He was a feudal warlord who emerged as the leader of the Oda Clan during the late 16th century. Once he was in power, Oda Nobunaga embarked on an ambitious plan – to once again unite the entire country under the rule of a strong, determined, and ruthless leader – him.
This was at a time when such a feat seemed almost impossible to accomplish. Japan’s authority had been completely decentralized and, although the country had an emperor and a shogun, neither one wielded any real power. Instead, it had been disseminated among the dozens of lords who constantly fought each other for territory gains. The idea that one man would be able to bring them all under his control, through alliances and through force, seemed one destined to fail from the outset.
And yet, it happened. Oda Nobunaga turned into the de facto leader of Japan by becoming the most powerful lord in the country, but he never got to actually rule it as the head of a new central government because he fell victim to betrayal before this could happen. The mission then fell upon two of his most trusted allies who took the plan of Oda Nobunaga to completion, and together, they became known as the Three Great Unifiers of Japan.
Life in Japan
In order to get a better sense of Oda Nobunaga’s reign and his impact on the history of Japan, we should first start with a quick look at the state of the country itself during the 16th century.
Our story takes place during the shogunate era of Japan, a time period that lasted almost 700 years until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. During this age, the Emperor of Japan still existed and was, theoretically, the head of state, but he had no real power; it was more of a ceremonial title. The de facto leader of Japan was a military dictator called a shogun. He exerted his power over all the provinces of the country by appointing governors called shugo to handle the day-to-day operations. Over centuries, this position evolved and was eventually replaced by the daimyo, a much more powerful feudal lord who had actual authority and ownership of his lands, while still retaining certain obligations and responsibilities towards his shogun.
To make matters even more chaotic, Oda Nobunaga lived during the Sengoku Period, also known as the Age of the Warring States, one of the most violent and most unstable periods in Japanese history. At the outset of this period, the shogun had also lost most of the authority that he used to have over his daimyos. This triggered a civil war called the Onin War in 1467, which plunged Japan into a 150-year-long power struggle between the country’s most dominant daimyos. While this resulted in a lot of battles, conspiracies, and civil wars, no single daimyo proved himself strong enough to permanently defeat his enemies and rule over a united Japan once more. Nobody, that is, until Oda Nobunaga.
Oda Nobunaga was born on June 23, 1534, somewhere in Owari Province, most likely the city of Nagoya. He was the eldest son of daimyo Oda Nobuhide and his wife Dota Gozen, although Nobuhide also had an older, illegitimate son named Oda Nobuhiro. Nobuhide was the leader of the Oda Clan, and just to clarify, Japanese names start with the family name first, which, in this case, is Oda.
Speaking of names, when he was a child, Nobunaga was actually called Kippōshi. Naming conventions of feudal Japan were quite complex for the upper classes and they changed their names at least once during their lifetimes, and even up to four or five times. Boys started out with a yōmyō, meaning “youth name,” which they later changed to the imina, or “true name,” when they were teenagers as part of their passing into manhood. Then there was also the hereditary title, the clan name, and the pseudonym, but let’s keep it simple and stick with Oda Nobunaga since that is the name that most people are familiar with.
During his time, Japan was theoretically ruled by the Ashikaga shogunate, although this was just nominally. Even though the Ashikaga had been in power since the mid 14th century, they never really owned that much personal territory. This is not ideal when you want to operate a military dictatorship, so the Ashikaga were always reliant on the loyalty of their daimyos. Over the 235 years that this shogunate stayed in power, the influence and authority of the daimyo lords kept increasing, creating a situation where some clans easily equaled the shogunate in power, even though technically they were still subservient. Obviously, it was only a matter of time until somebody came along with ambitions of conquest to put the strength of the shogunate to the test.
