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Honda Tadakatsu: A Samurai Among Samurai

Updated on May 16, 2012
Takakatsu Honda
Takakatsu Honda

Honda Tadakatsu was a samurai during the 'Sengoku' or 'Warring States' period of Japan. Maybe I should rephrase... Honda Tadakatsu was THE samurai during the 'Sengoku' period. There is a quote by Oda Nobunaga (Who rarely paid compliments to his followers or allies) in regards to Tadakatsu Honda which states that Tadakatsu is, "A samurai among samurai". Since his life he has been revered as one of the greatest warriors to have ever lived.

Tokugawa Ieyasu
Tokugawa Ieyasu

Tadakatsu Honda was a very loyal retainer of the Third Unifier Tokugawa Ieyasu and though accounts vary, some say he served in over 100 battles. He wore giant deer antlers on his helmet and many believe that this was to make him stand out on the battlefield. Legend has that despite his efforts to stand out and fight on the front lines, he never took a single wound in battle. Whether or not that is true, we will likely never know, but simply based on the fact that such a rumor has existed for so longs speaks volumes about his reputation.

Tadakatsu Honda began his service with Tokugawa Ieyasu as a simple page, but throughout time his prowess raised him in rank until he became a daimyo and one of Tokugawa's Four Heavenly Kings or Guardians of Tokugawa.

His spear is one of the three legendary Japanese spears created by the famous smith Masazane Fujiwara. It was named Tonbogiri, which meant 'Dragon Fly Cutter', because the rumor was that if a dragon fly landed on the tip it would be cut in half.

Oda Nobunaga
Oda Nobunaga

The Battle of Anegawa

The Battle of Anegawa was a famous battle between the Oda and Tokugawa clans versus the Asakura and Azai clans. The Oda clan led by Oda Nobunaga was hated by the Asakura clans because the resented Oda becoming more powerful. When war appeared to be inevitable the Azai clan was torn between the two because though the leader was married to Nobunaga's sister, the Azai had a generations old alliance with the Asakura. When the Azai joined sides with the Asakura Nobunaga needed the aid of his Tokugawa allies. During the battle the Tokugawa faced off with the Asakura while the Oda faced off with the Azai. During the battle Tadakatsu Honda is reputed for having his force hold the Asakura lines while the main Tokugawa force regrouped. Tadakatsu then led the Tokugawa counter attack which enabled them to beat back the Asakura and flank the Azai creating a decisive victory for the Oda and Tokugawa clans.

The Battle of Mitagahara
The Battle of Mitagahara
Takeda Shingen
Takeda Shingen

The Battle of Mikatagahara

The Battle of Mikatagahara was another famous battle involving the Tokugawa in which Tadakatsu participated. The brilliant and renown strategist Takeda Shingen had his site set on Oda Nobunaga and his intent was to stroll through Tokugawa lands to get to Oda. Despite being warned it wasn't in his best interest to attempt an open battle with the much larger Takeda force, Tokugawa Ieyasu met the Takeda in open battle. The Takeda cavalry was considered the best in Japan, and Shingen launced them at the Tokugawa lines in turns so they never tired. The Tokugawa army was defeated and Ieyasu fled the battle with only four men while his army fell to pieces. Tadakatsu is said to have served as a rear guard holding the Takeda lines while the Tokugawa army retreated.

Takeda Shingen made a humored statement about Tadakatsu that was something to the effect of... Tadakatsu is one of the two things that have surpassed Tokugawa Ieyasu along with Ieyasu's helmet.

