Takeda clan

Hideo Takeda, battle in the Fuji River.

Battle of Nagashino, a painted screen of the XVII-XVIII centuries.

Battle of Nagashino, (1575)

Battle fought by Nobunaga Oda (1534–1582) and his ally Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543–1616) with Takeda Natsunori, around the strategic fortress of Nagashino. In this encounter, the forces of Tokugawa and Nobunaga Oda were the first to rely primarily on massed firepower in the form of Western armaments, helping to transform samurai warfare while pushing both houses closer to hegemony over Japan.

Ieyasu Tokugawa had actually forged a familial alliance with the Takedas, whose territories bordered his own in central Honshu. He married both a son and daughter into the Takeda household in the 1560s, but in the world of shifting alliances and steady warfare that characterized Japan at the time, the alliance quickly foundered. The Takedas were soon at war with the Tokugawa again.

The death of the elder Takeda (Shingen) in 1573, at the hands of a sniper in battle, placed his son Natsunori at the head of the Takeda house. The rising fortunes of the Tokugawa had made them fierce rivals of the Takedas, and when in 1575 a traitor to Tokugawa offered to hand over the vitally strategic castle of Ozaki to the Takedas, Natsunori Takeda jumped at the opportunity. Ozaki was the capital of Mikawa Province, the heart of Tokugawa territory, and its castle was guarded by Tokugawa’s own son.

Takeda led a force of 15,000 warriors in what was expected to be a near-bloodless seizure of Ozaki Castle. Instead, they discovered en route that the treachery had been discovered by Tokugawa. Rather than face a humiliating retreat, Takeda opted to send his troops instead against the nearby fortress of Nagashino, another strategic castle sitting at the convergence of three rivers and guarding the entrance to Mikawa and Totomi Provinces.

Takeda began his siege of the castle in May 1575 but was still unsuccessful when word came that relief forces led by Tokugawa and Oda were on their way. Takeda opted to stand his ground near Nagashino and engage the approaching allied armies, though his forces were outnumbered more than two to one. At the Battle of Nagashino in June 1575, the alliance’s greater numbers and, more important, overwhelming firepower, including musket volley fire by alternating ranks (the first time that this technique is known to have been employed in warfare), carried the day. Takeda lost almost two-thirds of his men and generals, and the mortally wounded Takeda clan would linger only until 1582, when it was overrun for good.

References and further reading: Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Sadler,A. L. The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle,1937.

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The Takeda were descendants of Emperor Seiwa (858-876) and are a branch of the Minamoto clan (Seiwa Genji), by Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (1056-1127), brother to the Chinjufu-shogun Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106). Minamoto no Yoshikiyo (c.?1075 – c.?1149), son of Yoshimitsu, was the first to take the name of Takeda.

For much of the Sengoku Period the provinces controlled by the Sengoku Daimyo were quite well defined and ruled as a stable economic unit. There is little evidence of civil war within these territories except where the Ikko-ikki sectarians were involved. Warfare tended to be confined to clashes between daimyo, particularly at sensitive areas where two territories met. Thus the border between the Takeda, Uesugi and Hojo lands was frequently contested. Kawanakajima, an area of flatland which was effectively a no man’s land for the Takeda and Uesugi, saw no fewer than five battles across its fields. It was such conflicts, coupled with their geographical remoteness from the capital, that acted as a counterweight to whatever pretensions these daimyo might have had to becoming Shogun. Many possessed the necessary military power, but few were fated to exercise it in this direction.

Shingen Takeda, (1521-1573)

A prominent warlord (daimyo) of Japan’s Sengoku period (“the Age of the Country at War”). Shingen Takeda was born Harunobu Takeda in 1521, the eldest son of Katsuyori Takeda, ruler of Kai Province in north-central Japan. Young Takeda overthrew his father in 1541 and installed himself as the provincial shugo (military governor). He then embarked on the conquest of neighboring Shinano Province, which was secured by 1555. However, this action brought him into direct conflict with Kenshin Uesugi (1530-1578) of Eichigo Province, another young and dynamic military figure. For nearly two decades, the two leaders clashed at the battlefield of Kawanakajima, with especially severe encounters in 1553, 1554, 1556, and 1563.

At length, neither side could gain a decisive advantage over the other, and both turned their territorial ambitions elsewhere. During this period, Takeda shaved his head, became a Buddhist priest, and assumed the more familiar name of Shingen.

At this time, Japan was seething with conflict as major families of samurai battled for control of the country. In 1568, Takeda attacked the Imagawa family and drove it from Surguga Province. However, the ever-shifting balance of power forced him to ally with the Hojo, Asakura, and Asai families to oppose the growing strength of Nobunaga Oda. In 1573, Takeda attacked the combined forces of Oda and his surrogate, Ieyasu Tokugawa, at Mikatagahara, driving them from the field. This defeat had the effect of inducing the weakened shogun, Yoshiaki Ashikaga, to denounce Oda, a feat that ultimately led to the shogunate’s downfall. However, Takeda became distracted by events elsewhere and, by failing to follow up this impressive victory, allowed his enemies to consolidate.

