In our latest List of 7 article, we’re looking back at some of the most famous samurai battles and conflicts (including duels and vendettas). We feature some epic stories of bloodshed, bravery and betrayal, though a few are shrouded in myth and legend.
The Battle of Dan-no-ura
The samurai battle that marked the end of the Heian Period and the beginning of the Kamakura Era took place at Dan-no-ura at the Straits of Shimonoseki off the southern tip of Honshu in 1185. It was the culmination of a decades-long conflict between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans over who ruled Japan. The latter, under the leadership of Taira no Kiyomori, held power after defeating the Minamoto during the Hogen (1156) and Heiji (1159-60) rebellions. Surviving Minamoto family members were consequently expelled from the capital city of Kyoto.
They rose again, though, leading to the Genpei War (1180-85). During the conflict, the Taira were forced to retreat from Kyoto to Ichi-no-Tani near Kobe, where they suffered a crucial defeat in 1184. It got worse a year later. Off the coast of Dan-no-ura, the Minamoto outnumbered their rivals by three to one. The tide had turned against the Taira and some of their soldiers defected while the grandmother of 6-year-old Emperor Antoku drowned him so he wouldn’t be captured by opposing forces. The civil war was over, though Minamoto no Yoritomo wasn’t officially appointed shogun until 1192.
The Battle of Minatogawa
Kusunoki Masashige is revered as one of the greatest ever samurai due to his unswerving devotion and loyalty to the emperor, which famously led to his death at the Battle of Minatogawa. The acclaimed strategist was a key figure in the Kenmu Restoration as Emperor Go-Daigo overthrew the Kamakura Shogunate, which had thrived for almost 150 years, to restore the imperial house to power in Japan following the Genko War (1331-33). Go-Daigo was then himself overthrown three years later, as his policies disillusioned his supporters and he didn’t fully appreciate the samurai who fought for him.
That included his great general Ashikaga Takauji, who got his revenge by betraying the emperor in 1335. Takauji subsequently led his army against imperial loyalists, including Masashige and samurai lord Nitta Yoshisada. When the Ashikaga clan surrounded Kyoto in the summer of 1336, Go-Daigo ordered his troops to engage in a pitched battle. This was despite Masashige’s advice to hide in the mountains and then trap the rebels in the city while harassing their supply route. He knew the loyalists had no chance of winning with Go-Daigo’s tactics, yet fought anyway, making the ultimate sacrifice for his leader.
The Honno-ji Incident and the Battle of Yamazaki
An era of near-constant civil war, the Sengoku Period (1467-1603) is remembered for a series of epic samurai battles, several of which could easily have made this list. That includes many of Oda Nobunaga’s significant victories in Okehazama, Anegawa and Nagashino as well as Takeda Shingen’s tactical triumph over Tokugawa Ieyasu’s army on the snow-covered plain of Mikatagahara on this day in 1573. For Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of Japan’s three great unifiers, the most notable success on the battlefield came against Akechi Mitsuhide’s troops at the Battle of Yamazaki on July 2, 1582.
It was fought less than two weeks after the death of Nobunaga. The country’s most powerful daimyo (feudal lord) was ambushed while he was resting at the Honno-ji Temple in Kyoto. He then committed suicide by seppuku. The same fate awaited his eldest son Nobutada at Nijo Castle. Despite not killing either personally, Mitsuhide claimed responsibility for both deaths and established himself as shogun. He lasted just 13 days as leader, though, as Toyotomi avenged his lord’s death in Yamazaki. His army outnumbered and overwhelmed Mitsuhide’s troops. Toyotomi subsequently took Nobunaga’s power and authority for himself.
The Battle of Sekigahara
Toyotomi’s troubled reign came to an end in 1598 when he died of natural causes. Shortly before his death, he appointed the Council of Five Elders (Tairo) and Five Commissioners (Bugyo) to run the country until his son Hideyori, then aged 5, came of age. This, though, created a power vacuum with two main contenders emerging: Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari. The former, seen as the most powerful of the five regents, quickly positioned himself to be the next shogun. Mitsunari, a commissioner and self-proclaimed protector of Hideyori, formed an alliance to oppose Ieyasu.
