Saturday, September 06, 2008

Why Kawanakajima? Shingen and Kenshin's Five Battles

Sengoku Daimyo Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin are two well known figures from Japan's Sengoku period who fought five battles on the Kawanakajima plain in Shinano province (Modern day Nagano prefecture) between 1553 and 1564. (The fouth battle was depicted in the 1990 Kadokawa Haruki movie Heaven and Earth) Why did Kawanakajima become the main battleground for these two warriors? What made Kawanakajima such a contested area? I thought I'd tackle this question for my blog post this week. After a combination of poking around and deductive reasoning, I can come up with a few reasons. Although, there is no way to really know which reasons might be correct, a little theoretical guesswork never hurt anyone.

1. Shingen was looking to expand his territory. Just like every other Sengoku Daimyo, Shingen wanted to expand his lands. More lands meant more rewards for his retainers, which meant more loyalty, as well as more resources. Kai province, Shingen's home province (Modern day Yamanashi prefecture), did not have ocean access, and as such was at a disadvantage (the need for salt would be an example of a critical disadvantage, and the lack of a ready supply of fish could also be seen as a disadvantage. The lack of access to ocean trade, yet another). In 1554, Shingen entered a three-way alliance with the Hojo and Imagawa, which effectively cut him off from direct ocean access to the south. His only option for direct ocean access would be to go North - Through Shinano and Echigo, through Kenshin's territory.

2. Uesugi Kenshin was the only Daimyo powerful enough to stand up to Shingen. Shingen handily defeated Murakami Yoshikiyo and Ogasawara Nagatoki, leaving Kenshin the only roadblack between Shingen and domination of Shinano province. From a military standpoint, the plain of Kawanakajima was a key route between both Shingen and Kenshin's territory. The Kawanakajima plain was a mere 60 kilometers from Kenshin's home castle of Kasuga, and an occupation by Shingen here could have proved extremely dangerous. From Shingen's standpoint, Kawanakajiima would be a key access point to block southern movement by Kenshin.

3. Kawanakajima was an important key intersection of politics and trade. The Kawanakajima plain falls between the Sai and Chikuma rivers, and are fertile and productive lands. Also, the roads of Kai, Kozuke, and Echigo all intersect here. It was an important highway for the politics and economics of Mino and Totomi provinces. It would also be an important launch pad for Shingen's invasion of Echigo, or a strike south by Kenshin.

The main cause here is Shingen's military aggression. Shingen was, by default, the aggressor. As mentioned above, he wanted ocean access, and to expand his lands. He was boxed in, and after the Alliances of 1554, had nowhere to go but North. Peace with Kenshin would have meant the end of Shingen's expansion, and based on the experience of other Daimyo during the sengoku period, could have meant the end of Shingen. It is likely he had to keep his generals busy with war, or have them turn on him in eventual dissatisfaction. So it is even possible that ocean access might have been a lesser motivation than simply keeping his army busy. Despite this, Shingen still suffered the rebellion of three vassals, Katanuma Nobumoto, Obu Toramasa, and his son Yoshinobu.

Regardless of the reasons, five battles were fought at Kawanakajima, and neither Shingen nor Kenshin were allowed to overtake the other or realize their full potentials as Daimyo. They canceled each other out, and at least in Shingen's case, his expansion was stalled a decade or more, leaving the field open to Oda Nobunaga, who would eventually outdo them both.

A few references for this post:
Kanaya, Shunichiro. Sengoku Jidai Ga Omoshiroi Hodo Wakaru Hon, 2003
Narumoto, Tatsuya. Sengoku Bushou Omoshiro Jiten, Japan, 1998
Takeda Shingen - S-A Wiki


  1. It's hard to find anything to disagree with in what Kitsuno wrote, but I think I can add a bit more on the geography. Kawanakajima was really the only logical place for the Takeda and Uesugi to duke it out. Otherwise they would have had to slug it out in mountain passes. This was the only plain in an extremely mountainous area.

    Also, it is true that Shingen, after consolidating most of Murakami Yoshikiyo's lands in Shinano, had his eyes on Kenshin's Echigo. So if Kenshin was going to keep Shingen in check, the logical place for the skirmishing was indeed going to be Kawanakajima.

    I also have to wonder-- as Kawanakajima was on the cusp of Murakami's old domain, did Kenshin seek to recapture these lands and give them back to Murakami so he could rebuild a strong buffer zone? After all, in the Takeda clan's nearly 12 years of campaigning in the Shinano area, Murakami had given the Tiger of Kai a bloody nose on a few occasions. It would have made sense to re-instate Murakami, whose situation was growing desperate.

    Murakami's main castle, Katsurao, eventually fell to the Takeda on May 21, 1553, leaving Murakami with only Shioda castle as his last holding of any consequence in Shinano. He then fled to Echigo with a plea for help and Kenshin was all ears. A mere 12 days after the fall of Katsurao, on June 3, Kenshin's forces entered the Kawanakajima plain and began skirmishing with the Takeda at Hachiman shrine.

    The rest is history. And yes, I used Stephen Turnbull's Kawanakajima 1553-64 as a reference for the dates! :)

  2. Something else to keep in mind is that the Takeda had no alliances that would prevent them from expanding to the west or east. While they both had the same obstacle of mountainous terrain that an attack on Echigo would have entailed, the economic rewards would have been much greater, particulaly in a campaign against the east. Attacking towards the west would have allowed the Takeda to take advantage of the conflict between the Oda and Saito clans as well, allowing them to grab a chunk of Mino.
    The battles at Kawanakajima were fought there primarily for two reasons, in my opinion (blending in some of Obenjo's and Kitsuno's points):
    1) Having conquered most of Shinano and having the deposed lords of these territories go to Kenshin for help, the Takeda couldn't pursue other attacks with Kenshin sitting right on their back porch (even in later years, the Takeda would mount campaigns such as the one involving Migata-ga-hara during times when Kenshin's forces would be immobilzed by snow). Remember, Kenshin was Kanto Kanrei and from all reports seemed to take this responsibility fairly seriously-attacking Takeda and raiding the Hojo without seemingly having much thought for territorial gain on his behalf.
    2)Shingen was not about to waste his numerical superiority and the tactical mobility of the Takeda cavalry by trying to fight it out in the mountain passes of Echigo. He was content to pull up short on the plains of Kawanakajima and try to lure Kenshin into an open field battle where the Takeda had the advantage. This accounts for the 'staring match' aspect of many of the battles as Kenshin was just as content to sit there and not play into the Takeda's plans.
    I also have my doubts that the 4th battle was as bloody as is sometimes supposed. With more and more research being done on the battle, it seems like Kenshin was giving Shingen a smack upside the head during a withdrawal back to Echigo rather than launching a full scale assault. The casualty figures traditionally given seem to be quite inflated, being based on faulty suppositions.

  3. Tatsu's comment got me thinking - I mentioned it in my post, but it seems that Shingen opened a can of worms by going north. Since Kenshin wasn't terribly interested in expanding his own territory beyond the borders of Echigo, had Shinen gone off in another direction, he might have been left alone by Kenshin. This also makes me wonder about Shinen's actual motives. I've read in a few places that Sea access was big on Shingen's list, so a drive North would make perfect sense. But had Shingen decided to push West instead, he still would have had to move through Shinano. I can't see the Imagawa, ally or not, allowing Shingen to move through his territory. So, it is plausible that Shingen actually had designs on Kyoto, and was stymied by Kenshin. Although there doesn't really seem to be any evidence of this. Interesting thought, though.