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Oda Nobunaga was the son of a noble in Owari Province. On his father’s death, a struggle broke out for control of the Oda Clan. Through political and military maneuvering, he defeated his relatives and took his father’s place as head of the clan.
So began his rise to greater power. In 1560, he defeated a superior army in battle at Okehazama. It impressed other daimyos, the warlords vying for control of Japan. Through political marriages, Nobunaga increased his control of the surrounding area.
The support of able lieutenants was crucial to his rise. One of his commanders built a fortress base just to capture an opposing fortress in 1564.
Statue of Oda Nobunaga - History
Oda Nobunaga was born in 1534, when Japan was still a fractured country. Small territories were ruled by powerful local warlords who were frequently at war with each other. However, by Nobunaga’s death in 1582, Japan was not far from being completely unified. Unification was completed in the years after Nobunaga’s death by the daimyos Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Oda Nobunaga was born during a time that is known as the “The Warring Period,” or the “Sengoku Jidai.” This era lasted almost 200 years, beginning in the mid 1400s and lasting until the early 1600s. It was a time of social upheaval, perpetual warfare, and intense political intrigue.
Oda Nobuaga was the son of the minor noble and warlord, Oda Nobuhide. He was also an important government official of the Owari Province, a portion of land near the mid-south of the main island of Japan. Owari was divided into eight districts, and Nobuhide ruled only one of them. As a warlord, Nobuhide spent his life in a constant military struggle against neighboring provinces and clans. He died unexpectedly in 1551 when Oda Nobunaga was about 16 years old.
Earlier in life, Nobunaga’s peculiar behavior and conduct often made his peers doubt him. He earned the nickname of “Owari no Outsuke,” which translates to “The Fool of Owari.” He seemed to have contempt for tradition and keeping place in society. Although he was a noble of a powerful house, he associated with commoners, peasants, and the lowly.
At his father’s funeral, Nobunaga acted in a bizarre and inexplicable way. In a society where observing ancient rituals and strict protocols was of extraordinary importance, Nobunaga displayed shocking acts of sacrilege such as throwing ceremonial incense at the altar. His behavior turned some of his retainers against him and caused dispute among the family.
After Nobunaga’s behavior at his father’s funeral, a man who was close to him committed ritual suicide (seppuku). His motivation was the shame and disapproval of Nobunaga’s antics, especially the desecration of his father’s funeral. The man was named Hirate Masahide, a samurai of great honor in service to the Oda clan. The effect of Hirate Masahide’s suicide on Nobunaga was profound and he later built a temple to his memory.
Struggle for Power
Immediately upon the death of his father, Oda Nobunaga was forced to struggle for power within his own sector of Owari, and to retain his rightful place as head of the Oda clan. By birthright, he should have taken over leadership from his father, but his uncle, Oda Nobutomo, claimed the position for himself. Nobunaga was able to overcome this challenge by enlisting aid and support from another uncle. Together, they killed Oda Nobutomo.
Nobunaga also faced a significant challenge from his younger brother, Nobuyuki, who aligned himself with rival powers in other states. The struggle between Nobunaga and his brother persisted for years but, in the end, Nobunaga killed his brother and solidified his control over the Oda Clan.
Major Wars and Challenges
One of Nobunaga’s primary enemies was the Imagawa clan which was based in the Suruga Province and led by Imagawa Yoshimoto.
In 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto raised a massive army of 25,000 men and marched toward Owari. This force was made even larger by reinforcements from the Matsudaira clan. These armies amassed at the border realms of the Oda Clan holdings in Owari. Nobunaga is said to have had a mere 3,000 men at his command to protect his land.
Despite the difference in numbers, Nobunaga decided to attack. This course of action was undertaken against the advice of his advisors, who strongly urged him to remain in a defensive position, or to surrender without a fight. Instead, Nobunaga engineered a surprise attack against the Imagawa soldiers. The Oda forces assembled a number of stuffed dummies and placed them in key position where the Imagawa forces could see them, giving the impression that Nobunaga had significant manpower in the field.
