Before the islands of Japan were unified under the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, around 1600 CE, various warlords battled to gain dominance over the lands of Japan. The first major figure to rise to power was Oda Nobunaga.
Nobunaga was a skilled war leader, and used a mixture of tactical brilliance, technological innovation and psychological ruthlessness to bring much of Japan under his control. His heyday occurred from 1570-1580, when he conquered close to half of Japan. His foes, however, were not always other political rivals—he had a long feud with the Shinto and Buddhist warrior monks in temples and communities throughout Japan.
A prolonged, bitter war between the rural Ikko-ikki Buddhists and the Oda clan was assured when Nobunaga’s brother was killed in battle at Nagashima in 1569. Nobunaga sent two of his generals with an army to avenge his brother in 1571, but the Ikko-ikki were able to force the Oda army to withdraw.
During the same year, a quarrelsome contingent of warrior monks from the temple of Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei made the unwise decision to join forces with Nobunaga’s enemies. The warlord immediately sent an army of around 30,000 men to siege the temple, but Nobunaga’s intention was not pacification—no, he meant to bring annihilation. The Oda army marched its way up the mountain, burning shrines and villages attached to the temple. When they reached Enryakuji temple, it, and many of the people still inside, were burned to ash. Around 20,000 people may have perished in the flames on Mt. Hiei.
By 1573, Nobunaga was confident enough to try another campaign against the Nagashima Ikko-ikki. This time he decided not to delegate the attack to his generals; he wanted to lead the fight, personally. In the first year, he did not gain much ground against the Ikko-ikki, but by 1574, he had pushed the forces of Nagashima into a last stand at the fortresses of Ganshoji and Nagashima Castle. In a scene similar to that at Mt. Hiei, Nobunaga blockaded the Ikko-ikki in their forts. With his enemy trapped, he set up mounds of flammable firewood around his prey. With no thought of mercy, Nobunaga set fire to the fortresses and watched as strong winds created an inferno out of the last Ikko-ikki strongholds in Nagashima. Around 20,000 more people died in the fire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Japanese Warrior Monks: AD 949-1603, by Stephen Turnbull. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003.