Oda Nobunaga

One of the most famous lords of the Sengoku Period (1467-1600). I was fascinated by Nobunaga about 6-7 years ago and I read a biography about him written by Jeroen Lamers. Lamers studied at Lieden Uni, Cambridge Uni and did graduate study at Osaka University. He completed his doctorate with this book ‘Japonius Tyrannus’.

I was in Sydney, Australia a little while ago and while shopping with my family I visited an Asian DVD store. As many would know, or not know these DVD stores have just about anything to do with Japanese, Korean or Chinese TV, TV series and movies. Some legal and most not. Browsing the Japanese section I found an old ‘Taiga’ drama about Nobunaga. Taiga dramas are made every year by NHK Japan and is a fictional, although based on historical events and people. It was made in 1992 and has renewed my interest in Nobunaga.

King of Zipangu
King of Zipangu, NHK series about Nobunaga
Portrait of Nobunaga as painted by Giovanni Nicolao

Nobunaga’s history is long and detailed but here I will only give a quick chronological account.

1534 – Nobunaga is born in Nagoya. The legitimate child of Nobuhide, local lord of Owari and Tsuchida Gozen.

1549 – At the ripe old age of 15 Nobunaga’s father dies, nominates Nobunaga to be the head of the clan but also leaves the clan in turmoil. Many Owari retainers do not want Nobunaga as the head and many believe younger brother Nobuyuki should be the head of the Oda clan.

1551 – Nobunaga settles into Kiyosu castle with his wife Nohime. Nohime’s father Saito Dosan, is the lord of Mino province to the north of Owari which secures the northern boarder. But Nobunaga is under fire from Imagawa to the east as well as within his own clan.

Kiyosu Castle just north of Nagoya.

1556 – The northern boarders once again come under threat as Saito Dosan’s son, Yoshitatsu, turns against him for control of Mino province. Nobunaga sends an army to help Dosan but they are defeated. Nobunaga’s older brother conspires with Yoshitatsu to kill Nobunaga but failed. In the same year Nobunaga’s younger brother Nobuyuki along with two senior Owari retainers rebel against Nobunaga. Nobuyuki’s rebellion fails but intervention by Tsuchida Gozen (Nobunaga and Nobuyuki’s mother) the rebels’ lives are spared.

1557 – Nobuyuki once again plans to overthrow Nobunaga. A plan is made to trap Nobuyuki into believing Nobunaga is ill only for Nobunaga to kill Nobuyuki himself.

1560 – Battle of Okehazama. If you were to look at the figures there is no way one would believe Nobunaga could win this battle. An estimated 3,000 Oda warriors versus an Imagawa army of between 25,000 to 40,000. Modern scholars estimate 25,000 to be true. But timing, cunning and a bit of bad weather was all it took for Nobunaga to defeat Yoshimoto and the Imagawa army.

1567 – Nobunaga defeats Saito Tatsuoki and takes control of Mino province to the north. After a few years of weakening the young inexperienced lord after the death of his father Saito Yoshitatsu in 1561 the province was ripe for the picking. Many of Mino’s retainers had already defected to Nobunaga’s side and the only opposition was that of the castles defences. Soon after Nobunaga moves his capital to Inabayama Castle, renames it Gifu Castle in Mino.

Gifu Castle

1568 – Ashikaga Yoshiaki visits Gifu Castle. His brother, the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru was murdered in 1565 and a puppet Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshihide who was only two years of age put into his place by the Miyoshi (Settsu province)and Matsunaga (Yamato province) clans. Yoshiaki fled and had been on the lookout for a strong warlord to help restore his rightful position as Shogun. Nobunaga and his army set out for Kyoto. Just after 3 weeks Yoshiaki was installed as the fifteenth Ashikaga Shogun.
Nobunaga’s quick rise to power alarmed many lords in the surrounding provinces. Particularly Asakura Yoshikage of Echizen province located to the north of Owari and Mino. Experienced and probably more with prestige than Nobunaga such as Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin and Hojo Ujiyasu but they were far removed from the Kyoto area. Nobunaga was able to strengthen his position due his convenient location and ability to move on Kyoto when he wanted due to the relative weak lords between Owari and Kyoto. Takeda, Shingen and Hojo were all bound to their lands by more powerful neighbouring lords that would not allow them move. Not to say Nobunaga had it easy just he was in the right place at the right time.

1570 – Nobunaga suggests to Shogun Yoshiaki that a banquet be held in his honour and that all local lords were to be invited. Although this was not just a friendly banquet, Nobunaga wanted to find if there was any possible opposition by local lords to him moving on Kyoto. One local lord refused the request, Asakura Yoshikage of Echizen province located to the north of Mino. Using his refusal as a pretext for disloyalty to the Shogun Nobunaga began to move against Asakura. The battle of Anegawa was fought in June between combined forces of Asakura/Asai and Oda/Tokugawa in and around the river Ane. The Oda and Tokugawa prevailed killing some 1300 samurai and probably up to 9,000 men including regular foot soldiers. There were a couple of important points associated with this battle. Firstly the new alliance between Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, secondly, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s promotion from a low ranked foot soldier to a group leader and thirdly Nobunaga’s use of teppo (arquebus). Those lords that thought the defeat of the Imagawa was a fluke now knew Oda Nobunaga was a force to be reckoned with.

