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Life of a Japanese Warlord: Oda Nobunaga Essay (Biography)

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The Oda of Omwari

Oda Nobunaga was born Oda Kipposhi on June 23rd 1534 and was a second son of Oda Nobuhinde who by then was a minor lord and whose family was servant to Shiba Shugo. Oda Kipposhi’s father was a very knowledgeable warrior who used much of his time in battles as a Samurai to Mikawa and Mino. At home, Oda kipposhi’s father, later Oda Nobunaga, was involved in power rivalry with his extended family over the control of Omwari province (Seal par 5).

The Oda family was divided into two warring branches. The Nobuhide’s branch was stationed at kiyosu and was run by three elders; the second branch of the family was housed at Iwakura castle in the north of Omwari province. At the time of his birth, Japan was a divided country as Opposed to what it used to be in earlier years before the terrible civil war of 1460s.

The country was divided into more than sixty provinces each under the rule of a Daimyo. However, Daimyo were always at war with each other during which time numerous farms and villages would be burned. Oda Nobunaga was brought up in a castle in Nagoya where his father was among the chiefs from his Oda family that ruled Omwari at the time.

During his youthful years, Oda was a handsome and unusually graceful man and his father had hired tutors to teach his son the arts of war and other Chinese classics. Oda however proved to be a nuisance to his tutors because of his arrogance and irrelevance. One of his trainers, Kiyohide committed kanshi after writing up a letter urging Nobunaga to take up his studies more seriously. This death made Nobunaga change some bit and honored Hirashi Kiyohide by building the Seisyu-ji in Omwari (Seal par 4).

Oda Nobunaga was strange in his mode of dressing wearing odd colored short sleeve and knickknacks hanging from his waist. His moods were also unpredictable making people think him crazy.

It was rumored that Oda acted in this manner to fool his older cousins from seeing him a rival for the power. Physically, Nobunaga had a prominent nose and a scarce beard and was of unruly behavior. At the age of fourteen, Oda Nobunaga married a daughter of the lord of Mino province. This was a politically instigated marriage based on convenience not loves.

The rise of Oda Nobunaga

Following Oda Nobuhinde’s death, Oda Nobunaga built a small force of not more than a thousand men and successfully built an army that later repulsed two attacks by relatives and by a rival province. He later killed his chief rival in the family and a brother who challenged his leadership.

Oda Nobunaga rose to become a minor warlord and only held a small piece of land in Omwari province. Like most other Daimyo of his time, Oda rose to power following military encounters and by the age of 25 years, he controlled a large part of Omwari province by ruthlessly taking over territories from his neighbors. By 1558, Nobunaga had successfully united his family (Morton 47).

His rule was only secure in 1560 when he defeated Totomi family from the Ingawa province which was matching through his province on their way to conquering Kyoto. Following this defeat to the largest army in Japan, Nobunaga suddenly became a national figure and as a result many other Daimyos met him in a bid to build alliances (Saito 25).

Like other Daimyos of the Sengoku era, Oda Nobunaga took the advantage of convenience marriages to create alliances and strengthen his leadership. To begin with, Nobunaga married his daughter to the lord of Mikawa province Tokugawa Leyasu’s son. This alliance lasted for twenty years .

O-ichi, Oda Nobunaga’s sister was also married to Asai who was the lord of Omi province. These alliances helped Nobunaga became the leader of a very strong and powerful coalition. This however was only a start of what Oda Nobunaga aspired to do. It was only the beginning of an empire that he intended to build (Saito 27).He multiplied his army into more than ten times. He even recruited farmer to be foot soldiers who carried spears and lances while whoever showed talent was promoted through ranks (Saito 29).

His military prowess and leadership skill were again proved when in 1565 he marched into Kyoto and helped drive out a local warlord who had killed a shogun and instead installed a three year old as the new shogun. Nobunaga replaced the child shogun with Yoshiaki, the brother of the murdered shogun. He also helped rebuild the badly damaged palace and gave money to the emperor who had invited him to Kyoto.

Following the rise in power of Minamoto no Yoritomo appointed in 1192, as a shogun, most emperors lost their power, the remaining shoguns too lost their power although they still could appoint judges and other administrators. Nobunaga used Shogun Yoshiaki as a puppet and even obtained rights to sign document without his consent. This period saw Nobunaga become the most powerful leaders in Japan owing to his political and military might (Morton 47).


The developments at Kyoto agitated a daimyo that lived outside the influence of Nobunaga. He saw Nobunaga as a force that would lead to his destruction. To him, Nobunaga could not be compared to many other warlords like Hosokama Sumimoto and Miyoshi Motonaga who were only concerned only about personal gain and prestige. Nobunaga’s gain however seemed to surpass that of the two warlords and could not be filled.

