Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582)

Oda Nobunaga is one of the most famous and influential characters in Japanese history. He is described as being between 5'3" and 5'6" tall, and was a clear speaker with a strong and forceful persona about him. He was considered a not unhandsome man, with a somewhat prominent nose and scarce beard

He came to power as head of his clan at the age of fifteen on his father’s death and made a less than promising start. The young Nobunaga was said to have been a brash and altogether rude fellow whose behaviour often bordered on the disgraceful. Supposedly, he even behaved badly as his father's funeral was being conducted. Concern over the young Nobunaga’s behaviour was such among his clan that a retainer Hirate Kiyohide committed Kanshi (ritual suicide as remonstration) in 1553 as a protest over the young lords attitude. The old samurai had been tasked with helping Nobunaga rule and in classic samurai style first wrote a letter urging Nobunaga to change his ways and then slit his own belly open. His death is said to have had a dramatic effect on Nobunaga. He did mend his ways, and in time built the Seisyu-ji in Owari to honour his loyal retainer. Nobunaga quickly rose in power and became of national prominence in 1560 when he gained an impressive victory over Imagawa Yoshimoto at the battle of Okehazama. 4 years later he defeated the Saito clan and founded his capital at Gifu. Military campaigns against the Asai and Asakura clans followed which included the battle of Anegawa in 1570. He could be ruthless and under his command 30,000 of his troops carried out the massacre of the monasteries on mount Hiei in 1571. Elsewhere his campaigns against the Ikko-Ikki lasted a decade. In 1575 he fought the battle of Nagashimo, which helped change the face of warfare in Japan with its large scale, organised and effective use of firearms. In 1576 he built Azuchi castle and later waged military campaigns with some success in the provinces of Ise and Iga.

Oda Nobunaga’s most hated enemy was the Takeda clan and in 1582 he had the chance to end them as a threat forever. He massed his forces which estimates put between 50,000 and 100,000 men and rallied the support of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Hôjô clan; he attacked Takeda Katsuyori’s lands. With such a huge force against them the Takeda quickly lost faith in Katsuyori and he committed suicide after being abandoned by most of his retainers. Nobunaga gloated over the head of his most despised samurai foe. On 21 May 1582 Nobunaga returned to Azuchi Castle and was greeted by an imperial court that promised him new titles including, if he wanted it, that of shogun. Nobunaga gave no answer, nor would he ever. Already, Akechi Mitsuhide one of Nobunaga’s generals was plotting against him; within two months Nobunaga would be dead, slain by Mitsuhide’s men in a surprise attack on the Honnoji temple in Kyoto.

Oda Nobunaga was a classic authoritarian leader, ruthless and cunning. He has been blamed for wanton murder as in the attack on Mount Hiei and named as a cruel tyrant. Yet in many ways he was a product of his time and every action can be seen as having a motive. Was the slaughter on mount Hiei an effective use of a terror weapon? The contemporary observer Luis Frois recorded that Nobunaga thought himself a deity and this could certainly fit his character. Nobunaga also had close links to the Jesuits but many are sceptical of the idea that he actually converted to Christianity. Certainly Westerners fascinated Nobunaga and he showed a high degree of tolerance for their activities. It is also clear that the Jesuits served two main uses for Nobunaga, firstly as they regarded him as the real ruler of Japan they helped increased his ego and prestige as well as bringing him various western artefacts and items rarely seen in Japan. The possession of such objects would have also added to his prestige. Secondly Nobunaga could use them against his Buddhist enemies if only as a further annoyance to them. It is interesting to contemplate how far Nobunaga would have gone if he had not been assassinated. It is clear he would have taken the title of Shogun and maybe would have gone even further. He changed the face of Japanese history and if he had lived it is certain his impact would have been even greater.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (25 November 2005),Odo Nobunaga, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_nobunaga.html

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