The late 15th to late 16th century (called the Sengoku or “Warring States” Period) inflicted upon Japan a great deal of internal strife, with various factions and splinters thereof battling for supremacy. An important pattern that emerged from this upheaval was that of underlings who, through the recognition of their superiors and the respect of their peers, rose through the ranks and eventually overthrew their leaders. This happened often enough to warrant a label of its own: gekokujou. Though this fostered a sentiment that great achievements were possible, even from humble beginnings, it also contributed to an overall sense of instability.
One reaction to the violent oppression by the daimyo was a group of people who were the followers of a monk named Rennyo, called the Ikkou-Ikki. Although Rennyo himself was a pacifist, his followers formed loosely organized, poorly equipped mobs of peasants, monks, and priests that banded together for defense and the occasional insurgency. In 1488, for example, the Ikkou-Ikki overthrew the samurai rulers of the province of Kaga, which was the first time in Japanese history that a group of commoners ruled a province. This provides another example of the belief that power and significance can rise from below, rather than being handed down from on high.
The costly attrition of continual warfare among the daimyo of the Sengoku Period was unsustainable and, eventually, order began to form through the chaos. In 1586, a ruthless military commander named Oda Nobunaga marched his army into the imperial capital of Kyoto and seated Ashikaga Yoshiaki as shogun. Having thus secured the imperial capital, Nobunaga proceeded to spread his influence by force and cunning political positioning and was nearly able to reunify all of Japan. His efforts were stopped short when he was attacked and killed by one of his own generals in 1582.
Nobunaga’s agenda lived on through his successor, a general called Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Though local governance remained in charge of daily affairs, Hideyoshi managed to complete the reunification of Japan under a single leader, and he established many administrative structures to promote stability and exert control. He instituted strict class separation by requiring different classes to take residence in different sections of a town and ordered a prohibition of the ownership of weapons by the peasant classes. He obviously well understood the potential of the lower classes, having lifted himself from his own humble origins as a mere foot soldier. And as Nobunaga had been largely unknown prior to his capture of Kyoto, both he and Hideyoshi supply two more instances in which power rose from the depths during this period in Japan’s history.
But Hideyoshi’s ambition grew larger than the boundaries of Japan could satisfy. He foolishly eyed China’s Ming Dynasty and in 1592, he invaded China’s ally and trading partner, Korea, with 200,000 men. Many Koreans greeted the Japanese as liberators and the King of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea fled to the protection of China. A year later, however, China took back part of Japan’s captured territory and peace negotiations did not go well. Hideyoshi launched a second invasion of Korea in 1957, but the effort failed with Hideyoshi’s death in 1598. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu quashed the western daimyo in the Battle Sekigahara and ushered in the Edo Period, a long period of relative peace capitalizing on the unification achieved by his predecessors.
In addition to these struggles within Japan, this period also brought enormously influential contact with the outside world. Of greatest military significance was the chance landing of a Portuguese ship blown off course on its way to China in 1542. The Portuguese demonstrated the use of their firearms (a smooth-bored matchlock musket called the harquebus) to the local daimyo. Clearly impressed, the daimyo ordered his artisans to copy the weapons and fabricate them for his warriors. Although most of the gunpowder for early guns had to be imported, the popularity of muskets spread quickly, and by the turn of the century firearms were considered the primary weapon of battle, more important than bow, spear and sword.
This, then, is the context in which Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu was forged by Tamiya Heibei Shigemasa in late 16th century Japan. The European firearm had usurped the dominance of the sword on the battlefield. But in this time of the sublimated spirit of the humble, the sword would be reborn as a more personal, discerning weapon and as a symbol of noble action. Thus, its artful employ became synonymous with the formalization of long-standing traditional warrior virtues, which would be codified in the 17th century and called Bushido.