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Military Revolution in Early Modern


Japan
Matthew Stavros

University of Sydney
Published online: 31 Oct 2013.

To cite this article: Matthew Stavros (2013) Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan, Japanese
Studies, 33:3, 243-261, DOI: 10.1080/10371397.2013.831733
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10371397.2013.831733

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Japanese Studies, 2013


Vol. 33, No. 3, 243261, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10371397.2013.831733

Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan

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MATTHEW STAVROS, University of Sydney

Military changes that took place in Japan during the late sixteenth century bear a striking
resemblance to those in Europe at about the same time. This essay argues that the Roberts thesis
of military revolution widely applied to Europe provides a useful framework for identifying a
series of cascading developments that, once realized, constituted the fundamental elements of a
similar revolution in early modern Japan. These included: the almost universal adoption of
rearms, the development of tactics for the effective deployment of those rearms, and nally, a
change in the composition and organization of armies leading to the professionalization of
warfare. Most important, by revolutionizing the way armies were organized and wars were
fought, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi contributed directly to the emergence of new
notions of centralized authority that were critical to the creation of a unied and peaceful early
modern state.

The Military Revolution thesis, rst introduced by Michael Roberts in the 1950s, has
had a profound impact on early modern European historiography. As a paradigm, it is
now thoroughly integrated into the canon of European history as a useful rubric for
contextualizing key developments of the early modern era.1 According to Roberts and
his intellectual successors, a military revolution began with the broad adoption of
rearms and artillery by late sixteenth-century European armies. This development
was followed in close succession by an abrupt and substantial transformation in military
tactics and strategy, and eventually, signicant modications in the design of fortied
architecture. Infantry replaced cavalry as conscription swelled army sizes. Larger battalions underwent extensive drilling to employ novel tactics devised specically for the
deployment of the new weapons. Battleeld conduct was transformed from what, until
then, had been little more than mass or brute warfare. The necessity of well-trained
and loyal forces led to the creation of professional, standing armies whose members
increasingly shared a unied political identity centered upon a commanding king or
prince. According to the Military Revolution thesis, these armies were not merely key
elements of the infrastructure of emerging nation-states; their establishment, provisioning, training, and effective deployment contributed directly to the creation of political,
economic, and logistical institutions that characterized early modern states.
Military changes that occurred in Japan during the late sixteenth century bear a
striking resemblance to those of Europe at about the same time. The Roberts thesis
provides a useful framework for identifying a series of cascading developments that,
Representative literature on the military revolution in Europe includes: Roberts, The Military
Revolution, 15601660; Black, European Warfare, 14531815; Black, European Warfare, 16601815;
Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change; Duffy, The Military Revolution and the State,
15001800; and Parker, The Military Revolution.

2013 Japanese Studies Association of Australia

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244

Matthew Stavros

once realized, constituted the fundamental elements of a military revolution. These


were: (1) the almost universal adoption of rearms; (2) the development of tactics for
the effective deployment of those rearms; (3) a change in the composition and organization of armies due to the development of strategy, and most important, (4) the
emergence of centralized political and institutional relationships indicative of the early
modern order.
During the nal decades of the sixteenth century, three hegemonic warlords Oda
Nobunaga (15341582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (15371598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu
(15421616) effected a striking degree of military and political consolidation through
their magisterial melding of martial prowess and political acumen. Each reaching his
apogee in succession, these national uniers brought an end to an age of protracted
warfare and political fracture that had plagued the Japanese archipelago for over a
century. Established by Ieyasu in 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate superintended a
federation of semi-autonomous domains that remained intact and at peace for over
two centuries.2 This striking political achievement was made possible in large part by the
military innovations pioneered by Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. By revolutionizing the way
armies were organized and wars fought, they contributed directly to the emergence of
new notions of centralized authority that were critical to the creation of a unied and
peaceful early modern order. Ieyasus military legacy is no less monumental, but
discussion of the third unier is limited here because, I would argue, the most critical
elements of Japans military revolution had already reached some maturity by the time
he became hegemon in 1600.
The Roberts thesis has been applied to Japan, albeit cursorily, once before in Englishlanguage scholarship. In his ground-breaking book, The Military Revolution: Military
Innovation and the Rise of the West, 15001800, Geoffrey Parker discussed the success of
Nobunagas armies in adapting gunpowder weapons to local conditions.3 The cover of
that volume even features a Japanese screen-painting depicting the fateful Battle of
Nagashino (1575), where guns were deployed with striking effectiveness.4 Parkers
brief comments on Japan are correct and compelling, yet a detailed examination of
the social and political implications of military change on the archipelago was clearly
outside the scope of his book. This article explores these implications through a close
examination of primary textual and pictorial sources. The aim is to provide, for the rst
time, an accessible narrative of the complex process by which guns changed sixteenthcentury Japanese institutions and, in turn, contributed to the formation of the early
modern order.
A project of this nature cannot begin without some prefatory comments. First, the
emphasis placed on the late sixteenth century can give the impression that military
organization and methods of warfare were static prior to this period. They were not.
Two fairly recent monographs that treat the topic of early Japanese war and warfare both
demonstrate that ghting rationale, methods, and technology evolved throughout the
premodern era.5 In particular, the fteenth century especially the several decades
following the Onin war (Onin no ran 14671477) saw modest but accelerating trends
toward a wider use of foot soldiers, larger armies, better command coordination, and
novel weapons and tactics. In this respect, rearms accelerated antecedent changes in
2

Hideyoshi is credited with having established a federated system, but it was Ieyasu and his successors
who solidied that system by placing it under the auspices of an imperially sanctioned shogunate.
3
Parker, The Military Revolution, 140142.
4
Nagashino kassenzu by
obu, property of Inuyama-j
o hakutei bunko.
5
Conlan, State of War; Friday, Samurai, Warfare and the State.