1571 – Nobunaga marches against the Mt Hiei (Enryakuji) temple complex. Frustrated by continuous opposition by the monks and their support for the anti Oda, Asakura/Asai alliance Nobunaga decides to deal with them destroying the complex and killing all 3,000 monks, women and children who lived on the mountain. In May of the same year Nobunaga also attacked the monks at Nagashino however they were ready for the attack and were deeply fortified. Nobunaga called off the attack after suffering heavy losses.

1572 – Takeda Shingen, one of the most powerful members of the anti Nobunaga alliance began his move in October, although not directly against Nobunaga himself but against the Tokugawa. Shingen wanted to keep the peace with Nobunaga until he had dealt with Tokugawa. The Battle of Mikata-ga-hara took place just north of Hamamatsu city. Nobunaga sent 3,000 troops to help with the Tokugawa defence but they were still outnumbered three to one. The Tokugawa/Nobunaga army was quickly overrun by the cavalry change by the Takeda. With Hamamatsu easily within their reach the Takeda army stopped and withdrew.

Takeda Shingen

1573 – Last battle against the Asai/Asakura alliance. 10,000 troops siege the Asai home castle of Odani. With no chance of retreat Asai and his son committed suicide. Asai rightfully returned Nobunaga’s sister and three nieces. Asakura Yoshikage committed suicide in a temple after fleeing from Oda forces. Nobunaga was aware of the Shogun Yoshiaki plotting with his enemies against him. Later in 1573 Nobunaga decided to do something about it. Nobunaga found Yoshiaki in a fort on the Uji river and laid siege. Yoshiaki pleaded for mercy and Nobunaga accepted but exiled the Shogun. From August 1573 Nobunaga became the defacto Shogun of Japan.

1575 – With a relatively quiet 1574 Nobunaga’s re-entry into Kyoto presented him with a situation very different from that which he had come. While Kyoto had come a long way since the dark days of the Onin War, it was still in relative disrepair, with it’s population having to deal with tollbooths along the roadways and hills infested with bandits. Nobunaga established an economic power base and abolished the tollbooths which enhanced his popularity with the common people and commissioned a series of cadastral surveys in Yamato, Yamashiro, Ômi, and Ise. Nobunaga moved to control the minting and exchange of coins, and brought the merchant city of Sakai near Osaka under his influence, which in time proved to be worth it’s weight in gold. He used his gathering wealth to compensate for the generally poor quality of his common soldiery by buying as many rifles as he could get his hands on-and building his own when the arms factory at Kunimoto in Omi fell into his hands after 1573. The Battle of Nagashino in 1575 was to be to decisive end for the Takeda clan under Shingen’s son Katsuyori.

In only a few short years Nobunaga became the most powerful lord in Japan. In 1560 he struggled to get an army of 3,000 together and by 1575 is was estimated he had a full force of 100,000 troops. Many troops were still fighting against the log war against the monks of the Ikko-Ikki but Nobunaga sent 30,000 troops to help Tokugawa in the Nagashino battle. Importantly Nobunaga sent 3,500 matchlock troops, the most ever assembled in a single battle.

The Oda army consisted mainly of ashigaru (foot soldiers). To get an advantage over his enemy Nobunaga bought thousands of matchlock weapons and equipped up to 3,500 of ashigaru with them

In late June Katsuyori was still laying siege to Nagashino castle when Oda and Tokugawa arrived from the west. Katsuyori had to decide whether to storm the castle, which he wasn’t able to do so far or meet the Oda/Tokugawa on the battlefield. The Oda set up barricades for a line of fire across a 200-300 metre plain just short of a small stream which was to play a huge role in the battle. At dawn on the 28th June the Takeda cavalry made their charge. Katsuyori thought the short 200-300 metre plain would be easy for his horsemen to cross quickly and that the heavy rain from the night before would have made the matchlock guns unusable but this was not the case. The charging cavalry got bogged down in the slushy plain and then, only 50 metres from the Oda/Tokugawa line was the Rengo stream which swelled due to the rain which virtually brought the charge to a walk as the Takeda crossed it. It was a slaughter. It is estimated 8,000 bullets were fired at the charging Takeda over three separate lines of volleys. Oda riflemen waited until the horsemen got to the river which at only 50m was within the lethal range of the matchlocks. The Takeda fought on trying to flank the Oda line but experienced Yari Ashigaru held back each advance and by 1pm all was lost. Up to 10,000 Takeda were dead, 54 out of 97 high ranked samurai were killed and 8 veteran retainers lay dead. On the Oda/Tokugawa side 6,000 men lay dead.

