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The Azuchi-Momoyama Jidai (安土桃山時代) is the final phase of the Sengoku Jidai (戦国時代) in Japan. These years of political unification eventually led to the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600. It spans the years from1573 to 1600, during which time Oda Nobunaga, his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu imposed order upon the chaos that had pervaded since the collapse of the Ashikaga Shogunate.

Although a start date of 1573 is often given, this period in broader terms begins with Nobunaga’s entry into Kyoto in 1568, when he led his army to the imperial capital in order to install Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the 15th – and ultimately final – shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate. The era lasts until the coming to power of Tokugawa Ieyasu after his victory over supporters of the Toyotomi clan at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

During this period, a short but spectacular epoch, Japanese society and culture underwent the transition from the medieval era to the early modern era.

The name of this period is taken from two castles: Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle (in Azuchi, Shiga) and Hideyoshi’s Momoyama Castle (also known as Fushimi Castle, in Kyoto).


Rise and fall of Oda Nobunaga

During the last half of the 16th century, a number of daimyo became strong enough either to manipulate the Ashikaga Shogunate to their own advantage or to overthrow it altogether. One attempt to overthrow the Bakufu (the Japanese term for the Shogunate) was made in 1560 by Imagawa Yoshimoto, whose march towards the capital came to an ignominious end at the hands of Oda Nobunaga in the Battle of Okehazama.

In 1562, the Tokugawa clan whose fief of Mikawa was adjacent to the east of Nobunaga’s territory became independent of the Imagawa clan, and allied with Nobunaga. With the eastern part of his territory protected by this alliance, Nobunaga was free to move his army to the west.

In 1565, an alliance of the Matsunaga and Miyoshi clans attempted a coup by assassinating Ashikaga Yoshiteru, the 13th Ashikaga shogun. Internal squabbling, however, prevented them from acting swiftly to legitimatize their claim to power, and it was not until 1568 that they managed to install Yoshiteru’s cousin, Ashikaga Yoshihide, as the next Shogun. Failure to enter Kyoto and gain recognition from the imperial court, however, had left the succession in doubt, and a group of Bakufu retainers led by Hosokawa Fujitaka negotiated with Nobunaga to gain support for Yoshiteru’s younger brother, Yoshiaki.

Nobunaga, who had prepared over a period of years for just such an opportunity by establishing an alliance with the Azai clan in northern Ōmi Province and then conquering the neighboring province of Mino Province, now marched toward Kyoto. After routing the Rokkaku clan in southern Omi, Nobunaga forced the Matsunaga to capitulate and the Miyoshi to withdraw to Settsu. He then entered the capital, where he successfully gained recognition from the emperor for Yoshiaki, who became the 15th and last Ashikaga shogun.

Nobunaga had no intention, however, of serving the Muromachi Ashikaga Bakufu. Instead he now turned his attention to tightening his grip on the Kinai region. Resistance in the form of rival daimyo, intransigent Buddhist monks, and hostile merchants was eliminated swiftly and mercilessly with Nobunaga quickly gaining a reputation as a ruthless, unrelenting adversary. In support of his political and military moves, he instituted economic reform, removing barriers to commerce by invalidating traditional monopolies held by shrines and guilds and promoting initiative by instituting free markets known as rakuichi-rakuza.

By 1573 he had destroyed the alliance of Asakura clan and Azai clans that threatened his northern flank, obliterated the militant Tendai Buddhists monastic center at Mount Hiei near Kyoto, and also had managed to avoid a potentially debilitating confrontation with Takeda Shingen, who had suddenly taken ill and died just as his army was on the verge of defeating the Tokugawa and invading Oda’s domain on its way to Kyoto.  Other versions of the events claim that Shingen was shot and killed while laying siege to one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s castles.

Even after Shingen’s death, there remained several daimyo powerful enough to resist Nobunaga, but none were situated close enough to Kyoto to pose a threat politically, and it appeared that unification under the Oda banner was a matter of time.

Nobunaga’s enemies were not only other Sengoku daimyō but also adherents of a Jōdo Shinshu sect of Buddhism who attended Ikkō-ikki, led by Kennyo. He endured though Nobunaga kept attacking his fortress for ten years. Nobunaga expelled Kennyo in the eleventh year, but, through a riot caused by Kennyo, Nobunaga’s territory took the bulk of the damage. This long war was called Ishiyama Hongan-ji war.

To suppress Buddhism, Nobunaga lent support to Christianity. About this time a significant amount of Western Christian missionaries introduced culture to Japan from Europe. From this exposure, Japan received new foods, a new drawing method, astronomy, geography, medical science, and new printing techniques.

