Oda Nobunaga
The Momoyama Period began when Oda Nobunaga, the son of a daimyo, came out of nowhere, won a series of brilliant battlefield victories and deposed the last Ashikaga shogun in 1573. Both a patron of the arts and a seemingly heartless killer, he seized power from the imperial court in Kyoto, outwitted the corrupt aristocracy and dominated Japan. His official seal read: “Rule the empire by force." His most notorious act was burning down 3,000 temples of a renegade Buddhist sect outside Kyoto and slaughtering their monk communities. He seemed to have little remorse over wiping out 20,000 devotees. He was ultimately betrayed by one of his generals, lost control of the government and disemboweled himself in 1582 at Honnoji Temple in Kyoto. After his death there was more civil war.

It has been said Oda was a typical product of his day: ruthless and vindictive. One historian wrote: “Nobunaga was essentially a ruthless tyrant who was extremely self-willed. For example, he had a young serving maid executed because she had not cleaned the room thoroughly--she had left a stem of fruit on the floor. He was also a vindictive man. A man once took a shot at him and was captured many years later. Nobunaga had the man buried in the ground with only his head exposed and had it sawed off. He was particularly merciless in his treatment of Buddhist monks. In addition to the massacre of the monks of Mt. Hiei, he at one time had one hundred and fifty monks who were attached to the Taketa clan’s family temple burned to death merely because they had performed funeral services for the departed chief of the clan. [Source: Mikiso Hane, “Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey,” Boulder: Westview Press, 1991, pp. 114-115.)

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Oda once had the heads of several recently defeated opponents dipped in molten gold. He then sent them as "gifts" to potential rivals. His official motto, inscribed on the seal with which he stamped documents, was tenka fubu "overspreading all under heaven with military might." Oda’s was an age when raw power and ambition were the keys to success. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Websites and Sources: Essay on Epoch of Unification (1568-1615) aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Essay on Kamakura and Muromachi Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on the Momoyama Period Wikipedia ; Hideyoshi Toyotomi bio zenstoriesofthesamurai.com ; Wikipedia article on Battle of Sekigahara Wikipedia ; Samurai Era in Japan: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; Artelino Article on Samurai artelino.com ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town mars.dti.ne.jp ; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com

Oda Nobunaga’s Early Life and Family

Tokugawa, Nobunaga territory

According to Samurai Archives: Nobunaga was born on June 23, 1534, the second son of Oda Nobuhide (1508? -1549), a minor lord whose family once served the Shiba shugo. Nobuhide was a skilled warrior, and spent much of his time fighting the samurai of Mikawa and Mino. He also had enemies closer to home - the Oda were divided into two separate camps, with both vying for control of Owari’s eight districts. Nobuhide’s branch, of which he was one of three elders, was based at Kiyosu castle. The rival branch was to the north, in Iwakura Castle.” [Source: Samurai Archives |~|]

Nobunaga was born Oda Kippôshi and was given the childhood name of Kippo-shi.Through his childhood and early teenage years, he was well known for his bizarre behavior and received the name of Owari no O-utsuke (The Fool of Owari). With the introduction of firearms into Japan, though, he became known for his fondness of Tanegashima firearms. He was also known to run around with other youths from the area, without any regard to his own rank in society. He is said to be born in Nagoya Castle, although this is subject to debate. It is however certain that he was born in the Owari domain. In 1574 Nobunaga accepted the title of Kuge (or Court Noble), then in 1577 he was given the title of Udaijin (or Minister of the Right), the third highest position in the Imperial court. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 1551, Oda Nobuhide died unexpectedly and, during his funeral, Nobunaga was said to have acted outrageously, throwing the ceremonial incense at the altar. This act alienated many Oda retainers, convincing them of Nobunaga’s mediocrity and lack of discipline and they began to side with his more soft-spoken and well-mannered brother, Nobuyuki. Hirate Masahide, who was a valuable mentor and retainer to Nobunaga, was ashamed by Nobunaga’s behavior and performed seppuku. This had a huge effect on Nobunaga, who later built a temple to honor Masahide. +

