Saturday, May 02, 2009

Interview with John Bender, Sengoku Student and Analyst

John Bender is a recent graduate of the University of Hawaii with a Master of Arts degree in premodern Japanese history. He recently completed his degree under Dr. William Farris, a prolific scholar who has produced nearly ten books. John's thesis was an examination of Warring States Daimyo that addressed the question, “why did some survive while others did not.” Although fairly straightforward, he felt that existing English-language material had not addressed this fundamental question satisfactorily. From his perspective, historians seemed content to accept the outcomes of Warring States battles with little or no analysis. Thus, he set out to integrate various geographical, economic, political, and military factors and analyze how they affected a daimyo’s chances for either victory or defeat. John is currently living in Hiroshima prefecture teaching English and studying Japanese.

Samurai Archives: What first sparked your interest in Japanese history? At what point did you say "I want to focus on Japanese history"?

John Bender: Well, this is a question that I’ve been asked a lot, and for a long time I didn’t really know how to answer it. Both of my Grandfathers fought in the Pacific War, so as a child I had a great interest in World War 2. My Grandfather on my mother’s side was actually on a ship that was struck by a Kamikaze fighter plane. These are the kinds of things that can really captivate the imagination of a young boy.

However, I didn’t really develop a serious interest in Japanese history until college. As a freshman, I switched my major from engineering to history after I discovered that reading was much more interesting than solving differential equations. At that time, I had recently begun training in a Japanese-derived style of martial arts and was becoming more and more interested in samurai. I don’t think it was until my junior year, however, that I decided to specialize in Japanese history.

So, I suppose I took a rather typical route to becoming a Japanist – martial arts, samurai, history. I used to be a bit embarrassed by that, but not anymore.

SA: How did you come to choose the specific topic of daimyo survival during the Sengoku period?

JB: When I started graduate school, I had it in my head that I was going to do strictly military history. I liked the Sengoku period because it was a time that witnessed the largest samurai armies in Japanese history. Furthermore, I had always felt that the English historiography on Sengoku battles was extremely sparse. What did (and still does) exist was very general, offering little or no details of how the battle actually progressed. I thought I could tackle this problem.

My original idea was to do an in-depth analysis of individual battles, breaking down exactly what happened, who won, and why. As I began my research I found that there is a reason detailed accounts of Sengoku battles are scarce – sources. There simply isn’t enough out there to make a good MA thesis on such a narrow topic.

After making this realization, it was a logical step to simply expand the scope beyond battles to the question of “survival.” Again, this was a topic that hadn’t been addressed, in terms of the hows and whys, and allowed me to take a more holistic approach to the period as opposed to being limited to military encounters. The result was, I think, a kind of fusion between economic and social history, and military and political history. Ultimately, this approach proved to be much more interesting than my original concept.

SA: How far down did you drill into the pool of Daimyo for your analysis? Obviously the biggies (Tokugawa, Oda, Takeda, Uesugi) are required, but how far did you get into the lower tiers like the Chosokabe, Amako, Asakura, Kyogoku, etc.? What requirements did you hold available clans to in order for them to warrant coverage in your thesis?

JB: Actually, all of the families you listed, except for the Kyogoku, were included in my study. I tried to compile as large a list as possible, and was really only limited by sources. For each daimyo I included, I needed fairly detailed information about their origins, location, and demise, and this information can be a bit hard to find for many of the lesser daimyo. Basically, I felt my list was adequate once it covered the entire physical map of Japan.

As for selection requirements, although it was my original intent, these were not concrete. I planned to use the Tokugawa definition of daimyo, and include all warlords controlling at least 10,000 koku of rice. However, obtaining such figures for many daimyo in the 16th century is impossible, as they simply do not exist. The closest I came to a comprehensive list of that sort was a survey document from 1638, I believe – obviously well outside my timeframe. As a result, I had to adopt less strict criteria that included several factors. One was that the warlord had have controlled land independently. Even if he was technically a vassal of another warlord, wielding effective power within his domain was one important component of being a daimyo. This means that there had to be some kind of bureaucratic or administrative apparatus that was controlled directly by the warlord, not his superior. This eliminates a lot of mid-level warriors who controlled territory, but were still subject to their lord’s administration (for example, the vassals of the Go-Hojo) from being daimyo. In addition to that, I stuck to families that have been traditionally considered daimyo. If a certain warlord was consistently included in the ranks of daimyo across several historical works, I took that as the best indication to classify him a daimyo.

