The Age of the Country at War

By Mike Viscusi

After the weakening of the central government of Japan in the 1470fs, a period of great warfare, bloodshed, and chaos came all across the Japanese Archipelago. This time period was known as the Sengoku Jidai, lasting from 1467 to 1568 (Turnbull 74). It was during this time that great regional strong men, known as daimyo, started to take control over different parts of Japan in order from them to consolidate their power away from the weakened Ashikaga Shogunate.  Most of the powerful of clans came from the regions of Chubu, Kansai, and Chugoku, including the Imagawa of Suruga, the Late-Hojo of Sagami, the Takeda of Kai / Shinano, the Uesugi clan of Echigo, the Date of Mutsu, the Asakura of Echizen, the Mori of Aki, the Miyoshi of Settsu and Awa, and the Chosokabe of Tosa amongst other minor regional clans.

But in Owari Province of in southwest Chubu, there would be one man whose rise to power would rival that of Caesar. Through political and military alliances, playing power politics in the Imperial Court, and brute force, he would go on to unite one-third of Honshu before his death on June 22nd, 1582 by the hand of one of his own retainers. His name was Oda Nobunaga, the Fool of Owari (for the sake of simplicity, this paper will refer to him by his first name and other people by their family names, as there are too many Odafs to easily confuse with.).

The Fool of Owari and Nobunagafs Youth

            Nobunaga was born in Owari Prefecture in June 1534 to as the second child to Oda Nobuhide, the deputy regent of the Owari area, and his wife Toda Gozen (Lamers 21). As a child Nobunaga was considered to be a rather unique child. He would hang out amongst the peasantry youth, learn their style of speech and use it while at home with the elites (King of Zippangu). He also was a military genius as well, supposedly going into battle for the first time at the age of seven though he didnft bring back any heads for the clan at that time. What Nobunaga was most remembered for was his eccentric personality. He would occasionally dress in women's kimonos, have mood swings, and even give Nobuhide doubt about giving the leadership of the Oda clan to him, as Nobunaga was his first legitimate son.

            Throughout Nobunaga's teenage life, he seemed to be very much aware of his position in the world. One of the earliest moves that affected him was his involvement in a political marriage to Saito Dosan of Mino Provincefs daughter, No-hime (also known as Kicho-hime in some records). With the political marriage of the two, the Oda and the Saito clan would become allies, thus stopping any further conflict between the two clans. Although it was somewhat clear that Nobunaga and No cared for each other, she never bore Nobunaga any children, and it was another one of Nobunaga's concubines that would give birth to his oldest son and heir Nobutada in 1557.

            Another major impact in Nobunagafs life was his introduction to Matsudaiara Motoyasu of the Matsudaira Clan of Mikkawa. Motoyasu, a young captive that served under both the Oda and the Imagawa clans of Suruga after the death of his father, would forever be entwined with Nobunaga for the rest of his life, as the two became friends at such a young age.

            Suddenly in 1551, Nobuhide passed away, leaving Nobunaga to become the next head of the Oda Clan. During Nobuhidefs funeral, Nobunaga was said to have acted outrageously, showing up in tattered clothing and then throwing ashes at his fatherfs funeral alter, which alienated him with most of the Oda Clanfs military leadership, even driving one of these men into madness. One of these men included Shibata Katsuiie, a general whom eventually follow Nobunaga until his death in 1583. When Nobunaga acted out of line, his brother Nobuyuki conspired with Shibata and another retainer to rid Nobunaga, but Nobunaga and his supporters eventually defeated trio and their men. When Shibata learned of another plot of Nobuyuki's, he told Nobunaga of the plot, foiling it and eventually getting his meddling younger brother assassinated. The Oda Clan was then a united clan under Nobunaga in the 1550fs. But trouble loomed on the eastern horizon in the form of Imagawa Yoshimoto and his invading forces from Suruga Province.

            The Battle of Okehazama

            In May 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto rallied an army of about forty thousand men to march on Kyoto to aid the Ashikaga Shogunate. In order to get to Kyoto, the Imagawa forces had to go through Owari province as the northern provinces of Kai and Mino were difficult to navigate with a large force of men. In addition to Imagawa's alliance with the daimyo of Kai, Takeda Shingen, it was impossible to march through Kai without some kind of consequence (in addition to the mountainous terrain of the central Chubu region). With the sheer size of Imagawa's forces, the Oda's force of about two thousand men seemed to stand no chance. However, it was through a sheer brilliant strategy of Nobunagafs that saved Owari and shot him up to the national stage as a major daimyo.

