Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Founder of Yedo and of Modern Feudalism

The death of the peasant premier left iyeyasu, the second in ability of nobunaga's great generals, as the rising power in Japan. Hideyoshi, in the hope of preserving the rule in his own family, had married his son, a child of six, to Iyeyasu's granddaughter, and appointed six ministers to act as his guardians. He did not count, in cherishing this illusory hope, on the strength of human ambition. Nor did he give thought to the bitter disgust with which the haughty lords and nobles had yielded to the authority of one whom they regarded as an upstart. The chances of the child's coming to power were immeasurably small.

In truth, the death of the strong-willed premier had thrown Japan open to anarchy. The leaders who had returned from the Corean war, flushed with victory, were ambitious for power, and the thousands of soldiers under their command were eager for war and spoils. Hidenobu, a nephew of Nobunaga, claimed the succession to his uncle's position. The five military governors who had been appointed by the late premier were suspicious of Iyeyasu, and took steps to prevent him from seizing the vacated place. The elements of anarchy indeed were everywhere abroad, there was more than one aspirant to the ruling power, and armies began to be raised.

Iyeyasu keenly watched the movements of his enemies. When he saw that troops were being recruited, he did the same. Crimination and recrimination went on, skirmishes took place in the field, the citadel of Ozaka was successively taken and retaken by the opposing parties, the splendid palace of Hideyoshi at Fushimi was given to the flames, and at length the two armies came together to settle in one great battle the fate of Japan.

The army of the league against Iyeyasu had many leaders, including the five governors, most of the generals of the Corean war, and the lords and vassals of Hideyoshi. Strong as it was, one hundred and eighty thousand in all, it was moved by contrary purposes, and unity of counsel was lacking among the chiefs. The army of Iyeyasu, while far weaker, had but one leader, and was inspired by a single purpose.

On the 1st of October, 1600, the march began, over the great highway known as the Tokaido. The white banner of Iyeyasu was embroidered with hollyhocks, his standard a golden fan. "The road to the west is shut," prophesied the diviners. "Then I shall knock till it opens," the bold leader replied.

As they marched onward, a persimmon (ogaki in Japanese) was offered him. He opened his hand to receive it, saying, as it fell into his palm, "Ogaki has fallen into my hand." (The significance of this remark lies in the fact that the camp of the league lay around the castle of Ogaki).

Learning of the near approach of Iyeyasu's force, the opposing army broke camp and marched to meet him through a sharp rain that wet them to the skin. Their chosen field of battle, Sekigahara ("plain of the barrier") by name, is in Omi, near Lake Biwa. It is an expanse of open, rolling ground, bisected by one of the main roads between Tokio and Kioto and crossed by a road from Echizen. On this spot was to be fought one of the greatest battles Japan had ever known, whose result was destined to settle the fate of the empire for two hundred and fifty years.

In the early morning of the eventful day one of the pickets of Iyeyasu's host brought word that the army of the league was in full march from the castle of Ogaki. This important news was soon confirmed by others, and the general joyfully cried, "The enemy has indeed fallen into my hand." Throwing aside his helmet, he knotted a handkerchief over his forehead, saying that this was all the protection he should need in the coming battle.

His army was seventy-five thousand strong. That opposed to him exceeded his in strength by more than fifty thousand men. But neither as yet knew what they had to encounter, for a fog lay heavy on the plain, and the two armies, drawn up in battle array, were invisible to each other. To prevent surprise, Iyeyasu sent in front of his army a body of guards bearing white flags, to give quick warning of an advance.

At length, at eight o'clock, the fog rose and drifted away, revealing the embattled hosts. Hardly had it vanished before the drums beat their battle peal and the martial conchs sounded defiance, while a shower of arrows from each army hurtled through the opposing ranks. In a short time the impatient warriors met in mid field, and sword and spear began their deadly work.

The great weight of the army of the league at first gave it the advantage, and for hours the result was in doubt, though a corps of the league forces deserted to the ranks of Iyeyasu. At length unity and discipline began to prevail, the intrepidity of Iyeyasu and his skill in taking advantage of every error of his enemy giving confidence to his men. By noon they were bearing back the foe. Ordering up the reserves, and bidding the drummers and conch-blowers to sound their most inspiriting appeal, Iyeyasu gave order for the whole army to charge.

