The Early Years

A. Origin

B. Oda Nobuhide

C. The Imagawa and Hōjō Clans

D. The Imagawa and Matsudaira Clans

E. The Toki and Saitō Clans

F. Nobunaga’s Youth

A.  Origin

In his youth, Oda Nobunaga did not act or appear in a way that belied his later role as the dominant warlord he became.  Quite to the contrary, members of his family, as well as the people who came to know Nobunaga, cast him as a fool owing to his odd and provocative behavior.  Some even questioned whether he was the legitimate heir of his father, Oda Nobuhide.  His appearance gave onlookers a hint of his audacious character.  In his youth, Nobunaga could be seen wearing a cotton shirt with the sleeves torn off and a cotton skirt.  Pouches for flint and other possessions dangled from his waist, along with a lacquer-handled knife that he jammed under his waistband.  Pulled tightly on top of his head, his hair resembled a bamboo whisk to mix tea.  Townspeople gawked as he strolled around town with friends while munching on melons and persimmons.

Nobunaga was born in Shobata Castle in 1534, the second son of Nobuhide, one of three local magistrates in Owari Province.  Nobunaga’s birthname was Kippōshi.  Nobunaga’s mother was Dota Gozen, the daughter of Dota Masahisa, head of another clan of local influence.  As was customary in these times, Nobuhide had children with other women, but Gozen was his formal wife.  Nobunaga’s older brother, Oda Nobuhiro, was born to a commoner, meaning that, in accordance with custom, Nobunaga became the designated successor to his father.  In terms of lineage, Nobunaga was born into a family of meritorious, although not renowned, stature.

Around the time of Nobunaga’s birth, the Oda clan had eclipsed the once powerful Shiba as the dominant rulers in Owari.  The Shiba formed part of a network of families, including the Hosokawa and the Hatakeyama, serving as governor-magistrates, or shugo, under the Muromachi bakufu to administer its rule of the provinces. Shiba Yoshimune inherited his role as shugo from his father, Shiba Yoshitatsu, in the midst of a steadily weakening state of affairs.  During Yoshitatsu’s reign, Yoshimune corresponded with nobles in Kyōto whereas relations with the ruling class appeared to cease during the time of his own governance.     

The clan had begun to lose its influence, in part, as an outcome of a long war known as the Ōnin-Bunmei War, which enabled the Hosokawa family to monopolize governance roles during a period when the Muromachi bakufu had begun to crumble.  The battles raging in Kyōtō for succession in the Ashikaga house divided the Shiba clan, and over a period of several generations, the Shiba gradually lost the authority formerly wielded in the provinces of Echizen, Owari, and Tōtōmi.  In addition to internal divisions, the Shiba forfeit their home province of Echizen to the Kai and Asakura clans, who ascended in stature from deputy magistrates, known as shugodai, to shugo, or military governors. Meanwhile, competing factions within the Oda clan rose to prominence in Owari, while the Imagawa encroached from Suruga into Tōtōmi.  This transition of power to other local clans left the Shiba clan under Yoshimune with a nominal role in local governance.

Following the Ōnin-Bunmei War, a violent clash occurred in 1478 between Oda Toshihiro and Oda Toshisada, causing the Oda to split into two branches, each headed by a shugodai.  Toshihiro led the Ise-no-kami clan.  From their base at Iwakura castle, the clan governed the four northern districts of Owari, comprised of Haguri, Kasugai, Nakashima, and Niwa.  Meanwhile, Toshisada served as lord of the Yamato-no-kami clan, controlling the four southern districts of Aichi, Chita, Kaisai, and Kaitō from Kiyosu Castle. Toshisada was Nobunaga’s great-grandfather.  Despite a truce, a continuous struggle for hegemony ensued for generations between these collateral lines of the family.  In Nobunaga’s time, Oda Nobuyasu led the Ise-no-kami clan, whereas Oda Nobutomo headed the Yamato-no-kami clan.  As the adopted son of Oda Michikatsu, Nobutomo had inherited the role of shugodai to become lord of Kiyosu Castle. 

B.  Oda Nobuhide

Nobunaga’s father, Nobuhide, was born in 1510 as the eldest son of Oda Nobusada, lord of Shobata Castle in Owari and one of the first generation of warriors in the Sengoku era. Known as the “Tiger of Owari,” Nobuhide confronted enemies within Owari and in the neighboring provinces of Mino and Mikawa, gaining prominence in the course of leading a series of battles and forays.  He aimed to control the territory of Owari and beyond, but ultimately failed to realize his ambitions owing to an untimely demise. 

Nobusada built Shobata Castle during the Eishō and Daiei periods in the early sixteenth century, moving his base there from a residence in Tsushima.  Shobata straddled the border between the Kaitō and Nakashima Districts in Owari.  Nobusada transferred control of Shobata Castle and the family to Nobuhide around 1527.  He then retired to Kinoshita Castle.  Shobata Castle stood on a plain in the Ama District, from where Nobuhide governed the southwest portion of Owari.  This region was at the western edge of the territory controlled by the Oda family based at Kiyosu Castle.  In 1533, Nobuhide invited Yamashina Tokitsugu and Asukai Masatsuna to his residence at Shobata Castle. Serving as cultural dignitaries and fund raisers for the Imperial Court in Kyōto, the guests joined Nobuhide in composing Japanese odes known as waka, and enjoyed kyōgen drama and moon-gazing from the castle bridge.  Tokitsugu noted in his diary the fine workmanship of the castle structures while touring the grounds.  Nobuhide also held a kickball competition known as kemari attended by several hundred onlookers at Kiyosu Castle. 