In the meantime, Nobunaga maneuvered his men to attack the Imagawa army where it was encamped in a narrow gorge. After a fierce thunderstorm, the Oda clansmen descended upon their enemy, taking them by surprise and defeating them.
This victory greatly increased Nobunaga’s power and, just as importantly, weakened his enemies. Not only did he defeat the Imagawa, but the further result was a breakdown in alliances among that clan and others who were aligned against Nobunaga.
Next, Nobunaga turned his ambitions of conquest on the Saito clan of Mino province. This effort was made easier when Saito Tatsuoki gained power after the death of his father. Tatsuoki was known to be a weak and ineffectual ruler, and Nobunaga immediately took advantage of the situation. After the famous Siege of Inabayama Castle in 1567, the Saito clan fell, and Nobunaga gained a larger area of Japan.
Oda Nobunaga continued his relentless campaign, swallowing up province after province and pacifying clan after clan, bringing them all under his rule. He adopted the personal seal, “Tenka Fubu,” which means, “All the world by force of arms.”
In addition to military conquest, Nobunaga also relied on his considerable political skills and powers of persuasion to make alliances with other clans as he marched across Japan.
Although Nobunaga died before he saw all of Japan unified, he had secured about half the provinces of Japan under one shogunate. His death is a point of controversy among many historians. Most think he committed seppuku after being betrayed by Akechi Mitsuhide. In some accounts Mitsuhide organized a coup to usurp power from Nobunaga. A force of men was sent to attack Nobunaga when they knew he would not be well protected. Nobunaga took his own life before he could be captured and humiliated. Other accounts say Nobunaga was killed fighting the forces in the coup attempt.
Whatever the cause of death, Oda Nobunaga is certainly one of Japan’s most important historical figures. His drive to unite Japan, although it was bloody, began the process of ending the petty wars of Japanese feudalism. A new era was established and remained in power for two centuries.
4 of the Most Legendary Samurai in History
Japanese history is full of a military tactics, great samurai and shoguns, but these few are exceptional. They are the most famous soldiers and samurai in Japanese history and will always be remembered for their bravery.
Often called the first true samurai. He was the head of the Taira clan and controlled the country during the Heian period. He was a good fighter and also an intelligent general. He as well as his father, Taira no Tadamori, established a position for samurai in the Imperial court. Before that, the samurai were regarded only as mercenaries who did ” dirty” jobs for the aristocrats. He was greatly admired even by his enemies.
He was the first shogun who established his base away from Kyoto in Kamakura. He is often called the first shogun. Although there were others before him who were called shogun, he was the first to control the whole country. He was a great general, wise politician and a good fighter. And the first actual shogun with power.
Yoshitune was Minamoto no Yoritomo’s younger brother and a legendary fighter. There are even tales of how he managed to defeat devils and other mythical creatures. Of course, those are only legends but in a way they show how famous he was. He died at the age of 30 because he went against the orders of his brother Yoritomo. He was forced to commit seppuku for his actions. However, it was rumored that he escaped up north to Hokkaido after faking his death. He is often remembered as a tragic hero in Japanese history.
He was the lord of a small territory called Owari no kuni (today’s Nagoya area), yet he managed to defeat far more powerful lords and get to Kyoto. He was an amazing fighter but more than that, he was a skilled general. Just before he could use his power to unify Japan, he was either forced to commit seppuku or assassinated by his follower Akechi Mitsuhide. He was a curious man who found a tea ceremony to be a calming. He was also open to meeting missionaries from foreign countries, and if he had managed to live little longer, Japan might have opened itself up to foreigners earlier on.
Kiyosu Castle was built between 1394 and 1427,  to guard the strategic junction of the Ise Kaidō with the Nakasendō highways connecting Kyoto with Kamakura. The area was dominated by Shiba Yoshishige, then head of the Shiba clan and the shugo (governor) of Owari, Echizen and Tōtōmi Provinces.
