Oda Nobunaga

Oda Nobunaga

The first great unifier of Japan built a magnificent castle at Azuchi in Ōmi.

place Area: Omihachiman access_time Published: 2020.12.28

Name in Japanese: 織田信長
Pronunciation: oda nobunaga
Dates: 1534 – 1582

Although Oda Nobunaga wasn’t originally from Ōmi, he spent so much time here and left such a mark that we’ll consider him one of the people of Ōmi. Nobunaga built a huge castle at Azuchi in today’s Ōmihachiman, and the historic time in which he lived is now known as the Azuchi-Momoyama period. He was the first of three samurai warlords from the Nagoya area who worked successively toward the unification of Japan by force. He was followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Nobunaga emerged as head of the powerful Oda clan of Owari Province, the area corresponding to today’s Nagoya. Born into the family of the military governor of Owari, he was known as an unruly youth with a fondness for the matchlock guns that had recently been introduced to Japan. As he matured, Nobunaga proved himself a shrewd operator, prevailing over other claimants in his family to succession as governor by 1559.

Having taken control of his own clan, Nobunaga came into direct conflict with the Imagawa, a rival clan in Owari. In 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto gathered a large army and marched on Kyōto, under the pretext of assisting the Ashikaga Shōgunate based there. Despite being vastly outnumbered, Nobunaga ignored advice and determined to attack Yoshimoto. Using the ruse of straw dummies dressed up as soldiers and by attacking the Imagawa immediately after a rainstorm, Nobunaga succeeded in defeating his rival. Yoshimoto was killed in the rout, and impressed by his victory, other clans swore fealty to the Oda. In 1561, Nobunaga made an alliance with Matsudaira Motoyasu, who later become Tokugawa Ieyasu, and with Takeda Shingen in today’s Yamanashi. He made allies of the Azai in Ōmi by marrying his sister Oichi to Azai Nagamasa. Around this time, Nobunaga came to rely on the services of a talented subordinate, Kinoshita Tōkichirō, who later become Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Next Nobunaga forcibly annexed the area north of Nagoya which he renamed Gifu, and he began using a seal with the motto “Take the world by force”, thereby signalling his intention to rule all Japan. This meant that he had to control the Shōgunate in Kyōto, and to do so, he needed to control Ōmi which stood on the road to Kyōto.

In 1568, Nobunaga resolved to help Ashikaga Yoshiaki oust his rival Ashikaga Yoshihide as shōgun, but the Rokkaku clan in southern Ōmi resisted this initiative. Nobunaga responded by attacking Chōkōji Castle, driving the Rokkaku clan out, while his forces defeated the Rokkaku on the plain and entered Kannonji Castle. Having secured the area around today’s Ōmihachiman, Nobunaga continued to Kyōto and installed Yoshiaki as shōgun.

Soon however, Yoshiaki began plotting with the Asakura clan of Fukui against Nobunaga, who took the offensive against them. This led his allies, the Azai, to side with their old allies the Asakura. Following the Battle of Anegawa and the Siege of Odani Castle in Ōmi, Nobunaga destroyed the Asakura and Azai in 1573.

In addition to rival samurai clans, Nobunaga was resisted by militant Buddhist sects. The Ikkō-ikki, a resistance movement of the Jōdo Shinshū sect, held fortifications at Nagashima in Owari and Ishiyama Hongan-ji in today’s Ōsaka, while Tendai monks opposed him from Enryaku-ji monastery on Mt. Hiei. Nobunaga dealt first with threat on Mt. Hiei. He destroyed Enryaku-ji and his forces killed everyone they could lay hands on, including monks, women, and children. This won Nobunaga a reputation as a murderous villain. Nagashima was harder to defeat. It took three costly sieges before the fortifications fell, and again there was a great slaughter of warrior monks and their followers. It took a total of ten years for Nobunaga to take Ishiyama Hongan-ji. In 1580, its defenders surrendered, and this time were spared.

Nobunaga’s forces continued to fan out, defeating one samurai clan after the other, establishing control of the majority of Honshu. Nobunaga also drove Ashikaga Yoshiaki out of Kyōto, ending the Ashikaga Shōgunate. From 1574, Nobunaga was given a succession of prestigious posts by the Emperor, concluding with the highest rank available, Grand Minister of State in 1578.

In 1576, Nobunaga began building Azuchi Castle in today’s Ōmihachiman, and in 1579, he moved into the completed keep. Then in 1582, on his way from Azuchi to assist Hideyoshi in attacking the Mōri clan in today’s Okayama, Nobunaga stopped at Honnō-ji in Kyōto. There he was attacked by his vassal Akechi Mitsuhide for reasons unknown. Facing certain death, Nobunaga ordered the temple to be set alight and he committed seppuku. Hideyoshi acted quickly to quell Mitsuhide’s revolt, becoming Nobunaga’s successor. Just three years after it was completed the magnificent Azuchi Castle was burnt down.

Oda Nobunaga is an intriguing personality. After an unpromising start, he made himself effective ruler of most of Japan. He was friendly towards Luís Fróis and other Jesuit missionaries, showing great interest in countries outside Japan. A portrait by Kanō Motohide and another painted after his death by Jesuit Giovanni Niccolò suggest a shrewd but impassive man with a distinctive moustache.

Nobunaga was a military innovator, especially in the effective use of guns, both as infantry weapons and wheeled artillery. Since it took a while to reload an arquebus, Nobunaga organized the infantry into three rows, with each firing in rotation. Matchlock-armed foot soldiers, trained to perform large-scale movements, replaced mounted soldiers armed with bow and sword. He gave his infantry uniforms to create an esprit de corps and to establish the Oda brand. He also built iron-plated warships and manufactured guns and ammunition. Azuchi Castle with its stone walls became the template for all the castles of the Edo period. He ruthlessly destroyed enemies who refused his diplomatic overtures, enabling him to bring twenty provinces under his rule.

After taking control of provinces, Nobunaga looked to their governance and economic development. He established open markets, abolished monopolies, and forbade closed unions, associations, and guilds, which led to more vigorous business. He also established policies for civil administration. He undertook construction of roads and bridges, both to improve military logistics and as an encouragement to commerce.

Nobunaga was a patron of culture, building castles which were themselves intended as works of art, housing his collection of Japanese and European treasures. He favoured the Kanō school of painters, whose works graced the partitions inside Azuchi Castle. Nobunaga also created many gardens, and under Sen no Rikyū, the main elements of the tea ceremony were established.

Although his body was never found, he has a grave at Mount Kōya, in Wakayama Prefecture. You can visit the site of Azuchi Castle in Ōmihachiman, and several museums with impressive recreations of the castle as it was in Nobunaga’s time.