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In the Land of Samurai

Japan was a violent, divided country before 1600 when, as Giles Milton explains, a titanic battle opened up this insular nation to the rest of the world
SWORDS OF A THOUSAND MEN The samurai were elite foot soldiers armed with razor-sharp weaponry
ART ARCHIVE X1, AKG X2, GETTY X1

500 The amount, in English pounds, that William Adams left in his will, to be divided between his families in England and Japan

ABOUT TURN

The pivotal moment of the Battle of Sekigahara was when certain Western Army generals swapped sides in favour of the warlord Ieyasu.

RIVAL RULERS Toyotomi Hideyori (left) was the seven-year-old ruler-in-waiting at the time of the battle of Sekigahara

The mist hung low over the battlefield and the distant hills appeared as little more than damp shadows. In the narrow valley and along the banks of the River Fuji, visibility had been reduced to only a few feet.

It was just after dawn on 21 October 1600 – a day that was to change the course of Japanese history. The sodden countryside around the village of Sekigahara, in central Japan, was about to witness one of the greatest battles of all time. More than 200,000 warlords, samurai and retainers had gathered to take part in what was to be a titanic clash of arms. At stake was the future of Japan.

A few minutes after 8am, a prolonged gust of wind finally displaced the mist. It revealed a most extraordinary sight, one that eyewitnesses would remember for the rest of their lives. On the hillsides, in the valley and along the road to Ogaki, tens of thousands of heavily armoured samurai were standing in orderly ranks. Their breastplates were glinting in the weak morning light and their curved swords were unsheathed and ready for action. e mighty Western Army, loyal to an infant ruler-in-waiting named Toyotomi Hideyori, was about to do battle with the rival Eastern Army. The latter was controlled by the powerful warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was hoping to seize power for himself.

Ieyasu’s forces were outnumbered by almost two-to-one and it seemed inconceivable that they could defeat the stronger army. But Ieyasu was a shrewd political operator and had an unexpected trick up his sleeve, one that was known to only a handful of people on the battlefield. It would be a couple of hours before it would be revealed.

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The July 2016 issue of History Revealed