The name, Okay-hah-zama, almost sounds like an Oriental rendition of the name “OK Corral”. Actually, “oke” means “bucket” and “hazama” can mean “valley” or even “gorge”, thus “Okehazama” would mean “Bucket Valley”. The name implies a geographical pinch point, like Thermopylae. Nobody knows exactly where the battle of Okehazama took place, and debate had raged for centuries on how Oda Nobunaga, with just two thousand troops, managed to defeat Imagawa Yoshimoto’s massive army, said to be anywhere from twenty five thousand to fifty thousand soldiers.
In the aftermath of the battle, the mighty Imagawa fiefdom disintegrated, not in small part because Matsudaira Motoyasu (soon to change his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu) broke away from Imagawa rule and allied with Nobunaga. While Nobunaga gained strength, recovered lost territory, and went on to unite Japan under his banner. It was a true turning point in history.
Nobunaga was only 26 years old at the time, and had newly succeeded his father as the leader of the Oda clan. He had a reputation for eccentricity and was dubbed “the fool”. By contrast, Yoshimoto was 41 years old, had been the leader of the Imagawa clan since he was 17, came from an old noble family, and was granted the name Yoshimoto from Ashikaga Yoshiharu, the eleventh shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate. Although the power of the shogunate had been dwindling for some time, it was still a great honor that granted him considerable authority.
Following the death of Nobunaga’s father, Imagawa Yoshimoto’s clan had been nibbling away at the territories of the Oda clan for years. Oda fortresses and outposts were falling one by one. The Imagawa clan had taken control of the entire eastern coast of Ise bay. The powerful clan was now ready to make their final move on the Oda clan, crush them once and for all, and clear their way to Kyoto, where Yoshimoto could join forces with the shogun and rebuild the shogunate with himself as regent. In May of 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto lead his army into Oda territory. The five hundred soldiers defending Marune fortress were the first to be slaughtered. Washizu fortress was the next to fall. The Imagawa army was unstoppable.
Oral historians of the era blamed Yoshimoto’s arrogance and complacency for his defeat. Written records inked decades after the event credit the valor of Nobunaga’s soldiers. Legends and fiction depicts Nobunaga as a tactical genius, which he probably was, but there were great many elements involved. Yoshimoto was confident enough to divide up his army and send them off on independent sorties. There was perhaps more booty to go around that way. He kept only five thousand of his closest men around him, not all of them combat personnel. Nobunaga’s smaller army was agile enough to sneak between Yoshimoto’s divided army and strike directly at the center. And a sudden downpour fortunately masked Nobunaga’s approach, helping his surprise attack.
In spite of the fact we do not know exactly where the battle was fought, exactly how big Yoshimoto’s army was, or exactly how the battle was won, all accounts agree on some curious details. Yoshimoto, who cared very much about his connections to high aristocracy, dyed his teeth black and powdered his face white in the aristocratic fashion, and lead his army on a palanquin instead of on horseback. When Yoshimoto was finally cornered, he struggled with a young soldier named Yoshikatsu and bit off his finger. When his head was presented to Nobunaga, the pale dead finger was still between the nobleman’s blackened teeth.
This all happened in a time when people still believed in magic, ghosts, curses, and gods. Modern writers and historians tend to downplay this element, and even Nobunaga’s contemporaries avoided recording the various rumors and supernatural theories surrounding the miraculous victory.
What would the people of the time thought of Yoshimoto’s defeat? What divine retribution lead to his downfall? What sacrilege did Yoshimoto commit that aligned the gods against him so? What angry spirits, what vengeful ghosts had such a grudge against Lord Yoshimoto?
Remember that Yoshimoto had already conquered all the key fortresses that stood in his way, and he had sent his armies on sorties in search of booty. His forces were set free to rob and rape the villagers and town people. This was probably not the first time such action was taken. And it was because his army was off to pillage the people that Yoshimoto was left open to Nobunaga’s surprise attack. No doubt, in his time, people whispered of the anger of various patron spirits of the villages and townships plundered and destroyed by the Imagawa army. But nobody recorded, in so many words, that angry gods took vengeance on Yoshimoto. It was a frightening thought to put into words. Best not to mention them lest the spirits turn against you.
Instead they recorded the details. Yoshimoto’s dismembered head was delivered to Nobunaga, teeth dyed pretentious black, face powdered foppish white, and his killer’s finger still in his mouth.