Volleys that rang the death knell of an age

By Masaru Fujimoto, The Japan Times, Monday 4 May 2003

Oda Nobunaga is known as the man who dragged Japan out of its blood-soaked medieval past and cleared the way for the 264-year Tokugawa Shogunate to follow. This he achieved by dint of his advanced grasp of military strategy—and especially by being the first to realize the deadly potential of firearms.

The first matchlocks had been brought to Tanegashima Island in present-day Kagoshima Prefecture by Portuguese merchants in 1543, at the height of the century-long Warring States Period. However, though warlords across the country took a keen interest in these latest inventions from Europe, before Nobunaga none had been able to use them to any great effect.

Then, in 1575, Nobunaga's victory at the Battle of Nagashino—where he issued his 30,000 troops with some 3,000 matchlocks—showed for the first time on this soil that the future of warfare would come from the barrels of guns.

Before the battle—which took place at Shitarabara in the Mikawa province (present-day eastern Aichi Prefecture) domain of Tokugawa Ieyasu—Nobunaga led his troops from Gifu in answer to desperate appeals from his loyal ally Ieyasu, who faced an attack by 15,000 men of the Takeda clan from Kai province (Yamanashi Prefecture), including their feared and unbeaten cavalry.

Only three years before, on Dec. 22, 1572, Takeda Shingen and 27,000 troops had raided Ieyasu's territory in Totomi province (western Shizuoka Prefecture) and decimated his 12,000-strong force at the Battle of Mikatagahara. In the battle, Ieyasu himself was almost killed, and is said to have been so scared that he defecated in his pants while in the saddle—but did not realize until he had fled back to his castle stronghold in Hamamatsu (Shizuoka Prefecture).

On that occasion, Takeda Shingen's real aim was to take the symbolic political capital of Kyoto, and his real motive was to tie up Nobunaga's forces in response to a request from Honganji Kennyo, leader of the powerful, Osaka-based Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism.

For his part, Kennyo had wanted Nobunaga out of the way ever since the warlord from Owari province (Nagoya) became a major rival after his forces annihilated Imagawa Yoshimoto and his powerful clan—which ruled the Totomi and Suruga provinces (central Shizuoka Prefecture)—at Nagoya's Okehazama in 1560. In addition, Nobunaga was also a menace as he never believed in religion and kept cracking down on divinely inspired riots.

Although the Battle of Mikatagahara itself was a one-sided victory for Shingen, the Nobunaga-Ieyasu coalition forces lucked out in a big way when Shingen fell ill soon after, then died as his army headed back to their home base of Tsutsujigasaki Castle in Kofu (Yamanashi Prefecture) rather than continuing their advance on Kyoto. Leadership of the clan then fell to Shingen's hot-headed son, Katsuyori, who, in a Bushlike manner, appears to have come to power burning to complete his father's unfinished business.

So it was that, despite his advisers' cautions, in April 1575 Katsuyori led his 15,000 troops, including that all-conquering cavalry, out of its Tsutsujigasaki Castle base again. Within weeks he had one of Tokugawa Ieyasu's castles—at Nagashino in present-day Horai, Aichi Prefecture—encircled, its 500-strong garrison besieged.

In response, Ieyasu set off there at the head of 8,000 troops, while Nobunaga—who historians say was far more eager to face young Katsuyori than he had been to face Shingen—set off with 30,000 men in the hope of boosting his reputation by being credited with beating the Takeda cavalry. This, he had determined to do by using his matchlocks as tactical weapons.

Previously, on the occasions guns had been used in battles in Japan, they had been largely for show. That was primarily because handling the firearms consumed too much time, as it involved setting a lit fuse on the matchlock, placing powder on the pan, inserting a ball into the barrel and pulling the trigger. As a result, they were just not practical for close combat, and were too inaccurate to be effective at long range. They were also unusable in rain.