The main reason why it took so long for a daimyo to challenge the shogun was because they were always busy fighting among themselves. During Nobuhide’s reign, the Oda Clan was mainly preoccupied with the neighboring Saitō and Imagawa Clans. Oda Nobuhide was weaker than his opponents, mainly due to internal strife inside his own clan, and was defeated by each one in battle. Because of this, he decided to make peace with the Saitō Clan and its leader, Saitō Dōsan, by marrying Nobunaga to Dōsan’s daughter, Nōhime, better known as Lady Nō. Little is known about her and her ultimate fate is uncertain, but we do know that she and Nobunaga were never close because Lady Nō could not give him any children. After he became daimyo, Nobunaga lavished much more attention on one of his concubines named Kitsuno who gave him his first son, Oda Nobutada.
We are getting ahead of ourselves a bit. At the moment, Nobuhide was still head of the Oda Clan, but he died suddenly in 1551, aged only 40 or 41 years old. There was already some internal fighting going on, but his death created a succession crisis. Nobuhiro, as Nobuhide’s eldest son, wanted to succeed him as head of the clan but, because he was illegitimate, not many supported his claim, and he immediately suffered a defeat against the Imagawa Clan which caused everyone to lose whatever confidence they had in him to begin with.
It would have made the most sense for Nobunaga to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he also lost the support of many of Nobuhide’s retainers for being spoiled and undisciplined. According to legend, he behaved very poorly at his father’s funeral and this lack of respect made many former vassals of Nobuhide prefer that his younger son, Oda Nobuyuki, would succeed him as head of the clan. Then, there was also Nobuhide’s brother, Oda Nobutomo, who made a play for himself as the new clan leader.
In the outside world, the Oda Clan’s newest ally, Saitō Dōsan, faced a threat of his own when his son, Saitō Yoshitatsu, staged a coup, assassinated his own two brothers, and waged war against his father for leadership of the Saitō Clan. And lastly, let’s not forget that the Oda Clan was still at war with the Imagawa Clan led by Imagawa Yoshimoto.
As you can see, the Warring States period of Japan lived up to its name. It was full of treachery, violence, and one battle after another in a constant struggle for power. And somehow, Oda Nobunaga was the one who managed to reach the top. It’s hard to say exactly what were his keys to success, because he was never portrayed as some kind of military genius and, in his youth at least, he was shown to be some undisciplined brat who didn’t even want to assume leadership of the Oda Clan, let alone set himself on a path to conquer all of Japan.
As part of the legend surrounding Nobunaga, it is said that an episode which had a profound effect on him occurred when his former tutor, a samurai named Hirate Masahide, committed seppuku out of shame over how his pupil acted. This was supposedly what prompted Nobunaga to straighten up and take his role seriously, but it is likely only a story.
There is a dearth of contemporary sources on Oda Nobunaga and those that exist have been greatly exaggerated, making it hard to get a sense of the real man behind the legend. Perhaps the best description we have comes courtesy of Portuguese missionary Luis Frois who became a close friend to the lord and even stayed at his residence for a while, decades after Nobunaga became daimyo.
He described Nobunaga as “a tall man, thin, scantily bearded, with a very clear voice, much given to the practice of arms, hardy, fond of the exercise of justice, and of mercy, proud, a lover of honour to the uttermost, very secretive in what he determines, extremely shrewd in the stratagems of war, little if at all subject to the reproof, and counsel of his subordinates, feared, and revered by all to an extreme degree. Does not drink wine. He is a severe master: treats all the Kings and Princes of Japan with scorn, and speaks to them over his shoulder as though to inferiors, and is completely obeyed by all as their absolute lord.”
Lord of Owari
In order for Nobunaga to fulfill his ambitions, he had to assume uncontested control of the Oda Clan, which meant dealing with his younger brother and his uncle. First up was his uncle, Oda Nobutomo, who had taken control of Kiyosu Castle in 1553 and had the support of the Shiba clan of Mutsu Province. Despite this, Nobunaga had no real difficulty in this battle and in 1555, he captured his uncle who was forced to commit suicide. Nobunaga then relocated from Nagoya Castle, making Kiyosu his new base of operations.