            The Battle of Okehazama was fought on June 19th, 1560 near the village of Okehazama in Owari Province. Against the advice of most his advisors, Nobunaga rode of into battle against the Imagawa forces. Prior to the battle, it was said that Nobunaga performed the famous Atsumori chant of the famous Noh play of the same name. It signified the impermenence of all life as his most favorite lines recited as translated by A.L. Sandler,

            Man's life is fifty years. In the Universe what is it but dream and illusion? Is there anyone who is born but does not die? (Sandler 17)

            On the way to Okehazama, a fierce thunderstorm rolled in and drenched the Oda and Imagawa forces. With their progress impeded, the Imagawa forces decided to stop and set up camp in a small valley surrounded by hills on both sides, a fatal mistake on Imagawafs part. When the storm abated, the Oda forces surged down on the unsuspecting Imagawa forces and wiped out the larger force, taking Imagawa Yoshimotofs head in the process.

            Nobunagafs victory over the Imagawa at Okehazama was brilliant. Not only did it free Matsudaira Motoyasu from his duty from the Imagawa, but also the Oda Clanfs prominence to the national level began. Noticing a beneficial relationship, the Oda and Matsudaira Clans entered in a long-term alliance in 1561. By 1569 the Matsudaira Clan renamed itself the Tokugawa Clan, with Motoyasu taking the new name Ieyasu (Sandler 36).

The Rise to National Power and Taking Kyoto

            After Okehazama, Nobunaga decided to march on the capital himself, but he needed to take control of Mino Province to the north of him in order to make him have a safer passage to the capital. Mino Province was under the control of Saito Yoshitatsu, Nofs older brother, after killing their father, Saito Dosan, for the leadership of the Saitofs domain in Mino. Nobunaga used this as a pretext not only to gavenge his father-in-lawh, but to liberate Mino from Yoshitatsufs rule and take Mino as a part of the Oda sphere of influence. Even before Okehazama, Nobunaga and Yoshitatsu had some minor skirmishes along the northern part of Owari and the southern part of Mino. In time, Yoshitatsu died and his more incompetent son, Tatsuoki, took rule. It was a stroke of luck for Nobunaga since most of the Saito retainers refused to serve the foolish Tatsuoki. Through Hashiba Hideyoshi, he managed to persuade many of the Saito officers to defect to the Oda forces (including Takenaka Hanbei) and according to legend, constructed a castle in three days to demoralize the Saito forces more. Finally in 1567, he managed to take Mt. Inabayama Castle from Tatsuoki, sent him into exile (where he died), and renamed it Gifu.

            As he was engaged with the Saito Clan, he also engaged in minor military skirmishes with the Azai Clan of northern Oumi Province. In an effort to make another alliance in his quest to Kyoto, he married his younger sister, Oichi no Kata to the Azai Clan leader Azai Nagamasa in 1564, although records indicate they were officially married in 1567 (Lamers 56). Nagamasa and Nobunaga shared a very friendly relationship and with this, Nagamasa gave Nobunaga permission to enter Oumi should he ever want to expand his empire past the Chubu region. With this Nobunaga then realized by having access to Oumi Province without any sort of negative consequence, he could very well pass through there if he wanted to take Kyoto for the Oda Clan, much like his invader Imagawa did months before.

            With Mino under his control and having access to the capital through the Azai Clan, the only thing he needed to do left was to find another pretext to march on Kyoto. This pretext came in the form of disgraced and exiled Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki whom only a few years ago was kicked out of the capital by the Miyoshi Clan of Settsu and Awa Provinces. Seeing that Nobunaga already defeated the Imagawa and the Saito clans, Yoshiaki requested aid from Nobunaga to take back the position of the Shogun. In addition, Nobunaga would be allowed to take Kyoto for his own usage. By having the approval of the glegitimateh Ashikaga Bakufu, Nobunaga and his men marched on Kyoto, expelling the Miyoshi Clan out of the area, and installing Yoshiaki back to the position of Shogun.

            As Nobunaga settled in Kyoto, he also made some moves in the political sphere on the court. Nobunaga devised a policy of "Tenka Fubu" to bring all of Japan under his rule and any that stood in his path would be destroyed. It would be during these times of his political ambition that he would forever change Japanese history.

