During the 16th century, Japan was politically fragmented. Warlords fought for control of local provinces. The weak government of the shogun could not maintain the peace or central authority.
Out of the chaos rose Oda Nobunaga, a warlord with the ambition to make the nation his own.
Rise to Power
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.
Audacious and Innovative
Nobunaga was a bold and innovative leader. He was willing to push himself and his men to the limit for the sake of victory. He made use of surprise and daring maneuvers to defeat his opponents.
He was also willing to try new tactics and technology. At a time when firearms were coming to the attention of the Japanese nobility, he grasped their potential and used them in his armies.
Seizing the Shogunate
The leadership of Japan was complicated. In theory, the nation was ruled by an emperor, but for hundreds of years, the emperor had been a figurehead for the shogun, a military dictator. Since 1477, the shogun himself had been a figure of little power, unable to govern the war-torn nation.
Nobunaga was ambitious. He wanted to rule the whole of Japan. To achieve it, he decided to follow a path shown by other daimyos, creating a puppet shogun through whom he could rule from the capital of Kyoto.
In 1568, the perfect man arrived.
Ashikaga Yoshiaki had been brother and heir to the shogun who was assassinated in 1565. The assassins put their own man on the throne. Yoshiaki went on the run, looking for a daimyo to help him take his rightful place as shogun.
Nobunaga took up Yoshiaki’s cause. After defeating their enemies at the Battle of Sakai, he marched into Kyoto and made Yoshiaki the shogun.
With the shogun compliant, Nobunaga set about bringing the country under his control.
His first major challenge was bringing the Asai and Asakura Clans to heel. In Nobunaga’s first campaign against the Asakura, he captured several fortresses before having to retreat when a relative betrayed him.
Again, he advanced from Kyoto, threatening the Fortress of Odani. The Asai and Asakura were forced to face him in battle. Fighting across the shallow Anegawa River, Nobunaga won. With those clans put in their place, he moved on to his next target.
Facing the Ikko-Ikki
The Ikko-Ikki were a powerful social movement. Their brand of militant Buddhism had rallied an army a century before. They had taken control of the province of Kaga and menaced neighboring regions. As a religious sect, they had temples in Nobunaga’s lands. There they used economic as well as military power, withholding taxes to get their way. He could not permit such a strong internal and external enemy and set out on several years of campaigns against them.
Nobunaga also faced other threats. The shogun rose up but was defeated ending the Ashikaga line of shoguns, and he took control of the country himself. The Asai and Asakura attacked him again and were decisively defeated.
Throughout those difficulties, he continued to push back the Ikko-Ikki. At last, in 1574, he trapped many thousands of them in two strongholds – Nakae and Nagashima. Pirates from Ise helped him with a bombardment from the sea.
Surrounded and starving, the defenders were willing to negotiate. Nobunaga was having none of it. He burned down both strongholds, his soldiers shooting anyone who tried to escape. An estimated 20,000 people were killed.
Victory Through Superior Firepower
The following year, he faced the Takeda Clan at the Battle of Nagashino.
It was a game-changing battle. The Takeda samurai launched a powerful cavalry charge. Nobunaga’s army, equipped with arquebuses, stood their ground behind a loosely constructed palisade. Volley after volley of gunfire ripped into the samurai, devastating their ranks. Nobunaga’s swordsmen then stepped forward to finish the job.
It was not the first time firearms had been used in battle in Japan, but it was the first time they had been used to such devastating effect in a pitched battle. His flare for innovation showed again.
Intimidation in the Field and the Capital
The conquest of Japan was far from over. In 1575, Nobunaga fought a sea battle, again making great use of guns. When it did not stop supplies getting through to his enemies, he resorted to his old tactics of picking off one fortress at a time, wearing away his opponent’s ability to fight.
In 1580, the last Ikko-Ikki outpost fell.
In 1581, Nobunaga put on a massive military parade in Kyoto. It was said to be for the emperor’s enjoyment, but it was a reminder to the population of what had been achieved and who was really in charge.
In 1582, an urgent plea for reinforcements reached Kyoto from a commander in the provinces. Acting swiftly, Nobunaga sent troops to help.
With most of his forces away, his opponents acted. One of his own generals ambushed him in a temple in Kyoto. His bodyguards were overwhelmed and the temple set on fire.
In one last defiant act, Nobunaga committed suicide amid the flames.
He had not united the whole of Japan. However, he had achieved so much that his successors would achieve that goal. Through boldness and innovation, he had transformed his nation.
Conrad Totman (2005), A History of Japan, second edition.
Stephen Turnbull (1987), Samurai Warriors.