SA: You examine a variety of variables when analyzing which factors had an impact on the survival and prosperity rates of Daimyo - give us a general overview of the general factors, as well as their overall importance to Daimyo survival based on the results of your research.

JB: Well, this is obviously a major part of my thesis and gets right to the core of my argument. I organized my analysis into five broad categories: geographic, economic, military, political, and random factors. It is impossible to completely isolate each category, as they are all interconnected, but in general, the division was as follows.

Geographic factors involved a daimyo’s location, the topography, productivity of the land, sea, or ports in the area, as well as the proximity of threats. Economic factors consisted of how well a daimyo could take advantage of available resources – very simply how wealthy he was. Military factors were rather straightforward as well, being primarily the size of a daimyo’s army, but also the quality of generals. I considered political factors to be anything a daimyo did both inside and outside of his domain in the realm of government. For my study, two areas were of utmost importance here: a daimyo’s ability to control his vassals, and his political posture towards other daimyo. Finally, the random category was kind of a catch-all that was to be used only in an emergency, when the situation could not be adequately explained in the previous chapters. I think I had to turn to random events only twice: once because of an unexpected death (Takeda Shingen), and once because of the weather (the battle of Okehazama).

As you can see, these divisions are somewhat nebulous. But, you have to make distinctions somewhere, and the real importance of the categories is as an analytical tool, not as a concrete classification of all aspects of Sengoku society.

The importance of each of these categories to daimyo survival is an interesting question. In fact, I had originally conceived of organizing the thesis around that question and progressing from the most important to least important category. Had I done so, the most important would have been geography, followed by politics, economics, and finally military. That came as a bit of a surprise, but there are dozens and dozens of examples of militarily weak daimyo who survived while strong ones were eliminated. And, while political alliances were a close second, the most important contributor to a daimyo’s success or failure was his location. It really depended upon who your neighbors were, how easy it was to get to you, and how badly rivals wanted your territory. That is why it was nearly impossible for anyone to survive in or around Kyoto. After the first draft, it was clear that organizing the thesis this way was not ideal. The experience of different daimyo was too varied to rank each category consistently. For the next draft I decided to organize the thesis starting with the factors daimyo had the least amount of control over to the most amount of control. The resulting order was geography, economics, military, political, and then the random category which cut through all of them. Organizing it this way led me to the argument that there was only so much a daimyo could do to really affect his chances of survival. With this in mind, it is easier to understand why events unfolded as they did, specifically why daimyo in eastern Japan became so powerful. Therefore, Sengoku Japan was not as chaotic as it has been characterized, but actually a pretty logical series of events, from an overall standpoint. This became one of the cornerstones of my argument.

SA: Did you make any distinction between “survival” and “success”? (in other words, many of the surviving daimyo found themselves in pretty unenviable positions by the end of the 16th century, for example, the Chosokabe clan)

JB: No, and I specifically avoided doing so. The reason is that I didn’t want to make my argument and statistics overly complicated by qualifying “survival.” Thus, for my study, the important thing was to simply exist at the end of the 16th century. I think everyone would agree that literal survival, in whatever form, is preferable to elimination.

SA: In the context of your thesis, what measurement did you use to categorize a daimyo as a "success"?

JB: Well, I really wanted to focus only on the Sengoku and unification periods (which is why I always refer to it as the “16th century” in my thesis), so I stopped at Sekigahara. Anyone who made it to 1600, before the battle, was considered a “success.”

SA: Access to foreign weapons technology was obviously a huge benefit for Sengoku Daimyo. Why didn’t it warrant its own category?

