THIS is the story of Oda Nobunaga as seen through the characters and events that shaped his dramatic life during the sixteenth century. Nobunaga is a towering figure in Japanese history, and his rise to power serves as a testament to the conquest made possible through an extraordinary blend of foresight, skill, and ingenuity.
Born in 1534, Nobunaga lived during the volatile and, at times, chaotic, circumstances of the Sengoku and Azuchi-Momoyama periods. The Sengoku period is generally regarded as commencing with the outbreak of a long war in 1467 known as the Ōnin-Bunmei Conflict (Ōnin-Bunmei no ran) that raged in the ancient capital of Kyōto and its environs for over a decade. This conflict erupted as several influential clans vied for power during the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shōgun, who ruled through a form of governance known as the Muromachi bakufu. The eastern army, led by Hosokawa Katsumoto, fought against the western army, under the command of Yamana Sōzen. Fierce and prolonged battles led to the widespread destruction of the capital, not to mention the political, cultural, and social order that it had embodied.
The violence and discord originating in Kyōto engulfed many regions in Japan. Nobunaga’s triumphal march to Kyōto in 1568 led to the overthrow of the fifteenth shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, in 1573, marking the end of the Muromachi bakufu and the Sengoku period. The Azuchi-Momoyama period witnessed continuing strife, as vividly illustrated by Nobunaga’s assassination at the hands of one of his close retainers in 1582. Not until a victor emerged from the battle between the eastern and western armies at Sekigahara in 1600, did this period draw to a close.
During these periods, traditional means of governance broke down in a broad transfer of power from the aristocracy in Kyōto to provincial warlords and their supporters, a phenomenon known as gekokujō. Townspeople banded together in local governing bodies and former administrators of the chōtei, or Imperial Court, rose to become warlords. Military force dictated events as clans fought in an ever-widening struggle for regional hegemony. Groups of peasants, merchants, craftsmen, and religious followers bound by common needs and aspirations acted at times in coordination with, and sometimes in opposition to, armies operating under the direction of clan leaders and local power-brokers.
Acts of conspiracy, regarded as ignoble according to contemporary values, were the order of the day in the Sengoku period. Peasants could expect to live an average of only thirty-five years in conditions that severely tested basic instincts of survival. In this respect, Nobunaga read into the desires and motivations that drove men to commit acts of bravery and loyalty, cowardice and betrayal. He succeeded in transforming loose bands of fighting peasants into a highly organized and disciplined army capable of dominating vast areas of central Japan.
Battle tactics evolved from heavily armored warriors on horseback to foot soldiers bearing only light protection. The emphasis shifted from swords to long spears, and from individual combat to mass assaults. Military strategies developed rapidly to include an array of battle formations and maneuvers, in addition to the ninja arts and similar means of secretly penetrating and breaking down the enemy. In devastating showdowns, Nobunaga pioneered the use of firearms on the battlefield, forever changing the rules of engagement. Massive steel-plated warships crushed a navy with far superior numbers, and he exploited the power of misinformation to confuse enemies, luring the unwary into lethal traps. The relationships he cultivated with local merchants and craftsmen led to valuable tips and information, not to mention a base for the production of weapons and materials.