(My reasons for choosing this particular book for translation are fairly straightforward. The subject matter expressed by Professor Fujiki is extremely interesting, given that it dealt with the lot of common soldiers (who were by and large peasants drafted into serving their local lord, with some exceptions) and the reality of living in a world where the threat of violence was never far away. Another fascinating point is that it examines the practice of capturing and selling slaves, something that was highly prevalent during the era of the warring states in Japan but is not a subject examined in most popular media that depicts that period in Japan’s history. Presumably the idea of Japanese selling other Japanese into slavery is abhorrent to modern Japanese sensibilities, yet the practice was common, and really only petered out once the country began to be subject to more stable, centralised rule from the early seventeenth century onwards.
It’s this phenomena that Professor Fujiki illustrates in detail, in a manner accessible to most Japanese readers (itself a welcome development in a field that tends to be dominated by archaic discussions about the certain use of words in historical documents. Of great interest to the academic, but of little to no consequence to the general reader). By undertaking this translation, I hope that I might too be able to bring a bit more of this period of Japan’s history to the attention of a broader audience, and spark some curiosity among those for whom the era of the warring states (Sengoku Jidai) remains a mystery). (Note: the numbers at the end of paragraphs refer to pages of the original text).
“Plunder, before armies were nationalised, lay at the very heart of the formation of an army and its existence, with merchants serving as intermediaries”, Yamauchi Susumu, “A History of the Legal Concept of Plunder”
Fighting in order to eat
“We wage war in order to seize the wealth of the land, towns, and villages. The campaigns that take place in Japan are mostly concerned with seizing wheat, rice and barley.”
This comparison of causus belliwas made by the Portuguese missionary Luis Frois (1532 – 1597), who bore witness to many battles that took place in Japan towards the end of the era of the warring states. For Frois, the wars that took place in Europe during the Middle Ages occurred in order to expand territory, whereas in Japan they occurred in order that people might eat. (2)
“War to expand territory” or “war in order to eat” – a comparison of both of these phenomena is undoubtedly fascinating, but it also presents problems. (3) At the same time that Frois was making these comments, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was calling for a halt to all private conflict throughout the island of Kyushu, using phrases such as “territorial border disputes between provincial rulers are to cease” and “I personally shall be the judge of any disagreements over the division of territory in Kyushu”. In other words, Hideyoshi, who himself had stood at the centre of conflict during the era of the warring states, was a product of both the Japanese way of war and of the seizure of territory. (4)
However what I would like to pay particular attention to is the fact that from his arrival at Yokosenoura bay in Nagasaki in the seventh month of the sixth year of Eiroku (1563) until his death at Nagasaki in the fifth month of Keicho 2 (1597), Luis Frois spent over 30 years living both in Kyushu and in the Kinai area of Japan. His record of that time was written right in the middle of the era of the warring states, as a so-called “true depiction of war”. The escalation in conflict that he witnessed was, to his mind, undoubtedly “war in order to eat” or “war in order to live”. Hence I have taken this to mean that for Frois, “war in order to eat” and “war in order to live” involved a fight to the death. (4)
Frois said the following in relation to “war in order to eat” that he saw on a daily basis throughout Kyushu;
“The people captured in Bungo(province) by the army of Satsuma(Shimazu) were then taken to the province of Higo and sold off. In that year, the residents of Higo suffered a terrible famine and much hardship, and so fell into a state where they were unable to fend for themselves. Since there was no way they would be able to care for the captives(from Bungo), they took them to ‘Takaku’(Takaki, located on the Shimabara peninsula) where the captives were sold off, much like they were selling off a family heirloom.” (4)
Frois then continued. The fate of those taken by the Shimazu army was that they either ended up as prisoners of war, died from the effects of war and illness, or wasted away from starvation. Both sides engaged in killing and plundering one another. Those who had been taken as prisoners of war by the Shimazu army “after being taken back to Satsuma and Higo, led around to various markets like a herd of sheep, where they were sold. Many of those taken were sold off for cheap prices of one or two “toston” (or bun, a small amount of money)”. (5)
All 12 volumes of Frois’ “History of Japan” are replete with continuous conflict and the buying and selling of both people and goods seized through violence, all set against a backdrop of unremitting starvation. (5) Frois’ opinion of war was very much founded on the raw experience and observations that he made of the battlefield, particularly those in Kyushu. (5)
