The Warring States period (戦国時代 sengoku jidai?) was a time of social upheaval, political intrigue, and nearly constant military conflict in Japan that lasted roughly from the middle 15th to the early 17th century.

Although the Ashikaga shogunate had retained the structure of the Kamakura bakufu and instituted a warrior government based on the same social economic rights and obligations established by the Hōjō with the Jōei Code in 1232, it failed to win the loyalty of many daimyo, especially those whose domains were far from Kyoto. As trade with China grew, the economy developed, and the use of money became widespread as markets and commercial cities appeared. This, combined with developments in agriculture and small-scale manufacturing, led to the desire for greater local autonomy throughout all levels of the social hierarchy. As early as the beginning of the 15th century, suffering and misery caused by natural disasters such as earthquake and famine often served to trigger armed uprisings by farmers weary of debt and taxes.

The Onin War (1467–1477), a conflict rooted in economic distress and brought on by a dispute of shogunal succession, is generally regarded as the onset of the sengoku-jidai. The "eastern" army of the Hosokawa family and its allies clashed with the "western" army of the Yamana, and fighting in and around Kyoto lasted for nearly 11 years, after which it spread to outlying provinces.


Not surprisingly, this upheaval resulted in the further weakening of central authority, and throughout Japan, regional lords, or daimyo, rose to fill the vacuum. The man credited as both the first Sengoku-era daimyo and first example of 'Gekokujo' was Hojo Soun, who came from relatively humble origins to eventually invade Izu province in 1493. Soun and his clan would become a major player in the struggle for power during the Sengoku period. Other well established families such as the Takeda and the Imagawa, who had ruled their domains under the authority of both the Kamakura and Muromachi bakufu, were also able to expand their sphere of influence. Others saw their positions eroded and eventually usurped by more capable underlings. Most notably, the Hosokawa were supplanted by the Miyoshi, the Shiba by the Oda, and the Toki by the Saito.

Well organized religious groups also gained political power at this time by uniting farmers in resistance and rebellion against the rule of the daimyo. The monks of the Buddhist True Pure Land sect formed numerous Ikko-ikki, the most successful of which, in Kaga Province remained independent for nearly 100 years.

This phenomenon of social meritocracy, in which capable subordinates rejected the status quo and forcefully overthrew an emaciated aristocracy, became known as gekokujō (下克上), which literally means "the underling conquers the overlord."

After nearly a century and a half of political instability and warfare, Japan was on the verge of unification by Oda Nobunaga, who had emerged from obscurity in the province of Owari (present-day Aichi Prefecture) to dominate the region surrounding Kyoto, when in 1582 Oda himself fell victim to the treachery of one of his own disaffected generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. This in turn provided Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had risen through the ranks from footsoldier to become one of Oda's most trusted generals, with the opportunity to establish himself as Oda's successor. Hideyoshi eventually consolidated his control over the remaining daimyo, and although he was ineligible for the title of Seii Taishogun because of his common birth, ruled as Kampaku.

When, in 1598, Hideyoshi died without leaving a capable successor, the country was once again thrust into political turmoil, and this time it was Tokugawa Ieyasu who took advantage of the opportunity.

Hideyoshi had on his deathbed appointed a group of the most powerful lords in Japan—Tokugawa, Maeda, Ukita, Uesugi, Mori—to govern as the Council of five regents until his infant son, Hideyori, came of age. An uneasy peace lasted until the death of Maeda Toshiie in 1599. Thereafter, Ishida Mitsunari accused Ieyasu of disloyalty to the Toyotomi name, precipitating a crisis that led to the Battle of Sekigahara. Generally regarded as the last major conflict of the sengoku-jidai, Ieyasu's victory at Sekigahara marked the end of the Toyotomi reign. Three years later, Ieyasu received the title Seii Taishogun, and established Japan's final shogunate, which lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Famous Sengoku DaimyoEdit

The contrasting personalities of the three leaders who contributed the most to Japan's final unification—Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu—are encapsulated in a series of three well known senryu:

  • Nakanunara, koroshiteshimae, hototogisu (If the cuckoo does not sing, kill it.)
  • Nakanunara, nakashitemiseyou, hototogisu (If the cuckoo does not sing, coax it.)
  • Nakanunara, nakumadematou, hototogisu (If the cuckoo does not sing, wait for it.)

Nobunaga, known for his ruthlessness, is the subject of the first; Hideyoshi, known for his resourcefulness, is the subject of the second; and Ieyasu, known for his perseverance, is the subject of the third verse.

Other Notable IndividualsEdit

Sengoku period in modern cultureEdit

Just as with the American "Wild West," the sengoku-jidai has been used as the setting for myriad books, films, anime, and video games. See the article Cultural references to the Sengoku period for more.


  • Mikiso Hane, Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Westview Press, 1992)

External linksEdit

  • The website of Samurai Author and Historian Anthony J. Bryant
    • Anthony J. Bryant is the author of Sekigahara 1600: The Final Struggle for Power, Praeger Publishers;(September, 2005)