Nobuhide moved his headquarters several times to position strategically for his campaign in Owari and the neighboring provinces, residing in Shobata, Nagoya, Furuwatari, and Suemori – forming an arc from west to east across the province.  After extending his influence into the districts of Nakashima and Kaisai, Nobuhide then garnered control of Tsushima.  A robust harbor town, Tsushima lay adjacent to Ise Bay and a tributary of the Kiso River, serving as an important regional center of commerce and as home to the Tsushima Shrine.  Nobuhide continued his father’s custom to tax commerce traveling through Ise Bay, a vital commercial shipping route.  These funds enabled him to finance military excursions and to expand his sphere of influence outward from Shobata Castle.  At the time, Michikatsu, lord of the Kiyosu branch of the Oda clan, failed to restrain Nobuhide from gaining local power.  This helped fuel the rise of Nobuhide’s family within the Oda clan, enabling their leader to become a sengoku daimyō.    

Years later, Nobunaga followed a similar pattern of relocating his base of operations to advance his economic and strategic interests.  In the case of Nobunaga, however, the moves spanned greater distances corresponding to his large domain, not to mention his aim to conquer all of Japan.  In addition to locating near trade centers, Nobunaga increased revenues by actively stimulating local commercial activities with free market directives, known as rakuichi-rakuza, and by dismantling trade guilds.

In 1535, Nobuhide moved south about three and one-half kilometers to a new headquarters at Furuwatari Castle, intended to guard his territory from the south and east.   Located on a plain, the castle was approximately 140 by 100 meters and surrounded by a double moat.  The coastal route known as the Tōkaidō passed nearby, adding to the strategic value of this site.  Nobuhide chose Furuwatari as his new base knowing that control of this region would bring him greater wealth and influence.  He positioned his retainers and younger brothers, Nobuyasu and Nobumitsu, in key locations to reinforce his defenses in Owari.

Nobuhide gave gifts to local court nobles and offered support to other troubled families, exercising his diplomatic skills to build influence.  In 1541, he traveled to Kyōto, earning the gratitude of the Imperial Court by donating seven hundred kan mon and lumber needed to reconstruct the Ise Shrine for the first time in over one hundred years.  The Emperor rewarded him with the title of shugodai of Mikawa.  His support for the Muromachi bakufu allowed him the opportunity to meet the thirteenth shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru.  In 1543, he traveled to Kyōto to donate four thousand kan mon for reconstruction costs, a huge amount considering that the annual revenue of the Imperial Court at the time was about seven thousand kan mon.  Later visits to his castle by court nobles and other dignitaries reflected his interest in the culture of Kyōto and the goodwill generated by these donations.

C.  The Imagawa and Hōjō Clans

Imagawa Yoshimoto represented the ninth generation of rulers from the Imagawa in the region.  Yoshimoto was the third son of Imagawa Ujichika.  Ujichika became the clan daimyō at the tender age of sixteen, after losing his father in his infancy.  Beset by apoplexy, he struggled to maintain control of the powerful clan.  Prior to his death in 1526, he issued a set of thirty-three covenants known as the Imagawa kana mokuroku to assist his capable wife, Jukei-ni, to manage the affairs of the clan.  These provincial laws served primarily as standards to formalize the daimyō’s governance of his retainers.  This allowed the clan leaders to assert their authority on matters where the role of the shogunate was traditionally weak and to counter the rising influence of local bodies led by regional power-brokers including landowners and wealthy families.

As the eldest son of Ujichika, Imagawa Ujiteru stood to become his successor at the age of only fourteen, under the supervision and control of Jukei-ni.  In 1532, Ujiteru began to exert his authority by conducting surveys of land holdings in Tōtōmi province, and sending gifts to the Imperial Court in Kyōto to strengthen ties.  In 1535, he joined with Hōjō Ujitsuna from Sagami province in battle against Takeda Nobutora in the Tsuru district of Kai province.  In 1536, while en route with Reizei Tamekazu to a waka event in Odawara, he suddenly died at the age of twenty-four.  His next younger brother, Imagawa Hikogorō, mysteriously died on the same day, leaving unanswered questions as to the cause of their mutual demise.  

The absence of a natural successor led to an internecine conflict known as the Hanakura War, pitting Yoshimoto against his half-brother, Genkō Etan, the son of one of Ujichika’s consorts from the Kushima family.  Yoshimoto enjoyed the support of his mother, Jukeini, a leading figure in the clan.  Her base of power owed, at least in part, to her aristocratic roots.  Her father was Nakamikado Nobutane, a chief councilor of the shōgun in Kyōto.  After consulting with Yoshimoto’s mentor, Taigen Sessai from the Kennin Temple in Kyōto, Jukei-ni garnered support from Sena Ujisada and other influential retainers for Yoshimoto’s bid to become the new lord.  Yoshimoto renounced his life as a monk at the temple and aimed to seize control of the clan.  He pledged to reconcile with the Takeda clan, which interfered with the diplomatic and military actions led by the Kushima.

Jukei-ni tried unsuccessfully to convince Kushima Echizen-no-kami to drop his support for Etan.  Instead, he pressed her to concede, which inevitably led to conflict.  Etan then raised arms at Mount Kunō, and launched an attack on the Imagawa quarters in Sunpu.  Faced with strong defenses, the attackers fled to Katanokami Castle on Mount Takakusa and the decrepit Hanakura Castle.  Yoshimoto, with the support of the Hōjō clan from Sagami Province, ordered Okabe Chikatsuna to attack and capture Katanokami Castle.  The forces assaulted Hanakura Castle where Etan took refuge. Unable to withstand the attack, Etan fled to the Fumon Temple in Sedoya and committed seppuku.  After the battles in Tōtōmi subsided, Yoshimoto declared himself successor to Ujichika and worked to strengthen his influence over the affairs of neighboring provinces.

