Oda Nobunaga, the first of Japan’s so-called Three Great Unifiers, had an eventful and complicated career. It ended suddenly 441 years ago on June 21st.
In a stunning, unexpected attack, Nobunaga’s retainer Akechi Mitsuhide turned his own army around from its campaign and surrounded Nobunaga’s lodgings at Honnō-ji Temple in Kyoto, where the overlord fought to his death. Read on to learn more about the real history behind the legends, and some of the different ways it’s been depicted in popular culture over the past few decades!
From Fool to Conqueror
When he was born, Oda Nobunaga was not someone that anybody in a position of power in late Muromachi era Japan would’ve expected to conquer a significant portion of the realm. Indeed, even some in his own clan called him a fool.
But rather than a fool, Nobunaga was a pragmatic leader who took bold action. He first secured his own control of his own clan and province. Then, gradually, he brought more and more of central Japan under his sway.
Sometimes he coopted the trappings of Ashikaga Shogunate authority– such as when he escorted Ashikaga Yoshiaki into Kyoto in 1568 to install him as the 15th shogun. Other times, he entirely upended the existing order, as he did when he drove Yoshiaki out of Kyoto after discovering Yoshiaki had betrayed him. That move ended the Ashikaga Shogunate altogether. Nobunaga even made himself an enemy of some devout Buddhists, such as when he burned the fortress-like Enryaku-ji temple on Mount Hiei.
Rather than shy away from such actions, Nobunaga boldly took ownership of them. He even called himself the Demon King of the Sixth Heaven, and thus an enemy of the dharma.
But he was more than simply a pyromaniac, as some popular depictions paint him. He was also a patron of the arts, had international interests, and entertained European clergy and other travelers. In general, seemed to view himself as the builder of a new order, rather than simply as the destroyer of an old order. It was his work that set in motion Japan’s unification by 1600.
More than a Traitor: Akechi Mitsuhide
Akechi Mitsuhide, who betrayed Nobunaga and caused his death, was one of Nobunaga’s vassals. Originally serving the Ashikaga Shogunate, he quickly rose to prominence in the drive to coopt Ashikaga Shogunate authority. He helped seal Nobunaga’s claim to primacy in central Japan.
After becoming an Oda vassal, Mitsuhide rose to become lord of Sakamoto Castle, and one of Nobunaga’s trusted commanders. His battles and campaigns were numerous. In one famous case, during the retreat from Kanegasaki, he led the longshot rear-guard action that saved Nobunaga and the bulk of his army from total destruction.
When Oda vassal Hashiba Hideyoshi’s campaigns in western Honshu bogged down, Nobunaga ordered Mitsuhide to take his own force of roughly 30,000 and go to Hideyoshi’s aid. But instead of going west, Mitsuhide turned his army abruptly around and ordered them to attack Nobunaga, at his lodgings in Honnō-ji Temple, in Kyoto. The temple, which was large and had a moat and strong walls, was a secure location where Nobunaga’s retinue had paused on its way west to oversee that bogged-down campaign.
Despite these defenses, Mitsuhide’s army overwhelmed Nobunaga’s paltry force of personal guards and killed Nobunaga in the burning temple’s flames. The Demon King of the Sixth Heaven passed into history.
Fans Even in Life
There are many fans of Nobunaga today, of course. But I would be remiss if I didn’t note that even in life, Nobunaga had fans.
One of them, a young man named Tōjirō, was the heir of a northern daimyo of some moderate renown. Growing up amidst a difficult time in his family’s fortunes, he said he wanted to become like Nobunaga when he took command of the clan and its forces. While Tōjirō didn’t conquer all of Japan, he achieved his goal of securing his family’s fortunes and became rather powerful in his own right.
We know him better by his adult name. He was Date Masamune, the founder of the modern city of Sendai.
A Variety of Portrayals
Nobunaga, Mitsuhide, and the Honnō-ji Incident have been the subject of many popular portrayals since that night in 1582. In recent decades, Nobunaga and Mitsuhide have each been the subject of their own yearlong NHK Taiga drama– Nobunaga in 1992 and Kirin ga Kuru in 2020-2021, respectively. In each, the incident is an understandably important beat in the story.
The 2014 anime and its subsequent live-action TV series Nobunaga Concerto features a modern high schooler named Saburō accidentally time-traveling and taking the historic Nobunaga’s place. And the 2012 anime adaptation of Oda Nobuna no Yabō has another modern-day high schooler taking Hideyoshi’s place beside a female daimyo who exists instead of Nobunaga, named Oda Nobuna.
Meanwhile, on an anthropomorphic note, the comedic anime Sengoku Chōjū Giga also features the incident, with Nobunaga as an anthropomorphic hototogisu (lesser cuckoo) bird. Finally, the 2015 anime Oda Cinnamon Nobunaga features Nobunaga reincarnated as a talking Shiba inu who fears fire because it reminds him of Honnō-ji.
From silly to serious, there’s no shortage of retellings of this historic episode.
My Own Favorites
My own favorite movie depictions are in two made-for-TV movies from 2007.