This “true depiction of war” lay at the bottom of many of the more familiar, more colourful studies of warring state era armies and tales of battle. It speaks of the reality of fighting for the many foot soldiers (or ‘militia’) who faced starvation, and so fought either in order to live or in order to be able to eat. It also reverses many of the conceptions that we might have about warfare of that period. Hence it is my intention here to overturn the depiction of war in the Sengoku era from one of “battles between heroes” to that of “battles between commoners”, and so depict the society of the era of the warring states from the ground up. (5)
‘Militia/foot soldiers’ usually refers to “lowly ranked soldiers”. The armies of warlords of the era of the warring states might have had one hundred soldiers in them, however only 10 or so of those soldiers might be mounted on horses. The other 90 would be placed into one of three different categories. 1) Officially sanctioned warriors, who went by the name of kasemonoor wakatoor ashigaru– samurai, in other words, who fought together with their lord. 2) Those of lower rank, known as either chugenor komonoor arashiko, who acted as aides to their lord on the battlefield, handling horses or carrying their lord’s spear – in other words, genin(trans.note = literally “lower people”). 3) Those known as either buor bumaru, “peasants” in other words, who had been drafted in from villages to serve as porters, transporting goods etc. (5)
Those wakatoand ashigaruincluded under item 1) were the main military force permitted to engage in fighting on the battlefield. Those included under item 2) and 3) were ostensibly excused from participating in the fighting because of their rank (or kenzen, the gap between samurai and those of lower ranks). However in the heat of battle, such distinctions were often ignored. It is my intention to shed some light on these soldiers, which I refer to as zohyobut were otherwise known as wakatoor komonoor fujin, along with many other merchants, bandits, and pirates whose characteristics are unknown but who also appeared on the battlefield. (6)
It is particularly challenging to tell the story of the most commonly known battles from a different point of view to the ‘heroes’ of such tales, however my main purpose in writing “the commoner’s battlefield” is as follows;
I. A world in chaos
The annual records that Luis Frois wrote as part of his public duties for the Society of Jesus have proven useful to the study of Japan’s history, yet Frois himself was described by one of his superiors as “prone to boastfulness and idle gossip”. This then beggars the question whether or not the “true depiction of war” that Frois wrote was based on fact?
First, let us take a look at the battlefields of the era of the warring states, to those conflicts that lasted over a century, starting with the battlefields of Kyushu that Frois himself witnessed. What actually took place in a “war in order to eat”? We must try to venture into the cruel centre of conflict to determine what is otherwise commonly referred to as “a world beset by chaos”. (6)
At the end of the Middle Ages period, following the peace imposed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (and unification of the nation), the battlefields of Japan fell silent. Thereafter an army numbering some one hundred and fifty thousand arrived in force on the battlefields of the Korean peninsula. When examining “war in order to eat”, one must not ignore this state of affairs either.
When these invasion battlefields too finally fell silent, the final battles to determine the ruler of Japan were contested at Sekigahara and Osaka. So what actually happened during such conflict? (6,7)
II. The common soldier
The commoners that served as soldiers on these battlefields played the main role in this “world of chaos”. So from where did they come? The world of the era of the warring states was beset by poor harvests and famine. For the commoner, try as he might to plow his fields yet still face starvation, the only option was to join a group of militia and head off to the battlefield. Once there, he might seize a little food, or property, or even a man or woman. With this meagre asset in hand, he might be able to survive the winter. For common soldiers, the battlefield in the period between winter and the following summer, in which starvation was rampant, was the only miserable available means of support. (7)
Those left behind in the villages, say two or three other youths who couldn’t find enough to eat, would be joined by vagabonds, bandits, buccaneers and merchants. The chaos that battle spread – or rather the violence and plunder that accompanied it - appears to have occurred as a consequence of “war in order to eat”. (7)
III. The village battlefield – the village as a castle
On the other hand, in the wars that were part of the “world of chaos”, both villages and towns found conflict an important test of the extent to which they were willing to defend their property. The more traditional symbols of power in the regions, the castles of a lord or landowner, became evacuation centres for the people at some time in their history. Yet for villages located far from a castle, a mountain that they knew nearby might contain huts or a mountain castle that could serve as their own evacuation centre. Villages located on the border between provinces would pay tribute to both sides and maintain their neutrality, or else they would pay a large amount of gold to the invading army and thus guarantee their safety. Villagers would also arm themselves, and if they found anyone from a defeated army trying to retreat, they would descend from the village and attack them to steal their remaining goods. (7)
In order to protect themselves from the fires of war, both towns and villages adopted a number of self-defence measures during the era of the warring states.
