“Do you really want to spend your entire lives praying for longevity? We were born to die! Whoever is with me, come to the battlefield tomorrow morning. Whoever is not, just stay where you are and watch me win it!” - Oda Nobunaga The Demon King 1560, prior to leading his 2,500 men against an army with 35,000 men.
Oda Nobunaga The Demon King was a samurai and the head of the Oda Clan during the Sengoku Period , or Warring States Period of Japan. Fierce, powerful, and enigmatic, this man laid the ground work for what would eventually lead to a unified Japan. He was the first of the 'Three Unifiers.' His story has become an important part of history, and his retold today not only through history books but through films and video games.
The Bizarre Child
Oda Nobunaga was the son of a military governor named Oda Nobuhide. Despite being born in to a social rank, Oda Nobunaga disregarded the rules of society and made friends with other youths his age regardless of their own social status or better that of their families. He was also very fond of firearms which were new to Japan at the time. These things along with various other odd behaviors made a young man of social rank be known as bizarre amongst the community.
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The Oda Clan
When Oda Nobunaga's father Oda Nobuhide died in 1551, for whatever reason at the funeral ceremony Oda Nobunaga became enraged and caused a scene. This incident along with his strange behavior led many of his would be supporters to favor his younger brother Oda Nobuyuki. The incident also led to Oda Nobunaga's personal mentor committing the ritual suicide called seppeku.
The Oda clan was divided and under the reign of the Shibata clan. Oda Nobunaga should have been able to simply take his father's place, but his uncle Oda Nobutomo sought to use this opportunity to increase his own standing. However, Oda Nobunaga was able to gain the support of another of his uncles and together they slew Oda Nobutomo. This would not be the end of Oda Nobunaga's problems with securing his role as the leader of the Oda clan.
Gaining more support and forming new alliances, Oda Nobunaga's younger brother Oda Nobuyuki attempted to seize Oda Nobunaga's position by force in the Battle of Ino. Oda Nobunaga defeated his younger brother, but pardoned him after the their mother stepped in and pleaded with Nobunaga to show mercy. Only a year later Oda Nobunaga learned that his brother was again plotting his death. In response Oda Nobunaga feigned illness so as to get his brother near him, and then killed Oda Nobuyuki.
His role as the leader of the Oda Clan firmly established by 1559, Oda Nobunaga started building his own strength.
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The Battle Of Okehazama
In 1560, feudal lord Imagawa Yoshimoto led a force of 25,000 around the land destroying any forces that opposed him, and set his sights on Oda Nobunaga. Imagawa Yoshimoto spread fear throughout the land by creating rumors that he had 40,000 men in his army. Many feared the vast army that was approaching, and many of Oda Nobunaga's advisors recommended surrender or reinforcing the temple they were currently in as a defensive position. Oda Nobunaga would not be phased by the larger force, and gave this speech before marching to battle, “Imagawa has 40,000 men marching towards this place? I don't believe that. He 'only' has 35,000 soldiers. Yes, that is still too many. So, Sado, you want me to surrender. What if we do surrender? Will you get content with losing your life that way? Or what if we hold on like Katsuie wants me to? What if we stay here in this castle, lock it up, and wait until the Imagawas lose appetite and stop the siege and go home? We will be able to prolong our lives for 5 or 10 days, and what we cannot defend will still be undefendable. We are at the bottom of the pit, you know. And our fate is interesting. Of course the misery is too great, too. But this is how I see it: this is a chance in a lifetime. I can't afford to miss this. Do you really want to spend your entire lives praying for longevity? We were born to die! Whoever is with me, come to the battlefield tomorrow morning. Whoever is not, just stay wherever you are and watch me win it!”.
Oda Nobunaga knew that the others were right in the sense that his army of 2,500 could never beat the army he believed to be 35,000 strong in a frontal assault. Instead, Oda Nobunaga had his banners raised near the temple so that it would appear this was where his main force was residing. Under the cover of storms Oda Nobunaga snuck 1,500 of his men towards the enemy camp. Imagawa Yoshimoto's army is believed to have been celebrating their previous victories and drinking heavily. When the storms died down Oda Nobunaga led his 1,500 men in a charge against the unprepared 25,000 men of Imagawa Yoshimoto. The enemy was too surprised by the attack to respond appropriately and panic broke out. The samurai of Oda Nobunaga approached Imagawa Yoshimoto's tent, and Imagawa stepped out thinking his own men were having a drunken brawl. He was beheaded in battle by one of Oda's samurais.