Many of Nobuhide’s battles were fought in Mikawa, against the Matsudaira and the Imagawa clan. The latter were old and prestigious, rulers of Suruga and overlords of Tôtômi. The Matsudaira were as obscure as the Oda, and while not as splintered politically, they were slowly coming under the Imagawa’s influence. The decade leading up to 1548 was dominated along the Mikawa-Owari border by the contention of three men - Oda Nobuhide, Matsudaira Hirotada, and Imagawa Yoshimoto. [Source: Samurai Archives]

Nobunaga Captures Kyoto

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: In 1560, Nobunaga scored a decisive victory over a powerful rival that outnumbered Oda’s forces approximately ten to one. Oda was victorious because of superior weapons and innovative tactics. He was, for example, the first daimyo to take firearms seriously and employ large numbers of foot soldiers firing muskets in rotating groups. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

In 1568 Nobunaga marched on the capital, gained the support of the emperor, and installed his own candidate in the succession struggle for shogun. Backed by military force, Nobunaga was able to control the bakufu. According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: The last Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiaki, became nervous over Oda’s growing power. In 1573, he fled Kyoto to seek the aid of daimyo opposed to Oda. By this time, however, nobody of any significance took the Ashikaga shoguns seriously, and Yoshiaki lived out the rest of his days in obscurity. Throughout the 1570s, Oda employed skillful diplomacy to get various daimyo to fight each other. In such cases, even the victors would normally be in a weakened state vis-à-vis Oda’s forces. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Nobunaga Battles the Powerful Buddhist Temples

With the decline of the imperial court and the concomitant rise of samurai warriors to power, the vast Buddhist estates and armed monks came to be viewed as threats to the military leaders. The military dictator Oda Nobunaga (1534–82) sacked and burned the Tendai headquarters; he also destroyed the power bases of other Buddhist schools. [Source: Gary Ebersole, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Initial resistance to Nobunaga in the Kyoto region came from the Buddhist monks, rival daimyo, and hostile merchants. Surrounded by his enemies, Nobunaga struck first at the secular power of the militant Tendai Buddhists, destroying their monastic center at Mount Hiei near Kyoto and killing thousands of monks in 1571.

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Buddhist temples were a major political and military presence as early as the late Heian period. Throughout the Muromachi period, some temples or sects of Buddhism became so powerful that they controlled entire provinces and commanded hundreds of thousands of soldiers. After several costly campaigns, Oda managed to subdue the major Buddhist organizations in the Kyoto area. Realizing the potential power of those motivated by religion (as opposed to rational calculations of personal, worldly gain), Oda ordered the slaughter of everyone associated with the defeated temples, children included. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Tristan Dugdale-Pointon wrote in historyofwar.org: “The attack by Oda Nobunga on the fortress monastery of Hiei was such a massacre it is an exaggeration to classify it as a battle. The assault began on 29th September 1571 with the burning of the town of Sakamoto at the base of the mountain; this drove most of the townsfolk to seek refuge in the monastery above. Nobunga made sure that the shrine to the mountain king Kami Sano was destroyed in the attack and then used his 30,000 men to surround the mountain. They then moved slowly upwards killing all they came across and burning any buildings. By nightfall the main temple of Enryakuji was burning and many of the monks had leapt to their deaths in the flames. The following day Nobunga sent his Teppo-Tai to hunt down any survivors. It is possible that 20,000 died in the attack and the result wiped out the warrior monks of the tendai sect. [Source: historyofwar.org, Tristan Dugdale-Pointon, February 26, 2006]

Nobunaga Becomes the Most Powerful Man in Japan


By 1573 he had defeated the local daimyo, banished the last Ashikaga shogun, and ushered in what historians call the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1600), named after the castles of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Having taken these major steps toward reunification, Nobunaga then built a seven-story castle surrounded by stone walls at Azuchi on the shore of Lake Biwa. The castle was able to withstand firearms and became a symbol of the age of reunification. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Nobunaga’s power increased as he enfeoffed the conquered daimyo, broke down the barriers to free commerce, and drew the humbled religious communities and merchants into his military structure. He secured control of about one-third of the provinces through the use of large-scale warfare, and he institutionalized administrative practices, such as systematic village organization, tax collection, and standardized measurements. At the same time, other daimyo, both those that Nobunaga had conquered and those beyond his control, built their own heavily fortified castles and modernized their garrisons. *