Before the impetuous onset that followed, the enemy wavered, broke, and fled, followed in hot pursuit by the victorious host. And now a frightful scene began. Thousands of heads of the flying were cut off by the keen-edged blades of their pursuers. Most of the wounded and many of the unhurt killed themselves upon the field, in obedience to the exaggerated Japanese sense of honor. The defeat became a butchery. In Japanese battles of the past quarter was a mercy rarely craved or granted, and decapitation the usual mode of death when the sword could be brought into play, so that the triumph of the victors was usually indicated by the dimensions of the ghastly heap of heads. In this frightful conflict the claim was made by the victors (doubtless an exaggeration) that they had taken forty thousand heads of the foe, while their own loss was only four thousand. However that be, a great mound of heads was made, one of many such evidences of slaughter which may still be seen in Japan.

Throughout the battle a knotted handkerchief was the only defence of Iyeyasu's head. The victory won, he called for his helmet, which he put on, carefully tying the strings. As all looked on with surprise at this strange action, he, with a smile, repeated to them an old Japanese proverb, "After victory, knot the cords of your helmet."

It was a suggestion of vigilance wisely given and alertly acted upon. The strongholds of the league were invested without delay, and one by one fell into the victors' hands. The fragments of the beaten army were followed and dispersed. Soon all opposition was at an end, and Iyeyasu was lord and master of Japan.

The story of the victor in the most decisive victory Japan had ever known, one that was followed by two and a half centuries of peace, needs to complete it a recital of two important events, one being the founding of Yedo, the great eastern capital, the other the organization of the system of feudalism.

For ages the country around the Bay of Yedo, now the chief centre of activity and civilization in Japan, was wild and thinly peopled. The first mention of it in history is in the famous march of Yamato-Daké, whose wife leaped here into the waves as a sacrifice to the maritime gods. In the fifteenth century a small castle was built on the site of the present city, while near it on the Tokaida, the great highway between the two ancient capitals, stood a small village, whose chief use was for the refreshment and assistance of travellers.

Ota Dagnan, the lord of the castle, was a warrior of fame, whose deeds have gained him a place in the song and story of Japan. Of the tales told of him there is one whose poetic significance has given it a fixed place in the legendary lore of the land. One day, when the commandant was amusing himself in the sport of hawking, a shower of rain fell suddenly and heavily, forcing him to stop at a house near by and request the loan of a grass rain-coat,—a mino, to give it its Japanese name.

A young and very pretty girl came to the door at his summons, listened to his polite request, and stood for a moment blushing and confused. Then, running into the garden, she plucked a flower, handed it with a mischievous air to the warrior, and disappeared within the house. Ota, angrily flinging down the flower, turned away, after an impulse to force his way into the house and help himself to the coat. He returned to the castle wet and fuming at the slight to his rank and dignity.

Soon after he related the incident to some court nobles from Kioto, who had stopped at the castle, and who, to his surprise, did not share his indignation at the act.

"Why, the incident was delightful," said one among them who was specially versed in poetic lore; "who would have looked for such wit and such knowledge of our classic poetry in a young girl in this uncultivated spot? The trouble is, friend Ota, that you are not learned enough to take the maiden's meaning."

"I take it that she meant to laugh at a soaked fowler," growled the warrior.

"Not so. It was only a graceful way of telling you that she had no mino  to loan. She was too shy to say no to your request, and so handed you a mountain camellia. Centuries ago one of our poets sang of this flower, 'Although it has seven or eight petals, yet, I grieve to say, it has no seed' (mino). The cunning little witch has managed to say 'no' to you in the most graceful way imaginable."

Here, where the castle stood, Iyeyasu started to build a city, at the suggestion of his superior Hideyoshi. Thus began the great city of Yedo,—now Tokio, the eastern capital of Japan. In 1600, Iyeyasu, then at the head of affairs, pushed the work on his new city with energy, employing no less than three hundred thousand men. The castle was enlarged, canals were excavated, streets laid out and graded, marshes filled, and numerous buildings erected, fleets of junks bringing granite for the citadel, while the neighboring forests furnished the timber for the dwellings.

An outer ditch was dug on a grand scale, and gates and towers were built with no walls to join them and no dwellings within many furlongs of their site. But to those who laughed at the magnificent plan on which the young city had been laid out, the founder declared that the coming time would see his walls built and the dwellings of the city stretching far beyond them. Before a century his words were verified, and Yedo had a population of half a million souls. To-day it is the home of more than a million people.