Nobunaga decided to reduce the power of the Buddhist priests, and gave protection to Christianity. He slaughtered many Buddhist priests and captured their fortified temples.

The activities of European traders and Catholic missionaries (Alessandro Valignano, Luís Fróis, Gnecchi-Soldo Organtino) in Japan gave the period a cosmopolitan flavor.

During the period from 1576 to 1579, Nobunaga constructed, on the shore of Lake Biwa at Azuchi the Azuchi Castle.  It was a magnificent seven-story castle that was intended to serve not simply as an impregnable military fortification, but also as a sumptuous residence that would stand as a symbol of unification.

Having secured his grip on the Kinai region, Nobunaga was now powerful enough to assign his generals the task of subjugating the outlying provinces.  Shibata Katsuie was given the task of conquering the Uesugi clan in Etchū.  Takigawa Kazumasu confronted Shingen’s son, Takeda Katsuyori in the Shinano ProvinceHashiba Hideyoshi (later called Toyotomi Hideyoshi) was given the formidable task of facing the Mōri clan in the Chūgoku region of western Honshū.

In 1575, Nobunaga won a significant victory over the Takeda clan in the Battle of Nagashino. Despite the strong reputation of Takeda’s samurai cavalry, Oda Nobunaga embraced the relatively new technology of the Arquebus (matchlock rifle) and inflicted a crushing defeat. The legacy of this battle forced a complete overhaul of traditional Japanese warfare.

In 1582, after a protracted campaign, Hideyoshi requested Nobunaga’s help in overcoming tenacious resistance by the Mori. Nobunaga, making a stop-over in Kyoto on his way west with only a small contingent of guards, was attacked by one of his own disaffected generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, and was forced to commit suicide.

After Nobunaga

What followed was a scramble by the most powerful of Nobunaga’s retainers to avenge their lord’s death and thereby establish a dominant position in negotiations over the forthcoming realignment of the Oda clan. The situation became even more urgent when it was learned that Nobunaga’s oldest son and heir, Nobutada, had also been killed, leaving the Oda clan with no clear successor.

Quickly negotiating a truce with the Mōri clan before they could learn of Nobunaga’s death, Hideyoshi now took his troops on a forced march toward his adversary, Mitsuhide, whom he defeated at the Battle of Yamazaki less than two weeks later.

Although a commoner who had risen through the ranks from foot soldier, Hideyoshi was now in position to challenge even the most senior of the Oda clan’s hereditary retainers, and proposed that Nobutada’s infant son, Sanpōshi (who became Oda Hidenobu), be named heir rather than Nobunaga’s adult third son, Nobutaka, whose cause had been championed by Shibata Katsuie.  Having gained the support of other senior retainers, including Niwa Nagahide and Ikeda Tsuneoki, Sanpōshi was named heir and Hideyoshi appointed co-guardian.  This gave Hideyoshi effective rule over the Oda.

Continued political intrigue, however, eventually led to open confrontation. Hideyoshi defeated Shibata Katsuie at the Battle of Shizugatake in 1583.  He successfully concluded a costly but ultimately advantageous stalemate with Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Komaki and Nagakute in 1584 thus managing to settle the question of succession for once and all.   This enabled Hideyoshi to take complete control of Kyoto, and to become the undisputed ruler of the former Oda domains.

The Daimyo of Shikoku Chōsokabe clan surrendered to Hideyoshi in July 1585, and the Daimyo of the Kyushu Shimazu clan also surrendered two years later. Hideyoshi was adopted by the Fujiwara family, given the surname Toyotomi, and granted the superlative title Kanpaku, representing civil and military control of all Japan. By the following year, he had secured alliances with three of the nine major daimyo coalitions and carried the war of unification to Shikoku and Kyūshū. In 1590, at the head of an army of 200,000, Hideyoshi defeated the Hōjō clan, his last formidable rival in eastern Honshū. The remaining daimyo soon capitulated, and the military unification of Japan was complete.

This unification lasted until the death of Hideyoshi in 1598.  After he passed the conflicts began again.  The two principal players were Ishida Mitsunari who was supported by those Daimyo still loyal to the Toyotomi family and Tokugawa Ieyasu and his followers.  There were two major battles, one in 1600 and a final one in 1615.  After 1615, Tokugawa Ieyasu gained absolute power and the country was unified once again.  Ieyasu moved the capital to Edo (Tôkyô) and established the Tokugawa Bakufu (military government) that ruled Japan for 250 years until the Meiji Restoration.