Monday, 28 April 2014

Nobunaga and Religion: a few considerations

When the issue of religion is contemplated in Nobunaga's life, people tend to dismiss the whole thing claiming that he was an atheist, or, even better, they quote the whole deal with the self-deification at Azuchi, turning him into a heretical megalomaniac.
The words of Luis Frois on the issues and Nobunaga's constant (and brutal) persecution of Buddhist confederates are usually reported ss evidences of such a theory.

In a correspondence with a fellow missionary dated 1569, Frois wrote that "he openly declares that there is no creator of the universe, no immortality of the soul, no life after death", speaking about Nobunaga's beliefs, portraying him as a lost cause for what concerned Catholicism.
The reports of Frois sure gave us an impression, but we must not forget that Nobunaga was not a Westerner, so trying to define his spiritual disposition from a Catholic point of view may be quite tricky.

Of course I'm not stating that Nobunaga was as a fervently religious person as Uesugi Kenshin or Takeda Shingen were (both of them received monastic education), but that we can't really describe him as an "atheist" (or even as a "satanist", as popular culture taught us) according to our modern standard, despite his verified pragmatism and unorthodox solutions when it came to del with the Ikko Ikki & Co.

First of all, we don't have to identify the concept "religion" as a mere matter of "believing in supernatural entities".
Religion is, firstly and foremost, a "cultural matter".
Giving a trascendental or mystic outline to the identity of a community is the first step of human civilization, it's how people recognize themself as part of a "society".
The "rules" according to which this society develops derive from some kind of "mythology" that legitimizes its identity, and sometimes superiority, among "others".
It's the same for every monotheistic religion, but this basical anthropologioc principle applies to ancient Greeks, Egyptians and of course even to Shintoism, the indigeous religion of Japan.

During Nobunaga's time, the religious compartment was shared between Shintoism and Buddhism.
As Shintoism was the religion more popular with the low classes and rural society, because of its emphasis on family, ancestors and farming, Buddhism was the religion of the warrior class; it was common to have the kids of a samurai to study in a Buddhist temple so to apprehend what the warlord of the time considered as "ethic": value the loyalty to superiors, need for decorum and feelings of superiority for those who didn't belong to the samurai class.

Even Nobunaga received such an education. It's said that he studied in a temple by Kiyosu castle, and the influence of Takugen Shuon, a bonze of the Rinzai sect, over Nobunaga and the Oda family is well-known and documented.
It's him who suggested the name "Nobunaga" for the boy's genpuku to Nobuhide, Nobunaga's motto "Tenka Fubu" and, according to certain sources, even "Gifu" when it came to rename Inabayama castle.
Other Zen "teachers" whose friendship Nobunaga could boast were Nange Genkō, a patron of arts and fine culture, and Sakugen Shuryo, famous for his diplomatic relationships and missions in China, but they'll get later in the picture.

Sure, we don't know who took care of Nobunaga's education at the time, but we know that he spent the most of time having fun with his band of kabukimono rather than studying Confucianism, subject that he was quite acknowledged about, anyway.
The idea is that of a "country boy", a description that accompanied Nobunaga during most of his youth and even during his first clashes with powerful daimyo.
Sure his behavious do suggest a lack of higher education, but in my opinion the source of this "wildness" is to find in Shinto.

As I said previously, Shinto religion covered those sides of a Japanese daily life that dealt with with traditional, "regional" issues.
Praying for protection against famine, illness and the like was supposed to be a Shinto duty because of the "local character" of such issues.

Nobunaga had a strict connection with Shintoism through his whole life.

In his youth he was known for being a faithful attendee of the Tennou Matsuri of Tsushima shrine (津島神社).
The festival honors Gozutennō, invoked against pestilences during summer, but it mostly focuses on celebrating the Tennō river, which course is animated by the floating of suggestive makiwara-bune, rappresenting the five villages that once formed Tsushima.
Of course I'm sure that his "devotion" here was mostly due to the appeal of the joyous festival more than genuine religious fervor, but you can say that this experience formed the conscience of Nobunaga, who saw religion as a way to give the sense of "kinship" through culture rather than politics.

Speaking of Gozutenno, it's worth mentioning the attendance of Nobunaga and his men to the Gion Matsuri in 1578.
Gion and Tsushima are connected as both festivals share the same origin of protection against pestilences, and in both festivals the support of Susanoo is invoked to keep in place a rampaging Gozutenno.
During the Gion Matsuri, Nobunaga enjoyed the view of the yamaboko parade, but also gave a splendid example of modern "public order" management, so that everyone could enjoy the festival without its rituals being interrupted or disturbed.