As the new lord of the clan, Yoshimoto continued to expand the influence of the clan, carrying the title of “Supreme Ruler of Tōkai” and the “Top Archer of Tōkai.”  In 1537, Yoshimoto married Jōkei-in, the daughter of Takeda Nobutora, to ally himself with the long-time rival.  The Takeda clan of Kai Province ranked among the most powerful in Japan.  This alliance with the Takeda came at the cost of undermining the common bond that Yoshimoto had with the Hōjō of Sagami.  The Hōjō had been battling with the Takeda on the border of Kai and Sagami provinces.  Hōjō Ujitsuna regarded formation of the alliance as the end of their peace with the Imagawa, and invaded Suruga, laying waste to the Okitsu District.  This marked the beginning of a series of battles between the clans over a span of eight years, known as the Katō Conflict.  From 1537 to 1545, the Imagawa and the Hōjō contested territory to the east of the Fuji River in Suruga.

Yoshimoto attempted to repel the Hōjō, but Ujitsuna and his men successfully defended the captured territory.  To reinforce his position, Ujitsuna garnered support from clans based in Tōtōmi opposed to Yoshimoto’s succession, including the Horikoshi and the Ii.  These combined forces launched a pincer attack to divide Yoshimoto’s forces.  Ujitsuna’s tactics prevented the Imagawa from dislodging the invaders despite support from the Takeda.

In 1541, Nobutora’s eldest son, Shingen, together with retainers Itagaki Nobukata and Amari Torayasu, expelled Nobutora from Kai to Suruga.  Shingen then became lord of the clan and launched an incursion into Shinano Province.  Meanwhile, Hōjō Ujitsuna died and Ujiyasu became his successor.  While continuing the stand-off with the Imagawa on the east side of the Fuji River, Ujiyasu ordered an advance into the northern Kantō Region.  The Takeda and Hōjō then entered into an alliance in pursuit of their mutual interests.

In 1545, Yoshimoto commenced another effort to recover the territory occupied by the Hōjō.  He first sought peace through a direct appeal to Hōjō Ujiyasu, summoning monks from the Shōgo Monastery in Kyōto for support.  After Ujiyasu rejected the entreaty, Yoshimoto turned to Takeda Shingen to serve as a mediator, but as soon as the monks departed, he planned for military action.   

Yoshimoto formed an alliance with Uesugi Norimasa, carrier of the court-awarded title of Kantō kanrei, or “Ruler of Kantō,” with the objective of encircling Ujiyasu.  Norimasa was a member of the main branch of the Uesugi clan known as the Yama-no-uchi Uesugi. Norimasa had previously fought against the Hōjō in the northern Kantō.  Yoshimoto crossed the Fuji River and landed at the Zentoku Temple, while the Takeda set-up a base at the Taiseki Temple.  Ujiyasu and his men responded by rushing into Suruga, losing in a clash with the Imagawa at the Kitsune Bridge.   Early in the ninth month, the Imagawa and Takeda joined forces, causing the Hōjō to flee Yoshihara Castle and retreat to Mishima.  The Imagawa pursued the Hōjō to Mishima, surrounding Nagakubo Castle defended by Hōjō Nagatsuna.  Meanwhile, the Uesugi launched a simultaneous operation against the Hōjō in the northern Kantō Region, laying siege to Kawagoe Castle.  Following mutual pledges mediated by Taigen Sessai, the Hōjō vacated Nagakubo while Ujiyasu turned his attention to the contest for Kawagoe Castle.

Kawagoe Castle served as the home base for the Ōgigayatsu branch of the Uesugi family with influence in Sagami and Musashi provinces.  Uesugi Tomosada was its lord.  In 1537, Hōjō Ujitsuna took advantage of conflict between the Uesugi (Kantō kanrei) and the Ashikaga (Koga kubō) to advance from Sagami into Musashi and captured Edo and Kawagoe castles, nearly eliminating the Ōgigayatsu branch of the Uesugi. 

The Siege of Kawagoe Castle occurred in the latter part of 1545 when a massive contingent of as many as eighty thousand men under the joint command of Uesugi Norimasa, Uesugi Tomosada, and Ashikaga Haruuji surrounded the castle.  Norimasa set-up camp on the south side, while Tomosada secured the northern side.  Hōjō Tsunanari, the younger brother-in-law of Ujiyasu, led three thousand defenders.  The men in the castle could rely upon about six months worth of provisions, resulting in a stalemate for several months.  The disparity in troop size, however, compelled the Hōjō to plead for reinforcements or else face a certain defeat.

Ujiyasu led eight thousand men from his home province.  Prior to attempting an attack on the forces laying siege to the castle, he had a letter delivered to Haruuji with a declaration of surrender and an apology on behalf of the defenders.  The letter further offered to turn-over the castle in exchange for sparing the lives of the men and a promise to pledge loyalty to Haruuji.  The Uesugi rejected the offer and instead attacked the Hōjō, causing them to retreat without a fight to Fuchū in Musashi Province.  Ujiyasu divided his men into four battalions. 

