Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu: Biography and Accomplishments

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

During the 16th century, Japan was ruled by a number of warlords and petty chieftains. One of these rulers, a great warrior and administrator, named Tokugawa Ieyasu would spend his life unifying Japan under his rule. This lesson examines this leader's life and times.

Feudal Japan

From the 15th to the 17th centuries, Japan was in disarray. Although the Emperor still ruled the nation in name, in fact, he had very little power. Instead, true power rested in the hands of local military leaders throughout the country, who were called daimyo. These daimyo were the leaders of established families or clans that employed armies of samurai, which were used to enforce their will upon their own territory and make war against their rivals. The most powerful daimyo was often granted the title of shogun by the emperor.

The shogun was often the true ruler of Japan, his military power forced the emperor to go along with his will, and he was able to coerce the other daimyo to treat him as their superior. However, a shogun's grasp on power would often prove shaky and many of them met their ends through treachery, or on the battlefield. This led to a great deal of instability throughout Japan. Eventually a shogun would rise, by the name of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would unite Japan and bring the stability the nation so badly needed.

Early Life

Tokugawa Ieyasu was the son of Matsudaira Hirotada, a daimyo of the region known as Mikawa. Tokugama's family was one of the richest, most powerful in the region and, when he was only four years old, he was sent as a hostage to the neighboring Imagawa clan. By sending his son as a hostage, Tokugawa's father hoped to secure an alliance with the Imagawa against their mutual enemies, and effectively became an Imagawa vassal.

The Oda, Tokugama father's enemies, kidnapped him before he could reach the Imagawa court and would not be turned over to them for several years. While there, Tokugawa received a fine education that served him well throughout the rest of his life.

In the year 1557, Tokugawa's father died and he became the leader of his family. Tokugama was given permission to return from the head of Imagawa clan once he reached his thirteenth birthday.

Over the next several years, Tokugawa fought in numerous wars as a close ally of the Imagawa. However, in 1561 the leader of Imagawa clan was killed in battle. Sensing an opportunity, Tokugawa severed his connections with that family and allied with his own enemies, the Oda. By switching between the two sides, he was able to gain more power for himself and his clan, and spent the decade and a half securing his control over Mikawa, and expanding through neighboring lands.

Rise to Power

By this point, Tokugawa was one of the most powerful daimyo in all of Japan. The most powerful was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a general who became the first to unite all of Japan under his rule. Tokugawa was a close ally of Toyotomi due to his power.

Unfortunately, Toyotomi was growing old and his health deteriorating. Before he died, in 1598, he named his five your old son Toyotomi Hideyori as his heir, although a regency counsel would hold true power under the young man came of age. This left a power vacuum that Tokugawa was more than happy to fill, and he began to make alliances with other daimyo to cement his own power and authority.

This led the Japanese daimyo to quickly separate into two separate camps; those who remained loyal to Tokugawa, known as the Eastern Army, and those who gravitated towards the warlord Ishida Mitsunari. This later faction became known as the Western Army.

Faced with a growing opposition, Tokugawa chose to strike first. He was leading his forces against the Uesugi clan, which he claimed were rebelling against the government, when he received word that the Eastern Army was preparing to confront him. Gathering his forces, he turned to meet the Western Army at the Battle of Sekigahara, where the Western forces were utterly defeated.

In its wake, Tokugawa was able to consolidate his power; he crushed several of the important clans that had taken part in the Western Army, and was also able to officially demote Toyotomi Hideyori from the role as ruler of Japan. On March 24, 1603 the emperor of Japan formally recognized Tokugawa's power and named him shogun.

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