The other important Shinto temple strictly connected to Nobunaga's name is the Atsuta shrine (熱田神宮).
This famous shrine was originally built to host the Kusanagi sword, one of the three Imperial treasures, but it's now also the house of the Five Great Gods of Atsuta, or those deities connected with the legendary sword and the foundation of the shrine: Amaterasu, Susanoō, Yamato Takeru, Miyasuhime and Inadane.
Nobunaga came here to pray for victory on the way to the battle of Okehazama in 1560, and returned once his wish was granted to build a roofed wall hardened by mud, grease and lime, the "Nobunaga Wall" (信長塀), as a token of his gratitude.

Many legends are connected with Nobunaga's visits to Atsuta Shrine.
One refers to the Makezu no Tsuba and tries to explain the use of the eiraku coins, bringing in an exquisitely Buddhist explanation, another, more suggestive and tied to Shinto symbology, talks about two white egrets that took flight from the temple once Nobunaga and his army were done with the rituals, only to rest by the camp of Imagawa's forces, showing Nobunaga's army where the enemy was posted.
Like many other animals, egrets are considered messengers of kami, and for this reason also frequently used as an "offer" to a temple.
Even if a mere legend, the story of the egrets is a perfect example of cultural intermission on a political matter, and how a "religious" fact legitimized an historical fact.

Another Shinto shrine is mentioned when it comes to Okehazama, at least on Nagoya's touristic guides, the Hioki shrine (日置神社).
It's said that Nobunaga made a stop to pray here too, and after his victory he donated a thousand pine branches to the shrine.
It's worth noting that the deity enshrined here is Futodama, the kami to whom the Inbe clan traced its descent.

Since we mentioned the Inbe Clan we are now forced to step back and return to Nobunaga's ancestors, who claimed Tsurugi shrine(劔神社), another Shinto shrine, as their "home".
It's said that Nobunaga kept on referring to Tsurugi shrine as the shrine of his ancestors too, but unfortunately we have no mentions of a visit there, obviously because the shrine was part of enemy terrority back then.
The shrine is dedicated to Susanoo.

Browsing through the pages of the Shinchoukoki, we can find many other examples of the same kind.
They are important statements that, if Nobunaga wasn't a follower of any religion, he did understand its importance in the social structure, identity and tradition of "his people".

It's reported that in 1574 Nobunaga happened to be in Kyoto during the Kamo Matsuri at Kamo Shrine (賀茂神社).
This Shinto sanctuary complex houses one of the most important festivals of Kyoto, that in Nobunaga's times was referred as "Kamo Matsuri", but that now is famous as the "Aoi Matsuri": originally a festival to grant a bountiful harvest, it was celebrated through ritual horses races and equestrian archery.
The priests asked him if he could provide some horses for the races: Nobunaga granted them two of his favourite war horses that he personally rode in battle, and another eighteen, all of them "outfitted splendidly", so that the festival left a deep impression on the visitors.

In 1575 he happened again around the Atsuta grounds while camping there during the campaign against Takeda.
He was observing the Hakkengu (八剣宮) and noticed that it was in pitiful conditions: he promptly ordered Okabe Mataemon to take care of its reconstruction.

It wouldn't be the last time that Nobunaga cared to support and fix famous shrines of Shinto faith.

In 1579 it came to Nobunaga's attention how the wooden gutters of the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine (石清水八幡宮) rot, ruining the whole "character" of the shrine.
He summoned his deputies of the province, and had them work on a project using bronze gutters, so that the job could last "for ages".
The work proved quite expensive and time consuming, but once it was done, a groundbreaking ceremony was held after receiving the blessing of the Emperor, and Nobunaga presented the temple a refined censer.
It's interesting to note that another wall, exactly like the one at Atsuta Shrine, was built here by Nobunaga.

In 1582, a request from Uwabe Sadanaga, one of Nobunaga's retainer, was brought to his attention by Hori Hidemasa: "the custom of rebuilding the Grand Shrines of Ise (伊勢神宮) every twenty years had been in decline for three centuries and was no longer being carried out".
I don't think that I need to tell you about the Ise Shrine. And Nobunaga either, needed to be asked twice: but this time, aware of the expenses after the deal with Hachiman Shrine, he asked Nobutada to contribute with Gifu's funds so to not "impose hardships on the populace".

I talked about Shinto, and now I'll spend a few words on Buddhism too, to close the circle.