Upon completion of construction, Oda Toshisada was installed in the castle as the shugodai (vice-governor of the province). It is thought to have been intended as a defensive stronghold meant to protect Orizu Castle, the seat of Owari's provincial government until its destruction during battle in 1478 during a civil war between various factions of the Oda clan. After the loss of Orizu Castle, Oda Nobuhide shifted his seat to Kiyosu, bringing prosperity to the city, from which he ruled the four counties of lower Owari Province.
After Nobuhide died in 1551, his son Oda Nobunaga was initially unable to assume control of the entire clan. Nobuhide’s younger brother Oda Nobutomo, with the support of Shiba Yoshimune, took over Kiyosu Castle in 1553.  After Yoshimune revealed to Nobunaga an assassination plot in 1554, Nobutomo had Yoshimune put to death. The next year, Nobunaga retook Kiyosu Castle and captured his uncle, forcing him to commit suicide not long after. Nobunaga also had his younger brother, Oda Nobuyuki assassinated at Kiyosu Castle’s donjon in 1557. Nobunaga sealed his alliance with Tokugawa Ieyasu during treaty negotiations held at Kiyosu Castle in 1562. Nobunaga relocated from Kiyosu to Iwakura Castle in 1563.
After Nobunaga's death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi assembled his retainers at Kiyosu Castle and proclaimed his regency over Nobunaga’s infant grandson, Oda Hidenobu. Kiyosu Castle itself came under the control of Nobunaga’s second son, Oda Nobukatsu, who began large scale renovations in 1586, which included a double ring of moats, as well as a large and a small donjon  It was remodeled by expanding the castle grounds to roughly 1.6 km east to west and 2.8 km north to south. However, Nobukatsu fell afoul of Toyotomi Hideyoshi when he refused orders to change his domains, and was replaced at Kiyosu by Fukushima Masanori in 1595. After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Fukushima Masanori was relocated to Hiroshima Castle, and Kiyosu was reassigned to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s 4th son, Matsudaira Tadayoshi. However, he was in poor health from wounds suffered at Sekigahara, and died in 1607. The castle then passed to Tokugawa Yoshinao. In 1609, by order of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Yoshinao was ordered to relocate the seat of his government to Nagoya Castle. The move occurred from 1609-1613, during which time most of the buildings of Kiyosu Castle were dismantled and relocated to Nagoya. Parts of Nagoya Castle were reconstructed with the use of building materials taken from Kiyosu Castle. The northwest turret of Nagoya Castle's Ofukemaru fortress was called the "Kiyosu Yagura," as it was constructed using parts taken from the Kiyosu Castle donjon.  The original kinshachi (金鯱) from Kiyosu Castle are now preserved in the Buddhist temple of Sōfuku-ji in Gifu City in neighboring Gifu Prefecture, and a former gate of the castle is preserved at the temple of Ryōfuku-ji in Owari-Asahi and some of the decorated sliding doors from the castle are at the temple of Soken-ji in Naka-ku, Nagoya.
By the Meiji period, there was very little remaining of the ruins of Kiyosu Castle aside from earthenworks in the former main bailey. The tracks for the Tōkaidō Main Line railway were laid directly across the site. During the Shōwa period, a municipal park was created around the site of the castle, and a bronze statue of Oda Nobunaga was erected in 1936, portraying a young Nobunaga on the eve of the decisive Battle of Okehazama. In 1989, to mark the centennial of the foundation of the modern town of Kiyosu, a reinforced concrete replica donjon was built. The reconstruction is not accurate, as no plans or illustrations of the original Kiyosu Castle have survived, and the reconstruction is based on the donjon of Inuyama Castle as being representative of the period. Inside the structure is a local history museum, with displays of arms and armor.
Next to the castle is the Kiyosu Armor Factory, which is run by local volunteers. It teaches visitors by armor artisans, and manufactures medieval protective gear.   