            In one of his first policies, Nobunaga ordered that the daimyo of Japan come to Kyoto to pay homage to Ashikaga, but the Asakura of Echizen under Asakura Yoshikage refused to recognize either Nobunagafs order or Ashikagafs legitimacy. As a result, Nobunaga ordered the court to deem Asakura an enemy of the Bakufu and lead troops to Echizen to subdue the Asakura. But as Nobunaga, Ieyasu (whom accompanied Nobunaga on this mission), and their men marched into Echizen, Nagamasa attacked Nobunagafs forces from behind at Kanegasaki, forcing Nobunaga to retreat through the efforts of the rear guard lead by Hashiba Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. This treachery from Nagamasa blindsided Nobunaga, but it should have been realized that the Azai and Asakura Clans were bound by alliance since the days of Nagamasa and Yoshikage's grandparents and it was said that Nagamasa warned Nobunaga that if he should ever attack Echizen Province, he needed to consult with him first before taking action. Since Nobunaga failed to do so, Nagamasa was honor bound to aid the Asakura and went to aid his ancestral allies.

The War with the Asakura-Azai Coalition (1570 – 1573)

           In 1570, Nobunaga decided to march on the Azai stronghold of Odani Castle on the banks of Lake Biwa in Oumi. Aided by the Tokugawa Clan, the coalition marched on to Odani, where the Azai and Asakura awaited them at the Ane River (Anegawa). The Battle of Anegawa ended up as a victory for the Oda-Tokugawa alliance due to the ineptitude of the Asakura troops and leadership. The Azai clan held up well against the Oda and nearly pushed them into retreating until the Tokugawa Army intervened and repelled back the Azai after defeating the Asakura Army handily (Turnbull 151).

            Despite the Oda-Tokugawa victory at Anegawa, both forces were severely beaten and Nobunaga had to call off the invasion of Odani Castle. In 1573 however, Nobunaga was successful in besieging Odani and defeated the Asakura Army thanks to the defection of a key Asakura officer, and Yoshikage ended up taking his own life (Samurai Archives). Worried about the safety of his sister Oichi and her three daughters, Nobunaga ordered Nagamasa to at least return Oichi and her daughters back to the Oda Clan before they invaded Odani. Nagamasa obliged, and eventually took his own life as Odani burned. Nobunaga also killed his own nephew and the heir of the Azai Clan, Manpukumaru, via crucifixion to ensure that the Azai Clan would never again be a problem. Oichi demanded that she be sent away from Nobunaga, and ended up remarrying Katsuie, to whom she was originally married to prior to Nobunaga forcing Katsuie to divorce her in order to secure the alliance between the Azai and the Oda. She supposedly never saw Nobunaga again after that.

Dealing with Other Problems

            Other problems also started to beseech the Oda Clan as well in addition to Nagamasafs betrayal. Other problems included the Ikko-Ikki peasant leagues that opposed his expansion, the lords of Western Japan in the form of the Mori Clan helping the Ikko-Ikki, and even the relationship between himself and the Ashikaga Bakufu. As a result, an "Anti-Nobunaga Coalition" was formed in order to remove Nobunaga from Kyoto

            The "Anti-Nobunaga Coalition" consisted primarily of daimyo from the Kinki and Chubu areas. The group included the late Azai and Asakura Clans, the Miyoshi Clan, Saito Tatsuoki, the Ikko-Ikki of Oumi, and Takeda Shingen (Lamers 73). However, with the capitulations of the Azai, Asakura, Saito, and the Miyoshi Clans, the only real grave threat to Nobunagafs reign was that of the Ikko-Ikki that werenft just limited to Oumi Province, but to all of the Kinki region and their allies in the Mori Clan of Aki Province.

            The Ikko-Ikki was essentially a league of peasants that banded together as a form of protection from outside threats, like bandits, highwaymen, and stronger foes (including Nobunaga).  Most of these Ikko-Ikki also took Buddhism as their main form of worship, which Nobunaga held a deep resentment against. Although the reason isnft entirely clear on why he despised Buddhism so much, it is assumed that he blamed a Buddhist priest for failing to save Nobuhide from illness when he died in 1551 because prayer to the gods werenft enough to save him (Lamers 24). Regardless of how his problems with Buddhists started, Nobunaga had to deal with the Ikko-Ikki and their Buddhist Monk allies together at the same time. In addition to this, the Ikko-Ikki of Oumi also aided the Azai and Asakura during the campaigns against them in Oumi. To combat this, Nobunaga attacked and destroyed the Buddhist stronghold of Enryakuji on Mount Hiei on September 30th, 1571 (Lamers 75). According to Jeroen Lamers, a Nobunaga Oda specialist, it was also said that attacking and destroying Hiei also was a manner of "restoring his military credibility and saving his personal honor" .

