Azuchi-Momoyama Period


Oda Nobunaga

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Azuchi-Momoyama is the period during which Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi served in succession as the supreme leaders of Japan.  There are several interpretations as to the commencement date for this period.  It may be viewed as commencing either: (i) in 1568, at the time that Nobunaga marched into the capital of Kyōto; (ii) in 1573, in the year that Nobunaga expelled Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the shōgun, from Kyōto and the Muromachi bakufu actually came to an end; or (iii) in 1576, upon the start of construction of Azuchi Castle – Nobubaga’s resplendent castle in Ōmi Province.   Meanwhile, the conclusion of the period is considered to be either: (i) in 1598, upon the death of Hideyoshi; (ii) in 1600, after Tokugawa Ieyasu prevailed at the Battle of Sekigahara; or (iii) in 1603, in the year that Ieyasu was appointed as seiitai shōgun, a title beyond the scope of those officially awarded by the Imperial Court to validate his role as supreme ruler of Japan.   

Owing to these different perspectives, there is no definitive beginning and end to this period which nevertheless served as an important evolution between the Sengoku and Edo periods.  In addition to a blossoming of merchant activities, the Azuchi-Momoyama period witnessed progress in many fields including mining, construction, castle design (including with stone bases and towers), and ship-building.  Castles which were formerly located atop mountains for defensive purposes moved to the plains.  This proximity enabled lords to govern their communities with an emphasis on economic development.


The period was named by scholars after the base of Oda Nobunaga at Azuchi Castle and the base of Toyotomi Hideyoshi at Fushimi Castle located on Momoyama in the environs of Kyōto.  In particular, the Momoyama period refers to the latter half of this period when the Toyotomi family acquired control of the entire nation, and the culture that flourished during this time was known as the Momoyama culture.  The period began to be called Momoyama after the publication in 1780 of a chronicle concerning Fushimi, noting that peach trees (referred to as “momo“) were planted on the ruins of Fushimi Castle.  Based on the actual history, there is an argument that this should be referred to as the Fushimi period.  However, given that Azuchi Castle was used by Nobunaga for only three years and Fushimi Castle by Hideyoshi for only seven years, there is also a view that these are not suitable references for the period.

This period encompasses the time from which Oda Nobunaga led the Oda administration from Gifu Castle in Mino Province to Azuchi Castle in the Gamō District of Ōmi Province during the peak of his power, along with the time during which Hideyoshi unified the country by force while based in Ōsaka Castle and then after moving to Fushimi Castle in the environs of Kyōto.  Azuchi-Momoyama is also referred to as the Shokuhō period (a phrase with the first character from each of the Oda and Toyotomi surnames).  Others have proposed period names such as the Azuchi-Ōsaka period, the Tenshō period, or the Ōsaka period.  With respect to Ōsaka Castle, after Hideyoshi was appointed as the kanpaku, or Chief Advisor to the Emperor, from 1587, he resided at the palace in Kyōto known as the jurakutei to fulfill his duties, so the time spent in Ōsaka was less than his later time as Fushimi Castle.

Art history

In terms of art history, the Azuchi-Momoyama period is viewed as continuing until the demise of the Toyotomi family in 1615.  Momoyama culture and Momoyama art are associated with the period during which Hideyoshi reigned from the mid-Tenshō era through the Bunroku era and to the end of the Keichō era.  Without regard to the location of the political administration, there is a sense that this period in Japan was marked by the flamboyant atmosphere enjoyed by Hideyoshi and other influential persons of the time.

In Kyōto and its environs, which served as the cultural center of the country, Toyotomi Hideyori (Hideyoshi’s successor) actively promoted the construction of shrines and temples, and other locales emulated this building trend which occurred prior to the period leading to the end of the Momoyama culture following a change in political administrations after the Battle of Sekigahara in the ninth month of 1600.

At the Summer Campaign of the Siege of Ōsaka, in the fifth month of 1615, the Edo bakufu army attacked and defeated the Hashiba family (the main branch of the Toyotomi family).  These events brought to an end military clashes that had persisted for nearly 150 years from the time of the Ōnin-Bunmei War (and, in the eastern provinces, from the time of the Kyōtoku Conflict).  This event is referred to as the genna-enbu, or Armistice in the Genna Era.  Thereafter, amidst more stable societal conditions, the Momoyama culture flourished.  In one respect, the culture attained a higher degree of sophistication, reflected in the building of elegant sukiya, or tea-ceremony arbors, including a separate Imperial household and garden in Kyōto known as the katsurarikyū.  Meanwhile, the Nikkō-Tōshō Shrine and Baroque-style designs of residences of military families were seen in contrast to the opulence of other architectural styles.

