Oda Nobunaga

From New World Encyclopedia

Oda Nobunaga
June 23, 1534 – June 21, 1582
Oda Nobunaga
Place of birth Shobata Castle, Owari Province
Place of death Honnō-ji, Kyoto

Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長; original name Kichihoshi, later Saburo) (June 23, 1534 – June 21, 1582) was a major daimyo during the Sengoku period of Japanese history, and one of the three great founders of the united Tokugawa shogunate.

Born the son of an insignificant daimyo in Owari province, near present-day Nagoya, Oda quickly brought the domain under his control. In 1560, he established his reputation by using ingenuity to overcome the much larger forces of a powerful neighboring daimyo, Imagawa Yoshimoto. In 1568, the ousted Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki (足利 義昭), requested Oda’s help to drive the Miyoshi clan out of Kyoto. Oda established Ashikaga Yoshiaki in Kyoto as the fifteenth Ashikaga shogun but used him as a puppet to consolidate his control over central Japan. In 1573 he ended the Ashikaga shogunate. Aided by his general Hideyoshi Toyotomi and his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu, Oda unified all Japan except the extreme north and west. He met an untimely death in 1582 when he was betrayed by one of his generals.

Autocratic and ambitious, Oda was quick to take advantage of opportunity and introduced many innovations both on the battlefield and in the economic and political structure of his domain. He was the first Japanese warlord to incorporate firearms in his battle strategy. He reorganized the economy by establishing castle towns as centers for manufacturing, and many of his ideas were adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate. He also welcomed Christian Jesuit missionaries to Japan, and was a patron of the arts in Japan.

Historical Background

In 1336, Ashikaga Takauji established the Ashikaga shogunate in Kyoto near the imperial court, and attempted to impose the control of his shogunate over a wide area extending outward from the central provinces of Honshu. Between 1467 and 1477, a power struggle among the vassal lords of the shogunate weakened its central governance, and the Ashikaga shogunate became almost as ineffectual as the imperial court, which had lost its political power to provincial warlords during the twelfth century. The period from 1477 until the end of the Ashikaga shogunate in 1573 is known in Japanese history as the Age of Provincial Wars, an era when warlords and their retainers fought one another all over Japan in an effort to establish and expand their territories. Out of this political chaos, a new group of barons, known as daimyos, established and ruled over autonomous regional “states.” Starting in the 1550s, the more powerful of these daimyo began to vie among themselves to unify Japan again under a single government.

Life of Oda Nobunaga

Unification of Owari Province

Oda Nobunaga was born Oda Kichihoshi on June 23, 1534, the son of Oda Nobuhide, an insignificant warlord and a daimyo, with some land holdings in Owari province, near present-day Nagoya, who had amassed wealth and a force of military retainers. In 1549, Oda succeeded to his father’s estate and soon overpowered both his own relatives and the ruling family of the province. In 1551, Oda Nobuhide died unexpectedly, and during his funeral, Oda Nobunaga was said to have acted outrageously, throwing the ceremonial incense at the altar. This act alienated many Oda clan retainers, convincing them of Oda Nobunaga's supposed mediocrity and lack of discipline, and they began to side with his more soft-spoken and well-mannered brother, Nobuyuki. Shamed by Oda Nobunaga's behavior, Hirate Masahide, one of his loyal retainers, committed seppuku (ritual suicide). This was a blow to Oda, who lost a mentor and a valuable retainer, and who later built a temple to honor Hirate.

Though Oda was recognized as Nobuhide's legitimate successor, the Oda clan was divided into many factions, and the entire clan was technically subservient to Owari's true kanrei (feudal lord), Shiba Yoshimune. Oda Nobutomo, an uncle of the teenage Oda Nobunaga and the deputy shugo (守護) of Owari province, manipulated the powerless Shiba as his puppet, and challenged Oda's position as the new master of Owari. When it became clear that Shiba Yoshimune supported Oda and intended to aid him, Nobutomo murdered Shiba.

Oda successfully persuaded another uncle, Oda Nobumitsu, a younger brother of his father Nobuhide, to join his side, and with Nobumitsu's help, Nobutomo was slain in Kiyosu Castle, which later became Oda's residence for over ten years. Taking advantage of Yoshimune’ son, Shiba Yoshikane’s position as the rightful kanrei of Owari, Oda forged an alliance with the Imagawa clan of Suruga province and the Kira clan of Mikawa province, since both clans were also kanrei and would have no excuse to decline. This ensured that the Imagawa would no longer attack Owari's borders.

