Date(s): June 21, 1582
Armies: Oda vs. Akechi
Casualties: Unknown number for both sides
The Honnōji Incident was a coup brought on by Akechi Mitsuhide against Oda Nobunaga in the early morning hours of June 21, 1582. This is one of the most significant events in the Sengoku Jidai, with the end result being the death of Oda Nobunaga. Despite the incident being a famous event, little is known on how the battle went down and why Mitsuhide suddenly betrayed his lord.
Before the Battle
Nobunaga was on the path to conquer Japan. In the early months of 1582, Nobunaga finished off the last of the Takeda at the Battle of Tenmokuzan. By this point, Nobunaga had control over central Japan and the last power enemies he had to deal with were the Hōjō, Mōri, and Uesugi. These clans, however, were falling apart from the inside, giving Nobunaga an opening. Nobunaga sent Shibata Katsuie to invade Echigo, Taigawa Kazumasu to watch the Hōjō clan’s movements from Kōzuke and Shinano Provinces, and Niwa Nagahide prepared for an invasion of Shikoku. Toyotomi Hideyoshi had been attacking Chūgoku region since 1576 and had been laying siege to Takamatsu since April 1582. When Mōri Terumoto brought reinforcements for Takamatsu that was six times larger than Hideyoshi’s army, Hideyoshi sent word to Nobunaga and requested reinforcements. During this time, Nobunaga was touring the Kansai region with Tokugawa Ieyasu, celebrating their victory over the Takeda clan. When Nobunaga got the news of the situation at Takamatsu Castle, Nobunaga left the tour to prepare for battle, leaving Ieyasu to finish the tour of the region. Nobunaga ordered Akechi Mitsuhide to go to Hideyoshi’s aid. Nobunaga made a stop in Kyōto at Honnōji before heading to Takamatsu. Only court officials, merchants, artists, and servants were with Nobunaga.
Sceenshot of Oda Nobunaga at Honnōji in Samurai Warriors 4
When Mitsuhide got word of Nobunaga’s orders, he returned to Sakamoto Castle then moved his base to Tamba Province. There, he made his intentions of betrayal known during a renga session (collaborative poetry). The opening line of the poem written by Mitsuhide translates to: “The time is now, the fifth month when the rain falls.” The line could also be a double entendre, for an alternate translation (without changing any pronunciations) would be as follows: “Now is the time to rule the world: it is the fifth month!” There are also links to the word “toki” meaning “time” being similar to the ancestral name for the Akechi, Toki. However, the line was interpreted, most historians agree that Mistuhide made his intentions for betrayal known with the first line of the renga.
Mitsuhide learned that Nobunaga was at Honnōji and saw an opportunity to strike. Nobunaga’s defenses were low and the other main Oda generals as well as the bulk of his army were too far away to provide any aid.
Seeing the perfect opportunity before him, Mitsuhide led his army to Kyōto under pretense of following Nobunaga’s orders, but as his army crossed the Katsura River, Mitsuhide yelled “The enemy awaits at Honnōji!” His army surrounded the temple before dawn. Nobunaga tried to hold off the Akechi army with his servants and bodyguards but began to realize that they were severely outnumbered. At some point, most likely after Nobunaga’s retreat into the inner rooms of the temple, Honnōji was set ablaze. Sources vary on who set fire to the temple; Mori Ranmaru, Nobunaga’s page, or the Akechi army. Also, contrary to pop culture, the fire was not an all-consuming inferno: only the main hall burned. Nobunaga committed seppuku with Ranmaru acting as his second (the one who cuts off their head) with his last words being “Ran, don’t let them come in…”. Ranmaru would follow soon after. Strangely enough, Nobunaga’s body was never found, leaving some to speculate his fate.
After Honnōji was captured, Mitsuhide turned his attention to Nijō Castle, where Nobunaga’s heir and oldest son, Oda Nobutada, resided. Nobutada followed his father in death via seppuku.
The Honnōji Incident was a turning point for the Sengoku Jidai. Oda Nobunaga, the man who had came closest to conquering Japan in over one hundred years had died. Nobunaga’s death sent shockwaves through the Oda army. The generals of the Oda army wanted to attack Mitsuhide, but their situations made it difficult to take action.
Ieyasu was still touring the Kansai region when he got word of Nobunaga’s death. Hattori Hanzō led Ieyasu back to Mikawa from the city of Sakai to the shores of Ise and returning home by sea. By the time had returned to Mikawa and began preparing to attack Mitsuhide, Hideyoshi had taken over.
Takigawa Kazumasu, the general in charge of monitoring the Hōjō clan, found himself under attack by them, losing not only the land he held there but also his high prestige within the Oda clan.
Shibata Katsuie could not move to attack Mitsuhide due to an Uesugi counterattack in Echizen Province, which tied him up for a long while. He would fall at the Battle of Shizugatake a year later.
Surprisingly, it was Hideyoshi who would be the one to respond. He made a peace treaty with the Mōri clan, without letting them know that Nobunaga had died and joined up with Niwa Nagahide and Oda Nobutaka at Ōsaka. He met up with Mitsuhide at Yamazaki, the battle which resulted in Mitsuhide’s death.