By 1581, after defeating a major daimyo rival and another powerful Buddhist organization, Oda had emerged as the most powerful person in Japan. Large areas of Japan still remained outside his control, but the momentum was clearly in his favor. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Oda Nobunaga as a Ruler

According to Samurai Archives: “In early 1574, Nobunaga was promoted to the junior third rank (ju sanmi) and made a court advisor (sangi); court appointments would continue to be lavished on a near-yearly basis, perhaps in the hopes of placating him. By February 1578 the court had made him Daijo daijin, or Grand Minister of State - the highest post that could be given. Yet if the court had hoped that exalted titles would woo Nobunaga, they were to be mistaken. In May of 1574 Nobunaga resigned his titles, pleading unfinished work in the provinces, and stepped up a campaign to force Emperor Ogimachi into retirement. That Nobunaga did not succeed in having Ogimachi removed goes some way towards demonstrating that there was a limit to his power - although what exactly acted as a check on his ambitions is a matter of scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that Nobunaga was in every other way tantamount to a shogun in the lands he controlled. That he did not actually take the title of shogun is generally explained by his not being of Minamoto blood, which is misleading and possibly quite off the mark. [Source: Samurai Archives |~|]

“Nobunaga’s entry into Kyôto presented him with a situation very different from that which he had come. While Kyôto had come a long way since the dark days of the Ônin War, it was still in relative disrepair, with it’s population subject to myriad tollbooths along the roadways and hills infested with bandits. Nobunaga’s responsibilities increased exponentially, both militarily and politically after 1568. His first order of business, and that arguably most important to him, was to establish an economic power base and maximize the potential wealth of the Kinai. Among his many measures were included the abolition of tollbooths (perhaps partially as a PR move on his part, as the action was quite popular with the common people) and 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 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 (Omi) fell into his hands after 1573. |~|

While in certain ways a sengoku Daimyô on a grand scale, Nobunaga was a tireless ruler and worked for years to create a military and economic super-state within the slowly widening borders of his realm. The success of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and by extension Tokugawa Ieyasu rests largely on the shoulders of the work Oda Nobunaga did before 1582. In 1578 Azuchi Castle was completed in Ômi province and stood as the most impressive castle ever built in Japan. Lavishly decorated and immensely expensive, Azuchi was meant not so much for defense but as a way of clearly illustrating his power to the nation. He went to great lengths to draw merchants and citizens to Azuchi’s accompanying town, and probably saw it becoming the long-term capital of the Oda hegemony - in whatever form it took. |~|

Oda Nobunaga, Culture, Christianity and Loyalty

According to Samurai Archives: “Culturally Nobunaga was also active. An avid student of the tea ceremony and poetry (if not an exceptional poet) he collected tea items from near and far, and held tea and poetry gatherings with such learned and cultured men as Hosokawa Fujitaka, Imai Sokyu, and Sen no Rikyu. In the same vein he encouraged the giving of tea items and other objects as a reward for exceptional service, as opposed to the traditional grant of land, and the reward of a tea item from Nobunaga’s hand was felt to be an exceptional honor (regardless of whether the receiver was much of a tea man himself!). |~|

Oda Nobunaga banner and battle standard

“Westerners fascinated Nobunaga and he showed a high degree of tolerance for their activities, to the extent that he is sometimes referred to mistakenly as a Christian. The chances that Nobunaga planned to convert are probably nonexistent - rather, the Jesuits fulfilled two uses for Nobunaga: 1) they provided him with some of the novelties and artifacts he habitually collected and probably added to his sense of power (the Jesuits tended to see Nobunaga as the real ruler of Japan - a distinction he could not have but enjoyed) and, 2), they acted as a foil to his Buddhist enemies, if only to increase their frustration. Much has always been made in western works of Nobunaga’s relationship with the Jesuits - it is possible, however, that he saw them as merely useful and somewhat amusing diversions. |~|

“Far more important to Nobunaga were his own retainers, and yet he does not come across as a particularly trustworthy leader. Few if any samurai entered his inner circle of top retainers after 1568. Even those top men he did employ were moved about from place to place, and often treated with at least some modicum of coldness. In 1580, after the fall of the Ishiyama Honganji, Nobunaga summarily dismissed and allowed to die in exile one of his oldest retainers - Sakuma Nobumôri, for alleged incompetence of command. He is recorded as teasing Hideyoshi with the nickname ‘saru', or Monkey, and deriding Akechi Mitsuhide for his poetic ability (actually considered rather good) and his hairline. |~|