IV. From the battlefields to the cities – the wanderings of common soldiers
People of the era of the warring states announced their resolution to forego the world of chaos through their acceptance of “Hideyoshi’s peace”, which brought an end to conflict throughout the land. For common soldiers, who made their living off of the spoils of battle and who without it would face starvation, they could either head overseas to participate in the invasion of the Korean peninsula or they could make their way to large scale castle construction projects or numerous “gold rushes”. These ‘projects’ provided new avenues of revenue for common soldiers, and they flocked to join them. The spirit of the age of “Hideyoshi’s peace” can be seen in the impetus to shift from the battlefield (the medieval world) to the city (the early modern world). (8) These large scale public projects, they be battles, or castles, or gold mines, acted as a kind of “survival system” amidst the continuous bad harvests and famines of the age. (8)
For those people taken as prisoners and sold over and over again, and for common soldiers who lost their means of livelihood, where did they eventually end up? Frois does not address this in his writing, yet evidence exists of many powerful ships from around the world, starting with the Portuguese and Japanese pirates operating in league with them, loading up many prisoners of war and common soldiers at many ports throughout Kyushu and taking them to battlefields in Southeast Asia. It is in investigating this phenomenon that I wish to conclude my study into the “commoner’s battlefield”.
What drew me to such a title as “the commoner’s battlefield” was my discovery of the hugely influential work by Yamauchi Susumu, titled “A history of the laws and attitudes towards plunder and abduction”. In Europe of the Middle Ages, the abduction of people from the battlefield, set against a stubborn continuation of famines, was closely entwined to the creation of an army as far as common soldiers and merchants were concerned. Another lesson came from Hiraki Shosuke (an expert on German medieval history). The Frankish peasantry found that since their level of production was nowhere near adequate to feed themselves and they were not really suited to merely be farmers. So they became warriors in order to eat, and headed for the battlefield to seek fame and glory. For them, war became a basis for everyday life, an important supplement in their calculations and an economic act of convenience. (8-9)
Yet the agrarian revolution of the middle ages dramatically increased the levels of production among the peasantry, and thus it became possible for peasants to produce enough for themselves to eat. They became ‘professional’ agrarian workers, no longer reliant on fighting for a livelihood, which brought about a clear distinction between themselves and professional soldiers. It’s this aspect to “the commoner’s battlefield” in particular that caught my eye. (9)
This “reverse” explanation of the division of soldiers and peasants by Hiraki came as a shock to me. Until I read this, I had always looked at the issue of when warriors of the era of the warring states chose to become warriors from the point of view of “the creation of a professional warrior class”. However Professor Hiraki’s thesis asked when peasants chose to remain peasants (without relying on warfare), thus looking at things from the point of view of the creation of a “professional agrarian class”. It was the complete opposite of commonly held views on the division of peasant and warrior. (9)
The works of early modern Japanese historian Takagi Shosaku also highlighted the fact that the plunder and abduction of people and goods on the battlefield were regarded as legitimate activities, with the main perpetrators of these acts being “samurai, chugen, komono, or arashiko”; in other words the common soldier. (9-10) Using words that associated ‘samurai’ with soldiers of lower social rank indicated that they were not regarded as warriors, and that fact itself expanded my views on what constituted a common soldier. (10) I also learned a lot from the works of Asao Naohiro and his explanation of the late sixteenth century as the “high point of the social climbers”. (10)
A longstanding scholar of folk history and pursuer of studies into the traditions of plunder, Chiba Tokuji, also revealed the ‘origins of conflict’ lay in fighting between people and beasts, and thus revealed the true nature of warfare in Japan from the depths of folk belief. This also influenced my thinking on warfare in a range of different ways. (10)
I should add that a majority of Japanese scholars of the era of the warring states (myself included) are well aware of the cruelties that war creates. Recent studies by Kobayashi Seiji, which has raised many questions among scholars of the field, have admirably broken new ground on this front and I myself have been influenced by them. However, a good many scholars up until now (again, myself included), when reading of the plunder of people and goods from the battlefield, are influenced by (modern) practices of taking prisoners of war and accounting for them, and thus ascribe to the plunder of women and children and the seizure of goods the moniker of ‘crimes’. We also refer to the seizure of crops and burning of villages in the era of warring states as “harvesting” and “burning”, thus attempting to downplay the tactics adopted by warlords at the time. We only pay attention to acts meant to preserve the security of villages without examining what it was like for villages caught up in the cruelties of war. While we might debate human trafficking, we see no problem in the taking of slaves from the battlefield. (10)
