The Battle of Sekigahara

Most westerners have no idea what the Battle of Sekigahara is, or even who fought in it. This was the climactic battle in the unification of Japan. It’s like our Yorktown, Gettysburg, and Battle of the Bulge all rolled into one. It wasn’t really the last battle of the Unification, but it was the biggest and most important one and everything afterwards would have been too anti-climatic to really include.
The unification of Japan from dozens of warring, militarized states into one, unified, mayonnaise obsessed, anime making country was a lengthy and very bloody business. It started with a man named Oda Obunaga. He began the process of unifying Japan by taking over all of his neighbors and then their neighbors and then their neighbors. One battle in particular was quite awesome. He was out-manned, outgunned and facing an army of thousands that was sent to annihilate him. He and a few hundred cavalry were hiding up in the mountains when a huge rainstorm came. Seeing an opportunity, he and his small band, rushed down the mountain side. The steepness of the mountain was so high that the enemy hadn’t bothered to defend against it. It was said that it was so steep that Oda’s horse’s rear end was higher than his head. So they rushed down like an avalanche and tore into the middle of the unprotected camp and tore the place up like hurricane. This was the man with the vision to unify Japan. BUT….he died before he could complete it, so his loyal vassal, Toyotomi Hideyoshi picked up where his former boss left off and continued the unification. He, a former peasant, conquered the rest of Japan and thought all was great, but then another guy named Tokugawa Ieyasu decided that he could rule Japan better. Toyotomi hadn’t been doing a very good job apparently. He tried and failed to take over Kora because he forgot one of the classic blunders, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

After a while, a unified Japan was boring, so they went over to Korea to take it over.

(As a side note: he was also a jerk. After rising up from the lowest rungs in society to become master of Japan, he then made laws to prevent any kind of upward mobility. Samurai were now a locked class. Peasants could never get rich or increase in rank. Before it had been pretty vague about the whole class thing.)
Hideyoshi Toyotomi eventually dies and his clan takes over the ruling of Japan. Well, Old Tokugawa Ieyasu didn’t like the idea of a former peasant family micromanaging him so he led his crew and everyone else that didn’t like the Toyotomi clan and went on the march. There’s a whole lot of maneuvering, backstabbing, lies, politics and what not that led to the battle of Sekigahara, but I’ll cut to the good stuff. Basically, Tokugawa gathers the biggest army he could and goes out looking to bust heads. Toyotomi clan, tired of Tokugawa’s crap, wants to bust heads too, so the largest gathering of Samurai in Japan’s history takes place outside of a town called Sekigahara. Toyotomi’s army is smaller but has the high ground…unfortunately, not too high though. Tokugawa has the larger force, 88,000 to 81,000.

The Toyotomi's are not amused.

First, before we get into the main event, let me tell you a bit about Samurai and the armies involved. (I’ll eventually do a post about Samurai, but I’ll be brief.) Samurai were honor bound warriors that were unequaled in ferocity, training and intensity. (They were the only people to ever repel a full Mongol invasion. More on that later) They used spears, halberd type weapons, bows and of course, the katana. These light saber wielding maniacs also wrote poetry and practiced flower arranging. These are men, that if ordered to, would ritualistically disembowel themselves and their families because they got the wrong shade of “magenta” for their lord’s meditation chamber. They would charge into battle, screaming their name and wearing awesome looking armor with giant banners strapped to their backs just in case you didn’t notice him.

And they looked downright awesome.

So, both sides lined up, eyed each other and waited for word from their lords. However, before the battle, Tokugawa bribed and threatened several Toyotomi generals to come over to his side or to at least go out to lunch when the battle started. Even with all those “preparations,” the battle was intense and close. Both sides were tearing into each other like wild dogs and the sound of cannon, muskets and yelling samurai filled the air. The battle was huge. 81,000 men fighting 88,000 men = 169,000. To put it in perspective, Napoleon only had 72,000 at Waterloo and the American Invasion of Iraq had 130,000 men. (most of whom weren’t front line combat soldiers.)

I wouldn't want to be on the recieving end of these guys.


"Epic" though an overused word now, would be fitting to describe this battle.