Rise to prominence
Nobunaga was the son of Oda Nobuhide, a minor daimyo (feudal lord) in Owari province (now part of Aichi prefecture) in central Honshu. Nobuhide controlled the area around the city of Nagoya and amassed wealth and a respectable force of military retainers. He died in 1551, and Nobunaga succeeded to his father’s estate and soon overpowered his relatives and the principal family of the province. By 1560 he had proved his brilliant strategic gifts by bringing all of Owari under his sway. In that same year he astonished all of Japan by defeating the huge forces of Imagawa Yoshimoto, one of the major daimyo in the provinces bordering Owari. This was his first step toward unification of the country.
Stouthearted, audacious, and autocratic, Nobunaga was quick to seize on any promising new invention. He was the first of the daimyo to organize units equipped with muskets. He also brought under his control the agricultural production of the fertile Owari plain, as well as the rising merchant class of Nagoya in the centre of the plain. With an economic base thus assured, he planned to advance on the Kinki district, the prosperous area to the west that included Kyōto, Japan’s capital and long the centre of power in the country, and the port city of Ōsaka to the southwest of the capital.
In 1562 he entered into an alliance with Tokugawa Ieyasu, a capable daimyo of the neighbouring province of Mikawa (also now in Aichi), and in 1567 Nobunaga, feeling that he had secured his rear flank, moved his base of operations north to the city of Gifu. In the following year he supported Ashikaga Yoshiaki, who hoped to become shogun (military dictator) after the assassination of his elder brother, the former shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru. Nobunaga marched on Kyōto and made Yoshiaki shogun. Soon, however, he fell out with Yoshiaki, and at last in 1573 he deposed him.
That event marked the end of the Ashikaga shogunate, even though it nominally lasted until Yoshiaki’s death in 1597. In 1576, in order to consolidate his hold on the area, Nobunaga built for his headquarters a magnificent castle at Azuchi on the shore of Lake Biwa near the capital. That castle and the district of Kyōto called Momoyama, where another stunning edifice was later built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s protégé and successor, lent their names to the brief but culturally brilliant Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1600) of Japanese history.
Yasuke’s Rise as a Samurai
Yasuke’s origins are shrouded in mystery. He was probably born between 1555 and 1566, but even that is not certain. Historians are not even sure of the origin of his name, though it is most likely the Japanese form of his original name. According to one source, he may have been a Makua from Mozambique. It has also been suggested that he was from Angola or Ethiopia. Additionally, he may have been a European-born slave from Portugal.
Whatever his origin, Yasuke first appears in history in 1579 as an attendant of the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano coming to Japan to visit the missions that had been set up there. Yasuke was most likely a slave. Yasuke’s black skin generated a lot of interest from the native Japanese and many are said to have come to see him at the church which the Jesuits had constructed in Kyoto. This commotion caught the interest of the Daimyo, Lord Nobunaga, who asked for an audience with him.
17th century Japanese painting depicting a group of Portuguese foreigners. ( Public Domain )
Nobunaga apparently was skeptical that Yasuke’s black skin was genuine and had him remove his shirt and rub his skin to show that it wasn’t ink. Nobunaga was nonetheless impressed by Yasuke’s height. He is recorded to have been over 6 feet (182cm) tall in an era where most Japanese men were closer to 5 feet (152 cm) tall. This height would have made him very imposing to most indigenous inhabitants of the islands.
Nobunaga soon made Yasuke his retainer and body guard. He was eventually made a samurai in 1581 and stationed at Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle. After this, Nobunaga would invite Yasuke to dine at his table, an unusual privilege even for a samurai. He was also made the Daimyo’s sword bearer with his own katana. During this time, he learned to speak Japanese fluently as well.
An artist's illustration of Yasuke the samurai. ( Public Domain )
20,000 Men, Women, and Children Slaughtered
With his enemies either destroyed or momentarily subdued and Yoshiaki out of the way, Nobunaga brought the full weight of his vengeance against the Ikko monks of Nagashima. Successfully blockading Nagashima from land and sea, he then reduced the outlying forts, forcing the defenders back and bottling them up within the walls of the compound. In August 1574, in a plan similar to that employed at Mount Hiei, Nobunaga set the compound on fire, slaughtering some 20,000 men, women, and children.