The descendants of Kanō Masanobu, a Muromachi artist who founded the renowned Kanō school of art, served as artists on behalf of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, producing a wide variety of works including ranging from huge pictures on partitions to drawings on handheld fans, decorating the palaces, castles, temples, and residences of the upper classes of society.

Course of events

Establishment of the Oda administration

Among the sengoku daimyō of his era, Oda Nobunaga gradually became a major power.  In 1568, by marching upon Kyōto and installing Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the fifteenth shōgun, Nobunaga leveraged the authority of the Emperor and the shōgun of the Muromachi bakufu to launch the Oda administration with control over the Kinai as well as the Tōkai Region.  The Kinai was comprised of the capital of Kyōto and the surrounding provinces of Yamashiro, Settsu, Kawachi, Yamato, and Izumi.  Meanwhile, the Tōkai Region included the provinces of Owari, Mino, Ise, and Suruga.

This period witnessed military reforms such as the concentration of bushi in castle towns and the separation of occupations between soldiers and peasants, as well as economic policies to stimulate commerce, including free markets known as raku-ichi raku-za, the abolition of checkpoints, the governance of autonomous communities such as Sakai, and orders to eliminate coins minted by those other than the authorities.  In 1573, after Nobunaga ousted Ashikaga Yoshiaki (the fifteenth shōgun) from the capital, the Muromachi bakufu came to an end and was replaced by the Oda administration.  Azuchi Castle in Ōmi Province was constructed in 1576.  From the time that Nobunaga’s declared his intention to rule the country by force while lord of Gifu Castle until he moved to Azuchi Castle, Nobunaga reigned as a supreme ruler.  During the period, the atmosphere of peace that returned to the capital and its environs under the governance of Nobunaga gave rise to a new culture.

Nobunaga continued to expand his power, taking control of the central portion of Japan.  With unification of the entire country in sight, he died unexpectedly in a coup d’état by one of his most senior retainers, Akechi Mitsuhide, in the Honnō Temple Incident on 6/2 of Tenshō 10 (1582).

Unification under Toyotomi Hideyoshi

In response to the Honnō Temple Incident, Hideyoshi rushed back to the capital and defeated Mitsuhide, the ringleader of the coup, at the Battle of Yamazaki.  Garnering control of the Oda administration, Hideyoshi partook in the Kiyosu Conference to decide upon the successor to Nobunaga and prevailed at the Battle of Shizugatake against those from Nobunaga’s inner circle who opposed him, solidifying his position as the successor to Nobunaga.  In 1583, he initiated the construction of Ōsaka Castle.  In 1586, Hideyoshi was appointed to serve as the kanpaku, or Chief Advisor to the Emperor, and the dajō-daijin, or Grand Minister.  He also was conferred with the Toyotomi surname.  In 1590, he achieved unification of Japan.  The Toyotomi administration ordered the conduct of land surveys across the country and introduced the kokudaka system for measuring rice yields.  The methods for quantifying the value of land were extended as a means to measure assets other than rice to value entire villages.  The administration made efforts to promote stability, disarming the populace by collecting swords and weapons to remove threats posed by adherents of temples and shrines as well as peasants with a history of engaging in sometimes violent uprisings.

In 1592, Hideyoshi aimed to prevent invasions or the taking of slaves by foreigners from overseas, in particular, from the Western European countries of Spain, Portugal, and England.  According to the principles to either ally or conquer, he sent a letter to the Emperor of the Ming dynasty proposing an alliance, but the response was to kill the messenger so he decided to seek the path of conquest with respect to the Ming empire, and, for the Bunroku-Keichō Campaign, made plans to send expeditionary forces to the continent led by daimyō from the western provinces.  After the Sō clan from Tsushima confirmed the submission of the King of Korea, Hideyoshi received one of the king’s children as a hostage at Ōsaka Castle along with rights of passage through the Korean Peninsula.  However, the King of Korea simultaneously submitted to the Ming Emperor and requested reinforcements.  The daimyō from the western provinces leading the expeditionary forces were experienced in group military tactics including the use of large cannons.  The daimyō were promised they could keep as their landholdings all occupied territories on the continent so they engaged in a series of battles and victories.