Oda Nobunaga’s Effort to Unify Japan

In 1577 Nobunaga dispatched his chief general, Hideyoshi, to conquer twelve western Honshu provinces in an effort to realize Nobunaga’s dream of taking control of all of what was then Japan. The war was a protracted affair. Nobunaga had three primary enemies: the Honganji, the Uesugi and the Mori clans. [Source: Samurai Archives |~|]


“1) The Honganji. The Ishiyama Honganji stronghold proved no less formidable then before Nagashino. In June 1576 he dispatched Harada Naomasa with an army to attack the Honganji-an effort that ended in failure and the loss of Harada’s life. Nobunaga responded by personally leading an attack that succeeded in taking quite a few heads but saw Nobunaga wounded in the course of the fighting. Realizing that a direct assault on the heavily defended fortress would prove extraordinarily costly even if it succeded at all, Nobunaga decided to change tactics. He began reducing the Ishiyama Honganji’s satellites, crushing the Saiga monto of Kii and weakening the warrior monks of the Negoroji. The Honganji itself held firm, drawing support from two powerful clans sympathetic to its cause - the Uesugi of Echigo and the Môri of Western Honshu. |~|

“2) The Uesugi. Uesugi Kenshin and Oda Nobunaga had maintained a wary relationship into 1576. For a time, Kenshin had cooperated with Nobunaga against the Takeda, but lost interest in their alliance after Nagashino. Two factors contributed to the rising tension between the two clans. Firstly, Nobunaga was gradually expanding deeper into the Hokuriku, a region Kenshin considered within the Uesugi sphere of influence. Secondly, ground was broken on Azuchi Castle in the spring of 1576, and Nobunaga made little secret that he planned to make his new capital the grandest castle ever built. Kenshin took this, or at least chose to take this, as a threatening gesture. Kenshin’s response was to step up his own expansion. He had already taken Etchu and in1577 attacked Noto, a province that Nobunaga had already made some political investment in. Nobunaga responded by leading a large army into Kaga and met Kenshin’s army at the Tedori River. Kenshin proved himself to be as wily a foe and lured Nobunaga into making a frontal assault across the Tedori at night. In a hard-fought struggle, the Oda forces were defeated and Nobunaga was forced to retreat south. Kenshin returned to Echigo and made plans to return the following spring but died in April 1578 at the height of his power. Kenshin’s death was so fortuitous for Nobunaga that rumors of assassination began circulating almost immediately. In actuality, it appears more likely that Kenshin died from natural causes - he was supposedly quite ill even as he prepared for the coming campaign season. Regardless of the circumstances of his death, Kenshin’s passing triggered a bitter civil war within the Uesugi and made Nobunaga’s life that much easier. Over the next four years Oda forces under Shibata Katsuie, Maeda Toshiie, and Sassa Narimasa would pick away at the Uesugi’s holdings, until they were at the borders of Echigo. |~|

“3) The Môri. In terms of sheer lands under their rule, the Môri were one of Japan’s most impressive clans. From humble beginnings under Môri Motonari, the Môri had expanded to control much of the Chugoku region, and now watched Nobunaga’s expansion with dismay. Motonari had been an early critic of Nobunaga and when he died in 1571 his successor, Môri Terumoto, carried on the Môri’s budding opposition. The Ishiyama Honganji proved a convenient place to oppose Nobunaga. In 1576 Nobunaga diverted the naval forces of Kûki Yoshitaka to the waters off Settsu and proceeded with a naval blockade of the Honganji, assisted by the Atagi of Awaji Island. The Môri responded by mobilizing their first rate navy, which was commanded by the Murakami family: men who, like the Kûki, had cut their teeth in piracy. Sailing east, the Môri brushed aside Atagi Nobuyasu’s forces off Awaji and proceeded to defeat Kuki Yoshitaka’s ships at the 1st Battle of Kizugawaguchi. The Honganji’s supply line was opened and supplies were funneled in via sea transport, making Nobunaga’s efforts at blockade on land moot. Realizing that the Honganji would have to be isolated if he ever hoped to capture it, Nobunaga tasked Kûki with devising naval vessels that would offset the Môri’s numerical superiority. Yoshitaka dutifully went back to Shima and in 1578 unveiled six massive, heavily armed warships some have fancied were equipped with armored plates. These formed the core of a fleet that sailed back into the Inland Sea and drove off the Môri at the 2nd Battle of Kizugawaguchi. The next year, Môri Terumoto made another abortive attempt to lift the naval blockade but failed. By that point, the Môri were faced with a crisis of their own: Nobunaga’s generals were marching west. Akechi Mitsuhide was charged with conquering Tamba and then advancing along the northern coast of the Chugoku. Toyotomi (Hashiba) Hideyoshi entered Harima and began a number of sieges that would ultimately open the gates to the Môri’s hinterland. |~|


