Wartime Wednesday: The Battle of Okehazama

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Today Leaf steps in with a look at a crucial battle in Japanese history, Okehazama. Why was it important? Come find out!

This week in Wartime Wednesday we set sail to Japan. We started this series with a Kansas City battle of the American Civil War, the Battle of Lone Jack. After that we have refreshed our knowledge on Roman tactics with the Battle of Cynoscephalae and Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Then we ventured into Viking raids on England with the Battle of Stamford Bridge before coming full circle with the Battle of Hampton Roads. Today our guest writer Leaf has graciously decided to chart our course to Japan, let’s see what he has to say.

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The Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period, was a defining period in Japanese history. The emperor had long been a puppet of the shogun, and now the shogun’s power was virtually worthless. The real power lay in the hands of the regional warlords called daimyo, and during this hundred year all-out battle royal style civil war, these daimyo jockeyed to increase their sphere of influence. One such daimyo was Imagawa Yoshimoto. Through political marriages and territorial expansion, the Imagawa clan had become regarded as one of the most powerful in Japan. 

Imagawa-Yoshimoto-Ukiyo-e

Eventually Yoshimoto set his sights on Kyoto, the home of the emperor and the Ashikaga shogun. To get to Kyoto, he would need to travel through the Owari province, home of the Oda clan. The Oda and the Imagawa clans had been at odds for a long time, but in 1551 the head of the Oda clan, Oda Nobuhide, died unexpectedly, leaving the clan to his son Nobunaga who was nicknamed the “fool of Owari” because his bizarre behavior and complete disregard to social standing and customary behavior. This led to a succession dispute, as many Oda retainers wanted nothing to do with the odd young man. Nobunaga didn’t finally end the intra-clan fighting and establish his succession until 1559.

Oda Nobunaga-Portrait by Giovanni NIcolao

Perhaps this appeared to Yoshimoto to be their weakest point, and he wanted to use this time of confusion within the Oda to make his move, so in 1560 he gathered around 25,000 men and moved into Owari. Over the years, Nobunaga had subdued most of the opposition to his claim as the head of the Oda, but was severely out manned by the Imagawa, only having around 2,500 men at his disposal. Because of the lopsided numbers, many wanted Nobunaga to stay and defend his stronghold of Kiyosu castle, but knew this would be paramount to suicide and after a rousing speech to rally his followers he chose to attack instead.

The Imagawa were camped near the village of Okehazama. There they were celebrating their earlier victories when crossing the Owari border. The Oda gathered his forces at the fortified temple of Zensho-ji, which overlooked the Imagawa encampment. Nobunaga ordered his men to set up banners all around the temple grounds to make his army look larger. Legend goes that during thunderstorm, Nobunaga led his forces away from the Zensho-ji and used his familiarity of the terrain to sneak up on the Imagawa (I say legend as there are conflicting sources about there being a rainstorm or strong winds, but it’s still likely that Mother Nature played some part in masking the movements of the Oda). 

The Oda caught the Imagawa by surprise, with many of the Imagawa being without their armor or weapons with some sources claiming some were drunk from their celebration. Popular stories like to dramatize this part and say Yoshimoto, thinking his men were being a bit too rowdy with their celebration left his tent to see what the commotion was about and was decapitated soon after leaving his tent. Less romantically inclined sources claim that upon seeing the Oda forces some of the Imagawa soldiers near Yoshimoto, fled leaving being a smaller guard unit to try and defend the daimyo. As the lines started to break Yoshimoto tried to flee to one of the nearby castles under his control but was soon chased down and killed. Without their leader, the Imagawa forces soon gave up, but keep in mind that it’s possible that elements of fact exist in some accounts that do not exist in others, and vice-versa.

The dramatic elements of this battle and the strong importance this battle had on the Japanese history (Oda Nobunaga would go on to become the first of the “Three Great Unifiers” of Japan, and coincidentally all three were in the area that day, see below. -BRaG), this battle has taken on some almost mythical qualities making it hard to discern some of the embellishments. What is clear is that aggressive strategy and tactics by a smaller force, familiar with the terrain, easily dispatched of a larger, overconfident force by essentially decapitating it. In military terminology, it was defeat in detail in the most focused way possible.

BRaG’s Background Bibliography:

https://go-centraljapan.jp/route/samurai/en/spots/detail.html?id=8

https://samurai-world.com/the-battle-of-okehazama-june-12-1560-oda-nobunaga-2500-vs-imagawa-yoshimoto-25000/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Okehazama

Bonus Content:

The second Great Unifier was a retainer of Oda Nobunaga and was present at this battle.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyotomi_Hideyoshi

The third was involved in the campaign on the Imagawa side, though being tasked with logistics duties wasn’t involved in the fighting. He later allied his clan with the Oda and went on to found the last Shogunate dynasty after the death of Toytomi:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokugawa_Ieyasu

He was the daimyo who was fictionalized as Toranaga in James Clavell’s Shogun, and yes, one of his advisors was an English pilot from a failed Dutch expedition, William Adams by name, who became both samurai and hatamoto to the Shogun-to-be, but that’s history of a different sort. I just thought some might find this interesting.

I will close by saying that the discussions in the comments have been good and are getting better, so I’m looking forward to seeing what y’all have to say this week.

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Plus Name and Plus Name
Plus Name and Plus Name
05/20/2020 1:33 pm

I studied a lot about Japan after playing Samurai Warriors, the dynasty warriors counterpart game by Koei. It specifically covered this era in Japan. It was such a fascinating thing to learn about and is one of the reasons I fell in love with Japanese culture.

vvet818
05/20/2020 9:40 am

Excellent read and video. Having been to Japan for a brief visit, the culture and history have always fascinated me. Appreciate your good work!
comment image

Leaf
Reply to  vvet818
05/20/2020 10:00 am

It always fascinates me about eastern civilizations that they are so culturally different from us, yet are driven by the same things

Knightwolfbr
05/20/2020 8:39 am

And then all of them would be crushed by my Shimazu forces.

…wait, we aren’t talking about Total War: Shogun 2?

MasterChief
MasterChief
Reply to  Knightwolfbr
05/20/2020 11:22 am

I never played the Shogun games but I’m a bit Total War fan.

Knightwolfbr
Reply to  MasterChief
05/20/2020 11:28 am

The unit AI is better in Shogun 2 and the economic system is better.

Example of unit AI: many times in older games when a unit was routing and you sent your horses to kill them, the horses would select a person and then run them down, regardless of whether there were other men between the horse and the person selected. Now, the horsemen will attack those who are closets to them.

MasterChief
MasterChief
Reply to  Knightwolfbr
05/20/2020 1:00 pm

I’m hoping for the next generation of Total War games. Did you ever catch that show years ago where they used Rome: Total War to demonstrate ancient battles? It was a pretty neat idea.

Knightwolfbr
Reply to  MasterChief
05/20/2020 2:05 pm

Hell yeah. I don’t remember the name but it was awesome. They would have generals compete against each other. Loved it.

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