Game of Thrones may have ended in May 2019, but given the fantasy series’ quality and long runtime on HBO, it’s left a lasting impression on viewers and pop culture alike. Its talented cast played a number of TV’s most memorable characters from the widely hated Joffrey Baratheon to Tyrion Lannister, a fan favorite for his wit and sense of humor.
But Tyrion isn’t the only man from the Lannister family to leave his mark. His father Tywin Lannister is another favorite among fans due to his ruthless and pragmatic approach to the political intrigue in Game of Thrones. But any Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire fan worth their salt knows that the show is based on real historical events, particularly the War of Roses.
That said, Tywin Lannister has an unexpected counterpart across the sea in feudal-era Japan. His name? Oda Nobunaga — a calculating tea connoisseur who became the first man to unify Japan under his rule.
From Second Son to Clan Leader: The Early Life of Oda Nobunaga
Oda Nobunaga is kind of a historical anomaly Unlike many men who rose to prominence throughout history, Nobunaga was a second son. He was born in 1534 in an area that was known as Owari province at the time.
Obviously, Owari province doesn’t exist today but its former location includes modern-day Nagoya, the fourth most populous city in Japan. Some believe that Nagoya’s name comes from the word nagoyaka meaning “peaceful” but Nagoya in Oda Nobunaga’s time was anything but that.
Nobunaga’s father was the daimyo, a minor feudal lord, Oda Nobuhide. Nobuhide was the head of the Oda clan and if circumstances were different, his position would have passed to his eldest son, Oda Nobuhiro. But Nobunaga had luck on his side: Nobuhiro was illegitimate. This made Nobunaga’s antics a little more tolerable to his father.
See, Oda Nobunaga was a bit of a wild child. By the time his father had him married off to the daughter of another warlord as part of a peace treaty, he was already known as “The Great Fool of Owari Province.” He was more like Tyrion Lannister in terms of personality.
Nobunaga had gained his “title” by mingling with commoners without following the social conventions of his time. Despite his eccentric behavior, no one in Owari province could deny that Nobunaga was a show stopper of a man. He had a commanding presence and a silver tongue.
His weird behavior may have been part of why his relatives tried to remove him from the line of succession.
When old man Oda Nobuhide finally kicked the bucket, Nobunaga was distraught. It’s said that at his father’s funeral, Nobunaga started throwing ceremonial incense at the kamidaya and tamaya altars. What would have been treated as a sad outburst in normal modern families may have been seen as a sign of weakness and infirmity by the rest of the Oda clan. Nobunaga’s dissenters decided to strike, attempting to replace him with an heir of their choosing. But Nobunaga proved he was more than a fun-loving eccentric when he gathered roughly a thousand men and led them into battle against his own family members.
But the opposition from his family was only the start of Oda Nobunaga’s problems. Now with the Oda clan firmly under his control, it was time for him to set his eyes on the greater Owari province. This was the Sengoku Jidai or “Warring States” period. Not even the Oda clan ruled Owari uncontested.
Tywin Lannister Hours: Oda Nobunaga Plays the Game of Thrones
Now we’re getting to the part of the story where Oda Nobunaga’s life goes full Game of Thrones. Like the War of Roses, the Sengoku Jidai was a time of back-to-back manslaughter as the civil war spread throughout feudal Japan in the wake of the Ashikaga Shogunate’s collapse.
You’re probably wondering how Nobunaga became the first person to unify feudal Japan if there was already a big shot clan ruling in his day. That’s because while the Ashikaga Shogunate had a firm grip of central Japan and the bureaucratic system at the capital Kyoto, they mostly let the outer provinces, each divided up between daimyo, to their own devices.
Oda Nobunaga wasn’t a fan of that divide. The entire Owari province could be his, after all. Thus, he began his campaign to unify Owari. If we’ve learned anything from Tywin Lannister, it’s that:
A.) It takes gold to arm and feed soldiers.
B.) You can’t let your rivals challenge you.
Imagawa Yoshimoto was one such rival. He was an enemy of Nobuhide and wanted to conquer the Oda clan’s part of Owari. At first, it looked like nothing could go wrong for Yoshimoto and his 25,000 men. Instead of heading advice to play it safe, Nobunaga launched a fierce attack — with only roughly 3,000 soldiers.
Being the weaker party, Nobunaga’s only shot at success was to catch Yoshimoto by surprise. When his scouts found the Imagawa forces celebrating an earlier successful battle, Nobunaga and his army marched. In their overconfidence, Yoshimoto had stopped in a narrow gorge that left them open for being trapped and ambushed from above. Oda Nobunaga took his forces to Zensho-ji, a nearby fortress that, you guessed it, provided higher ground.
Imagawa Yoshimoto died in the battle. Among the many lords, samurai, and servants who bent the knee to Oda Nobunaga was Kinoshita Tokichiro, a peasant. Low birth never phased Oda Nobunaga so when he figured out that Tokichiro had a good head between his shoulders, he allowed the peasant to become one of his retainers. Tokichiro would become Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the three Great Unifiers of Japan, second only to Oda Nobunaga himself.
