The Onin War
By Terikel Grayhair | Forum thread
A king with no heir,
Died in his lair.
Each warlord brought might
To meet the others to fight
For the right to sit upon the Royal Chair
A Western rhyme, but one well suited to the beginning of the Sengoku period of Japanese history. Looking back, it was inevitable. Looking forward, it brought stability to a troubled realm once the torches of war were extinguished.
The Mikado, the Emperor, was the Son of Heaven. He was the Celestial King, a divine man, and one who was born with Heavenly grace shrouding his shoulders. This train of thought was not an original Japanese concept, but one borrowed eons ago from China. The Japanese took this concept, adapted it to their own culture, and instituted it.
There was a problem with divine rule, in that one must occasionally get one’s hands dirty. Emperors are but men, and men make mistakes- even those thought to be divine. To insulate this heavenly man from human mistakes, a shogun arose to rule the earthly realms in the name of the divine emperor.
This did not arise instantly, or with the emperor’s permission at first. It came as a result of the shogun (generalissimo, commander in chief of armed forces) rising skill at war and politics, coupled with a weak imperial ruler. Several emperors, notable Go-Daigo, tried to reverse this trend, but ultimately failed. The shogunate was established and there to stay.
Shoguns changed as well. The first ones were merely military ranks, then as the office gained more power, the clans began fighting for that power. The Taira and the Minamoto fought, with the Minamoto eventually winning to establish a Kamakura shogunate lasting the better part of one hundred fifty years. They were replaced after internal struggles with the Ashikaga shogunate, which lasted until the beginning of the Sengoku period, which itself began with the Onin War. When the Sengoku period ended with the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Tokugawa shogunate came to be. It lasted until the Emperor Meiji restored the Emperor to his original, political powers.
But that is background. What we wish to describe now was the spark that set off the Sengoku period, also known as the Warring States Period. It came towards the end of the Ashikaga shogunate, and led to its downfall. The downfall of the shogun led to the scrambling of many daimyo to seek the power of Shogun, and thus led directly to wars before one emerged supreme. The downfall of the shogun began with the situation described in the opening poem.
Ashikaga Yoshimasa was the shogun, and had been since his older brother, the ten-year old Ashikaga Yoshikatsu fell from his horse and died in August 1443. Twenty-one peaceful years later, Yoshimasa was nearing thirty years of age and had yet to produce a son or heir. Nor was he particularly interested in being a military warlord. Ceremonies and art were more his cup of tea. He wanted to abdicate, but had no heir. This led to questions as to succession, which Yoshimasa answered by naming his brother Ashikaga Yoshimi as heir. Yoshimi had become a monk, then leader of the temple, and did not wish the temporal power of the shogun. Yoshimasa insisted, and eventually persuaded his brother to return for the good of the nation, to revoke his vows to the priesthood to take on new ones as his Kanrei, or deputy. This Yoshimi did, and became his brother’s heir. Then, totally unexpectedly, the wife of Yoshimasa became pregnant and bore him a son, Yoshihisa.
From no heir to two, in a relatively short space of time. Yoshimi had abandoned his monk’s vows at his brother’s request to fulfill the void, and now an infant jeopardized that claim to power. Hosokawa Katsumoto, a second Kanrei to Yoshimasa, supported Yoshimi’s claim to the designation of heir. The two had a good working relationship, and each found things in the other they liked. But Hosokawa had a bitter foe- Yamana Sozen, his father in law, himself a former monk who had risen high but was always resentful of the power enjoyed by his daughter’s husband. The two battled behind the scenes, disputing treaties and succession rights, until the birth of Yoshihisa brought their animosity to the surface.
Yamana Sozen rose in support of the infant Yoshihisa; his son-in-law Hosokawa was thus bound by their mutual differences to support the ex-monk Yoshimi. Neither, it seemed, appeared to take the wishes of the shogun Yoshimasa into account. Two years of maneuvering and preparations followed, with each trying to persuade Yoshimasa of the rightfulness of their cause, while drawing strength from their allies for the coming storm. And the allies and relatives came- in their thousands. It was reported that over eighty thousand men supported Yamana, with another eighty thousand stiffening the ranks of Hosokawa. The battle lines were drawn, but this time the fighting would erupt into open warfare. How could it not, with so many figting men in such a confined space? Toes were bound to be stepped on, and they were.
The finagling and plays of intrigue came to the surface in isolated incidents. The mansion of a high Hosokawa supporter was set aflame. Elsewhere, other nuisance attacks against rice shipments and brawling near other locales broke out. Yoshimasa saw through the veils of deceit and intrigue to spy the net woven beneath. If fighting erupted openly, then it would be quickly spread throughout the net to engulf the entire country in the flames of war. Desperate to prevent his realm from disintegrating to chaos, Yoshimasa finally acted. He declared in March 1467 that the first one to attack would be considered a rebel to the Ashikaga shogunate, and to himself.