By 1574, Nobunaga’s military strength had increased to the point where he was able to simultaneously conduct three separate campaigns. He pursued his campaign of extermination against the Ikko sect, continued the siege of the Ishiyama fortress of Honganji, and made preparations to finish off the Takeda clan. Moreover, early that year Nobunaga was awarded appointments and promotions from the Imperial court. He was promoted ju sanmi (junior third rank), made a sangi (court advisor), and, with Yoshiaki exiled, was by default the reigning shogun, although he never officially took the title. His response to these acclamations was to resign all his titles in May 1574, giving as his reason unfinished business in the provinces. His power was finally shown its limits, however, when his efforts to force the retirement of Emperor Ogimachi failed.
Nobunaga proved to be a popular ruler among the people if not with their leaders. One of his first acts was to establish a stronger economy and to more fully use the potential wealth around Kyoto. A major move, one greatly appreciated by the peasantry, was the abolition of the tollbooth system. He created open markets and open guilds, allowing anyone to come and sell produce or wares without having to pay a fee or belong to a trade guild. He controlled the minting and exchange of coins and conducted a series of cadastral surveys in several of the provinces to establish the ownership of land for taxation purposes.
He initiated a building program, erecting castles and “castle towns” throughout the provinces. The castles served as bastions of defense, military headquarters and administrative centers and usually became the center for the “castle towns” that grew up around them. Unlike previous castles, the ones built by Nobunaga were much larger, their outer defenses made of stone instead of wood palisades, and usually located on a plain or on a small hill in the plains where they could control travel. From 1576 to 1579, Nobunaga worked on building his new residence, Azuchi Castle, strategically located on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa in Omi Province. Azuchi was reputed to be the finest castle in Japan, with a seven-story keep that rose 37 meters high. Inside, it was more of a palace than a castle, highly ornamented, with gold leaf and elaborate screen paintings.
Nobunaga was also a great lover of culture. He enjoyed collecting exotic items, fine artistic pieces, and unusual curiosities, displaying them as a sign of his affluence and power. He was an avid devotee of the tea ceremony and collected tea items from many countries, often presenting them as rewards to retainers for their loyal service. He loved books and poetry, studying both diligently and often holding tea and poetry gatherings. One of his greatest fascinations was with westerners. Nobunaga met the Jesuit priest Luis Frois in Kyoto in 1569, and allowed him to live in the city and carry on his missionary work there. Nobunaga granted the Jesuits a great deal of freedom in propagating the Christian faith in Japan. He enjoyed the strange and fascinating things they brought from the West and was not opposed to adopting western technology and ideas. Further, he used the spread of Christianity in Japan as a helpful annoyance, if not a direct threat, against the warrior monks he so reviled.
Oda Nobunaga-The warlord who changed Japan!
A reading list for the Oda Nobunaga fan. Most are in Japanese. I plan to post more in the future.
Ota, Gyuuichi. Shinchoo-Koo ki . Translated by Sakakiyama Jun. Tokyo: Kyookusha, 1980. This is a must for any Nobunaga historian. He fought with Nobunaga and he was from Nobunaga's Owari Province. Excellent descriptions of battles. The number one primary source. No exceptions what so ever!
Oze, Hoan. Amane Kangori(ed). Vol. l. Koten Bunko 58 and 59. Nobunaga-ki . Tokyo: Gendai shinchosha, 1981. Another must. He was born in 1564, four years after Okehazama. A good primary source.
Lamers, Jeroen P. Japonius Tyrannus . Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2000. This is a rare English book on Nobunaga. A great book, but lacking in the war department. This is a must, no exceptions!
McMullin, Neil. Buddhism and the State in Sixteenth Century Japan . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. Another book in English. Tells the story of Nobunaga's wars with the Ishiyama Honganji and Mt. Hiei-zan.
Okamoto, Ryouichi, Oda Nobunaga no Subete , 11th ed. Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Ourai sha, 2000.
Okada Masahito. Oda Nobunaga Soogyoo Jiten . Tokyo: Yuusankaku, 1999. A great wealth of information. A must have reference book.
