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Shimadzu Yoshihiro and the Battle of Sekigahara

Yoshihiro’s legendary escape from the greatest samurai battle in history

shimazu yoshihiro sekigahara

Shimadzu Yoshihiro was one of the most skilled generals of the Sengoku period (1467-1615) and 17th head of the Shimadzu clan.

Yoshihiro and his three brothers managed to subjugate nearly the whole of Kyushu before being pushed back to Satsuma by regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587. Following this Yoshihiro fought in Hideyoshi’s Korean Invasions earning the nickname “Demon Shimadzu” for his fearsome exploits on the battlefield.

Following the death of Hideyoshi in 1598, Japan was thrown into turmoil as a power struggle broke out and rival factions clamoured to seize total power over the country.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Hideyoshi’s council of elders, saw an opportunity to consolidate his power and make a challenge for the title of Shogun. Another council member, Ishida Mitsunari, and his allies mainly from the south and western parts of Japan opposed Ieyasu and his supporters from the north. The conflict came to a head on the 21st of October 1600 at Sekigahara in the province of Mino.

The battle that followed was the most decisive in Japanese history, and would bring about the end of the turmoil of the Sengoku period and see the establishment of a military government under the Tokugawa Shogunate that lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

The western forces under Ishida Mitsunari gathered under the cover of heavy fog on the western side of Sekigahara in a strong defensive position with their flank guarded by Kobayakawa Hideaki. The eastern forces under Tokugawa Ieyasu approached from the east. Both armies had over 80,000 men.

At 8am the fog cleared, and both sides had the chance to assess the battlefield. At 10am the battle began. Both sides advanced and retreated in skirmishes until around midday, when Kobayakawa and his army switched sides, attacking the western army. This betrayal led to a chain of events that eventually saw the western army crumble and the victory of the Tokugawa army by 2pm.

Shimazu Yoshihiro on horse

Yoshihiro and the Western Army

Before the Battle of Sekigahara began, regional lords around Japan were placed in the difficult position of choosing to support either the western or eastern army. With no precedent to aid in deciding and having been embarrassed by being refused entry to the Tokugawa held Fushimi Castle, Shimadzu Yoshihiro ended up joining the western army.

Yoshihiro sent word to Satsuma to send reinforcements, but his elder brother Yoshihisa was reluctant to send men to fight in a conflict that would involve Satsuma in central politics. Yoshihiro was left with an army of only 1,500 men.

As the battle started Yoshihiro and his samurai held their position and refused to move as the eastern forces attacked. Yoshihiro repeatedly ignored the orders of Ishida Mitsunari and held his ground. It was only when Kobayakawa defected to the eastern side that Yoshihiro decided to act, but by now his small force was surrounded by the Tokugawa army. With the western forces crushed and no way of escape, Yoshihiro faced a bleak outlook.

What followed was perhaps the most legendary escape in Japanese history.

shimazu sekigahara

Charging the Enemy

Yoshihiro ordered his men to charge straight into the main body of the Tokugawa force of over 30,000 men. Resolved to die, the Shimadzu samurai made their attack, the ferocity of which caused the surprised Tokugawa force to open up, allowing the Shimadzu to pass right next to Tokugawa Ieyasu and his inner guard.

Kobe Kugoro explained the initial attack in the following manner.

Lord Yoshihiro asked me, “Where is the enemy force strongest?”
I replied “On the eastern side, my lord.”
Lord Yoshihiro said, “Attack the middle of the strongest section”.

We charged the middle of the enemy force, leaving bodies strewn on either side. I looked up to find my allies and saw Lord Yoshihiro with a group of only about fifty men.

We regrouped and were confronted by samurai of the Fukushima clan, but could not tell if they were allies or enemies. Lord Yoshihiro shouted, “If they are the enemy cut through them! If you can’t cut through commit seppuku immediately!”

We closed to about ten meters from the enemy, then five. At the last minute we all drew our swords together and let up the battle cry “ei! to!” at which they moved aside and let us pass by.

The enemy troops may have moved out of the way, but they had every intention to cut down the Shimadzu samurai from behind as they fled the battlefield. The protect the rear, Yoshihiro used a unique tactic to buy time and slow the advance of the units they had passed.

samurai guns

Sutegamari – Self Sacrifice for the Lord

It is commonly believed that Yoshihiro employed a tactic called sutegamari to break through the enemy lines and make his retreat. This tactic, also called zazenjin, requires a group of samurai to fall behind the main force and act as a decoy by sitting on the ground cross-legged while firing matchlock rifles at the enemy. The decoy force would be overwhelmed and trampled to death, but this would buy enough time for the main force to flee.

Contemporary accounts paint a slightly different picture, showing that the fighting was so heavy that the Shimadzu samurai had no time to execute the sutegamari plan in an orderly fashion. The men became totally focused on fighting, only coming back to their senses once they had escaped the battlefield.

Hirayama Kurozaemon left the following account of the tactics used to slow the enemy and how they played out in battle.

We were ordered not to fire on the enemy until they were right in front of our eyes. When the enemy was close enough, we all fired at once. After that, the enemy mixed in with our ranks and the rifles became useless.

Some pushed their rifles into their belts, others tied them up onto their back like biwa, others just threw them away. I drew my sword and closed on the enemy. Lord Toyohisa was fighting right at the front. We were totally surrounded by the enemy, and the fighting was so intense we couldn’t tell friend from foe.

Despite being massively outnumbered, Yoshihiro and his men managed to break through the first lines of the enemy army, but trouble was ahead as they were about to come face to face with two of the Four Heavenly Kings – the most feared generals in the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Find out how Yoshihiro and the Shimadzu samurai fared in part two of the series.

Alex Bradshaw

Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.

He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.

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