After the battle the remaining living officers of Imagawa Yoshimoto, including one Matsudaira Jirosaburo Motonobu, who would later be renamed as Tokugawa Ieyasu, joined Oda Nobunaga and his force grew to more than ten times its current size, and Oda Nobunaga's name was known througout the land.
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Spread The Militarism Under The Sky
Oda Nobunaga's next move would be to begin a campaign against the Saito clan now weakened by a new leader. After convincing many of the Saito retainers to leave their new ruler, Oda Nobunaga led his assault on the Saito clans and won, claiming their land. After this Oda Nobunaga would hide his ambitions no longer, and made it no secret that he intended to conquer the entire country. His personal seal said Tenka Fubu; Which means 'Spread the Militarism Under the Sky' or 'The nation under one sword', and that is what he did. Ashikaga Yoshiaki requested Nobunaga's aid in seeking revenge on the men that killed his shogun brother and to taking his place as shogun. Oda Nobunaga wanting a reason to move on Kyoto gladly agreed and drove forward defeating the Rokkaku.
After these events Yoshiaki was named Shogun and Oda Nobunaga was asked to be deputy shogun despite the fact Oda Nobunaga was obviously the one running the show. Oda Nobunaga didn't seem to really care about formal political positions and refused. Yoshiaki would be a tool to justify Oda Nobunaga's continued campaign. Yoshiaki would come to resent this station and would begin secretly spreading the seeds that would lead to forces which opposed Oda Nobunaga.
In 1570 Yoshiaki invited all of the local leaders to a banquet, likely at the behest of Oda Nobunaga. Assuming that the invite was really form Oda Nobunaga, Asakura Yoshikage refused to attend. Oda Nobunaga used this as an opportunity to march on Asakura lands claiming the clan had shown disrespect. The assault went well initially, but the Oda army were pushed back when Azai Nagamasa sent his forces to aid the Asakura. This alliance between the Asakura and Azai did not bode well for Oda Nobunaga not only because they were pushed back, but because Azai Nagamasa was married to Oda Nobunaga's sister Oichi. The Azai clan had had an alliance with the Asakura for generations and Nagamasa had decided that alliance was more important than his alliance with Oda. With the aid of Ieyasu Tokugawa, Nobunaga was able to pull his forces back.
The betrayal of Azai Nagamasa would not be forgotten and the Oda and Tokugawa clans assaulted them shortly there after. This would be a long fought battle that would prove victory for Oda Nobunaga, and many feel this is when all the other clans began to take him as a very serious threat.
Around the same time period the Miyoshi clan found an ally in buddhist monks that began attacking Oda forces. The Oda clan was now opposed by multiple clans at once and a growing coalition of priests, farmers, and various other peasants. The brutality of Oda Nobunaga's tactics would come to fruition when his forces surrounded a complex housing the peasant forces and thousands of non-soldier women and children. Oda Nobunaga ordered it be burnt to the ground killing everyone inside.
Oda Nobunaga would continue defeating all who opposed him through brutality, and further tightened his reign on the shogun Yoshiaki. Yoshiaki began to openly defy Oda Nobunaga and sought the aid of a former Oda ally, Takeda Shingen. Takeda Shingen led his forces against the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu while Oda Nobunaga was fighting elswhere. The Tokugawa lost the first battle but through a series of night raids were able to intimidate Takeda Shingen in to slowing his push. During this time Takeda Shingen died causing the Takeda clan to back off and Yoskiaki was left without protection from the vengeful Oda Nobunaga. Yoskiaki attempted to hold out from the Oda forces hoping the Azai, Asakura, and other enemies of Oda Nobunaga would come to his aid. Despite Yoshiaki having a strong defensive position Oda Nobunaga captured him anyway. Yoshiaki pleaded for his life, and Oda Nobunaga had him exiled. From that point on Oda Nobunaga would simply assume the role of shogun without the formality of the title. Immediately the Oda clan attacked the Asakura again and utterly defeated them leading to Asakura Yoshikage committing suicide. Oda Nobunaga then set his sites on the Azai, and without their Asakura allies he defeated them as well. Oda Nobunaga's brother in law Azai Nagamasa sent Oichi and their children to Oda Nobunaga before committing suicide himself.