As for Mitsuhide, he went to Azuchi Castle and gave his men the riches that came from it to reward, and keep, their loyalty. He claimed the title of shōgun, which he held for only thirteen days and Hosokawa Fujitaka, whose son was married to Mitsuhide’s daughter, Gracia, cut ties with him. Gracia was spared and was sent to the Tango Peninsula until 1584. Mitsuhide was not counting on a counterattack so quickly, so when Hideyoshi arrived in Settsu in four days, he was caught off guard. Mitsuhide’s army was routed at Yamazaki, and Mitsuhide fled. While most sources agree that Mitsuhide was killed by a gang of bandits while fleeing the battle, some toy with the idea that Mitsuhide was successful in his retreat and lived as a monk named Tenkai.
Reasons for Betrayal
Akechi Mitsuhide’s game artwork from Samurai Warriors 4
There has been much speculation about the possible reasons for Mitsuhide’s betrayal. The theories are numerous. The most common theory is, of course, the same as it is for most betrayals: personal gain. This theory claims that Mitsuhide wanted to rule Japan himself. Yet, this theory seems unlikely when put side by side with other theories.
Historian Kuwata Tadachika put forth the theory that Mitsuhide betrayed due to a personal grudge. There were a couple of events that could have been triggers for Mitsuhide. At the Battle of Yamaki Castle, Mitsuhide sent his mother as a hostage to end the battle peacefully. Nobunaag overruled Mitsuhide’s decision and put the lord of Yamaki Castle to death. The lord’s retainers retaliated by killing Mitsuhide’s mother. The problem is that this story came about during the Edo Period and it is not clear if the story is true.
Nobunaga also physically abused Mistuhide, either by beating his bald head with a fan or kicking him, the most famous being the incident after the defeat of the Takeda. Nobunaga accused Mitsuhide of superficial praise for their allies after the battle and kicked him. There was also the time where Mitsuhide was in charge of preparing for Ieyasu’s stay at Azuchi Castle. Ieyasu complained about the meal and Nobunaga exploded on Mitsuhide, accusing him of serving Ieyasu rotten fish, and even threw Mitsuhide’s priceless dinnerware into the garden pond. He was removed as event master, a complete loss of face for Mitsuhide. Nobunaga also forced Mitsuhide to drink sake at parties despite not being a heavy drinker.
There is also the story that when Nobunaga ordered Mitsuhide to assist Hideyoshi, it was hinted that Mitsuhide would lose his lands and would have to fight for new lands in a non-Oda controlled land. Some have speculated that he betrayed Nobunaga over an uncertain future.
The Portuguese missionary Luís Fróis noted that Mitsuhide was a general who liked using strategies that involved treachery and diversion. He also wrote that the other daimyō did not like Mitsuhide because he was not part of the fudai clan people who had served Nobunaga for many years.
One of the more stranger theories is that Nobunaga asked him to. This theory comes from a legend that Nobunaga asked Mitsuhide to strike him down if he ever became too ruthless, but if that were the case, then why not after Mount Hiei, where Nobunaga put over 20,000 people to the sword?
Then there was the possible betrayal by family. Hosokawa Fujitaka apparently agreed to help Mitushide with his plot, however, he was reporting the plan to Hideyoshi.
Another theory states that Mitsuhide was being manipulated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, since the outcome had some perks for them. Hideyoshi would become leader of the country and Ieyasu would have avenged his wife and child. These are not the only people who pressured Mitsuhide to betray. Other include Mōri Terumoto, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, Nōhime, the Shimazu clan, and the Emperor, Ogimachi.
This brings up another theory that Mitsuhide betrayed to protect the Imperial Court. It is possible that Nobunaga would have abolished the Imperial Court once they had wore out their usefulness. Mitsuhide, who did serve the Imperial Court before serving Nobunaga, had asked Nobunaga to guarantee the safety of the Court. Nobunaga, however, had disrespected their authority multiple times and it was getting close to Nobunaga’s end game for the country, meaning that the Court was in danger. This theory was also brought up by historian Akechi Kenzaburo, a descendent of Mitsuhide.
The most compelling theory, however, is based off of new letters found in 2014. These letters were about Oda Nobunaga and the leader of Shikoku, Chōsokabe Motochika. These letters focused on the pending invasion of Shikoku. In 1581, Nobunaga told Motochika that if he surrendered without a fight, he would let him keep Tosa and about half of the neighboring province of Awa. On January 11, 1582, a letter was sent from senior Akechi retainer Saitō Toshimitsu to Ishigai Mitsumasa, his brother-in-law, asking an envoy be dispatched to admonish the Chōsokabe, who refused Nobunaga’s demands. Ishigai just happened to be Motochika’s father-in-law. Despite Motochika’s sharp response towards Nobunaga, in a letter to Toshimitsu dated May 21, 1582, Motochika reported that he had retreated from a part of Awa and that he would follow Nobunaga’s orders. Mitsuhide, who had a friendship with the Chōsokabe clan, decided to protect the Chōsokabe clan by betraying Nobunaga.
Despite all these theories, we will never know the reason why Mitsuhide betrayed Nobunaga.
Honnōji, Present Day
The Honnōji Temple was rebuilt on a different site, which sits near the Kyōto Shiyakusho-mae Station. The actual site where Honnōji stood during the incident is a home for the elderly with a theme café dedicated to the incident. A small stone rod stands on the grounds of the original site. Despite Nobunaga’s remains never being found, his helmet was found and it sits on display in a small temple in Kiyosu.