There are many records stating that the people were always the victims of war. Yet such works suffer from a lack of urgency compared to actual specific examples from history. They regard the people as little more than poor unfortunates. I myself am guilty of making this mistake, and I deeply regret it. (10)
Until the beginning of the 21stcentury, for almost half a century Japan has known peace and has had ample food supplies. While we are currently bathed in such joyful hues, we forget about the starvation and war that has affected many others abroad, and regard the so-called “era of war and famine” that was Japan during the Middle Ages as a period without rhyme nor reason nor any semblance of peace. As a result, when we come to read works about the war and famine in Japan in the Middle Ages, we have virtually no frame of reference from which to draw. My thoughts on this have become even stronger since witnessing the changes in the environment going on around us. (10-11)
About twenty years ago I wrote a thesis which questioned the meaning of the large scale social changes that occurred at the end of the sixteenth century, otherwise known as the “unification of the nation (or the transition from war to peace)”, and that “Hideyoshi’s peace” contained within it a meaning of escaping from the cruelties of a society forced to defend and protect itself. Yet despite attempting to focus on aspects of society of the era of the warring states, I realize that I wasn’t able to shed light on anything about either the cruelties of a society at war or the realization of a life of peace. (11)
So gradually I began to examine things from the point of view of the common soldier rather than the “hero”, and was able to slowly enjoy immersing myself in the “social history of war and peace”. The results of all of this detective work are contained in this work that I have titled “The commoner’s battlefield”. (11)
I A world in chaos
I. The battlefields of the era of the warring states
The Shimazu army captures prisoners on the battlefield
First, let’s begin by paying a visit to the battlefields of Kyushu that Frois would have seen and which he described in his “History of Japan”. Are we in fact certain that his descriptions of “war in order to eat” and “war aimed at plunder” were correct? What can we find to back up such assertions? (14-15)
One of the leading players on the battlefields of Kyushu at the end of the sixteenth century was the Shimazu clan of Satsuma. The army of the Shimazu had made its way relentlessly northward, so much so that by Tensho 14 (1586) one could call the Shimazu the “absolute rulers of five provinces” of Kyushu. They continued to press the Otomo clan, the sole remaining ruler of Bungo province, and had almost completed their conquest of the entire island. As part of the central cog in this army, Shimazu retainer Uwai Kakuken had led troops north and very soon entered the province of Higo. Taking in the scenery around him, Uwai noted down what he witnessed in his diary. (15)
According to the diary’s editor, Uwai wrote that “The wounded returned (to Satsuma), along with the women and children captured along the way, so much so that they clogged up the roads.” Hence the roads leading back to Satsuma were filled with wounded soldiers belonging to the Shimazu army, along with some tens or so women and children captured as spoils of war. The line of people that Kakuken saw were a group belonging to the Otomo and taken as plunder on the battlefields in the north, and were being led back to captivity in Shimazu held territory in the south. This description perfectly backs up what Frois wrote in his own record. (16)
Moreover, four years earlier, at the end of Tensho 10 (1582), when moving to aid the Arima clan, Kakuken wrote a report on the siege of the castle of Chijiwa held by the Ryuzoji clan, where he noted that “two or three hundred of the enemy had been captured”, “countless people were captured”, and “there was an excess of captured people”. (16)
Frois wrote the same thing about the activities of the Shimazu clan at that time. According to Frois’ record “They killed a large number of enemy soldiers, or took them prisoner. They devastated that land and plundered it. However the commanders and soldiers who observed matters from their mountain camp strongly desired to take their spoils and return home. Unable to wait an extra day to complete their destruction of the enemy, they abandoned the castle of Saiga (that had been captured) and withdrew without meeting their objective.” (16)
There are no contradictions between Frois’ and Kakuken’s records. Amid the soldiers of the Shimazu army, there were some who had no interest in meeting that day’s objective (of capturing Chijiwa castle) and wanted “return home as early as possible with their spoils” and that there were “commanders and soldiers” whose only interest was plunder, which means that the army clearly included organised groups of plunderers. The line of people that Kakuken had met on the road were most certainly taken by those same plunderers. (16)
The reports, diaries, and military tales of the Shimazu are replete with many examples of the Shimazu army capturing people or livestock or else devastating crops. I’ll quote here from three diaries whose records only describe the capture of people.
