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Oda Nobunaga

Updated June 22, 2019

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Oda Nobunaga played a major role in the unification of Japan after the Warring States period (Sengoku jidai). He was actually the first of the three great “unifiers” of Japan. The other two were Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu who followed in Nobunaga’s footsteps. At the time of his advent to power, Japan was in a state of disarray.

The Sengoku period began in 1467 with the Ashikaga family in power. With the rise in disputes between powerful military houses, the family soon found themselves powerless to maintain control or peace among the country as war after war broke out. During this period no central government existed and politically, everything had become disorganized. The only thing that seemed to be intact was the culture.

Throughout this confusing period, culture continued to grow and flourish. Underneath all the chaos, two young men, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi rose to political control. This marked the end of the hundred years of conflict and the Azuchi-Momoyama period began in 1568. Oda Nobunaga was not all glamorous and powerful from the start. He was born in 1934 in Nagoya into an obscure family.

His family was a sublineage of a deputy military governor (shugodai) house in Owari Province since about 1400. Though his father Nobuhide was a vassal of the Kiyosu branch of the Oda, he was actually a sengoku daimyo. The Oda were shugodai of Owari’s lower four districts. As the lord of Nagoya Castle, he had the power to compete with daimyo of neighboring provinces. He made peace with Saito Dosan (neighboring daimyo) by marrying Nobunaga to Dosan’s daughter. Nobuhide’s abrupt death from a disease in 1551 left Nobunaga to fill his shoes at the age of seventeen.

At his father’s funeral, he grabbed a handful of incense and threw it at the mortuary tablet. This kind of strange behavior earned him a reputation as a “great idiot” (outsuke) and worried many people of his future. Already, Imagawa Yoshimoto of Mikawa, Totomi, and Suruga had made inroads into Chita District from the East. From the West, Hattori Sakyo, the leader of the powerful Buddhist Jodo Shin Sect (True Pure Land sect) had invaded much of the Ama District. The other two lower districts of Owari were in havoc.

Nobunaga was off to a slow start. He spent most of the 1550’s reclaiming his possessions. In 1555, Nobunaga, with the help of his uncle Oda Nobumitsu, took hold of Kiyosu and murdered the shugodai Oda Hikogoro. He moved his residence to the castle there. In 1557, he was notified that his younger brother Nobuyuki was scheming against him and had him killed.

Nobunaga was a brutal warlord in this sense as well as in others. In 1559, he was successful in degrading the fortress of Iwakura (seat of the shugodai of Owari’s upper four districts) and kicked out its last inhabitant, Oda Nobukata. He now had control over all of Owari and had proved himself against his own relatives pretty well. His next challenge was to ward off his surrounding enemies to defend what he had claimed.

An invasion of 25,000 military troops headed by Imagawa Yoshimoto was in the works. In 1560, at the Battle of Okehazama, Nobunaga and his 2,000 troops surprise-attacked and defeated Yoshimoto. This battle was a critical battle for him. It was his first major strategic victory.

To express his gratitude for this victory, he presented the Nobunaga wall to the Atsuta Shrine. Now with his sights toward the west, he made an alliance with Yoshimoto’s Mikawa vassal Matsudaira Motoyasu (the future Tokugawa Ieyasu) in 1562 to protect himself from further attacks from the east while he attempted to spread his influence westward. To the west was Mino, controlled by Saito Dosan’s grandson Saito Tatsuoki. He repeatedly encroached on Mino and eventually managed to defeat Tatsuoki, but it was not a quick, easy victory as the first one may have felt. He moved his headquarters form Kiyosu to Komaki in the winter of 1564-65 in order to be closer to his operations. Year-long military pressure and the continuous erosion of the Saito vassalage led to Nobunaga’s triumph.

Tatsuoki escaped to Ise. He acquired his second province after Owari. Nobunaga was not known as an “outsuke”, but a great daimyo among the country. He conquered much of northern Ise by the spring of 1568 and placed his second son Nobutaka in succession to the Kambe family (a baronial house dogo, powerful in the area) and similarly set up Nobunaga’s brother Nobukane in the Nagano family. Important people, such as Emperor Ogimachi praised him on his “unparallel designs, ” and Ashikaga Yoshiaki (claimant to the Muromachi shogunate) sought his assistance.

In the fall of 1568, he overpowered armed opposition form Rokkaku Yoshikata and his son Yoshiharu of Omi province, and Miyoshi Triumvirs and finally seized Kyoto in the name of the emperor. He inducted Yoshiaki as shogun in Kyoto. In 1569, he obtained command over Sakai and expanded his influence into Southern Ise where he installed his third son Nobukatsu in place of the conquered Kitabatake Tomonari (the daimyo descendant of the old civil governor kokushi, family of the province) in that family’s succession. Nobunaga always felt he had to have control.

