Under the early courts, when military conscription had been centrally controlled, military affairs had been taken out of the hands of the provincial aristocracy. But as the system broke down after 792, local power holders again became the primary source of military strength. Shoen holders had access to manpower and, as they obtained improved military technology (such as new training methods, more powerful bows, armor, horses, and superior swords) and faced worsening local conditions in the ninth century, military service became part of shoen life. Not only the shoen but also civil and religious institutions formed private guard units to protect themselves. Gradually, the provincial upper class was transformed into a new military elite based on the ideals of the bushi (warrior) or samurai (literally, one who serves).
Bushi interests were diverse, cutting across old power structures to form new associations in the tenth century. Mutual interests, family connections, and kinship were consolidated in military groups that became part of family administration. In time, large regional military families formed around members of the court aristocracy who had become prominent provincial figures. These military families gained prestige from connections to the imperial court and court-granted military titles and access to manpower. The Fujiwara, Taira, and Minamoto were among the most prominent families supported by the new military class.
Decline in food production, growth of the population, and competition for resources among the great families all led to the gradual decline of Fujiwara power and gave rise to military disturbances in the mid-tenth and eleventh centuries. Members of the Fujiwara, Taira, and Minamoto families--all of whom had descended from the imperial family--attacked one another, claimed control over vast tracts of conquered land, set up rival regimes, and generally broke the peace of the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Fujiwara controlled the throne until the reign of Emperor Go-Sanjo (1068-73), the first emperor not born of a Fujiwara mother since the ninth century. Go-Sanjo, determined to restore imperial control through strong personal rule, implemented reforms to curb Fujiwara influence. He also established an office to compile and validate estate records with the aim of reasserting central control. Many shoen were not properly certified, and large landholders, like the Fujiwara, felt threatened with the loss of their lands. Go-Sanjo also established the Incho, or Office of the Cloistered Emperor, which was held by a succession of emperors who abdicated to devote themselves to behind-the-scenes governance, or insei (cloistered government).
The Incho filled the void left by the decline of Fujiwara power. Rather than being banished, the Fujiwara were mostly retained in their old positions of civil dictator and minister of the center while being bypassed in decision making. In time, many of the Fujiwara were replaced, mostly by members of the rising Minamoto family. While the Fujiwara fell into disputes among themselves and formed northern and southern factions, the insei system allowed the paternal line of the imperial family to gain influence over the throne. The period from 1086 to 1156 was the age of supremacy of the Incho and of the rise of the military class throughout the country. Military might rather than civil authority dominated the government.
In the feudal era an army consisted of a congeries of little bands, each under the order of a chief who considered himself independent, and instead of subordinating his movements to a general blow wherever he pleased. From time immemorial a romantic value has attached in Japan to the first of anything: the first winter; the first water drawn from the well on New Year's Day; the first blossom of the nightingale. So in war the first to ride up to the foe or the wielder of the first spear was held in high honour, and a samurai strove for that distinction as his principal duty. It necessarily resulted, too, not only from the nature of the weapons employed, but also from the immense labour devoted by the true samurai to perfecting himself in their use, that displays of individual prowess were deemed the chief object in a battle.
Some tactical formations borrowed from China were familiar in Japan, but their intelligent use and their modification to suit the circumstances of the time were inaugurated only by the great captains of the 15th and 16th centuries. Prior to that epoch a battle resembled a gigantic fencing match. Men fought as individuals, not as units of a tactical formation, and the engagement consisted of a number of personal duels, all in simultaneous progress. It was the samurai's habit to proclaim his name and titles in the presence of the enemy, sometimes adding from his own record or his father's any details that might tend to dispirit his hearers. Then some one advancing to cross weapons with him would perform the same ceremony of self-introduction, and if either found anything to upbraid in the other's antecedents or family history, he did not fail to make loud reference to it, such a device being counted efficacious as a means of disturbing an adversary's sangfroid, though the principle under-lying the mutual introduction was courtesy. The duellists could reckon on finishing their fight undisturbed, but the victor frequently had to endure the combined assault of a number of the comrades or retainers of the vanquished. Of course a skilled swordsman did not necessarily seek a single combat; he was equally ready to ride into the thick of the fight without discrimination, and a group of common soldiers never hesitated to make a united attack upon a mounted officer if they found him disengaged. But the general feature of a battle was individual contests, and when the fighting had ceased, each samurai proceeded to the tent' of the commanding officer and submitted for inspection the heads of those whom he had killed.
The disadvantage of such a mode of fighting was demonstrated for the first time when the Mongols invaded Japan in 1274. The invaders moved in phalanx, guarding themselves, and covering their advance with a host of archers shooting clouds of poisoned arrows. When a Japanese samurai advanced singly and challenged one of them to combat, they opened their ranks, enclosed the challenger and cut him to pieces. Many Japanese were thus slain, and it was not until they made a concerted movement of attack that they produced any effect upon the enemy. But although the advantage of massing strength seems to have been recognized, the Japanese themselves did not adopt the formation which the Mongols had shown to be so formidable.
