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Oda Nobunaga: A Representative of His Times
by: Marlene Harris

Author's note: This article is a actually a brief research paper written for credit for a Japanese history class. It's something of a biography of Nobunaga, but the professor tacked on the constraint of having to cite why the individual we selected respresented the times in which they lived, which is why it's set against the more general back-drop of trends and events in Japan during that time. As a result, many, many interesting events in Nobunaga's life were excluded, thus I would encourage anyone interested in further readings on this fascinating, if dichotomous individual to the reading list at the end. In particular, Turnbull, Sansom, Lamers, and the Samurai Archives have fairly extensive and highly readable discussions on Nobunaga (in the case of Lamers, the entire book is devoted to the study of his life--one of the very few such books written in English to be found!). M.H.

Humble Beginnings, Big Deeds

     Oda Nobunaga, an important 16th century Japanese warlord, was a controversial figure. Yet various historians have cited his actions as being instrumental to the success of those who followed him in the attempt to bring the embattled and fragmented country that was medieval Japan under one banner (1), (2). Born in 1534 in Owari province to a minor vassal family, Nobunaga was noted to be rather extreme, yet quite savvy and daring, and is generally credited with being the first of three great unifiers of early modern Japan. He laid much of the preliminary groundwork along the rugged path that comprised his time, which is nestled snugly in the warring states period. Despite the accounts of his ruthless pragmatism and questionable temperament, Nobunaga stands as a notable representative of his time; a period in Japan's history that was marked by constant clan struggles over turf and power, rapid growth and change, and an abundance of treachery.        

Military Matters     
     The 16th century featured frequent clan clashes over turf and power, such as the campaigns of Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, and others by the Hojo, Mori, and Ouchi clans. Nobunaga likewise had no shortage of such entanglements connected with his name. While the following examples are by no means exhaustive, they are but two of Nobunaga's more intriguing close encounters of a military kind.
     One of Nobunaga's more daring military exploits involved Imagawa Yoshitomo at Okehazama in 1560 (3). Imagawa had launched a campaign along a course to Kyoto, Imagawa's ultimate goal, which happened to traverse Nobunaga's turf . When Imagawa sacked a castle at near-by Marune in Owari, Nobunaga's home province, word got back to Nobunaga that Imagawa would soon be at his doorstep. In response to this, Nobunaga brazenly ordered an attack despite advice to the contrary and set off in the direction of Imagawa's troops with a small garrison. This was later joined by others to form a total force of some 2-3,000 men to reckon with Imagawa forces totaling some 25,000. Nobunaga and his troops came upon Imagawa and his legions camped at a gorge outside of the town  of Okehazama, where they were celebrating and admiring the trophies (meaning: heads) they'd taken in Owari.  Suddenly, an assist in the form of a fierce thunderstorm plowed into the area bringing a torrential downpour and high winds. Imagawa troops went scrambling for cover, but the storm allowed the determined Nobunaga to advance and position himself perilously close to Imagawa's camp unnoticed. As soon as the storm broke, Nobunaga launched a surprise attack, which netted him Imagawa's head and a place in history touting his bold military action and decisive victory against vastly superior numbers.
     Another interesting confrontation occurred between Nobunaga and Takeda Katsuyori, the son of Takeda Shingen at Nagashino in 1575 (4), (5).  In this case, Katsuyori reportedly developed an interest in taking the castle of a Tokugawa ally at Nagashino. Tokugawa got word that the castle was in jeopardy via an extremely brave messenger from the besieged castle, and rallied his troops to render an assist. However, he found himself want of manpower in the face of Takeda's superior numbers (about 8,000 vs. Takeda's 15,000), and summoned Nobunaga's aid. Nobunaga brought aid aplenty in the form of some 30,000 men. These troops included a substantial cache of a recently imported innovation, the rifle, and some logs to serve as palisades for his riflemen to take cover behind. Despite the good advice of the seasoned and wise Takeda generals to either pull out or mount a full scale attack on the castle, Katsuyori ignored this good advice. He opted instead to directly attack the combined forces of Tokugawa and Nobunaga, some 38,000 strong including about 3,000 rifleman, with battle-fatigued, out-numbered troops on uneven, dubious terrain. The events that ensued are described as less a battle, and more as a wholesale slaughter. Takeda's action effectively condemned some 10,000 of his troops to a foolish demise; a tragic decision made by a young and impetuous commander which slanted the outcome heavily in Nobunaga's favor.
The More Things Change...