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Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan

245

Japan much as they did in Europe, where pike-wielding infantry anticipated rearmtoting infantry.
A second cautionary remark relates to the enterprise of comparative history. The
Roberts thesis cannot be applied to Japan uncritically and by no means is this study
meant to be specically comparative. Here, it serves merely to provide a framework for
mapping a sequence of cascading military changes and exploring how those changes
impacted social institutions. Despite striking parallels between Europe and Japan, there
were also profound differences. First, to name a few, pre-unication warlords (daimy
o)
possessed notions of territorial distinctiveness that conicted with overriding ideas about
Japans imperial and historic unity in a way that had no European parallel outside,
perhaps, the Holy Roman Empire. Second, European mercenary companies were
nancially, organizationally, and socially different from local warrior bands (bushi-dan)
in Japan. Further, Japans military revolution, while perhaps more concentrated and
dramatic at the outset, lasted an exceptionally short time in comparison to that of
Europe. Moreover, when it ran its course, the result was the almost total disarmament
of the population and the commencement of a period of peace and stability that, for its
length and durability, is perhaps unique in world history. The peace of Westphalia can
hardly be compared.

The Proliferation of Firearms


According to the standard potentially apocryphal historical narrative, rearms
rst arrived in Japan in 1543 when a Chinese merchant ship carrying Europeans
made an emergency landing at the island of Tanegashima.6 Until then, Japanese
warfare consisted mainly of hand-to-hand combat conducted with swords, spears,
and a variety of blunt-edged weapons.7 A minority of well-trained samurai used bows
and arrows. The introduction of rearms, however, transformed fundamentally the
nature of Japanese warfare, and the proliferation of guns was as immediate as it was
vigorous. Regional warlords with an eye to using the novel weapons to gain a
strategic edge over their rivals stationed buyers at the port-towns of Nagasaki and
Hirado in Kyushu to intercept shipments of the new weapons that began arriving
with increasing frequency from Europe, primarily via India.8 They snapped up
whatever pieces came in, gladly paying exorbitant premiums. Local blacksmiths
were ordered to begin forging their own weapons, but initial technical problems
were only remedied after edgling gunsmiths sought the assistance of European
tradesmen.9 Forging techniques improved rapidly, however, and within a few years
numerous workshops throughout Kyushu were producing intlocks on par with their
European counterparts. In time, students of the more famous gunsmiths traveled to

The earliest recorded use of gunpowder weapons in Japan dates to the late thirteenth century when
continental troops invading Kyushu during the Mongol invasions deployed grenades and other explosive
devices. Primary pictorial sources that include images of the grenades can be viewed at http://www.
bowdoin.edu/mongol-scrolls/
7
See Friday, Samurai, Warfare, and the State, esp. chapter 3.
8
For more detail on the early introduction of rearms, see Brown, The Impact of Firearms on Japanese
Warfare, 154398.
9
Shiritsu Nagahama-j
o rekishi hakubutsu-kan, Kunitomo tepp
o kaji, 2628.

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246

Matthew Stavros

FIGURE 1. Map of Japan in the Sixteenth Century.

the main island of Honshu to found workshops and schools as far east as the Kanto
region (near contemporary Tokyo).10
In 1549, Oda Nobunaga placed an order for 500 matchlocks with the gunsmiths of
Kunitomo, a leading production center of the day.11 Nobunagas arch-rival, Takeda
Shingen, equipped his fortress at Hitachi with as many as 300 of the weapons in 1555.12
The following excerpt from a series of orders issued by Shingen in 1571 shows a decisive
shift in preference for guns over more traditional weapons:

10

See Hora, Tepp


o.
From Kunitomo tepp
o-ki, quoted in Kuroita, Kuroita Katsumi sensei ibun, 238.
12
Kai no kuni My
oh
o-ji kiroku, quoted in Tokutomi, Kinsei Nihon kokumin-shi, vol. 1, 103, hereafter
abbreviated in the style KNKS, 1:103. The record does not specify the type of guns used.
11

Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan

247

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From now on, guns will be what we need most. From this day forth, you are to
choose skilled soldiers and have them carry guns. When mustering the troops,
test their ring [ability] then select them according to their skill. Those not well
trained with either the bow or the gun should absolutely not be brought along
[into battle].13
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was equally dedicated to the procurement and deployment of
rearms. His insatiable enthusiasm for the new weapons is conrmed by records
detailing his preparations for the subjugation of Kyushu in 1586.14 In an account
from that year, a diarist from the province of Satsuma explained that Hideyoshis
army had amassed several thousand guns.15 In 1590, in what was to be the last of
his domestic wars, Hideyoshi mobilized over 250,000 troops to march on H
oj
o Ujinaos
fort at Odawara. A contemporary record refers to extensive H
oj
o preparations, including
the rigging of three muskets and one cannon at each of the castles parapets.16 Despite
this, the document explains, Ujinao continued to be anxious that Hideyoshi might
unleash an arsenal of several tens of thousands of guns.17
Despite the eventual failure of Hideyoshis brazen and ultimately doomed campaign
to subjugate Korea (159298), early victories on the peninsula were likely due to the
overwhelming number of muskets the Japanese forces commanded in the eld. In
preparation for the invasion, Hideyoshi ordered the Shimazu house, lords of Satsuma,
to arm 1,500 soldiers with muskets, 1,500 with bows, and 300 with spears.18 With
armies from over ten other provinces having been called up in much the same way, the
total number of Japanese gunners might well have exceeded 10,000. In the rst Korean
land conict, advanced divisions were met by a Korean force of comparable size, but
according to Taik
o-ki, the curtain of arrows thrown up by the defenders was wiped out
by [Japanese] gunre.19 Hideyoshis forces captured the Korean capital within 20 days
of the initial landing.20
The priority placed on guns over other weapons during the Korean campaign is
apparent in the following requisition for supplies. Sent from the Korean front by
Shimazu Yoshihiro to Hishijima Kiinokami, an ally in Satsuma, the note conveys an
acute sense of urgency as well as an unmistakable xation on rearms:
Prepare guns and ammunition. We have absolutely no use for spears. It is vital
that you arrange somehow to obtain a number of guns. You should see to it
that those persons being deployed [to Korea] understand this situation. The
arrangements for guns should receive your closest attention.21
The use of guns was in no way limited to any one particular ghting class. To the
extent that there existed at this time dogmas prescribing the sword as a samurais
proper weapon, such notions eroded rapidly under the changed circumstances. The
13

