Oda Nobunaga was born 1534 in a province Owari as Oda Kipposi, the second son of Oda Nobuhide, one of the three elders of an Oda clan. Nobuhide held the Owari province, preserving its eight districts from his own family. With the arranged marriage of Nobunaga and the daughter of Saitô Toshimasa, Nobuhide also secured his northern borders. By the time of his death, the clan was already fractured.
Oda Nobunaga had ascended to the leadership of the Oda clan when he was 23 years old. A young, strong, ambitious man, around 5’3’’ to 5’6’’ feet tall, with the prominent nose and slight beard, he was rather rude and with his bad behaviour he was a disgrace to his family, which brought Hirate Kiyohide, his guardian from the childhood, to commit kanshi, a form of suicide, in hope to alter his behaviour. Devastated by his guardian death, Nobunaga did change his behavior, and in honor of Hirate, he built the Seisyu-ji shrine in Owari.
Coming to the throne of the clan, Nobunaga dealt with many betrayals, both friend and family. In 1556, his older brother Nobuhiro plotted a rebellion against Nobunaga. The rebellion was unsuccessful, and Nobunaga forgave his brother for his betrayal, but he banished him from the province. The next year, now his younger brother Nobuyuki, and according to some legends, even his mother, plotted against him. He pardoned some rebellions, but he decided to kill his younger brother in order to send a message to the other traitors. By 1558, he defeated the last rebellion of his family, and unified remain family members. The next year he traveled to Kyoto to inform Ashikaga Yoshiteru, the 13th Muromachi shogun, that he is the leader of the unified Oda clan. After that, he turned to securing Owari’s borders.
His first great fight was Battle of Okehazama in 1560 when Imagawa Yoshimoto planned a major strike on Kyoto. To do so, he had to go through Owari. Yoshimoto had a massive army of around 25,000 men, and for some period he had taken over the south of Owari. The garrison commanders informed Nobunaga of the attack and the size of Imagawa’s army and advised him to flee, but he decided to attack. With a small garrison of Kiyosu and joined by ashigary, there were roughly around 3,000 men on his side. Even though he was outnumbered, he was very calm.
With the small size of his army, he had to have a good tactic. Nobunaga thought that the best way is to deceive and catch Yoshimoto’s army by surprise. While Yoshimoto’s army was feasting and celebrating victories, Nobunaga’s scouts were informing him of their dispositions, which then helped Nobunaga to come up with a good plan for the combat. With the help of the hilly terrain, and posting hundreds of war banners, he managed to create an illusion of a great army. As he knew the terrain so well, and also with the storm that screened his army’s movement, he was able to come so close to the enemy from the north without being seen and attack them just after the rain stopped. Even though outnumbered 10 to 1, he caught them by surprise and increased his chance of winning. When Imagawa heard the noise, he first thought that was a fight among his men, but as he came out, he was caught and killed by Oda samurai. The fear of the surprise attack and the death of their leader, made the army to withdraw to their lands leaving the Owari province safe.
The news of his great victory spread all over the country and established Nobunaga’s name as a powerful, fearless leader. This great victory helped Matsudaira Motoyasu to break free from Yoshimoto’s control and to gain independence for his province. Impressed by Nobunaga, he decided to enter into the “Kiyosu alliance” with him in 1562 and become one of his greatest generals and loyal ally.
After this enormous victory, Nobunaga, encouraged, believed that his force is strong enough, so he invaded Mino Province, which belonged to Saito clan. Asai clan, who recently declared war on the Saito, felt that Mino was already theirs. To avoid a war with Asai, Nobunaga arranged a marriage between his sister and Asain Nagamasa. He also established an alliance with Takeda clan, by giving his daughter in marriage.
After securing his military strength and alliances, Nobunaga relocated his base to Inabayama Castle, which he renamed Gifu and also adopted a new motto, Tenka Fubu, which means “the nation under one sward.” He wanted to unite all of the clans under his command, which he later proved when he refused the offer to become Kanrei, or deputy shogun in 1569.
1567, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, a brother of the murdered 13th Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru, came to Gifu, to seek for Nobunaga’s assistance. Miyoshi and Matsunaga’s clans had taken over the Kyoto and secured their dominance by placing Yoshiaki’s cousin, Ashikaga Yoshihide, at the position of Shogun. Fearing for his life, Yoshiaki fled and sought a daimyô who could help him claim his rightful position as Shogun. As none of daimyô accepted the challenge, Yoshiaki, with hesitation, decided to ask Nobunaga for help, which he gladly accepted, realizing that such move could help him to increase his power and establish his position.
They made an alliance, and in 1568 they marched to Kyoto. “In the name of the shogun,” he slew anyone who tried to fight him, resulting in many the Miyoshi and Matsunaga clans either fleeing from him or submitting to him. After the approval of Emperor Ogimachi, he placed Yoshiaki as the 14th Ashikaga shogun.
Having Yoshikai as figurehead shogun, when the true power was in Nobunaga’s hands, it was clear that he never wanted any titles, he only wanted power and control over the clans.
