Oda Nobunaga 1534–1582

September 1571. Temples and towns around the lower reaches of Mount Hiei begin to empty out as their many thousands of inhabitants – Tendai monks alongside ordinary men, women and children – set out together on the hard climb towards the summit. They are desperately seeking refuge from what lurks at the bottom of their mountain: a series of encampments containing around 30,000 heavily armed, battle-hardened men.

Those men have been offered 300 pieces of gold and 450 pieces of silver to go away and leave everyone in peace. But their leader isn’t in this for money. This is about punishment, for siding with his enemies.

On the morning of 30 September his force begins its ascent, quickly dispensing with the mountain’s warrior-monk defenders and proceeding to murder thousands of people in cold blood. Some are hacked to death. Others are picked off by arquebus snipers as they cower in whatever hiding places they can find. Women and children plead with the leader of these men that they cannot possibly be his enemies. He disagrees, and they are all beheaded.

The Enryaku-ji temple and its numerous sub-temples around the mountain – some 3,000 buildings in total – are looted and set alight, giving birth to a swirling, engulfing firestorm. In the space of a few days Mount Hiei goes from being a byword for wealth, political influence, erudition and artistic achievement spanning seven centuries to a barren landscape, carpeted in ash, across which it is said only badgers and foxes now move.

The man who ordered all this is in his late thirties, described as tall and lean, with ‘an extremely sonorous voice’. He is said to be just, compassionate and a master strategist – but also arrogant, secretive, unaccustomed to taking advice and disdainful of all, high and low alike. He believes in no god, no immortality of the soul and no life after death. In this world he takes no chances, surrounded always by a bodyguard of 2,000 men.

This is Oda Nobunaga, a warlord who spent a quarter of a century in almost constant military campaigning across central Japan, the economically most developed and politically most important part of the country. Had he merely been an unusually ruthless man in already ruthless times, Nobunaga would not merit a prominent place in history. But he had a favourite phrase: tenka no tame, Nobunaga no tame, ‘For the sake of the realm, for the sake of Nobunaga’. To this he added a motto, proposed to him by a Zen priest: tenka fubu, ‘Rule the realm by force’.

Regarding himself as the personification of a realm which, as yet, existed only in his head, Nobunaga poured his strategic abilities and ever-expanding armies into a grand, historic process: the unification of a fragmented Japan under one leader and one law. In a country where power had long been divided between an imperial court and aristocratic class, shoguns and their vassals, and Buddhist sects with their militant monks and loyal adherents throughout the land, it took someone with no special regard for any of these people or institutions to transcend them – in his vision for Japan and in the uncompromising way he went about trying to fulfil it.

Nobunaga did not accomplish this alone. He is remembered as the first in a line of three unifiers, succeeded by two men with whom he worked in his lifetime. The son of a farmer and sometime soldier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi started out carrying Nobunaga’s sandals and ended up carrying his plans to near-final fruition. Tokugawa Ieyasu, from a warlord family in eastern Japan, was an early ally of Nobunaga and became the ultimate beneficiary of all that he set in train. The laws and institutions that Ieyasu put in place, building on the innovations of his predecessors, eventually brought peace, prosperity and effective governance to Japan. His descendants would still be in power when American steamships came cruising up the country’s coast in the 1850s, heralds of a new and uncertain world.

This legendary triumvirate of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, operating from the 1550s through to the early 1600s, has been celebrated in Japanese culture down the centuries as central to the country’s later achievements. Many a schoolchild learns of their combined efforts by way of a simple saying:

Nobunaga pounded the rice.

Hideyoshi baked the cake.

And Ieyasu ate it.

A second saying speaks more to each man’s character. Less palatable, perhaps, for younger audiences, it nonetheless seems true to Nobunaga’s status as a transitional figure in Japanese history, a man very much of the violent, unstable late-medieval era into which he was born, and yet who paved the way towards a peaceful and high-achieving early modern age. ‘What to do’, the saying goes, ‘with a cuckoo that refuses to sing?’ Hideyoshi, clever and charismatic, would find some way to persuade it. Ieyasu, canny and wise, would watch and wait while it found its voice. And what of Nobunaga? The bird, naturally, would have to die.

