Photograph by Ira Block, Osaka Castle Museum/JNTO  

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Four Hundred Thousand Clash in the Last Great Battle of the Samurai

Travel back almost 400 years to feudal Japan and zoom in on the chaos and violence of an epic conflict—the final one of the samurai era—depicted in the antique screen above. (To navigate within the screen, use the control strip.) In 1614 and 1615 hundreds of thousands of samurai—blasting guns, shooting arrows, and wielding swords—unleashed their force on the Osaka castle, inaugurating the downfall of the Toyotomi clan and sealing Tokugawa Ieyasu's position as Japan's undisputed master. Explore the fury of samurai warfare—from gory beheadings to fierce sword fights— in minute detail above.

Although Ieyasu had already been granted the all-powerful title of shogun, or commander-in-chief, in 1603, he wanted to eliminate the biggest threat to the Tokugawa establishment: Toyotomi Hideyori, son of the previous, deceased leader, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In December 1614 Ieyasu's army of some 200,000 men surrounded the castle (top corner of left panel) that Hideyoshi—who won fame for helping unite Japan after a period of intense civil war—had lavishly built as the seat of his government. But Osaka castle, protected by Toyotomi vassals and disaffected samurai, proved physically impenetrable. It measured approximately 2 miles (3 kilometers) east and west with double-circuit walls more than 100 feet (30 meters) high.

For days Ieyasu's forces barraged the castle's walls with fire from 300 cannon, causing fear and confusion. In January 1615 Hideyori finally signed a treaty, ending what became known as the Winter Siege, or Fuyu no Jin. But the truce fell apart, and the Summer Siege, or Natsu no Jin, began. This is the actual battle illustrated in the painted screen above. It was commissioned by a feudal baron who aided Tokugawa and wished to commemorate the siege.

Accusing Hideyori of rearmament, Ieyasu mobilized another 200,000 samurai and led a month-long onslaught (scroll over center and right panels) against the weakened castle, which finally fell on June 3, 1615. The heads of Hideyori's officers were presented to Ieyasu as trophies. His eight-year-old son was publicly beheaded. Trapped in the castle that symbolized his father's wealth and power, and suffering defeat and dishonor, Hideyori took his own life.

The Toyotomi clan and all other potential rivals had been destroyed, ensuring the Tokugawa family a long line of shoguns who went on to rule Japan for two and a half centuries.

—Miki Meek


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