Oda Nobunaga: 11 Facts on the Ruthless Samurai who Reunified Japan

A long civil war saw the emergence of one major leader: Oda Nobunaga. With ruthless methods and inspiring leadership, this samurai united Japan.

Dec 3, 2022By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science

oda nobunaga samurai reunified japan


From “clown” to “demon,” Oda Nobunaga played a tremendous role in Japanese history. Born during the last stages of the Warring Clan Period: the Sengoku Jidai, he was an inspiring leader and a ruthless foe, overcoming numerous adversaries. Nobunaga became the de-facto ruler of Japan, contributing a great deal to its future unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Nobunaga’s legacy lived for centuries after his death, and even today, he is revered as one of the greatest military commanders of all time.


Here is a list of 11 facts that characterized the life of Oda Nobunaga.


1. Oda Nobunaga Was Born During the Sengoku Jidai 

hand scroll origin shinnyo do hall shinshogokurakuji temple
Shinnyo-do Engi (The Illustrated Hand Scroll of The Origin of Shinnyo-do Hall), Shinshogokurakuji Temple, via Japan Times


Born in 1534, Nobunaga was raised during the Sengoku Period. During this era of continuous warfare, the Ashikaga Shogunate ruled only in name; various clans fought each other for influence.


Starting in 1467 with the Onin War, the Sengoku Jidai began as a conflict between Ashikaga clan members, supported by powerful clans: the Hosokawa and the Yamana. After 10 years of struggle, the Hosokawa came out on top but failed to establish control on distanced provinces. In 1507, the assassination of Hosokawa Masamoto led to a bloody civil war that lasted for nearly 25 years. This struggle weakened the Hosokawa and led to their replacement by the Miyoshi Clan in 1549.

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This never-ending war for power led to the total erosion of central authority, and the rise of local lords called daimyos, who continuously fought against one other with armies of samurais. The Oda Clan of the Owari Province was one of these factions, but their limited resources and territory did not allow them to challenge their more powerful neighbors, such as the Imagawa Clan.


2. As a Child He Was Named the Clown of Owari

nagoya castle supposed birthplace oda nobunaga
Nagoya Castle, the supposed birthplace of Oda Nobunaga, via jcastle.info


Oda Nobunaga was the first legitimate son of Oda Nobuhide, a powerful warlord of the Owari Province. He is said to have been born in the Nagoya Castle and named Kipposhi.


During his childhood, Nobunaga was known for his bizarre and boisterous behavior. His antics earned him the nickname “Clown of Owari.” The future daimyo was friends with kids of all social classes, from lowly peasants to children of his father’s main retainers. In his early teenage years, Oda Nobunaga developed a passion for firearms.


In 1549, Oda Nobuhide made peace with Saito Dosan, daimyo of the neighboring Mino Province. This reconciliation was celebrated with a marriage between Nobunaga and Saito’s daughter Nohime. When his father died in 1551, Nobunaga became the daimyo of Owari. But his brothers, uncles and cousins were fast to challenge his rule.


3. He Inherited a Fragmented Province 

imagawa yoshimoto statue okehazama
Imagawa Yoshimoto Statue at the Okehazama Part, via samurai-world.com


Oda Nobuhide’s unexpected demise ushered a major succession crisis. Although he was the legitimate successor, Nobunaga was unpopular among his relatives, noblemen, and retainers. Despite this, the new Lord of Owari was fast to gather a small army of 1,000, made mostly of peasants armed with firearms, and suppressed his immediate opponents.


The turmoil attracted the neighboring powerful Imagawa Clan. Led by Imagawa Yoshimoto, they penetrated Owari and besieged Anjo Castle, where Nobunaga’s elder half-brother Nobuhiro resided. To avoid total destruction, Oda Nobunaga agreed to send hostages to Yoshimoto, among whom were Matsudaira Tekechiyo, the future Tokugawa Ieyasu.