     A great deal of change and the appearance of new ideas also characterized the 16th century. The arrival of the Portuguese missionaries, the introduction of the rifle, new trends along numerous social, cultural, economic, and political lines all emerged during this time (6). Nobunaga stood as an example of these elements through his penchant for fostering economic growth and his embrace and utilization of the new. Once such idea, as previously mentioned, was Nobunaga's use of the recently imported rifle in protecting (and expanding) his holdings. The sources reviewed generally note that he was among the first among notable military figures to use firearms in any significant and effective manner (7), (8). His victory over Katsuyori at Nagashino can be largely attributed to his openness to this technology.
     The arrival of the Portuguese missionaries also brought in new philosophies and new opportunities for growth, and Nobunaga was reportedly genuinely fascinated by them and many of their ideas (9), (10). Some sources attribute his friendly interest to two primary motives; first, in recognition of the possibility of opening channels for economic exchange and growth and second, a mutual contempt for some of the Buddhist sects who had aligned themselves with his rivals at varying points. (11). Regardless of the motive or his true perspective on the ways of the Westerners or Christianity, the fact that he seemed to bear them no ill will and is reported to have had generally friendly relations with them is indicative of a certain willingness to compromise in service of larger goals and desires. Nobunaga also displayed an entrepreneurial spirit when he sought to entice both retainers and merchants to his domains by abolishing the numerous toll roads, and offering tax breaks and certain guarantees of economic freedom and opportunity (12), (13).
Et tu, Akechi?

     Political treachery was also a significant feature of the 16th century as exemplified by the murder of shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru  and his subsequent replacement by a toddler brother in 1565. This act was aided by  the Miyoshi and Matsunaga (14). Another example is Ouchi Yoshioki's ouster by Sue Harukata, a vassal who cautioned his master regarding the possibility due to his relaxed outlook, then arranged it for him himself in a twisted sort of self-fulfilling prophecy (15). Similarly, it was also a feature of Nobunaga's own turbulent life from fairly early on until his untimely demise as a result of the betrayal of one of his generals in 1582 (16).
     Nobunaga received his first introduction to the hidden cost of a quest for power at the hands of his very own family. Nobunaga had two brothers, Nobuhiro and Nobuyuki who each took a turn in attempting to take Nobunaga out while he was still a fledging unifier in Owari (17), (18). In 1556, Nobuhiro hatched a plot against Nobunaga with Saito Yoshiatsu, lord of Mino province, but their plan was discovered before its intended result was realized. In a move that later writings report to be uncharacteristic of Nobunaga, he pardoned his would-be assassins. A year later, in 1557, younger brother Nobuyuki thought he could do better. Once again, the plot was foiled, but this time Nobunaga had Nobuyuki killed, perhaps to send a strong message to other would be turn-coats.
     Another betrayal that took place during the course of Nobunaga's term as leader involved the shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki. In 1568, Nobunaga assisted Yoshiaki in installing him in Kyoto as the rightful heir to his murdered brother Ashikaga Yoshiteru (noted above) (19).  After a subsequently difficult alliance and strained relationship with Nobunaga, Yoshiaki, encouraged by the actions of others against Nobunaga, such as those of Takeda Shingen, he made a play of his own in 1573. Nobunaga reportedly responded in a surprisingly cooperative manner, that is, until he heard of Takeda Shingen's untimely demise, at which point he felt free enough to put Kyoto to the torch. This prompted Yoshiaki to surrender. Not to be deterred, Yoshiaki made another attempt at an uprising again later that year, with the result of Nobunaga running him off into exile.
     As his rise to primacy as a political and military leader had begun with acts of treachery, Nobunaga's life ended in a final act of betrayal at the hands of Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his own capable generals. Sources vary in the reasons given for Akechi's treachery. Among the reasons given are Nobunaga's sarcasm aimed at Akechi's well-regarded poetry and generally caustic treatment of  Aketchi (21). Another report has it that a quest for a domain and some power of his own may have driven Aketchi's efforts (22). Yet another hypothesis has it that it may have been the result of a simmering grudge for Nobunaga's going against Aketchi's promise of leniency to a captured enemy, Hatano Hideharu and his brother who surrendered in a bloodless coup in Tamba in 1577 (23). The men were subsequently presented to Nobunaga as prisoners, but Nonunaga had them both promptly executed, much to Aketchi's surprise and the surviving Hatano clan's angst. The Hatano clan then allegedly held Aketchi directly responsible for the demise of their kin, and sought revenge by killing Aketchi's mother in a manner most heinous. Whatever the reason(s), in 1582, Aketchi feigned doing Nobunaga's bidding by pretending to amass his troops to assist Hideyoshi against the Mori at Takamatsu castle in Bitchu as ordered, but he then doubled back to Nobunaga's location at Honnoji. He and his men surrounded the temple where Nobunaga was staying, and either killed Nobunaga, or, having caught him completely unaware and relatively unprotected by his usual contingent, heavily influenced his decision to commit seppuku, depending on which version of Nobunaga's end is being considered.
        All told, Nobunaga's life was indeed a reflection of his impossibly complicated place and time given that the elements of clan strife, deceit, and warfare, economic growth and political change, and the use of recent innovations were common to those who lived during the 16th century. However, Nobunaga seemed to have a unique way of turning these elements to his advantage that many others either lacked or failed to use with his particular flair, at least for a time. Various sources have described Nobunaga by numerous and diverse terms. Was he, as some suggest, simply a man who tried to survive, make his way through life, and improve his lot as circumstances would allow (24)? Was he a ruthless, power-mad tyrant as is claimed by others (25), (26)? Or, was he somewhere in between? In any case, that question is best left for the detailed scrutiny of scholarly inquiry, and most likely, continued vigorous debate.