I already mentioned his Buddhist intimate friends and "teachers" and even Frois reported that Nobunaga described himself as a follower of the Hokke sect of Buddhism, even if it's usually considered as a misunderstanding on Frois' account.
Truth is that the Buddhist temples where he usually lodged at during his trips to Kyoto belonged to the Hokke sect: I'm talking about the Myokakuji (妙覚寺) and the Honnoji (本能寺), the temple that in 1570 he claimed as his ryoshuku, or "private quarters".
It's usually assumed that Nobunaga favoured those places because the quality of the hospitality rather than the religious affiliation, but it's worth mentioning that it may be true also otherwise.
After all, the temples that Nobunaga built for his family and clan were of Buddhist affiliation: the family temple that he built at Azuchi, the Sokenji (総見寺), was a temple of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, and an image of Kannon was enshrined there; the Sofukuji (崇福寺), the temple that he used when he moved to Gifu, belonged to the Rinzai sect of Buddhism too.
It's worth noting that also the temple that he built in 1553 to honor the memory of his former tutor Hirate Masahide, the Seijouji (政秀寺), was of Rinzai affiliation, while the Banshoji (萬松寺), the family temple built by Nobuhide in 1540, was of Soto sect.

After Nobunaga's death, many temples were dedicated to his memory.
The Sokenji (総見寺) in Nagoya was originally built in Kiyosu, and was dedicated to his father and brother's memory by Nobukatsu after their death at Honnoji. Like its homonimous in Azuchi, the temple belongs to the Rinzai sect of Buddhism.
In 1587, Hideyoshi dedicated the Daiun-in (大雲院) to the memory of Nobutada and Nobunaga: "Daiunin" is the posthumous Buddhist name of Nobutada.
Another Buddhist temple that hosts a memorial of Nobunaga is the Amidaji (阿弥陀寺), a temple of the Jodo Sect in Kyoto: it's said that the monk Seigyoku, who had deep connections to the Oda family, gathered the remains of Nobunaga, Nobutada and the other men who met their death at Honnoji and buried them in the temple grounds: the ashes have been equally divided through the temples of Amidaji, Honnoji and Kenkun Shrine (建勲神社), which is the most recent temple dedicated to Nobunaga: this Shinto shrine was built in 1870 by one of Nobunaga's descendant, Oda Nobutoshi, with the blessing of Emperor Meiji, and Nobunaga himself is enshrined here.

Long story short, Nobunaga wasn't an iconoclast, an atheist or a rebel like many likes to think to justify this or that "cruelty".
He never denied the importance of religion or vilified its contents: whenever he condamned or executed a religious group or personality, it was simply because "they no longer stressed the moral practices of the nembutsu path", they "disobeyed even the ordinances of their own school" or they "were concerned only with wordly affairs".
To put it in simple words, they were acting like a political force, and not like a religious entity.

PS: Since last time I've been scolded for the lack of bibliographical references, here you go:
"Religion in Japanese History", Kitagawa, Joseph
"Feste Tradizionali in Giappone", Caillet, Laurence (trad. Dentoni, Francesco)
"Oda Nobunaga and the Buddhist institutions", McMullin, Neil Francis
, which can be consulted online here.


  1. Pft, I wasn't scolding you. I only asked because I want to read them for myself. Not that I don't believe you, but I want to read the original articles so I can give my own interpretation of them XD

    Nobunaga IS an atheist, though. Atheist means "having no belief in god". It does NOT mean "hates religion". Nobunaga understands religion as social function or what it means to people, but he obviously doesn't believe in gods.

    If he believes in higher power at all, it would be "Heaven" in the Confucian context (which is NOT god), as Shinchou ko ki mentioned. So all these mentions of Buddhist/Shinto shrines are good and all, but doesn't disprove that he isn't atheist. Just that he values religion. And it has nothing to do with atheism.

  2. I don't know, I don't know! When it comes to references I'm a bit touchy ToT You can blame it on the guys of SamuraiArchives XD

    I'm not saying that Nobunaga is a "believer".
    I agree with you, the fact is that the word "atheist" here is used in a modern acception, as in someone who "rejects" the concept of religion.
    This idea of Nobunaga came from the account of Frois and the label of "Enemy of Buddhism" given to him by his contemporaries and a huge amount of historians because of the Ikki deal.

    Then again, I'm a bit uncertain about the whole deal of Nobunaga "who doesn't believe in any God"... If he really didn't believe in any God I assume that he wouldn't have cared to build family temples around his castles or decorate Azuchi's tenshu with Buddhist decorations and Tao's suggestions-- Just saying.