Ashikaga Haruuji, a brother-in-law of Ujiyasu and fourth generation head of the Ashikaga clan in the Kantō Region, held the title of Koga kubō.  Haruuji enjoyed the support of the Yama-no-uchi branch of the Uesugi.  During this period, the Kamakura branch of the clan in the Kantō acted as a rival to the Kyōto branch of the Ashikaga.  Following the demise of Hōjō Ujitsuna, Haruuji secretly joined an alliance with Yoshimoto.  This compelled Ujiyasu to turn to Takeda Shingen to mediate a peace with Yoshimoto.  By this accord, Ujiyasu surrendered the area to the east of the Fuji River in eastern Suruga to Yoshimoto.  Several years later, Ujiyasu took Kōkokuji Castle, only for the Imagawa to recapture it, with the Kise River serving as the border between their domains.  Yoshimoto did not reconcile with the Hōjō until 1554.

D.  The Imagawa and Matsudaira Clans

The Imagawa clan of Owari, a local rival, controlled territory in and around Nagoya. Unlike their brethren in the neighboring province of Suruga, the Imagawa of Owari faltered.  Imagawa Ujitoyo, lord of Nagoya Castle, had more interest in the fine arts than the martial arts.  Eyeing an opportunity, in 1538, Nobuhide launched a clever scheme to capture the castle.  Nobuhide first built trust with Ujitoyo by attending events at the castle to compose traditional linked-verse poetry known as renga.  During one of these visits, Nobuhide feigned illness and requested to convey his final wishes to his retainers.  Out of sympathy for his condition, Ujitoyo allowed a contingent to enter the grounds.  That evening, Nobuhide called upon his men to set fire to the castle, commencing an attack on his hosts from within the premises.  Ujitoyo pled for his life, and, with the help of his sister, escaped to Kyōto. Nobuhide then appointed the young Nobunaga as the titular head of Nagoya Castle.

Several years earlier, after capturing the neighboring province of Mikawa, Matsudaira Kiyoyasu, lord of the Matsudaira clan based at the hilltop castle of Okazaki, invaded Owari with a force of over ten thousand men, aiming to overrun Nobumitsu at Moriyama Castle.  During the siege, a pivotal event occurred in 1535 known as the Moriyama kuzure, or Collapse at Moriyama.  A rumor circulated that Kiyoyasu’s retainer named Abe Sadayoshi had colluded with Nobuhide.  Sadayoshi then warned his son, Masatoyo, that Kiyoyasu would likely order him killed owing to the controversy, and furnished his son with a written pledge asking him to clear his name should this happen.  During an early morning disturbance with their horses, Masatoyo believed that Kiyoyasu had indeed slain his father.  In a fit of revenge, he approached Kiyoyasu from behind and decapitated him with his sword.  In turn, Masatoyo was immediately slain by Uemura Ujiaki.

Prior to his sudden demise, Kiyoyasu had proved to be a highly capable lord by nearly unifying Mikawa under the Matsudaira clan.  His youthful successor, Hirotada, lacked the ambition and leadership shown by Kiyoyasu, making the clan vulnerable in ongoing contests for influence with surrounding warlords.  Nobuhide took advantage of this discord in the Matsudaira clan by attacking and capturing Okazaki Castle that same year, to which he appointed Matsudaira Nobusada.  Nobusada had earlier formed a relationship with Nobuhide based on the marriage between his eldest son, Kiyosada, and Nobuhide’s younger sister.  Nobuhide then banished the ten-year-old Hirotada to Suruga. 

In 1537, Hirotada recaptured Okazaki Castle from Nobusada based on support from the Imagawa, raising tensions on the border between Owari and Mikawa.

In 1540, Nobuhide repelled an advance into Owari by Hirotada and counterattacked in Mikawa.  The Oda surrounded and captured Anjō Castle, after having earlier failed.  Anjō became a strategic base for the Oda in Mikawa, and its loss exposed Hirotada at Okazaki Castle.  The Matsudaira then fell under the control of Imagawa Yoshimoto, powerful lord of Suruga and Tōtōmi to the east of the provinces of Mikawa, Owari, and Ōmi.  While Yoshimoto proceeded to expand his influence in Mikawa at the expense of the Matsudaira, Nobuhide’s army moved into the plains of western Mikawa to secure their eastern flank, setting the stage for further conflict with the westward advance of the Imagawa.

In 1542, Nobuhide departed Anjō Castle, crossed the Yahagi River, and marched into the western plains of Mikawa, setting up a base in Uewada.  Meanwhile, the Imagawa, with support from the Matsudaira, headed west toward Owari, arriving in Ikutahara, to expel the Oda.  The armies clashed to the east of Okazaki Castle in the Nukata District of Mikawa in the First Battle of Azukizaka.  Initial assaults by the Oda drove the allied forces of the Imagawa and Matsudaira into a state of confusion.  After re-grouping, the allied forces gained the upper hand, only to have the tide turn against them, in part, owing to the devastation wrought by seven intrepid spear-wielding soldiers including Oda Nobumitsu, Oda Nobufusa, Okada Shigeyoshi (lord of Hoshizaki Castle), Sassa Katsumichi, Sassa Katsushige, Nakano Kazuyasu, and Shimokata Sadakiyo.  The allied forces then retreated while Yoshimoto sought refuge in Okazaki Castle. 

The ensuing victory enabled the Oda clan to expand its influence in the Nishimi river border region between Owari and Mikawa while continuing to engage rival factions within Owari.  In the midst of this turmoil, Nobuhide maintained his allegiance to the Yamato-no-kami clan, the deputy military governor of Owari, and eclipsed the Shiba.

Mizuno Nobumoto, a kokujin based in Kariya Castle in Mikawa, wielded influence on the border with Owari.  This area was comprised of the eastern portion of the Chita District in Owari and the western portion of the Hekikai District in Mikawa.  Tensions between the Oda and the Imagawa had risen in this region following the First Battle of Azukizaka.  Nobumoto’s younger sister, Odai-no-kata, had become the wife of Hirotada, lord of Okazaki Castle, as a political arrangement to bound the Mizuno to the Matsudaira.  After the separation of Odai-no-kata from Hirotada, Nobumoto betrayed the Matsudaira and their allies, the Imagawa, and, in 1544, joined forces with the Oda. 