Even though Nobuyuki and his supporters were still at large, Oda led an army to Mino province to aid Saito Dosan (斎藤 道三), when his son, Saito Yoshitatsu, turned against him. The campaign failed, however; Dosan was killed and Yoshitatsu became the new lord of Mino in 1556.

A few months later, Nobuyuki, with the support of Shibata Katsuie (柴田勝家) and Hayashi Hidesada (林秀貞), rebelled against Oda. The three were defeated at the Battle of Inō, but were pardoned through the intervention of Oda Nobunaga’s and Oda Nobuyuki’s mother. The next year, however, Nobuyuki again plotted a rebellion. Informed of this by Shibata Katsuie, Nobunaga feigned an illness and assassinated Nobuyuki in Kiyosu Castle.

By 1559, Oda had eliminated all opposition within the clan as well as throughout Owari province. He continued to use Shiba Yoshikane as a figurehead to make peace with other daimyo, until it was discovered that Yoshikane had secretly corresponded with the Kira and Imagawa clans, trying to oust Oda and restore the Shiba clan's hegemony. Oda exiled him, and thus voided all alliances made in the name of the Shiba clan.

Battle of Okehazama

In May or June 1560, the powerful neighboring kanrei, Imagawa Yoshimoto (今川義元) gathered an army of 20,000 to 40,000 men and started a march toward Kyoto, under the pretext of going to the aid of the frail Ashikaga shogunate (足利幕府). The Matsudaira clan (松平氏) of Mikawa was also planning to join Yoshimoto's forces. Entering the Oda territories in Owari province, Imagawa first took the border fortresses of Washizu and Marune, before setting up camp in a wooded gorge known as Dengaku-hazama. This was all reported to Oda by his scouts, who then led his own force into position at a temple called Zenshōji, a short distance away, on the other side of the Tōkaidō.

The Oda clan could rally an army of only about three thousand, and these forces would have to be split up to defend various forts at the border. A frontal assault on the Imagawa would have been suicidal, and an attempt to hold out at Zenshōji could only last a few days. Oda decided to launch a surprise attack on the Imagawa camp. In these dire circumstances, Oda is said to have performed his favorite Atsumori dance, before riding off with only a few attendants to pray in a shrine. He then left a small number of men at the temple, displaying a preponderance of military banners, to give the illusion of a much larger force, attract the enemies' attention and distract them from the three thousand warriors moving towards them on a circuitous route through the wooded hills.

The Imagawa army did not expect an attack; the stultifying heat had dulled their senses, and they were celebrating their recent victories with song, dance, and sake. Oda took advantage of a sudden thunderstorm, which arrived just as his men were making their final movements towards the enemy camp. Under cover of the storm, Oda's men poured into the camp from the north, and the Imagawa warriors, taken completely unaware, fled in every direction, leaving their commander's tent undefended. Imagawa Yoshimoto, unaware of what had transpired, heard the noise and emerged from his tent shouting at his men to quit their drunken revelry and return to their posts. By the time he realized, moments later, that the samurai before him were not his own, it was too late. He deflected one samurai's spear thrust, but was beheaded by another.

With their leader and all but two of the senior officers killed, the remaining Imagawa officers defected, and in a short while, the Imagawa faction was destroyed. The victory by Oda was hailed as miraculous, and the Battle of Okehazama (桶狭間の戦い) brought Oda's name to national prominence. It was the first step towards unifying Japan.

One of the officers who betrayed the Imagawa was Matsudaira Motoyasu (later to be known as Tokugawa Ieyasu) from Mikawa province, along with Honda Tadakatsu. Matsudaira formed his own force in Mikawa, and in 1561, an alliance was forged between Oda and Matsudaira Motoyasu (later Tokugawa Ieyasu), despite the decades-old hostility between the two clans.

"Tenka Fubu"

Oda was quick to seize opportunity, and to make use of any promising new invention. He was the first daimyo to organize military units equipped with muskets. He gained control over the agricultural production of the Owari plain, and of the merchant class in the city of Nagoya; with an economic base established, he made plans to advance on the Kinki district surrounding Kyoto.

In 1561, Oda had entered into an alliance with Tokugawa Ieyasu, a powerful feudal lord in the neighboring province of Mikawa. In 1564, Oda married his sister Oichi (お市) to Azai Nagamasa (浅井 長政), a daimyo in northern Omi province, a move which would later help pave the way to Kyoto.