1576 – The fight with the Honganji monks continued. Support for the monks had diminished and there was only the Ishiyama and Nagashino fortresses left. As a note – The Ishiyama fortress is now where Osaka Castle is located. In April and June Nobunaga’s army attacked the fortress but failed with heavy casualties. One of Nobunaga’s generals, Harada Naomasa lost his life and Nobunaga was wounded in the June attack. He changed his strategy and in August attempted to starve the defenders by blocking supply lines. The fortress sat on a river that was easily accessed by sea which were kept open by naval experts, the Mori as requested by ousted Shogun who still opposed Nobunaga. Nobunaga sent out a fleet to try and break the Mori supply line but failed. War with the Mori began.

A computer graphic of the infamous Ishiyama Honganji fortress which gave Nobunaga grief for more than 10 years. It is now where Osaka Castle sits.

1577 – Nobunaga orders Hideyoshi, now one of Nobunaga’s most trusted generals to begin the Oda expansion to the east. The powerful Eastern Lord Uesugi Kenshin prepared for battle against the Oda since learning of the defeat of the Takeda at Nagashino in 1575. The Battle of Tedorigawa took place in October in Kaga province, modern Ishikawa, a client province of the Oda. Kenshin wanted to lure Nobunaga into a fight on his own terms which worked. Kenshin raided Nanao Castle and the pro-Oda lord, Hatakeyama Yoshitaka sent out a message for help, but a coup against Hatakeyama enabled Kenshin to take the castle quite easily. Shibata Katsuie was sent with 18,000 ashigaru and Nobunaga himself led a back up force of 30,000 a short time after. The two armies met on the banks of the Tedori river. Nobunaga ordered Katsuie to march on Nanao castle and the Oda troops crossed the river, but soon after Nobunaga was notified that Kenshin had already taken the castle and quickly withdrew his decision. But Katsuie had most of his troops across the muddy river when Kenshin gave his order to attack. The Oda troops were stuck halfway across the river loaded with cannons and guns and easy defeated by the Uesugi. Nothing further happened and Nobunaga returned home in defeat.

1578 – Despite planning for a move against Oda, in April Uesugi Kenshin dies. Another twist of fate for Nobunaga. The Uesugi clan erupts into civil war and Nobunaga immediately makes plans to influence Uesugi provinces and bring them under his control. Oda scores a victory against the Mori navy in the second Kizugawa guchi battle. 6 heavily armed, iron plated ships took on 600 smaller Mori vessels and beat them. The typical strategy of naval warfare had been to use the ship as a means to launch an attack on enemy ships, however the new Oda ships used cannons and matchlock fire to sink the Mori ships that were easily smashed by cannon fire. Once the Mori learned of this new tactic used by the Oda they did not take long to realise they had no chance and returned home. Siege of Mori retainer’s Miki Castle begins under the command of Hideyoshi. The siege lasts for 2 years and eventually falls.

1580 – Supply lanes which were essential for the Ishiyama fortress had been cut and by August a surrender was accepted by Nobunaga. Surprisingly, unlike all the other Honganji battles all defenders were spared death. These monks later resettled in Kyoto and established the East and West Honganji temples. On the Eastern battlefield Toyotomi Hideyoshi was making inroads in Mori lands. Mori General Ukita Naoie and his army defect allowing Hideyoshi free movement through Harima, Bizen and eventually Tottori to the north.

1581 – Nobunaga takes Takatenjin Castle in March, a Takeda loyal stronghold. The siege lasted for several months and no reinforcements arrived from the Takeda. Nobunaga realised that Takeda Katsuyori was weak and prepared to march on him. Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Akechi Mitsuhide are still making inroads through the Mori lands. Tottori Castle is laid siege to and after 200 days, starvation finally forces the defenders into surrender.

1582 – Battle of Temmokuzan and the final defeat of the Takeda. Nobunaga allied with Tokugawa moved into Shinano and Kai, the Takeda heartlands. Loyalty towards Katsuyori had dwindled, and where he once commanded 20,000 troops he had no than 3,000 troops left. In March the Oda army was soon at Shinpu Castle, Katsuyori set the castle ablaze to cover for his escape with his family and no than 200-300 troops. Denied protection by a Takeda retainer Oyamada they rushed to Tenmokuzan where Katsuyori, his wife and son committed suicide while a handful of retainers held back the Oda. Nobunaga returned to Azuchi Castle in May.

Hideyoshi is in the Mori heartland laying siege to Takamatsu Castle. He had only called on help from Nobunaga a few times in his conquest of Mori lands and fearing the full force of Mori Terumoto asked for reinforcements. Nobunaga sent Akechi Mitsuhide but instead of following these orders turned on Nobunaga who was resting at Honnoji. Nobunaga stayed at Honnoji while his son, Nobutada rested at Nijo and they only had a few court nobles and personal guard with them since they were in Kyoto which was in the middle of their secured lands. Nobunaga woke on 20th June to find that instead of setting off to help Hideyoshi, Mitsuhide had surrounded the temple ready to strike. Nobunaga had no chance. The court nobles and Nobunaga fought off the best they could, the temple was set alight either by Nobunaga or the attackers and Nobunaga committed suicide. Nobutada, who was staying at Nijo was already dead.

Nobunaga's gavesite
Nobunaga’s grave at Mt Koya

Well after a day and a half of writing I’m done. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I have writing it.