A lifetime spent in battle
Oda Nobunaga was born in the land of Owari (now western Aichi) in 1534. Nobunaga's career as a local warlord took a major turn in 1560, when he stopped Imagawa Yoshimoto's army just before it reached Owari, catching the enemy off guard with a surprise attack and routing the invaders. This was the so-called Battle of Okehazama (now Toyoake). With this victory, Nobunaga became convinced of his life's ambition: to quell the country's vortex of war, unifying Japan and becoming its ruler.
Kiyosu Castle, a rebuilt version of which now stands in the town of Kiyosu, is where Nobunaga began his bid for national dominance.
In 1575 Nobunaga defeated Takeda Katsuyori's cavalry, then thought to be the most formidable force in Japan, by means of a new tactic using muskets. This was known as the Battle of Nagashino (now Horai). The traditional weapons used by Takeda's forces-swords, bows, and spears-were no match for the battalion of muskets employed by Nobunaga. By introducing firearms to Japan, Nobunaga changed the way war was waged in this country.
Through his successive military victories, Nobunaga steadily moved toward absolute rule over Japan. In 1582, however, he was betrayed by a retainer, Akechi Mitsuhide, and slain at the temple Honnoji in Kyoto; Nobunaga died with his lifelong ambition just beyond his grasp.
One could say that Nobunaga spent the entire 49 years of his life in battle. By no means were Nobunaga's successes confined to the battlefield, however; Nobunaga was also an accomplished politician who introduced many bold reforms.
A market research pioneer?
From an early age Nobunaga is said to have marched to the beat of his own drum, engaging in eccentric behavior and often surprising those around him. For instance, according to a biography by one of his retainers, young Nobunaga used to disguise himself and wander out into the town around the castle, munching on a persimmon or melon. Since he was disguised, he was probably not recognized as a samurai.
During the period of civil warfare, it was customary for the son of a warlord to spend his days locked away in the castle, training in the martial arts and other matters befitting a future general. Nobunaga's behavior certainly had an element of eccentricity, but according to Tetsuo Owada, professor at Shizuoka University and a well-known historian of this period, there was considerable method in his madness.
"Nobunaga may well have been trying to see into the hearts of the common people by mixing with them," says Owada. "By venturing out of the castle he could see the world as the townspeople saw it, rather than from above. In this way, he was able to gather a lot of information. Today, this would be recognized as a type of market research. This episode shows that from a young age Nobunaga had a flexible mind and powerful imagination, unbound by tradition or custom."
One famous episode demonstrates the flexibility of Nobunaga's thinking. In sixteenth-century Japan, it was universally held that the Earth was flat and that if one walked to the edge one would fall off. One day Nobunaga, who grew up in an age when this belief was unshakably held by all Japanese, was told by a Portuguese missionary that the Earth was round. After just a brief explanation, Nobunaga, sitting with a globe that the padre had given him, became convinced that the Earth was, in fact, round. He was thus probably the first Japanese to realize that the world was not flat.
Nobunaga's thoughts and deeds were never defined by stereotypes, and they eventually spawned a new economic policy the likes of which the country had never seen before.
There are many other examples of Nobunaga's flexibility and originality. The era of warring states was a perilous time, when one could be attacked at any moment. The warlords, consequently, kept roads narrow and tortuous and did not build bridges over rivers. Nobunaga, however, shattered conventional wisdom by building wide, straight roads and erecting bridges over rivers throughout his territory. What could have motivated Nobunaga to act so? Owada explains thus:
"By improving the roads and erecting bridges, Nobunaga was trying to facilitate the movement of merchants. Fairly early on Nobunaga saw that traditional economy based on agriculture-a policy relying solely on tributes of rice from farmers-was bound to break down. He foresaw the coming rise of importance of the merchant class. That's why Nobunaga chose the path of enriching his territory by facilitating the flow of goods rather than by fortifying his defense."
Subsequently, Nobunaga allowed anyone to engage in trade, abolishing taxes on the marketplace and the special commercial privileges of the za-unions of merchants from Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and noble families. Nobunaga also did away with the tolls on the goods carried along the territory's roads. Nobunaga's reforms led to the establishment of a society in which goods flowed more freely than ever before.
TOKYO NATIONAL MUSEUM
Nobunaga is known for actively importing European culture. He secured not only muskets
and gunpowder from Portuguese and Spanish traders but also eyeglasses, telescopes, wine, and perfume.
The painting depicts a scene of a trading port during Nobunaga's day.
Nobunaga's ideas still relevant today
Nobunaga's fertile mind also came up with ways to overcome the biggest weakness of muskets: they took time to reload and could not be fired in succession. He employed a three-stage formation in which musketeers were teamed up into groups of three and would fire one after another so that a line of fire would continue. He also built the world's first armored warship. To these well-known feats Owada adds two more that demonstrate in modern terms Nobunaga's adeptness at managing people and utilizing information:
"Nobunaga was the first person in Japan to attach high value to information. Until then warlords would bestow the biggest rewards to those who fought most valiantly in battle, but at the Battle of Okehazama Nobunaga rewarded those who brought him information about what the enemy was doing and where it was headed even more highly. Before anyone else, Nobunaga realized the importance of battlefield intelligence.
"Nobunaga was also an excellent manager. At that time people took for granted a system of promotion by family background and class; Nobunaga, however, instituted a meritocracy, granting high positions to those who displayed superior abilities, even if they were not from highly ranked families. Nobunaga had the foresight to assign the right man for each post, without regard to ancestry or social class."
Today, Japanese bookstores are filled with books that purport to show how we can learn from Nobunaga, and these books continue to be read widely by business managers and workers. Nobunaga was a revolutionary whose convention-breaking boldness and flexibility may be just what we need from our modern leaders.
(Photo by Kiyoshi Inoue, Text by Masaki Yamada)