       1. Turnbull, The Samuari, A Military History, 142.
      2. Varley, An Introduction to Japanese Civilization, 90.
      3. Sansom, A History of Japan: 1334-1516, 276-277.
 4. Turnbull, 156-160.
 5. Lamers, Japonius Tyrannus, 111-114.
      6. Sansom, 273.
      7.  Sanson, 309.
      8. Totman, A History of Japan, 204.
      9. Samson, 294.
     10. Seal, The Samurai Archives, 8.
     11. Lamers, 171.
     12. Varley, 91-92.
     13. Sansom, 300-302.
     14. Turnbull, 164.   
     15. Turnbull, 130-131.
     16. Seal, 4.
     17. Samson, 276.
     18. Kodansha, 6th Edition, 63.
     19. Sansom, 278.
     21. Turnbull, 164.  
     22. Lamers, 214.
     23. Seal, 13.
     24. Lamers, 232.
     25. Sansom, 310.
     26. Turnbull, 164.


Brief Chronology & Summary for Oda Nobunaga
& Japan, 1534-1582

                    In Oda's Life                                                                                 In Japan

1534-Born: Oda Kipposhi, 2nd son of Oda                              
 Nobuhide (~1508-1549) in Owari province.
                                                                                                                                    1536-Toyotomi Hideyoshi born.                 

                                                                                                                                   1543-Portugese reach Japan via shipwreck
                                                                                                                                    on Tanegashima Island. Tokugawa Ieyasu                 
                                                                                                                                    is born.
                                                                                                                                    1549-St. Franscis Xavier lands in Kyushu.
1551-(circa.)-Nobunaga becomes leader of
his faction and Kiyosu.                                                    
                                                                                                                                    1555-Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen
                                                                                                                                     host 2nd of many battles at Kawanakajima.
1556- Brother, Nobuhiro hatches plot against
Nobunaga with Saito Yoshiatsu, lord of Mino
province. They are both busted, but pardoned.

1557-Younger brother, Nobuyuki thought he could                         
do better with Shibata Katsuie and Hayashi Michikatsu                               1557-The Mori and the Otomo clans launch a 4 year clash for/at Moji Castle. in yet another plot. Mom was allegedly involved as well.  This time, however,
Nobunaga had Nobuyuki killed, and the other two
conspirators were spared (but no word on Mom).


1558-Nobunaga survives all of the above treacherous
attempts by family members and manages to unite his
family under his leadership (but keeps his back to the
wall at all family functions from this point on).                                               1559-Takeda Shingen's campaign to
                                                                                                                                     dominate Shinano province complete.
1560-Nobunaga is involved in a notable (and seemingly
very lucky) military endeavor against Imagawa Yoshitomo
who had entered Owari province, and pulls off a ferocious
post-storm attack with vastly inferior numbers at Okehazama.
                                                                                                                                     1565-Ashikaga Yoshiteru forced         
                                                                                                                                      to commit suicide at his palace, is
                                                                                                                                      succeeded by a toddler brother.
1566-Ashikaga Yoshiaki, a little lost would-be shogun
on the lam from foes who had a hand in the death of his
brother Ashikaga Yoshiteru goes looking for some muscle
to reclaim his rightful place and finds Oda Nobunaga to
be a willing, if dubious ally.

1568-Nobunaga and Yoshiaki enter Kyoto, and in                                          1568-The Takeda and Imagawa clans
a matter of weeks Yoshiaki is installed as shogun.                                         begin mixing it up on the battlefield.
1569-Luis Frois meets Nobunaga in Kyoto.
1570-Nobunaga's military acumen is challenged
by opposition from the Asai and Asakura clans.
                                                                                                                                     1573-Takeda Shingen dies, and is  
                                                                                                                                     succeeded by his son, Katsuyori.
1575-Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu team up against
Takeda Katsuyori in a massive battle in which 10,000
Takeda warriors are reported sent to visit Buddha.                                       1576-Shibata Katsui launches a sword    
                                                                                                                                     hunt in Echizen.   
1580-Honganji Ikko subdued via negotiations
mediated by the imperial court and are (surprisingly)
spared by Nobunaga.

1582-Nobunaga assassinated or forced to commit                                         1582-Takeda Katsuyori commits suicide.
seppuku (depending on the author's version) by
Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his generals.