Nobunaga had many enemies and various clans that opposed him. One of the greatest threats he would face would come from Uesugi Kenshin. Uesugi Kenshin was considered one of the greatest generals of the time, on par with his old arch nemesis Takeda Shingen. When Oda Nobunaga's force met Uesugi Kenshin's forces at the Battle of Tedorigawa it proved to be a victory for Uesugi Kenshin. This put a grinding halt to Oda Nobunaga's ambition for a short time, but he would again have luck on his side as similar to Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin died before he could initiate his full campaign against the Oda. Oda Nobunaga continued to defeat all of his enemies.
As previously mentioned Oda Nobunaga never seemed to interested in politics. In 1578 he was promoted to the Grand Minister of the imperial court, which was the highest rank that could be given. This may have been a ploy on behalf of the emperor to try to curb Oda Nobunaga's ambition, but if it was it failed miserably. Oda Nobunaga only held his position for a short time before resigning and moving forward with his own plans. Some people believe that part of his plan was to force the emperor to resign from his own position, but this never came to be.
Even within his own circles he didn't follow the typical pattern typical of leaders in this time period. Typically, subjects would be rewarded with land, but Oda Nobunaga was very in to tea and would often reward people with tea items instead. It was considered a great honor to receive one of these rewards. Also it seems that he treated many of his generals and members of his inner circle outside of the typical formal behaviors. It is unclear how much truth there is to some of the stories, but many believe that he made fun of them. An example of this is why the second unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi is sometimes referred to as the 'monkey'. This supposedly was a nick name given to him by Oda Nobunaga.
Another thing that set Oda Nobunaga apart was his obsession with Western Culture. He was apparently fascinated by Westerners and welcomed them in to his lands with open arms. He even collected Western artwork and allowed a christian ministry to be built in his lands. Some people even believe that he may have been christian, though there doesn't appear to be any substantial proof and most historians don't agree.
The Death Of The Demon
In 1582 during the height of his power, Oda Nobunaga's forces were waging war with the Mori clan. His general Hashiba Hideyoshi was leading forces against the Mori and requested reinforcements. Oda Nobunaga split his forces. He sent some of them to prepare for battle elsewhere and sent another of his generals and part of his inner circle Akechi Mitsuhide to aid Hideyoshi. Oda Nobunaga remained behind at the temple Honno-ji with only a small group of his personal guards. No one knows why he was betrayed for sure, but Akechi Mitsuhide used this opportunity to turn his forces back and attacked his leader. With only his personal guards Oda Nobunaga could not defeat Mitsuhide's army and The Demon King was defeated. It is not only widely debated why Mitsuhide betrayed Oda Nobunaga, but it is also debated how Nobunaga died in those last moments. It is most commonly accepted that he committed the ritual suicide seppuku.
Revenge And A New Beginning
Akechi Mitsuhide seized control of Oda Nobunaga's power but it only lasted a short time; Eleven days in fact. Mitsuhide sent a secret message to the Mori clan announcing that he had defeated Nobunaga and wanted an alliance after they destroyed Hasiba Hideoyshi's forces. Unfortunately, Hideoyshi's men intercepted the message before it was delivered. Keeping the death of Nobunaga secret Hideoyshi cleverly initiated a truce with the Mori clan, and marched his forces back and defeated Akechi Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki. It is unclear exactly what happened to Akechi Mitsuhide. Some believe he fled and was captured by bandits and killed. Another theory is that he went in to hiding and started a new life. Another belief is that he was killed in battle and Hideoyshi took his head to the grave of Oda Nobunaga. Regardless, after this battle Hashiba Hideoyshi 'The Monkey' would go on to build from the foundation that Oda Nobunaga created and become Toyotomi Hideoyshi the second of the 'Three Unifiers'.
In today's culture through various media outlets Oda Nobunaga is presented as both a villain and hero. Whether you feel that Oda Nobunaga was an evil tyrant or a hero, his part in history remains prevalent as his ambitions laid the foundation for what would eventually become a unified Japan.
