For more than two centuries the Ashikaga lorded it over Japan, as the Hojo had done before them, and the mikados were tools in their strong hands. Then arose a man who overthrew this powerful clan. This man, Nobunaga by name, was a descendant of Kiyomori, the great leader of the Taira clan, his direct ancestor being one of the few who escaped from the great Minamoto massacre.
The father of this Taira chief was a soldier whose valor had won him a large estate. Nobunaga added to it, built himself a strong castle, and became the friend and patron of the last of the Ashikaga, whom he made shogun. (The Ashikaga were descendants of the Minamoto, who alone had hereditary claim to this high office.) But Nobunaga remained the power behind the throne, and, a quarrel arising between him and the shogun, he deposed the latter, and became himself the ruler of Japan. After two hundred and thirty-eight years of dominion the lordship of the Ashikaga thus came to an end.
Of this great Japanese leader we are told, "He was a prince of large stature, but of weak and delicate complexion, with a heart and soul that supplied all other wants; ambitious above all mankind; brave, generous, and bold, and not without many excellent moral virtues; inclined to justice, and an enemy to treason. With a quick and penetrating wit, he seemed cut out for business. Excelling in military discipline, he was esteemed the fittest to command an army, manage a siege, fortify a town, or mark out a camp of any general in Japan, never using any head but his own. If he asked advice, it was more to know their hearts than to profit by their advice. He sought to see into others and to conceal his own counsel, being very secret in his designs. He laughed at the worship of the gods, being convinced that the bonzes were impostors abasing the simplicity of the people and screening their own debauches under the name of religion."
Such was the man who by genius and strength of will now rose to the head of affairs. Not being of the Minamoto family, he did not seek to make himself shogun, and for forty years this office ceased to exist. He ruled in the name of the mikado, but held all the power of the realm.
The good fortune of Nobunaga lay largely in his wise choice of men. Under him were four generals, so admirable yet so diverse in military ability that the people gave them the distinctive nicknames of "Cotton," "Rice," "Attack," and "Retreat." Cotton, which can be put to a multitude of uses, indicated the fertility in resources of the first; while the second made himself as necessary as rice, which people cannot live a day without. The strength of the third lay in the boldness of his attacks; of the fourth, in the skill of his retreats. Of these four, the first, named Hideyoshi, rose to great fame. A fifth was afterwards added, Tokugawa Iyeyasu, also a famous name in Japan.
It was through his dealings with the Buddhists that Nobunaga made himself best known in history. He had lived among them in his early years, and had learned to hate and despise them. Having been educated in the Shinto faith, the ancient religion of Japan, he looked on the priests of Buddhism as enemies to the true faith. The destruction of these powerful sectaries was, therefore, one of the great purposes of his life.
Nobunaga had other reasons than these for destroying the power of the bonzes. During the long period of the Ashikagas these cunning ecclesiastics had risen to great power. Their monasteries had become fortresses, with moats and strong stone walls. Internally these were like arsenals, and an army could readily be equipped from them with weapons, while many of the priests were daring leaders. During the civil wars they served the side that promised them the most spoil or power. Rivals among them often fought battles of their own, in which hundreds were killed and towns and temples burned. So great were their authority, their insolence, and their licentiousness that their existence had become an evil in the land, and Nobunaga determined to teach them a lesson they would not soon forget.
Of the monasteries, the most extensive was that of Hiyeizan, on Lake Biwa. Within its territory lay thirteen valleys and more than five hundred temples, shrines, and dwellings, the grounds of which were adorned in the highest style of landscape art. The monks here were numbered by thousands, with whom religious service was a gorgeous ceremonial mockery, and who revelled in luxury, feasted on forbidden viands, drank to inebriety, and indulged in every form of licentiousness. They used their influence in rousing the clans to war, from which they hoped to draw new spoils for their unrighteous enjoyments, while screening themselves from danger behind the cloak of the priesthood.
It was against this monastery that the wrath of Nobunaga was most strongly aroused. Marching against it in 1571, he bade his generals set it on fire. The officers stood aghast at the order, which seemed to them likely to call down the vengeance of Heaven upon their beads. With earnest protests they begged him not to do so unholy an act.
