Oda Nobunaga: a visionary who was open to Christianity in the 16th century
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
In all societies remarkable leaders emerge despite the constraints of culture, customs, religion and other factors. In Japan this certainly applies to Oda Nobunaga who was born in 1534 and died in 1582.
Oda Nobunaga had a real spark of energy and while people tend to focus on the violent aspect of this great leader of Japan, it is clear that this is a huge mistake. After all, Oda Nobunaga utilized modernity in many ways and he introduced new thinking which gave greater freedom to the peasantry in the economic sphere.
The legacy of Oda Nobunaga is very strong and under him the Christian faith began to spread in Japan. He clearly did not follow the “fortress Buddhism” of the Edo period which would ultimately kill every single Christian in this brutal period for Christians in Japan.
On the contrary, he understood how Buddhist elites abused power and preserved the status quo. Sadly, Oda Nobunaga’s thinking would not be shared by the majority of the leaders who would follow him and all individuals would have to register at Buddhist temples in the Edo period.
Therefore, Oda Nobunaga does create problems for Japanese individuals who revere the Edo period or who may have nationalistic tendencies. After all, Oda Nobunaga would learn from the outside world and he would listen to what Christian missionaries had to say.
In many ways, the spirit of Oda Nobunaga is often underestimated or undervalued because he challenged many conventions and he neither supported rigid stratification and nor did he bow down to the feudal mentality of Buddhism at this time.
Therefore, Oda Nobunaga might be stuck in Japanese history but he truly belongs to world history because of his ambition, thinking, and modern concepts of adopting change in order to transform society.
Also, the violent aspect of Oda Nobunaga is over-played because it was clear that the power structures were based on self-interests and maintaining the firm stratification of society in order to further increase their respective power bases. This meant that peasants had little room in the field of trade and they were tied to poverty because of the rigid system.
At the same time the Buddhist hierarchy was powerful in Japan in this period or what could be deemed Japan in this period. After all, the competing power structures meant that this country was disjointed and lacked any real centralization which could enforce and maintain a strong unitary state.
Therefore, Oda Nobunaga would be the key in the centralization of Japan but the visionary aspect of Oda Nobunaga would not be shared and this applies to opening up Japan. However, the legacy of Oda Nobunaga enabled the Edo period to begin because of his policies and unifying tendencies which were followed by the next two leaders of Japan.
In this period of history it is difficult to find the concept of Italy, Japan, Germany, and virtually all future nation states because structures were lose and the center was weak. Also, the sense of national identity did not exist throughout the unitary nation state and these concepts only became a reality in the future.
The unitary nation state of Japan in the period of Oda Nobunaga and throughout the Edo Period was very different and modern Japan would not fully materialize until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 which would centralize and expand the power of the center.
Therefore, Oda Nobunaga’s centralization was based on the main power bases in Japan that existed in the 16th century. However, the Ainu, the people of Ryukyu (Okinawa), the nature of the fudai system, ronin, and the power of certain daimyo groups, meant that all these factors prevented a truly unified Japan.
Modern day Hokkaido did not belong to Japan until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 changed everything because Meiji leaders would centralize fully and expand the entity of Japan.
Despite this, Oda Nobunaga was a vital link in the chain which led to this event because it was he who enabled the Edo period to take place by his thinking and the Meiji Restoration was the ultimate objective of Oda Nobunaga. It is also ironic that the first modernizer who favored religious freedom but was usurped by the thinking of Edo leaders and the Buddhist hierarchy; was ultimately successful when the Meiji Restoration took place because religious freedom would be restored and Meiji leaders would utilize modernity in order to protect Japan from outside powers.
During the period of Oda Nobunaga in Japan it was clear that Buddhist monks who were warlike had desired to control power, or to be at the center of power, had to be crushed in Mt. Hiei because of historical factors. From the Heike war and until the rise of Oda Nobunaga the Buddhist monastery of Mt. Hiei was instrumental in Japanese history.
This Buddhist monastery was instrumental in all major power processes and this especially applied to the military and political objectives of all major leaders. Therefore, Oda Nobunaga had to destroy this power concentration in order to fulfill his ambition and he truly did this because the conflict was bloody and brutal.
The warlike Tendai Buddhists of Mt. Hiei were neither meek nor mild and they had to be challenged by Oda Nobunaga in order for him to set the stage for centralization. The conflict was bloody on both sides and mercy and compassion would not be shown by both forces who fully understood the situation and what was at stake.
This conflict culminated with every single Hiei monk being slaughtered and the Buddhist monastery was destroyed. Again, Oda Nobunaga was revolutionary because just like Islamic power structures in modern day Afghanistan which are preventing modernization and desire to preserve their power base; Oda Nobunaga would crush an established power base which was hindering Japan and which had no intent on making life easier for the peasantry in this period.