He knew that Nobunaga’s aim was to rule the whole of Japan. Four other warlords during Nobunaga’s rule: Mori Motonari, Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin and hojo Ujiasu had no say in the capital as they had been removed by Nobunaga. Their movement was also curtailed by Nobunaga who occupied a strategic location.

Taking Kyoto only made things better for him as he was now positioned in the middle of Japan. Nobunaga’s power was based on the point of the sword with the use of diplomacy waning as he put additional territories under his rule. Nobunaga crushed his enemies completely especially those troublesome to him (Morton 49).

Real trouble

The first real trouble came when Asakura Yoshikage turned down an invitation by Yoshiaki who was ordered by Nobunaga to invite all local daimyos to a banquet at Kyoto. Nobunaga took this as a symbol of disloyal to both shogun Yoshiaki and the emperor. Using this as an excuse, Nobunaga raised an army to attack Echizen which was ruled by Asakura.

He made good his threat and was approaching Echizen capital, Ichijo-no-Tani, when he received news that his brother-in-law , Asai Namagasa, husband to his sister O-ichi had shifted bases and was fighting on Asakura’s side. He later moved back to Kyoto and attacked the combined forces of Asai and Asakura but the winner of this battle was no other but Nobunaga. This win propelled Nobunaga to the highest point in his military and political career (Hooker par 1).

He now was a force to reckon with in the larger Japan. However, Asai and Asakura had killed Nobunaga’s own brother, Nobuharu and sought the assistance of the monks of Mt. Hiei.

The fall of Monasteries

In 1570, Nobunaga’s army under the command of Hideyoshi defeated his brother-in-law, Asai, who had defected from his camp to join that of his rival, Asakura. However, both Asai and Asakura could not be captured as they escaped and sought refuge in Mt. Hiei which was a home to Enryakuji, one of the oldest and holiest Tendai Buddhist monasteries at the time. It is important to know that in middle of the second millennia, Buddhist monks were not as saintly as we know them today, but were rather armed, very political and held a lot of wealth.

This resulted into a lot of resentment from Nobunaga who coveted the extensive land holding they held and their use of religion to disguise their power pursuit. When he failed to annihilate Asai and Asakura, Nobunaga pleaded with the monks of Eryakuji to either maintain neutrality or face his wrath.

The monks too were in bad terms with Oda Nobunaga who took some of their lands and had threatened to tax them. They too could not understand how anyone could take the action Nobunaga was intending to fulfill of burning their eight century old monastery. In the mean time, Asai and Asakura took the opportunity to escape as the armed monks engaged in skirmishes with Nobunaga’s men.

In October 1571, in the mid of a very windy night, Nobunaga’s revenge was terrible as his soldiers surrounded Mt. Hiei and set it on fire. As enormous flames engulfed the mountain city, thousands of warrior monks, women and children were consumed by the fire that reduced the Eryakuji monastery into ashes.

Close to three thousand homes, schools, temples and libraries were destroyed in this fire. The whole of Japan shuddered at what Nobunaga had ruthlessly done. To this day, at the mention of Nobunaga, Japanese first thing in the mind is the burning of the Eryakuji monastery. This act of burning the monastery had the impact that Nobunaga intended as many Japanese monks were terrified and stopped maintaining armies, cease to be political and also accepted their loss of land without a word.

In 1574, one of remaining defiant Buddhist sect went up in flames while a second one was suppressed with gun fire in the following year. Only the Honganji monastery on Osaka bay remained defiant as it enjoyed naval support from some western Daimyos, however, in 1580, Nobunaga’s marines in seven warrior ships destroyed close to six hundred war boats. This brought to an end the defiance of the Honganji monastery.

Most other Buddhists had however lost their power by 1573. In that same year, Asai and Asakura committed suicide and Nabunaga had their skulls gold and silver plated and used them as drinking cups. As a result of asai’s death, his widow O-ichi, returned to his brother Nobunaga with three daughters and an infant son who was executed. O-ichi, with her striking beauty, was married off to a top general in his army, Shibata Katsue.

Christian Missionaries and the Gun Powder

Oda Nobunaga first interaction with the westerners was recorded by a Portuguese missionary named Louis Frois in 1569. Louis described Nobunaga as a tall man who was greatly addicted to military exercise and who scorned both Buddha and the Kami tradition medicine and who neither believed in life after death nor the immortality of the soul.

Nobunaga welcomed Jesuits missionary whom he liked and from whom he received gifts such as maps, tiger skins, magnifying glasses, improved guns and who also shared his contempt for Buddhism. In 1543, three Portuguese traders sold matchlocks to the Japanese at the island of Tanega south of Kyushu. These guns were copied by the local lord’s blacksmith’s but these guns failed to function due the gunpowder failing to explode.

