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Introducing Japan’s Top Seven Warlords: The Most Powerful Samurai of the Sengoku Period

Of all periods in Japanese history, the Sengoku Period (Age of Warring States) is one of the most popular. Many famous warlords emerged from this era. This article will introduce seven of the most well-known among the many.

The Warlords of the Sengoku Period

The Edo Period (1603-1867) was a largely peaceful time with few notable conflicts. However, before Japan could enjoy this period of unprecedented peace, they had to endure the Sengoku Period. This period, which lasted around 100 years (although opinions differ on this), saw military leaders (known as Sengoku warlords) from various parts of Japan repeatedly fighting for control of territories to increase their power.

The era was known for its fascinating military leaders and produced many tales and lessons that are still relevant and important today. Of all of the figures in Japanese history, the warlords of the Sengoku Period are particularly popular, and every year you will find countless novels, comics, TV dramas, and games centered around them.

1. Mori Motonari (1497-1571)

Renowned Sengoku military leader Mori Motonari went from being the lord of Aki Province (now the western part of Hiroshima Prefecture) to the man who would unite and lead the whole Chugoku region (the western part of mainland Japan, including Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Shimane, and Tottori). He was famed for being a great strategist and a master tactician.
At that time, two major powers—the Ouchi Clan and the Amago Clan—fought for control of the Chugoku region while lords of smaller areas sandwiched between the two were caught in a fierce struggle to survive. Using his ingenuity, Motonari managed to overthrow both clans and seize control of the Chugoku region, becoming known as the supreme leader of the western part of Japan.

Motonari became known as a great strategist throughout Japan thanks to the Battle of Miyajima. The battle took place at Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage Site, on Itsukushima Island (also known as Miyajima) and was regarded as one of the big three ambushes of the Sengoku Period. It’s hard to believe that around 500 years ago, this beautiful spot was home to such a fierce battle.

The grave of Mori Motonari.

2. Takeda Shingen (1521-1573)

Takeda Shingen was the Sengoku lord of the Kai Province (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture). Much has been written about his skills as a great leader proficient in military affairs, diplomacy, and tactical planning. Renowned for their incredible strength, Shingen’s cavalry soldiers were known as the strongest in the Sengoku Period.

The expression "furinkazan" (as swift as the wind, as gentle as the forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as a mountain) became as famous as Shingen himself as he displayed these four ideals with him in battle.

Known for his countless acts of war, Shingen had a ferocious image but was also well regarded as a lord famous for his great contributions to economic developments in Kai, where he was responsible for acts such as minting Japan’s first gold coin and implementing a flood control system. In Yamanashi, his home prefecture, he is still known affectionately as Shingen-ko (the "ko" shows respect).

3. Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578)

Uesugi Kenshin was the lord of Echigo (present-day Niigata Prefecture) during the Sengoku Period. He was known as a skilled warrior whose abilities could rival that of the Sengoku’s strongest warlord Takeda Shingen and was so feared, he was known by nicknames such as “God of War” and “Echigo’s Dragon”.
He was known for his strong religious faith and had a temple built in his home at Kasugayama Castle to allow him to chant sutras daily.

As well as being renowned for his strength, Kenshin was known for being one of the heaviest drinkers among the Sengoku warlords. In this turbulent period where you were unsure whether you would live or die on a daily basis, "Echigo’s Dragon" may have escaped death in many battles, but it seems he could not escape the temptation of alcohol, and many believe that it was excessive drinking that caused his death at 49.

Uesugi Shrine, where the "God of War" Uesugi Kenshin is enshrined (Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture).

4. Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582)

Of the many Sengoku warlords, the charismatic Oda Nobunaga holds unwavering popularity. Possessing an innovative outlook not bound by the views of the era, and armed with guns and just a small number of men, he was able to defeat larger armies with his tactics. His many military achievements include victory against Shingen Takeda’s cavalry who were then considered the strongest force around. He was also responsible for implementing various reforms and economic developments, including “hei no bunri” (the division of samurai from peasants) and “rakuichi-rakuza” (the opening of free trade markets and the abolition of guilds that offered special privileges to pre-existing traders and merchants).

Unfortunately, his death and place in history came just before the unification of Japan, but there are still many who speculate how modern Japan would look had Nobunaga managed to achieve this. To this day, Oda Nobunaga remains popular across various media, including novels, movies, and games, and is probably the most popular and widely known of the warlords.

Bronze statue of Oda Nobunaga in Kiyosu Park.

5. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598)

Toyotomi Hideyoshi is the warlord who rose from peasant origins to become the leader of a unified Japan. He is seen as one of the three great leaders of the Sengoku Period, alongside Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
As a retainer of Oda Nobunaga, he worked on plans for the unification of Japan, and after Nobunaga’s death, became his successor and was responsible for accomplishing the unification.

Hideyoshi rose through the ranks in a way that was almost unprecedented in Japanese history, and the secret to this success was put down to his people skills which were said to be so extraordinary that some described him as a con artist. When his superiors were caught in a difficult situation, he would be the one to show initiative and take on the problem. Rather than fighting recklessly, he was skilled at making allies of his enemies and building positive relationships with his men rather than condemning them for their mistakes. Many aspects of such stories about Hideyoshi’s personality provide a perfect guide for how the modern-day businessman should behave.

Osaka Castle, originally built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, as it currently stands following its reconstruction.

6. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616)

Tokugawa Ieyasu was born the eldest son of the lord of Mikawa (the present-day eastern part of Aichi Prefecture), but as a young child was forced to live as a hostage of the Imagawa clan. After the fall of the Imagawa clan, he joined forces with Oda Nobunaga, taking control of Mikawa.
After the death of the aforementioned Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Ieyasu was victorious in the momentous Battle of Sekigahara, putting an end to this long period of war in Japan. In 1603, he was appointed shogun (head of the samurai government) of unified Japan, laying the foundations for around 260 years of rule by the Edo shogunate.

Regarded as a great man who brought about one of the longest periods of peace ever seen anywhere in the world, after his death, Tokugawa Ieyasu was deified as “Tosho Dai-Gongen” (a manifestation of Buddha) and enshrined in Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine.

The Yomeimon at Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine, where Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined.

7. Date Masamune (1567-1636)

Date Masamune was the lord of Dewa (a former province located in present-day Yamagata and Akita Prefectures). Also known as the “One-eyed Dragon”, he became the leader of Oushu (present-day Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, and part of Akita Prefectures).
Masamune lost the sight in his right eye through illness at a young age, but this did not deter him from becoming a keen scholar and martial artist. At the age of 18, he succeeded his father to become the leader of the Date clan with ambitions to go from lord of Oushu to ruler of a unified Japan. Unfortunately, this dream would be shattered when Hideyoshi Toyotomi succeeded in uniting the country. However, when Tokugawa Ieyasu established the shogunate in Edo, Masamune was appointed as the first lord of Sendai and devoted his life to bringing peace and prosperity to the Sendai domain.

A brave and daring leader, Masamune was also known for his love of cooking and good food. When the third Edo shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu visited Sendai, Masamune himself took charge of the kitchen to prepare a glorious feast. One of his famous dishes is “zunda mochi”, made using a bean paste made from crushed edamame.

The article could go on forever telling stories of the Sengoku warlords. If you are interested in any of the leaders introduced here, please take some time to look them up and find out a bit more about what they were like!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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