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Oda Nobunaga and the Gunpowder Revolution in Japan

By Andrew Latham and Edgar Li

On June 16, 1575, Takeda Katsuyori laid siege to Nagashino Castle, which was held by his one-time ally and now enemy Okudaira Sadamasa. By late July, Takeda’s forces had tightened their grip on the castle and things were looking grim for Sadamasa. But Sadamasa had received word that a relieving force was on the way and, buoyed by the news, held firm.

On June 28, the relieving force of 38,000 men finally arrived under the joint command of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga. Having 15,000 fighters at his command, Takeda deployed 12,000 of them against the relievers, leaving the remaining 3,000 to continue the siege and to prevent the castle’s garrison from sallying forth and joining the battle. Oda and Tokugawa positioned their men across the plain from the castle, behind a small stream whose steep banks, it was hoped, would slow down the cavalry charges for which the Takeda clan famous. Oda deployed his force of approximately 10,000 musketeers behind a breastwork, wooden barricades embedded with large wooden spikes, and arrayed them in three lines so that they would be able to deliver volley fire by ranks.

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The Takeda army then advanced, emerging from the cover of a forest less than 400 metres from the Oda–Tokugawa lines. Sensing that this distance could quickly be covered by his vaunted cavalry, and believing that the heavy rain that was falling would render the matchlock guns of Oda’s forces useless, Takeda ordered the charge.

Battle of Nagashino pictured on a Byōbu screen – Wikimedia Commons

As Oda had anticipated, the cavalry were indeed slowed by the stream. They pressed on, however, cresting the stream bed and closing to within fifty metres of Oda’s first line, at which point Oda ordered his musketeers to open fire. At that range the defenders’ matchlocks could easily penetrate the attackers’ armour and the repeated volleys of musket fire proved devastating. The Takeda cavalry pressed the attack as best they could, but Oda’s 3,000 arquebusiers, firing by volleys of 1,000 rounds at a time, and concealed across a river and breastwork easily blunted the attack. Those few mounted Takeda fighters who did make it to the breastwork were finished off by Oda’s samurai. By midday the Takeda attack had been broken and his army had suffered the loss of 10,000 men, two-thirds of his original besieging force. The battle was over and Nagashino had been relieved.

Oda’s skillful use of firearms to defeat Takeda’s cavalry is often cited as a crucial turning point in Japanese military history. Before Nagashino, samurai and, later, cavalry had dominated the battlefield; after Nagashino, well-trained and highly disciplined infantry were the key to victory. In this respect, Nagashino can be said to mark the transition from medieval to modern warfare in the Japanese context. It was perhaps the key episode in Japan’s “military revolution.”

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As in Europe, the military revolution in Japan was triggered by a technical innovation – the development of gunpowder weapons such as muskets and cannon. It began with the first documented introduction of the matchlock, when the lord of the Japanese island Tanegashima Tokitaka (1528–1579) purchased two matchlock muskets from the Portuguese and put a swordsmith to work reverse-engineering the barrel and firing mechanism. Within a decade or so, these Japanese matchlocks began making their appearance on the Japanese battlefield, with Oda Nobunaga leading the way – he ordered 500 matchlocks to be made for his army as early as 1549.

Initially, of course, the new technology was cumbersome and unreliable – hardly a match for the bows, lances and swords that dominated the battlefields of Japan and Europe in the pre-gunpowder age. Indeed, as one early account put it, an archer could fire 15 arrows in the time a gunner would take to load and fire a matchlock. And the effective range of these primitive firearms was no more than 100 meters, and which distance the ball would likely bounce off the armour of that period. Moreover, as matchlocks wouldn’t fire in damp conditions, they were useless in the rain or on extremely humid days. Needless to say, these early matchlock weapons certainly did not immediately transform the Japanese battlefield. To all but the most prescient, they were little more than entertaining-but-useless novelties or marginally useful supplements to more proven and widely available technologies.

But, as was the case in Europe, the press of military necessity – the need for more destructive weapons and larger armies capable of wielding these weapons – drove a process of relentless refinement of the new gunpowder weapons and the tactics for employing them. The Japanese soon developed bigger calibers to increase lethality and protective lacquerware boxed to keep matchlocks in the rain. They also developed systems to enhance the accuracy of night firing by using measured strings to fix angles. Finally, they developed serial firing tactics so that they could maintain a steady rate-of-fire against the enemy.

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But, one of the key advantages of the gunpowder weapons was that unlike bows, which required years of training largely available only to the samurai class, guns could be used by relatively untrained fighters. Because they were markers of class status, the samurai stuck to their swords and their bows, engaging in cavalry or infantry tactics. The ashigaru, however, being infantry drawn from the non-samurai class took up guns. Over time, this “gunpowder revolution” led to battles growing larger and more tactically complex, increasing the size of armies and the need for a larger resource base to support those armies.  As a result, many of Japan’s “warring states” began to be united.

This brings us back to Oda Nobunaga. Intuiting that guns were the wave of the future, Oda can be said to have both initiated the Japanese gunpowder revolution and brought it to full fruition. On the military side, not only did Oda pioneer the volley-fire tactics that proved so effective at Nagashino, but he also developed the techniques for training and disciplining troops that made these tactics possible. In a slightly different register, he also commissioned the building of iron-clad warships, imported saltpeter to produce gunpowder, and promoted the manufacture of artillery.

On the political side, Oda introduced a number of reforms that were in part intended to provide the financial resources needed to fund his new gunpowder armies. These included the creation of free markets (rakuichi), the breaking of trade monopolies, and the opening up of guilds (rakuza), which he saw as impediments to commerce. He also initiated policies to enhance civil administration, which included currency regulations, and the construction of roads and bridges. This was done both to ease the transport of soldiers and war material and to facilitate tax-generating commerce.

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All of this, coupled with his ambition to unify Japan, propelled Oda to become overlord of 20 provinces, earning him fame as one of three great unifiers of Japan.

Due to both his innovations on the field of battle and his efforts to unify Japan, Oda Nobunaga can be said to be both the apotheosis of Japan’s medieval era and the founding father of modern Japan.

Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press.  You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham

Edgar Li is a student and research assistant at Macalester College. 

Click here to read more from Andrew

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