From there, Oda Nobunaga developed an appetite for conquest. He consolidated all of the agricultural land of Owari province and the bustling commercial hub of Nagoya into the rest of the Oda territory. With gold and grain in the palm of his hands, Oda Nobunaga now had a war chest to use as capital for conquering the rest of Japan.
Nobunaga began his conquest of Japan with the capital of Kyoto in the east and Osaka, a port city, located south of Kyoto. So far, so good. But it takes more than one warlord to unify a country. He then teamed up with Tokugawa Ieyasu, the third and last man to be acknowledged as one of the Great Unifiers.
As daimyo, though, he was still beholden to the Ashikaga shogunate. Oda Nobunaga helped Ashikaga Yoshiaki become a shogun after the former Ashikaga shogun was assassinated. However, a falling out with Yoshiaki drove him to depose the man and take the position of shogun for himself.
But where was the emperor? Chilling in his palace. Though the shogun and daimyo lords had the real power, not even Oda Nobunaga removed the imperial family from their seat. The Japanese imperial family was believed to be descended from Amaterasu, the main kami or god of the Shinto tradition.
The sun goddess’ divinity translated to her descendants’ own divinity, especially that of the emperor. A living emperor was a god on Earth and his approval of a shogun‘s rule, or at least non-interference, was a divine seal of approval. Trying to remove him would have been the equivalent of trying to murder Jesus if he ever came back today.
Would Oda Nobunaga have tried or thought of deposing the imperial family? It’s possible. He was a forward-thinking man who bucked tradition and social conventions whenever he pleased. While he was nice enough to abolish the imposition of tolls on the roads throughout Japan and on guilds, it was mainly so he could make his daimyo lords too poor to mount a war against him.
This may have made him look like a good guy to the common folk but he was far from friendly. Nobunaga destroyed Buddhist monasteries and would later defeat the Ikko-ikki, a faction of fanatical Buddhists who were not happy about their worship sites being desecrated.
Meanwhile, Tywin Lannister couldn’t even destroy the Faith Militant. Remember: vote Oda.
Now that Nobunaga had full control of Owari and its surrounding cities, he figured it was time to show off his power by building a new castle — with a view of Law Biwa, no less. Azuchi castle and its neighboring district, Momoyama, became the center of a new period of Japanese history.
Oda Nobunaga Was Also a Man of Culture
Japan flourished under Oda Nobunaga during the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Starting in 1574 and ending in 1600, the period was a time of fabulous castles, gorgeous paintings, and fine ceramic ware needed for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony called the chanoyu or the “way of tea.”
Oda Nobunaga loved it.
Tea ceremony implements were beautiful and expensive pieces of ceramic and porcelain ware. Think of it as the equivalent of collecting Rolex watches in feudal Japan. Since he already suffered through the training of a samurai, Nobunaga had enough patience in him to learn the delicate art of chanoyu. It was a means for a man as busy and stressed out as him to unwind and enjoy the finer, more frivolous things in life.
It was also an opportunity to bolster his authority. The tea ceremony was and still is an important aspect of Japanese culture. Its association with the aristocratic elites and its Zen philosophy gave chanoyu an unprecedented status. Chanoyu was a coveted way to sit down and talk to the most powerful shogun in Japan and to show off status through the fine tea implements used in the ceremony.
Oda Nobunaga began to employ renowned tea masters like Sen Rikyu, basically a tea-making rockstar, to make tea for him and his guests. He would then invite other feudal lords and wealthy merchants for tea time chats that were really trade deals, political ploys, and military negotiations. He also used tea to confer political favor.
Japan was a small archipelago and land would soon run out. To award his men, Nobunaga would give them tea implements that symbolized status and power backed by him instead of the land that older rulers would hand out like candy. To drive the point home, Oda Nobunaga even restricted who could perform chanoyu to only the highest-ranking and most loyal members of the Oda clan. He granted this honor to Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Aside from his clever use of the arts, Oda Nobunaga knew to take advantage of new scientific developments. He was the first shogun to adopt the use of firearms, equipping 500 of his soldiers with matchlock muskets purchased from European traders.
But the sun sets on all great men.
Oda Nobunaga’s Death and Legacy
Fittingly enough, Oda Nobunaga was killed during one of his famous tea ceremonies.
He was at Honno-ji temple in Kyoto with only 30 men. His son, Oda Nobutada, had taken his cavalrymen and Toyotomi Hideyoshi was away on a siege at Takamatsu castle. Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his generals, attacked the temple. Nobunaga committed seppuku and ordered one of his servants to set the temple on fire to prevent Mitsuhide from desecrating his body.
Modern Japanese remember Oda Nobunaga for his ruthlessness just as much as they do for his achievements. He was voted the most influential man in Japanese history and a festival in Kyoto is held every 19th of October in his honor.
A story about the three Great Unifiers provides insight into their personalities and it goes like this: A bird refuses to sing and the three shoguns try to coax it to do so.
Oda Nobunaga threatens to kill the bird if it doesn’t sing. Toyotomi Hideyoshi offers to teach the bird to sing. Tokugawa Ieyasu merely sits back and waits for the bird to sing.
Way to call someone mean, Japan.