Takeda Shingen directive, Genki 2 (1571)/8/?, quoted in KNKS, 10:384.


See Kusaka, H
ok
o ibun, 77113; and Taik
o-ki, in Kond
o, Shiseki sh uran, vol. 6, ch. 29, 203.
15
From Katsube Hy
oemon kikigaki, quoted in KNKS, 5:287.
16
H
oj
o godaiki, in Kond
o, Shiseki sh uran, vol. 5, ch. 26, 60.
17
Ibid., 59.
18
A directive from Hideyoshi to Shimazu, Tensh
o 19 (1591), in Asakawa, The Documents of Iriki,
332335.
19
Taik
o-ki, in Kond
o, Shiseki shuran, vol. 6, ch. 29, 309.
20
For a detailed study of Hideyoshis Korean campaign, see chapter 8 of Berry, Hideyoshi.
21
Letter from Shimazu Yoshihiro to Hishijima Kiinokami, Bunroku 1 (1592)/9/28, in KNKS, 10:380.
14

248

Matthew Stavros

following document from 1598 shows how little status mattered when it came to
armaments:

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When troops come from the province of Kai, have them bring as many guns as
possible. No other equipment is needed. Give strict orders that everyone, even
the samurai, is to carry guns.22
The performance of early rearms left much to be desired. A well-trained archer could
discharge ten arrows a minute with reasonable accuracy at ranges of up to 200 meters. In
striking contrast, an harquebus could take several minutes to reload and was accurate only
up to about 100 meters. Nevertheless, the gun remained attractive because its use
required virtually no training. Whereas a few days and a skilled instructor might sufce
to prepare a team of reasonably good harquebusiers, many years and a whole way of life
were needed to produce a competent archer.23 Eventual renements in musket design
and construction improved circumstances signicantly. Newer weapons could throw a
two-ounce lead shot with enough force to penetrate a plate of armor 100 meters away.
The rst phase of Japans military revolution, a revolution in weapons technology, was
rmly underway by 1560. The implementation of the new weapons, however, was not a
smooth process. In fact, guns presented signicant complications to uninitiated armies.
They demanded a degree of coordinated deployment entirely foreign to traditional
modes of Japanese warfare. New battle methods were needed to realize the full potential
of rearms. This necessity led to the advent of the second phase of Japans military
revolution: a revolution in tactics and strategy.

The Emergence of Tactics and Strategy


The late sixteenth-century revolution in military tactics and strategy was brought on by
efforts to solve persistent and widespread problems experienced by armies deploying
rearms amid old ghting modes. In Japan, as in Europe, these included: how to
combine missile weapons with close action; how to unite hitting-power, mobility, and
defensive strength; and nally, how to minimize casualties resulting from friendly re.
The reforms pioneered by Oda Nobunaga addressed all these issues. He reorganized
armies from the unwieldy, brute masses typical of medieval times into tightly arranged,
highly coordinated linear units. Nobunaga discovered that smaller units arranged into
stacked formations were more capable of deploying multiple weapons simultaneously.24
By alternating shooting cycles, gunners could maintain a continuous stream of re for as
long as ammunition lasted. This tactic alleviated the problematic loading lag of early
muskets while providing a means for advancing troops without occasional pauses.
Before the introduction of rearms, Japanese methods of waging war had remained
largely unchanged for centuries.25 Whether we examine, for example, the battles that
22

Order from Asano Yoshinaga to Asano Nagamasa, Keich


o 3 (1598)/1/11, from Asano monjo, quoted in
KNKS, 10:379.
23
Parker, The Military Revolution, 17.
24
According to screen paintings of the battle, Nobunaga employed a double-rank gunner formation. This
is in contrast to the Dutch volley-re scheme of six ranks. Parker, The Military Revolution, 19.
25
Methods for waging war might have remained largely unchanged but by no means did military
organization, command and technology remain static. See Friday, Samurai, Warfare and the State, esp.
chapter 2.

Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan

249

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accompanied the Mongol invasions of the late thirteenth century or the well-documented conicts of the Hosokawa and Miyoshi families during the mid-sixteenth century,
what we nd is essentially the same: a cluttered and frenzied ghting mode that
apparently lacked centralized command, unied organization, or any signicant troop
discipline.26 Larger armies usually consisted of conglomerations of independent bands
that allied temporarily for the sake of achieving nite objectives with pre-determined
rewards. These highly autonomous groups rarely comprised more than several dozen
people.27 Medieval naval eets such as they were were assembled by commandeering
shing vessels and using them to transport armies to within bow or sword range of
enemy vessels. Early battles, whether on land or sea, were merely colossal fencing
matches. Immortalized in Tales of the Heike, the following account of the twelfth-century
battle at Mizushima between the military houses of Taira and Minamoto captures well
the state of pre-rearms warfare:
Both sides shouted battle cries, released arrows, and brought up their eets to
attack. Those who were distant made use of bows. Those who were close used
swords. Some captured others with rakes, and some suffered capture Each
man fought in his own way.
The Taira had lbrought saddled horses in their boats. They rowed to shore,
unloaded the horses, sprang onto their backs, and charged with fearsome yells.
The Minamoto, with their commander-in-chief dead, ed desperately in
haste.28
Very little collective organization is apparent in this or any accounts of pre-sixteenthcentury Japanese warfare.29 Things change dramatically, however, with the introduction
of rearms. To be sure, the tactics pioneered to deploy rearms effectively rapidly
rendered former battle methods obsolete.
The Battle of Nagashino (Nagashino no tatakai), fought between Nobunaga and
Takeda Katsuyori in 1575 (and dramatized in the 1980 lm by Kurosawa Akira,
Kagemusha), marked a turning point in the history of Japanese warfare and the advent
of the second phase of the military revolution.30 Accounts of that famed battle capture
vividly the nature of Nobunagas tactics and help explain why his side enjoyed a decisive
advantage. The following extended excerpt from Shinch
o k
oki is representative. Note, in
particular, the high degree of troop discipline and strategic organization:
Upon arriving at Nagashino, Lord Nobunaga set up a base at Gokurakuji
temple on a mountain in the village of Shitara.

26
Ishii contrasts the independent nature of Japanese soldiers with the apparently collective orderliness of
the invading YanKoryo forces in his The Decline of the Kamakura Bafuku, 138140. Also, see
Conlan, In Little Need of Divine Intervention.
27
Takezaki Suenaga, who fought the Mongols during the invasions of 1274 and 1281, was rewarded by
the shogunate for being capable of leading ve men into battle (italics mine). Conlan suggests this
number was typical for the period. See Conlan, In Little Need of Divine Intervention, 2.
28
Sat
o, Heike monogatari, dai 8 maki, gekan, 35; McCullough, The Tale of the Heike, 270.
29
See Conlan, The Nature of Warfare in Fourteenth-Century Japan . On battle cries and self-introductions (nanori), see Friday, Samurai, Warfare and the State, 145.
30
The Battle of Nagashino is also the setting for several Sony Playstation video games, including Koeis
Kessen III and Samurai Warriors.

250

Matthew Stavros

The village of Shitara was located on land slightly lower than its surroundings.
About 30,000 soldiers could take up position there and avoid detection from
the enemy army of Takeda. Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu established camp on Mt
Takamatsu. Takigawa, Hideyoshi and Niwa made camp at Arumihara.
Altogether, the forces allied with Nobunaga were arranged so as to surround
the enemy, Takeda Katsuyori. Nobunaga thought, With Takeda so close and
backed up against a great river, this ght is a blessing from heaven. We must
destroy them all!

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Calling Sakai to his side, Nobunaga pulled about 2,000 archers and skilled
gunmen from Ieyasus troops. He placed these men in Sakais charge. Just after
six oclock in the morning, troops [of Nobunaga] having reached the top of the
mountain raised their ags and shouted battle cries. Watching the enemy from
atop Mt Takamatsu, Nobunaga issued orders not to take action until his signal
was given. He then ordered about a hundred infantry gunners into formation
so as to receive the approaching enemy.
In the rst wave, an enemy general, Yamagata, gave the signal and hit the
drum, sending his troops charging forth. They were all either immediately cut
down or sent eeing by gunre. A second wave of [enemy] infantry troops
advanced. Again, in accordance with Nobunagas order, re rained down,
forcing more than half to retreat.
In the third wave, ghters from Nishi K
ozuke sallied forth. Kant
o soldiers tend
to be skilled horsemen. They sallied forth, pounding their drums. Here too,
Nobunagas gunners remained in formation, well hidden, awaiting the
approach. Each wave of re would bring down more than half the charging
enemy. The rest ed.
In this way, Nobunagas troops remained stationary despite the assault,
answering each attack with erce gunre. The Takeda army was overwhelmed
by this [tactic], left with no choice but to retreat.
The fourth wave came from the forces of Banba Minonokami, again sounding
their drums. But again, Nobunagas lines remained tight, answering the assault
with gunre. Most [of the enemy] were cut down.
From sunrise until about two oclock in the afternoon, ghting continued in
the east-northeast. The Takeda army was wrecked until only a few remained.
Finally, the various bands gathered around Katsuyori and ed31
The tactics employed at Nagashino departed dramatically from former modes of warfare. Primary pictorial sources such as the Folding Screens of the Nagashino Battle
(Nagashino kassenzu by
obu) conrm that the forces of Nobunagas allied army were
arranged into tight, linear formations, situated behind stockades. When Takedas men
charged, they were cut down by a continuous barrage of gunre made possible by what
appears to have been a well-choreographed regime of volley re. Evidence suggesting
Nobunaga employed volley re in 1575 is signicant when comparing the progression of
military innovations in Japan with those of Europe. It is generally accepted that volley
re was rst employed in Europe by Lord William Louis of Nassau (15381574) who

Translated by the author, from Ota, Shinch


o k
oki, maki 8, Sansh
u Nagashino kassen no koto.

31

251

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Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan

FIGURE 2. Nagashino kassenzu byobu (detail), property of Inuyama-j


o hakutei bunko.

drafted his famous countermarch schematic in the mid-1590s. That is more than a
decade after its earliest deployment (with striking effectiveness) in Japan.32
What took place at Nagashino was the meeting of old and new ghting methods
during that exceedingly brief historical window between the introduction of rearms and
their almost universal adoption. The troops allied with Takeda took to the eld intent
upon engaging Nobunagas men in hand-to-hand combat. While they might have
expected an initial round of gunre, they could not have anticipated the restraint of
Nobunagas lines a critical sign of discipline or their ability to sustain continuous
32

Parker, The Military Revolution, 19.