He was offered the position of Yoshiaki’s vice-shogun or kanrei (the Muromachi shogunate’s chief executive officer), but he was determined to be an independent political figure and he did not like the idea of serving directly under someone. As a result, he endeavored to dominate the shogun himself. In January of 1569, Nobunaga issued a set of “Regulations for the Shogunal Residence” (Denchu On’okite) made to be recognized by Yoshiaki. As if that was not enough, in 1570, Nobunaga lay five “Capitulations” (Jojo) which restricted the shogun’s diplomatic activities, confined his right to adjudicate arguments over land proprietorships, and imposed him to acknowledge that “the affairs of the realm have in fact been put in Nobunaga’s hands.” This arrogation of power may have sparked off the opposition that followed him till his death.

A coalition of daimyo against Nobunaga’s ways was formed by 1570. In late spring of 1570, he raided Echizen which was under Asakura Yoshikage’s rule, but quickly retreated home when his younger sister Oichi’s husband Asai Nagamasa (daimyo of Odani in northern Omi) rear-attacked him. In southern Omi, the remaining party of Rokkaku Yoshikata were waiting, disabling Nobunaga to communicate with his home base. In the summer at the battle of Anegawa, Nobunaga teamed up with his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu and managed to defeat Asai and Asakura’s forces. However, within ten weeks, these forces had recovered and proceeded into the outskirts of Kyoto.

During that time, Nobunaga attacked the revived forces of Miyoshi Triumvirs at Noda and Fukushima. He took care of Asai and Asakura’s threat to Kyoto without much trouble. The following year, in retaliation, he burnt down Enryakuji where Asai and Asakura’s troops had taken shelter.Kennyo Kosa (pontiff of Honganji in Osaka) allied himself against Nobunaga and proved to be Nobunaga’s most stubborn enemy. They fought in a disrupted war that lasted form 1570 to 1580. Another troublesome opposition was the powerful Buddhist establishment. All throughout medieval Japan, the monks had an important influence in both the political and military progression of Japan.

Their monasteries at Mount Hiei overlooked Kyoto giving them strategic advantages to launch sudden attacks on the city. Nobunaga felt Mount Hiei was a threat to his future stability. Hieizan was officially titled the “Center for the Protection of the Nation” for in times of trouble, it served as a sanctuary. No one would have imagined that Nobunaga would attack so sacred a place the way he did. In 1571, his troops surrounded Hieizan and set the thickets on the lower slopes on fire. Everyone trying to escape, regardless of gender or age, were killed.

Hiei monks were sought out and killed as well. Nobunaga suspected that Shogun Yoshiaki resented him and took sympathy with the coalition. In 1572, Nobunaga forced Yoshiaki out of rule. Later that year, the powerful eastern daimyo Takeda Shingen joined the allies against Nobunaga and defeated his and Tokugawa Ieyasu’s armies at the Battle of Mikatagahara in Totomi. He later took Noda and these successes lured Yoshiaki to take up arms against Nobunaga. In 1573, Nobunaga easily had Yoshiaki surrender Kyoto and sent him off into exile.

He ended any opposition from Asai and Asakura once and fore all. He appointed domains in northern Omi to Kinoshita Tokichiro (the future Toyotomi Hideyoshi) raising him to the status of daimyo. By the end of that year, Nobunaga managed to either defeat or force into peace the forces left of the coalition. Though hostility arose again the next year, there was nothing that could stop his ambition. He had taken control of Kyoto, the five provinces of the surrounding Kinki area, Owari, Mino, Ise, Omi, Wakasa, and Echizen. His “tenka” (realm) included Mikawa, Totomi, and the domains of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

His captains were operating in the provinces of Tamba, Tango, Harima, and Kaga. Nobunaga was at the climax of his lifetime. In 1576, he had a residential castle built at Azuchi in Omi Province which expressed his personal power and authority. Nobunaga’s troubles however, were not yet completely over. A second coalition involving the exiled Yoshiaki, Kennyo Kosa, Mori Terumoto of Aki province, and Uesugi Kenshin (daimyo of Echigo) had formed.

In 1577, the coalition had surrounded Nobunaga’s realm. Nobunaga’s eldest son Nobutada, his generals Akechi Mitsuhide, Hosokawa Yusai, and Tsuitsui Junkei, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu struggled to fight off the opposing forces. This struggle, especially with the Mori became the major military effort of Nobunaga’s remaining years. During 1578-79, the struggle eased in favor of Nobunaga beginning with the sudden death of his tough enemy Kenshin, followed by problems the Mori were encountering with their supporters. In 1580, the Osaka Honganji finally surrendered.

