunate remained till near the end of the governance by Edo.

16. Samurai phylosophy: stereotyped image

As I explained, till the Confusian idea for samurai was firstly introduced in Edo era, a typical samurai was not very disciplined. They were emotional and loyal to the man they chose. This behavior resembles that of Chinese knight-errant. The way of life in Hagakure, known in the phrase 'bushido is the way of dying', was not a typical philosophy of samurai even in Edo era, and it differs from Confusism because it prohibits hurting himself as a gift from parents for dutifulness to them.


In the last days of shogunate (roundly the upper half of 19th centiry), pro-shogunate and con-shogunate people struggled fiercely, and raid/assassination frequently occured. The movement, especially con-shogunate, was led by young, low-class leaders. They were threaten to death, and in reality many of them were killed. Heroic, or desperate emotion prevailed among them. Generalizing it to typecal samurai in the previous age is not good for realizing them.

Than you for your patience. This article became far longer than I imagined.

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Re: A brief history of Japan for military buffs

Post by Eugen Pinak » 06 Dec 2009 19:01

Thank you very much, Hisashi! I always like your posts - short and to the point.

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