These developments threatened Hirotada, causing him to seek further protection from the Oda by forging a tighter relationship with the Imagawa over the next several years.  In 1545, Hirotada led an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Anjō, after which he petitioned Yoshimoto for help to expel the Oda from Mikawa.  Yoshimoto offered to accommodate Hirotada, only if Hirotada would agree to send his heir as a hostage.  This pained Hirotada, seeing as Takechiyo, his lineal heir and a child only six years of age, would serve as the hostage.  Nevertheless, he favored this option over the risk of capitulating to his archenemy, Nobuhide.

In 1547, Hirotada reluctantly agreed to send Takechiyo to Yoshimoto’s base in Sunpu as the price for Yoshimoto’s support in protecting the Matsudaira.  Yoshimoto ordered a kokujin, Toda Yasumitsu, lord of Tahara Castle in Mikawa, to take custody of Takechiyo from Hirotada at Okazaki Castle and escort him to Sunpu.  Takechiyo and the other members of the entourage departed Okazaki on foot, with plans to travel by boat from the shores of Oitsu, on the Atsumi Peninsula, to Sunpu.  Instead, the boat sailed west on Mikawa Bay, arriving on the coast of Owari, whereupon Yasumitsu tendered Takechiyo to the Oda.  This act of retribution followed the toppling by Yoshimoto of Yasumitsu’s fellow clan members a year earlier.  Nobuhide paid recognition to Yasumitsu for the betrayal of Yoshimoto with a handsome reward of one thousand kan

Takechiyo was, in fact, the young Tokugawa Ieyasu, who later became one of Nobunaga’s closest allies and the ruler of Japan.  This fateful relationship between Ieyasu and the Oda family endured for the remainder of Nobunaga’s life. 

The news infuriated Yoshimoto, who immediately dispatched forces to Tahara Castle.  Yasumitsu valiantly defended his castle, but the attacking forces proved too much and both he and Takamitsu, his eldest son and heir, fell in battle.  This led to the demise of those members of the Toda clan from Tahara Castle. 

Nobuhide sought to leverage his success in capturing Takechiyo by persuading Hirotada to renounce his support for the Imagawa in favor of the Oda.  Yoshimoto had reason to fear that the Matsudaira would betray him and pay allegiance to the Oda to protect Takechiyo, so he responded by quickly setting up a base in Mikawa.  From this location, he attacked and toppled Anjō Castle, which Nobuhide had earlier taken.  Further, he succeeded in capturing Nobuhide’s eldest son, Nobuhiro, lord of Anjō Castle.  Yoshimoto then made a hostage deal with the Oda to trade Nobuhiro for the return of Ieyasu.  The Oda consented and sent Ieyasu to Yoshimoto’s headquarters in Sunpu.  Thereafter, the Matsudaira pledged loyalty to the Imagawa.

In 1547, Nobuhide built a fort in Yamazaki to the north of Anjō Castle in Owari and installed Matsudaira Nobutaka.     

The retainers of Yoshimoto dutifully cared for Ieyasu while in charge of him in Sunpu.  Nevertheless, the Matsudaira faced a desperate situation, forced to depend on Yoshimoto for their protection.  Hirotada died in 1549 at the age of twenty-four owing either to a sudden illness or at the hands of a patron turned betrayer.  Despite years of ill health, he had ruled well and made the absence of an heir more troublesome, leaving Okazaki Castle without a lord.  Yoshimoto exploited the men of Mikawa, sending their forces into battle first to protect his own, further weakening from afar any lingering resistance to his governance.  This stiffened the determination of the men from Mikawa, who dug in and fought valiantly, garnering a reputation as intrepid warriors.

In 1548, Nobuhide aimed to capture Okazaki Castle, a strategic fortification in western Mikawa serving as home base of the Matsudaira.  In the Second Battle of Azukizaka, Oda Nobuhiro, Nobuhide’s eldest son, led a force of over four thousand men across the Yahagi River to an encampment at Uewada.  In response, Taigen Sessai led combined forces of the Imagawa and the Matusdaira.  While climbing the Azuki hills, the Oda suddenly encountered the Matsudaira’s advance forces. Unable to counterattack from a downhill position, the men retreated to the main base near Tōboku.  Despite re-grouping with the larger contingent, spear-wielding Imagawa troops including Okabe Motonobu outflanked them from a hilltop position, causing the Oda to flee across the river to Anjō Castle.

Following the defeat, Nobuhide built and moved to Suemori Castle on a hilltop surrounded by a plain.  Together with Moriyama Castle protected by his younger brother, Oda Nobumitsu, Nobuhide took this step to counter the threat from the Imagawa and Matsudaira alliance to his eastern flank.  Positioned in the Aichi District of Owari, Nobuhide could secure revenue needed for his ongoing military campaigns with the aim, ultimately, to unify the province.

In 1549, Sessai led the Imagawa and Matsudaira against Anjō Castle in Mikawa, which Nobuhide had earlier taken from the Matsudaira.  The invading forces succeeded in overrunning the defenders and capturing Nobuhiro at the Third Battle of Anjō.  Nobuhide thereby suffered a loss of the castle after having taken it years earlier from the Matsudaira.    