In the spring of 1573, Takeda again advanced against Tokugawa and besieged one of his castles in Noda. Events are not clear, but he died either of disease or a gunshot wound on 13 May 1573. The Takeda clan did not outlive his demise and were eliminated as a military threat by Oda at Nagashino in 1575.

Beyond his military prowess, Takeda was also renowned for his administrative and organizational abilities. He placed Kai Province on a very high order of efficiency and was affectionately regarded by the populace. Takeda was also celebrated for his calligraphy and poetry, military guile, and capacity for great acts of both chivalry and cruelty.

The Armies of the Sengoku Jidai

The armies of the Sengoku Jidai were manifestations of the feudal social structure of Japan, which revolved around kinsmen and vassals. The head of the clan and its army was the daimyō, literally translated as “great name”. He was supported by the kashindan. These were a group of blood relatives and retainers associated by family ties, marriage, filial oaths, and hereditary vassalage. The retainers were given land to govern and were expected to provide military support during times of war. 

A standing army was uncommon but was popularised during the later years of the Sengoku Jidai. For the majority of the period, armies were composed of farmers who needed to stand down during the planting and harvesting seasons. Fighting a campaign during idle periods would offer an opportunity for the peasants to earn extra income from looting and possibly get promoted to samurai.

Typically, when a call to arms was issued, each landowning samurai was required to muster a pre-determined quantity of troops and equipment based on his wealth. Troops from all around the province would then converge at a designated place where they would be reorganised into battalions wielding similar weaponry and start practicing drills. The daimyō determined the chain of command for the campaign.  The prominent retainers would act as bushō (general). A taishō (field marshal, commander-in-chief) would be appointed if the daimyō did not intend to take the role himself.

Each general commanded a division comprised of specialised battalions of cavalry, missile and melee troops mustered from their fiefs. These troops were only loyal to their direct lord and the daimyo, not the taishō or other generals. To reflect this, Japanese commanders who are not assigned as the Commander-in-Chief are classified as Ally-Generals. Their units cannot receive any command effects from other generals except the C-in-C.

The Japanese wielded a variety of weapons, the prominent ones being the katana (sword), yari (spear), naginata (polearm), yumi (bow) and teppō (matchlock).  Contrary to popular depictions, the katana was just a sidearm and the yari was the weapon of choice due to its range and versatility. All classes of soldier, from the lowly ashigaru to the elite samurai, wore armour of lamellar construction.  

Before 1530, mounted samurai would primarily use bows, similar to other East Asian cavalry. The switch to the yari and shock tactics happened around the 1530s, pioneered by the Takeda clan.

The main fighting force was foot samurai, augmented by ashigaru. Due to the rugged terrain, the Japanese utilised loose formations and fighting was done man-to-man, as depicted in martial arts and samurai films. Hence they are classified as Warriors.

In 1543, Portuguese merchants introduced matchlock firearms (teppō) to the Japanese. Teppō ashigaru infantry were deployed, but there weren’t enough firearms available to equip large units. These small units are classified as Light Foot and are primarily used as skirmish troops.

By 1551, as battles grew larger, more and more ashigaru infantry were being mustered, as a result of which the proportion of foot samurai in the army was somewhat reduced. The Battle of Nagashino in 1575 showed the Japanese that massed volley fire from firearms behind field defences could defeat samurai cavalry From then on, teppō ashigaru formations were larger and did not engage in mere skirmishing tactics.

By 1577, samurai cavalry had lost its appeal due to changes in battlefield technology and tactics. And by 1592, ashigaru infantry tactics evolved into fighting in close formation. They would receive better training and form the backbone of the Late Sengoku Era army. Ashigaru infantry, including yumi and teppō armed units, are now classified as Medium Foot. A century of fighting also depleted the numbers of available samurai. Just like their mounted counterparts, foot samurai, who still fought man-to-man, were finding it harder to dominate the battlefield against organized peasant foot troops. The 1590s also introduced some other elements of modern warfare such as light artillery, but these were not used as extensively as on the Asian mainland.

Buddhist monks of various temples also trained for combat. They had to take up arms in order to protect their temples from rival sects. These warrior monks were called sōhei. During the Gempei War (1180-1185), the sōhei eventually became embroiled in secular politics as they joined the lords that supported their temple.  This was repeated during the Sengoku Jidai and the daimyō were able to gain the support of sōhei from their local temples.

The monks’ weapon of choice was the naginata, a long-bladed polearm. They also used bows and matchlocks. Occasionally, they can be seen wearing armour underneath their robes but the majority were unarmoured.

The Ikkō-ikki revolution gave some sōhei a new purpose. Instead of fighting for their temples and patrons, they fought under an ideology of equality and independence from the daimyō. Ikkō-ikki rebel armies were mostly made up of sōhei and supported by armed peasant mobs. Samurai who shared their ideals also joined but did not form separate units. The samurai fought alongside the monks and peasants and provided leadership as well as training.

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