If Zeami returned, as some suspect, from exile on Sado Island to live out his last days back at home in Kyoto, he may have been in the city in the summer of 1441 as news began to circulate of an unusually dramatic Nō performance unfolding within its walls. On 14 July, Zeami’s nemesis Yoshinori was invited to the residence of one of his shugo (provincial warrior-constables), a man by the name of Akamatsu Mitsusuke. It was the shogun’s forty-seventh birthday and, to celebrate, Akamatsu had laid on a banquet and a Nō performance starring Yoshinori’s favourite actor, On’ami. But Akamatsu had made other arrangements besides. The real source of entertainment that night ended up being Yoshinori himself. Midway through the festivities, the shogun was attacked – and decapitated.

It was a shocking, unprecedented offence whose consequences came in the form of a bakufu army pursuing Akamatsu back to his home province of Harima and forcing him to perform ritual suicide. According to legend, Akamatsu prayed first to Amaterasu in the east and then to Amida in the west, before ‘ending his sixty-one years by ripping open his stomach’. Sixty-nine of his retainers followed him into death, ‘likewise expiring with their swords in their bellies’.

Justice had been served, but the writing was on the wall for the Ashikaga shoguns. The shugo system had started out as the bakufu’s means of controlling the provinces. As time passed, however, the shugo had come to use their responsibilities and powers to secure their own positions. The raising of troops for guard duty in the capital and Kamakura morphed into the gathering of armed men around them as personal vassals. The collection of taxes, the punishment of criminals and the redistribution of valuable land were also deployed to help build loyal local bases. Provinces into which many shugo had initially been parachuted with no social connections whatsoever ended up in effect as their families’ fiefs.

By 1441 it had become, at least for Akamatsu, an intolerable liberty for a shogun to meddle in matters of succession within a shugo house. Yoshinori’s attempt to do just that earned him his bloody birthday entertainment. And when the bakufu demanded retribution, it was both slow in coming – Akamatsu died weeks rather than hours or days after his deed – and reliant upon the help of another shugo family, the Yamana, whose price was the inheriting of Akamatsu’s lands.

The Ashikaga shoguns now found themselves ever more under the control of powerful shugo families, two of which – the Yamana and the Hosokawa – took up arms against one another in 1467 in a dispute over the shogunal succession. The resulting Ōnin War dragged on for eleven long years, drew in most of the country’s other shugo, and was fought in and around Kyoto. More than half of the city disappeared in flames, including around 30,000 homes, amongst them the shogun’s residence in Muromachi. Thereafter it was primarily the Hosokawa family pulling the shoguns’ strings, while the bakufu’s writ barely extended beyond the confines of their ruined capital.

Power now passed decisively to the countryside. The shugo returned there at the war’s end in 1477, some to rule while others discovered that their deputies had effectively usurped them when they were away, steadily carving out for themselves domains that were generally smaller than the old provinces but more firmly under their control. This new breed of domain lord (daimyō) began to do away with the old shōen system of private estates owned from afar, seizing land for themselves and their vassals, and in time issuing their own legal codes. They took no orders from the capital and they sent nothing back, save when the bestowal of some kindness on a shogun or emperor – patching up a palace, rebuilding a shrine – garnered them in return some reputation-enhancing official bauble from either of those two impotent institutions.

A few sources of revenue remained to the shoguns: taxes on local trade and gratuities received in exchange for court or temple appointments. But the glory days were over, symbolized by the failure even to complete the shogun Yoshimasa’s Higashiyama retirement villa, later known as Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion). Work on it began in the early 1480s, but plans to cover the temple in silver foil, echoing the splendour of Yoshimitsu’s Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and setting the building aglow in the moonlight, were delayed and eventually abandoned. It became known, instead, for its withered wooden aesthetic: an achievement in its own right, but not what Yoshimasa had been aiming for.