Later, a Portuguese blacksmith settled down and began teaching the Japanese finer points of gun making. Within no time, the Japanese were making guns at a very fast rate. Sooner, the port of Okai, on Osaka bay became a major gun manufacturing center in Japan. Until 1569, this very prosperous town was under the rule of merchants but in that year, it fell under Nobunaga’s direct rule.

Nobunaga’s Administrative Skills

It is recorded that Nobunaga was a very skilful administrator and a good warrior. He promoted trade by minting standardized currency and also standardized weights and measures giving merchants an easy time in the process. ‘Marotoriums’ were also abolished as they exempted the dictatorial warlords from paying debts.

In his attempts to further improve trade conditions in Japan, he abolished all toll barriers and guild monopolies in his territory and in major cities. The more Nobunaga expanded his territorial borders by conquering neighboring provinces, the more it became easier for merchants as trade areas increased.

Nobunaga modernized his armies and in fact bought tens of thousands of guns that were used by his armies in practicing. The soldiers were trained to fast load the gun powders and to shoot and were also trained on arrangement in the battlefront especially formation of alternating rows.

In this arrangement, as the first row bent to reload, the second row would shoot while the third row would be aiming. This ensured a continuous bombardment that was devastating to the rival army. He too armed peasants who at times massacred thousands of samurai swordsmen (Weston 144).

Shogun Yoshiaki who too was in communication with Asai, Asakura, monks at the Eryakuji monastery and the daimyo of Akai province was too expelled from Kyoto. Nobunaga imposed taxes on the wealthy city dwellers and those who resisted had their wealth burned. This scared others who hastily complied.

Yoshiaki’s life was spared and he was left to wander in Japan for close to thirty years. During this time, Kyoto stayed without a shogun with the emperor failing to persuade Nobunaga to take up the position. Nobunaga had no interest in titles and chose to remain a warrior but demanded obedience from all those ha subdued. He even requested for obedience from his general Shibata Katsue whom he warned never to have any evil thought towards him.

The Azuchi Castle

In 1570s, Japan was enjoying a peaceful period following the rule of Nobunaga. Oda Nobunaga decided to build himself a seven storey castle on a hill in Azuchi province. This was a magnificent palace build forty miles north of Kyoto and was completed in 1579. The Azuchi castle had very beautiful rooms and were painted by top artists of the time especially Kano Eitoku who was the finest.

Each room was unique and was painted in a different theme including falcons, horses, trees, Chinese scholars and even Buddha and his disciples. His tea room was painted in leaf gold and it was in this room that he held tea ceremonies. Nobunaga was a great tea lover and collected rare tea utensils and gave them to his great generals as gifts. The castle at Azuchi underwent various changes. It was during this time that modern Japanese castles were born (Weston 145).

Azuchi castle revolutionized castle building in Japan. It was among the first Hiramayajiro castles that were build on a flat topped mountain and on low hills. The hills chosen were on a plain enabling large numbers of troops to be positioned here. Other features of the Azuchi castle included a bigger and higher tenshu allowing a greater view of the plains, Masugata, multiple maru and an ishigaki at the centre of the castle.

There were also secret floors within the tenshu. The Azuchi castle not only served for the defensive purposes but was also a show of power for Nobunaga. Nobunaga’s castle was later copied by other leaders who came after him such as Nagahama and Himeji castles build by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Sakamoto and Tanbakameyama castles that were build by Akechi Mitsumide.

Nobunaga’s Major Achievements


Nobunaga revolutionized the way wars were fought in Japan. His army was one of the most organized in the world during his time. He made many inventions and innovations that helped properly arm his forces (Murray 125). The most notable implementations were use of long pikes, advanced fire arms, ironclad ships and fortifications of castle to boost security. He also started a warrior class in which positions were assigned based on merit and not by name, tribe, rank or the size of land that one owned. Retainers were rewarded on the basis of the amount of rise that a rice farm produced not on the size of the farm. This measures ensured equality and fairness and helped reduce any complaints from his army. This system of army organization was later copied by his rivals such as Tokugawa Leyasu during the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate that was based at Edo (Murray 128).


Nobunaga was a very keen businessman who understood and practiced the principles of macro and microeconomics. He was pivotal in the modernization of both agricultural and manufacturing industries. Service bases and castle towns were established as the centers of trade and local economics.

To further improve trade and ease the movement of his large army between cities, Nobunaga improved roads. He opened up Japan beyond china and the Korean peninsula to the larger Asian countries such as Philippines, Siam and Indonesia. Trade with Europe especially with Portuguese and Spain was also expanded.

