Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) was the first warlord who tried to unify Japan after the long Warring States Period (戦国時代). There were a lot of civil wars between the late 15th century and the late 16th century. It was an exciting period for Japan because military rulers were replaced one after another. It is called Gekokuji (下剋上) which means “Low conquers High”. Japanese people love this period, and especially the last three decades when the three most powerful military leaders appeared. Many movies and dramas were made highlighting the major figures in this period; Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. This article is about the first one, Oda Nobunaga.
Brief Biography of Oda Nobunaga
Nobunaga was born in 1534 which was in the middle of the Warring States Period that started in 1467. His father was a local warlord in Owari Province (a part of Aichi Prefecture now). Because of his strange behavior during his childhood, he was called ‘Outsuke’ or ‘great fool’. He became the lord of Nagoya Castle when he was still young and fought in a war at the age of 13 for the first time. At the age of 15, he got married to the daughter of Saito Dosan. This was arranged by his father as a sign of reconciliation because they had been enemies before that.
When he was 18 years old, his father died and Nobunaga succeeded him in 1552. Nobunaga had a lot of difficulties because enemies were not only outside. He had to fight with his relatives and brothers as well. His father-in-law Saito Dosan was killed by his son Yoshitatsu who then also became Nobunaga’s enemy.
In 1559, Nobunaga went to Kyoto and met Yoshiteru, the 13th Ashikaga Shogun. There was a menace of a crackdown by the order of the shogunate, and he wanted to see the reality by himself. In 1560, Nobunaga won his first big battle against Imagawa Yoshimoto. At that moment he partnered with Tokugawa Ieyasu who once served Imagawa.
In 1565, Shogun Yoshiteru was killed by the Miyoshi group. His brother Yoshiaki escaped from Yamato (Nara Prefecture) and asked for help from other warlords. Nobunaga answered him and fought against many warlords to prepare Yoshiaki’s proceeding to the capital. He started to use his seal at that time which said Tenka-Fubu (天下布武) meaning “Rule the Empire by force of arms”.
Nobunaga’s Later Life
In 1568, Nobunaga finally brought Yoshiaki to Kyoto and he became the 15th Ashikaga Shogun. Nobunaga built a big palace for him, but at the same time, he made a rule to limit the power of the shogun. That was the time when they no longer got along. He also tried to defeat warlords such as Azai and Asakura who did not obey him. Nobunaga even attacked the sacred temple town on the mountain Hieizan in 1571. He had strong vassals such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Akechi Mitsuhide at that time. He also had strong ties with Tokugawa Ieyasu.
In 1573, he finally expelled Shogun Yoshiaki. This was the end of the Ashikaga Shogunate which lasted more than 230 years. Yoshiaki was protected by one of the strongest warlords in the west, Mori Terumoto. In 1575, the Nagashino War, which was the battle between the Oda-Tokugawa Allies and Takeda occurred. It was the first battle in which guns were used. Guns were brought to Japan by the Portuguese in 1543.
Reconciliation between Nobunaga and the Honganji Temple also happened. He got the title of Gon-Dainagon, a counselor of the first rank in the Imperial Court, and Ukon-Konoe-Taisho, the chief guard of the Imperial Court from Emperor Ogimachi. Later he was nominated as Ju-Nii-Udaijin or second rank minister. He almost seemed to unify the country and was called Tenkabito (天下人) or “Ruler of the Country”. He built a gorgeous castle in Azuchi (Shiga Prefecture).
However, the anti-Nobunaga movement restarted. He had to fight against many enemies using his vassals. In 1582, when he stayed at the Honnoji Temple in Kyoto, he was attacked by the troops of his vassal Akechi Mitsuhide. Nobunaga did not see this coming, and he killed himself in the fire.
It is difficult to understand what was the real personality of Nobunaga. Some say he was a cruel atheist. For example, when he attacked the Hieizan temple town, he ordered to kill everyone even women and children. But on the other hand, he often prayed at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
Some say that he did not listen to the voice of his vassals and that he was short-tempered and cruel. He was betrayed by his loyal vassal Akechi Mitsuhide. Akechi worked very hard for Nobunaga, but Nobunaga often shouted at him and beat him in front of other vassals. But others say that he did he take up the suggestions from his vassals.
He sometimes practiced martial art, but he was especially interested in the tea ceremony and he collected tea utensils.
Many books have been written on the history and biography of the three big warlords who were active at the end of the Warring States Period. Many people like one of them. The following poem expresses their characteristics in very short form:
Oda Nobunaga: “If the cuckoo does not sing, kill it.”
Toyotomi Hideyoshi: “If the cuckoo does not sing, coax it.”
Tokugawa Ieyasu: “If the cuckoo does not sing, wait for it.”
Though Nobunaga is regarded as a cruel man, many people like his leadership and ability to make a hard decision.
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