Meanwhile, courtier families accustomed for centuries to regular income from the provinces were forced to venture out into those provinces, often for the very first time, and fend for themselves. Some found their estates mercifully intact and managed to live off them directly. Others sought to ingratiate themselves with local samurai, drawing on their knowledge of poetry, kemari and other courtly arts to pursue an ignominious cash-for-culture existence. The imperial family entered upon such straitened times that one emperor was apparently forced to sell his own calligraphy to make ends meet, while another went unburied for a time, for want of funeral funds.

Japan was entering a period of almost constant conflict that later generations would know as Sengoku jidai: ‘the Era of Warring States’. The daimyō spent the late 1400s and much of the 1500s striving to secure and expand their domains against local rivals, by way of agreements, intermarriage, neatly timed betrayals and pitched battles. One small part of this patchwork was a warrior by the name of Oda Nobuhide, who sought to increase the power and raise the profile of his branch of the Oda family within the central Japanese province of Owari. When he died suddenly from illness in 1551, it fell to his seventeen-year-old son Nobunaga to take up the task. Some around him doubted the young man’s fitness for it, such was his reputation for eccentricity, in dress and behaviour alike:

He wore a short-sleeved shirt and a bag of flints hung from his waist. His hair was done in the chasen style, tied up with red and green cords, and a long sword in a lacquered sheath hung from his belt. He strode around town laden with chestnuts, persimmons and melons, and with his mouth stuffed with rice cakes.

Nobunaga was later rumoured to have had the Buddhist priests who prayed unsuccessfully for his ailing father locked in a temple, surrounded by retainers wielding arquebuses, and shot to death. At his father’s funeral, he is said to have turned up armed and unkempt, hurling a handful of incense powder at the altar before storming out again.

But Nobunaga’s nicknames from these early years – ‘Great Fool’, ‘Idiot’ – fell away once he took to the battlefield. By the end of the 1550s he had vanquished his family rivals and united Owari Province under his own command. In 1560 he won an important victory at the Battle of Okehazama, using a surprise attack in heavy rain to defeat a much larger enemy force belonging to the daimyō Imagawa Yoshimoto, who had entered Owari on his way to try to take Kyoto. The night before the fighting, Nobunaga is said to have performed some dance steps from Zeami’s play Atsumori, while singing a few of its lines:

When we consider man’s fifty years in this world,

They are like a passing dream.

We have life but once …

How perishable we are.

Victory at Okehazama led to an alliance in 1561 with Matsudaira Ieyasu – the future Tokugawa Ieyasu – based in next-door Mikawa Province, immediately to the east of Owari. The two allies now stood back to back: Ieyasu faced eastwards and fought battles in that direction, while Nobunaga faced north and west, continuing his early run of conquests in 1567 with the capture of the large province of Mino, to Owari’s north. It was a huge achievement. Japan was divided into around 120 warlord domains at this point, with only fifteen or so the size of a province. To control two full provinces marked the young Nobunaga out as a man on the up.

Possession of Mino came with more than a mere reputational boost: tens of thousands of fighters were now added to Nobunaga’s ranks. Many were foot soldiers, or ashigaru (‘light feet’). Peasants fighting in exchange for loot, ashigaru had once been considered sufficiently dispensable that they were given no protection to wear in battle. Now they were becoming so central to an army’s success – both as fighters and as carriers of equipment, from basic supplies to the bells, conch-shell trumpets and marching drums used on the battlefield – that many wore good armour of lacquered iron scales, bound with leather and bearing their daimyō’s badge, or mon.

Samurai bore that same mark on a flag, attached to a wooden pole and secured to the back of their armour. Where ashigaru made do with a conical hat, samurai enjoyed the protection and status of a sometimes elaborate iron helmet. Both elements in an army, low and high, would be ordered into the fray by a commander wielding a drastically repurposed Heian-era accessory. Once employed in the ostentatious shielding of an aristocratic giggle, a fan abruptly lowered was now a signal to attack, its angle an indication of which way the troops should go.

