The Sengoku Period in Japanese History

Map of the territories of the Sengoku daimyo (1570 CE).
Territories of the Sengoku daimyo (1570 CE). Ro4444/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The Sengoku was a century-long period of political upheaval and warlordism in Japan, lasting from the Onin War of 1467–77 through the reunification of the country around 1598. It was a lawless era of civil war, in which the feudal lords of Japan fought one another in endless plays for land and power. Although the political entities that were fighting were actually just domains, the Sengoku is sometimes referred to as Japan's "Warring States" Period.

  • Pronunciation: sen-GOH-koo
  • Also known as: sengoku-jidai, "Warring States" Period

Origins

The origins of the Sengoku period begin with the establishment of the Ashikaga shogonate during the War Between the Northern and Southern Courts (1336–1392). This war was fought between the Southern Court, led by supporters of the Go-Daigo emperor and the Northern Court, including the Ashikaga shogunate and its chosen emperor. Within the shogunate, provincial governors were given wide-ranging powers. A series of ineffective shoguns weakened their personal power and in 1467, infighting between the provincial governors broke out in the Onin War. 

As the shogun lost power, the warlords (called diamyo) became completely independent, fighting one another nearly incessantly. Frequent vacuums of power led to peasant uprisings known as ikki, some of which, with the help of Buddhist militants or independent samurai, were able to accomplish self-rule. One example occurred on the Kaga Province on Japan Sea coast, where the True Pure Land Buddhist sect were able to rule the entire province. 

Unification

Japan's "Three Unifiers" brought the Sengoku Era to an end. First, Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) conquered many other warlords, beginning the process of unification through military brilliance and sheer ruthlessness. His general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–598) continued the pacification after Nobunaga was killed, using a somewhat more diplomatic but equally pitiless set of tactics. Finally, yet another Oda general named Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616) defeated all opposition in 1601 and established the stable Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Although the Sengoku Period ended with the rise of the Tokugawa, it continues to color the imaginations and the popular culture of Japan to this day. Characters and themes from the Sengoku are evident in manga and anime, keeping this era alive in the memories of modern-day Japanese people.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Lehmann, Jean-Piere. "The Roots of Modern Japan." Basingstoke UK: MacMillan, 1982.
  • Perez, Louis G. "Japan at War: An Encyclopedia." Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.