Oda Nobunaga’s Death

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: In 1582, a fire all around his quarters awakened Oda in the middle of the night. A subordinate general had betrayed him. Seeing no way out of the flames, he committed suicide. Another of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), who, at the time of Oda’s death, was busy fighting in the north of Japan, rushed back to Kyoto upon hearing the news. He quickly killed Oda’s betrayer and, able to take the "moral" high ground as avenger of his lord’s death, took over command of Oda’s organization. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

According to Samurai Archives” “1580 opened with the Honganji completely isolated and now rapidly running low on supplies. Finally, faced with Nobunaga’s seemingly endless energy and determination as well as starvation, the Honganji looked for a peaceful solution. The court stepped in (persuaded by Nobunaga) and requested that Kennyo Kosa and the commander of the Honganji garrison, Shimotsuma Nakayuki, honorably surrender. In August the Honganji came to terms, and threw open their gates. Somewhat surprisingly, Nobunaga spared all of the surviving defenders - even Kosa and Shimotsuma. After over a decade of bloodshed, Nobunaga had subdued the last of the great ikko bastions and cleared the way for an eventual rise to national hegemony. [Source: Samurai Archives |~|]

“As mentioned earlier, Nobunaga was said to have treated his retainers haughtily, and this seems to have been nowhere more the case than with Akechi Mitsuhide. A relatively late addition to Nobunaga’s inner circle, Mitsuhide was a talented general and poet, perhaps provoking his lord’s jealousy as a result of the latter. The best-known story regarding the rift between the two men and just unusual enough to be true occurred in 1577. In that year, Akechi had been tasked with subduing Tamba, and in the course of his campaign besieged the castle of the Hatano clan. Akechi succeded in securing the bloodless surrender of Hatano Hideharu and brought him before Nobunaga. To Akechi’s shock, Nobunaga (for reasons unknown) ordered Hatano and his brother executed. The Hatano retainers blamed Akechi for the betrayal and in revenge kidnapped and brutally murdered Akechi’s mother (who lived on the Akechi lands in nearby Omi). Unsurprisingly, this whole business did not sit so well with Mitsuhide, although there is no real hint of his actively plotting until 1582.

Nobunaga strikes Mitsuhide

In 1582, Nobunaga returned from his conquest of the Takeda clan in time for news of a crisis in the west. Hideyoshi was investing Takamatsu castle, but faced with the arrival of the main Môri army requested reinforcements. Nobunaga responded by speeding a large contingent of his personal troops westward while he himself entertained court nobles at the Honnoji in Kyôto on 20 June. He awoke the following morning in the Honnoji to find that during the night Akechi Mitsuhide had the temple surrounded. Raising an army on the pretext of going to Hideyoshi’s aid, Mitsuhide had taken a detour into Kyôto and now called for Nobunaga’s head. As Nobunaga had only a small personal guard in attendance on the morning of 21 June, the outcome was a forgone conclusion, and he died, either in the blaze that was started in the course of the fighting or by his own hand. Soon afterwards, Oda Hidetada was surrounded at Nijo and killed. 11 days after that, Akechi Mitsuhide would himself be killed, defeated by Hideyoshi at the Battle of Yamazaki. |~|

Image Sources: JNTO, Tokyo National Museum, Samurai Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated December 2023

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.