A large army was no use if you couldn’t get it to the right place at the right time. Nobunaga soon became known for his adeptness in widening roads and making effective use of galley-ships and floating pontoon bridges. He and other leading warlords of the time also experimented with organizing and training their men in specialized corps of spearmen (wielding weapons sometimes more than five metres in length), archers and above all arquebusiers. Proficiency with a Portuguese-style arquebus, versions of which were produced in Japan from the mid-1500s onwards, came far quicker than skill with a bow and arrow. Once mounted samurai had been persuaded to allow lowly ashigaru to the forefront of the fighting – a place usually reserved for those of elite station – the arquebus proved devastatingly effective, especially when troops were organized into ranks, firing volleys in rotation. A suit of armour bearing a certain kind of dent became a much-valued piece of kit, its ability to take a bullet a matter of battlefield proof rather than a blacksmith’s promise.

Famous though he became for his disciplined use of ashigaru, Nobunaga always relied on his horse guards, mostly from Owari Province, for the core of his fighting force. These were his best and most loyal men. Their duties included protecting Nobunaga himself, and their rewards reputedly ran to some distinctly bloodthirsty entertainment, including the presentation at a New Year’s banquet of platters bearing the skulls of three enemy warlords. Lacquered and gilded, they were admired by all while sake was drunk and a celebratory song was sung for Nobunaga.

By the autumn of 1568, Nobunaga was ready to do what many daimyō in this era dreamed of doing – march on Kyoto, and claim it for himself. A man called Yoshiaki, the great-great-grandson of the murdered Yoshinori, had appealed to Nobunaga to help him gain the shogunate for himself and Nobunaga was resolved to install him as his puppet. Potential opposition to the plan, in territories through which Nobunaga would need to pass in reaching the capital, was dealt with through a combination of a strategic marriage involving his younger sister, Oichi, and the deployment of around 50,000 soldiers. Nobunaga entered Kyoto in triumph in October 1568, and Yoshiaki was invested as shogun the next month.

Nobunaga accepted no official title from Yoshiaki. Many at the time were surprised, but such was Nobunaga’s vision for the tenka, the ‘realm’. This was an old word with multiple meanings. One of them, for Nobunaga, was a new nationwide polity centred on Kyoto, transcending emperors and shoguns and featuring Nobunaga as its beating heart – tenka no tame, Nobunaga no tame: ‘For the sake of the realm, for the sake of Nobunaga’.

Step one in making a reality of this plan was to secure the shogun, literally: responding to an attack on Yoshiaki’s temporary home in January 1569, Nobunaga built him a castle in the Muromachi district where Yoshiaki’s Ashikaga ancestors had lived. Some 25,000 labourers, operating under the no doubt terrifying personal command of Nobunaga – himself wielding hoe and bamboo cane as symbols of getting personally stuck in – completed in just seventy days a project that one observer thought should have taken four or five years.

The construction of the shogun’s castle, complete with inner and outer moats, strong stone walls and adornments liberated from a nearby temple, was turned by Nobunaga into a powerful symbol of his status. He commanded warriors and even daimyō to come to Kyoto as part of the building process and its associated festivities, and then told them when they could go home again. Such was Nobunaga’s reputation now that few dared to disobey. Even when he took to wearing a tigerskin around his waist, visitors rushed to copy this odd affectation, lest entering his presence in smarter attire be taken as an affront.

Step two for Nobunaga was to work out a system of joint rule with Yoshiaki. This proved more difficult than step one. Yoshiaki tried to build his own base of support by contacting potential allies and making grants of land. He was, as far as Nobunaga was concerned, missing the point of tenka. Across a series of three official documents produced between 1569 and 1572, Nobunaga steadily trampled on the hopes and dreams of his new associate. He made it clear that the affairs of the tenka were his to deal with, noting with menace in his final missive that people had taken to calling Yoshiaki ‘evil lord’ – the very same epithet, all concerned would have known, that was applied to Yoshinori prior to his assassination in 1441.

