February 03, 2014

Why the fascination with Nobunaga?

There are two series this season featuring Nobunaga, and there have been a lot of others. Why the fascination with this historical personage?

I think it's the same reason kids get fascinated with dinosaurs. (I'll explain later.)

Nobunaga lived in the 16th Century, and was a very successful warlord. In his day he conquered a third of Japan, and probably would have conquered all the rest if he hadn't been murdered by one of his top aides, Mitsuhide.

Afterwards, his top general Hideyoshi completed conquest of Japan, and then Ieyasu successfully revolted and established the Tokugawa Shogunate.

And that's where the dinosaurs come in. Lots of people ask why little kids are fascinated with dinosaurs. I think I know: the world of the dinosaurs was completely, totally different from ours, but it was real. It was an alternate path the earth could have followed. Our time would be vastly different without that damned asteroid!

And I think the fascination with Nobunaga is much the same. What if he hadn't been murdered? What if it had been Nobunaga who completed the conquest of Japan, and established a unified government instead of Ieyasu? How different would it have been?

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Japanese at 09:06 PM | Comments (7) | Add Comment
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1 It goes a bit deeper than even that.  Oda was, in many ways, the last actually interesting and over-the-top Japanese personality.   He's the closest thing Japanese history has to Alexander the Great: cunning, brilliance and quirks that always set him apart from his peers.  And, like Alexander, he died before he'd completed everything he had set out to do.

He was the Man who would have unified Japan, but, in many ways, he's actually almost anti-Japanese in his rejection of the status quo & personal oddities.  (He was an utter non-conformist, at least in the current historical perspective)  Add in the fact that a Oda-derived Shogunate would have been fairly different, there has to be an assumed undercurrent that WW2 wouldn't have happened as it did. 

So he's an important Man in Japanese history, but he's remembered as much for his rejection of the culture as its unification.  That always has appeal to the common Japanese male audience.

Posted by: sqa at February 04, 2014 12:17 AM (WJILw)

2 A bit more on his place in history: he was the first of three great men who ended the century and a half long agony of the Sengoku jidai. He was followed by the rose from a peasant class Hideyoshi, who then pulled up the ladder and made sure that couldn't happen again, and who died during a futile quest to invade China through Korea. Hideyoshi was of course succeeded by the founding Tokugawa.

I've read, or at least gotten the impression, that a lot of the impetus that enabled the Tokugawa bakufu's roughly two and a half centuries of stasis---a very ugly period that's necessary for understanding modern Japan, but looks to me like it could also ruin your appreciation of anime and manga (that impression stopped me from learning more about it)---was the proceeding Sengoku jidai's chaos. So being the first of three to decisively end it strikes me as pretty significant.

Posted by: hga at February 04, 2014 06:58 AM (BfJzf)

3 I've always had a different view on why kids (boys, at least) get fascinated with *certain* creatures, people or ideas from history, dinosaurs especially.  They're superheroes.  T-Rex is Superman.  What was once called a "Brontosaurus" is The Incredible Hulk.  The various raptors are The Flash or Spiderman.  One of the armored dinosaurs will be Iron Man.  Some kid will talk about Allosaurus or Dilophosaurus or another lesser-known predator and claim it's like Batman.

I think this is similar to what kids do (or used to do) with the founding fathers and westward expansion pioneers.  Who would win in a fight, Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone?  (The weird kid takes Johnny Appleseed).

Posted by: Ben at February 04, 2014 07:51 AM (Oftf2)

4 I was thinking Napoleon, but yeah, Alexander is probably a better match there.

Part of it is plain ol' lack of competition. There's just not a lot of notable Japanese government figures; plenty of names and damned little of substance behind most of them. They can't really look to modern history for that kind of larger-than-life figure either - the notable emperors were far too stage-managed for that sort of thing, and of course modern politics is tawdry enough that you can't really be a prime-minister-hero.

Same with military history - the Tokugawa period simply didn't have notable engagements, and the brief period of Japanese military ascendancy becomes utterly eclipsed by the Second World War, from which Japan just wasn't allowed to take any heroic examples.

The only grouping of folk heroes and national myth-making left is the fall of the Shogunate, and there are a number of larger-than-life fellows in that grouping too. But a lot of them are famous in the way William Travis was famous - doomed to have died valiantly. But Oda was successful, even if he didn't live to see it...

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at February 04, 2014 09:28 AM (IopVv)

5 As an aside, I can enjoy anime and manga despite being able to read quite a lot of pro-Axis revisionist history into much of it. Reading up more on Meiji and the Bakufu doesn't seem likely to make the counter argument to enjoyment much more significant for me.

The other thing is that talking about the Bakufu, or the political figures after does not have a huge history of not being political. Whereas, the end of the Sengoku is notable and of interest, but not so likely to be grounds for a political argument.

Perhaps because of the, IIRC, Christanity, making Oda a demon or demon user isn't terribly controversal in Japan.

In short, near enough that every knows a little, and far enough that only the hard core will pick fights over taking freedoms with it.

And sometimes you just want to kill the freaking nightingale.

Posted by: PatBuckman at February 04, 2014 12:32 PM (+LcKg)

6 Avatar reminded me about Legend of Koizumi. Not an Nobunaga sized figure, but larger than contemporaries nonetheless.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at February 04, 2014 01:00 PM (RqRa5)

7 There are several mythological figures that emerge from the first 50 years or so of the Shogunate. Miyamoto Musashi, for instance. Or Yagyuu Jyubei.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at February 04, 2014 02:58 PM (+rSRq)

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