Yoshimoto then made a hostage deal with the Oda to trade Nobuhiro for the return of Takechiyo. Takechiyo arrived at Yoshimoto’s headquarters in Sunpu, a town in Suruga, formalizing the subservience of the Matsudaira to their command.  The Imagawa then assigned administrators to Anjō and Okazaki castles.  The loss of Anjō Castle marked the end of the failed advance by the Oda into Mikawa, as Nobuhide could not prevail against the combined forces of the Imagawa and the Matsudaira clans.

E.  The Toki and Saitō Clans

In 1542, Nobuhide offered protection to Toki Yoriaki, a local powerbroker from Mino Province banished, together with his son Yoritsugu, by Saitō Dōsan.  Dōsan symbolized the phenomenon of gekokujō during the Sengoku era by rising from humble origins to become the ruler of Mino.  He acquired his power through artifice and treachery, boasting a reputation as a villainous warlord.  His ruthless methods, including the poisoning of his benefactors, earned Dōsan an inglorious moniker as the “pit viper.”

During the late 1540’s, Nobuhide endured ongoing battles with the Imagawa in Mikawa and the Saitō in Mino, as well as the risk of betrayal from within his own ranks.  In 1547, Nobuhide ordered the mobilization of soldiers from throughout Owari for an attempt to capture Dosan’s home base at Inabayama castle in the Battle of Kanōguchi.  Taking to the field in Mino and in Mikawa, his men set ablaze settlements in the foothills of Inabayama Castle and advanced toward the town.  As dusk approached, remaining forces suffered a lightening counterattack from Dōsan’s men, losing as many as five thousand in the ensuing battle.  This included the loss of Oda Nobuyasu, one of Nobunaga’s uncles, and a mentor named Aoyama Nobumasa.  Nobuhide fled with only a small contingent, with thousands of fleeing troops drowning while attempting to cross the Kiso River.

The Saitō capitalized on this victory by surrounding Ōgaki Castle in a bid to recapture this strategic location on the border with Ōmi.  Nobuhide’s men countered by starting blazes and stirring smoke in raids on Mino. This caused Dōsan to temporarily retreat to Inabayama Castle.  While Nobuhide joined a foray into Mino, one of his chief retainers, Sakai Daizen, attempted a covert rebellion.  Daizen led a loose band of followers, including retainers of the Kiyosu faction, to set fires in the town below Furuwatari Castle.  To Nobuhide’s fortune, he reconciled with Daizen through the efforts of Nobunaga’s venerable mentor, Hirate Masahide.  This did not, however, prevent the Saitō from retaking Ōgaki Castle in 1549 and appointing Takegoshi Naomitsu as its lord.

Masahide further served his lord as an intermediary between Nobuhide and his staunch enemy, the Saitō clan.  Nobuhide sought a peace pact with the Saitō, sealed by the marriage of Nobunaga to his daughter, Sagiyama-dono, early in 1549.  This removed a threat from the north, allowing Nobuhide to focus on continuing hostilities with the Imagawa on the eastern border while abandoning support for Toki Yoriaki.

Sagiyama-dono was also referred to as Nōhime, meaning “Princess from Mino” – a fitting name for the charming young lady.  At the time of their marriage, Nobunaga was fifteen years old, and Sagiyama-dono was fourteen.  Marriage served as a common means to cement relationships with former foes, and to encourage each side to honor their pledges to one another.  Despite the importance of this alliance, Dōsan gave a dagger to Sagiyama-dono prior to her marriage, warning her that if Nobunaga turned out to be a fool, as widely believed, she should turn on him.  He reminded her not to forget her family roots as a member of the Saitō clan.  Nobunaga had no children with Sagiyama-dono, but followed the customary practice of having consorts, fathering as many as twelve children.  Sagiyama-dono disappears from historical accounts following the death of Dōsan. 

These developments drew to a close the persistent skirmishes along the border of Mino and Owari.  However, Dōsan’s rise from a lowly merchant to lord of Mino had not come easily, and his vile manner of deceiving and overthrowing his benefactors left a bitter legacy.  Yoriaki returned in an attempt to avenge his loss of Mino, but Dōsan attacked him again in 1552, banishing him from the province.  He wandered for years through the provinces of Echizen, Kai, and Kazusa.  Meanwhile, his older brother, Toki Yorizumi, entered Ōga Castle in 1547, only to die of poisoning later the same year.  The alliance between the Oda and the Saitō families continued until 1556 after Dōsan lost against his son in the Battle of Nagaragawa.

Dōsan trained as a monk at Myōkaku Temple in Kyōto.  An astute lad, his tutors believed he would become a scholar.  Instead, he returned to the secular world to wed into a merchant family, and began a business selling lamp oil.  Dōsan impressed customers by pouring the oil through the center of a coin without a funnel.

Before long, Dōsan traveled to Mino to pursue greater ambitions.  In Mino, he visited Jōzai Temple, the home of another former monk from Myōkaku Temple associated with the powerful Nagai clan who introduced Dōsan to an older brother, Nagai Nagahiro.  Through the offices of Nagahiro, Dōsan met the lord of Sagiyama Castle, Toki Yoriaki.  Yoriaki stood in the shadow of his older brother, Toki Yorizumi, a shugodai and the ruler of Mino at Kawate Castle.  Yoriaki disdained his brother, harboring ambitions to one day become leader of the Toki clan.  When Yorizumi first encountered Dōsan in 1523, he sensed danger and wanted nothing more to do with him, but Yoriaki admired Dōsan’s culture and erudition.   Dōsan further impressed him with his martial art skills by piercing the center of a dangling coin with a spear over six meters in length. 

