Four hundred and thirteen years ago today, on October 21, 1600, one of the most pivotal battles in the history of the world occurred on a muddy field in what is now Gifu Prefecture in Japan. The Battle of Sekigahara, in which samurai warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the forces of Ishida Mitsunari and unified Japan, led to the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the most stable period of government Japan has had in its 2,000-year history. It also led to the “closing” of Japan and the beginning of its self-imposed isolation which lasted nearly 200 years, until American naval forces under the command of Admiral Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1854. The shogunate ultimately fell in 1868, beginning the rapid modernization of Japan.

The extremely complicated story of the Battle of Sekigahara itself is too long to recount here. The Wikipedia article on Sekigahara has a pretty good capsule summary, if you’re interested. The battle has a slight imprint in popular culture mainly because of James Clavell’s novel–and particularly the 1980 TV miniseries–Shogun, which, although it did not depict the battle itself, dramatized the political events leading up to it. The battle is a favorite of military history buffs, and I don’t know how many video games have been based on it or make reference to it somehow.

What most people don’t know is that the Battle of Sekigahara was a turning point not just in political or military history, but environmental history as well. The Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan after 1600 was one of the most environmentally progressive governments in history. The Shoguns realized that Japan’s environment, and particularly its forest resources, was at once extremely fragile, but also highly necessary to society, the economy and the military establishment. As a result, the Tokugawa government instituted a regime of silviculture–the sustainable use of forests–that has largely been unmatched anywhere in the world since. The preservation of Japan’s forest resources is the subject of Conrad Totman’s classic 1998 book The Green Archipelago, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in environmental issues in history.

forest in japan

Japan’s forests have managed to survive the centuries intact thanks, in part, to the environmental policies of the government that Sekigahara brought into existence.

Taking a long view of history, one can argue that Japan’s environmental policies in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were the key not only to the country’s successful and peaceful existence during that time, but also its subsequent history. The Tokugawa government was fanatically isolationist. The closure of Japan essentially froze Japanese society in amber the way it was in 1600, ending a long cycle of civil wars and strife that could easily have torn the country apart over subsequent centuries–especially if Japan had been incorporated into the emerging world market economy that was developing at that time. With its rich forest resources, one could easily imagine Japan, in the early Industrial Revolution period, becoming sort of an Asian version of the horrible factory systems of Manchester and other English cities and all their attendant environmental degradation. But, the shoguns embedded environmental protectionism into the fabric of Japanese society–and it remains so today. Fukushima aside, Japan has fewer serious environmental issues than most other First World countries do. I think this trend stretches all the way back to Sekigahara.

Great events in history have ripple effects that go far beyond the immediate time and place. You would not think to link a clash of 17th century samurai armies to the survival of trees and watersheds, but this is how history works. It’s pretty fascinating if you think about it.