Nishigaya, Yasuhiro. Oda Nobunaga Jiten . Tokyo Do Shuppan, 2000. A great reference book.
Kaku, Kozo. Nobunaga no Nazo . Tokyo: Kodansha, 2000.
Akiyama, Shun. Nobunaga . Shinshosha, 1996. A good book that explains Nobunaga's greatness.
Owada, Tetsuo. Rekishi no Documento: Okehazama no Tatakai . Tokyo: Gakushu Kenkyu Sha, 2000. One of the best books on the Battle of Okehazama. Which took place in 1560. Owada is one of the best historians covering the Sengoku Era.
Kusudo, Yoshiaki. Fuunji Nobunaga to Hiun no Onnatachi . Tokyo: Gakusha Kenkyuu Sha, 2002. A must have! The book explains Nobunaga's women and their history.
Rekishi Gunzo " Gekishin Oda Nobunaga ." Tokyo: Gakken, 2001.
Paterson, Les. Okehazama 1560 . A book in English on the battle of Okehazama. Not in print yet, but canbuy the manuscript.
Akita, Hiroki. Oda Nobunaga to Azuchijo . Osaka: Sogensha, 1990. A great book on Azuchi Castle and the history of Azuchi.
Turnbull, Stephen. Nagashino 1575 . UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2000. Nobunaga's victory in English. Great graphics. Must have.
Kudo, Kensaku. Nobunaga wa honto ni tensai no ka . Tokyo: Soshisha, 2007. A new book that doubts Nobunaga's genius. It is biased, but still a good read.
Elison, Goerge. Smith, Bardell. Warlords, Artits, and Commoners in the Sixteenth Century Japan . Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. A great book on Sengoku culture. Has many pages devoted to Nobunaga. Another must have.
Reunifying Feudal Japan
Over the next two decades, Oda Nobunaga solidified his control over the country by crushing anyone who tried to oppose him.
Part of Nobunaga’s success came from his revolutionary use of firearms. While guns were already a part of Japanese warfare, Nobunaga used them in much larger numbers, making up for their slow reload rate by having his men fire in rows and then duck down to reload while the next row fired.
In addition, Nobunaga broke with tradition by choosing men to lead his army based on ability, not their family connections. One of his greatest generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, started as a lowly peasant soldier. But because of his obvious ability as a warrior and leader, Nobunaga eventually promoted him to become his top lieutenant.
By 1582, Nobunaga was in control of around half of the country and was the most powerful feudal lord around. But needless to say, that left him with a lot of enemies, some of whom were already planning a way to bring him down. That year, Nobunaga received a message from one of his generals requesting reinforcements at the siege of a castle near Okayama.
Nobunaga dispatched troops to the castle while he stopped for a rest in the temple of Honno-ji near Kyoto. When he woke up the next morning, he found that the temple was surrounded by samurai. The warriors were led by one of Nobunaga’s own generals, Akechi Mistuhide. Mitsuhide had long borne a grudge against Nobunaga for several public insults Nobunaga had given him.
Now he saw a chance for revenge and set fire to the temple with Nobunaga inside. With no other options, Nobunaga committed ritual suicide. With Nobunaga dead, Mitsuhide began trying to take control over his former master’s territory.
Yōsai Nobukazu/ Wikimedia Commons Oda Nobunaga committing suicide at Honno-ji.
Meanwhile, Toyotomi Hideyoshi received word of Mitsuhide’s treachery. He quickly led his army toward Kyoto and smashed Mitsuhide’s army in the field. Mitsuhide himself was then killed by a group of masterless samurai as he fled from the battle. With Nobunaga and his son killed at Honno-ji, Hideyoshi now stepped into the vacuum as the top warlord of Japan.
Hideyoshi continued Nobunaga’s mission to unify the country, a task that was eventually completed by his own successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
As a popular Japanese saying goes, “Nobunaga pounds the national rice cake, Hideyoshi kneads it, and in the end, Ieyasu sits down and eats it.” Today, Oda Nobunaga is remembered as the first “great unifier” of Japan, not a bad legacy for a man who people once called a fool.