Through the support of Yoriaki, Dōsan became the heir to Nishimura Masamoto, a retainer who had no natural successors.  In the twelfth month of 1526, Dōsan received a beautiful wife, Miyoshino, but this good fortune did not satisfy Dōsan’s desire to move up in rank.  Eventually, he began to view Nagahiro, the beneficent retainer who had helped him, as an obstacle to his ascent.  In 1530, Dōsan convinced Yoriaki that Nagahiro had plotted a covert rebellion, whereupon Yoriaki poisoned Nagahiro and Dōsan succeeded to his position.  Dōsan exercised more influence by encouraging Yoriaki to overthrow his estranged brother, Yorizumi.  The success of the night-time assault caused Yorizumi to flee to the northern province of Echizen to seek refuge with the Asakura clan.  Yorizumi then attempted to persuade the Asakura and the Oda to support his bid to retake Mino.  

Dōsan prevailed in a power struggle against Yoriaki, settling into the mountain fortress of Inabayama Castle. This caused Yoriaki to flee to Owari and request assistance from Nobuhide, coinciding with a long period of conflict between the Oda and the Saitō clans.   

F. Nobunaga’s Youth

Soon after birth, Nobuhide designated Nobunaga as his successor and sent him to Nagoya castle.  Nobuhide assigned four close retainers to raise Nobunaga as the appointed heir.  Hirate Masahide, the resourceful leader of this group, dutifully served as a surrogate father for Nobunaga.  Hayashi Hidesada, Aoyama Saemon, and Naitō Shōsuke provided further support.  The appointment of these retainers served to divide Nobuhide’s family into two branches, intended to avoid the danger of having the entire family later wiped out by internal divisions.  This may, however, also have contributed to a later rift between Nobunaga and his younger brother, Nobukatsu.

Nobunaga led a childhood absent of remarkable incidents.  He rode horses in the mornings and evenings, and, in the summer months, enjoyed swimming in the river.  Niwa Nagahide was one of his childhood companions.  One year junior to Nobunaga, Nagahide followed closely in his shadow.  Owing to his long association with Nobunaga during their youth, Nagahide understood Nobunaga and his unique personality.  This allowed him to maintain Nobubaga’s trust despite many challenges over the course of their relationship.  Years later, Nagahide served as a leading bushō in Nobunaga’s inner circle, and achieved a reputation for his tactical prowess and bravery in battle.  Nagahide’s family had served the Shiba clan of Owari for generations, but later pledged its loyalty to the Oda after Nobunaga became a regional power.

Nobunaga enjoyed catching snakes.  According to one anecdote, after catching a small snake, an onlooker laughed at him and said “Anyone can catch a small snake like that.”  Nobunaga retorted, “Even if it’s a small snake, if it’s poisonous, it can kill somebody.  You laugh because it’s small, but don’t think you can make fun of me.”  His sense of discontent and the energy that he drew from it became even more evident as he entered his teens.  He showed no traces of adopting the culture, nor the magnanimity, of his father.

Nobunaga trained in the military arts, including the bow, the arquebus, the lance, and the sword.  He often engaged his peers in mock battles, using bamboo spears to menace his opponents. Finding the short spears to be deficient, he set about extending them to between five and six meters in length.  He took a deep interest in falconry, adeptly stalking prey behind the cover of his horse and releasing his falcon at the opportune moment.  Over time, Nobunaga also gained an intimate knowledge of the terrain in his home province of Owari, an asset that later benefited him.

Nobunaga celebrated his Coming-of-Age ceremony on his thirteenth birthday at Furuwatari Castle in 1546.  In the following year, Nobunaga took part in his first battle, a foray by his father into the neighboring province of Mikawa.  Adorned with a red helmet, and riding an armored horse, he headed off to the village of Ōhama, where he joined others in burning the homes of two families that had protected retainers of the Imagawa clan.  After helping to set up a field encampment, he returned to Nagoya castle the next day.  Masahide served as Nobunaga’s guardian in this first raid, initiating him to the mayhem of battle.

1.   Nobunaga’s Personal Losses

Nobuhide died in his prime from a sudden illness in Suemori Castle in 1552.  At the time, Nobunaga was nineteen years old.  Nobuhide set the stage for Nobunaga to carry on the conquest on a vastly greater scale.  The loss of one of the few people who understood his true nature disheartened Nobunaga, intensifying his pent-up anger and loneliness.  Meanwhile, family members continued to question his behavior and even his status as the legitimate son and heir to Nobuhide.

The elaborate funeral befitting a magistrate took place at the Banshō Temple in Nagoya.  Over three hundred local and itinerant monks chanted a sutra, then came the time to place incense on the altar.  Instead of wearing the proper dress for the occasion, Nobunaga showed up in his usual ragged garb, a long-handled sword lashed to his waist with rope and a dagger at his side, astonishing the attendees.  Nobunaga trounced up to the altar and tossed down the incense sticks.  Then he whisked around and stamped out of the temple hall.  A nervous stir followed as those attending the ceremony whispered about Nobunaga’s impudent display.  They could not have helped but notice the depth of his frustration, and wonder whether the young man could recover and rise above his despair.

Nobunaga’s reputation reflected negatively on the ability and integrity of Masahide, who had been in charge of raising Nobunaga.  Then, in 1553, Masahide took his own life. He may have been overwhelmed with shame and felt personally responsible for Nobunaga’s audacious behavior.  Masahide had achieved personal success by other means, including negotiating peace with Sakai Daizen after the covert rebellion against Nobuhide, and forging the strategic alliance with Saitō Dōsan.  Nevertheless, the guilt he endured from Nobunaga may have proved too much to bear.

