Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) was a Japanese warrior chieftain who undertook the first stage in the military unification of Japan in the later 16th century after nearly a hundred years of disorder and disunion.
From the time of its founding in 1336 the shogunate (military government) of the Ashikaga family exercised at least theoretical military overlordship of medieval Japan. The first great leader of the Ashikaga, Takauji, established his headquarters in Kyoto near the imperial court and attempted to impose shogunate control over as wide an area as possible extending outward from the central provinces of Honshu.
But, as the result of a great struggle among the vassal barons of the shogunate from 1467 to 1477, this hegemony was completely destroyed. Although the shogunate was not abolished, it exercised little more central governance during the next century than the imperial court, which had been largely deprived of its ruling powers by the rise of the provincial military in the 12th century.
The period from 1477 until 1573, when the Ashikaga shogunate was formally terminated, is known in Japanese history as the Age of Provincial Wars. During this time the country was riven by internecine civil strife as warrior bands everywhere fought with one another to establish territorial bases. From this condition of seemingly endless conflict, however, a new group of barons—known as daimyos— ultimately carved out regional domains which they maintained and defended as autonomous "states." And from about the 1550s the most important of these daimyos began to compete among themselves to reunify the land.
The Oda family held its domain in the region of present-day Nagoya. Oda Nobunaga after succeeding to the family leadership upon the death of his father in 1551, won his first great battle in 1560 against a powerful neighboring daimyo. As a result of this victory, he was able to make alliances that set the stage for a campaign toward Kyoto, the first goal of all would-be unifiers among the daimyos.
Nobunaga entered Kyoto in 1568 after 8 years of hard fighting. He did so with the approval of the Emperor and in the company of an exiled member of the Ashikaga house whom he installed as shogun. But it was, of course, Nobunaga who was now the holder of central military power in the country, and in 1573 he deposed the Shogun, thus bringing about dissolution of the Ashikaga shogunate after some 2 1/2 centuries of tumultuous existence.
Although Nobunaga had established a new hegemony in the central provinces, he still had many enemies to deal with, including both opposing daimyos and the members of certain militant Buddhist sects. In his campaigns against these enemies Nobunaga acted with a ruthlessness that appears to have been considered extreme even in this harsh age. Accounts reveal that he slaughtered thousands without apparent mercy or remorse. Sir George Sansom, the 20th century's most eminent Western scholar of Japan, labeled Nobunaga a "callous brute" who imposed his control over perhaps a third of Japan "at a terrible cost."
One unusual factor during the period of Nobunaga's rise to power was the presence of Europeans in Japan for the first time. The Portuguese arrived in the early 1540s, and within a few decades both they and the Spanish were actively engaged in trade and Christian missionary work. Later Japanese leaders were to undertake with increasing vigor the suppression of Christianity, and in the 17th century they proscribed it completely. Yet Nobunaga showed no particular animosity toward the foreign religion; indeed, he even gave his approval to the spread of its proselytizing activities. No doubt one of his reasons for doing this was his hatred of those Buddhist sects that actively opposed both him and the Christians.
The introduction of firearms by the Portuguese did not drastically alter methods of warfare in Japan in the late 16th century. This was chiefly because they remained difficult to obtain in any substantial quantity. Nobunaga in particular won some important battles with muskets, but by the end of the century, when these weapons became widely available, unification had been completed and warfare ceased.
It is difficult to assess Nobunaga's qualities as a ruler, because he died before completing the task of military unification and never really had the opportunity to develop permanent governing offices or procedures. He was obliged to concentrate almost entirely on the pursuit of his campaigns of pacification.
Nobunaga did, however, take the time to build a great fortified castle at Azuchi, a short distance to the northeast of Kyoto, in 1576, which he made his headquarters until his death 6 years later. By obliging many of his warrior followers to take up residence near the castle and by providing favorable inducements to commerce, Nobunaga created a flourishing castle town at Azuchi.
One important result of Nobunaga's campaigns was the abolition of barriers of various kinds which had been erected between the daimyo domains, and the consequent freedom of movement and transport that this made possible, at least in the central provinces. Although the new foreign trade with the Europeans was conducted mainly in the westernmost island of Kyushu, most of the luxury goods brought by the Portuguese and Spanish were sent directly to the central provinces, where they were in greatest demand. In the absence of Nobunaga's new hegemony in this region, distribution of these goods would have been immeasurably more difficult.
After establishing control over the central region, Nobunaga launched a major campaign into the western provinces of Honshu, where several powerful and highly independent daimyos had their domains. Nobunaga commissioned two of his leading generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Akechi Mitsuhide, to lead their forces in a two-pronged invasion of the west. It was during the course of this campaign that Hideyoshi first truly demonstrated the strategic and tactical brilliance that was to make him the greatest general in Japanese history.
In 1582 Hideyoshi undertook the siege of a castle at Takamatsu which was held by forces of the Mori family, and he requested reinforcements from Nobunaga. In the course of arranging to meet this request, Nobunaga left Azuchi with a small retinue and went to Kyoto, where he lodged at a temple called the Honnoji. That night Mitsuhide, who had returned from the fighting in the west, attacked the Honnoji. In the struggle that ensued, the temple was set afire and Nobunaga perished in the flames. His body was never found.
Mitsuhide's precise reason for assassinating his over-lord is not known, but one possibility is that he feared he was losing favor with Nobunaga while his chief competitor, Hideyoshi, was rising in Nobunaga's esteem. In any case, Mitsuhide does not appear to have had any carefully considered plan of how to proceed after the assassination. As he hesitated, Hideyoshi concluded a truce with the Takamatsu garrison, marched back at great speed to the central provinces, and destroyed Mitsuhide. In a dramatic sequence of events, Hideyoshi thus emerged as the most powerful figure in the country.
Nobunaga's untimely death at the age of 48 undoubtedly deprived him of a greater place in Japanese history than he actually holds. Hideyoshi and Tokugawa leyasu, who took command of the country after Hideyoshi's death in 1598 and established the great Tokugawa shogunate, are rightfully regarded as the two most significant figures of this heroic age of unification. Yet it should not be forgotten that both were the beneficiaries of the outstanding achievements of Nobunaga.
There is no biography of Nobunaga in English, but good accounts of his rise to power are in Sir George Bailey Sansom, A History of Japan (3 vols., 1958-1963), and John Whitney Hall, Government and Local Power in Japan, 500 to 1700 (1966). Two other works that deal specifically with Europeans and Christianity in Japan but are also excellent general sources for the period of unification are Charles R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 (1951; rev. ed. 1967), and Michael Cooper, ed., They Came to Japan (1965).