Later on, Nobuhiro plotted to overthrow his brother but failed drastically. Despite this, Nobunaga forgave him and went to face his other enemies. In early 1552, the daimyo of Owari was severely defeated by his retainers, Yamaguchi Noritsugu and Yamaguchi Noriyoshi, at the Battle of Akatsuka. This defeat left Owari more divided than ever and pushed Nobunaga to abandon his forgiving approach toward his enemies.


4. He Fought Most of His Family to Unify Owari

warrior seppuku kunikazu utagawa
Warrior about to perform Seppuku by Kunikazu Utagawa, via tvtropes.org


In the spring of 1552, Nobunaga’s uncle, Oda Nobutomo, allied with the Shiba Clan, rivals of the Oda. The two marched on the daimyo of Owari and were defeated, with Nobunaga burning the rural areas of the Shiba Clan in retaliation. Cowed into submission, Yoshimune, head of the Shiba Clan, turned on Nobutomo.


This betrayal did not go unpunished, as Nobutomo was fast to assassinate Yoshimune. Deciding to deal with his uncle once and for all, Nobunaga organized a sea blockade of Kiyosu Castle, the seat of Nobutomo. This siege caused a widespread famine that killed many of the residents.


In 1554, Nobunaga managed to repeal an invasion by the Imagawa Clan at the Battle of Muraki Castle and to retake Eastern Owari. This allowed him to replenish his forces and get reinforcements in order to storm Kyosu. Oda Nobunaga captured his uncle and forced him to commit suicide by seppuku


In 1556, Saito Dosan, the father-in-law and ally of Nobunaga, was overthrown by his son Yoshitatsu. In the meantime, the Lord of Owari crushed his younger brother, Oda Nobuyuki, at the Battle of Ino.


unifier japan facts oda nobunaga
Oda Nobunaga, via japantravel.com


While Nobunaga wanted to execute his brother, their mother, Dota Gozen, interceded in the latter’s favor. But Nobuyuki was fast to plot a second rebellion. In 1557, he attempted to take power once more but was defeated by Nobunaga’s retainer Ikeda Nobuteru. Nobuyuki’s seat of power, Suemori Castle, was destroyed in the process, and the would-be usurper fled and began plotting again.


In 1558, Nobunaga managed to repeal another Imagawa invasion by breaking the Siege of Terabe Castle. During the same year, Nobunaga put his knowledge of firearms to good use and defeated his most powerful rival to rule in Owari, his cousin Oda Nobukata, at the Battle of Ukino.


By the end of the year, Nobuyuki attempted to launch a new rebellion but was denounced by his own retainers and killed. In 1559, Nobunaga captured Iwakura Castle, the last bastion of resistance to his rule, thus finally unifying Owari Province.


5. Nobunaga Won a Decisive Battle While Outnumbered 10 to 1 

death inagawa imagawa yoshimoto battle okehazama triptych
Death of Inagawa (Imagawa) Yoshimoto in the Battle of Okehazama, triptych, 1885, via harashobo.com


Seeing that he managed to unify Owari under his rule, Imagawa Yoshimoto assembled an army of 25,000 men. The Matsudaira Clan (future Tokugawa) was also coerced into following the Imagawa.


Officially, this offensive aimed at crossing Owari to aid the Ashikaga Shogunate in Kyoto, but the brutality of the attack indicated that Yoshimoto wanted to conquer the province. Imagawa troops occupied various strongholds and committed atrocities against the population.


Nobunaga counted only 2,000 to 3,000 men to counter this offensive. Oda retainers suggested a retreat towards the Kyosu Castle, but the Daimyo disagreed. He discovered that Yoshimoto set up camp near the village of Okehazama, and in June 1560, he marched his small force toward it.


Due to stealth tactics, the Imagawa did not see their enemies coming. At the time of the attack, Yoshimoto’s forces were celebrating their recent victories and had been drinking heavily. The Battle of Okehazama was a total massacre.


Imagawa Yoshimoto died during the fighting. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a sandal bearer, distinguished himself during the battle and rose as one of Nobunaga’s closest commanders and advisors. In the aftermath of the confrontation, Matsudaira Tekchiyo switched sides and joined Oda, taking up the name Tokugawa Ieyasu.


