If any daimyo posed a serious challenge to Oda Nobunaga as a potential unifier, it was Takeda Shingen of Kai Province. An able general, he had conquered all or part of the provinces surrounding his own and certainly had his sights on Kyoto. To his southwest lay Mikawa, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s province. With the fall of the Imagawa clan after the Battle of Okehazama, Takeda acquired the province of Suruga while he and Tokugawa divided the province of Totomi. In 1570, Tokugawa moved his headquarters to Hamamatsu in Totomi Province, which Takeda viewed as a provocative act. What ensued was a Takeda victory over a Tokugawa force (with some Oda allies) at the battle of Mikata ga hara in 1572. In a follow-up offensive the following year Takeda Shingen died; some sources say of disease, others of a wound inflicted by a sniper at the siege of Noda Castle in Mikawa.
Takeda Shingen was succeeded by his favorite son, Takeda Katsuyori. He was a talented soldier but alienated the twenty-four generals and advisors he inherited from his father. His rejection of their advice, coupled with the belief that he was born of an enchanted mother, made his followers less than enthusiastic. Nevertheless, they followed him into Mikawa Province in 1575 even though they argued against it—there was another threat from the north, that of the Takedas’ long-time adversary Uesugi Kenshin. Without their right flank, securing an invasion of Mikawa was very dangerous, even if it was a continuation of the strategy his father, Shingen, had been pursuing. However, Katsuyori had a traitor inside Tokugawa’s headquarters at the castle of Okazaki, who was to open the gates to him.
Entering Mikawa from the mountains to the north, Katsuyori was marching his men toward Okazaki when he learned that his plan had been discovered and the turncoat had been executed. This turn of events convinced him not to try for the stronghold but to turn southeastward toward Tsukude, a castle he had once controlled before its commander turned his allegiance to Tokugawa. However, he then bypassed Tsukude and marched to Noda Castle on the Toyokawa River, and marched downstream toward the coast to raid three of Tokugawa’s castles in the region. Katsuyori attacked and burned two minor outposts of Yoshida Castle (Nirengi and Ushikubo), but failed to take the castle itself. He then pointed his army back upriver toward the final frontier castle, Nagashino. Turnbull observes, “Possession of Nagashino was an asset worth having. It had passed from Tokugawa to Takeda and back again, and covered one of the mountain passes to Shinano … Little Nagashino would be a good consolation prize with which to conclude his Mikawa campaign.”
On 14 June 1575 Takeda Katsuyori’s troops placed themselves before Nagashino’s western and northern faces, the only directions from which it was approachable. It was situated on a small cliff overlooking the junction of two rivers, the Onagawa and Takigawa, joining to form the southwestward-flowing Toyokawa. The fort was wooden, roughly 250 by 330 meters, surrounded by a stone wall and a dry moat. Outer defensive works covered the northern and western approaches. Okudaira Sadamasa commanded the 500-man garrison, who were armed with 200 arquebuses and a cannon. Outnumbered thirty to one, the defenders mounted a gallant defense, repulsing each of Katsuyori’s attacks. Katsuyori and his men tried to mine the castle walls, but the defenders foiled that attempt by countermining; samurai sent across the rivers on rafts likewise failed to make any headway, and Katsuyori’s siege towers were shot to pieces. After a general assault on the castle was also beaten back, Katsuyori finally decided to starve the castle’s defenders into submission.
After four days of fighting, the fort’s commander called for a volunteer to alert Oda Nobunaga to their plight. Torii Sune-emon stepped forward. He left in the night, swam past the Takeda guards, and made his way to Okazaki Castle, where Oda and Tokugawa were in residence. They had been alerted to the siege and were on the way with a force of 38,000, but Torii’s message motivated them to move more quickly. Rather than travel with the army, Torii returned to Nagashino to report. Unfortunately, he was captured. Promising Takeda that he would approach the garrison and call out to them that they had been abandoned, he instead alerted them to the imminent relief. For this action he was crucified in front of the fort. Turnbull describes the result: “[T]he example of Torii Sune-emon is one of the classic stories of samurai heroism. Many in the Takeda army were moved by his example. … Whatever effect Torii-Sune’emon’s bravery had on the enemy, its effect on the garrison was inspiring.”