Oda Nobuyuki proved more difficult to submit because he had more retainers on his side who still viewed him as the best candidate to take over the clan. The two sides met in battle in 1556 on the Inō Plain. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Nobunaga was victorious, and afterwards even forgave his brother and his retainers, mostly due to the pleading of his mother, Dota Gozen. Even so, Nobuyuki did not stop plotting against his brother and intended to rise up against him once more when he was not expecting it. However, his retainers proved to be a bit more honorable than he gave them credit for. After being defeated, they swore their loyalty to Nobunaga and intended to keep this oath. Nobuyuki informed them of his plans and one of them named Shibata Katsuie told Nobunaga of his brother’s treachery. This time, the leader of the Oda Clan could no longer forgive his brother so he had Nobuyuki assassinated at Kiyosu Castle in 1557.
By this point, Nobunaga was pretty firmly in control of his own clan so it was time to expand his attention to his neighbors. His ally and father-in-law, Saitō Dōsan, died at the Battle of Nagara River in 1556, and his treacherous son Yoshitatsu became the new leader of his clan. Besides wanting to avenge Dōsan, Nobunaga also might have had a rightful claim to his lands as the old man allegedly named his son-in-law as his main beneficiary in his will and the new lord of Mino Province. Nobunaga tried to defeat Yoshitatsu in battle several times, but the latter proved a worthy foe.
Although successful in combat, the leader of the Saitō Clan was taken down by an unexpected foe – an unknown illness killed him in 1561, at just age 35. He was succeeded by his son, Saitō Tatsuoki, who was young, inexperienced, and completely unprepared for the new role that was forced upon him. He managed to hold his own for a few years, but the Saitō Clan soon became irrelevant in the power struggle going on in the country. Finally, Nobunaga defeated him conclusively at the Siege of Inabayama Castle in 1567 and the Saitō Clan disappeared forever.
The Fall of Imagawa
Nobunaga still had one more enemy to deal with – Imagawa Yoshimoto, and he was the most powerful of all, also aided by the Matsudaira Clan of Mikawa Province which was a long-standing enemy of the Oda. In 1560, Yoshimoto assembled a large army of up to 25,000 men to march on the capital of Kyoto, the seat of power of the shogunate. His exact intentions have never been made clear and have only been speculated by later historians. Some believe he only wanted an official sanction from the shogun to legitimize his actions against the Oda Clan, while others thought Yoshimoto may have intended to bring down the shogunate itself.
On the way there, he entered Owari Province which belonged to the Oda Clan and began plundering and capturing castles. Following the Siege of Marune, the Matsudaira Clan managed to seize the strongest of Nobunaga’s fortresses in the region.
Obviously, the Oda Clan had to respond, but Nobunaga’s forces were only a small fraction of Yoshimoto’s. He may have had around 5,000 men at his disposal, but some still had to be left behind to defend the other properties in Owari. A head-on attack would have been suicide, and his advisors wanted to fall back to Kiyosu Castle and prepare for a siege. Nobunaga, however, felt that such a move would only delay their downfall, and that their only chance was a strong and unexpected counterattack which happened at the Battle of Okehazama.
In June, 1560, Yoshimoto and his army had set up camp at the foot of Mount Okehazama. On the day of the attack, his men were busy celebrating their victories with cheers and sake while the daimyo was allegedly entertaining himself by inspecting the heads of his enemies which he had collected. During this time, Nobunaga and around 2,000 of his men managed to sneak their way into the nearby Nakashima fortress undetected. Allegedly, the Oda leader went to great lengths to make his enemies think he was someplace else, even if it meant giving up a significant part of his already-small army. He sent hundreds of soldiers to lay siege on Narumi Castle, while others were stationed near a temple with a lot of flags and banners to exaggerate their numbers in case an enemy scout spotted them. Undoubtedly, he was also assisted by a large storm which hit the camp that day, making it much harder for Yoshimoto’s men to spot their enemy.
When the downpour ended, Nobunaga and his men charged into the unsuspecting camp and attacked. This caused immediate mayhem and confusion and, allegedly, Yoshimoto himself was so taken aback that he initially believed a drunken brawl had erupted between his men. By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late to organize any kind of defense. The soldiers of the Imagawa Clan were fleeing for their lives in every direction, while Yoshimoto himself was attacked and killed by two of Nobunaga’s samurai: Hattori Kazutada and Mori Yoshikatsu.
