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Tokugawa Ieyasu, the glorious son of Japan


Tokugawa Ieyasu, the third and last unifier of Japan. Image source:


Each and every single moment in the past has undoubtedly effected change on the present. But there are also moments when events and people coalesced together to radically alter the prospects of entire peoples, nations or event the world together. These ‘landmark’ events in history are, that which we study again and again in our history classes at the High School level. Focus has recently shifted to other themes in history education, but the importance of landmark events remain. There are many ways of studying and understanding history, one of them is the perspective of the “Great Men” as advanced in the 19th century. The theory postulates that History  can be explained from the impact of great men. Herbert Spencer criticized this theory because it ignored the role of social environment in the development of the individuals. This theory, from what I understand (since I’m not part of the history academia) is largely discredited. But in my most humble opinion, the character of great men and women had a great effect on history. Individuals are products of society, no doubt, but individuals at the right place at the right moment can radically alter the course of history. The enactment of a law, wars, deaths, coups, and so many other actions by Individuals change the course of nations. Ignore this at your own peril.

Japan, and the three unifiers


Map of  Japan, 1600 C.E. Source: Cambridge History of Japan

There are also times in history of great events, when radical transformations happen in the course of a lifetime. An Empire can take birth, prosper and die. A civilization can be born. It can die. A great Dynasty that will rule for millennia can take root, or one that has ruled for millennia can falter. One such phase was the late 16th and early 17th century Japan, when three great generals united the country once again. Japan before this unification was in a state of disarray: it was the age of the warring states, the Sengoku Jidai when a hundred different warrior states vied with each other for control. From 1467 to 1573, Japan was a nation under a single emperor only in name. The various samurai clans ruled their own domains, and wars among them were ever common. Oda Nobunaga was the first warlord that was able to consolidate power, but he faced a rebellion from his general, Akechi Mitsuhide and committed seppuku. (Seppuku is ritual suicide committed by warriors to avoid dishonor.) The rebellion was snuffed out by another of Nobunaga’s generals, Toytomi Hideyoshi who then captured power and from 1585 was the Kampuku (Imperial regent/chief adviser) of Japan. He made peace with the one other man that could challenge him – Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was thus the undisputed ruler of Japan.

Hideyoshi was a dynamic and competent administrator, but he had exiled his nephew, who he had groomed for some years and then forced him to commit seppeku after the birth of his son. The question of his succession loomed large and he attempted to rest the question by creating a “Council of Elders” to govern the country until his 5 year old son, Toyotomi Hideyori is of his age. This council consisted of the most powerful daimyo (feudal lords) in the country. By making them govern the country together, Hideyoshi hoped to play one against the other. However, that was not to be.

The ambition of Tokugawa

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s ambition was one factor Hideyoshi had attempted to moderate it through this council. But that attempt had failed, especially after the death a loyalist Hideyori General. He consolidated power and increasingly began to act as Hideyori had. This led to conflict with the other daimyos, and in the momentous Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 (which at the very least deserves a separate post in the future), Ieyasu defeated those who challenged his rule. In 3 years, he consolidated his gains, and the Emperor formally made Shogun. In 1605, two years after he retired as shogun formally installing his son Tokugawa Hidetada as Shogun. He became Ogosho, the retired Shogun but he still effectively remained in power until he death in 1616. By placing an adult son, who on his own right was more than competent, and ensuring a buffer period between their reigns, Tokugawa had cemented his dynasty’s hold over the Shogunate. Ensuring that Japan would never again become a hundred different warring states. Oda’s life was snuffed out early, before he could really establish authority. Hideyoshi, while a great military general and a skilled tactician, could not ensure continuity. On the other hand, Tokugawa was a visionary statesman, the great survivor, pragmatic and efficient. By placing his son as Shogun in his own lifetime and ensuring a series of alliances with other lords, he had placed his son in the most comfortable position that he could possibly attain. There is a haiku that Japanese Children learn that contrasts the styles of the three great statesmen:

Oda Nobunaga: If the cuckoo does not sing, kill it

Toyotomi Hideyoshi: If the cuckoo does not sing, try to make it sing

Tokugawa Ieyasu: If the cuckoo does not sing, I will wait until it does

That in essence, shows the style of these great unifiers. Their succession one after another, was a cataclysmic event that led to formation of Modern Japan. One was necessary for the other. They each built off each other’s gains.

A year before his death, Ieyasu had eliminated the last legitimate challenger to the Tokugawa Shogunate in the form of Toyotomi Hideyori, the son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the Siege of Osaka. His dynasty would continue as Shoguns until the Meji restoration in 1868.


The Tokugawa Shogun dynasty Source: Cambridge History of Japan

There is much more that I wish to write about Tokugawa Ieyasu: his battle skill, his sons, his loyalty and much more. There is much to learn from him and his exploits.


The history of Japan is in my opinion, one of the most interesting areas to study. To get my head wrapped around the names, places and the events seems to be quite an arduous task, one that I thoroughly enjoy, and why should I keep it to myself? While waiting around for my train to arrive at Kozhikode after the great floods of 94*, I chanced up on the video about the Sengoku Jedai by Extra Credits on YouTube, and you should probably check it out to gather a larger perception of the events and the people I am talking about here. After watching the series, I was utterly fascinated with Tokugawa Ieyasu. I knew he had existed, that he was the first Shogun and so on, but I never paid much attention to him. I vaguely recall a documentary I saw about him when I was in High School, but not much else. Therefore, I dived to the internet to find out what I could of him. This is not a comprehensive account, or a biography. This is rather a vain, stupid attempt to putting my thoughts together about this colossus of Japanese History.

Tokugawa is one of the three great unifiers of Japan. The ones who preceded him were Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, both of whom he had served.  It was a century of various warlords and regions attempting to assert its claims against each other. It was an age of warriors, the age of samurai; and the efforts of these three masterful warriors and generals build on each other for a unified Japan under one centralized authority. 

  1. : The Kerala Flood of 2018 CE, Malayalam Year 1194.


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