6. He Marched on Kyoto Following a Demand of the Ashikaga Shogunate 

oda nobunaga facts ashikaga yoshiaki
Ashikaga Yoshiaki, via samurai-world.com


Following the defeat of the Imagawa Clan, Oda Nobunaga turned his attention to Mino Province. The daimyo of Owari was honor-bound to avenge his father-in-law Saito Dosan, who was murdered by his son, Saito Yoshitatsu. The latter died of illness in 1561 and was succeeded by his own son, Tatsuoki. Incompetent and weak, the new Lord of Mino lost the support of all of his retainers and was defeated at the Battle of Inabayama Castle in 1567.


The area’s name was changed to Gifu and made into Nobunaga’s principal residence. After this victory, the Lord of Owari declared his intention to conquer all of Japan. In the same year, the Oda Clan conquered Ise Province.


The following year, Ashikaga Yoshiaki and his bodyguard Akechi Mitsuhide appealed for Nobunaga’s support in overthrowing the Miyoshi Clan, who were the current rulers of Kyoto, the Imperial seat. Yoshiaki wanted revenge for the death of his brother, the previous shogun, and the shogunate for himself.


Not wanting to waste an opportunity to get closer to his goal of unifying Japan, Nobunaga gathered his forces and marched on Kyoto. On his way there, he defeated the Rokkaku Clan.


In November 1568, Nobunaga entered Kyoto and overthrew Ashikaga Yoshihide, the Miyoshi’s puppet, and installed Yoshiaki. Nobunaga, however, refused to become deputy-shogun (kanrei) while still being the driving force behind the new ruler.


7. His Most Dangerous Rivals Were Buddhist Monks 

enryakuji temple mount hie
Enryakuji Temple on Mount Hie, via warhistoryonline.com


The biggest threat to Nobunaga came from the Ikko-Ikki, a Buddhist sect that strongly opposed samurai rule in Japan. In 1570, Oda launched an invasion of various Ikki temples.


Unsuccessful at the siege of Nagashima Castle, he was fast to recover and attack the temple on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. In the massacre that followed, the entire population was killed–women, children, elderly–none escaped the sword of the Oda. It is said that “the whole mountainside was a great slaughterhouse and the sight was one of unbearable horror.” Following this tragedy, Oda Nobunaga gained the nicknames “Demon Lord of Owari” and “Demon King.”


In 1573, Nobunaga attempted to besiege Nagashima once more, only to be defeated again. But one year later, the Demon of Owari finally captured the castle, combining a land siege and a sea blockade. Once again, Oda troops committed monstrosities against all residents.


Concerned by Nobunaga’s cruelty, the Mori Clan sent supplies to the Ishiyama Hongan-Ji Temple, the last stronghold of the Ikki located in Osaka. Thanks to his skilled commanders, the Lord of Owari managed to break the naval support of the Mori at the Sea Battle of Kizugawaguchi in 1576 and conquer the Chugoku region in 1577.


Ishiyama Hogan-Ji resisted for another three years but had to eventually lay down their arms and surrender. Mediation from the Emperor himself allowed the population to evacuate in relative safety, but the Ikko Ikki’s power was broken for good.


8. An Anti-Oda Coalition Gathered to Counter the Demon of Owari  

statue takeda shingen kofu city
Statue of Takeda Shingen in Kofu City, via wattention.com


Following the enthronement of Yoshiaki, Oda Nobunaga asked the Shogun to order all the major daimyos to Kyoto to swear allegiance. This act pushed most Japanese lords to form a coalition against the Lord of Owari. The ruling Ashikaga Clan secretly sponsored this anti-Oda alliance.


While the war against the Ikko-Ikki was raging, the coalition managed to repel an Oda invasion in Echizen Province in early 1570. But in June, they were soundly defeated at the Battle of Anegawa. In 1573, the Azai and Asakura Clans, two driving factions of the anti-Oda coalition, were overwhelmed and destroyed by the Demon King and his allies.


