When mafia families duke it out over a territory, there are no rules, no referees, no higher power to dictate the terms of the fight. Brains, brawn and bullets determine the outcome. Now imagine an entire country as one large mafia territory with dozens of daimyos, or warlords, vying to be top dog. Assassination, trickery, cunning, vile tactics - nothing is off limits! Let the best man win.
Such was the period called Sengoku Jidai in 16th century Japan. My name is Oda Nobunaga, I was the first great unifier of Japan and today we shall once more live those glorious and infamous times.
On one hand, it was the worst of times. To be a poor peasant was to be caught in the crossfire of ruthless, single-minded warlords who saw only their desire for power. As the flames of war's fortune swept across the land, only by fate's favor could you be spared. Oftentimes an entire village was burned to the ground to prevent an opposing warlord from benefiting from its resources. As a helpless farmer, you could only stand by and watch as savage swordsmen with determined faces stormed your town with torches in the night. Out of such tragedy the seeds of sorrow were sown.
But to a warlord, such things could not be helped. The lives of a few farmers was nothing compared to his goal of supreme power. And in my case, I even burned entire mountains down, killing men, women and children alike if they refused to end their warring upon me - a cruelty both unnecessary yet also forced upon me. A time of chaos dictates harsh measures be taken or the chaos never ends. My goal was to bring the nation under the rule of a single sword. It had been a long time coming.
Japan is a place unique in all the world. I spent many lives there before I became her ruler, shaping and guiding the culture of this babe of the world. I came to Japan a wandering Jew, a man of broken faith. With my own eyes I had seen the power of God but how could I convey that? Religion is for non-believers and yet how could I explain a God to whom they had not been exposed? So I encouraged nature worship, knowing that to be one with God's nature required an inner peace to be achieved and we would then have harmony. Alas, harmony never came.
We started off with a holy monarchy, a la Egypt in the bad old days, with a divine emperor who ruled by the blessing of the gods. Such thoughts are always pleasant to the masses. And even though I also instilled the importance of social cooperation and the need to serve the community so that we all might thrive, human weakness being what it is trumped any sort of ideal and even the emperor found himself with rebellions to squelch. What was lost was the principle that in order to serve a society, that society must first be a just one. Later, the whole concept was perverted and distilled down to two words: "to serve".
Samurai means "to serve". Yet it was the servants who seized the strings of power from the emperor, upending the country into centuries of turmoil. Ashikaga Takauji was named the first Shogun - supreme military commander - by the divine emperor in recognition of Ashikaga's quashing revolts around the countryside. But Japan as a whole was still in its formative stages, disjointed and structureless, so an underlying disquiet flared up over the decades, eventually destabilizing the shogunate until the office finally held no military power. Thus began the Era of Warring States (sengoku jidai).
There is a famous parable about the three great unifiers of Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. In it, we are able to gain some insight into their personalities. When a song bird won’t sing, each has a unique reaction:
Oda Nobunaga: "Kill it!"
Toyotomi Hideyoshi: "Persuade it to sing."
Tokugawa Ieyasu: "Wait, it will sing."
For me, it was the best of times. With no formal authority, I was free to make my own rules as I pleased. As Japan's guiding visionary, I knew best what she needed and time was ripe for a true unification. I remember mystical moments lying on the grassy plains of my Owari province, staring into the Infinite Sky and the winds I felt were the winds of destiny, blowing directly from Heaven. But to whom could I tell this without sounding a madman? Never before and never again had I felt so alive. The feeling within me was one I knew no one in all of Japan could have but me. I was to be the One, through me Nature's voice would be heard. With each breath I felt the swelling destiny of history, tapped by the finger of God.
Never again in our human story will there exist such a moment of pure freedom as that! I alone had final say in my actions - and let the proof of my deeds reveal me as madman or genius. Only Nature herself was my master and to Her I must always answer truly. On no man’s word could I solely rely for wisdom, I was pioneering a new way of thought and living, throwing out the tried and failed. The universe was my guide. It was the dawn of a New Age.
It was a renaissance of sorts. Keen minds across the land were plotting by lantern’s light schemes to rule the world. Intrigues of the mind, spies and other opportunists of warfare thrived in plans hatched to usurp power. But all eyes were on me, both from within and from without. I and my circle were the innermost group of the tangling warlords: the plans of other domains first centered around ours. I could feel their jealousies and hatred like a spider feels victims snared upon its web. And they fed me just the same.
I was not alone in hearing the call to unification and the New Age. Fools who stayed mired in the past with ears stuffed full of obstinacy were destined for slaughter. But those who chose to listen and to see, flocked to my side and because we served a purpose greater than ourselves, our decisions were blessed and our actions fruitful. After my legendary first battle, I rode the waves of history's dreams (though not without travails) to become the most powerful man in Japan. But to unify means more than just to conquer.
Without a proper societal model, all my victories would have been in vain. I started the great castle building era, giving birth to lively surrounding cities of commerce. I ripped away petty road tariffs - and petty interests of any kind - to open up the genius only freedom can bring and the enlightened self-interest of a rising tide for all boats. From freedom flows justice, and from justice flows a willingness to serve and preserve. Yes, I would rule with the sword to bring unification but the true binding force would be the revelation of this new, better way to live.
But I was a man of excess. I feared no man whether enemy or friend so to one of my own high generals I was abusive and unfairly critical. Fearing a foul fate, he instituted a preemptive strike and I was assassinated in a Kyoto temple. At this point half of Japan lay under my domain and I had laid siege to the other half. "Monkey" (Toyotomi Hideyoshi) was the ablest and most trusted of my generals. He avenged me and emerged from the ensuing dustup as the first man to rule a truly unified Japans.
But Monkey was no executive. He was skilled in the art of war and negotiation and intrigue, but once outside of that he knew no direction. In the 1590's he attempted two failed invasions of Korea and upon his death in 1598, he left only a small child as heir and a weakened government. The nation split into two factions: one side for Toyotomi loyalists and the other for Tokugawa Ieyasu, who two years later in the battle of Sekigahara assumed the reins of power once and for all, becoming Shogun and creating a dynasty to last the next 250 years.
The Tokugawa dynasty shut off Japan and clamped down on the freedoms of the Sengoku era, thus suffocating her growth and weakening her. I lost interest in Japan at that time and resumed my wanderings around the globe. But even now when I stroll a nature path and I lose the day and year I walk in, my mind flashes back to those times in the flowing Owari grass and only I knew what I knew. I remember standing on a cliff once, overlooking my conquered lands feeling as if I were Joshua reincarnated. I can't describe the magical feelings running through me at that moment but they run buried deep within me still to this day.
To read more on these times, I recommend Taiko (even though I revealed the entire plot here). Yoshikawa perfectly captures the spirit of the times and he writes not only from historical research but with a unique understanding of the people and events.