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252

Matthew Stavros

re. The Takeda army was easily overwhelmed.33 With Nagashino, the rules of engagement had changed. Warfare and armies were never to be the same.
The tactics employed at Nagashino soon became the standard. We see them used by
both sides in 1583, for example, when Hideyoshi and Shibata faced off at Shizugatake.
Each general entrenched his respective forces and waited for the other to initiate
hostilities. Hideyoshi nally succeeded in provoking one of Shibatas more daring
deputies to break ranks and attack, a move that triggered the advance of Shibatas
main lines. In the end, the entire Shibata side was wiped out by the more disciplined
troops of Hideyoshis army.34
Historians of Japan tend to cast Hideyoshi as the unication eras most gifted
tactician. Indeed, his campaigns exhibited a degree of strategic aptitude unparalleled
by his predecessors and contemporaries alike. Hideyoshis warcraft in general was a
methodical science that resulted in consistent victory. But it was in the realm of siege
warfare that his military legacy was most outstanding. After the introduction of rearms
and development of defensive tactics, the primary venue of battle shifted from the eld
to the castle. In the rare subsequent cases when armies met on the battleeld, stubborn
adherence to defensive strategies and a general refusal to initiate attack often resulted in
stalemates. Castles sprang up throughout the archipelago, but Hideyoshi quickly devised
ways to overcome the defenses of these early, rudimentary fortications. He pioneered
and mastered the art of siegecraft, rst through the use of heavy artillery, then later
through isolation tactics.
Early artillery was crude and inefcient. In order to lob heavy lead shot far enough to
be useful, cannon had to be raised onto hills or makeshift turrets or stages to be red
with a downward trajectory.35 Elevating the weapons mitigated the effects of gravity, but
the effort involved spoiled any possibility of a surprise attack. The capture of Kanki
castle in 1582 was representative of Hideyoshis employment of elevated bombardment,
his rst and most aggressive form of siege warfare:
Korezumi Gorozaemon and his soldiers from the province of Wakasa were
assigned to the eastern gate of Kanki castle. First, [Lord Hideyoshi] had two
high towers erected onto which cannon were mounted. The castle moat was
lled in and articial mounds were made. From these [mounds] the castle was
attacked. Takigawa Sagon moved from the southern to the eastern gate where
[Hideyoshi] had his laborers erect towers from which the walls and citadel
were bombarded with cannon. The citadel caught re and burned down.36
The use of heavy artillery increased with the proliferation of fortications. Hideyoshi, for
example, in preparation for the campaign on Odawara castle in 1589, requisitioned 20
oj
o prepared similarly.38 In this particular case, however,
cannon.37 The defending H
conict was avoided when Hideyoshi had his forces surround the site, completely
33
According to Ota, Shinch
o k
oki, prior to Nagashino, Nobunaga had commanded troops in over 22
battles or engagements to quell uprisings. In that record, never once had he used a similar tactical
deployment before.
34
The textual materials relating to the battle of Shizugatake were compiled during the seventeenth
century under the title Shizugatake kassen-ki. See Kond
o, Shiseki sh uran, vol. 13, 350355.
35
Such apparatuses included tsukejiro () and toride (, or ). See, among others, maki 11 of Ota,
Shinch
o k
oki. Also, Asao, 16 seiki k
ohan no Nihon, 20.
36
Ota, Shinch
o k
oki, maki 11, Harima Kanji-j
o no koto.
37
KNKS, 6:94.
38
H
oj
o godaiki, in Kond
o, Shiseki sh uran, vol. 5, ch. 26, 60.

Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan

253

choking off its supply lines. When provisions were exhausted, defenders were forced to
capitulate. Isolation, in fact, was the second most common of Hideyoshis siege tactics.39 The fall of Miki castle in 1580 is a grisly example of its effectiveness:

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Inside the castle, troop rations were low and people were beginning to suffer
greatly Then, all provisions ran out. [They began] killing horses and tearing
open mice for food. They had become so weak that in an attempt to mitigate
their hunger, they were licking the [plaster] walls. Many [soldiers] lay collapsed
at the base of the walls, just below their parapets.40
Seventeen days after the siege had begun and without a single shot red, the defenders
began taking their own lives. Hideyoshi employed the isolation tactic frequently, and in
almost every case victory was claimed with little or no bloodshed.
In light of how often the isolation tactic was used and despite a signicant body of
documentation suggesting otherwise, it might seem that Hideyoshi preferred bloodless
victory over violent confrontation. Consideration of one more new-fangled siege tactic
supports this view, illustrating the lengths to which Hideyoshi went to force his opponents to surrender without conict. This tactic was the famed mizuzeme, or water
assault.
The water assault was not so much an exercise in strategic genius as it was a striking
example of Hideyoshis capacity to command tremendous human and material
resources. Similar to the bombardment strategy, water assault involved extensive preparations, including surveys of the local topography and civil engineering projects. The
rst time it was used was in 1582 during the siege of M
ori Terumotos fortress at
Takamatsu in the province of Bitch
u (the western part of modern Okayama Prefecture).
It was the end of 1581 when Hideyoshi received word of M
oris rebellion and his
subsequent entrenchment at Takamatsu. At the time, Hideyoshi was returning from a
campaign in Iwami province where his isolation tactic had forced the submission of the
army of Bessho Nagaharu (Tottori castle). According to Taik
o-ki, Hideyoshi immediately determined to confront M
ori despite his forces being gravely outnumbered.41
The main keep of Takamatsu castle was located at the center of a marshy basin,
surrounded by mountains to the north, east and west. The Ashimori river owed briskly
to the south. The topography made it impossible for Hideyoshis men to approach the
site close enough to isolate it effectively and, with inferior numbers, taking M
ori by force
was inconceivable. A plan was devised to ood the basin by damming and diverting the
ow of the Ashimori. Kuroda kafu, a rst-hand textual account, explains:
Examining the character of this castle, its topography is low with nearby
mountains on two sides. Because there is a river running through the middle,
there was no choice but to dam the river and perform a water assault. A dam
was built around the castles perimeter of 20,032-span.42

European historians often call this tactic besiegement.


