The Three Great Unifiers of Japan:  Oda Nobunaga 

The Ferocious Oda Nobunaga (June 23, 1534 – June 21, 1582)

Oda Nobunaga’s life consisted of continuous military victories that eventually led to conquering a third of Japan before his death. He is also considered one of Japan’s greatest rulers only to be betrayed by one of his own people, Akechi Mitsuhide, in a coup d’état.

Oda Nobunaga is the son of a deputy for a daimyo and was given responsibility for portions of the Owari domain, one of the most productive portions of Japan for the production of rice.

Oda Nobunaga portrait by Giovanni NIcolao.

When Nobunaga inherited the portion of land from his father, he began to extend his authority to other districts within Owari. Imagawa Yoshimoto from the neighboring Suruga Province saw the threat in Nobunaga and led an army of 40,000 to squash Nobunaga’s growing power. Nobunaga showed his ruthlessness in battle by defeating Imagawa and taking his life with only 2,000 samurai. Nobunaga followed this victory by forging an alliance with the daimyo of Mikawa Province, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Conquests and victories followed Nobunaga’s merciless military vendetta against his enemies.

Seeking greater legitimacy, Nobunaga marched into the imperial capital in 1568. Working together with the imperial and bakufu, Nobunaga maneuvered for Ashikaga Yoshiaki to be installed as the bakufu’s next shogun. Nobunaga planned to rule behind the scenes and simply use Yoshiaki as a political puppet. The plan went awry when Yoshiaki failed to defer to Nobunaga; subsequently, Nobunaga brought the Ashikaga shogunate to an end in 1573. Eschewing the need for bakufu authority, Nobunaga defeated six of the strongest military houses in western Honshu.

Oda Nobunaga lived a relatively peaceful life between 1576 and 1579, near the imperial capital. He was not given the title shogun yet he remained an influential figure. In his rise to power, he had to make difficult decisions that made him many enemies.

Oda Nobunaga’s battle armor.

One of his top generals, Akechi Mitsuhide held a grudge against him. As the story goes, Mitsuhide may have heard a rumor that Nobunaga would transfer Mitsuhide’s fief to his trusted and favored page, Mori Ranmaru, with whom he was believed to have been in a homosexual relationship with (a ritualized form of patronage at the time known as shudō). Unprepared for the surprise attack, Nobunaga and the few men he had at his watch were quickly overcome. Nobunaga took his own life by seppuku (stomach-cutting) in one of the inner rooms at Honnō-ji temple with his faithful page by his master’s side. Once Nobunaga had carried out his final deed, Ranmaru also killed himself in the same way.

Oda Nobunaga is remembered to have accomplished a great deal in his lifetime. He is credited for having started the unification of Japan, removed the Ashikaga shogunate and established some form of order across Honshu.