For most of Japan’s early history, Kyoto was the home of the Emperor and the political and administrative centre of Japan. But at the end of the Heian period, the emerging military class was usurping the power of the Emperor, and warlords from the regions around Kyoto vied to be appointed regents. Meanwhile the Buddhist centres of Mt. Hiei and Ōmi had developed their own formidable military and economic power, and they too sought to exert influence on the capital. As the Heian period ended and the Warring States period began, monk warriors from Ōmi fought with other regional powers for dominance. The chaos was finally ended by a succession of three Shoguns from Nagoya who gradually subdued the other warlords and united Japan as a single nation.
During this time, the Shoguns attacked and burned many of the Buddhist temples of Ōmi in an effort to break their power. As they consolidated their hold over Japan, it became clear that there would be a final showdown between the powers to the west and east of Ōmi. This showdown came at the Battle of Sekigahara, a few miles northeast of Hikone. The epic battle is one of Japan’s most significant historic events, which resulted in the capital being moved to today’s Tokyo, marking the start of the long Edo period.
From Nagahama in Ōmi came one of the two major players at Sekigahara. Based in Sawayama Castle in Hikone, Ishida Mitsunari contended against Tokugawa Ieyasu for control of all of Japan. Mitsunari was a man with a vision of an equitable, virtuous society. He was a skilled administrator and warrior, but in his zeal, he sometimes caused great offense. By contrast, Ieyasu wanted to establish a stable dictatorship, and he was a suave and skilled negotiator, as well as a brilliant tactician. When battle was joined on a miserable wet day in the fields of Sekigahara, Mitsunari had the larger force and looked set to win. But Ieyasu had suborned some of Mitsunari’s captains with promises of rewards if they defected or took no part in the fighting, and many did so. Mitsunari was defeated, captured, and executed, and Ieyasu divided up the country, rewarding his supporters with new, larger domains.
One of Ieyasu’s captains was Ii Naomasa, lord of Hikone, who despised Mitsunari. Naomasa was a fearsome warrior whose samurai wore bright red armour in battle to inspire terror in their opponents. At Sekigahara, Naomasa’s forces were the first to join battle, a signal honour which they took for themselves due to their ferocious enthusiasm. Towards the end of the fight, Naomasa was injured by a stray musket ball, which probably caused his early death at 41.