However, the story goes that Nobunaga had been putting his thinking helmet on. Instead of one man taking care of the whole process, he had formed teams of four and divided the tasks, rotating several matchlocks inside earthworks so that each sniper could concentrate on aiming and keep shooting with barely a pause while the others cleaned, loaded and primed the next gun for him to fire. Although the technique was commonly used in Europe, no Japanese warlords had tried it before.

Nobunaga chose Shitarabara, a narrow field with rivers on three sides, as the site of the upcoming battle, and ordered his men to build bamboo fences across his and Ieyasu's lines, and numerous earthworks with loopholes for the matchlock teams.

The battle broke out at around 8 a.m. on May 21, 1575, as the Takeda forces moved to attack the coalition forces positioned on the western bank of the Rengo River. As the first wave of foot soldiers with long spears approached the fences, volleys of fire suddenly came from the earthworks. The volleys continued as the second and third waves followed.

By noon, the 15,000-strong Takeda side had taken heavy casualties and had lost many of its officers. Then, as coalition forces—who had routed the 1,000 Takeda soldiers left at the castle 2 km away—joined the fray, the Takeda men found themselves caught in a deadly sandwich and began fleeing in panic. By 2 p.m. the game was up, and then as Katsuyori fled with only 3,000 men, all that was left for coalition forces to do was the grisly business of mopping up and beheading high-ranking enemy corpses among the thousands strewn around the battlefield among the bodies of their hapless mounts.

Like a lot of famous military victories throughout history, though, Nobunaga's didn't come without its slice of luck. Though the battle was fought on May 21, on the current calendar that would have been July 9—which is right in the middle of the rainy season. Indeed, according to historians, it had rained heavily the day before—but May 21 was dry, and so the all-important matchlocks that overcame the Takeda cavalry were able to work.

The lessons of the Battle of Nagashino were not lost on Japan's fighting men, and in the years that followed domestic production of matchlocks soared. Hence, in the crucial Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which opened the way for more than 260 years of rule by the Tokugawas over a unified Japan, more than half the foot soldiers were bearing firearms—and by then Japan had become the world's leading manufacturer of matchlocks.

Key players

ODA NOBUNAGA (1534-82)

Innovative, eccentric, practical—and merciless—Nobunaga was called utsuke (fool) when he was a teenager for always wanting his own way. As a warlord, he disdained all vested interests in society and destroyed anyone in his way with gusto under the slogan tenka fubu (reuniting the nation)—including, in 1571, a massacre at Hieizan Temple in Kyoto, the top authority of esoteric Buddhism, when more than 3,000 monks and their family members were killed. He was assassinated by Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his top lieutenants, in Kyoto in June 1582, just before achieving his goal of taking over the nation.


Ieyasu spent his childhood in Sunpu (present-day Shizuoka Prefecture) as a hostage to Imagawa Yoshimoto, a powerful warlord of the neighboring domain to his father's. Known for his patience and endurance, he even went along with Nobunaga's order to have his wife and first son commit suicide over an alleged secret communication with the Takeda clan. Ieyasu kept his cool until the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga's successor, when he assumed control over the country. In 1603 he instituted the Tokugawa Shogunate that lasted for 264 years.


When Shingen turned 20, he ousted his father, Nobutora, to rule his domain in Kai (Yamanashi Prefecture). Shingen clashed with his arch-enemy Uesugi Kenshin, warlord of Echigo (Niigata Prefecture), in boundary disputes that led to a series of famous battles at Kawanakajima. Shingen demonstrated charismatic leadership and expertise in areas of civil administration, such as water control for farming and mining.


A son of Shingen, Katsuyori was raised as a brave warrior. He succeeded to the clan leadership after his father's death, but his misjudgment in the Battle of Nagashino resulted in the crucial loss of most of his key retainers and the fall of the Takeda clan. Katsuyori killed himself along with his son, wife and others at Tenmokuzan after being cornered by Nobunaga in 1582, a few months before Nobunaga's assassination.