Ota, Shinch
o k
oki, maki 13, Bansh
u Miki rakkyo no koto (1580).
41
Hideyoshi was traveling with a reduced ghting contingent of about 27,000. See Shin Nihon koten
bungaku taikei, Taik
o-ki, 5455.
42
Kuroda kafu, quoted in Miyamoto, Kenchiku-ka Hideyoshi, 33. 20,032 spans is equal to about 36 square
kilometers. I assume, therefore, this gure is referring to the entire basin in which the castle stood.
39
40

254

Matthew Stavros

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When the basin ooded, the elevated central keep became stranded at the center of an
impassable lake. The water assault, therefore, was a variation on the isolation tactic. It
was novel, however, in terms of the extent to which it required human and material
resources. The author of Taik
o-ki notes the tremendous logistical and technical difculties involved in damming the fast-owing Ashimori river. Several architectural historians have speculated as to how the task might have been accomplished. Some
describe complex wooden apparatuses attached to stone-laden boats and sunk at either
side of the river. Others propose that Hideyoshi may have ordered as many as 2,000
soldiers to wade in the river so as to stem its ow long enough to construct a dam.43 No
matter which of the several explanations, all agree that the water assault was time- and
labor-intensive, and that it required a degree of planning and organization never before
seen. The fact that such a strategy was possible is indicative of the extent to which
martial leadership had evolved by Hideyoshis time.

New Armies, New Commands, and New Kinds of Soldiers


Guns led to profound changes in the composition and organization of armies. First,
cavalry (which had long been in decline) was almost completely displaced by infantry.
Japanese horses of the premodern period were small, equivalent in size to the contemporary pony. The average horse had a height of only about 1.5 meters at the shoulder;
the smallest stood at a mere meter.44 The usefulness of such animals on the battleeld
was limited. In 1573, Takeda Shingens army included approximately one cavalryman
for every two infantrymen.45 Two decades later, Hideyoshi ordered the whole of Date
Masamunes army to be supplied with only 30 horses.46 The importance of mounted
horsemen had clearly waned with the advent of gunpowder warfare.
The second major change amounted to a fundamental rethinking of traditional troop
formations. First-hand accounts, battle schematics, and pictorial sources from the latter
half of the sixteenth century all conrm the emergence of a new and increasingly
uniform formation structure.47 In general, gunner companies were placed in the front
ranks, followed by rows of archers who were backed by spearmen and swordsmen.48 At
the center of the army rode the commanding general on horseback, anked by his
closest retainers and attendants. They, in turn, were surrounded by additional companies of gunners, archers, and spearmen. Ancillary staff, horses, and infantry guards were
placed at the rear. By the 1580s, Japanese armies had adopted deployment schemes very
similar to those of post-Military Revolution Europe. Long-range weapons were placed
in the vanguard where they could initiate hostilities as soon as an enemy came within
range. Archers followed the gunners because they could provide support at a somewhat
43
For details on the various problems and suspected solutions to the dam-building project at Takamatsu,
see Miyamoto, Kenchiku-ka Hideyoshi, 3233.
44
Hayashida, Nihon zairaiba no keit
o ni kansuru kenky
u, 109120. Friday, Samurai, Warfare and the State,
97. F. Brinkley wrote in 1902, The Japanese never had a war-horse worthy to be so called. The
misshapen ponies which carried them to battle showed qualities of hardiness and endurance, but were
so decient in stature and massiveness that when mounted by a man in voluminous armour they looked
painfully puny. Quoted in Cooper, They Came to Japan, 147.
45
K
oy
o gunkan, in Koji ruien kank
okai, Koji ruien, vol. 29, 181182.
46
Date nikki, in Zoku gunsho ruiju kansei-kai, Gunsho ruiju, vol. 13, 1064.
47
Koji ruien kank
okai, Koji ruien, vol. 29, 4472.
48
Hideyoshi instructed his generals in the eld to keep gunners in the vanguard. Directive from
Hideyoshi to Kobayashi and others, Bunroku 1 (1592)/12/6, in Kusaka, H
ok
o ibun, 404.

