Oda Nobunaga was the first of the three unifiers of Japan during the Warring States period, the others being Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu who had sworn allegiance as subordinate retainers in his last years.
Nobunaga was of middling status in the feudal hierarchy of the day. His father was daimyo of a fief with its castle at Nagoya on the Tokaido highway. After succeeding to his father’s position in 1551, Nobunaga spent a decade defeating and killing several family rivals, including a brother, before firmly controlling his inheritance.
In 1560, Nobunaga defeated the Imagawa clan which was threatening him in the east. One result was that an Imagawa retainer, Tokugawa Ieyasu, became in 1562 a firm ally of Nobunaga with great benefit to both. By 1567, Nobunaga added Mino province to his base in Owari province, moving his capital to present-day Gifu. This was a large step in the direction of Kyoto which was the center of power. In 1568, he supported the claims of Ashikaga Yoshiaki to the Muromachi shogunate and took control of Kyoto. Nobunaga then acted to take most of the shogun’s powers into his own hands.
From 1570 to 1573, Oda was hard pressed by a large coalition including various daimyo in the Osaka area (important as a commercial and firearms manufacturing center), Takeda Shingen, the shogun and the Buddhist True Pure Land sect (Jodo Shinshu). By 1573 the Osaka daimyo were vanquished, Shingen had died and the shogun was driven into exile for collaboration with Nobunaga’s enemies. Conflict continued with the Buddhists for a period, but military defeat and slaughter of believers subdued them by 1575.
By this time, Nobunaga controlled about one third of Japan. He began building a residential castle at Azuchi in Omi province in 1576 just north of Musa, a post-town on the Nakasendo. The castle was a major cultural statement as well as an announcement of Nobunaga’s status of hegemon throughout the realm. Also in 1576, fighting again broke out and Nobunaga was hard pressed one more time by daimyo, especially those from western Japan, and by the Buddhists with headquarters at Osaka. During the next four years, Nobunaga’s forces steadily pressed back their opponents. The Buddhist power was finally and irrevocably broken by 1580.
Nobunaga was now able to concentrate a little more on the administration of his realm. He began a series of land surveys to establish a firm base for taxation and moved (or removed) various retainers to different domains for strategic reasons. More fighting broke out in 1582, but before Nobunaga could move west with the intention of putting a final end to threats from that direction, he was assassinated in Kyoto by a retainer, Akechi Mitsuhide.
Nobunaga was renowned as a brutal warrior, capable of great cruelty and terrible vengeance toward his enemies. In fact, he was unwilling to compromise with enemies, preferring to dominate them absolutely or crush them under his heel. This tendency was responsible for many enemies and potential enemies remaining implacably opposed to him and prevented him from enjoying any prolonged period of peace. At the same time, like many daimyo in the late Warring States period, he was a man interested in culture. He saw cultural achievement as something which would give him personally and his political system great respect and stability. This set a firm model for his successors. Similarly, his impatience with opposition was an example of how not to handle enemies, at least to Tokugawa Ieyasu who was more willing to compromise and reach agreements.
The most recent book about Nobunaga is Jeroen Lamers’ Japonius Tyrannus: The Japanese Warlord Oda Nobunaga Reconsidered, published by Hotei Publishing in Leiden in 2000.