Oda Nobunaga returned triumphant to Kiyosu Castle, with his vanquished foe’s head proudly on display. This was a major shift in the balance of power. Prior to this battle, there was a real chance that the Owari Province would fall completely in the hands of the Imagawa Clan, while the Oda Clan might have disappeared forever. Now, Oda Nobunaga was one of the most powerful, most respected, and most feared warlords in the country. Many samurai and minor daimyos pledged their allegiance to Nobunaga, including his former enemies, the Matsudaira Clan. They were led by Matsudaira Motoyasu who became one of Nobunaga’s strongest allies. Later on, he would change his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu and would play just as important a role in Japan’s unification as Oda Nobunaga, if not even more crucial. But that’s a story for a different video.
In 1568, a golden opportunity presented itself to Nobunaga. During the previous years, while the Oda daimyo was busy fighting his enemies, the shoguns had their own problems and conspiracies to deal with. When this whole thing started, the shogun of Japan was Ashikaga Yoshiteru, 13th shogun of the Ashikaga dynasty. However, in 1565, he was slain in battle by a group of daimyos who wanted to install his cousin, Ashikaga Yoshihide, as the new shogun, who would basically serve as their puppet. Like we previously mentioned, by this point, the shogunate was a mere shell of what it used to be, and the shogun himself was only as powerful as the daimyo willing to go to war for him.
Not everyone was cool with Yoshihide as the new shogun, and among those people was Yoshiaki, the younger brother of the 13th shogun who was betrayed and killed. He wanted his revenge, and also wanted to take back the shogunate. For that, he needed the support of a strong and respected daimyo and there was no better candidate than Oda Nobunaga.
The leader of the Oda Clan was perfectly happy to assist Yoshiaki with this task because, after all, the new shogun would be his puppet and Nobunaga would be the true leader of the country. In 1568, they marched on Kyoto, with their main obstacle being the Rokkaku Clan of Ōmi Province. Neither the Rokkaku, nor any of the other clans, however, proved able to stop Nobunaga and, by the end of the year, Ashikaga Yoshiaki was the new shogun. However, this alliance only lasted for a few years. Yoshiaki soon grew to resent his position and his dependency on Nobunaga and began plotting against him. He found plenty of co-conspirators as there was certainly no absence of daimyos who also begrudged the ever-increasing power of the Oda Clan. This never led anywhere, however, because when Nobunaga had had enough of Yoshiaki’s intrigues, he easily deposed him in 1573, thus putting an end not only to his reign, but to the entire Ashikaga shogunate.
The Many Wars of Nobunaga
During the years of Yoshiaki’s reign, the shogun was the least of Nobunaga’s worries. Virtually every clan leader who was outside his sphere of loyalty and influence began seeing the Oda Clan as a powerful enemy and, unsurprisingly, many of them wanted to put a stop to Nobunaga’s rise.
It would take far too long to talk about each one, as there were dozens of clans, both big and small, which opposed the Oda leader, so we’ll only focus on the major events and we will start with the Battle of Anegawa in 1570.
This fight was the highpoint of the conflict between Nobunaga and the Asakura Clan of Echizen Province, one of his strongest foes. Earlier that same year, Nobunaga had invaded Echizen and captured one of the Asakura castles. He had the clear advantage, but received word that the nearby Asai Clan had betrayed him and were now coming from behind to trap him. Nobunaga had no choice but to retreat to Kyoto. He had previously allied himself to the Asai Clan through marriage, but their relationship with the Asakura went back decades, so perhaps it was a bit foolish of Nobunaga to expect them to choose him over their much older allies.
Either way, in July, 1570, he launched a new attack, this time on the Asai stronghold of Odani Castle. He met his enemies in battle at Anegawa and scored a significant win, but the castle remained in the hands of the Asai. While this was an important victory that turned the tide in favor of Nobunaga, it was by no means the end of his war with the Asai and Asakura Clans. It wasn’t until 1573 that Nobunaga laid successful sieges on their castles, forcing his enemy clan leaders to commit suicide.