(The diary of Hongo Tadasuke)
(1st Month of Tenbun 15 – 1546). 50 or more people killed, and countless men, women, cattle and horses taken.
(4th Month of Tenbun 18 – 1549) 236 heads taken, and many captured.
(The diary of the Yamamoto of Gamou)
(8th Month of the 1st year of Kouji – 1551) Three enemy killed, and one other captured.
(10th Month of the 1st year of Kouji) Two enemy killed, in addition to 15 or 16 children and one adult being captured.
(3rd Month of Kouji 2 – 1552) 7 ashigaru went out and captured around 4 commoners.
(2nd Month of Kouji 3 – 1553) Chased after 10 or so enemy, and after a while captured 3 of them.
(3rd Month of Kouji 3) Took one adult captive at the base of Kitamura. (17)
(Diary of Hongo Tokihisa)
(5th Month of the 8th year of Eiroku – 1565) 28 killed, 40 captured, 700 items seized.
(4th Month of the 9th year of Eiroku) Fighting between boats, the Ito group killed 29, took 9 alive, over 63 killed in total, 5 boats seized.
(5th Month of the 12th year of Eiroku) 107 heads taken, of which only 1 taken alive, 5 generals killed, for a total of 170 killed.
(Same month) Departed Shonai, 3 people abducted.
(4th Month of the 3rd year of Genki – 1572) Villages were destroyed, and many horses and people were taken.
(9th Month of the same year) A castle was captured, 3 of the Ijichi family were killed, along with over 70 others, countless numbers of people seized.
(1st Month of the 2nd year of Tensho – 1574) 60 killed, and over 400 taken by skilled retainers.
Amid these records of the military exploits of the Shimazu army, one thing that particular stands out are the numerous references to “taking people” or “capturing people alive”. As seen from the examples of “3 enemies killed, and 1 taken alive”, taking prisoners on the battlefield (as opposed to killing them) appears to refer to the capture of enemy soldiers. However the plunder of countless numbers of men and women, as evidenced by the references to “countless numbers of men, women, cattle and horses were taken” and “over 400 people taken (by skilled retainers)”, in addition to those records stating “1 child taken” and “3 people abducted” makes it unlikely that they were taken as prisoners of war. When we see records that state “the lower classes took one captive” and “7 ashigaru went out and captured around 4 commoners”, this indicates that the main perpetrators of taking prisoners on the battlefield, as well as those who fell victim to such practices, were lower order soldiers or their affiliates.(18)
The battlefields of southern Higo province
Even in the territory of a minor daimyo like the Sagara clan in southern Higo, the taking of people went unabated. The annual record of the Sagara, known as the “Yatsushiro Diary”, speaks of this.
(3rdmonth of the 9thyear of Tenbun – 1540) Over a thousand of the enemy killed, and up to 2000 taken prisoner.
(10thmonth of the 16thyear of Tenbun) A soldier by the name of Yo Shichihyoe carried out a night attack and took one enemy captive. 3 days later he captured two retainers from Izumi. (19)
(10th month of the 19th year of Tenbun) Broke through defences, killed 4, captured 11 alive, and took numerous cows and horses.
(9th month of the 2nd year of Kouji – 1556) Broke through the defence of Takado Daido, killed 6, took 20 captive.
(11th month of the 2nd year of Kouji) 5 killed, 53 taken captive, cattle and horses taken.
(11th month of the 3rd year of Kouji) From Inekari to Fusekusa, 2 killed, 2 captured.
(3rd month of the 2nd year of Eiroku – 1559) In sumover 20 men and women killed, and 38 or so captured.
(9th month of the 2nd year of Eiroku) At Fusekusa, headed down to the sands near the sea, 3 killed, 8 taken captive.
(Lunar 3rd month of the 4th year of Eiroku) A night attack carried out from Ikeura and Sashiki, 1 killed, 2 captured.
(12th month of the 7th year of Eiroku) Some underlings, while out gathering firewood, took 7 persons captive. (19)