Masahide may also have felt regret for discord between Nobunaga and the Hirate family.  A member of the Hirate family owned a swift horse that caught the attention of Nobunaga.  Nobunaga wanted the horse, but Masahide could not satisfy his wish because the Hirate reserved the horse for battle.  Nobunaga pleaded for the horse, and consequent denials resulted in “discord between sovereign and subject.”  Taking his own life may have further served as an act of apology for the tension created between Nobunaga, the designated successor of the Oda clan, and members of the Hirate, retainers of the Oda.

Despite the motives for Masahide’s act, the loss weighed heavily on Nobunaga.  After hearing the news, he went to engage in his favorite pastime of falconry.  Tearfully, he tore apart a bird captured by the hawk, hurled its remains into the air and shouted, “Eat this, Masahide.” Evoking the anger he displayed at his father’s funeral, Nobunaga struggled to cope.  Within less than a year, Nobunaga lost the two most trusted and influential figures in his life.  Owing to the absence of his mother, Nobuhide and Masahide had been his primary guardians.  More than anyone else, these men were capable of seeing beyond his odd behavior and appreciating his rare potential.

2.  Encounter with Saitō Dōsan

Nobunaga carried a reputation as an eccentric, even among those outside of Owari, including the Saitō of Mino Province.  However, Dōsan wanted to form his own opinion about Nobunaga rather than simply believe the rumors spread by his retainers, and, in the wake of Nobuhide’s death, he needed to reaffirm the alliance forged with the Oda.  In 1553, five years after Nobunaga’s marriage to Sagiyama-dono, Dōsan sent a messenger to request a visit from Nobunaga, offering to meet his son-in-law.  Nobunaga readily accepted the invitation for the meeting at the Shōtoku Temple in the village of Tomita, located on the border of the provinces of Owari and Mino, about fifteen kilometers away from Dōsan’s base at Inabayama Castle, and about twenty-five kilometers north of Nagoya.

The meeting took place in the spring of 1553.  Eager to impress his visitor, Dōsan arrived early at Shōtoku Temple, accompanied by eight hundred retainers in formal dress standing at attention around the perimeter of the main hall.  Dōsan chose to receive Nobunaga in a formal manner, either to astonish or intimidate his young counterpart. 

Waiting at a private home on the edge of the village for the arrival of Nobunaga’s entourage, Dōsan hoped to catch a glimpse of Nobunaga prior to his arrival at the temple.  From the appearance of the first unit of troops, he would know whether Nobunaga had come in peace or for battle.  He initially saw foot soldiers, then the cavalry, followed by as many as one thousand men armed with lances three and one-half ken (approximately 6.4 meters) in length and hoards of arquebuses. No other daimyō commanded an army with large numbers of these weapons.  Although skilled at the lance, Dōsan harbored doubts about the value of firearms in battle, given the marginal accuracy and time required for reloading the weapons.  

Nobunaga finally appeared riding atop a stealthy horse.  Dressed in his typical garb, he had his hair drawn-up and wore a tattered cotton shirt.  He carried a long sword with a rope handle and a dagger in a sash plated in gold and silver.  Resembling a monkey-handler, he had seven or eight bags for flint and gourds dangling from his waist.  He wore a half-skirt stitched together from bands of tiger and leopard fur.

Impressed at the contingent, Dōsan viewed this procession in silence and then circled around to meet Nobunaga at the temple.  After arriving at the temple, Nobunaga vanished for a moment, soon to reappear in formal dress, with a long, dark-blue skirt appropriate for the occasion.  At twenty years of age, Nobunaga had grown to be a fair-skinned and handsome man, with an air of royalty about him, yet young enough to be Dōsan’s grandchild.  Nobunaga surprised Dōsan’s retainers who expected him to appear in his stereotype outfit.  Nobunaga had outfoxed his shrewd host, and commanded everyone’s attention.  He gave slight attention to the welcome speech by Dōsan’s retainers, and did not return their bows.

3.  Personal Character

Having upstaged the crafty Dōsan, Nobunaga proved dauntless, and, after enduring the loss of his father and his venerable mentor, prepared to assume the mantle of the Oda clan.  Some questioned whether a person with his odd and temperamental nature could become their lord.  Divisions within the Oda clan, not to mention the threat of enemies in the surrounding provinces, called for a leader of formidable strength of character.  Nobunaga could thoughtfully assess matters that led to decisive action, and he could devise ingenious tactics based on his innate feel for human nature.  He obtained information from many sources, including well-educated monks who possessed not only academic knowledge, but information in the form of first-hand accounts learned through extensive travel to remote provinces.

As did many of his contemporaries, Nobunaga enjoyed folk dancing and song.  The war and discord in and around the capital of Kyoto caused many in the aristocracy, such as Court nobles and Buddhist priests, and those who entertained them, to move to outlying provinces, introducing cultured arts and music to those outside of traditional circles.  These activities ranged from linked-verse poetry to kyōgen drama, to kabuki dances, to the tea ceremony.  Likewise, the same people who had their roots in Kyōtō gained exposure to local folk art and entertainment, including puppet shows, monkey handlers, and those arts unique to each province.  Whether for the young or old, the wealthy or poor, the men or women, the entertainers performed wherever audiences assembled, including not only on stages or in the gardens of Court nobles, but on the roadsides and dry riverbeds of local towns and villages.        

In later years, Nobunaga proved that he had the strength and fortitude to rise far beyond his role as leader of the Oda clan, and to become the dominant ruler of the regional provinces.  He intimately understood the morals of the day, but relied upon customs only to the extent these served his interests.  He set himself apart from his contemporaries by creating innovative strategies and tactics to further his conquest.  The flexibility in his thought and approach, combined with the outstanding abilities of his highly capable bushō, served as the foundation for his ascendancy.