In the year 1572, Takeda Shingen saw an opportunity to make a full attempt at claiming Kyoto, the seat of power in Japan at the time. In order to wage an effective campaign further west, however, Shingen needed control of the strategically vital Tokaido road. In an attempt to achieve his goal without having to face the full might of Oda Nobunaga head on, Shingen elected to attempt to capture the Matsudaira province of Mikawa, and specifically Tokugawa Ieyasu’s key centre of power in the province, the castle of Hamamatsu. Despite Nobunaga’s warnings to abandon Hamamatsu and regroup, Ieyasu set his sights on beating back the Takeda forces, and in doing so, set the stage for one of the most dramatic episodes in Samurai history.
News of Shingen’s advance soon reached the young Ieyasu, with castle after castle being reported falling to the Takeda forces. Ieyasu’s advisors wanted to hunker down and prepare Hamamatsu for siege, but the proud Ieyasu would not listen, and instead made plans to meet the Takeda army in open battle at Mikatagahara.
Ieyasu’s forces made heavy use of firearms and for this reason drew themselves up directly facing the Takeda cavalry. Ieyasu then used peasants to provoke the Takeda into charging, and this they did. Though many a volley was fired by the Tokugawa guns, it had little effect on the charging horsemen and soon the Tokugawa line had been broken by the ferocious charge. Many, thinking the battle already lost, turned tail and fled.
The stubborn Ieyasu, fighting a desperate rear-guard action as his forces attempted to reach the safety of Hamamatsu, was all in favour of turning and fighting the Takeda to the death. The commander of Hamamatsu castle, Natsume Yoshinobu, recognising the danger that Ieyasu was in, sallied forth from the castle and drew the Takeda away, pretending to be Ieyasu himself. This gave the real heir to the Matsudaira clan enough time to escape back to Hamamatsu.
It is at this point that one of the greatest deceptions in military history takes place. Having apparently only returned with five men left alive under his command (though this may well be an exaggeration!), Ieyasu ordered the gates not to be closed, the braziers along the castle battlements to be lit and the giant war drum in the tower beside the gate to be beaten constantly.
When the Takeda finally regrouped after the day’s victory and once again turned towards their prize, they were unnerved by the sight that met them. To Shingen, it must have seemed as though Ieyasu was consolidating a large force in Hamamatsu ready to fight again. Suspecting some sort of trap, Shingen set up camp for the night near Saigadake. Here, there is a ravine that splits the plain of Mikatagahara in two. In the dead of night, a Tokugawa skirmishing party, led, according to some sources, by the shinobi Hattori Hanzo, attacked the Takeda contingent and lured them into the ravine. Once they were trapped and injured, the Tokuawa picked the survivors off from the lip of the fissure.
Faced with such a brazen attack on his army, and now convinced that any attempt to take the castle of Hamamatsu would result in a lengthy and costly siege, an action that would also leave the Takeda heartland unprotected for a great length of time, Shingen decided that the game was up, broke camp and retreated back to Shinano.
Both Mikatagahara and the defence of Hamamatsu were formative experiences for the young Ieyasu. His experience of defeat at the hands of the Takeda cavalry would greatly influence his choice of tactics at the pivotal battle of Nagashino, erecting wooden palisades from behind which, his gunners could fire without being vulnerable to the Takeda cavalry, and interspersing his gunners with spearmen, so as to be able to effectively counter an enemy charge. The defence of Hamamatsu also tempered Ieyasu’s proud disposition. No longer would he make foolhardy decisions based on his pride. Despite the cost of defeat at Mikatagahara, Ieyasu had learned that even where he could not outfight an enemy, subterfuge, cunning, and sheer will to survive could give him the edge in out-thinking his opponent, a trait that would see him one day become the most powerful man in Japan.
Jack Horatio Buckley Sharp 2016