The Battle of Nagashino
The Battle of Nagashino

The Battle of Nagashino

Takeda Shingen died prior to this battle and was not the leader of the Takeda during this battle. However the Takeda still had the most revered cavalry in the land which was a concern for the Tokugawa. Fortunately, Oda Nobunaga brought his main force this time and prepared a strategy to deal with the cavalry. They created a raised wooden barricade and placed their riflemen on top of the barricade. Tadakatus Honda was placed in charge of at least some of these troops. Oda Nobunaga supplied the tactic to have one rifleman fire, while another rifleman tucked down to reload. This allowed them to continued firing which severely hampered the ability of the Takeda army. While this was a common rifleman strategy throughout history, this was one of the earliest battles where it was put to use. Because this tactic blocked the Takeda infantry from breaking the lines, the dangerous Takeda cavalry was ineffective and the Oda and Tokugawa clans were victorious.

The Incident at Hinno-Ji
The Incident at Hinno-Ji
Akechi Mitsuhide
Akechi Mitsuhide

The Incident at Hinno-Ji

At the height of Oda Nobunaga's power he was betrayed by one of his generals Akechi Mitsuhide. After killing Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu knew that Akechi Mitsuhide would want him dead too. Unfortunately Tokugawa was a long way from the safety of home. They narrowly escaped capture and knew that Akechi's forces would be looking for them on all of the main paths. This meant they would have to sneak through back paths. The famous ninja and fellow loyal retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Hanzo Hattori had ties with nearby ninja clans. So Tadakatsu sent him ahead to scout and gather forces. Tadakatsu stayed with Tokugawa to protect him. Hanzo gathered around 300 ninjas to protect Tokugawa, and they were able to sneak back to Mikawa in safety.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Protecting Komaki Castle

After the fall of Oda Nobunaga, it became unclear who would assume control. Initially, Tokugawa Ieyasu stayed out of the fray as his two former allies Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Shibata Katsuie fought for control. However when Oda Nobunaga's son attempted to seize power Tokugawa sided with him against Toyotomi Hideyoshi. When war between the too came to fruition Tokugawa Ieyasu left Tadakatsu at Komaki with only 200 men to guard their base. He took the rest of his force to seek out Toyotomi's main force. Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to Komaki castle instead.

Rather than fleeing or attempting to hold the fortress against the massive Toyotomi army, Tadakatsu led his measly 200 men out to meet them. He strolled boldly toward them, announced his presence, and challenged them to attack him. Either out of fear or respect for this bold act, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered that none of his men were to attack Tadakatsu or any of his soldiers. The Toyotomi took a wide berth around Komaki castle in search of Tokugawa.

This campaign would eventually lead to a stalemate but favored Toyotomi. Tokugawa agreed to peace and was given a large sum of land. The Tokugawa clan would continue to support the Toyotomi rule until the end of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's life. Tadakatsu and Tokugawa even surved as war council advisers when Toyotomi attempted an attack on China.

The Batttle of Sekigahara
The Batttle of Sekigahara

The Battle of Sekigahara

After the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa was easily the most powerful clan. Several clans joined to together to oppose Tokugawa which led to this battle which is one of the most significant battles in Japanese history. Again, Tadakatsu Honda fought beside his lord Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Tokugawa clan prevailed becoming the ruling clan of Japan which led to the Edo period and a 250 year rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Tadakatsu the Politician

After Tokugawa took control of Japan, Tadakatsu attempted to serve him still in his administration. Like many of the samurai warriors at the time, Tadakatsu had a hard time adapting from warfare to politics. Tadakatsu made a statement that the Shogun's bureaucrats were like wine skins because they both should have ropes around their necks. In short time Tadakatsu became disenchanted with the political life and retired. He spent the remainder of his life in peace and died of old age.

A statue of Tadakatsu Honda
A statue of Tadakatsu Honda


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    • Phillbert profile imageAUTHOR

      Phillip Drayer Duncan 

      6 years ago from The Ozarks

      I couldn't have said it better North Wind! Thanks for the comment!

    • North Wind profile image

      North Wind 

      6 years ago from The World (for now)

      Really interesting. The lives led by these men so long ago (or not so long ago, depending on how you look at it) always seem to have an air of mystery surrounding it. Perhaps it is because I wonder just how their minds worked and try to imagine the level of discipline attained to become a warrior of such skill.


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