Yoshiaki now had little choice but to part company with his overbearing ally, contributing to dangerous months for Nobunaga in 1572–3. The list of Nobunaga’s conquests was impressive: he controlled Owari and Mino Provinces, along with the capital and its surrounds. And yet his success had the effect of creating and motivating an equally impressive array of enemies across the central and eastern provinces. Most forbidding amongst them were Azai Nagamasa in Ōmi Province, Asakura Yoshikage in Echizen Province and Takeda Shingen in the province of Kai.

The first to move against Nobunaga was Takeda. His army defeated troops under the command of Nobunaga’s ally Ieyasu in January 1573, and by March he had made it into Mikawa Province, bordering Nobunaga’s home territory of Owari. Yoshiaki now seized his chance to come out against Nobunaga. He fortified his castle and mobilized his relatively small personal force of 5,000 retainers, hoping all the while that Nobunaga’s enemies would keep him occupied and well away from the capital.

But Nobunaga got lucky. In April, Takeda fell fatally ill – some said of pneumonia, others blamed a wound inflicted by a sniper. His troops began returning to Kai, allowing Nobunaga to turn his attention back to Kyoto and Yoshiaki. He began by demanding exorbitant military tributes from the citizenry of Kyoto. When they refused to pay, he proceeded to burn down much of the north of the city, including thousands of homes, and to raze around ninety nearby villages. While residents in southern parts of the capital rushed to empty their pockets, saving themselves from a similar fate, Yoshiaki reluctantly made peace. In August, Nobunaga forced him from the city, bringing the Ashikaga shogunate to an end and launching Yoshiaki on a life so humiliating that he became known as the ‘Beggar Shogun’. The next month, Azai and Asakura succumbed to Nobunaga’s forces too. Theirs were two of the lacquered and gilded skulls said to have been brought out as part of the New Year’s festivities (1574) – the third had belonged to Azai’s father.

Only one major player in the shifting anti-Nobunaga alliance now survived: a Buddhist organization of legendary reach and military potential. Not Tendai: the monks of Mount Hiei had sided with Nobunaga’s enemies in 1570, and had paid the devastating price a year later. This other Buddhist organization had started out as small groups of people meeting to recite the nembutsu as Shinran suggested, acknowledging their helpless gratitude to Amida. Now they boasted wealth, arms, a heavily fortified headquarters on central Honshū’s southern coast, and a rural network comprising tens of thousands of willing would-be soldiers.

Wars like those waged by Nobunaga could quickly make life unbearable for Japan’s farmers, who made up by far the greatest proportion of the population. Improvements in agricultural productivity in recent centuries had helped to make some of them wealthy, producing enough to sell directly at markets. But many others dressed in simple hemp, lived in shelters of mud and wood, and cultivated rice while being unable to afford to eat it themselves – subsisting instead on millet or wild grasses, along with whatever they could fish or hunt. More than most other Japanese, they lived during these years at the mercy of two kinds of climate, natural and political.

Only so much could be done about nature, but more and more villages sought to insulate themselves from the country’s fragmenting politics by asserting new sorts of autonomy. They negotiated as a community with outside authorities while regulating the lives of their own members, from what they farmed to how they behaved. Some communities even took up arms and built defensive moats and embankments around their villages. A second trend in rural self-defence was the banding together of villagers, warriors or both to form ikki: temporary confederations dedicated to the pursuit of a particular objective, political or economic. They promoted their interests by way of written remonstrations, strike action and violence. Nobunaga called them a ‘curse on the nation’.

Japan’s towns, too, threatened trouble for an aspiring national leader. The country was now home to enough towns – located principally around the capital and along the coasts – that most people could make a day-trip to their nearest one. With populations ranging from 5,000 people up to 30,000 or more, they served as hubs for a thriving inter-provincial trade that was carried mostly by water but which used overland routes when required, individual horse-and-carts sharing the roadways with well-protected merchant caravans.