Oda Nobunaga would show no compassion but simply move on to his next objective because he knew that this victory would free him to concentrate on greater goals. This applies to centralization, modernity, economic policies, strengthening the military base, and utilizing firearms in order to create a future dynamic state based on commerce and self-preservation in a hostile world.
Once more the commercial and economic aspect of Oda Nobunaga’s thinking would be hindered by Edo leaders but this factor can’t be pinned on Oda Nobunaga. Therefore, the Meiji Restoration would also resemble the modernization of his thinking but of course because of the huge gap in time then on a grander scale.
It is factual that Oda Nobunaga was a leader who would use violence in order to challenge the old order but he clearly had no option. Either his policies of centralization would challenge the status quo and enable a new power base to emerge or the countless divisions would hinder the country.
Sadly, despite Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu being a link with Oda Nobunaga this only applied to their shared interest of a centralized power base. Therefore, the following leaders after him did not share either his visionary ideas or his openness to the Christian faith and the same applies to economic policies.
The Tokugawa period (Edo period) in time would resemble modern day Somalia where every Christian convert is searched for and then killed. The only difference is that this was a Buddhist inquisition of Christianity and in time the followers of Shinto would resent the Buddhist ruling clique because of economic factors.
Simon August Thalmann comments that “Buddhism wasn’t devalued as much for a perceived foreignness, however, as much as for its association to the former feudal government of the Tokugawa period. Furthermore, the leaders of the Buddhist temples of the Tokugawa period had used their position to amass wealth for themselves at a time when many people were suffering (thereby) not helping their appeal to reformers in the Meiji era.”
“During the Tokugawa period, Shinto had suffered under Buddhist domination and influence, to the point where high-ranking Buddhist priest many times came to control Shinto shrines. During the Meiji period, reformers sought to “purify” Shinto from Buddhist influence by replacing Buddhism altogether. Opposition made this impossible, however, and finally the necessary arrangements were made for the coexistence of the two traditions.”
Therefore, while people mention the natural trinity which began with Oda Nobunaga and was followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and then Tokugawa Ieyasu. It is part true because both Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu continued the thinking of Oda Nobunaga when it came to centralization but this is where it ends.
In other vital areas the visionary Oda Nobunaga was very different and ironically it would be the Meiji leaders which ended the Edo period who would be the real link with aspects of his thinking.
In another article that I wrote called Oda Nobunaga: free thinker and modernizer in 16th century Japan I comment that the modernizer Oda Nobunaga “…was very open minded and he supported modernity and this applies to allowing Christian missions, adopting modern firearms, greater fortifications of major castles, freeing people from the constraints on trade, opening up trade for peasants, rewarding people on merit and not just family lines, and other policies which were political and based on developing the economy.”
“Oda Nobunaga would do all this in such a short period of time and during all this radical change he would wage war against his enemies, attack a major center of Buddhism, form complex alliances, and set in motions the unitary state of Japan.”
“This unitary state of Japan, like mentioned before, was based on the power bases in Japan at this time and it must be remembered that modern day Hokkaido did not belong to Japan even during the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868.”
“While many feudal leaders in the Western world, Hindu world, and Islamic world during this period supported stratification; Oda Nobunaga did not and instead he introduced major economic policies and rewarded people on merit within his system of thinking.”
“Oda Nobunaga, like the Hindu world, and unlike the Christian world or Islamic world in this period; supported religious freedom and he was open to new ideas in the realms of theology and thinking.”
“He was revolutionary but sadly the Edo period would mainly isolate Japan, not fully because important daimyo’s like the Satsuma daimyo, would trade with Ryukyu (Okinawa), China, Korea, and other countries which would carry trade.”
“However, stratification would once more be adopted during the Edo period, modernization would be curtailed, and the Christian faith would be eradicated because of major anti-Christian pogroms and massacres.”
“However, the spark that Oda Nobunaga unleashed was truly remarkable given this period of history and this applies to his views on modern warfare, economics, religious pluralism, tackling stratification, rewarding individuals on merit, freeing the peasants from untold misery, and other important areas.”
Oda Nobunaga was a free thinker but a man of his time when it came to military fighting. Also, he was a very complex character and while he is sometimes viewed through the prism of violence this is misleading. After all, his enemies were equally violent but unlike his enemies, Oda Nobunaga had a long-term objective and he implemented policies in order to modernize.
Therefore, some Japanese and international historians may underestimate Oda Nobunaga because of his power concentration but he had hoped to revolutionize Japan. His legacy which was maintained by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu was a distortion because it only applied to centralization but Oda Nobunaga challenged the status quo and implemented social and economic reforms alongside religious openness.
Oda Nobunaga clearly desired a more pluralistic society based on new economic theories, political modernization, and military concepts which would safeguard the centralized state and people of Japan who came under this political system.
If anything, Oda Nobunaga was before his time and the Meiji Restoration would resemble aspects of his thinking much more than the static nature of the Edo period.