In Akechi Mitsuhide: Kami ni Aisarenakatta Otoko, Karasawa Toshiaki plays a Mitsuhide wrestling with his conscience in the face of inhuman orders given by a cultured, shrewd, but short-tempered and terrifying Oda Nobunaga played by Kamikawa Takaya.
At first, he is willing to do anything in Nobunaga’s service if it means ending the suffering of countless people amidst the Warring States era. But he grows disillusioned after the burning of Enryaku-ji and the slaughter of the civilians who sought refuge there. He finds it hard to stomach Nobunaga’s appetite for inflicting suffering on innocent people whatever his ultimate aims may have been. Mitsuhide instead chooses to attack and kill him.
In Teki wa Honnō–ji ni Ari, we get the Honnoji story from Akechi Mitsuharu’s perspective. Better known as Akechi Samanosuke, he was a skilled horseman and Mitsuhide’s adoptive son. Playstation 2 gamers from the early 2000s might also remember Mitsuharu– by his court title of Samanosuke– as the protagonist from Onimusha: Warlords, the first title in the Onimusha series.
In Teki wa Honnō–ji ni Ari, Kabuki Actor Matsumoto Kōshirō X (then using the stage name of Ichikawa Somegorō VII) plays Mitsuharu, and Nakamura Baijaku plays Mitsuhide. Tamaki Hiroshi plays Nobunaga.
Teki doesn’t depict Nobunaga as a ruthless leader with a thirst for new and interesting things and a willingness to kill anyone in the way. This version of Nobunaga is a visionary and internationally-minded patron of the arts. The drama depicts his death as an unintended consequence of trigger-happy Akechi retainers who turn what should have been his surrender into an execution.
Remembering the Cost
But what I think is particularly compelling, and underlines the cost of these so-called Great Unifiers’ campaigns, is the ending scene after the credits of Teki wa Honnō-ji ni Ari. On a long shot of Lake Biwa, the lake’s surface slowly turns red as if turning to blood, and the narrator reads the following caption.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan in 1590. But that unification barely lasted for a decade. Tokugawa Ieyasu was the one who finally unified Japan in the year 1603. It was 20 years after the incident at Honnoji.
Whatever our opinion of these men, we cannot simply be unquestioning fans of them like the young Date Masamune was, in the 1580s. In our admiration of these men, whatever good they achieved, it behooves us to remember what their campaigns cost in human life and suffering.
Honnō-ji still exists today, having been rebuilt in the 1590s. But it’s in a different place than it was when Nobunaga died there, even if it’s the same institution.
Likewise, the Oda clan survived this incident and remained a daimyo family until the Edo period’s end. But it never again had the power it enjoyed under Nobunaga’s headship.
Though Nobunaga’s career and seemingly unstoppable rise in power had ended that night, 13 days later, Toyotomi Hideyoshi hurried his army back to the Kansai region from their campaign in western Honshu. Having dithered, Mitsuhide lost his momentum, and Hideyoshi defeated them at the Battle of Yamazaki.
Historians commonly believe that Mitsuhide died shortly after this battle. However, another theory has it that he lived, took Buddhist orders, and was later Nankōbō Tenkai, a famous and long-lived early Edo-period monk.
Eventually, Hideyoshi usurped Nobunaga’s position and carried Japan’s unification forward as Imperial Chancellor. Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was Nobunaga’s ally and Hideyoshi’s vassal, finally clinched the title of Shogun in 1603, after victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, in 1600. But our historical hindsight is 20/20 (or if you will, 2023). It’s important to remember that all of this was in the future on that June night in 1582.
- “Akechi Mitsuhide: Kami ni Aisarenakatta Otoko.” MyDramaList. Accessed 13 June 2023.
- Nyri A. Bakkalian. “A Deep Dive into ‘Frolicking Animals:’ Sengoku Choju-Giga and Its Historic Roots.” Anime Herald, 9 April 2022. Accessed 13 June 2023.
- Philip C. Brown. Central authority and local autonomy in the formation of early modern Japan: the case of Kaga domain. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 4-5.
- George Elison. “Introduction: Japan in the Sixteenth Century.” pp. 1-6. Warlords, Artists, & Commoners: Japan in the Sixteenth Century. Edited by George Elison and Bardwell L. Smith. (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1981), p. 6.
- John Whitney Hall. “Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Revolution.” pp. 7-21 of Warlords, Artists, & Commoners: Japan in the Sixteenth Century. Edited by George Elison and Bardwell L. Smith. (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1981), pp. 8-16.
- Matsunaga Daian. Foundation of Japanese Buddhism, Vol. II: The Mass Movement. (Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1976). p. 9.
- “Nobunaga Concerto.” Internet Movie Database. Accessed 13 June 2023.
- “Oda Nobunaga to Honnō-ji: Honnō-ji no Rekishi.” Honnō-ji Temple. Accessed 13 June 2023.
- Onodera Eikō. Boshin Nanboku Sensō To Tōhoku Seiken. (Sendai: Kita no mori, 2005), pp. 127-128.
- Edward D. Rockstein. “Strategic and Operational Aspects of Japan’s Invasions of Korea, 1592- 1598.” United States Naval War College, June 1993, pp. 19-22.
- “Teki wa Honnoji ni Ari.” MyDramaList. Accessed 13 June 2023.