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255

shorter range. Spearmen and swordsmen were moved to the front only when hand-tohand combat became imminent. On the whole, therefore, armies came to be composed
of interrelated units that could be maneuvered to maximize the effectiveness of new
weapons and modes of warfare. Thus, military advantage came to lie with armies
possessing a strong, centralized command structure capable of coordinating complex
strategic maneuvers executed by disparate ghting units. The development of rearm
tactics had already necessitated stricter army training and drilling which, as discipline
and organization in the eld became increasingly important, contributed to greater
command centralization. What occurred, essentially, was a transformation in the way
larger armies were led and, more important, a shift from military alliances based upon
feudal obligations and promises of direct and immediate rewards, to armies with a
shared sense of collectivity, bound together by a unied political identity.
Evidence that new notions of authority were emerging comes with the appearance in
the late 1580s of two new types of war articles: the jinch
u-j
omoku, or Troop Register,
and the jindatesho, or Troop Deployment Schematic.49 Both these documents were
profoundly different from their medieval counterparts, which in terms of their objectives
and assumptions were characteristic of the feudal environment that generated them.
Earlier war articles institutionalized conditional and temporary alliances, predicated
upon vague ideas of liality and, more importantly, promises of reward. Furthermore,
by their very nature they implicitly guaranteed a high degree of autonomy for constituent
armies.50 Following the collapse of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, wars tended
mostly to be fought by small troop units, assembled temporarily and often voluntarily.
Service had to be requested instead of demanded, armies being little more than
aggregate assemblages of individuals.51 But as the nature of warfare changed with the
introduction of rearms, so too did the nature of wartime alliances and the centralization of command and control. The appearance of the troop registers and troop
deployment schematics is a dramatic indication of this transformation.
The earliest known use of these new documents was in 1584 at the battle of Nagakute
where the forces of Maeda, Mori and Ikeda had allied under the command of Hideyoshi to
ght the combined armies of Ieyasu and Oda Nobuo.52 Preparations for war began with
Hideyoshi issuing a troop register in which he enumerated the duties expected of each of
the several armies under his command. This act unequivocally established Hideyoshis
supreme command over the coalition forces while at the same time negating the individual
command prerogatives of his allied generals.53 Unlike previous articles of war, which tended
to be either requests for military assistance by powerful generals on the one hand or the
volunteering of troops by local bands eager for reward on the other, Hideyoshis troop
register was a direct requisition of military service, a compulsory enlistment to ght.
Once troops were committed, a troop deployment schematic was drawn up. As its
name implies, this document was a highly contrived tactical war plan: an attack schematic which, among other things, took into consideration available forces, weapons,
terrain, and enemy resources. The document reproduced in Figure 3 depicts a major
For a full discussion on these two documents, see Miki, Jindatesho no seiritsu o megutte.
For detailed information on medieval articles of war such as the chakut
oj
o or the gunch uj
o, see Sat
o,
Komonjo ny umon, 242251.
51
For discussion, see Friday, Samurai, Warfare and the State, 5362.
52
There is no evidence daimy
o drew up tactical ghting plans prior to this. Theoretical tacticians did,
however, devise highly theoretical plans based on battle accounts in Chinese classical texts. Nagakute is
also known as the battle of Komaki-Nagakute.
53
Miki, Jindatesho no seiritsu o megutte.
49
50

Matthew Stavros

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256

FIGURE 3. Earliest known jindatesho, issued in 1584 by Hideyoshi at the battle


of Nagakute. Reproduction published in T
oky
o teikoku daigaku shiry
o hensanjo, Dainihon shiryo, vol. 11, book 6, 377.

contingent of Hideyoshis coalition army deployed at the battle of Nagakute. The forces
are illustrated in horizontal formations arrayed between the enemy base at Komaki in
the south (top), and the Hideyoshi base at Mount Inu in the north (bottom). Of greatest
signicance is the way inscriptions show that Hideyoshi juxtaposed soldiers from different origins and deployed them in mixed formations. No longer were troops grouped
according to local, historical or familial alliances. This type of schematic, the earliest
known of its type, suggests Hideyoshi conceived of his coalition as a unied force in

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Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan

257

which traditional identities, while perhaps still extant, were functionally subordinated to
the objectives of the whole. He exercised direct command and expected unied, integrated cooperation.54 The document also shows, through consideration of which groups
were teamed together into single formations, that he was able to ignore (and force others
to ignore) historical rivalries. In battles like Nagashino, fought only nine years earlier,
the several participating armies took orders from Nobunaga yet maintained physically
separate and functionally independent formations. By the time of Nagakute, such battle
practices had become outmoded. Greater centralized command had led to the emergence of more unied battalions of allied armies. First Nobunagas, then to a greater
extent Hideyoshis, preeminent military and political power enabled and promoted a
broad convergence of military identity. No matter what his former afliations, even the
lowest ranking soldier who joined Hideyoshis coalition, for example, was transformed
into an integral element of that leaders army. Never before, even in the days of strong
military oversight by the Kamakura or Muromachi shoguns (thirteenth to fteenth
centuries) had centralized martial prerogative superseded local feudal bonds.55 What
was taking place was a transformation in the very fabric of military identity. Berry
equates this change to what occurred in Europe at about the same time: a paradigmatic
shift from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft from the ascendancy of private and privileged
corporations (local barons) to the ascendancy of the state.56
Military historians of Europe often relate the consolidation of regional armies and
military authority to the origins of national armies.57 While in early modern Japan the
same conclusion cannot be reached precisely because a national army was never created,
there are some important parallels. During the unication period, the number of
regional hegemons was more than cut in half. Those who remained eventually allied
either through physical unication or pacts of non-aggression. Armies of enormous size
emerged that were distinct from earlier armies in the way command prerogative resided
with a single individual, the shogun or a daimy
o warlord. Such was the case with
Ieyasus army at the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and Matsudaira
Nobutsunas army at the revolt of Shimabara (16371638). Larger battalions, more
centralized commands, and better coordination became hallmarks of early modern
Japanese armies.
The consolidation and monopolization of martial authority came to nal fruition
through sweeping legislation promulgated by Hideyoshi in 1587. The so-called Peace
Orders, heiwarei, proscribed regional warlords from using violence as a means of
resolving disputes, effectively endowing the hegemon with a monopoly on war.58
Rights to defend or expand a domain with arms, to resolve quarrels through conict,
to attack neighbors on the pretext of defending honor dening features of medieval
warrior justice were summarily revoked. This dramatic change, in the view of
Nagahara Keiji, eviscerated regional warrior autonomy and, in one breathtaking historical moment, effectively nationalized military authority.59 After the establishment of the
Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, the only justiable inter-domainal violence was that
which took place expressly at the behest of the central military regime itself. Despite
Miki emphasizes that the jindatesho signaled a change from individualized ghting to more unied,
group ghting. Ibid.
55
See Kawai, with Grossberg, Shogun and Shugo.
56
Berry, Public Space and Private Attachment, 238.
57
See Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy, introduction.
58
Fujiki, Toyotomi heiwa-rei to sengoku shakai, 7576.
59
Nagahara, Nihon chusei no shakai to kokka, 19293, also 245.
54

