The Legendary Shimabara Rebellion

The history of Japan is filled with hundreds of glorious battle stories. This comes as no surprise because the Japanese did create the class of warriors known as the samurai, which used to be one of the scariest and deadliest classes of warriors you can find in the world. Many of these wars changed a lot about the culture of Japan but if you were to pick out one battle that changed the Japanese culture forever, the Shimabara Rebellion of the Edo period would definitely be a strong contender.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Gist of the Shimabara Rebellion and the Primary Source of the Conflict

Before getting to the details of the rebellion, you should first know that Shimabara is part of the southwestern portion of Japan and it can be found specifically in the Nagasaki Prefecture. There are many variations of how the rebellion started or how things led to that. Some versions hint that it was all because of religious reasons while there are also some versions of this story that focus on the famine and hardship the people were experiencing at that time due to bad governance. Considering each of these variations, it can clearly be seen that the rebellion was caused by both these issues.

Contrary to what others might think, the rebellion wasn’t an instantaneous event as well because the dissatisfaction of the people with things like the famine and the over taxation due to the Matsukara clan’s construction of a new castle in the Shimabara area started in the mid-1630’s. The group of people that weren’t happy with the governing they were experiencing was initially just made up of peasants from the Amakusa and Shimabara Peninsula. After some time, they were joined by the likes of fishermen, merchants, and craftsmen who were greatly affected by the same problems.

The prolonged poor leadership of Matsukara Katsuie, who ruled the Shimabara Domain, and of Terasawa Katataka, who ruled the Karatsu Domain, eventually caused the rebellion’s forces to grow tremendously with the addition of ronin like Shiki and Amakusa, who were samurai warriors with no masters. The growth in strength did not stop there as the likes of former Arima clan and Konishi retainers joined the cause of the rebellion as well. There are people that would say that the rebellion was purely a peasants’ rebellion but the cooperation of the warriors mentioned above proves this claim false because they were, in fact, aided greatly by these well-known and high-ranking fighters.

Although Matsukara Katsuie played a part in fueling the rebellion because of his poor leadership, his predecessor, Matsukura Shigemasa, had played an even bigger part in causing this rebellion. Shimabara was once a part of the Arima clan but in the year of 1614, the Arima clan moved and the Matsukura clan took their place as rulers of the area. When this happened, the lord of the Matsukura clan was a man named Matsukura Shigemasa.

He aspired to advance quickly in the shogunate hierarchy so he immediately made it a priority to start various construction projects in lieu of his aspirations. He made all kinds of buildings. He expanded the Edo Castle. He even planned an invasion of the Spanish East Indies, which is now the Philippines. On top of that, he was the one that had the new Shimabara castle built. Progression is a great thing for a city but at the rate that Shigemasa went, he had to raise the taxes of his people to fund all the projects he was going for. Shigemasa also was responsible for the persecution of Christians in his domain which was a huge problem considering that the majority of the people in the Shimabara area were followers of Christianity because of the influence of the Arima clan left with the people. He then passed away and left all the problems with his heir, Katsuie. With all this being said, some of you might start to think that Katsuie was merely a victim of his predecessor’s aggressiveness but this surely is not the case because Katsuie had the option to change the policies that give his people a hard time during his reign but he never did.

Fast forward to the year of 1637, specifically on December 17. This was the day that rebellion said enough was enough and they made this statement by orchestrating a simultaneous uprising in both the Shimabara area and the Amakusa area. Hayashi Hyozaemon, who was a local tax official, was assassinated while a riot was being started in the Amakusa Islands. This created enough distraught for the rebels to quickly increase their numbers by forcing the areas they gained control of to join their cause as well. In these moments, Amakusa Shiro was chosen to be the rebellion’s leader despite the fact that he was a 16-year-old at the time.

By Edo-period artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first thing they did after increasing their ranks was to lay siege to the Terasawa clan’s Hondo and Tomioka castles. Their attempt to take these castles was almost successful if it wasn’t for the timely arrival of the armies from the domains in Kyushu which provided aid to the Terasawa clan. The coming of these reinforcements may have ultimately forced the rebellion troops to retreat from their siege of the Terasawa castles but it certainly was not the end of their attacks because soon after their retreat from the Tomioka and Hondo castles, they crossed the Ariake Sea to besiege the Shimabara castle of Matsukura Katsuie.

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

No reinforcements came to aid the Matsukura clan but the rebel troops were still unable to take the castle. Once again forced to retreat, the rebellion forces headed for the Hara Castle, which was the castle used by the Arima clan before they were moved. When the rebellion got there, the castle’s conditions were clearly not fit for the attacks that would come their way so they built up palisades using wood from the boats that they used to cross the water and heavily fortified their defenses with the weapons and ammunition they were able to get from the storehouses of the Matsukura clan.