This was Nobunaga’s greatest triumph. Later that year, the religious monarchy of the Jodo Shin sect disappeared. Medieval order in Japan was passing and a new order was surfacing. The provincial gentry’s forts (shirowari) were all demolished. Land surveys (kenchi) were conducted in several provinces. Nobunaga released some of his oldest vassals for failure to “meet the standards of the Way of the Arms,” and installed or switched some vassals to other provinces.

He was very determined in preserving rigorous control over his domains and their guardians. He was extremely strict when it came to how and how well his vassals managed their assignments. Nobunaga was of coarse an important figure at that time, but how did his power compare with that of the imperial throne? He succeeded in pressing Emperor Ogimachi to resign in favor of Crown Prince Sanehito. In 1574, Nobunaga accepted the status of an imperial noble (kuge) and by late 1557, he had rose to the third highest position of the entire imperial court’s official posts.

This position was that of minister of the right (udaijin). However, a few months later he renounced all of his courtly titles. Was this just another example of his solipsism or did he want yet greater honors. His military conquests were not yet over.

In spring of 1582, he defeated Takeda Katsuyori and obtained Suruga, Kai, Shinano, and Kozuke for his realm. This “splendid exploit ” could not pass untouched. The imperial court sent offers to “make him shogun” or “appoint him to any rank at all.” Prince Sanehito stated that all the details could be discussed when Nobunaga came to Kyoto. However, Nobunaga never made it to the imperial palace. June 1582 was scheduled to be a busy month for Nobunaga.

An army led by his son Kambe Nobutaka convened in Osaka and Sakai ready to invade Shikoku. Another large force was prepared to take on Kongobuji (great monastery of the Buddhist Shingo Sect on Mount Koya) in Kii province. A campaign “to destroy all the notables of Chugoku, and to extend Nobunaga’s control all the way to Kyushu” was coming into effect which Akechi Mitsuhide was ordered to lead and Nobunaga himself was planning to join. On June 19, Nobunaga arrived in Kyoto and stayed at Honnoji (temple of the Buddhist Nichiren sect) with only a small escort of pages.

The next day he threw a tea party for some of the highest imperial nobles. The following morning, June 21, musket fire directed at the temple disrupted the party. It was Akechi and his troops who had turned back on their way to Chugoku declaring, “The enemy is in Honnoji!” (Teki wa Honnoji ni ari) Nobunaga who was not at all prepared for such a surprise attack, especially by one of his great generals, defended himself with his bow and spear until he was wounded in the arm by a spear. Nobunaga made sure the enflamed temple was abandoned and withdrew himself inside. He locked himself in a service room and disemboweled himself.

He came to control a third of Japan before his abrupt death. Without Nobunaga, Japan may not be in the successful state it is in today. He did not directly establish the Shokuho Seiken (Shokuho regime), but he did lay the foundation for the work of his two successors and established the outline for the Shokuho regime. He declared Gifu’s marketplace Kano, a duty-free market (rakuichi) and freed it of monopolistic guild restrictions.

He also proclaimed the abolition of toll barriers (sekisho) which were restricting the free flow of commerce. These are some examples of the kind of commerce encouraged by the Shokuho regime. The provincial land survey, the separation of agricultural and military classes (heino bunri), and a sword hunt (katanagari; confiscation of weapons from the populace) were some identifying features of this regime that Nobunaga had enforced. He also practiced kunigae in which the daimyo of provinces would be removed and assigned to different provinces. This illustrated the governing central authority’s supremacy over the daimyo.

These were the core policies of the Shokuho regime. Another significant contribution Nobunaga accomplished was his welcoming of the Westerners. He encouraged Christianity and received Jesuit missionaries open-heartedly. The may partly be due to the fact that he disliked Buddhists. He also welcomed western technology.

In the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, he took advantage of the 3,000 guns he bought and though the Takeda family were known for their strong cavalry, he managed to defeat them completely. Firearms were imported into Japan since the late fifteenth century. These weapons were unstable and dangerous, but Nobunaga was able to figure out both offensive and defensive tactics with the guns. He also introduced the use of iron-cladding on warships. As a result on Nobunaga’s incorporation of Western influence in Japan, he was the first Japanese leader to appear in Western histories. Nobunaga never completely succeeded in carrying out his ambition to bring all of Japan under a single sword (tenka fubu), but he was a great influence in Japanese history and how Japan is shaped today.

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