In Mino, Saito Yoshitatsu died suddenly of illness in 1561, and was succeeded by his son, Saito Tatsuoki (斎藤 龍興). Tatsuoki, however, was young and much less effective as a ruler and military strategist than his father and grandfather. Taking advantage of this situation, Oda moved his base to Komaki Castle and started his campaign in Mino.

By convincing Saito retainers to abandon their incompetent and foolish master, Oda weakened the Saito clan significantly, eventually mounting a final attack in 1567. Oda captured Inabayama Castle, and renamed it, as well as the city, Gifu, after the legendary Mount Gi in China (Qi in Mandarin), on which the Zhou dynasty (Chinese: 周朝) had been founded. Oda thus revealed his ambition to conquer the whole of Japan. He also started using a new personal seal that read Tenka Fubu (天下布武), literally "... under the sky," or “cover that which is under the sky with the sword."

Conquest of Kyoto

In 1568, the last Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki (足利 義昭 ), went to Gifu to request that Oda start a campaign toward Kyoto. Yoshiaki’s brother, the thirteenth Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru (足利 義輝), had been murdered, and a puppet shogun, Ashikaga Yoshihide (足利 義栄) had been set up in his place. Oda agreed to Yoshiaki's request, grasping the opportunity to enter Kyoto, and started his campaign. However, the Rokkaku clan in the southern Omi province presented an obstacle. Led by Rokkaku Yoshikata (六角義介), the clan refused to recognize Yoshiaki as shogun and was ready to go to war. Oda launched a rapid attack, driving the Rokkaku clan out of their castles. Within a short time, Oda had reached Kyoto, driven the Miyoshi clan (三好氏) out of the city, and made Yoshiaki the fifteenth shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate.

Oda refused the post of Kanrei (管領), and gradually began to restrict the powers of the shogun, making it clear that he intended to use him as a puppet to justify his future conquests. Ashikaga Yoshiaki did not want to cooperate, and secretly corresponded with various daimyo, forging an anti-Oda alliance. The Asakura clan, in particular, was disdainful of the Oda clan's rising power. Historically, the Oda clan had been subordinate to the Asakura clan. Also, the Asakura clan despised Oda for his success, because Asakura Yoshikage (朝倉義景) had also sworn to protect Ashikaga Yoshiaki, but had been unwilling to march toward Kyoto and therefore missed his own opportunity for conquest.

When Oda launched a campaign into the Asakura clan's domain, Azai Nagamasa, to whom Oda’s sister Oichi was married, broke the alliance with Oda to honor the Azai-Asakura alliance which had existed for generations. With the help of Ikko rebels (Ikkō-ikki, 一向一揆), mobs of peasant farmers, monks, Shinto priests and local nobles who followed the beliefs of the Jōdo Shinshu (True Pure Land) sect of Buddhism and rebelled against samurai rule), the anti-Oda alliance sprang into full force, taking a heavy toll on the Oda clan. Finally, Oda and Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the combined forces of the Asakura and Azai clans at the Battle of Anegawa (姉川の戦い), in 1570.

Oda waged an especially savage war against the Buddhist monks, who maintained close ties with common people. The Enryakuji (延暦寺) monastery on Mount Hiei (比叡山), with its Tendai (天台宗) warrior monks, was a particular thorn in his side, because it was so close to his residence at the old capital city of Kyoto. In 1571, Oda attacked Enryakuji and burned it to the ground, even though it was admired as a significant cultural symbol at the time, killing between 20,000 and 30,000 men, women, and children.

Over the years, Oda consolidated his position and conquered his enemies through brutality. In Nagashima (長島), for example, Oda suffered tremendous losses to the Ikko resistance, including two of his brothers. Oda finally surrounded the enemy complex and set fire to it, killing tens of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children.

Takeda Shingen

One of the strongest forces in the anti-Oda alliance, Takeda Shingen, was a competitor with the Oda-Tokugawa alliance (which had been established primarily to guard against the Takeda clan and its former ally, the Imagawa), despite a generally peaceful relationship and a nominal alliance with Oda. In 1572, at the urging of the Shogun, he decided to make a drive for the capital. Tied down on the Western front, Oda sent only minimal aid to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was defeated by Shingen at the Battle of Mikatagahara (三方ヶ原の戦い) in 1572. However, early in 1573, soon after this victory, Shingen died in camp from an illness, and the Takeda forces retreated. This was a relief for Oda, who could now focus on Ashikaga Yoshiaki, who had openly declared hostility more than once, despite the imperial court's intervention. Oda defeated Yoshiaki's weak forces and sent him into exile, bringing the Ashikaga shogunate to an end that same year.

