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A Blazing Inferno—Sanada Yukimura

           Throughout human history, many heroes have emerged. Western culture reveres those great individuals who achieved mighty deeds, such as Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, and Washington. However, the heroes admired in Japanese or East Asian culture are often those who failed in their endeavors. They possess noble virtues, lofty ideals, and an unyielding spirit, challenging authority without fear. Despite their ultimate failures, they leave behind a legacy that echoes through history. In Japan's Sengoku era, one such samurai stood out. Courageous and resourceful, he wore red armor and led an army similarly clad, appearing on the battlefield like a blazing inferno, striking fear into his enemies. Knowing he had no chance of winning, he still stood against overwhelming power, repaying a debt of gratitude. He was Sanada Yukimura, a household name in Japan, a true tragic hero.

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         In the mid-16th century, Sanada Yukimura was born into a minor lord's family in Shinano . He was the second son of the family, whose territory was surrounded by numerous powerful lords, forcing them to seek alliances. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose to power, Yukimura's father believed that Hideyoshi could unify Japan and thus pledged allegiance to him. As a guarantee of their loyalty, Yukimura was sent to Osaka Castle as a hostage, a common practice at the time. Hostages usually led a miserable life, as their fate was in others' hands. However, Toyotomi Hideyoshi did not treat Yukimura as a mere hostage. He recognized the young Yukimura's talents, promoted him to his personal guard, and taught him many battle strategies. Grateful for this kindness, Yukimura always remembered his debt to the Toyotomi family.

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Sanada Yukimura

(1567~1615)

          In 1598, Toyotomi Hideyoshi passed away, and Yukimura returned home. After Hideyoshi's death, his heir was only eight years old, allowing Tokugawa Ieyasu to become the most powerful samurai. Using his position as one of the Five Elders, Ieyasu pressured, enticed, and allied with other samurai loyal to the Toyotomi, nearly usurping their power. This dissatisfaction among the Toyotomi loyalists, including Yukimura, led to Japan's largest civil war in 1600. The Toyotomi forces, based in Osaka in the west, were called the Western Army, while the Tokugawa forces, based in Edo (now Tokyo) in the east, were called the Eastern Army. Yukimura and his father joined the Western Army, while his brother, married to a Tokugawa retainer, joined the Eastern Army. Thus, the family was divided. Yukimura and his father defended their Ueda Castle with just 2,000 soldiers, holding off Tokugawa Hidetada's 38,000 troops. However, the Western Army lost the main battle at Sekigahara, and the Sanada family faced defeat. Thanks to his brother's efforts, Yukimura and his father avoided the expected seppuku and were exiled to Kudoyama, a village at the foot of Mt. Koya, a Buddhist holy site. Tokugawa Ieyasu did not trouble the young head of the Toyotomi family, allowing him and his mother to continue living in Osaka Castle. This decision later paved the way for another conflict.

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Tokugawa Hidetada

(1579~1632)

         Life in Kudoyama was tough. Without income, the Sanada father and son could only teach the villagers to read and sell handmade crafts for daily necessities and food. Despite being criminals, their charisma deeply moved the villagers, and they lived harmoniously. However, Yukimura's father, frustrated and unfulfilled, passed away ten years later. Before his death, he told Yukimura that another conflict between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi families was inevitable and urged him to escape and help the Toyotomi when the time came.

           Four years later, as predicted, Tokugawa Ieyasu, now the shogun, gathered 300,000 troops from across Japan to eliminate the Toyotomi family. Toyotomi Hideyori, the Toyotomi leader, although grown, had his power controlled by his mother, Lady Chacha. They urgently assembled 100,000 ronin, including Yukimura. His courage, wisdom, and experience in defeating the Tokugawa made him the leader of these ronin. In war councils, he proposed a preemptive strike to occupy Kyoto and Nara and confront the Tokugawa forces. However, Lady Chacha believed Osaka Castle, built by her late husband and the best castle builder, Hideyoshi, was impregnable, surrounded by moats and walls. She insisted on defending the castle, and Yukimura had to comply. He pointed out a fatal weakness in the southeast corner, an open plain with no defenses, and volunteered to build a makeshift fortress there—Sanada Maru.

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Lady Chacha

(1569~1615)

           In the winter of 1614, the two sides clashed. Tokugawa Ieyasu targeted Osaka Castle's southeast corner but was repeatedly repelled by Sanada Maru. Despite numerical superiority, the Tokugawa forces were stalemated. Eventually, Ieyasu used cannons borrowed from the Dutch to threaten Osaka Castle, forcing Lady Chacha to negotiate peace, dismantle the castle walls, fill the moats, and disband the ronin.

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           However, this was all a ploy by Ieyasu. In the summer of 1615, after the castle walls were dismantled and the moats filled, the Tokugawa army returned. With no defenses, the Toyotomi forces had to fight in the open field. Before the battle, Yukimura had his troops dye their armor red, making them highly visible and intimidating. Once the battle began, the Sanada troops fought fiercely, like a red inferno on the battlefield, striking terror into the Tokugawa soldiers. Despite their bravery, they were heavily outnumbered. Yukimura led a charge directly at Ieyasu's headquarters, aiming to decapitate him. Though they broke through several lines of defense, they fell one by one. Yukimura, severely wounded, perished on the battlefield. The Toyotomi family was destroyed in the flames of Osaka Castle, marking the start of the Tokugawa era in Japan.

Related links

Osaka Castle

         Built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1583, Osaka Castle took 15 years to complete, finishing just before his death. It was the largest and most magnificent castle in Japan at the time. In the winter of 1614, Sanada Yukimura joined Osaka Castle to repay his debt to the Toyotomi family, leading troops against the powerful Tokugawa forces. The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. The current main tower, reconstructed in 1931, is a concrete building that serves as a museum with elevators. It displays the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the stories of the 1614 and 1615 sieges of Osaka Castle, including dioramas of Yukimura's battles with the Tokugawa forces. Despite being a replica, Osaka Castle remains a symbol of pride and spiritual support for the people of Osaka.

Sanko Shrine

          Located in southern Osaka, Sanko Shrine is dedicated to Jurōjin, one of the Seven Lucky Gods. In 1614, Sanada Yukimura built Sanada Maru nearby, reinforcing Osaka Castle's last weak point and striking the Tokugawa army. The shrine houses a bronze statue of Yukimura and a legendary tunnel said to connect Sanada Maru to the main keep of Osaka Castle.

Mt. Chausuyama, Tennoji Park

          A small hill in southern Osaka, believed to be the ancient emperor's tomb. During the Winter Siege of 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu set up his headquarters here. In the Summer Siege of 1615, Yukimura led his forces out of Osaka Castle to battle the Tokugawa troops at Chausuyama, trying to break through their lines to attack Ieyasu's headquarters. The area saw heavy fighting, with bodies reportedly staining the pond red. Exhausted, Yukimura was killed by Tokugawa troops near a small shrine.

Kudoyama

          A small village at the foot of Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture, adjacent to Osaka. After their defeat at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Yukimura and his father were exiled here, living for 15 years. The Sanada Hermitage, where they once lived, has been converted into a temple. The temple's treasure museum displays artifacts and stories from the Sanada family's time in Kudoyama.

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