As a way to improve and promote trade and industry, Nobunaga instituted the Rakuizi-rakuza policies. Under this policy, Nobunaga’s goal was to abolish and prohibit monopolies and helped open up suppressed unions, associations and guilds. He established a proper tax system and exemptions and instituted laws that governed borrowing (Weston 142).

Fine art

With the rise of Nobunaga as a national leader, he amassed a large amount of wealth that he used to support major causes most notably the fine art. Nobunaga had a liking for the art and later used it to display his power and prestige.

His many gardens and castles bore great artistic features with the Azuchi castle being one this great art works. In later years, Nobunaga became a devout Christian and used this as a basis for terrorizing the Buddhist Ikko monks (Peterson 85). His tea master, Sen no Rikkyu helped him established the tea ceremonies which Nobunaga used for politics and business.

The westernization of Japan

Nobunaga eagerly embraced the western religions especially Christianity and welcomed the Jesuits missionaries with open hands. As a result of his conversion, he became among the first Japanese leader to appear in the European histories. He also imported the western technology like the firearms into Japan.

This technology coupled with offensive and defensive mechanisms imported from Europe contributed to the modernization of his forces. His armies were always retrained to cope up with new imported tactics and in addition, massive stone forts were constructed that would defy modern gun fire. He also improved his warships by iron cladding them which resulted into nearly unbeatable models (Weston 145).

The Death of Nobunaga

Nobunaga’s glory came to its highest point in Kyoto, august of 1581, during this day; Nobunaga had gathered nearly twenty thousand horsemen all brilliantly dressed who flew in full gallop in front of the emperor and half of the Kyoto population. Hideyoshi, one of his top brass general was not in this parade as he was on a mission to conquer the Harima province.

The story was that since 1577, Harima province had put up a strong defense following the unification of all western Daimyos under the leadership of the Mori family, who were allies of the Ikko-ikki clan. This province had a united army with as many soldiers and complex gun power as Nobunaga making the war drag for years (Peterson 87).

In 1582, the Mori troops were making advancement towards the castle in Bitchu province and were overwhelming to the Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s army. Hideyoshi asked for reinforcement from Nobunaga who at once decided to head west himself. In the process, Nobunaga commanded his top Generals to join him in this worthy course. He however took a two night’s stop at a temple in Kyoto in order to make the final arrangement for a battle that never took place.

June 21, 1582, Akechi Mitsuhide, the general appointed by Nobunaga to lead some ten thousand soldiers to attack Harima province chose to attack Nobunaga instead.

This took Nobunaga at a sheer surprise as he was entertaining guests at a Homno temple. Nobunaga had less than a hundred board guards making escape out of question. For the first time, Nobunaga took part in a battle but was wounded by either an arrow or a spear. He decided to retreat into a room and locked himself from where he committed Seppuku, a ritual suicide (Peterson 89).

The temple was then burned down and no remains of Nobunaga’s body were ever recovered. His eldest son was also killed in this battle and his Azuchi castle looted and then burned down by the mob. It is not known up to today what caused Mitsuhide turn against his master and he never had time to explain as he was hunted by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who took his head. At his death, Nobunaga was forty six years and ruled Japan’s thirty one out of sixty six provinces. His aim was to conquer many more and bring them under one rule.


Oda Nobunaga was truly one of the Japan’s most influential men and women and is remembered for his attempt to form a united Japan. He had a modern outlook for Japan and helped modernize warfare in Japan, broke the power of the monks, improved trade and industry, westernized Japan, gave equal opportunities to all especially the peasant and surprisingly ignored titles (Berry 35).

It is however ironical that this fierce warrior who had the heart to burn thousands of innocent children and women was attributed to have brought peace to Japan which by the time was racked by a two hundred years of war.

This peace he brought fearfully and was based on one man who ruled Japan with an iron hand. It is no surprise that his allies were also relieved following his death. But the question many ask is ‘to what length Nobunaga would have gone had his life not been cut short?’ By the time of his death, Nobunaga changed Japan forever (Berry 35).

Works Cited

Berry M. Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Havard: Havard University Asia center, 1989.

Hooker, Richard. “World civilizations: Odo Nobunaga.” Washington State University, 1996. Web.

Morton, M. Scott, and Olenik, J. Kenneth. Japan: Its History and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2005.

Murray, David. The Story of Japan. UK: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1894.

Paterson, Paterson. Oda Nobunaga: The Battle of Okehazama. New York: Jetlag press, 2008.

Saito, Hisho. A history of Japan. Tokyo: Forgotten books, 1990.

Seal, F. W. “Oda Nobunaga.” Samurai, Mar 5 2011.

Weston, Mark. Giants of Japan: the Lives of Japan’s Most Influential Men and Women. New York: Kodansha America, 2002.

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