            In addition to conducting campaigns against major Buddhist temples, he also managed to conduct campaigns against civilians as well who supported his enemies. On classic example of this was his failed campaign against the Saika-Ikki Clan of Kii Prefecture (modern Wakayama Prefecture). According to records, the Saika were lead by the mysterious Saika Magoichi, a nom de guerre for the leader of the Clan, which could be traced to either Suzuki Sadayuu or his sons Suzuki Shigehide and Shigetomo. The Saika-Ikki, especially under Sadayuu, Shigehide, and their men were known for their prowess of using the arquebus rifle and using guerilla tactics against their enemies (Samurai Archives). Again, the Saika aided the Ishiyama Honganji under Honganji Kennyo in modern day Osaka to fight the Oda.

            Finally he had a problem with his Ashikaga partner Yoshiaki. Since Nobunaga was technically the real power behind the Shogunate, Yoshiaki had no sort of legitimate power to begin with. After some time passed, Yoshiaki decided to rid Nobunaga himself. He ended up failing miserably, exiled, and the Ashikaga Shogunate was officially over in 1573 (Mason and Craiger 174).

            With the Ashikaga's now officially out of the way, Nobunaga essentially held the reigns of Japan. Despite still having problems with the Ikko-Ikki, he could concentrate on his final problem to the east of Kyoto, the Takeda Clan.

Engaging with the Takeda Clan under Takeda Katsuyori 

            During the times Nobunaga was in capital, the Takeda Clan was engaged in a series of border disputes with the Tokugawa. On several occasions, the Takeda under Takeda Shingen penetrated through Mikawa and scored a victory over the Tokugawa at the Battle of Mikatagahara in late 1572 (Sandler 48). However, during the Siege of Noda Castle in early 1573, Shingen was not only ill, but was also supposedly sniped by Tokugawa troops that identified him. By May of 1573, Shingen was dead and his son Katsuyori became the next head of the Takeda Clan.

            Like Nobunaga before him, Katsuyori also decided to march on Kyoto in 1575. Again, like Yoshimoto, he decided to march through the Tokaido Region where Nobunaga and Ieyasu's territories were located. As a result of this, Ieyasu asked Nobunaga for reinforcements as Katsuyori approached Nagashino Castle in Mikawa. Initially, Nobunaga was reluctant to do so as he only sent a small relief force to help Ieyasu during the Battle of Mikatagahara back in 1572. Ieyasu was prepared this time around and threatened him that if he should not send proper reinforcements this time around, then Ieyasu would contemplate the idea of joining Katsuyori as an alliance partner (Sandler 60). Because Nobunaga couldnft afford losing his junior partner alliance with the Tokugawa, he sent a much larger force equipped with arquebus rifles.

            The Battle of Nagashino would spell the doom of the Takeda Clan. The Oda-Tokugawa Coalition took up defensive positions behind makeshift walls with holes in them to place the barrel of rifles in them for a steady positioning. As the famous Takeda Calvary came charging in from across the plains, the shots from the rifles would decimate the horsemen and the horses. To ensure that no other rides would get even close to the fortifications, Nobunaga ordered his men to alternate their shots by using two lines of fire, with having one rifleman shooting his rifle as the other rifleman beside him reloads his rifle, thus ensuring a constant barrage of bullets known as "volley fire" (Turnbull 158). By using more than ten thousand riflemen, Nobunaga managed to absolutely annihilate the Takeda Calvary and killed much of the Takeda officer corps, destroying the Takeda Clan to the point where they would never pose a threat again.

The Beginning of the End

            With the Takeda Clan crippled, Nobunaga then decided to focus all of his remaining energy on the annihilation of the Ikko-Ikki and the Ishiyama Honganji in modern day Osaka. Even during the 1570'fs where most of Nobunaga's campaigns took place, he started a siege of the Ishiyama Honganji in 1570 (Mason and Caiger 175). Although Nobunagafs troops were superior in their armaments and number, the Honganji Rebels had the advantage of having a large fortress (the Ishiyama Honganji itself) and being located on an island in Osaka Bay gave it better protection that most of the other opponents that Nobunaga had to contend with. In addition, the Mori Clan of Chugoku under Mori Motonari and his grandson Terumoto also aided the Honganji Rebels by using their navy to funnel troops and supplies to keep the rebels well-equipped and fresh troops for battle.  In response to this, Nobunaga dispatched Hideyoshi to the Western Provinces to combat against the Mori and Ukita Clans. Finally, after 10 years of long hard battling, the Ishiyama Honganji surrendered to Nobunaga. However in a surprising show of compassion, Nobunaga spared the lives of the rebels of the Honganji. (Mason and Criger 175).

