Daigaku Z: Warring States

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh East Asian Language and Literature department after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.  

In 2013 and 2014, the theme of the long-running Kamen Rider series was, on the surface, fruit. Each of the Armored Riders in Kamen Rider Gaim had a preferred weapon, which was matched to a fruit ranging from grapes, bananas, kiwis, and durians. However, the true theme of the series– introduced in the opening moments of the show’s first episode with all the subtlety of a mace made out of a massive brass pineapple– was a retelling of sorts of the early 17th century in Japan’s history, more commonly known as the Warring States period.

I am fairly certain that Oda Nobunaga did not solidify his power in what would soon be considered a unified Japan through the use of a large sword resembling an orange slice. Similarly, I’m also not convinced that Nobunaga used the awe-inspiring power of Rayquaza and Arceus to bring his rivals to heel. With the sheer amount of times that Oda Nobunaga is referenced in Japanese pop culture, someone not familiar with the basics of what actually happened could easily be mightily confused by the massive smear job being done upon him. It would be like Benedict Arnold being considered the worst villain in American history for his role in betraying the Army of the Colonies, but not understanding why he actually did it. The man who in his younger years was known as the “Fool of Owari” is shrouded in awe and fear.

Nobunaga was one of the warlords in the final years of the Muromachi shogunate, and he himself was instrumental in the downfall of the Ashikaga clan that was supporting it. His own band of warriors contained three classes of fighters: spearmen, archers, and gunners. Using the primitive (by our standards) muzzle-loading guns of the late 16th century as brought to Japan by Portugese missionaries, Nobunaga innovated the state of warfare by arranging his gunners into ranks to alternate fire, raining down continuous bullets upon his enemies the Takeda clan– a clan which was known in Japan as the initiators of the age of firearms in the country. Nobunaga’s cleverness in making up for the faults of the slow-loading firearms leads most military historians to claim that he was the first commander in the world to deploy gunners in such a fashion, beating out the British and American commanders by decades if not a century.

Starting from what is modern-day Nagoya, Oda Nobunaga spread his forces throughout the central portion of the main island of Honshu, pushing west and north in equal amounts. No one was safe from his ruthlessness. In 1571, Nobunaga torched a mountaintop monastery for the crime of having failed to vow allegiance or neutrality in the ongoing struggle for supremacy. The Mount Hiei sanctuary was the premier scholarly establishment in Japan at the time. It’s analogous to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, both in the priceless knowledge forever lost and the petty reasoning behind the annihilation. Still, Nobunaga had a single goal: the unification of Japan. Nothing would stop him.

It is, then, a somewhat predictable twist that Oda Nobunaga would be assassinated by one of his own lieutenants. Akechi Mitsuhide, a retainer of Nobunaga’s who felt slighted by his master’s plans to name a successor other than himself, took it upon himself to rectify the situation in a similarly ruthless fashion. In June of 1582, Mitsuhide killed Nobunaga, his wife and children, his bodyguards, and his “companion” Mori Ranmaru. Unfortunately, while Mitsuhide was great at taking the reins of power from the “Fool of Owari”, he was somewhat less adept at solidifying his position, and in the two weeks of his rule a rival follower, the future Toyotomi Hideyoshi, releived him in the only way that was possible– he had him torn apart by peasants.

Oda Nobunaga never unified Japan. That was done by his successors, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. But the road to that unification was not easy; Hideyoshi was notoriously unstable late in life, launching two failed campaigns to invade Korea, and Ieyasu would institute crippling reforms to the social order that sowed the seeds of his family’s downfall some two hundred years later. Popular culture of today believes Hideyoshi to be a madman, Ieyasu to be a calculated despot, and Nobunaga himself to be a demon from Hell. Reality is not so cut and dried, of course, but for the period known as the Warring States era– the dawn of the Tokugawa Shogunate– one could be forgiven for buying into the hype.