Sunday, 13 March 2016

Sanada Maru - a family of strategists

Sakai Masato in the leading role as Sanada Nobushige (i.e. Yukimura)

The beginning of every year sees  a new year long historical drama series starting on the state sponsored TV channel NHK.

Although these annual series, collectively known as Taiga drama, are of variable quality, and tend not to be strictly historically accurate, they can offer interesting interpretations of the period they deal with, putting some imaginative flesh on the historical bones of the situation.   

This year, with Sanada Maru,  it is the turn of the Sanada family, whose best known member, Sanada Nobushige (more commonly known by his fictional name, Yukimura) is the star of this series. The title, Sanada Maru is the name of the defensive position or fort constructed by Sanada Nobushige, for the defense of Osaka castle during the Winter campaign of 1614-15

The Sanada clan was a fairly small clan in the scheme of things, but is famous for its pivotal role in the Siege of Osaka (1615) which, despite the eventual Tokugawa victory, was a close run thing. Unlike some of the larger, more famous families, the Sanada, by and large, were content to look after their own affairs and attempt to maintain their own territory. They successfully defied the Tokugawa on several occasions and managed to thrive despite the difficult situation they found themselves in after the deaths of Takeda Katsuyori and Oda Nobunaga. All of this required some nifty footwork, and Sanada Masayuki (Nobushige’s father)’s ability to manipulate and respond to the changing political landscape is central to these early episodes.

The Sanada Family

The interaction between the two Sanada brothers, Nobushige and his older brother Nobuyuki, is one point of interest. Although it was Nobuyuki who would ultimately thrive, he is usually little mentioned in accounts of the Sanada family until after the pre-Sekigahara split (engineered by his father to ensure that one branch of the family would survive no matter who won the confrontation between Tokugawa Ieyasu and The Toyotomi loyalists.

Nobushige and Nobuyuki (Oizumi Yo)

Sanada Maru depicts them as being close, but of differing temperaments – the intuitive Nobushige and the careful, thoughtful Nobuyuki. ‘Put you two together and you’d make a complete person’, says their father.  Of course, it is Nobushige who will later go on to win fame as the successful defender of Osaka castle (in the winter campaign) against the forces of the Tokugawa coalition, and only narrowly missing taking Tokugawa Ieyasu’s life and changing the course of history.

Kusakari Masao as Sanada Masayuki

And what of Sanada Masayuki? Both in reality and as depicted in this drama, he was an unusual man. Overshadowed in the public mind by the deeds of his son, Nobushige, he seems to have possessed an unusual degree of strategic acumen, some of which appears to have been passed down to him and which he, in turn, passed on to his sons. (Although Nobuyuki is not famous for his military record, he proved a very effective administrator, being promoted into a higher level fief as a result of his efforts).

Why this is so fascinating is that the great tacticians and strategists of history are usually brilliant individuals, not the result of a process designed to teach them strategy. In Japan, as well, the majority of outstanding leaders did not succeed in passing their abilities on to their children, and those that rose to power often did so largely by their own efforts. Sengoku Japan shows us a whole host of leaders that emerged unexpectedly to become powerful players in the conflicts of the time, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin…but the Sanadas were, from the start, a different proposition.

Both China and Japan boasted schools of strategy, (or generalship, which might be a more accurate description – from what we can tell, much of their content involved lower levels of organisation of troop movements and logistics, rather than what we think of as battlefield tactics) but we have very little knowledge of how this was taught and how it was meant to be learned (not necessarily the same thing). A look into this process, fictional and impressionistic as it may be, gives us a chance to muse on how such knowledge was passed down – the apprenticeship of generalship.

Sanada Masayuki (National Diet Library)

As he appears on the small screen, Masayuki is shown as keeping his focus on aims while disregarding appearances.  Thick-skinned, he has an appreciation for the realities of war, and the lengths that are necessary to keep his family and followers safe, while maneuvering to establish a degree of independence. The drama shows rather well the dark arts of manipulation and treachery  that he is not afraid to use. He makes it clear that both reasoning and intuition are necessary for war. But despite his cold calculation, his warmth of character makes him very different from Kuroda Kanbei, the subject of the Taiga drama of 2014, and another of the premier gunshi of the era, and whose son, Kuroda Nagamasa, although a powerful and capable general, did not have his father’s gift for strategy.

Interestingly, it is Kanbei’s sometime ward and vassal, Goto Motosugu, (who by some accounts bore an antipathy towards Kuroda Jnr.) who would be Sanada Nobushige’s staunchest ally in the defense of Osaka Castle. The Sanada family was also closely connected with that other famous gunshi, Yamamoto Kansuke, and Sanada Masayuki served alongside him as fellow members of Takeda Shingen’s general staff (Masayuki was the youngest of the three Sanada brothers serving Shingen). Kansuke himself, although a well-known figure to later generations, left so little concrete evidence of his life that many historians considered him a fictitious character greated by later chroniclers of the exploits of Shingen. It was only relatively recently that documents were discovered corroborating his existence.

With Sanada Maru, NHK has now based a Taiga drama on the lives of each of these three strategists; I'm hoping this will be the best.

For more on Sanada Nobushige: Wisdom from Samurai High School

For more on Kuroda Kanbei: see here for a little on what he was up to around the time of the Battle of Sekigahara plus the Musashi connection and here for a not very serious look at his management style


  1. Is there a Blu-ray DVD on Sanada Maru which can be played in the UK?

    1. Not yet, as the series will be running until the end of the year - NHK issue expensive DVD sets then (when the series has finished), and Japanese DVDs are compatible with UK systems (at least, regular DVDs are…I haven't tried Blue-ray). However, a search on the web will probably bring up elicit uploads, and some may even have subtitles. NHKs Sanada Maru site has an English page with short digest versions of each episode with subtitles.