The whole system was lubricated by imported Chinese coins, now accepted as payment right across the country, and the successful taxation of trade helped the daimyō to replenish their war chests. Many of the busiest and most affluent of Japan’s towns had grown up around pilgrimage sites, and Buddhist temples especially, while some had actually developed from within the grounds of temples and were as a consequence firmly under their control – commercial profits included.

The Hongan-ji branch of Jōdo Shinshū, still led by Shinran’s descendants, owned and profited handsomely from one of the greatest of these temple-towns. It had developed around a small retirement temple built for the Patriarch Rennyo in 1496 by the Inland Sea, south-west of Kyoto. It took its name from the ‘long slope’ on which it was located: ‘Ō-zaka’, or ‘Osaka’. When the Hongan-ji headquarters in Kyoto was destroyed in 1532, a casualty of the era’s complex and violent politics, the sect moved its operation to Osaka instead, developing there the Ishiyama Hongan-ji and securing it with more than fifty fortified outposts.

For Nobunaga, all this was the stuff of nightmares. The urban wealth and rural loyalty that the Hongan-ji Patriarch had at his command effectively made him a daimyō. But whereas the power of most daimyō was geographically concentrated and could be tackled on those terms, the Hongan-ji Patriarch was able to call upon tens of thousands of followers spread out across the land. Mainly merchants, artisans and farmers, these followers were well organized by way of local parishes, they were generous in donating to Hongan-ji coffers and they looked to the Patriarch for temporal as well as spiritual leadership. Their powerful shared rallying point, a faithful devotion to Amida, led them to be called ikkō (‘single-directed’) and their confederations ikkō ikki.

The Patriarch exercised no formal military command over these people. Some ignored his messages, others fought amongst themselves; and in general they lacked training or strong, experienced leadership. But when enough followers chose to answer a call to arms, it could be as though a fighting force had appeared out of nowhere: a pop-up army, with thousands of members who fed, clothed and armed themselves, and for whom the promise of rebirth in the Pure Land relieved them, at least in part, of an otherwise distracting and demotivating fear of death. Some followers were said to go into battle with pieces of paper bearing the words of the nembutsu. When their object was accomplished, they could disappear, frustrating any attempt at punishment or revenge.

By 1570 the Patriarch Kennyo, deeply concerned about Nobunaga’s intentions, had allied himself with anti-Nobunaga forces. In a letter sent to his followers across Japan that year, he declared Nobunaga ‘an enemy of the Buddhist law’ and asked for their help in dealing with him – adding that ‘anyone who does not respond will not be a sect member’.

The resulting conflict lasted, on and off, for a decade. Nobunaga’s forces were ruthless in their punishment of ikkō ikki uprisings. A 1574 siege against the sect’s Nagashima fortresses in the central province of Ise ended with the estimated deaths of 40,000 people, from starvation and from fires started by Nobunaga’s troops. A similar number are said to have been executed in Echizen Province the following year, though reliable figures do not exist for most of the conflicts of this era. Nobunaga was briefly distracted from the Hongan-ji by a last hurrah from one of his secular enemies – a resurgent Takeda family under Shingen’s son Katsuyori. But having seen them off at the Battle of Nagashino in June 1575, with the help of Ieyasu and the pitiless use of arquebusiers to take down cavalry, Nobunaga proudly claimed to have only one enemy left in the world: the Ishiyama Hongan-ji at Osaka, bereft now of big daimyō allies and with much of its rural network in pieces.