In 1573, Oda successfully destroyed the Asakura and Azai clans, and Azai Nagamasa committed seppuku (ritual suicide) and sent his wife Oichi back to her brother Oda. After Nagashima's destruction in 1574, the only threat to Oda was the Takeda clan, now led by Takeda Katsuyori (武田勝頼).

At the decisive Battle of Nagashino (長篠の戦い), the combined forces of Oda and Tokugawa Ieyasu devastated the Takeda clan by the strategic use of arquebuses (a primitive firearm). Oda compensated for the arquebus' slow reloading time by arranging the arquebusiers in three lines. After each line fired, it would duck and reload as the next line fired. The bullets were able to pierce the Takeda cavalry armor. This caused chaos among the Takeda cavalry who were pushed back and killed by incoming fire.

Oda continued his expansion, sending Shibata Katsuie (柴田勝家) and Maeda Toshiie (前田 利家) to the north and Akechi Mitsuhide (明智 光秀) to Tamba province.

The Oda clan's siege of Ishiyama Hongan-ji (石山本願寺) in Osaka was making little progress, and the Mori clan of Chūgoku region started sending supplies into the strongly-fortified complex by sea, breaking the naval blockade. In 1577, Oda ordered Hashiba Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) to expand west and confront the Mori clan. In 1578, construction of the Azuchi Castle in Omi province was completed, an impressive and extravagantly decorated castle that astonished European missionaries and ordinary courtiers alike.

Uesugi Kenshin (上杉 謙信), said to be the greatest general of his time since the demise of Takeda Shingen (武田信玄), took part in the second anti-Oda alliance. Following his conquest of neighboring forces, the two sides clashed during the Battle of Tedorigawa, which resulted in a decisive Uesugi victory. It was around this time that Uesugi forces began preparations to march on Kyoto. Due to his previous defeat, Oda Oda feared Uesugi, and according to one account, told the messenger that brought news of Uesugi Kenshin's orders of general mobilization that, if Kenshin did in fact lead his armies to the capital, he would have no choice but to surrender and cede his eastern domains in the hopes of being granted mercy. Uesugi Kenshin, however, died from what was possibly a stroke before moving his armies.

In 1580, Oda forced the Ishiyama Hongan-ji to surrender, and in 1582 destroyed the Takeda clan. Oda's administration was now at the height of its power, and was about to launch invasions into Echigo province and Shikoku.

Betrayal at Honnōji

Grave of Oda Nobunaga at Mount Koya, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan

In 1582, Hashiba Hideyoshi (one of Oda's most trusted retainers) invaded Bitchu province, laying siege to Takamatsu Castle. However, the castle was vital to the Mori clan, and losing it would leave the Mori home domain vulnerable. Led by Mori Terumoto (毛利 輝元), reinforcements arrived outside Takamatsu Castle, and the two sides came to a standstill. Hashiba asked for reinforcements from Oda.

It has often been argued that Hideyoshi had no actual need for reinforcements, but requested them from Oda for other reasons. Some believe that Hideyoshi, envied and hated by fellow generals for his swift rise from a lowly footman to a top general under Oda, wanted to give Oda the credit for taking Takamatsu, so as to humble himself in front of other Oda vassals. Some also speculate that Hashiba or his retainers may have wanted to put Oda in a vulnerable position in the front line, where he might be more easily assassinated. Others believe that Hashiba was the mastermind behind Akechi Mitsuhide's treachery.

Oda ordered Niwa Nagahide (丹羽長秀) to prepare for an invasion of Shikoku, and sent Akechi Mitsuhide to assist Hideyoshi. En route to the Chūgoku region, Oda stayed at Honnō-ji (本能寺), a temple in Kyoto. Since Oda did not expect an attack in the middle of his own firmly-controlled territories, he was guarded by only a few dozen personal servants and bodyguards.

He was surprised by Akechi Mitsuhide, who suddenly had Honnōji surrounded in a coup, forcing Oda to fight him. At the same time, Akechi forces assaulted Nijo Castle. Oda was killed in combat, together with his faithful young page (o-kosho), Mori Ranmaru (森蘭丸), whose loyalty and devotion to his lord were widely praised. Just 11 days after the coup at Honnōji, Mitsuhide himself was killed at the Battle of Yamasaki.

Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa

Oda was an exceptional example of samurai of the Sengoku period, who came within a few years of, and prepared the foundation for his successors to achieve, the reunification of Japan under a new bakufu.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, founders of the Tokugawa shogunate, were loyal followers of Oda. Hideyoshi was raised from being a nameless peasant to the position of one of Oda's top generals. Ieyasu had shared his childhood with Oda, growing up to be his strongest ally. After Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed Oda, Hideyoshi defeated him within a month and made himself the rightful successor of Oda by avenging the treachery of Mitsuhide.

Hideyoshi and Ieyasu were able to use Oda's previous achievements to build a unified Japan. There was a popular saying, "The reunification is a rice cake; Oda made it. Hashiba shaped it. At last, only Ieyasu tastes it" (Hashiba is the family name that Toyotomi Hideyoshi used while he was a follower of Oda).

During the sixteenth century, the distinction between samurai and non-samurai was so obscure that most male adults of any social class (even small farmers) belonged to at least one military organization of their own and served in wars before and during Hideyoshi's rule. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, himself the son of a poor peasant family, became a grand minister in 1586 and created a law codifying samurai status as permanent and heritable, and forbidding non-samurai to carry weapons, effectively ending social mobility in Japan until the dissolution of the Edo shogunate by the Meiji revolutionaries. The authorized samurai families after the seventeenth century were those that chose to follow Oda, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu.


Oda's revolutionary innovations not only changed the way war was fought in Japan, but created one of the most modernized military forces in the world at that time. He developed, implemented, and expanded the use of long pikes, firearms, ironclad ships, and castle fortifications in the massive battles of the period. Oda also instituted a specialized warrior class system and appointed his retainers and subjects to positions based on ability, not on name, rank, or family relationship as in prior periods. Retainers were also assigned land on the basis of rice output, rather than size. Oda's organizational system was later used and extensively developed by his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu in the forming of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo.

Oda's dominance and brilliance was not restricted to the battlefield; he also was a keen businessman. In order to modernize the economy from an agricultural base to one of manufacturing and service, castle towns were developed as the centers of local economies. Roads were built between castle towns within his domain, not only to facilitate trade, but also to quickly move armies over great distances. International trade was expanded beyond China and the Korean Peninsula, and nanban (southern barbarian) trade began with Europe, the Philippines, Siam, and Indonesia.

Oda also instituted rakuichi rakuza policies as a way to stimulate business and the overall economy. These policies abolished and prohibited monopolies and opened once closed and privileged unions, associations, and guilds, which he saw as impediments to commerce. He also developed tax exemptions and established laws to regulate and ease the borrowing of money.

As Oda conquered Japan and amassed a great amount of wealth, he progressively supported the arts, which had always interested him, but which later became a means of displaying his power and prestige. He built extensive gardens and castles which were themselves great works of art. Azuchi Castle, on the shores of Lake Biwa, is said to be the greatest castle in the history of Japan, covered with gold and statues on the outside and decorated on the inside with standing screen, sliding door, wall, and ceiling paintings made by Kano Eitoku. During this time, Oda's tea master Sen no Rikyu established the Japanese tea ceremony, which Oda popularized and used as a setting for discussing politics and business. Modern kabuki theater, which fully developed in the early Edo period, originated at this time.

Oda is also remembered in Japan as one of the most brutal figures of the Sengoku period.

Oda and Westerners

Oda was interested in European culture, which was still very new to Japan. He quickly adopted and developed the use of firearms in battle, and set up facilities to manufacture them. He collected pieces of Western art as well as arms and armor. He is considered to be among the first Japanese people in recorded history to wear European clothes. Perhaps motivated by his dislike of esoteric Buddhism, he also became the patron of the Jesuit missionaries in Japan, although he never converted to Christianity. As a result, he was the first Japanese leader to appear in Western histories.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Lamers, Jeroen Pieter. 2000. Japonius tyrannus: The Japanese warlord, Oda Nobunaga reconsidered. Japonica Neerlandica, vol. 8. Leiden: Hotei Pub. ISBN 9074822223
  • McMullin, Neil. 1984. Buddhism and the state in sixteenth-century Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691072914
  • Samuel, Robert T. 2004. The Samurai: The philosophy of victory. Hod Hasharon, Israel: Astrolog Pub. House. ISBN 9654941252
  • Sengoku Conference, John Whitney Hall, Keiji Nagahara, and Kōzō Yamamura. 1981. Japan before Tokugawa: Political consolidation and economic growth, 1500-1650. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691053081

External links

All links retrieved November 17, 2022.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.