JB: Absolutely, access to foreign weapons was a huge part of my thesis. This was one of the main reasons that the ports of Osaka and Sakai were so enormously important – because they provided access to such technology. Nagasaki as well was very important in this regard, and I devote almost ten pages to it.

However, I do not feel that foreign trade should be considered a separate category. Foreign trade was one of the benefits afforded by areas like the capital and northern Kyushu, and thus it fit neatly within my categories. In effect, it is a large part of what made those regions so desirable, so important, and so hotly contested. I think that splitting trade according to where it was coming from would have resulted in unnecessary complexity, a false dichotomy, if you will.

SA: In your opinion, in the overall picture of 16th century Japan, how large a part did random events and luck play?

As I said above, I really tried to minimize this category. I found that I could explain almost all of the fate of almost all of the daimyo I studied. Perhaps this was because my categories were so broad, but I really don’t think luck had much to do with daimyo survival (unless luck includes where you were born). Even things that might seem random can usually be traced back to a larger cause. My geographic and political categories were able to account for most of the cases I originally could not adequately explain.

SA: Which Daimyo benefitted most from random events (i.e. "Luck")?

JB: It’s hard to say, but for the purposes of my study, I would have to say Oda Nobunaga. His spectacular victory at Okehazama catapulted him into the ranks of the most powerful warlords of the day. Most accounts agree that a sudden cloudburst proved quite timely for the Oda forces. The Imagawa response may have been more rapid and effective had the weather been clear.
Having said that, the Oda were of course one of the daimyo who did not survive the 16th century. It’s hard to find an example of someone who “skated through” on luck. Conversely, it’s a bit easier to find daimyo who had “bad luck.” The above-mentioned Imagawa would be the most prominent example, but that category also includes the Takeda, Ouchi, Ryuzoji, and Chosokabe.

SA: Were there any Daimyo who had all factors in their favor but still didn't survive the 16th century? Were there any Daimyo that you had trouble accounting for in your model?

JB: Yes, actually, there were numerous daimyo who had very favorable conditions yet failed to survive. The best example is the Go-Hojo, who were eliminated after a major political blunder in failing to make peace with Hideyoshi. Nobunaga himself is another great example. His demise illustrates how important it was to have loyal vassals – or at least, to keep them happy. In Kyushu, the Otomo and Ryuzoji both had relatively stable, profitable bases, but opted to fight each other to extinction instead of consolidate their gains. This ultimately allowed the Shimazu to become the premier daimyo on Kyushu. The Ouchi are another example. They had a good power base in western Japan, but lost it due to a combination of poor leadership and military blunders. Finally, in the east, both the Imagawa and the Takeda seemed to be well situated in the Warring States period, but of course were both eliminated.

SA: How about Daimyo who had the majority of variables working against them who survived the 16th century? What tipped the scales in their favor?

JB: There were far fewer examples of this, but it did happen. I have a very nice example of this in my politics chapter involving the Omura family. The Omura were very much small fish in a big pond consisting of heavyweights like the Shimazu, Ryuzoji, and Otomo. The Omura’s saving grace turned out to be shrewd political maneuvering, despite extreme material and military disadvantages. They essentially “played their cards right” and were able to survive.

Omura territory happened to include the port of Nagasaki, and the Omura daimyo cleverly used this bargaining chip to their favor. Omura Sumitada, head of the Omura family in the 1550’s made an alliance with the Portuguese shortly after their arrival. This alliance saved them in 1556 from a vassal rebellion, and again in 1579 from a Ryozoji invasion. Sumitada actually ceded Nagasaki to the Jesuits on the eve of the invasion, thus making any attack on the port an act of war against the Portuguese. He then wisely submitted to the Ryuzoji, and stood on the sidelines as they, the Shimazu, and the Otomo battled. When the Shimazu emerged victorious, the Omura stalled for time, then allied themselves with Hideyoshi shortly before his 1587 invasion.

In this way, the virtually powerless Omura survived the 16th century. It is a brilliant example of political savvy.

