Rise Of Military Power

Nov 3, 2021Blog, Culture, Shinto

Rise Of Military Power

Almost the whole of authentic Japanese history is comprised in one vast episode: the rise and fall of the military power.

It has been customary to speak of Japanese history as beginning with the accession of Jimmu Tenno, reigning from 660 to 585 BCE. 

Before the time of the Emperor Jimmu was the Age of the Gods, the period of mythology. 

Emperor Jimmu - Land Of The Rising Son

But trustworthy history does not begin for a thousand years after the accession of Jimmu Tenno, and the chronicles of those thousand years must be regarded as little better than fairy-tales.

Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), completed in 712 CE, and the Nihon Shoki contain records of fact, but fact and myth are so interwoven, it is difficult to distinguish the one from the other.

古事記 - Land Of The Rising Son

Although everything prior to the seventh century remains obscured for us by the mists of fable, much can be inferred concerning social conditions during the reigns of the first thirty-three Emperors and Empresses. 

It appears that the early Mikado (Emperor) lived very simply—scarcely better, indeed, than their subjects.

As society developed wealth and power, this early simplicity disappeared, and the gradual introduction of Chinese customs and etiquette effected great changes. 

The Empress Suiko introduced Chinese court-ceremonies, and first established among the nobility the Chinese grades of rank. 

Empress Suiko - Land Of The Rising Son

Chinese luxury, as well as Chinese learning, soon made its appearance at court, and thereafter the Imperial authority appears to have become less and less directly exerted. 

Here we find the real administration of government began about this period to pass into the hands of deputies, all of whom were members of the great Kuge clan of the Fujiwara.

This clan, including highest hereditary priesthood, represented a majority of the ancient nobility claiming divine descent. 

During almost five centuries, the Fujiwara remained the veritable regents of the country, and took every possible advantage of their position. 

The whole power of government was thus kept in the hands of the Fujiwara clan, and the political authority of the Emperor ceased to exist. 

公家 - Land Of The Rising Son

Yet not only did the religious dignity of the throne remain undiminished, but it continued to grow. 

The more the Mikado was withdrawn from public view by policy and by ceremony, the more did his seclusion and inaccessibility serve to deepen the awe of the divine legend. 

The Mikado had originally become supreme magistrate, military commander, and religious head by consent of a majority of the clan-chiefs, each of whom represented to his own following what the “Heavenly Sovereign” represented to the social aggregate. 

But as the power of the ruler extended with the growth of the nation, those who had formerly united to maintain that power began to find it dangerous.

They decided to deprive the Heavenly Sovereign of all political and legal authority, without disturbing in any way his religious supremacy.

天照 - Land Of The Rising Son

For obvious reasons the Imperial cult, which was the traditional source of all authority and privilege could not be touched.

It was only by maintaining and reinforcing it that the religious nobility could expect to keep the real power in their hands. 

They actually kept it for nearly five centuries.

The history of all the Japanese regencies illustrates the general rule that inherited authority is liable to find itself supplanted by deputed authority.

Of the military clans proper, the most powerful were the Minamoto and the Taira. 

Minamoto Yoritomo - Land Of The Rising Son

By deputing to these clans the conduct of all important matters relating to war, the Fujiwara eventually lost their high position and influence.

Degenerating into a mere court-nobility, they made little effort to exert any direct authority in other than civil directions, entrusting military matters almost wholly to the Buke (warrior class).

Here, the Buke found themselves strong enough to lay hands upon the reins of government around the middle of the eleventh century.

The Fujiwara supremacy became a thing of the past, although members of the clan continued for centuries to occupy positions of importance under various regents.

However, the Buke could not realize their ambition without a bitter struggle among themselves, the longest and the fiercest war in Japanese history. 

女武芸者 - Land Of The Rising Son

The Minamoto and the Taira were both Kuge and both claimed imperial descent. 

In the early part of the contest the Taira were unrivaled in power, and it seemed no power could hinder them from exterminating the rival clan.

But fortune turned at last in favour of the Minamoto, and at the famous sea-fight of Dan-no-ura, in 1185, the Taira were themselves exterminated.

Naval Battle at Dan-no-ura - Land Of The Rising Son

Then began the reign of the Minamoto regents, or rather shogun.

Originally the title “shogun” signified only a commander-in-chief, but then became the title of the supreme ruler de facto, in his double capacity of civil and military sovereign, the King of kings.

From the accession of the Minamoto to power is where the long history of the shogunate military supremacy really begins.

Japan thereafter, down to the present era of Meiji, having really two Emperors.

The Heavenly Sovereign, or Deity Incarnate, representing the religion of the race, and the Veritable Imperator, who wielded all the powers of the administration. 

No one sought to occupy by force the throne of the Sun’s Succession, whence all authority was at least supposed to be derived.

Amaterasu Shinto Sun Goddess - Land Of The Rising Son

Regent or shogun bowed down before it.

Divinity could not be usurped.

During the thirteenth century, Buddhism developed into a great military power.

Strangely like that church-militant of the European middle ages and the period of soldier-priests and fighting-bishops.

The Buddhist monasteries had been converted into fortresses filled with men-at arms.

The Buddhist menace had more than once carried terror into the sacred seclusion of the Imperial Court.

As a consequence, the most serious political catastrophe in the history of Japan occurred.

The division of the Imperial House against itself.

Japanese Imperial House  - Land Of The Rising Son

Now for the first time, two branches of the Imperial Family, each supported by powerful lords, contended for the right of succession.