Individual prowess continued to be the prominent factor in battles down to a comparatively recent period. The great captains Takeda Shingen and Uyesugi Kenshin are supposed to have been Japan's pioneer tacticians. They certainly appreciated the value of a formation in which the action of the individual should be subordinated to the unity of the whole. But when it is remembered that fire-arms had already been in the hands of the Japanese for several years, and that they had means of acquainting themselves with A tent was simply a space enclosed with strips of cloth or silk, on which was emblazoned the crest of the commander. It had no covering. 2 The Japanese never at any time of their history used poisoned arrows; they despised them as depraved and inhuman weapons. the tactics of Europe through their intercourse with the Dutch, it is remarkable that the changes attributed to Takeda and Uyesugi were not more drastic. Speaking broadly, what they did was to organize a column with the musqueteers and archers in front; the spearmen and swordsmen in the second line; cavalry in the third line; the commanding officer in the rear, and the drums and standards in the center.
At close quarters the spear proved a highly effective weapon, and in the days of Hideyoshi (1536-1598) combined flank and front attacks by bands of spearmen became a favourite device. The importance of a strong reserve also received recognition, and in theory, at all events, a tolerably intelligent system of tactics was adopted. But not until the close of the 17th century did the doctrine of strictly disciplined action obtain practical vogue. Yamaga Soko is said to have been the successful inculcator of this principle, and from his time the most approved tactical formation was known as the Yamagaryu (Yamaga style), though it showed no other innovation than strict subordination of each unit to the general plan. Although, tactically speaking, the samurai was everything and the system nothing before the second half of the 17th century, and although strategy was chiefly a matter of deception, surprises and ambushes, it must not be supposed that there were no classical principles.
The student of European military history searches in vain for the rules and maxims of war so often invoked by glib critics, but the student of Japanese history is more successful. Here, as in virtually every field of things Japanese, retrospect discovers the ubiquitous Chinese. The treatises of Sung and 'Ng (called in Japan Son and Go) Chinese generals of the third century after
Christ, were the classics of Far-Eastern captains through all generations. (See The Book of War, tr. E. F. Calthrop, 1908.) Yoshitsune, in the 12th century, deceived a loving girl to obtain a copy of Sung's work which her father had in his possession, and Yamaga, in the 17th century, when he set himself to compose a book on tactics, derived his materials almost entirely from the two Chinese monographs. These treatises came into the hands of the Japanese in the 8th century, when the celebrated Kibi no Mabi went to study civilization in China, just as his successors of the 19th century went to study a new civilization in Europe and America. Thenceforth Son and Go became household words among Japanese soldiers. Their volumes were to the samurai what the Mahayana was to the Buddhist. They were believed to have collected whatever of good had preceded them, and to have forecast whatever of good the future might produce. The character of their strategic methods, somewhat analogous to those of 18th-century Europe, may be gathered from the following:
"An army undertaking an offensive campaign must be twice as numerous as the enemy. A force investing a fortress should be numerically ten times the garrison. When the adversary holds high ground, turn his flank; do not deliver a frontal attack. When he has a mountain or a river behind him, cut his lines of communication. If he deliberately assumes a position from which victory is his only escape, hold him there, but do not molest him. If you can surround him, leave one route open for his escape, since desperate men fight fiercely. When you have to cross a river, put your advance-guard and your rear-guard at a distance from the banks. When the enemy has to cross a river, let him get well engaged in the operation before you strike at him. In a march, make celerity your first object. Pass no copse, enter no ravine, nor approach any thicket until your scouts have explored it fully."
Such precepts are multiplied; but when these ancient authors discuss tactical formations, they do not seem to have contemplated anything like rapid, well-ordered changes of mobile, highly trained masses of men from one formation to another, or their quick transfer from point to point of a battlefield. The basis of their tactics is The Book of Changes. Here again is encountered the superstition that underlies nearly all Chinese and Japanese institutions: the superstition that took captive even the great mind of Confucius. The positive and the negative principles; the sympathetic and the antipathetic elements; cosmos growing out of chaos; chaos re-absorbing cosmos-on such fancies they founded their tactical system. The result wasa phalanx of complicated organization, difficult to manoeuvre and liable to be easily thrown into confusion. Yet when Yamaga in the 17th century interpreted these ancient Chinese treatises, he detected in them suggestions for a very shrewd use of the principle of echelon, and applied it to devise formations which combined much of the frontal expansion of the line with the solidity of the column. More than that cannot be said for Japanese tactical genius.
The samurai was the best fighting unit in the Orient-probably one of the best fighting units the world ever produced. It was perhaps because of that excellence that his captains remained indifferent tacticians. The tactical excellence of the IJA during World War II was in marked contrast with its stunning strategic and operational failures. The explanation can be found in military training and doctrine that emphasized infantry tactics and spiritual intangibles at the expense of intelligence, communications, and logistics. Japanese officers were not adequately prepared to command large units, and a cultural admiration for perseverance translated into a proclivity for reinforcing failure. The combat motivation of the Japanese soldier, especially his willingness to fight to the death, derived not from vulgarized notions of bushido, but rather basic societal values that were deliberately reinforced by the military. These included respect for hierarchy, loyalty to family and community (with the Army representing a surrogate family), and a conviction that the interests of the group took precedence over the individual.
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