"Since this monastery was built, now nearly a thousand years ago," they said, "it has been vigilant against the power of the spirits of evil. No one has dared in all that time to lift a hand against these holy buildings. Can you design to do so?"
"Yes," answered Nobunaga, sternly. "I have put down the villains that distracted the country, and I intend to bring peace upon the land and restore the power of the mikado. The bonzes have opposed my efforts and aided my enemies. I sent them a messenger and gave them the chance to act with loyalty, but they failed to listen to my words, and resisted the army of the emperor, aiding the wicked robbers. Does not this make them thieves and villains? If I let them now escape, this trouble will continue forever, and I have allowed them to remain on this mountain only that I might destroy them. That is not all. I have heard that these priests fail to keep their own rules. They eat fish and the strong-smelling vegetables which Buddha prohibited. They keep concubines, and do not even read the sacred books of their faith. How can such as these put down evil and preserve holiness? It is my command that you surround and burn their dwellings and see that none of them escape alive."
Thus bidden, the generals obeyed. The grounds of the monastery were surrounded, and on the next day the temples and shrines were set on fire and the soldiers remorselessly cut down all they met. The scene of massacre and conflagration that ensued was awful to behold. None were spared, neither young nor old, man, woman, nor child. The sword and spear were wielded without mercy, and when the butchery ended not a soul of the multitude of inmates was left alive.
One more great centre of Buddhism remained to be dealt with, that of the monastery and temple of Houguanji, whose inmates had for years hated Nobunaga and sided with his foes, while they made their stronghold the biding-place of his enemies. Finally, when some of his favorite captains had been killed by lurking foes, who fled from pursuit into the monastery, he determined to deal with this haunt of evil as he had dealt with Hiyeizan.
But this place was not to be so easily taken. It was strongly fortified, and could be captured only by siege. Within the five fortresses of which it was composed were many thousands of priests and warriors, women and children, and a still more frightful massacre than that of Hiyeizan was threatened. The place was so closely surrounded that all escape seemed cut off, but under cover of the darkness of night and amid a fierce storm several thousand of the people made their way from one of the forts. They failed, however, in their attempt, being pursued, overtaken, and slaughtered. Soon after a junk laden with human ears and noses came close under the walls of the castle, that the inmates might learn the fate of their late friends.
Vigorously the siege went on. A sortie of the garrison was repelled, but a number of Nobunaga's best officers were killed. After some two months of effort, three of the five fortresses were in the assailants' hands, and many thousands of the garrison had fallen or perished in the flames, the odor of decaying bodies threatening to spread pestilence through camp and castle alike.
In this perilous condition of affairs the mikado sent a number of his high officials to persuade the garrison to yield. A conference was held and a surrender agreed upon. The survivors were permitted to make their way to other monasteries of their sect, and Nobunaga occupied the castle, which is still held by the government. These two great blows brought the power of the bonzes, for that age, to an end. In later years some trouble was made by them, but Nobunaga had done his work so thoroughly that there was little difficulty in keeping them under control.
Karamo Temple, Nikko.
There remains only to tell the story of this great captain's end. He died at Kioto, the victim of treason. Among his captains was one named Akechi, a brave man, but proud. One day, in a moment of merriment, Nobunaga put the head of the captain under his arm and played on it with his fan, saying that he would make a drum of it. This pleasantry was not to the taste of the haughty captain, who nursed a desire for revenge,—behind which perhaps lay a wish to seize the power of the chief.
The traitor did not have long to wait. Nobunaga had sent most of his forces away to quell a rebellion, keeping but a small garrison. With part of this Akechi was ordered to Kiushiu, and left the city with seeming intention to obey. But he had not gone far when he called his officers together, told them of his purpose to kill Nobunaga, and promised them rich booty for their assistance in the plot. The officers may have had reasons of their own for mutiny, for they readily consented, and marched back to the city they had just left.
Nobunaga resided in the temple of Hounoji, apparently without a guard, and to his surprise heard the tread of many feet and the clash of armor without. Opening a window to learn what this portended, he was struck by an arrow fired from the outer darkness. He saw at once what had occurred, and that escape was impossible. There was but one way for a hero to die. Setting fire to the temple, he killed himself, and before many minutes the body of the great warrior was a charred corpse in the ashes of his funeral pile.