            Now with Central Japan under his total control, the Eastern provinces secured by Ieyasu, the alliance he made with the Hojo of Sagami, and the unofficial alliance/correspondence with the Date of Mutsu, Nobunaga began sending out his generals to different parts of Japan to either progress further conquests, start for the preparations of subjugating new areas, or to await further orders. By June of 1582, Hideyoshi was in a stalemate against the Mori. To keep the drive through Mori territory alive, Nobunaga ordered Akechi Mitsuhide, a former retainer of the Saito, Asakura, and Ashikaga clan, to assist with the attack at Takamatsu Castle while he was resting at the temple Honnouji in June 1582.

            This order would seal Nobunaga's fate.

The Honnouji no Hen

            Mitsuhide supposedly bore a lot of resentment toward Nobunaga for reasons we still do not know today. There are a few theories why, but the most commonly accepted theory was that Nobunaga betrayed his promise of safety to a certain Hatano Hideharu of Tamba when Nobunaga had him executed (Samurai Archives). For revenge, Hatano's men had Mitsuhidefs mother or aunt executed. Other theories include personal ambition, a plea for help from his kinsman and daimyo of Tosa on Shikoku Chosokabe Motochika, or he was persuaded by Ieyasu to kill him. Regardless of his reasons, Mitsuhide explained to his men "The enemy is at Honnouji" and attacked the Honnouji complex on June 22nd, 1582.

            Nobunaga was asleep when the Akechi troops arrived at Honnoujifs doorstep. Awoken by his valet Mori Ranmaru (not of the same clan that they were at war with), Nobunaga was informed of Mitsuhidefs treachery and was supposedly surprised by this. After a hard fought battle at Honnouji with the small amount of men that accompanied Nobunaga, including Nou-hime, Nobutada, and Ranmaru, Nobunaga took his own life at Honnouji either by committing seppuku or by dying in the fire that engulfed Honnouji. His body was never found, along with Nou-hime as well.

            The disappearance of Nobunaga's body has also lead to some conspiracy theories as well. One of the most popular theories includes that Nobunaga traveled to Korea and ended up becoming a Korean royal prince, but there is no decisive proof on this ever happening. Another theory states that Nobunaga escaped from Honnouji and committed suicide in another location after realizing that he lost everything.

Post-Nobunaga Events

            After intercepting an Akechi messenger to the Mori and learning of Nobunagafs fate, Hideyoshi made a quick peace with the Mori Clan and immediately made haste back to Kyoto to engage with Mitsuhide. He ended up defeating Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki, to which Mitsuhide also mysteriously disappeared or died as well (We still do not know to this day, yet there are also rumors that Mitsuhide escaped the events after Yamazaki and became a priest known as Nankobo Tenkai. However, the claim for this is disputed as well). Hideyoshi eventually took up Nobunagafs cause of unifying the land in 1590 under the name of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Hideyoshi would go on to declare a disastrous war against the Korean Peninsula and Ming China in the 1590fs, which only weakened his clanfs prominence. Hideyoshi then died in 1598 after a long illness and leaving his young son Hideyori to become the head of the Toyotomi family.

            But it would be Ieyasu whom would go on to unify and pacify the land at the Battle of Sekigahara against the forces that were loyal to the Toyotomi name under Ishida Mitsunari, Shima Sakon, Mori Terumoto, and Otani Yoshitsugu. After taking the position of Shogun in 1603, the Tokugawa Clan under Ieyasu's son Hidetada (through Ieyasu acting as a gretired shogunh) took control of the entire Japanese Islands after defeating the remnants of the Toyotomi Clan, Christian Ronin, and other Tokugawa dissident during the Osaka Campaigns of 1614-1615. Ieyasu died one year later, but the Tokugawa Shogunate under Hidetada and his descendants would rule Japan with relative peace throughout the land until they stepped down from power in 1868.

Final Thoughts about Oda Nobunaga and his Role in Japanese History

            Although much about Nobunaga today is shrouded in mystery due to the modern day media, it can be safely assumed that without Nobunagafs ambition to rule the land, the progress that Hideyoshi and Ieyasufs reigns couldn't have been made. In addition, I also feel that Nobunaga is the most underappreciated of the "Three Unifiers of Japan" outside of Japan because he did not have the same sort of infamy that Hideyoshi got with his invasions of Korea in the 1590fs or Ieyasu's acclaim for the establishment of the longest standing reign of a family that ruled Japan for about two hundred sixty years of relatively peace. However, it would be the domestic affairs that Nobunaga started that were absolutely necessary to bring Japan to its peaceful state during the Tokugawa Bakufu. In conclusion, the Fool of Owari was certainly no fool, but his innovative vision of gTenka Fubuh helped propel Japan to a more peaceful era through a time of bloodshed and warfare.