My first encounter with Magoichi came as a result of study that I undertook at Ōtani Univesity a decade ago when researching the role of regional, lower class samurai (or jizamurai) in the gradual spread of villages affiliated with the Ikkō faith and loyal to the main Ikkō temple of Honganji. One organization that kept coming up again and again in studies devoted to the rural adoption of Jodō Shinshū and its gradual militarization was the Saika-gun located on the Kii peninsula (modern Wakayama Prefecture). The Saika-gun were somewhat unique among the various militarized groups that existed at the time in that they adopted an entirely foreign weapon, the arquebus, or matchlock musket, as their principle means of offence and defence, and were remarkably successful in both production and application of this technology.
Magoichi himself, according to this study of individual shinobi during the Era of the Warring States, was ruler of Saika-castle (which sounds ostentatious, but in reality amounted to an earthen fort with wooden walls and some buildings of plaster and stone) and lord over a territory that produced 70,000 koku (the standard definition of wealth for the Sengoku period – essentially 1 koku equaled the amount of rice necessary to feed one retainer for a year). He was the son of Suzuki Satao, and was formally known by the name Suzuki Magoichi Tao Shigetomo. He was never called by his formal name, preferring instead to go by his more casual nomenclature. According to legend, Magoichi spent his adolescence as a pirate, plundering any vessels that strayed too close to the shoreline of the Saika peninsula. He was said to have a gregarious, outgoing personality, and, as often accompanies such traits, had a great affinity for women and alcohol.
This personality naturally led people to gravitate towards him, and in time he found himself appointed as the leader of the Saika group of musketeers. His armour was certainly individualistic, punctuated by a helmet resembling an iron pot and a cuirass resembling fish scales and a banner depicting a three legged divine messenger; the Crow of Kumaya Yata. He bore a favourite musket, which he dubbed ‘Aiyama Gohō’, and led a unit of 2,000 musketeers into battle.
The Saika area was a broad expanse of land facing the Waka Bay, and its location made it a favourite for those people returning from journeys to the continent. Many of these travelers possessed knowledge of metal working, and contributed to the development of a local brand of blacksmithing known as the “Kii – Corean Style”. Many of those blacksmiths had been to Tanegashima to learn both musket technology and tactics, and subsequently brought that knowledge back to the Kii peninsula. One such smith, known as Tsuda Kenmotsu Kazunaga, the elder brother of the banner man (or leader) of the Negoro temple group, Sugino Bōmeisan, taught the techniques for arms manufacturing and musket tactics to both the Saika and Negoro group of followers, and in the case of the Saika was responsible for organizing them into a coherent, militarized unit.
The Tsuda school of arms forging derived from the imagination of a master craftsman, however Magoichi was the key person in combining both this technology and the form of ninjutsu practiced by the Saika group to become a master of guerilla warfare. The Saika group that Magoichi led were not warmongers, and certainly did not seek to become involved in conflict out any desire for thrills or adventure. The Saika group took as their purpose the creation of a stable, prosperous country, and knew that in order to realise such a vision they would need money. Their involvement in conflict thus stemmed from the fact that they were, in essence, mercenaries, in that they would accept payment from daimyō from across Japan in exchange for providing their services as musketeers in various conflicts throughout the nation. One unique aspect to the Saika group was that they fought more for ideological reasons that purely fiscal ones, often refusing their services to any force they deemed hostile to their interests or whom they simply didn’t agree with, not matter how great the offer made.
The Saika, and Magoichi in particular, were devoted followers of the Ikkō sect, and fought in battles against Oda Nobunaga under orders from the head of the Hongaji temple, Kennyo, in the latter 16th century. The first conflict involving Magoichi against the Oda forces took place on the 12th and 13th days of the 9th month of the first year of Genki (1570). In the 7th month of the same year, the forces of the Miyoshi clan (consisting of three parts, led by Miyoshi Nagayuki, Iwanari Tomomichi, and Miyoshi Masayasu) were expelled from the island of Awa (which lies between the modern prefectures of Osaka and Tokushima-Kagawa) by Oda Nobunaga. In order to exact their revenge, all three forces, with a combined strength of 13,000 troops, landed and made camp at Nakashima Tenma no Mori in Settsu province (now part of Kita-ku in Osaka City). Magoichi and the Saika group were included in those forces.
The Miyoshi army took up positions within forts belonging to the Honganji temple at Noda and Fukushima in Settsu province. At the outset of the conflict fortune favoured the Miyoshi, however in the 8th month word reached the Miyoshi that Nobunaga had departed from Gifu (in Owari province) with a force of approximately 40,000 troops. On the 18th of the 9th month, Nobunaga advanced his main camp to within range of the Miyoshi forces at Tenma no Mori. Prior to this, on the 12th, Nobunaga sent his cannon and musket corps to open up proceedings by shelling and firing upon the Miyoshi camp. The Miyoshi army, unable to withstand the attacks from the Oda, sued for peace, yet Nobunaga refused to parley and planned to wipe out the entire Miyoshi force.