Many didn’t recognize Nobunaga’s abilities, so they never thought of him as a treat. Nevertheless, he was far more intelligent and had a great ability to identify and understand the political intrigues of that time, and he knew how to put the weight on his half. Over the next twelve years, he was undefeatable.
Now, his power base was in Kyoto which contributed to his success and gave him the advantage of position. After conquering provinces, he insured them by placing his loyal retainers in charge. He also created a new form of army, the ashigary, which was composed of peasants and it made a 40 percent of his army. They were all well trained in the way the other forces weren’t, and they were as good as samurai army. This army could fight any opponent, as it was well trained, and well-armed, with weapons longer than what the enemies had.
Another advantage that Nobunaga used was the new technology, especially firearms, which were brought by Portuguese. First, he was buying guns, but when in 1573 he conquered the Omi Province, the Kunimoto arms factory fell into his hands, and from then he made his own weapon. Nobunaga became the first leader who was using both offensive and defensive tactics, and he trained his whole army to use weapons.
To preserve his power and to unite the clans, Nobunaga had to have many alliances, so by marring or marrying off his family members, he established good relationships with several clans. But that wasn’t enough to keep him in his power. He had to deal with many powerful clans like Asai, Asakura, Imagawa, Môri, Uesugi, and Takeda and also the fanatical warrior monks of Mount Hiei and the Ikko of Ise sect. He lost two bothers in fights with these monks, so decided to hunt and kill them at any cost. In 1571 his army marched upon Mount Hiei and killed everyone on their path. Reaching the Enryakuji, they burned it to the ground, and over 3,000 monks, women, and children were killed. The power of Mount Hiei monks was crushed, but this brutal attack shocked Nobunaga’s generals.
At the same time shogun Yoshiaki started to conspire with other clans, and after many failed rebellious attempts, on August 18th, 1573, Yoshiaki begged for his life, and after that, he was exiled for his life by Nobunaga, which ended the reign of the Muromachi shogunate.
With most of his enemies destroyed, Nobunaga engaged all of his forces into destroying the Ikko monks of Nagashima. Cutting the Nagashima, off both land and sea, he managed to conquer the compound setting it on fire and killing over 20,000 men, women, and children. At the beginning of 1574, Nobunaga got promotions from the Imperial court. He was promoted ju sanmi (junior third rank), made a sangi (court advisor), and, with Yoshiaki exiled, was by default the reigning shogun, but he resigned all the titles in May 1574.
He was well loved by peasants. He established a stronger economy and fully used the potential wealth of Kyoto. Also, a great thing for peasants was the abolition of the toll booth system. He created open markets and made possible for everyone to come and sell their products without paying any fee.
He was building much stronger castles and castle towns, usually on hills for a better view of surroundings. He really loved art and culture, which he had shown when building his new residence, Azuchi Castle, that was strategically placed on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa in Omi Province. It was more of a palace than a castle with gold leaf and screen paintings.
As a revolt to the monks in 1569, he allowed a Jesuit priest Luis Frois to come in Kyoto and carry on his missionary work there.
In 1574, Nobunaga struck heavily on Takeda clan at the battle of Nagashino where he, with his 3,000 matchlock corps behind wooden palisades he shot and killed around 10,000 of the Takeda cavalry. This broke power for the Takeda and brought Nobunaga closer to dream to unite Japan. He even received the highest position possible when he became Daijo daijin, Grand Minister of State.
Now, Nobunaga turned all of his forces into destroying the Ikko fortress of Honganji. He hit them several times and finally in 1578 manages to cut off Honganji from Inland Sea and surround the fortress. 1580, Honganji surrendered and Nobunaga crushed the Ikko power.
With no bigger threats, Nobunaga’s dream of united Japan was even closer. There was only the Takeda clan left, so in 1582, he marched a great army, 50,000 to 100,000 warriors, to the Takeda territory, easily conquering it.
Defeating the Takeda, there was nothing stopping him to unite the country, but little did he know, that a rebellious act was plotting against him. Upon his return to Azuchi, Nobunaga received a title of Shogun. But soon he heard from his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi of a military attack, thus the general asked for assistance. Nobunaga sent half of his personal army while he stayed at the Honnoji Temple in Kyoto. The next morning, on June 21st, 1585 he found himself surrounded by his own army, led by his general Akechi Mitsuhide. Mitsuhide had been plotting this attack for several months, and now, surrounding the fortress, he demanded Nobunaga’s death. Seeking no escape from the situation and refusing to surrender, Nobunaga committed seppuku.
When Toyotomi Hideyoshi heard that Mitsuhide betrayed Nobunaga, forcing him to commit seppuku, he decided to avenge his master, by killing Mitsuhidi, which he eventually did. Now Toyotomi Hideyoshi got the ultimate power, and he decided to finish Oda Nobunaga’s dream of unity, which he successfully did in 1590. After his death, Tokugawa Ieyasu took over and established Tokugawa shogunate. They ruled Japan for the next 265 years.