SA: You mention in your introduction that an examination of variables during the Sengoku period to account for the success or failure of Sengoku Daimyo hasn't been done before - have you come up with any new or surprising revelations about 16th century Japan based on your research?

JB: I think the only real “surprising” revelation would be my main argument itself. I proposed a re-conceptualization of the Warring States period in two important ways. First, I feel that this period was much less random and chaotic than has been argued in the past. Although not without an element of unpredictability, Warring States history followed a fundamentally comprehensible course. If anything, I hope my study showed that there was usually a good reason the “winners” won and the “losers” lost.

Second, I think it is important to acknowledge the centrality of geographic factors, especially location. I contend that this was the single most important factor in determining daimyo survival. Politics emerged as a close second in this regard. I think this runs counter to conventional wisdom about the Warring States period (and maybe unification processes in general) that military and economic factors are the key. At least for Japan, geography and politics were paramount for survival.

SA: Have you considered possibly expanding and publishing your thesis?

JB: I think everyone dreams of publishing, and that may happen in the future, but right now it is not one of my main goals. I am planning to explore other topics for my dissertation, but would like to return to this one someday. For now, though, I have no idea when, or in what form I will pursue publication of this thesis.

SA: What are your current interests in the field of Japanese history? Any future projects currently on your mind?

JB: I am still very interested in warriors and I think that I always will be. I would like to do a more in-depth study of the Takeda, from their beginnings in the 12th century to their demise in the 16th. I am also very interested in a study of war veterans (ronin) as a social group in the early Tokugawa period.

But, my years as an MA student have broadened my interests a bit, and currently I’m most excited about a potential project on Japanese mariners. I’m exploring the possibility of a survey of fishermen and the fishing industry in Japan.

SA: What are some currently “popular” Japanese history topics of research in Western academia? Where do you see the most expansion in the next 5-10 years in Western scholarship on Japanese history?

JB: Well, I don’t want to self-promote too much, but I think that military history is making a bit of a comeback. There are some excellent recent works by scholars such as Karl Friday and Thomas Conlan. I also believe that topics like demography and population, where Wayne Farris leads the way, will attract more and more attention. Finally, women’s history and family history are hot topics right now. Take a look at Janet Goodwin’s 2007 book if you’re interested.

SA: Being a recent graduate yourself, do you have any advice for current or potential students of history, and students of Japanese history in particular?

JB: History is a very difficult field, but it is also extremely rewarding. Historians study the whole range of human experience and thus nothing is off the table. If you’re interested in something, there’s a good bet you can turn that interest into real historical inquiry. I think history is an extremely valuable discipline that produces thoughtful, analytical, and informed individuals. He need more historians in the world!

My advice for anyone considering history is to keep your interests as broad as possible. Specialization is important, but it’s also important to keep your eyes on the big picture. If you get too focused on one thing, you’ll lose the ability to draw really meaningful, insightful conclusions.

As for Japanese history in particular, my advice is to get going on your language study now! Proficiency in Japanese is paramount, and Japanese is not a particularly easy language. It is currently my biggest weakness, and one I’m working very hard to improve. If you want to study Japanese history, hit the Japanese books hard, and hit them early!


  1. Great interview. I really enjoyed it. The "good" luck "bad luck situations turned me on. I do agree with him about the Battle of Okehazama. The Imagawa had everything going its way, but only to fumbled it away. Nobunaga and the Oda was doomed, but the battle situation changed so suddenly that he took full advantage.

    In my opinion, the daimyo who survived made the most of the opportunities that were given to them.

    I would also would like to if he had any work done on the Saito. Again, great interview.

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  3. Very interesting interview. I wish Mr. Bender the best of luck with his studies and look forward to hopefully reading a published work from him sometime soon.

  4. I would love to read his thesis. Is it published or is there some way it could be posted?

  5. 'They [the Omura] essentially “played their cards right” and were able to survive' --- I would think this is the definition of luck?

    1. I think that falls under "political factors".