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Matthew Stavros

the relative political autonomy of domains and their inherent military preparedness
throughout that period (16031868), martial force remained the monopolistic prerogative of the state, a term that, while not parallel to European notions, is frequently
applied to the Tokugawa polity. In Japan, as in Europe, such authority along with a
monopoly on foreign affairs, taxes, and control over food supplies was a hallmark of
the early modern state.60
At the same time the revolution was transforming armies and their command structures, so too was it reshaping the occupation of war. What occurred was the professionalization of ghting men, the creation of a full-time ghting class. The ultimate
manifestation of this change was Hideyoshis passing of legislation in the late 1580s
that froze society into four hereditary, hierarchical, and occupation-based status groups:
samurai, peasants, artisans, and merchants.61 Until that time, peasant conscripts who
were extracted from villages to ght, usually during winter months, comprised a considerable portion of Japanese warrior bands (bushi-dan). As the frequency and intensity
of war increased in the late sixteenth century, forced conscription of otherwise noncombatants became increasingly common. While undoubtedly unpleasant for many,
military service could be a useful vehicle for social mobility, as is apparent from this
1567 post-battle commendation: The peasant, having served loyally as an infantry
soldier, should be rewarded well. In terms of status, he shall be made a samurai.62
Two decades later, a general from the H
oj
o house demanded all villagers within his
domain between the ages of 15 and 70 take up arms and bring to the ght whatever
weapons they had, including bows, spears, or guns. After threatening to take the head
of any village elder unwilling to cooperate, the document concludes with this promise of
reward to those who render loyal service: No matter whether one be a samurai or a
peasant, recompense will be made according to their wishes.63
The wording suggests that while by this later date status might have become somewhat less malleable, it clearly did not yet dictate occupation (or vice versa). Hideyoshis
status laws, promulgated the following year, changed those circumstances decisively.
From then on, peasants were peasants and samurai were samurai. By the end of the
century, new weapons, a greater level of military organization, and nally law, had made
war the unambiguous domain of professionals.
At about the same time Hideyoshi was articulating the status system, he issued nationwide decrees ordering the conscation of swords, bows, pikes and guns from all noncombatants.64 Guns in particular were considered the most egregious contraband. Like
his counterparts in Europe, Hideyoshi had clearly sought to secure his hegemony by
limiting the potential for popular insurrection as well as social climbing through military
service. That said, on this particular topic the differences between Europe and Japan are
striking and profound. Hideyoshis aggressive disarmament campaign, coupled with a
proscription on warfare, led to what might accurately be called a military counter
revolution wherein the dizzying technological and tactical advances of the recent several
decades were rst outlawed, then abandoned entirely. Once having mastered the
White, State Growth and Popular Protest in Tokugawa Japan, 2; Berry, Public Peace and Private
Attachment, 245. Read the views of Charles Tilly on the articles of statehood in Ravina, Land and
Lordship, 24.
61
On the Tokugawa status system in general see, for example, Asao, Mibun to kakushiki, and Howell,
Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-century Japan.
62
From Kaitei shinhen s
osh u komonjo, quoted in Asao, Mibun to kakushiki, 1718.
63
Ibid., 17.
64
On the Sword Hunt (katanagari-rei ) of 1588, see Berry, Hideyoshi, 102111.
60

Military Revolution in Early Modern Japan

259

production and deployment of guns in battle, Japan essentially gave them up.65 Such an
example of military retrogression is remarkable in world history, if not unique.

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Conclusion
Weapons technology, tactics, and army composition in Japan changed profoundly
between about 1580 and 1600. Textual and pictorial sources narrate a series of developments that in a remarkably short period of time altered fundamentally the nature of
war and warfare. These developments alone are signicant, but the impact of military
changes went well beyond matters of ghting. As was the case in sixteenth-century
Europe, these related and often complementary developments had a revolutionary
impact on social and political institutions. The introduction of gunpowder weapons
necessitated the development of new tactics. These tactics required a high degree of
discipline and organization that could only be accomplished by a professionalized ghting force. Full-time soldiers came to belong to a single, centralized order led by an
individual who exercised direct command over vast and complex military, political, and
economic institutions. Japans military revolution, like that of Europe, had material and
political repercussions that extended well beyond the realm of warfare. To be sure, in
terms of the emergence of notions of identity and centralized authority, they contributed
directly to the articulation of key elements of Japans early modern order.
Acknowledgements
This article began life as a brief essay used for teaching at the University of Sydney.
Since then, it has undergone signicant expansion and countless renements, thanks in
large part to the input of many bright student readers. Several colleagues have also
provided valuable advice, including Olivier Ansart, Elise Tipton and Eddy U. I am
grateful to Carolyn Stevens for ushering the nal manuscript through the anonymous
review process and to David Kelly for providing useful suggestions. Thanks are due the
University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute and the Hakutei Archives of Inuyama
Castle for granting permission to publish images.
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