I learned all of the stuff I wrote from many many different places, and it seems that the facts regarding some of this man's life are not all solidified as I mentioned at a few places in my articles. I read a ton of information regarding Oda Nobunaga's life and there are many verified opinions that are some times relayed as facts. I attempted to point these discrepancies that I was aware of throughout the article. I simply tried to put my understanding of this man's life in my own words to share on this article, so it's possible that I may have missed something important or may have been wrong. If I find anything I did wrong I will update.
If you have any questions, comments, additional information, or anything you would like to add feel free to do so in the comment section below.
If you enjoyed this article check out my other articles about legendary samurai...
- Takeda Shingen: Legendary Strategist and the Tiger of Kai
A brief biography about the Tiger of Kai Takeda Shingen.
- Uesugi Kenshin: God of War
A short biography about the samurai Uesugi Kenshin... The God of War and The Dragon of Echigo.
- Hattori Hanzo: Ninja Master
A short biography of the Ninja Master Hattori Hanzo
- Honda Tadakatsu: A Samurai Among Samurai
A short biography of the legendary samurai Tadakatsu Honda
- Tokugawa Ieyasu: Shogun and Third Unifier Of Japan
A short biography of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu
- Toyotomi Hideyoshi: The Monkey, From Sandal Bearer To The Second Unifier
A short biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a important figure in the Samurai era of Japan.
- Musashi Miyamoto: Legendary Samurai and Author of The Book of Five Rings
Another article I wrote about the legendary Samuraie Musashi Miyamoto
Thomas Sherman from Hog Valley, Florida on December 02, 2013:
One thing. The complex he burned? That was his third siege of the area. He didn't do it to be a dick, he did it because he was unable to take it properly. Whenever he made some progress, the ultra militaristic inhabitants basically guerrilla warred him out of it, and the majority of the "non combatants" participated. They were a bunch of religious fanatics, not peasants who just happened to live in proximity to priests. They were, to be specific, the Ikko-ikki, and were an incredibly dangerous grass roots movement.
Also, do you know where he originally got the nickname Demon/Devil King? I remember reading it was from a battle where he survived an arrow wound that should have been fatal, but I haven't been able to find the source.
Unifiniti on June 18, 2013:
Thanks as well. I would believe that Oda Nobunaga could be compared to Qin Shi Huang Di?
Phillip Drayer Duncan (author) from The Ozarks on October 15, 2012:
Thanks Stuart I appreciate the comment! I'm glad the article helped you out!
Stuart on October 09, 2012:
Thanks for this, I'm giving a brief 4 minute lecture on Nobunaga soon and this has helped tremendously. I love Japanese culture and history, I just have a hard time remember the names.
I would not compare Nobunaga to Hitler, I would compare him more to Alexander the Great (brutal military) or William the Conquerer (arranged marriages)
You didn't mention about Nobunaga's arranged marriages, trying to get his clan into other various powerful families for political and militaristic alliances. Although to your credit you did mention Azai's betrayal and the fact that he was married to Oichi
Phillip Drayer Duncan (author) from The Ozarks on May 11, 2012:
haha Thanks U-turn!
Arthur George Rettell jr. ( from AZ. STATE on May 11, 2012:
Awesome writing, sounds as if you studied for years and relate like you are from there culture. uturn the true turn hook i used before Gamakatsu and Owner hooks ... Mustad good hook,providing you sharpen.
Phillip Drayer Duncan (author) from The Ozarks on April 22, 2012:
Daffy Duck from Cornelius, Oregon on April 22, 2012:
Here are a couple more examples. Darth Vader and the Emperor. LOL!
Phillip Drayer Duncan (author) from The Ozarks on April 17, 2012:
lol Daffy that is an interesting perspective and possible future hub idea. I wouldn't have thought to compare Nobunaga to Hitler. Kind of makes me wonder how various historical figures from different cultures and time frames would stack up against each other with consideration to the religious and cultural morals of the people from their time periods. If that made any sense. I appreciate the comment, its got my brain working!
Daffy Duck from Cornelius, Oregon on April 07, 2012:
It's interesting that people like Oda and Hitler are great at rallying millions of people.