The greatest foe of the Oda Clan during this time was Takeda Shingen, leader of the Takeda Clan of Kai Province, and lord to a famous group of skilled military commanders dubbed the “Twenty-Four Generals.” One of these men, a samurai named Akiyama Nobutomo, showed his value by taking one of Nobunaga’s strongholds, Iwamura Castle, without shedding a drop of blood. Instead, he convinced the lady of the castle, Nobunaga’s aunt, Lady Otsuya, to betray her lord, surrender the castle and accept Nobutomo’s hand in marriage.
After this event, Nobunaga had no choice but to engage Takeda in war. The two sides fought in early 1573 at the Battle of Mikatagahara and, surprise surprise, Takeda won in decisive fashion. For a while, it looked like Takeda Shingen would be the one to finally put an end to Nobunaga’s ambitions, and we would probably be doing a video about him today if fortune did not smile upon Oda Nobunaga once more. After his victory at Mikatagahara, Takeda pressed the attack and invaded one of Nobunaga’s provinces. There, he set up camp…and then he died of an unknown illness.
Afterwards, Takeda’s son Katsuyori became leader of the clan, but he was nowhere near as skilled or experienced as his father. The tide turned firmly in Nobunaga’s favor following his decisive victory at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 and he wiped out the Takeda Clan completely at the 1582 Battle of Tenmokuzan where Katsuyori committed suicide.
Besides the other clans, Oda Nobunaga also had a powerful enemy in the form of Buddhism – warrior monks belonging to a sect called Shin Buddhism, to be exact. Ever since he took power, Nobunaga fought a movement called Ikkō-ikki, which consisted of Buddhist commoners who opposed the rule of daimyos. He burned down their temples and executed their priests, but they remained a thorn in his side until his death.
The Honnō-ji Incident
Despite almost constant threats to Nobunaga’s authority, he was the de facto leader of Japan for over a decade, although we should make it clear that he never actually succeeded in unifying the entire country under his rule. He was on his way to accomplishing this goal, were it not for the treachery he suffered at the hands of one of his samurai called Akechi Mitsuhide.
The reason behind Akechi’s betrayal is uncertain, although common theories claim that it happened because of Mitsuhide’s personal animosity towards his daimyo or because he wanted to restore the emperor to power. One popular story involves one of Nobunaga’s enemies, Hatano Hideharu, leader of the Hatano Clan of Tamba Province. After Mitsuhide defeated him in battle, the samurai brought Hatano before his lord, after having promised him protection in exchange for his surrender. Nobunaga, however, had Hatano executed anyway. Blaming Akechi for this betrayal, Hatano’s retainers kidnapped and murdered his mother as punishment. While we don’t know if this is true or not, it fit with Nobunaga’s reputation of being ruthless towards his enemies and indifferent to the problems of his own men, and it certainly gave Mitsuhide a good reason to turn on his master.
It was June, 1582. Nobunaga had just wiped out the Takeda Clan, one of his most dangerous adversaries. He was feeling confident and he was feeling safe. Most of his army accompanied Tokugawa Ieyasu in another region, while Oda Nobunaga traveled to Kyoto with only a small retinue of servants and court officials. Hearing of this, Akechi Mitsuhide saw his opportunity. He assembled an army of 13,000 men and marched on Kyoto.
They arrived on June 21 and surrounded the Honnō-ji Temple where Nobunaga was located. He only had a few dozen guards with him so there was no chance for victory, nor was there any way to stall while waiting for reinforcements. As the temple around him burned to the ground, Oda Nobunaga retreated into the inner sanctum and committed seppuku, as did his eldest son, Nobutada, later that same day.
His death was a shock to the nation. Akechi got to enjoy the fruits of his betrayal for a whole 13 days before Nobunaga’s other retainers fought him in battle and took their revenge. For this, he became known as the Thirteen Day Shogun, and the unification of Japan was handled by two other men who built upon the violent, bloody, and ruthless groundwork set by Oda Nobunaga.