As the Oda-Tokugawa force approached Nagashino, Oda decided against marching to the castle to relieve it but instead to deploy on the Shitaragahara Plain about three miles to the west behind the Rengogawa River. Oda was banking on young Takeda’s impulsiveness; he was sure Katsuyori would abandon the siege to face him in battle. Arriving on the evening of 27 June, Oda deployed his men in a north-south line about a hundred yards west of the Rengogawa. The northern flank was covered by high ground (Mt. Gambo), while the southern flank was anchored on the Toyokawa River. The Renogogawa was neither wide nor deep, but the ground rose sharply on the western side. Using the naturally strong position, Nobunaga and his men made it stronger by building a palisade halfway between the river and their front lines. This fence, built in sections with openings every fifty yards, would provide cover for the gunners, break any cavalry charge, and provide paths for counterattacking infantry. Behind the palisades he placed his arquebusiers, backed up by the remainder of the army.
The gunners are the primary source of controversy in this battle. Most secondary sources say this battle marks the introduction of musket volley fire, but as pointed out earlier, this had already been introduced by the Ikko-ikki. Almost all sources number Oda’s gunners at 3,000. This is challenged, however, by Lamers, who points out: “The number of 3000 har-quebusiers [sic] first appears in Oze Hoan’s Shinchoki, but the far more reliable and earlier Shincho-Ko ki speaks of only 1000 harquebusiers. Furthermore, many of the harquebusiers in action at Nagashino were not Nobunaga’s own troops but had been temporarily dispatched by his captains. They joined Nobunaga only a few days before the battle, and it is questionable whether Nobunaga had much opportunity to train them in such a complicated action as rotating volley fire.”
The gunners deployed in groups of 30–50; given that the front was perhaps 1.25 miles, that means roughly one gunner per seven feet if they numbered 1,000 and did not fire in volleys. The deployment would be the same if they numbered 3,000 and fired in three ranks, as is often proposed. Turnbull supports the traditional view: “Behind the 2,000m palisade Nobunaga placed his remaining 3,000 matchlockmen. The gunners, arranged three ranks deep, were under the command of members of Nobunaga’s horō-shû, his finest samurai. Their normal duties were to act as his personal bodyguard, and for Nobunaga to use them to command lower class missile troops shows the immense importance Nobunaga attached to the role of the ashigaru gunners.”
Takeda did indeed react as Oda had predicted, though his generals all advised against it. Leaving 3,000 men in the lines at Nagashino Castle, he led his remaining 12,000 through the night toward the enemy lines, moving in four groups of 3,000 through pouring rain. Takeda seems to have appreciated the weather, assuming it would make the matchlocks unusable. Again, Oda had learned that lesson from his first attack against Nagashima; this time his gunners were ordered to make sure their powder and fuses remained dry. Instead, the rain caused the low ground along the Rengogawa to become extremely muddy. The Takeda forces deployed along a stream along the edge of a wood some 200–400 yards opposite the palisades. Once Takeda’s forces left the wood line, there was no cover or concealment available except possibly the river’s banks. Takeda distributed his men in three commands, line abreast, parallel to Oda’s army. Each command had roughly 1,000 cavalry with the remainder being infantry and support troops. The force under Takeda’s direct command took position in the rear behind the central force.
As the Takeda army marched, Oda Nobunaga held a council of war. He secretly decided to send 3,000 men (including 500 arquebusiers) on a surprise attack against the Takeda force left behind at Nagashino. To launch a rear attack simultaneously, with the Takeda advance away from the security of their siege lines, would be a tremendous psychological advantage. Their target was a force of 1,000 on Mt. Tobigasuyama, across the Omagawa River from the castle.
By 5 a.m. the Takeda forces were deployed on the edge of the woods. Takeda reasoned that the relatively short distance from the palisades would favor his cavalry, as they could cover it quickly and not take too many casualties from the gunners, who would be busy reloading by the time the horsemen struck. Further, his best unit, stationed on his far left, would sweep around the end of the fence and roll up the Oda flank.
