Learning Japanese? A Lesson We Can Learn From The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu
An inspiring lesson from the Japanese general Tokugawa Ieyasu
Anyone who steps on the language-learning path will eventually run into setbacks. It’s inevitable — especially for those of us who choose to learn a language as difficult as Japanese. But fear not! We are not lowly language ashigaru, simply slogging along a rugged path. We are Nihongo ninjas, warriors on a path to fluency and domination! Complacency is our enemy!
With all that said, if you’re looking for a little nitrogen boost, here is a lesson we can all take from the life of legendary general and statesman Tokugawa Ieyasu.
“Find fault with thyself rather than others” — The Battle of Mikatagahara
The year was 1572, Sengoku Jidai. Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, using a revolutionary combination of firearms and old-school feudal tactics, had just finished distributing a beatdown to the Azai and Asakura clans. After the battle of Anegawa, both the Azai and Asakura were no longer a threat to Oda Nobunaga’s plans for domination.
But there lurked an even greater threat in the east in the form of Takeda Shingen, another legendary general who lacked neither experience nor tactical insight. To put it bluntly, Takeda Shingen was one of the baddest of the bad… Alegend in an age of legends, and Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen would soon find themselves on a collision course, headed straight for each other.
At least, that would’ve been true had it not been for Tokugawa Ieyasu, who’s domain sat right in-between that of the Oda clan and the Takeda clan.
Nobunaga had originally intended for Ieyasu to regroup in Hamamatsu, but with developments in the east, this became impossible. In the first place, Takeda Shingen had big trouble on his own eastern front due to Uesugi Kenshin, another legendary general. But now, as Hojo Ujimasa prepared to exit his clan’s alliance with the Uesugi in favor of the Takeda clan, Takeda Shingen could suddenly focus on striking the Oda.
Of course, this was bad news for Ieyasu. Takeda Shingen, known for his ferocious cavalry charges, would basically have to march straight through Ieyasu’s domain to get to the Oda. It was a true case of “shikata ga nai.”
So what did Ieyasu do? Mobilize. In his words, “to let an enemy come marching up to your castle without shooting an arrow is not to be a man”. Unfortunately, Ieyasu didn’t know that his army was about to receive a beatdown of its own, a beatdown for the books.
So, the snow fell heavily and the stage was set. On January 25, 1573, Tokugawa and Nobunaga forces would face Takeda Shingen in the field at Mikatagahara, just north of Ieyasu’s base in Hamamatsu. It would be a tactical disaster for the Tokugawa.
The battle started in the afternoon and continued for hours, but the Oda-Tokugawa joint forces, who not only were outnumbered but also literally facing one of the best generals in Japanese history, were eventually forced to retreat.
The Oda forces were not completely committed to the battle from the start and the Tokugawa did not fare much better. In the end, Ieyasu himself barely managed to escape the jaws of death and return to Hamamatsu only after a miraculous escape on horseback..and he came back with only five men…
Here is where the lesson comes.
Ieyasu could have panicked. He could have gotten angry and blamed the Oda for crumbling first. He could have even made a run for it and left, but he did not. Instead, he accepted his loss and immediately made a plan. He decided to return to Hamamatsu castle and do the sensible thing — throw open the gates to the castle and have a big party!
His reasoning was this: if the city was quiet, it would appear vulnerable and invite the Takeda to attack. So, Ieyasu ordered his loyal comrade and fellow badass, Sakai Tadatsugu, to hit the drums and turn up the party music! Meanwhile, Ieyasu feasted on some good grub, had a cold one, and went to sleep!
The plan worked! Takeda’s army soon approached. Judging the ruckus to be some sort trap and worried by the possibility of being flanked by the Oda, Takeda Shingen deemed it best to return home. After all, the deep winter was coming and pretty soon his path home would be cut off if he didn’t retreat soon.
To make matters worse, in order to help Takeda Shingen make his decision more promptly, Hattori Hanzo, yes — the real Hattori Hanzo, legendary ninja specializing in making life difficult for Tokugawa enemies, found the time to ambush the Takeda forces late in the night. Takeda Shingen had had enough and chose to ride home.
It was the first and the last time he personally would face the Tokugawa, as he would be killed in battle later. Further down the line, Takeda Shingen’s son, Takeda Katsuyori, would actually end up facing Tokugawa Ieyasu, but let’s just say it didn’t work out for little Katsuyori either. He lost his head — no pun intended.
In any case, Tokugawa Ieyasu would live to fight another day and as you probably know, he also would go on to usher in a new era of peace and stability — the Tokugawa shogunate.
My fellow Japanese learners, listen. The path to fluency is riddled with obstacles and sooner or later you will no doubt experience the sting of defeat. But it is fine. Failure is nothing more than a step on the path to winning. It is a platform for you to reach further with each advance you make. So take it from Ieyasu himself and remember:
“Life is like unto a long journey with a heavy burden.”
But it is a burden worth bearing, for should you persist, you just might find yourself speaking fluent Japanese sooner than you think!