The Battle of Sekigahara – Japan’s Gettysburg

We are fresh back from three weeks in Japan, during which we visited the battlefield at Sekigahara, Gifu Prefecture!

Last year, Sekigahara and Gettysburg became Sister Parks and Sister Cities. Each of these battles marks a turning point, and we were excited to visit Sekigahara and learn more about this massive battle during a civil war on the other side of the world.


Now surrounded by peaceful rice paddies, the Battle Site Memorial marks the site of the heaviest fighting at Sekigahara

Fought between the East and West of Japan on October 21, 1600, Sekigahara was one of the largest samurai battles ever, as some 160,000 warriors converged on a narrow valley in the middle of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory at Sekigahara led to the unification of Japan and nearly 300 years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate.

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Traveling with us were Union cavalry-cat Catmull Reed and his guide, samurai Mori Katsuro. They are seen here at the site of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s camp (headquarters) during the battle.

Some years before, the dying Toyotomi Hideyoshi had left rule of Japan in the hands of regents until his son would be old enough to rule. However, two factions began to form. Those loyal to Toyotomi coalesced under Ishida Mitsunari, while others joined Tokugawa Ieyasu as he worked towards gathering power to himself.

Eventually, things came to a head and Ishida’s Western Army and Tokugawa’s Eastern Army descended on the valley at Sekigahara. They took up positions on October 20th and sort of ran into each other in the fog, but serious fighting did not start until about 8 a.m. on October 21st, when the fog cleared.


Samurai reenactor at the site of Ishida Mitsunari’s camp on Mt. Sasao

At that point, Tokugawa had the smaller army. But he had been working on the commanders in Ishida’s army, promising them leniency if they turned on Ishida. Only time would tell whether any would answer that call.


Fukushima’s men rallied near this cedar tree. Now estimated to be 800 years old, the tree appears on the screen painting of the battle.

Tokugawa had given the honor of beginning the battle to Fukushima Masanori. However, Ii Naomasa and Matsudaira Tadayoshi engaged the enemy first, attacking Ukita Hideie. Infuriated, Fukushima joined in the attack on Ukita. His forces and those of others also hit the forces of Otani Yoshitsugu.

By 10 a.m., Tokugawa committed his main force as the fighting continued. As the morning progressed, various clans throughout the Western Army (Mori, Kikawa, Ankokuji, Kobayakawa, and Shimazu) ignored orders from Ishida to join the fight. Otani’s forces attacked Fukushima’s flank, but additional Eastern forces fell on Otani.

Beyond Otani, on Mount Matsuo, the forces of Kobayakawa Hideaki sat still and silent. One of the commanders whom Tokugawa had courted, Kobayakawa ignored the signal from Ishida to attack Tokugawa’s forces. But he didn’t move against Ishida’s forces, either. He did nothing.


Site of Otani’s camp. At the time of the battle, Otani was crippled by leprosy and had to be carried in a palanquin.

Finally, Tokugawa ordered his men to fire on Kobayakawa. He had to make up his mind, one way or the other. He did, in Tokugawa’s favor. Kobayakawa’s men descended upon Otani’s. They were repulsed, but other contingents from Ishida’s army began to turn as well, overwhelming Otani’s position from three sides. As a result, Otani committed ritual suicide, the only commander to do so that day.

Ishida’s Western Army began to break down. Shimazu Yoshihiro’s men had not engaged in the earlier fighting, but finally found themselves surrounded and cut down. Shimazu and about eighty of his men cut their way through the enemy and escaped. Ishida’s reserves did not come in, some deciding to join Tokugawa instead, and the Western Army was defeated by 2 p.m.


Site of the Eastern Head Mound

After the battle, Tokugawa viewed the heads taken from fallen foes. The heads were buried in a mound for each army.

Like the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Sekigahara was violent and costly. Casualties for the three-day battle here in Pennsylvania totaled some 50,000 (killed, wounded, and missing). At Sekigahara, a mere six hours of fighting saw an estimated 30,000 casualties, with the heaviest in Ishida’s Western Army.

Ishida was later executed in Kyoto. Within three years, Tokugawa was named shogun by the emperor, and took over the rule of Japan. His house held the shogunate until the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th Century shifted real power back to the emperor.


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