At 6:00 the war drums began beating and the attack started. The charge from the woods to the river was unopposed, as Oda had ordered his teppo commanders to hold their fire until the enemy horse had come within fifty meters. However, on reaching the steep river banks the attack began to lose momentum, as the cavalry struggled. The Oda gunnery commanders exploited the fatal delay and ordered their men to begin laying down volley fire, each rank of gunners firing in rotation, and the guns opened up. The range was such that an arquebus ball would penetrate the armor the samurai wore; it certainly would do damage to an unarmored horse. Thus, the first line of cavalry were hit while virtually standing still at the river bank. The survivors began to regain speed, but the terrain leading up to the palisades was uphill, and as the horsemen got closer to the line of gunners the damage was greater. Tunbull says that “modern experiments have shown that an experienced gunner could hit a man-sized target with five shots out of five at the shorter distance [30 meters], compared with one in five at 50m. The first volley was therefore fired at slow moving targets, while the second was delivered at a potentially greater accuracy but at a moving target. The third volley must have been fired at almost point blank range.” No one knows how many were killed in the initial charge. Some certainly survived, but any sort of unit cohesion was lost. Any horseman shooting a gap in the palisades would have found himself massively outnumbered and quickly dispatched. There was enough damage created in the cavalry units that the bulk of the survivors would have retreated.
Several more charges occurred throughout the morning. The battle devolved into hand-to-hand combat as the Oda forces charged out from the palisade. This continued until 1 p.m., when Nobunaga signaled his men to withdraw to the palisade. Temporarily disengaged, the Takeda forces began to retreat. Nobunaga ordered a pursuit, and despite the valiant attempts of Katsuyori’s generals to fight a rearguard action, many Takeda samurai were run down and killed by the Oda cavalry.
In addition to the question of the numbers of gunners, one source challenges the whole story of a full-scale cavalry charge. In his history of the samurai, Mitsuo Kure argues, “In the late Heian and Kamakura periods mounted samurai with bows indeed formed the main body of armies; but the introduction of new fighting techniques had changed the way in which mounted soldiers deployed, precisely to avoid the guns. At the time of Shitaragahara [Nagashino] the Japanese samurai dismounted to fight, supported by their retainers. … At the very least we may be confident that after the first wave of the Takeda assault had failed, they would know that the muddy ground was unsuited for cavalry charges.” Kure further asserts that the Takeda army was defeated primarily by the terrain, which not only slowed an assault by either cavalry or infantry, but had been enhanced defensively not just by the palisades but also by ditches and earthworks. He says that the second wave of the assault pulled down the palisades but immediately faced a ditch. “Attacks were made sporadically, probing forward piecemeal, perhaps using their own dead as fascines to bridge the ditch. … Neither Oda Nobunaga, Toyo-tomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu or Takeda Katsuyori ever mentioned any particularly effective use of arquebuses, because the deployment of concentrated firepower was nothing new in Japanese tactics.” Lamers, however, whose definitive biography of Oda Nobunaga was the first to challenge both number of teppo and their use in volley firing, still supports the traditional view of cavalry’s role in the battle: “Katsuyori gave away his advantage of speed by charging headlong into Nobunaga’s line of defence, sacrificing his men to Nobunaga’s superior firepower.”
Given the impetuosity Takeda displayed and the well-established reputation of his cavalry, it seems logical that the generally accepted version of the battle is correct. Firepower was a key factor, but the strength of the defense and the lay of the land were both overwhelming advantages for the defense. Even had the ground not been muddy, the river and the steeply rising western bank made a frontal assault virtual suicide against even 1,000 teppo. Casualty counts range from several thousand to 10,000 for Takeda Katsuyori and roughly 6,000 for the Oda-Tokugawa army. As a finishing touch, the diversionary raid against the covering force at the castle was also a huge success. The surprise attack quickly overwhelmed the isolated force on Mt. Tobigasu, and the garrison within Nagashino sallied to defeat the troops just outside the walls.
The Battle of Nagashino was the result of an approach march followed by a meeting engagement. Usually such a move results in an attack by the army on the move, but this time Oda’s army took up the defensive, choosing terrific ground for provoking an attack by an impulsive commander. The river fronting the Oda lines provided the initial disruption of the attack, with the constructed defenses providing a second one. There were no spoiling attacks; Oda’s orders were to stay behind the palisades until the attackers wore themselves out, after which the pursuit was launched. Having destroyed the bulk of the Takeda army, Oda and Tokugawa sent their men immediately out from their positions to pursue the retreating remnants, exploiting the effect of the defensive victory.