Oda Nobunaga

Statue of a young Oda Nobunaga, Gifu Park. Yuya Tamai on Flickr.com

One by one, the monastery's wooden buildings went up in flames.  Bodies piled up in pools of blood.  Desperately the warrior-monks fought on despite the overwhelming odds against them.  There was no point in surrendering; the monks knew that they could expect no mercy from their opponent, the warlord Oda Nobunaga.  Soon, an estimated 20,000 warrior-monks and civilians from the nearby villages lay dead.

  Nobunaga had obliterated the ancient temple complex of Enryaku-ji and all of its inhabitants.

Oda Nobunaga is known for the ruthlessness he displayed in battle and in negotiations.  Although he refused official titles, he used sword and flame to reunify Japan after more than 100 years of chaos in the Sengoku era.  His ruthless nature got Nobunaga killed at the age of 47, however, and it was left to his lieutenants Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu to complete the reunification he had started.

Early Life:

Oda Nobunaga was born to a samurai family in the Owari domain on June 23, 1534.   He was the second son of a military governor.  The boy showed little respect for the traditional separation of the different classes in Japanese society, playing with peasant children; this would continue to a degree into his adulthood, as when he elevated the peasant's son Hideyoshi Toyotomi to be one of his captains.

The young Nobunaga's outlandish behavior peaked when his father died suddenly in 1551 at the age of just 41.  Nobunaga went into a frenzy at the funeral, shouting curses and throwing incense at the altar.  His behavior was so inappropriate that his tutor and mentor, Hirate Masahide, committed seppuku soon after the funeral.

  Nobunaga was chastened by his teacher's suicide, and began to act somewhat more appropriately from that point forward, but he had alienated potential followers.  It would take seven years before Nobunaga was able to command all of the samurai of Owari province.  In order to consolidate his hold on power, Nobunaga had to kill an uncle and a cousin who challenged his authority.

Nobunaga Unifies the Region:

With his clan finally under control, Nobunaga turned his attention to bringing additional territory under his command. By 1560, the 26-year-old had support from the other branches of the Oda, but his army had only about 3,000 men in it.  In May of that year, his domain faced an invasion by the daimyo Imagawa Yoshimoto of Suruga Province, who led an estimated 25,000 soldiers. 

Despite the overwhelming odds against him, Oda Nobunaga decided to march out and attack Imagawa's position as the invaders made camp in a narrow valley.  Nobunaga had straw dummies and banners deployed at some strategic sites along his border, to give the impression that he had thousands more men than he actually did.  His troops then fell on Imagawa's army, which was pinned in a ravine during a sudden rainstorm.

  The attack was so unexpected that Imagawa thought his men were simply drunk; by the time he realized that they were shouting about an attack, Nobunaga's soldiers were running forward to cut off his head. 

The Oda clan's victory in this fight, known as the Battle of Okehazama, was so miraculous that many formerly hostile samurai lords soon allied themselves with Owari.  The most significant would be Matsudaira Motoyasu, later known as Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.  Legend also holds that Okehazama was where Oda Nobunaga first saw the courage and strategic skills of his sandal-bearer, a farmer's son who would become the great Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

With momentum and increasing numbers of other warlords on his side, Nobunaga began the process of reunifying southern and central Honshu, which had been locked in a chaotic, multi-party civil war for a century.

  One by one, neighboring clans fell to the Owari: the Saito, the Rokkaku, the Miyoshi...  Oda Nobunaga rolled across the island, bringing ever larger sections of land under his control.  Soon he controlled well over half of Honshu.

Shogunal Politics:

Oda Nobunaga intervened in the succession lines of the moribund Ashikaga shogunate in 1568 helping to place Ashikaga Yoshiaki on the throne.  However, Yoshiaki soon realized that Nobunaga intended to use him as a puppet.  He secretly contacted various other daimyo and put together an anti-Oda coalition, which included the powerful Asakura and Azai clans.  It was at this point, in 1570, that the Enryaku-ji warrior monks decided to join forces with the Azai-Asakura alliance against Oda. 

It was a hard-fought campaign, but with Tokugawa Ieyasu's assistance, Oda Nobunaga defeated the Azai-Asakura alliance at the Battle of Anegawa on July 30,1570.  Nobunaga's use of firearms instead of samurai swords and spears tipped the balance.  Enryaku-ji's warrior monks faced Nobunaga's wrath the following year, leading to the utter destruction of their temple complex in revenge for their participation at Anegawa.

Despite this set-back, the Ashikaga shogun did not give up his plans to bring down Nobunaga.  He convinced the daimyo Takeda Shingen to attack Nobunaga's ally, the Tokugawa clan, in 1572.  The Takeda had long been allied with the Oda; nevertheless, Shingen launched his assault and defeated the Tokugawa army at the Battle of Mikatagahara.  The Tokugawa managed to stave off total defeat, however, and Shingen died of natural causes in 1573, leading the Takeda to withdraw.

  Nobunaga then attacked the shogun's forces head-on, defeating them, driving Ashikaga Yoshiaki into exile, and ending the Ashikaga shogunate for good.

Oda Nobunaga could have claimed the title of shogun for himself, but he did not.  In 1574, he took the title of kuge, or nobleman, and in 1577 he became the Minister of the Right for the imperial court.  However, he did not aspire to rule the country as shogun.

Defeat and Death:

Nobunaga and his allies continued to expand westward, aiming at the Noto, Kaga, and Etchu Provinces.  However, a wily general called Uesugi Kenshin decisively defeated the Oda forces at the Battle of Tedorigawa in November of 1577.  Nobunaga worried that Uesugi forces would march on Kyoto, the imperial capital, but then Kenshin died suddenly, from either a cerebral hemorrhage or poisoning.  Once again, the sudden death of an opposing general came at just the right time.  Nobunaga restarted his expansion campaign, wiping out the Takeda clan in 1582.

It seemed as if everything was going Oda Nobunaga's way, but he suffered a sudden and permanent reversal of fortune later in 1582.  One of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, staged a coup against Nobunaga in June of that year.  Nobunaga was staying at a temple securely in the center of his territory, so had few soldiers around him.  Mitsuhide, perhaps angered by the death of his mother, who had been given as a hostage in negotiations that Nobunaga later reneged on, surrounded the Honno-ji temple and set fire to it.

  Unable to escape the flames, and with his tiny contingent of troops overwhelmed, Nobunaga committed seppuku.  He was 47 years old.

The ruthless warlord Oda Nobunaga did not live long enough to complete the reunification of Japan.  However, his generals Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu would continue after Oda's death, defeating and co-opting rival daimyo, and finally ending the bloody Sengoku period.