It did not help for long. Hosokawa was irritated by the nuisance raids, and made an open and frontal attack against the home of one of Yamana’s generals four months later. Worse, Hosokawa played upon the weak will of the shogun to woo him and the emperor. He declared that Yamana had initiated the attack- a blatant lie. Yamana was branded the rebel, which cost him some of his support as those of his supporters who were less staunch in their vows switched sides.
Open battle raged in the streets of the capital Kyoto as Yamana and Hosokawa fought. Blood was spilled by the barrel, and opponents and anyone else caught in the battle slain out of hand. One battle, led by Yamana personally, saw eight carts of severed heads toted away as grisly trophies- the attack was on a Buddhist monastery. By September Kyoto was in ash-covered ruins and most of its populace fled.
Luckily, Yamana had taken the opposing faction’s heir Yoshimi to the Shogun’s residence, the one place the men of Kanrei Hosokawa could not get at him. This made Yoshimi basically a hostage, yet the move did not put him out of play. Some sources claim Yoshimi voluntarily joined Yamana, betraying Hosokawa. This makes sense in a way- the Buddhist monk seeing the blood shed over his role as heir, and wanting to stop it. How could he? By joining the faction supporting his own rival, and thus removing all cause for war. But alas, the ploy did not succeed. Hosokawa, spurned by Yoshimi, now supported the infant son of Yoshimasa spurned by Yamana.
The shogun did nothing to stop the fighting. He did issue a decree- based on the words of Hosokawa, who promised to faithfully serve his young son. Yoshimi and anyone sheltering him was to be considered in rebellion against the shogun. This branded both his brother Yoshimi and the supporter of his son Yamana as rebels. But he did not follow up the decree with sanctions or implore his daimyo to go to war against the rebels. He simply issued his proclamation and withdrew into his own little world again, content to culturally enhance himself while his realm tore itself apart. He retired to his country estate while his capital became a battlefield, and read poetry while men died.
This gave the other daimyo the impression that the shogun did not care, or even gave tacit approval to the fighting, as if the result could decide for him- brother, or son, as his heir. Each saw an opportunity to expand his own wealth and land with no shogun interference. Nominally fighting for the heir, they were in it for themselves. The Onin War was setting the stage for a free-for-all grab for power, though it had not yet come that far- there was still a shogun. In the end, two years after fighting broke out, Yoshimasa appointed his son as heir.
The large-scale open battles in the streets of Kyoto ended for the most part, turning into low-level warfare of raids and counter-raids. Both Hosokawa and Yamana died in 1473, the one forty-three years of age, the other seventy. The fighting tapered off, but never quite ended. It continued for another eight long, bloody years, especially out in the provinces. By the time the fighting ended some ten years after it started, there was not a single part of the empire that had not seen bloodshed.
The Onin war officially ended upon the retreat of Ouchi Masahiro from Kyoto in 1477. Ouchi, who had become a great champion in the Yamana faction, took his twenty thousand samurai back to his home in Yamaguchi. But before he did, he showed his spite for the pitiful emperor and the powerless shogun by burning down the section of the ravaged imperial city of Kyoto he had occupied.
Yamana, whose power waned and evaporated under the branding as a rebel, saw the son of the shogun named heir, as he had wished. Hosokawa, the initiator of the open warfare, gained political strength to the extent that his line, not the shogun’s, wielded the true power in the Carolingian “Mayor of the Palace” sort of way. Each had succeeded in achieving a goal, though neither faction fully achieved victory.
The taint of the war ran deep. After the Onin war, the Ashikaga government fell into disrepair and ruin, despite the efforts of the now-powerful Hosokawa. From these burning ruins, tainted by the flames of the Onin War and the blood spilled by those who struggled, rose the powerful daimyo outside of Kyoto who would eventual tear Japan apart during the Warring States Period in their quest for the coveted title of the Shogun’s Kanrei. None thought they would actually be the Shogun, but that did not matter if one controlled the shogun like a puppet. The daimyos had gotten a taste of open warfare on their teeth and liked it, and with a shogun who was more a puppet than a true commander, they saw in the situation a chance to continue the fighting until one of them emerged as a true Shogun.
Thus began the Sengoku period- the Era of Warring States, which would not end until Tokugawa Ieyasu would emerge supreme from the ashes of feudal Japan to establish a shogunate that would last until the Emperor Meiji once again took back his ancestral powers and ruled as a true Emperor of Japan.