Areas targeted for incursions by the Japanese forces sent abroad, including Korea, Manchuria, the maritime provinces of northern China, and the environs of the capital of Peking were largely hunting grounds unsuitable for farming so of no interest economically to daimyō from Western Japan who had agrarian roots.  Feelings of war-weariness soon pervaded the expeditionary forces.  In areas occupied by the forces, attention turned toward researching local customs and businesses of peoples on the continent, and did not advance into Peking as the center of the Ming dynasty.  These investigations led to the discovery of craftsmen of military goods, handcrafts and other items.  The daimyō from Western Japan treated these individuals well in the areas where stationed, so, after the campaign, the daimyō  allowed some of these craftsmen to come to their home provinces in Japan.  While daimyō from the western provinces led the Bunroku-Keichō Campaign, those from the eastern provinces expanded their power in Japan, leading directly to the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Unification of the country created the peaceable conditions for widespread commercial progress.  Many daimyō focused their attention on managing the development of their territories.  Metropolises flourished with merchants and craftsmen offering local wares.  Hideyoshi himself promoted cultural activities in the capital such as the tea ceremony.  Following the earlier introduction of arquebuses from the West after a Portuguese shipwreck on Tanegashima, legitimate and illegitimate trade expanded with Western Europeans (referred to as southern barbarians) for weapons, slaves, and other commodities.  Innovative weapons were developed in Japan so that foreigners then sought Japanese-made arquebuses and gun powder.  After enduring losses during the Bunroku-Keichō Campaign, the Ming dynasty in China fell into decline, and, in lieu of previous imports of copper coins, gold and silver coins (including large gold oval coins referred to as ōban) were manufactured and widely distributed in Japan.  After the Bunroku-Keichō Campaign, crafts from the continent including the manufacture of lacquer-ware and leather goods were adopted by those returning to Japan, fostering a new era of cultural development (the Momoyama culture).

Toyotomi Hideyoshi died on 8/18 of Keichō 3 (1598).  After his demise, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was the leader of the Council of Five Elders, gained prominence, taking the lead in peace negotiations for the withdrawal of Japanese forces from the Korean Peninsula, bringing to an end the Bunroku-Keichō Campaign.  Ieyasu rose to become the de facto head of the administration.  This gave rise to an opposition movement led by another member of the Council of Five Elders, Ishida Mitsunari.  In the ninth month of 1600, the Battle of Sekigahara erupted, splitting the country between the Western Army led by Mitsunari and the Eastern Army led by Ieyasu.  Following his victory, Ieyasu solidified the foundations of his administration and, in 1603, he was appointed as the supreme shōgun.  This resulted in an end to the Azuchi-Momoyama period and the commencement of the Edo period which continued until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Momoyama culture

The culture from the eras of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi known as the Momoyama culture is drawn from the place name of Fushimi Castle where Hideyoshi resided.  In the course of Japanese history, the Momoyama culture was grand and extravagant, having a fresh style with less Buddhist influence.  Newly arisen daimyō and wealthy merchants formed the nucleus of the Momoyama culture.  With influences from modern western cultures, the Momoyama culture also reflected the character and economic power of merchants as well as the power of newly found bushi.  During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, successful merchants and cultural figures in the tea ceremony such as Imai Sōkyū of Sakai and Shimai Sōshitsu of Hakata prospered during this time.

The tea ceremony gained popularity, while tea utensils imported from China were coveted.  New forms of the tea ceremony such as wabicha particularly associated with Sen no Rikyū and Takeno Jōou before him (both renowned tea masters and prosperous merchants in Sakai) emphasized simplicity, forming a unique sense of Japanese aestheticism.  Tea utensils were given by daimyō to their retainers as rewards whereas tea ceremonies provided a forum for personal exchanges between bushō and those from the wealthy merchant class, having an influence on politics as well. 

On 8/25 of Tenbun 12 (1543), a Portuguese ship drifted into a small inlet in Nishimura in Ōsumi Province of southern Kyūshū, leading to the introduction of the arquebus to Japan.  The development of more advanced weapons served to hasten the unification of the country while the weapons trade resulted in a windfall for foreign traders.  Policies to protect Christian believers located in colonies were exploited to dispatch soldiers while others sought to ply the slave trade.  A Jesuit missionary from Portugal named Francisco Xavier led an extensive mission into Asia, mainly in the Portuguese Empire of the time and promoted evangelism, most notably in the colonized areas of India.  In 1549, he brought his missionary activities to Japan.  Through trade and the work of missionaries, the cultures of western Europe influenced the evolution of Japanese culture.

Japan was the first country in Asia to formally engage white and black persons from western nations without intermediation by the Chinese dynasty.  The formidable military power acquired by Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu ensured that Japan would not come under the command of a foreign nation.  This military strength was symbolized by the voyage of a vessel carrying emissaries to Europe during the Keichō era (1596 to 1615).