In the middle of the night on the 12th, the bells of Honganji suddenly began to ring, signaling the beginning of a musket duel at the Oda held forts at Sakura-gishi and Kawaguchi. For Honganji, this was a sudden and unmistakable declaration of war on the forces of the Oda.
One section of the Oda forces was located in marshy land between the rivers of Kanzaki-gawa and Nakatsu-gawa. In the early hours of the morning of the 13th, a group approached this position flying a banner emblazoned with three stars. The banner was without question that of the Oda general Wada Koremasa. Seeing this, members of the Oda forces approached the group, believing that they were about to be reinforced. However the group suddenly halted at the edge of the Nakatsu-gawa river, threw away their three star banners, and raised a banner depicting the three legged Crow of Kumaya Yata.
The armed group then spread out along the banks of the Nakatsu-gawa and proceeded to open fire on the Oda forces. For the Oda, there was nowhere to hide, and certainly nowhere to which they could run. The group involved was of course that of the Saika under the leadership of Magoichi, using the ‘abandon banners strategy’.
However, according to a different historical source, a particularly strong wind was blowing in the early hours of the 13th which was accompanied by heavy rain, causing the Yodo River to back up and overflow. The Oda force, rather than running away, decided that it would attack the force on the opposite side of the Nakatsu-gawa, however by the time they arrived on the far shore the Saika had already dispersed their forces and vanished. The Oda forces spotted a group of about 10 or so soldiers whom they quickly set upon, only to discover that the soldiers they thrust their spears into and slashed with their swords were in fact dummies made of bamboo and dressed in the armour of ordinary foot soldiers (ashigaru).
Not only this, the Saika group had set up sharpened bamboo stakes in the grass along the river bank, causing many injuries to the Oda force and not a few casualties.
Eventually news reached the Oda camp that the combined armies of the Asai and Asakura, together with their Ikkō allies, had launched an attack on the western shore of Lake Biwa and threatened to cut the Oda army off from its home base at Gifu. Realising the threat to his rear, Nobunaga raised camp and headed off in the direction of Kyoto, thus bringing his campaign against the Miyoshi to a quick conclusion.
Magoichi practiced a form of ninjutsu techniques known as the ‘five elements’. Among these was a range of guerilla tactics referred to as ‘earthen elements’. A series of trenches and tunnels would be dug in the form of a maze which would allow the Saika to close the distance with their enemy without being seen. This would then allow the Saika to snipe at their enemy from all directions, thereby ensuring disorder in the enemy camp. On occasion, a Saika group member would show themselves to their enemy, only to appear as though they had been swallowed up by a forest. An enemy soldier would give chase and rush into the same area, only to literally fall foul of a sharpened bamboo stick placed in a camouflaged pit. Not only this, the Saika would create muskets out of bamboo and rig them to fire projectiles at random, thereby causing yet more casualties to an enemy force.
In the 5th month of Tenshō 4 (1576), Nobunaga yet again found himself in conflict against the Saika led by Magoichi. In the 7th month, Nobunaga installed a blockade against Honganji, attempting to starve the temple complex into submission. Unable to achieve this objective, Nobunaga placed his fleet in and around the shores of Izumi province (location of modern Osaka prefecture), however they were set upon by the forces of the Murakami fleet, whose overwhelming numbers (estimated at 800 vessels) forced the Oda to retreat, and many Oda ships were lost to fires started by flaming arrows shot from the Murakami vessels.
In the second month of the following year, Nobunaga again set out to bring down the Honganji complex, but realized that in order to achieve this he would first need to deal with the potential threat presented by the Saika group. At the outset, Nobunaga forced the surrender of some members of the Saika and Sugi no Bō of the Negoro group. On the 15th day of the same month, Nobunaga invaded the Saika territory leading generals from fifteen provinces. When word of this reached the Saika, their forces assembled at the mountain temple of Mirokuji, where Magoichi explained the strategy they would employ against the Oda. Sharpened wooden palisades would be installed along the riverbank of the Saika River, nets would be spread out, traps installed in river beds, and various other devices installed to hamper the progress of the Oda army.
The Oda army marched straight into these traps, resulting in many drownings, while those that survived would be sniped at by Saika musketeers at any opportunity. However the overwhelming numbers of the Oda soon led to the Saika region being cut off from outside supplies, and on the 2nd day of the 3rd month the Saika forces made a vow to Nobunaga and surrendered. Magoichi survived the surrender, and would later be involved in the attack on Fushimi Castle by the forces of Ishida Mitsunari in the lead-up to the Battle of Sekigahara. In his later years he was granted the sum of 3,000 koku by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and would serve in the retinue of the first ruler of Mitō province, Tokugawa Yorifusa.