Battle of Sekigahara: a war set in stone


Special To The Japan Times

They were selling steamed buns and mugwort ice cream to a handful of history buffs when I arrived at the entrance to War Land, or to use its full name, The Immersion Museum — Sekigahara War Land.

The open valley basins of Gifu Prefecture at the very center of Honshu, where the town of Sekigahara lies, were easily co-opted as theaters of war. It’s no coincidence, given the martial history of the region, that the prefectural town of Seki, sitting on the Nakasendo trunk road connecting Tokyo (then Edo) and Kyoto, was once known as the premier sword-making spot in the country.

The rural aspects of Gifu may have changed over the centuries, but it remains a wide, open prefecture with strong and enduring ties to nature. On the way to the museum, I passed through landscapes fringed with mountain ranges, undulating meadows and immaculately cultivated tea plantations. It is also a landscape soaked in history.

As the supreme generalissimo Toyotomi Hideyoshi lay dying in the summer of 1598, he commanded five of the country’s top generals to govern Japan as a council until his 5-year-old son, Hideyori, could assume power. The insecurity following Hideyoshi’s death, however, saw the most implacable of the five regents, Tokugawa Ieyasu, eager to usurp power and establish the supremacy of his own family and heirs.

He would have a formidable rival in the person of another commissioner, Ishida Mitsunari. Ishida’s equally determined scheming for power forced the issue, and on Oct, 21, 1600, an 80,000-strong coalition of soldiers under the command of daimyo feudal lords of the western province faced off against an equal number of troops from the east under the command of Ieyasu.

Preparations for the battle began at dawn with the most mundane of scenes —soldiers on both sides attempting to dry out clothes that had become sodden overnight in the rain. Visibility was still limited to a few feet by fog. It was at 8 a.m. that it lifted and both sides were able to identify their respective positions. The crack and echo of the first musket shots were heard shortly after.

In the ensuing conflict, Ieyasu prevailed. The victory at Sekigahara and when he besieged and destroyed the last traces of resistance at Osaka Castle 15 years later, sealed his control of the entire country. Given Ieyasu’s tactical skills and eminence as a warrior, the outcome may have been a foregone conclusion.

“These battles are like games of go,” he is said to have told a retainer. “If you get the essential piece, it does not much matter what opening your opponent may have or what pieces he holds, for it will not be of any use.”

What may have resembled a game of go — rivals strategically placed at two ends of a field and fitted out with immaculate armor, spotless weaponry and elegant halberds, ended in a scene more akin to an abattoir. There is no doubt that such conflicts were instances of warfare without mercy, but was there honor in these engagements?

Unquestionably, there was loyalty and sacrifice, which can be assumed to be concomitants of bravery, but chivalry in the Arthurian sense may not have existed. Some elements in the defeated camp scrupulously upheld the samurai code of duty and conformity, but the wholesale surrenders and defections, spurred in many cases by offers of land and leniency, hint at more practical, personal concerns than a medieval set of ethics.

And were those who fought as contemptuous of death as we are led to believe? If the cold terror in the faces of the models about to become cadavers displayed at War Land is reliable, there was a plentiful supply of common fear churning the stomachs of men on the battlefields of Japan.

Sekigahara was second only to the Battle of Okinawa in being the largest armed conflict between two opposing armies to take place on Japanese soil. It was unquestionably the foremost confrontation between two Japanese forces. In terms of Japanese history, the battle altering the future course of the nation might be compared to Gettysburg.

Sekigahara has been the subject of countless novels and television dramas. Taichi Sakaiya’s best-selling novel, “Oinaru Kuwadate” (“Great Scheme”) is based on it. There is a surprisingly accurate description of the battle and subsequent executions, including the excruciatingly slow death of Ishida by means of a wooden saw on a riverbank. Ishida has also been thinly disguised as “Ishido” in James Clavell’s blockbuster novel “Shogun.” Graphic novels, board games and even a PlayStation software simulation of the battle, with striking computer graphics, have appeared. Many screen paintings of Sekigahara survive from the 17th and 18th centuries, some of them as large as six panels to accommodate the scale of the battlefield.

Now a provincial town with a population under 9,000, Sekigahara and its environs are, unsurprisingly, filled with countless shrines to the dead, memorials and ruins all bearing witness to its scarred history. Reminders of the conflict have survived in place names, such as Kurochigawa — Black Blood River. It was here on the banks that the Tokugawa troops washed the decapitated heads of the enemy.

Today, the great field where the battle took place is a peaceful enough spot, a soft breeze moving fresh stalks of rice in the paddies. Little copses beside cultivated fields seem the ideal place for a shady picnic. The only reminder of its martial past are flag poles with the names of rival clans set up on the grassy bunds of the fields. These memorial posts, known as kosen, also mark the sites of major engagements in the battle, but these are written only in Japanese.

A handful of visitors were looking around hoping to find remnants of the conflict — a rusty sword guard, shattered bone or the fragment of a helmet, anything to confirm that something actually took place here. All they find are day-to-day agricultural items. A benign interpretation for the material absence of a past may be that the altered landscape is a living example of the old pacifist plea to “turn weapons into plough shares.”

The transformed landscape also confirms the absence of a strong visible heritage in Japan. More often than not, the past has to be reconstructed; hence, the great number of historical theme parks in the country. Measuring 30,000 square meters, War Land’s grounds are necessarily spacious, comfortably accommodating more than 200 life-size concrete statues, variously depicting hand-to-hand fighting, rearing horses, ritual suicides and beheadings. Aside from scenes of individual combat, key historical moments, including the ritual suicide of general Otani Yoshitsugu, have been recreated.

Electric power lines and asphalt paths detract a little from the experience, but once you step into the long, unkempt grass of the “battlefield” the experience becomes more authentic. The models evoke some of the horror and plausible heroism of the battle, but for more factual details an attached museum helps to fill in the gaps.

Four hundred years and more after the event, we can safely chuckle at the cheesy displays at War Land, but we should also spare a thought for the very real horror experienced by those who perished on that day. It might seem at times as if the whole affair has been remorselessly commercialized and, in the process, the reality of the battle completely defanged, but this is a very real death site. Behind one nearby shrine, 20,000 heads are buried, the same number interred in grounds close to the museum.

The displays at War Land may not be in the best taste, but the crudely cobbled together models transmit a blunt authenticity that can send shivers down the spine. Why should we worry too much if the organizers have taken a little historical license here and there?

As I leave the site, I pause to take in a model of the warrior Takeda Shingen gripping a standard bearing the message, “No More Sekigaharas!” An unlikely champion of pacifism, Shingen had already been dead some 25 years before the battle took place.

Getting there: The JR Tokaido Main Line between Osaka and Nagoya stops at Sekigahara Station. Maibara is the closest shinkansen station. Bicycles to get to the battlefield can be rented at the station. War Land is ¥500 to enter and is open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.For more information, visit