Nobunaga had roads widened, bridges built and supplies and men gathered. In the spring of 1576, his troops began systematically destroying crops in the area around the Hongan-ji. Two outright assaults ended in failure and a bullet in the leg for Nobunaga. But by July the Hongan-ji was running low on supplies. Kennyo appealed to Mōri Terumoto, a powerful western Honshū warlord, and to groups of Inland Sea pirates – somewhat akin to maritime daimyō – to supply him by water. Some 800 ships duly destroyed Nobunaga’s smaller naval force, which was similarly reliant on deals struck with pirates. The siege was broken – for now. Two years later, Nobunaga was back, this time with a force including seven ships built by his maritime allies on a revolutionary design: thirty metres long and more than ten metres wide, loaded up with heavy cannon and their wooden frames clad with metal plates. These may have been the world’s first iron-clad warships. They were certainly beyond anything Mōri’s side could muster. Their navy was defeated, and the slow starvation of the Hongan-ji resumed.

Kennyo continued to call for uprisings by his followers, hoping to sap Nobunaga’s energies elsewhere in central Japan. But Nobunaga now had 60,000 troops committed to his task. In April 1580, Kennyo finally put his name to a formal peace proposal – said to have been signed by Nobunaga in his own blood – which included the vacation of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji. Kennyo left the next month and his son Kyōnyo followed suit in August, having briefly held out as leader of a hard-line Hongan-ji faction opposed to surrender. Then, just as Nobunaga was preparing to embark on a personal tour of one of his most difficult, drawn-out conquests, smoke and flames became visible on the horizon. Kyōnyo’s followers had set light to their own fortress, burning it to the ground rather than see Nobunaga set foot in it.

Still, Nobunaga had achieved something of historic significance with his defeat of the Hongan-ji. A thousand years on from Buddhism’s introduction into Japan, and its rise to power via state, aristocratic and then popular patronage, Buddhist military and political power had been all but eliminated. And by resisting the urge to visit upon the inhabitants of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji the sort of catastrophic retributive bloodshed he had meted out on Mount Hiei – as well as to Hongan-ji followers across central Japan – Nobunaga managed to avoid the endless round of fresh uprisings that he would surely have otherwise incurred. Instead, he was free now, as never before, to develop his grand plans for the ‘realm’.

On a mountain looming a hundred metres high over Lake Biwa stood a castle featuring a towering seven-storey donjon: fortified with sloping stone at its base, dazzling white towards the top and capped with gold. Inside were tatami-mat floors, lacquered and gold-leaf pillars, and rooms decorated with golden wall-paintings featuring Chinese monarchs and sages, tigers and hawks, demons and dragons. There were gardens, too, and an aviary; there was space for a temple, the tea ceremony and sumo tournaments. One room, even grander than the rest, was dedicated to receiving the Emperor.

‘Rule the realm by force’ was Nobunaga’s motto. And it had served him well by the middle of 1580. But he was a creative leader, not merely a destructive one. Azuchi Castle, shiny and new in the summer sun while the Ishiyama Hongan-ji lay blackened and charred, was not just a new and fitting home for the supreme warlord of the age; it was a symbol of Nobunaga’s plans to develop the tenka far beyond mere force of arms.

An important part of those plans was the imperial court. Emperor Ōgimachi had been wooing Nobunaga since his early victories in the 1560s, seeking his help in recovering lost imperial land and making repairs to the Imperial Palace. Nobunaga obliged on both counts, going on during the 1570s to lavish gifts on the imperial family: from land to gold dust, expensive wood to dried persimmons, and a special tax, levied twice in Kyoto, whose proceeds were paid to the imperial court.

In return, once the shogun was out of the way Nobunaga was awarded high court rank and a number of prestigious, if practically meaningless official appointments, culminating in Minister of the Right in 1577. Nobles put on a demonstration game of kemari for him in 1575 and the next year staged a musical performance – with the Emperor and Crown Prince Sanehito amongst the musicians – to pray for Nobunaga’s success against the Hongan-ji. The imperial family were also there to be deployed when Nobunaga wanted to make peace. One of the best ways to stop a conflict while saving face in this era was to appeal to the Emperor to demand that an opponent seek terms, and then to use imperial envoys in smoothing the process.

