If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
~Shakespeare Henry V, King Henry to his men before the Battle of Agrinin in which the English forces were outnumbered 5 to 1.
In 1560 Oda Nobunaga led a group of 2,000 against Imagawa Yoshimoto’s much larger army of 40,000, in what we today call The Battle of Okehazama (桶狭間の戦い). And what a battle it was!
Not only did the Oda army win, they completely destroyed the Imagawa force and killed Yoshimoto, dealing the Imagawa clan a blow from which they never recovered.1
This is a very important battle in Japanese history. It propelled Nobunaga from a minor lord to a major player in Japan and set the stage for his many victories to come.
Let’s break this battle down and go through it step by step, starting with…
Let’s set the stage here. The 1500s were not a nice time to live in Japan. Offically there was a strong central power, the Ashikaga Shogunate, but in truth the Ashikaga had in fact lost all real power2.
Powerful daimyo — local warlords — all over Japan had long since lost any loyalty towards the Ashikaga and were fighting each other in a giant civil war to see who would take control of Japan. This time period is in fact called Sengoku jidai, or the civil war period.
This brings us to two men fighting for victory in this battle: Imagawa Yoshimoto and Oda Nobunaga.3
A large and powerful family led by Imagawa Yoshimoto (今川 義元).
The seat of their power was Suruga province, modern day Shizuoka prefecture, they also held Totomi providence and made incursions into Mikawa.
The Oda, on the other hand, were relatively weak. Their leader was a 26 year old Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長). Nobunaga was reckless and unpredictable; he was also, according to some, crazy. During his teenage and young adulthood years, he earned the nickname “The Fool of Owari” due to his disregard of status and rank, wearing bright and gaudy clothes, and eating impolitely, stuffing food in his mouth with little care.
The Oda home was Owari, the western half of modern day Aichi prefecture. They spent their early years locked in battle with each other as much as anyone else.
A Map — I need a map!
Mikawa, Owari, Suruga… These names probably mean little to you. The area we are speaking of is, in fact, Central Japan. This map may help:
Let’s pause, too, to get our families straight. We have the Oda in Owari, the Matsudaira in Mikawa, and the Imagawa in Suruga and Totomi.
Note: That Edo you see on the map is modern day Tokyo.
The Imagawa were a growing power. They were gradually taking control of the weaker Matsudaira family in Mikawa and had their eye on Owari and beyond!
In 1560 Imagawa Yoshimoto decided to make his move. He would drive along the coast, brushing aside the Oda and any others who got in his way, in a beeline to Kyoto. Why Kyoto? That is where the Emperor lived, and taking the city was a good way to become Shogun4.
This brings us to…
The Battle of Okehazama
Yoshimoto gathered between 20,000 and 40,000 men from the provinces he controlled — Suruga, Totomi, and Mikawa. The exact number is debated among historians, but, either way, it was a big force. He crossed into Owari.
The Oda generals saw the size of the invading army and they were all for taking on a defensive posture. One even suggested surrendering. Nobunaga, however, wanted to fight. He berated his generals:
“Imagawa has 40,000 men marching toward this place? I don’t believe that. He only has 25,000 soldiers. Yes, that is still too many.
So, Sado5, you want me to surrender. And what if we do surrender? Will you be content with losing your life that way? Or what if we hold on like Katsuie6 wants? What if we stay here in this castle, lock it up, and wait until the Imagawa lose appetite, stop the siege and go home? We will be able to prolong our lives for five or ten days, and what we cannot defend will still be undefendable.
We are at the bottom of the pit, you know. And our fate is interesting. Of course the misery is too great, too. But this is how I see it: this is a chance in a lifetime! I can’t afford to miss this. Do you really want to spend your entire lives praying for longevity? We were born to die!
Whoever is with me, come to the battlefield tomorrow morning. Whoever is not, just stay wherever you are and watch me win!”
Despite his posturing, his chances seemed slim to none. Even if the Imagawa force was only 25,000, that against 2,000 would still have been a nightmare position.
To think that a man
Has but fifty years to live under heaven…
Surely this world
Is nothing but a vain dream.
Living but one life,
Is there anything that will not decay?