The battle went on for some time. One of the Toyotomi generals that Tokugawa bribed was just sitting on his little hill, drinking tea and waiting. Tokugawa, not known for being a kind and benevolent person, ordered his gunners to open fire on the lazy warlord to get him to side one way or another in the battle. Though lazy, the man was wise and charged into the fray on Tokugawa’s side. This led to a crushing defeat of the Toyotomi clan as they found themselves begin attacked on their weakened flank.

Tokugawa looking out over the battle as heavy metal plays in the background

An interesting side note is that Miyamoto Musashi, the most famous and lethal samurai ever, was rumored to be present at the battle as a young lad of 17. Musashi went on to win hundreds of duels, develop a duel wielding style of two swords at once, fought 80 guys at a time and beat a guy in a duel with a stick. Not a man to be trifled with.

53, 54, 55...who's next? (Musashi going bezerk like an overpowered anime character)

After the battle, Tokugawa was left in charge, took most of Toyotomi’s land and set up a Shogunate that lasted until Japan modernized in the Meiji restoration in the 1800’s.

Oh, and there were ninja’s there, but I’ll get into that later.

“So what? Why is this important?” These are words voiced by a professor of mine. We were in Italy and we were looking at these strange frescoes that some student considered “strange.” I took these words to heart. “So what?” When we look at something we don’t understand or think we do, we should always ask ourselves why it was important enough for the people who did it/made it, to do. Why did Florence build the Duomo? Why is “The David” so important? Why is Sekigahara important? This battle shaped the future of Japan for the next four hundred years. Most of what we consider Japanese culture was finalized, cemented and created in this 400 years of peace and isolation. This shaped the way Japan evolved and thought. Though, during the Meiji Restoration they modernized, they were still shaped by these events. It was this mindset that American forces encountered in WWII. It was this mindset that dominated Japanese business practices and made them an economically and technologically superior to their neighbors. “So what?” Because this one battle had a ripple effect of events that have shaped the modern world. Every time you read one of my posts or something else about history, please keep this question in mind.


8 comments on “The Battle of Sekigahara

  1. Dannyboy says:

    Very nicely done. Everything I’ve ever read about Japanese history kind of chills the blood. How this culture managed to convince its citizens that cutting your own guts out as the price for failure is baffling to my American sensibilities. How messed up does a society have to be to get people thinking this is a good idea?

    It’s all very interesting stuff. Keep it up.

    • zacharyhill says:

      The secret to understanding the Japanese lies in the code of Bushido. Their sense of honor was so strong that they’d rather kill themselves than bring dishonor not only to themselves, but to their family. They had to think of the good of others above their own selves. I’d highly suggest watching “Twilight Samurai” “The hidden Blade” and “13 Assassins.” Those go a long way to explain the psychology of the Samurai.

  2. cthulhu says:

    However, alot of what we think of pertaining to Samurai and Bushido comes from the ‘romantic’ literature of the Tokugawa period. The samurai of pre-pax japan were alot more pragmatic. They would retreat and live to fight another day. For the most part, the Bushi were more concerned with winning than with honor.

    • Boneparte says:


      Ha ha! Those foolish samurai are like those idiotic Prussians! Too proud to run away so they fight and die…which leaves me…er…I mean, anyone to conquer their pathetic lands!

  3. Dear Minimum Wage Historian,
    I work as a photo editor on a series of history books. Can you tell me where the image with the caption: “Epic” though an overused word now, would be fitting to describe this battle in this blog post is from?
    Is it from a movie or a computer game or something else?
    Many kind regards,
    Jasmina Nielsen
    Email: hbv-billedresearch (at)

  4. Just wanted to say I enjoyed this.

    I’m a fan of James Clavell’s Shogun (and other Asian saga books). I have re-read that work and watched the film with Chamberlain again and again. I just can’t get enough over this period. I’ve also read Samurai William by Giles Milton, the basis for Clavell’s work (from real history!)

    I’m wondering if you have any other recommendations for period reading, whether fiction or non-fiction.

    I’ve tried again and again to find some good reads from this period, without much luck outside of Clavell.

    Do you have any recommendations?

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