Takeda Shingen, the so-called Tiger of Kai, was the strongest daimyo of the coalition. In 1572, his generals occupied Iwamura Castle and allied with Nobunaga’s aunt, Lady Otsuya. In 1573, Takeda himself led an attack on Tokugawa Ieyasu, defeating him at the Battle of Mikatagahara. But Ieyasu’s ability to send raids behind enemy lines steadied Shingen’s hand from marching on Kyoto. A few months later, Takeda Shingen died in mysterious circumstances.


9. Nobunaga Overthrew the Ashikaga Shogunate 

oda nobunaga battle nagahino utagawa yoshitora
Battle of Nagahino by Utagawa Yoshitora, via samurai-world.com


The hostilities between Oda Nobunaga and the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki became public following Takeda Shingen’s death. Ogimachi, the ruling emperor, also saw his already limited influence shrink further, pushing him into Oda Clan’s arms.


Not one to miss an opportunity, the Demon of Owari made his move on the 27th of August, 1573. After a swift battle, Yoshioki surrendered, abdicated, and was sent into exile as a Buddhist monk. This was the end of the Ashikaga Shogunate.


Oda Nobunaga became the de-facto ruler of Japan. Over the next few months, he gathered numerous ranks and titles and started progressively asserting his power in other provinces.


Nobunaga’s rise to power and his attempts to centralize rule gathered even more adversity against the Demon King. In 1575, Takeda Katsuyori, son of Takeda Shingen, marched on Tokugawa Ieyasu in an attempt to cut the Oda Clan from a very strategic ally.


Nobunaga and Ieyasu faced this threat together at the Battle of Nagashino and defeated the Takeda Clan, notably thanks to the combined use of archery and firearms. In 1582, Nobunaga and Ieyasu conquered the Kai Province, and Katsuyori committed seppuku. 


10. Nobunaga Called Upon the Services of an African Samurai

artistic modern depiction yosuke
Modern artistic depiction of Yasuke, via historyofyesterday.com


History remembers him today as Yasuke, an African man who served as samurai and weapon-bearer to Oda Nobunaga.


Born on the Eastern Coast of Africa, Yasuke served on the ship of the Jesuit missionary Allessandro Valignano. In 1579, they arrived in Japan, and two years later, they were presented to Oda Nobunaga.


The Japanese daimyo took a strong interest in Yasuke and offered him service at his side. Yasuke was given a katana, a residence, and became the personal weapon-bearer of the Demon Lord. He took part in the Battle of Tenmokuzan against the last members of the Takeda Clan in 1582. Yasuke was respected and revered by his master, who was impressed by his physical prowess.


He was also on Nobunaga’s side when his generals turned against him. When the Oda Clan’s head died, Yasuke rushed to his heir, Oda Nobutada, and fought on his side until the latter’s demise. Captured, it is said that he was given back to the missionaries at the church of Kyoto.


11. Oda Nobunaga Died Betrayed by One of His Generals

akechi attack oda nobunaga temple nobukazu yosai
Akechi forces attack Oda Nobunaga at the Honno-ji temple by Nobukazu Yosai, via samurai-world.com


In his last years, Oda Nobunaga launched multiple invasions of the provinces that had yet to be under his control. While successful in most of his campaigns, Nobunaga was defeated by the powerful Uesugi Clan at the Battle of Tedorigawa. But once again, luck would be on Nobunaga’s side, as the leader of the Uesugi, Uesugi Kenshin, died, and his province fell into a succession crisis.


In 1582, it seemed like nothing could stop the Demon of Owari. More than 20 Japanese provinces were under his direct control. His general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was besieging Takamatsu Castle, a Mori Clan stronghold and one of the last pockets of resistance to Oda rule.


As the defenders proved hard to defeat, Hideyoshi requested reinforcements from his commander. Nobunaga answered by sending Akechi Mitsuhide to the latter’s aid, while he himself went to Honno-Ji, a temple he frequented in Kyoto.


Seeing an opportunity, Akechi turned on his lord and attacked him as he was undefended during a tea ceremony. Nobunaga’s bodyguards and retainers resisted the assault long enough for their master to commit seppuku. 


This was the end of Oda Nobunaga. But his legacy was in safe hands, as his most loyal generals and allies, such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, immediately began plotting revenge.

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By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.