Hitherto the Imperial presence had represented the national divinity, and the Imperial palace had been regarded as the temple of the national religion.

This division maintained by the Ashikaga usurpers therefore signified nothing less than the breaking up of the whole tradition upon which existing society had been built.

The Ashikaga shogunate averted this supreme peril, but the period of this military domination, which endured until 1573 was destined to remain the darkest in Japanese history.

Ashikaga Takauji  - Land Of The Rising Son

Provinces became waste, and famine, earthquake, and pestilence added their horror to the misery of ceaseless war.

Until 1573 the misery continued, and the shogunate meanwhile degenerated into insignificance. 

Then a strong captain arose and ended the house of Ashikaga and seized the reins of power.

This usurper was Oda Nobunaga.

Oda Nobunaga - Land Of The Rising Son

Had this not occurred, Japan might never have entered upon an era of peace.

For there had been no peace since the fifth century.

No emperor or regent or shogun had ever been able to impose his rule firmly upon the whole country.

The question of the imperial succession, which had almost wrecked the empire during the fourteenth century, might be raised again at any time by some reckless faction, with the probable result of ruining Japanese civilization and forcing the nation back to its primitive state of barbarism. 

Never did the future of Japan appear so dark as at the moment when Oda Nobunaga suddenly found himself the strongest man in the empire.

Oda Nobunaga was a descendant of Shinto priests, was above all things a patriot. 

神道神主 - Land Of The Rising Son

His hope was to save the country, and he saw it could be done only by centralizing all feudal power under one control, and strenuously enforcing law.

Looking for the ways and means of effecting this centralization, he perceived that one of the very first obstacles to be removed was that created by the power of Buddhism militant.

The campaign was conducted with ferocious vigour, and the monastery-fortresses of Hiyei-san were stormed and razed.

All the priests along with all their adherents were put to the sword.

By nature Nobunaga was not cruel, but his policy was ruthless, and he knew when and why to strike hard.

The power of the Tendai sect before this massacre may be imagined from the fact that three thousand monastery buildings were burnt at Hiyei-san.

The Shin sect of the Hongwanji was just as powerful, and its monastery occupying the site of Osaka castle was one of the strongest fortresses in the country. 

Nobunaga waited several years merely to prepare for the attack.

With Buddhism having been thus effectually crippled, Nobunaga was able to turn his attention to the warring clans.

Supported by the greatest generals that the nation ever produced, Hideyoshi and Iyeyasu.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi - Land Of The Rising Son

Nobunaga, with Taira blood in his veins, had been essentially an aristocrat, inheriting all the aptitudes of his great race for administration, and versed in all the traditions of diplomacy. 

His avenger and successor, Hideyoshi, was a totally different type of soldier.

The son of peasants, an untrained genius who had won his way to high command by shrewdness and courage, natural skill of arms, and immense inborn capacity for all the chess-play of war.

Continuing in the great purpose of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi had always been in sympathy with subduing the entire country in the name of the Emperor.

Thus universal peace was temporarily established.

However, the vast military powers which Hideyoshi had collected and disciplined, threatened to become refractory.

He found employment for them by declaring unprovoked war against Korea, whence he hoped to effect the conquest of China.

The war with Korea opened in 1592, and dragged on unsatisfactorily until 1598, when Hideyoshi died.

He had proved himself one of the greatest soldiers ever born, but not one of the best among rulers.

Into this vacuum of power then stepped the most remarkable man that Japan ever produced, Tokugawa Iyeyasu. 

Tokugawa Iyeyasu

Iyeyasu was of Minamoto descent, and an aristocrat to the marrow of his bones. 

As a soldier, he was equal to Hideyoshi whom he once defeated, but he was much more than a soldier.

A far-sighted statesman, an incomparable diplomat, and something of a scholar. 

Cool, cautious, secretive, distrustful, yet generous, stern, yet humane, by the range and the versatility of his genius can be compared with Julius Caesar. 

All that Nobunaga and Hideyoshi had wished to do, and failed to do, Iyeyasu speedily accomplished.

Iyeyasu had to face a formidable league of lords resolved to dispute his claim to rule. 

The terrific battle of Sekigahara left him master of the country, and he at once took measures to consolidate his power, and perfect to the least detail, all the machinery of military government. 

The Battle of Sekigahara - Land Of The Rising Son

As Shogun, he reorganized the Daimyo and redistributed a majority of fiefs.

Among those whom he could trust, he created new military grades and so balanced the powers of the Greater Daimyo as to make it next to impossible for them to dare to revolt. 

For the first time in Japanese history the nation was integrated.

Now, back through twenty-five hundred years we can follow the line of the Imperial succession, till it vanishes out of sight into the mystery of the past.

Here we have evidence of that extreme power of resisting all changes which is inherently characteristic of religious conservatism.

On the other hand, the history of Shogunates and Regencies proves the tendency for disintegration of institutions with no religious foundation, and therefore no religious power of cohesion.

So it is here today in Yamato.

The nation of Japan is not “religious” in the sense of the Anglophone Occidental misnomer, which is still applied to the Japanese even today.

Indeed, Japan is a nation founded upon ancestor worship, and in deference to societal harmony in the present, which is no longer mandated by the sword, but by our bond to Family, Community, and State.

Based Upon

Japan,  An Attempt At Interpretation

Published 1904 

Patrick Lafcadio Hearn