He left his castle at 4am with only around 200 men. He visited Atsuta Shrine, arriving there around 8am, to pray for luck and he is described by the priests as being in a jovial mood, sitting sideways in his saddle, swinging back and forth, humming, joking. One may suppose he fully expected to die, was at peace with the idea, and was enjoying his final moments.
The size of his army grew to about 2000 as he rode along towards the Imagawa. They set camp around 10am at Zenshoji and Nobunaga ordered his men to raise high and display all their flags and banners and to construct straw men to make a dummy army.
On the other side, Yoshimoto was contemptuous of Nobunaga’s army and allowed his men to enjoy themselves; they set to feasting and drinking to future victories and as a result didn’t keep a vigilant watch. Yoshimoto himself was enjoying Noh choruses while inspecting heads and declaring loudly that no one, not even God or Devil, could stop his army.
Nobunaga knew the area well so he was able to avoid what few look-outs there were. His men found the Imagawa camp.
Luck was on Nobunaga’s side in the form of the weather. The day had been stifling hot and just around noon the sky clouded, blackened, and let loose a giant, violent storm. This helped screen their movements as they gathered in the hills above the unsuspecting Imagawa force.
As soon as the storm died down a little, the men rushed down the slope in a headlong charge.
The storm, their drunkeness, and this sudden attack left the Imagawa men completely confused. They stampeded in all directions, leaving Yoshimoto unprotected.
So sudden and unexpected was the attack, in fact, that Yoshimoto didn’t realize what was happening and thought the commotion was only a squabble among his men.
He shouted an order at one of his retainers — little realizing it wasn’t one of his retainers. It was in fact one of Nobunaga’s men!
The man, Hattori Kazutada, immediately recongized the lord of the Imagawa and was amazed to find him unprotected. He drew his spear and took aim.
Yoshimoto was quick; he instantly drew his sword and sliced through the spear, cutting the shaft in two and continuing his swing so that it gashed his opponent’s knees. But that was the last thing he would ever do: as he prepared to deal the killing blow, a second of Nobunaga’s men, Mōri Shinsuke, came up behind him and took his head.
With Yoshimoto gone, the Imagawa quickly melted away and Nobunaga won the battle easily, within 2 hours.
With this incredible victory, Nobunaga established himself as a major player in this area. He would go on to conquer much of Japan before being assassinated by one of his own men. But that is a story for another time.
By the way, remember his childhood nickname “The fool of Owari”? Later in life he was given a new nickname: “The Demon King”.
Before we go too far, it may be worth pausing to make sure we know how to pronounce these Japanese names. It’s actually relatively easy: Just give all vowels their Italian values. To wit, A—ah—as in father, I—ee—as in see, U—oo—as in poodle, E—eh—as in egg, and O—oh—as in comb. And now you realize that karaoke is not actually pronounced care-ree-oh-key. Silly English speaker. ↩
The Ashikaga shogunate (足利幕府) ruled Japan from 1336 until 1573. By the time of our story they had been seriously weakened by the Ōnin War and no longer had any real power outside of Kyoto (and not so much within either). cf. ↩
I’m following the Japanese order for these famous names. Surname first, Given name second. It just sounds too strange to reverse order for these people. ↩
I assume most of you know what the Shogun is, but just in case: The Shogun — short for seii taishōgun—was the de facto ruler of Japan. He was appointed by the Emperor, but the Emperor didn’t have as much say in the matter as you might otherwise think. ↩
Sado was short for Sado no Kami, an old — and somewhat meaningless at this time — court title which Hayashi Hidesada (林 秀貞) held. He was Nobunaga’s childhood tutor, but later he plotted against Nobunaga and attempted to oust him. They settled their differences and Hayashi was allowed to maintain his position. A number of years later, however, he again attempted treason again. This time Nobunaga wasn’t so favorable and banished him. He died a few years later in Kyoto. cf. ↩
Shibata Katsuie (柴田 勝家) was one of Nobunaga’s best generals. Interestingly, in 1557 he joined with Hayashi Hidesada to move against Nobunaga. After the plot failed Katsuie showed Nobunaga unquestionable loyalty and was key in many of Nobunaga’s battles. cf. ↩