Since the rebellion did attack 3 castles that were technically under the rule of the shogunate, it was also fitting for the Tokugawa shogunate to send someone to command the allied armies of the local domains involved in the rebellion. The “someone” that the Tokugawa shogunate sent was a man named Itakura Shigemasa and he stood as the commander-in-chief as they began to siege the Hara Castle. During the siege, the shogunate troops asked for help from the Dutch, who replied to this request by first supplying war necessities like cannons and gunpowder. When they realized that it wasn’t enough to break through Hara Castle, the Dutch then sent vessels to provide more firepower for the ships. Despite this bombardment that happened, the rebellion still survived and they even talked trash to the shogunate for asking assistance from foreigners because it showed weakness in their own army.

The rebellion was definitely outnumbered but they did well to hold their ground. They were able to withstand the attacks of Shigemasa and even took his life during one of his attacks. Upon Shigemasa’s demise, the shogunate sent more troops along with a replacement commander-in-chief who was Matsudaira Nobutsuna. Considering the forces of the rebellion were already outnumbered before more reinforcements came to help the shogunate government, it is still amazing to find out that they lasted several months more while dealing heavy blows to the shogunate as well.

As bravely as the troops of the rebellion fought, on April of the year 1638, they found their supplies dwindling to a point wherein they could not sustain themselves anymore. This is not to say that they gave up because they had no more food. They fought until the end which is why the number of casualties grew tremendously in the latter part of the rebellion. The fall of the rebels changed Japan greatly because this incident pushed the religion of Christianity underground for centuries. All Christians, after the rebellion, were seen as conspirators and sympathizers which the shogunate did not tolerate at all, hence, they were hunted down by the government.

The List of the Forces Present During the Shimabara Rebellion Which Does Not Include Ninjas

As far as the Japanese historians are concerned, there were no ninjas recorded to be involved in the rebellion of Shimabara. It may bum out some people who believed in versions of the rebellion that had epic ninja scenes but, although no ninjas were involved, the number of warriors sent to be a part of this war may be enough to drop your jaw as well.

Knowing the number of men that came from the different domains near the Shimabara gives you a better idea of how much the rebel forces must have struggled to last as long as they did back then. The first commander, Itakura Shigemasa, had 800 men under his control and it was said that upon dying, Matsudaira Nobutsuna took control. What wasn’t mentioned a while ago was that Nobutsana brought in 1500 more men to the battlefield.

There were also 2500 men under the control of his vice-commander, Toda Ujikane, as well as 2500 samurai from the Shimabara Domain itself. Of course, the number of these reinforcements are nothing compared to the recognized “largest component” of the shogunate forces which came from the Saga Domain. Under the leadership of a man named Nabeshima Katsushige, the men from the Saga Domain came into the battlefield 35,000 men strong.

These forces combined have already surpassed the estimated number of men the rebellion had which was around 37,000. Despite this fact, the shogunate continued to send forces to the area of the rebellion. Commanders from different areas like the Kurume Domain and the Karatsu Domain came into the battlefield with numbers of men that play around 20,000 as well. Some clans like the Shimazu clan also sent reinforcements that came in numbers of thousands too. After all the help came from the different surrounding domains, the number of the shogunate soldiers had reached over 125,800.

Art That Came from the Shimabara Rebellion like Movies and Films

Nowadays, you can hardly find people that prefer to read a book over watching the movie or film on the cinema screen. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it comes with the progression of technology. With this being said, if you are looking into learning more about the rebellion, you are in luck because there are quite a few movies that reenact the events of this important battle in Japanese history.

An example of such a movie is the Makai Tensho (Samurai Resurrection) and it was released in the year of 2003. It was directed by Hideyuki Hirayama and it portrays the story of the rebellion in a very neutral light. This means that it would feel more like a documentary than a film that is simply based on the events of the rebellion.

If you are looking for a movie with the twists and turns of the rebellion story, you can look into the movies like “Red Lotus” and “Silence”. Red Lotus shows the rebellion story that leans towards a perspective that comes from the shogunate side. In the Red Lotus movie, a samurai is tasked to hunt down the remaining members of the rebellion and it is because of this storyline that the viewers see what it was like from the shogunate’s side during the war. The movie called “Silence”, on the other hand, starts with 2 foreign Catholic priests that come to Japan nearing the time of the rebellion. Because this was the perspective used for this film, watching it would showcase thoughts and analogies from the rebellion’s side. With this being said, watching both the Red Lotus and Silence would be very beneficial for you to attain valuable information from both sides of the war.

It might not be apparent to all but this rebellion really changed the culture of Japan in a way. It affected all areas in Japan like Tokyo and Osaka because if Christianity wasn’t pushed underground due to this rebellion, other notable events in history might have changed as well. If Christianity remained accepted by the shogunate, it might have taught different values to people that would have eventually made a vital decision in Japanese history when the time came. With this thought, learning about why and how it happened really teaches both young and old how to be better in this day and age. The story might be based on something that happened over 50 years ago but the lessons that should be learned and remembered from the story of the rebellion can still be very applicable to our world today.