In this series of posts, I'll introduce the people featured in our site's banner, going from left to right. The information below (as always) is gleaned from Japanese language sources; all errors and misinterpretations, however, are mine, and I welcome corrections to anything below.

Part 2 - Murasaki Shikibu: The First Lady of Japanese Literature
Part 3 - Akutagawa Ryunosuke: A Life of Intense and Fleeting Genius
Part 4 - Sakamoto Ryoma - The Samurai Who Ended the Samurai
Part 5 - Ichikawa Fusae: The First Woman of Japanese Politics

In the West, we think of Japan as a single, unified country. But that's a very recent development. In practice, it existed for hundreds of years as a series of loosely confederated territories ruled by local warlords. During the Muromachi period, the samurai managed to gain control and rule with some degree of unity. However, that unity soon fell apart, and Japan found itself embroiled in the Warring States Period (戦国時代; sengokujidai), a period of radical tumult and violence. (Anime fans who have watched shows like Inuyasha, Nobunaga The Fool and Brave10 should be familiar with this period.) To this day, sengoku jidai lingers in the Japanese language as a metaphor for a period of intense conflict.

One man eventually seized a key historical moment, unified the country, and quelled the bloodshed. His name was Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), and his victory ushered in a period of 264 years of piece, right up until the fall of the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. The bedrock of modern Japan rests upon Ieyasu's accomplishments.

And yet, Ieyasu remains the Rodney Dangerfield of Japanese history. Despite his great accomplishments, he gets no respect. Why is Japan so sour on a figure who did so much for the country?

The Early Days of Tokugawa Ieyasu

Tokugawa Ieyasu
Painting of Tokugawa Ieyasu after his ascension to shogun.

Japan's Warring States Period began around 1467 and lasted a grueling 150 years. Ieyasu was born into this mess in 1543 in the city of Okasaki in Aichi Prefecture. Born as Matsudaira Motoyasu, he was born the son of a minor daimyou (大名), one of the feudal rulers who controlled a specific region of Japan. Ieyasu's young life was inauspicious; in fact, he spent most of it as a prisoner of the Ichigawa clan. At age 15 he had his coming of age ceremony (元服; genpuku); a year later, he was married, and a year after that, he was entrusted by Ichigawa Yoshimoto with his first battle.

Ichigawa Yoshimoto died three years later at the battle of Okehazama. In the ensuing years, rather than distance himself from Oda Nobunaga, his one-time enemy, Ieyasu and Nobunaga ended forming a powerful alliance that would last for over 20 years. In 1566, Ieyasu managed to earn a rank in the country's Imperial Court. With this came an investiture, as well as a new surname: Tokugawa - the name by which history would forever remember him. Ieyasu continued to avail himself as a commander, losing only a single battle - the battle of Mikatagahara in 1572, at age 31, where he was defeated by Takeda Shingen. Legend has it that the famous painting of Ieyasu below was painted at his behest as a form of self-admonishment.

Tokugawa Ieyasu's Image Doing Battle at Mikatagahara
Painting of Tokugawa Ieyasu reputedly commissioned by the commander to admonish himself for his loss at the Battle of Mikatagahara.

Ieyasu's Post-Nobunaga Triumph

In 1582, the alliance between Oda and Ieyasu was ended by Oda's death. One of Oda's generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, turned against Oda and staged a rebellion at the Honnouji Temple. It was held that Oda took his own life, but many believe that Akechi murdered him or forced him into suicide.

Oda Nobunaga
Painting of Oda Nobunaga.

Despite the setback, Ieyasu struggled on to defeat, and then ultimately become a retainer of, the powerful leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi. When Toyotomi passed away, he had a tentative grip on Japan, and left the country to the charge of the Five Elders (五大老; gotairou), who were supposed to rule the country until Toyotomi's son came of age. But Ieyasu eventually took full control of the government, leaving him, as the head of the Eastern army, to face off against Ishida Mitsunari, the leader of the Western Army. The two of them came head to head at the famed Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, where Ieyasu triumphed. The win essentially unified the country, and marked an end to over 100 years of war. In 1603, the Edo era officially began under the bakufu (幕府; samurai-led government) of Ieyasu.

The same year, Ieyasu officially became what is known as 征夷大将軍 (sei-i taishougun), which literally means "commander of the expedition against the barbarians" - which is usually just shortened to "shogun" in English. While Ieyasu "officially" yielded the reigns of power to his son in 1605, he continued to pull the strings behind the scenes up until his death at age 75 in 1616.

Ieyasu: Rank Opportunist?

Historians tend to point to Ieyasu's victory as the result of two factors. First, Ieyasu was, basically, a good manager with an eye for talent. From his alliance with Oda Nobunaga on, he surrounded himself with expert tacticians and governmental administrators who knew what it took to unify Japan under a single government. Second, Ieyasu was patient. It took 40 years from the beginning of Ieyasu's alliance with Nobunaga until he was in a position to gain control of the country. Whenever he hit a roadblock, he simply waited for the next opportunity to present itself.

With all of this, you'd think that Ieyasu would be routinely help up as an example of a great leader. Yet as historian Yamagishi Ryouji reports in Toyo Keizai, when Japanese are asked to name inspirational figures from the Warring States era, Ieyasu's name almost never comes up. People are much more apt to name Oda Nobunaga or Toyotomi Hideyoshi as their heroes of that era.

The essence of Yamagishi's argument is that Ieyasu comes across in history as a rank opportunist. In Japanese culture, loyalty and fealty to one's personal connections is important - even if it means one occasionally loses out or suffers as a result. But Ieyasu's life story is one of rank opportunism. When the man who had taken him in (well, kidnapped him - but, semantics) was defeated by Nobunaga, Ieyasu became Nobunaga's closest ally. After Nobunaga died, he switched his allegiance to Toyotomi Hideashi. And when Toyotomi died, instead of working to respect his wishes, he swooped in and took the reigns of power.

(JP) Link: Tokugawa Ieyasu is the Exemplar of the Personality That Japanese People Hate

徳川家康は「日本人に嫌われる性格」の典型だ | リーダーシップ・教養・資格・スキル

But, says Yamagishi, it's also important not to underestimate the importance of what Ieyasu did:



Ieyasu made frugality the principle of his entire life. His remaining large estate, along with the firm feudal system he created through his complete devotion, created a "cornerstone of peace" for over 250 years.

The result was that the Edo Era of Japan became the vaunted, singular cultural treasure house that is now praised across the world. It's no exaggeration to say that, if it weren't for Ieyasu, modern Japan wouldn't exist.

Tokugawa Ieyasu may not have been the hero that Japan wanted, but he was the warrior and iron-fisted bureaucrat that the country needed.