    1. No, even until now "atheist" means someone who "reject the existence of gods". Not "reject religion", no. Never. You can find many modern atheists who still value religion as social function. It's just that a lot of atheist happen to hate religion too, but it doesn't mean that "atheist" means "reject religion" in any way.

      Building temples does not mean believing in a god. I'm pretty sure Nobunaga builds the temples in memory of the person, not to worship any god. If other people want to use it for worship it's none of his concern. Kind of like how modern people sometimes build university buildings dedicated to famous people.

      Also, having religious paintings as decorations doesn't mean he believes in gods. It just looks pretty. So what? XD You can still see it happen in modern day. If someone has Greek god statues in their houses doesn't mean they worship those gods. People can wear cross necklaces and not belief in Jesus.

      Besides, the Buddhism, Tao, and Confucianism paintings in Azuchi are pictures of Buddha's disciples and sages and "immortals". Those are not gods. A Tao "immortal" is still not a god. It's a holy man who is immortal. Those are pretty much like Catholic saints. Holy People to be respected, but not gods.

    2. Uhm, actually it does XD Someone who "doesn't care" about religion or such is considered an "agnostic". The concept of "atheism" means someone who's against the concept of God. Its etymology has a negative acception. Then if people later claimed themselves as "atheists" just as a way to look smarter than "theists" is another cup of tea.

      Well, I'd say that thinking that building a temple is like dedicating a school to the memory of someone and painting Buddhist scenes (I'd say that "Buddha establishing the Way and preaching the Law" is enough of a religious scene-- As if I'd paint a scene of Moses holding the Decalogues's tables and say that it just rappresents an allegory of Good Government) just because they're "pretty" (he could have used pictures of dolphins, tigers, pines or the Chinese sages that you mentioned as he did in other parts of the castle) is a bit reducing...

      Please, note again that I'm not saying that Nobunaga was some kind of fervent buddhist (I think that this is something like the 4th time that I write it XD).
      I'm just saying that he did receive a religious education, that he felt as if religion was part of his tradition and identity and that he never really vilified religious beliefs of any kind.

      The fact is, when it comes to Nobunaga, people only like to deal with it in black or white tones exclusively: if he's not a fervent Buddhist then he's an atheist.
      Kenshin claimed himself the very incarnation of Bishamonten, but none ever said that he was "self-deificating" himself.
      Mitsuhide attacked Nobunaga while in a Buddhist temple and set it on fire, but none ever considered it a blasfemous act.

      I don't understand why when it comes to Nobunaga concepts like "atheist" come into the picture (to be honest I think that the concept of "atheism" was completely obscure to Japanese people of the time in the first place), but everyone else is considered like a completely normal person with completely normal beliefs in comparison :/

    3. Now that's a problem with definition ^___^ What you mean with "atheism" is different than what other people mean by "atheism".

      And about the paintings... Well, okay, Nobunaga does value some Buddhism ideas, but it still doesn't mean he believes in gods. After all, the picture is of Buddha and his disciples, not Bishamonten or other gods. They're human beings. To Nobunaga they're just the same as the other paintings of Chinese sages.

      You don't like Nobunaga being called atheist because you think it means "hating religion". The people who call Nobunaga an "atheist" means "he does not believe in god, but doesn't necessarily hate religion".

      So you don't need to be so upset about people calling Nobunaga an atheist XD I'm serious. When most people say "atheist", they just mean "someone who doesn't believe in gods". They DON'T mean "someone who hates religion".

  3. Erk, I almost forgot there are pictures of ghosts and celestial beings in Azuchi >.<
    It makes no difference to me, though. I already said I do think Nobunaga values Buddhism. Just that he doesn't believe that there's "Enlightenement" or "afterlife".

  4. I hate not being able to edit. I'm so sorry for making so many useless comments. I keep on forgetting things.

    About the self-deification... Well, you can blame Luis Frois for that =___='' I mean, the reason why it became a big deal is because Frois wrote things and it spread outside Japan and so everyone heard about it. He thought Nobunaga is telling everyone that he was the god in Sokenji and the temple is made to worship him.

    I don't know what Nobunaga actually said, but that's what Frois wrote. So maybe it's a misunderstanding because some titles has the word "kami" and they thought it meant god. But what Nobunaga means was being a ruler of the land (example: Chikuzen no Kami, Echizen no Kami). I dunno >___<

    1. Fufu, I actually like the fact that you have to comment over and over, it looks like my posts have lots of comments, ahahah >D

      Oh, for the interpretation of the word "atheist"-- I'd like to share your point of view, but all the subjects that claimed to be one said stuff like "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people", so I don't really think that they value anything of it.
      Then sure, opinions and levels of tolerance change from person to person, but generally speaking atheists see religion as some sort of "primitive" condition of humankind and something that doesn't let society progress, something that must be erased to let people evolve.
      I can say that when some people refers to Nobunaga as an "atheist", they intend this kind of person.
      This is what wrongs me about the historical interpretation of the character.