For the imperial family, treating Nobunaga in this way helped not just their finances but their public image too. Rather than cowering before a dictator, they were seen willing him on for the good of the country. Meanwhile, Nobunaga well understood, as the Fujiwara dynasty and later the Kamakura and Ashikaga shoguns had, that in a world where history and family are the basis of legitimacy the imperial court was an institution to be worked with rather than against.

The first of April 1581 saw this mutually beneficial relationship rise to new heights. Nobunaga staged an enormous military parade near the Imperial Palace in Kyoto in celebration of the vanquishing at last of the Hongan-ji. The Emperor looked on as an estimated 130,000 men, on foot and on horseback, passed by. Nobunaga had ordered his vassals to spend vast sums on their attire, and still no one managed to upstage the man himself: seated in a sedan chair of crimson velvet and wearing ‘clothes and decorations as bright as the sun’. Having two years previously adopted Emperor Ōgimachi’s son, Prince Sanehito, Nobunaga was looking forward in time to becoming the father-in-law of an emperor. In fact, he was soon seeking to speed that moment along, putting pressure on Emperor Ōgimachi to abdicate.

While the tenka was taking promising shape in Kyoto, Nobunaga also busied himself with Japan’s towns and villages. A town grew up around Azuchi Castle, as Nobunaga required his vassals to build homes there. He offered tax exemptions for merchants and artisans willing to set up shop in this and other towns under his control. He worked to do away with transport tolls and with the exclusivity of the old guilds – especially in goods and trades that supported his war efforts: guns and ammunition, swordsmiths and stone-cutters. And he tightened the rules on criminality and debt, as a further encouragement of commerce. Azuchi became a model for what came to be called ‘castle towns’, where economic activity gathered at the gates of a daimyō’s home.

In rural Japan, where the old shōen system was in tatters but not yet officially at an end, Nobunaga made the first small moves towards establishing a new order. Daimyō and their vassals would no longer be farmers’ tormentors, tearing up their land in battle or taxing it to the hilt. They would be their rightful rulers and chosen champions – while also, of course, collecting fair taxes and levying reasonable military contributions. As part of this new pact with the peasantry, Nobunaga became, in 1580, one of the first warlords to commission detailed land surveys. He tried to find out who was who in each village, what they farmed (as landholders or tenants), and what they owed as a result in tax and labour. Here, as in a great many other areas, Hideyoshi and then Ieyasu would one day build on Nobunaga’s foundations.

Nobunaga was not, of course, satisfied with controlling central Honshū alone. Next on his list, in 1582, were enemies on the island of Shikoku and in western Japan. The former were expected to offer such an easy ride that Nobunaga parcelled out the island’s four provinces to retainers far in advance of their conquest. The Mōri of western Japan would be harder, but more interesting. He would go there himself. He was, after all, still only forty-eight years of age, and with the Mōri’s eight provinces conquered Nobunaga would be master of the whole of western Honshū. Ignoring for now imperial appeals for him to accept the role of Chancellor, great minister of the Council of State, even shogun, he set off to do battle once more.

Nobunaga stopped off, on his way, in Kyoto. There he lodged at a temple called Honnō-ji, suitably fortified with great walls, moats and watchtowers. One of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, was meanwhile marching 13,000 men into the capital, where they were told they would be inspected by Nobunaga himself. When they arrived at Honnō-ji at dawn on 21 June 1582, they found themselves instead ordered by Mitsuhide to surround the place. And then to open fire.

Nobunaga and his men at first thought that some trouble must be breaking out between a few locals. When they realized what was actually going on, Nobunaga yelled ‘Treason!’ and grabbed his bow. His men gave it everything, but to no avail. As the attackers closed in, Nobunaga switched to his spear before finally sustaining a serious wound. The man who might have been lord of all Japan withdrew to a back room to take his own life, as all around him a scene familiar to so many of those he had called his enemies was played out: a temple, turned inferno, from which there could be no escape.