It is for his political genius that Iyeyasu particularly deserves fame. Once more, in 1615, he was forced to fight for his supremacy, against the son of the late premier. A bloody battle followed, ending in victory for Iyeyasu and the burning of the castle of Ozaka, in whose flames the aspirant for power probably met his doom. No other battle was fought on the soil of Japan for two hundred and fifty-three years.

Iyeyasu had the blood of the Minamoto clan in his veins. He had therefore an hereditary claim to the shogunate, as successor to the great Yoritomo, the founder of the family and the first to bear the title of Great Shogun. This title, Sei-i Tai Shogun, was now conferred by the mikado on the new military chief, and was borne by his descendants, the Tokugawa family, until the great revolution of 1868, when the mikado again seized his long-lost authority.

Before this period, civil war had for centuries desolated Japan. After 1615 war ceased in that long distracted land and peace and prosperity prevailed. What were the steps taken by the new shogun to insure this happy result? It arose through the establishment of a well-defined system of feudalism, and the bringing of the feudal lords under the immediate control of the shogun.

Japan was already organized on a semi-feudal system. The land was divided between the great lords or daimios, who possessed strong castles and large landed estates, with a powerful armed following, and into whose treasuries much of the revenue of the kingdom flowed. These powerful princes of the realm were conciliated by the conqueror. Under them were daimios of smaller estate, many of whom had joined him in his career; and lower still a large number of minor military holders, whose grants of land enabled them to bring small bodies of followers Into the field.

Iyeyasu's plan was one of conciliation and the prevention of hostile union. He laid his plans and left it to time to do his work. Some of the richest fiefs of the empire were conferred upon his sons, who founded several of its most powerful families. The possessions of the other lords were redistributed, the land being divided up among them in a way to prevent rebellious concentration, vassals and adherents of his own being placed between any two neighboring lords whose loyalty was in doubt. To prevent ambitious lords from seizing Kioto and making prisoner the mikado, as had frequently been done in the past, he surrounded it on all sides with strong domains ruled by his sons or friends. When his work of redistribution was finished, his friends and vassals everywhere lay between the realms of doubtful daimios. A hostile movement in force had been rendered nearly impossible.

Below the daimios came the hatamoto, or supporters of the flag, direct vassals of the shogun, of whom there were eighty thousand in Japan, mostly descendants of proved warriors and with a train of from three to thirty retainers each. These were scattered throughout the empire, but the majority of them lived in Yedo. They formed the direct military dependence of the shogun, and held most of the military and civil positions. Under them again were the gokenin, the humbler members of the Togukawa clan, and hereditary followers of the shogun. All these formed the samurai, the men privileged to wear two swords and exempted from taxes. Their number and readiness gave the shogun complete military control of the empire, and made him master of all it held, from mikado to peasant.

Such was the method adopted by the great states-man to insure peace to the empire and to keep the power within the grasp of his own family. In both respects it proved successful. A second important step was taken by Iyemitsu, his grandson, and after him the ablest of the family. By this time many of the noted warriors among the daimios were dead, and their sons, enervated by peace and luxury, could be dealt with more vigorously than would have been safe to do with their fathers.

Iyemitsu suggested that all the daimios should make Yedo their place of residence for half the year. At first they were treated as guests, the shogun meeting them in the suburbs and dealing with them with great consideration. But as the years went on the daimios became more and more like prisoners on parole. They were obliged to pay tribute of respect to the shogun in a manner equivalent to doing homage. Though they could return at intervals to their estates, their wives and children were kept in Yedo as hostages for their good behavior. When Iyemitsu died, the shoguns had cemented their power beyond dispute. The mikados, nominal emperors, were at their beck and call; the daimios were virtual prisoners of state; the whole military power and revenues of the empire were under their control; conspiracy and attempted rebellion could be crushed by a wave of their hands; peace ruled in Japan.

Iyemitsu was the first to whom the title of Tai Kun (Tycoon), or Great King, was ever applied. It was in a letter written to Corea, intended to influence foreigners. It was employed in a larger sense for the same purpose at a later date, as we shall hereafter see. Suffice it here to say that the Tokugawas remained the rulers of Japan until 1868, when a new move in the game of empire was made.