      When I say that Nobunaga may not be a believer but he associated with certain traditions, I'm implying that he indeed had some "spirituality" in him.
      When one talks about "religions" it feels as if only monotheistic creeds can be considered so.
      Nobunaga did pray at Atsuta, donated stuff to temples, helped monks and priests and cared for how people perceived these institutions... I wouldn't call him an atheist only because he claimed that he didn't believe in a superior entity or in afterlife (those are, BTW, always Frois' reports-- If one can doubt the self-deification thing why those words can't be considered as a misinterpretation too? Maybe Nobunaga here was just refuting the Catholic vision, not every faith): if you think about it, many religions don't contemplate "one god" or a defined afterlife, Shinto is an example.
      I mean-- I don't know! Everything feels so biased XD !

      And well, about the Buddhist stuff, ok, Siddharta was a man-- But also Jesus was.
      Even in Shinto men can become "gods" once dead.
      So saying that a picture of Buddha doesn't imply a religious interpretation is a bit forceful. As it's true that religious themes can be interpreted as mere rapresentations of moral or ethical virtue, it's also true that an "atheist" wouldn't care to adhere to such a symbology, but would be inspired by philosophers and poets instead.
      To use another example that may resemble the pictures of Azuchi, if I were an atheist I wouldn't use a picture of Jesus and his disciples as a symbol of a just leader and his band of faithful retainers... I would probably pick some cool dude from history (being it actual or mythical-- Think of Odissey or the Arthurian cycle)--

    2. Hmm, when I read people talk about Nobunaga being atheist I always understand that it means "Nobunaga doesn't believe in God", but never "Nobunaga hates religion". Especially in the modern context.

      I never said he put Buddha there to be symbol of leadership. I don't know where you get that from. You must be misunderstanding me :(

      See, my uncle is atheist, and yet he has a statue of Jesus on a cross simply because it's a beautiful work of art. He likes the sculptor's work. We know Nobunaga is someone who appreciates artwork. It's really possible that he maybe puts Buddha in there just because it's a beautiful work of art. (that same uncle can say the Hail Mary, Muslim prayer, and 3 different Buddhist chants just because he wants to)

      If you say the religious pictures mean something, then Nobunaga must be a Taoist or Confucian! He has more Taoist and Confucian pictures than Buddhist in Azuchi (by the way Tao and Confucianism are atheist, but still spiritual, so you can be atheist and spiritual at the same time, actually)

    3. It depends on whom you talked to XD
      The idea of Nobunaga destroying Buddhism because it was seen as an obstacle for his plans is still pretty vivid in many people thanks to the contribution of assorted crap.

      That was my interpretation :3 An example on my side, I wasn't implying that you said so.
      One may try to give a laic interpretation of the Buddhist scene and see the "Buddha establishing the Way and preaching the Law" as a political act instead of the institution of a religious creed.

      I don't think that you should compare what someone does in modern times to what someone did in 1500 so easily.
      Your uncle sure has a different culture and education from Nobunaga. Similar acts may have different meanings in different contexts.
      That's why at the beginning of the post I stated that religion is a cultural matter. One can't mix and mash stuff randomly, you must everything in a similar context to judge a fact.

      To be honest, I think that Nobunaga was more of a Shintoist than a Buddhist-- Or a mix of both. And something else.
      The Tao and Confucianism artworks are connected with political stuff more than religious stuff... They are there to give the idea of a "Good Government". The Buddhist artworks are on a different, separate floor.
      It's like how Roman Catholicism is pretty much based on Greek philosophy. Would you say that a Catholic is an heathen because of it..?

      --And I still think that your interpretation of the word "atheist" is completely wrong XD

  5. Una spiegazione molto interessante e dettagliata! Appena riesco, ti recupero un po' di materiale su padre Organtino, meglio noto come l'amico bresciano di Nobunaga.

  6. Sì, ho sentito il bisogno di pontificare un pò su una presunta "spiritualità" di Nobu XD

    --I gesuiti, almeno i missionari, erano personaggi belli particolari!! Sull'onda di Organtino contribuirò anch'io un pò con quel poco che mi è capitato di leggere su questi tipi mentre facevo ricerche per questo articolo XD !