Things came to a head on October 21,1600 in the Sekigahara region of Mino Province (present day Gifu Prefecture). Tens of thousands of soldiers lost their lives in what was the biggest and bloodiest battle in Japanese feudal history. Mitsunari’s had the upper hand until Kobayakawa Hideaki’s troops defected to the eastern army. It was a plot that Ieyasu had hatched before the battle and proved decisive. Following the defeat, Mitsunari attempted to escape but was caught by villagers and beheaded in Kyoto. The Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan for the next two and half centuries.
Miyamoto Musashi vs. Sasaki Kojiro
When it comes to legendary Japanese swordsmen, two names tend to dominate. The first is Tsukahara Bokuden, who was said to have killed more than 200 men in battle and individual confrontations. His art of “mutekatsu” (defeating an opponent without a sword), which he reportedly demonstrated against a bellicose samurai whom he left stranded on an island, inspired Bruce Lee’s “fighting without fighting” scene in Enter the Dragon. Born 13 years after Bokuden’s death in 1571, Miyamoto Musashi, renowned for his two-blade fighting technique, then took over the mantle as the country’s most feared swordsman.
Musashi’s most well-known encounter supposedly took place in 1612 against Sasaki Kojiro. It was set for Ganryujima, a small isle between Honshu and Kyushu, for 8am. Musashi, however, arrived three hours late, probably to rile his opponent. It worked. An irate Kojiro threw his scabbard aside. “If you’ve no more use for your sheath, you’re already dead,” said Musashi, further enraging his rival. It provoked Kojiro to attack first before Musashi countered with a blow that broke his opponent’s ribs and punctured his lungs, thus killing him. Musashi later wrote The Book of Five Rings, a manifesto on swordsmanship.
The Revenge of the 47 Ronin (The Ako Incident)
When it comes to vengeance, three incidents stand out in Japan. There’s the Revenge of the Soga Brothers in 1193, when Sukenari and Tokimune assassinated their father’s killer. More than four centuries later came the Igagoe Vendetta, which saw Watanabe Kazuma avenge his brother’s death. The most famous act of adauchi, though, was popularized in plays known as Chushingura. The actual event occurred in 1703 (or 1702 based on the old calendar) when Oishi Kuranosuke led a group of 47 ronin (leaderless samurai) to exact revenge on an official they held responsible for the death of their lord.
The lord in question was Asano Naganori. He was compelled to perform seppuku after drawing his sword on Kira Yoshinaka within Edo Castle’s walls. Yoshinaka, who’d been tutoring Naganori in matters of court etiquette and protocol, started publicly insulting him after he refused to pay him bribes. Naganori’s retainers waited over two years to take their revenge, severing Yoshinaka’s head before placing it on their lord’s grave. After handing themselves in, 46 of the assailants ended their lives in ritualistic fashion. The 47th, Terasaka Kichiemon, was allegedly ordered to travel to Ako to report that the vendetta had been completed.
The Battle of Shiroyama
The battle that inspired the final scenes in The Last Samurai was the final conflict of the Satsuma Rebellion. It took place in Kagoshima Prefecture on September 24, 1877. In the preceding months, Saigo Takamori’s contingent of samurai warriors suffered crushing defeats at Kumamoto Castle, Tabarazuka and Mount Enodake. It left his forces severely depleted and demoralized. With numbers and supplies dwindling, it was the beginning of the end. His army had shrunk from around 20,000 to 500, compared to the Imperial Army’s 30,000. Adhering to the Bushido code of honor, though, they refused to surrender.
Takamori’s troops retreated to Satsuma, where they seized the hill of Shiroyama. The Imperial Japanese Army, under the command of General Yamagata Aritomo and Admiral Kawamura Sumiyoshi, constructed a series of fortifications to encircle them. After facing a barrage of artillery on the evening of September 23, Takamori’s men counterattacked the following morning, charging at the enemy who weren’t trained for close-quarter sword fighting. They prevailed, but only for a short time. Heavily outnumbered and up against modern artillery, they had no chance. Takamori committed seppuku, helped by his loyal follower Beppu Shinsuke, and the rest of his troops died soon after.