September 3, 2020

Below the Bar

This article explains how I used a ploy taken from the playbook of Oda Nobunaga to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

A statue of Oda Nobunaga near the Battlefield of Okehazama in Aichi Prefecture
Man’s life is fifty years.
In the universe, what is it but dreams or illusions?
Is there any that is born and does not die?

— Oda Nobunaga

For the longest time, I have had a profound sense of respect for the Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga. Given that the man basically put an end to decades of civil war single handedly, this shouldn’t be that big of a surprise to those familiar with Japan. Still, despite his nearly unifying all of the country under a single sword, my esteem for Oda Nobunaga actually stems from one of his earliest victories. Known as the Battle of Okehazama, this critical triumph was one of the most momentous turning points in all of Japanese history. Moreover, as we will soon see, this important clash has a vital life lesson to teach us too.

Let’s begin by setting the stage. The year is 1560 and the Imagawa clan has amassed an army that is 25,000 strong. Leading this mighty band of warriors is Imagawa Yoshimoto, a warlord who has his eyes set on capturing Kyoto under the pretext of “aiding” the frail Ashikaga shogunate. There’s just one issue though. To get to Kyoto, Imagawa Yoshimoto is going to need to plow directly through his enemy’s territory. Had this part of Japan been controlled by anyone other than the fiery Oda Nobunaga, chances are high that the Imagawa march on Kyoto would have been successful.

For the record, Oda Nobunaga is only 26 years-old by the Battle of Okehazama and has had but a mere decade of experience leading the Oda clan. What’s more, the young lord had also developed a nasty reputation for himself due to his bizarre behavior. All across Japan, Oda Nobunaga was known as the “Fool of Owari” (Owari is basically the western half of Aichi Prefecture). Allegedly, Oda Nobunaga was infamous for running amok with the other boys of his domain without any regard for his own rank in society. Likely though, his foolish actions were all a clever ruse to throw off his powerful neighbors like the Imagawa.

For those not aware, understand that the Oda clan was not yet a major player in Japan’s vicious civil war at the time of the Battle of Okehazama. In fact, the bloodthirsty enemies surrounding Owari would have looked at the Oda the way that a shark looks at its prey. The Oda were grievously outnumbered, comparatively weak and surrounded by competitors. As evidenced by the Battle of Okehazama though, the Oda clan’s apparent frailty only led to their position being underestimated. What Owari’s assailants failed to take into account was that there was a man like Oda Nobunaga at the helm.

Before getting into the details of the clash between the Oda and the Imagawa, let’s quickly recap the situation. In one corner, we have Imagawa Yoshimoto who is marching on Kyoto with a force of 25,000 men. Directly in his path is Owari and the Oda clan which he intends to smash with his superior numbers. Oda Nobunaga on the other hand can only scrounge up a meager 2,000 soldiers by the Battle of Okehazama. In this situation, any normal lord would throw in the towel and pray to be able to become a vassal of the Imagawa. Alas, this just seemed to not be in the cards for Oda Nobunaga.

The preamble to the fateful Battle of Okehazama began with the Imagawa assailing the outer positions of the Oda clan. Small forts on the outskirts like the one at Marune were easily taken by the mighty brigade under Imagawa Yoshimoto. These initial victories would eventually prove to be the downfall of the Imagawa clan though as they caused its top brass to get haughty and careless. Of course, all of these early developments were being relayed back to the cunning Oda Nobunaga by means of stealthy scouts and messengers.

Eventually after capturing the fortresses on the border, the Imagawa’s massive army set up camp in Dengaku-Hazama, a wooded gorge just outside of Nagoya. Upon learning of this, Oda Nobunaga and his forces prayed for victory at Atsuta Jingu then headed to a fortified temple complex called Zensho-ji near Dengaku-Hazama. Keep in mind, the Oda clan has only been able to muster a few thousand men meaning that they are outnumbered 12-to-1. Bravery and home field advantage are worth a lot in war but not enough to overcome those odds.

This is where the conflict gets really interesting and we see what an insanely crafty genius Oda Nobunaga really was. Upon arriving at Zensho-ji, he instructed his men to erect straw caricatures and to give each of these a banner. In doing so, Oda Nobunaga hoped to create the illusion of having more soldiers than he actually did. As comical as this deception might sound to us in the modern age, you need to remember that reconnaissance wasn’t what it is today back in 1560. Imagawa scouts would need to get perilously close to Zensho-ji to tell that these were indeed fakes.

Despite these additional phony troops, Imagawa Yoshimoto was quite contemptuous of Oda Nobunaga’s puny forces. And why shouldn’t he be? The Imagawa had amassed one of the largest battalions that Japan had ever seen. Feeling that victory was but a foregone conclusion due to his numerical supremacy, Imagawa Yoshimoto allowed his men to enjoy themselves while they were camped at Dengaku-Hazama. This premature celebration would prove to be fatal though as it led to most of the Imagawa forces letting their guard down. Hell, many of them were likely drunk and unarmed!

An artistic representation of Oda Nobunaga at the Battle of Okehazama

What happens next in the Battle of Okehazama is why I will forever respect Oda Nobunaga as a man to emulate. Realizing that a defensive play was but tantamount to suicide, Oda Nobunaga took his few thousand soldiers and instead went on the offensive. Keep in mind, the Oda forces are outnumbered by at least 12-to-1. By any analysis of the numbers, there’s no way a frontal attack should work. Still, Oda Nobunaga understood that his only option was to gamble it all as trying to bunker down at Zensho-ji was a guaranteed inevitable defeat.

Thanks to his wild youth, Oda Nobunaga knew the territory around Dengaku-Hazama like the back of his hand. In making his way from Zensho-ji, he was able to artfully elude the few sentries that the cocky Imagawa even bothered to station. What’s more, the gods themselves seemed to be in Oda Nobunaga’s corner. As his troops approached Imagawa Yoshimoto’s camp at Dengaku-Hazama, the sky blackened and a vicious thunderstorm broke out. Were it not for this divine intervention, Oda Nobunaga’s subterfuge very well might have been discovered.

Thanks to his knowledge of the lay of the land as well as that fateful thunderstorm though, Oda Nobunaga was able to creep up on the Imagawa position completely undetected. Thinking that no demon nor god could challenge the might of his army, Imagawa Yoshimoto was utterly unprepared for what was about to ensue. As soon as the violent storm abated, Oda Nobunaga and his pitifully small entourage charged down into the Dengaku-Hazama valley. Caught with their proverbial pants embarrassingly around their ankles, many of the Imagawa warriors immediately panicked and fled.

Oda Nobunaga’s attack was so sudden that Imagawa Yoshimoto didn’t even realize what was going on at first. The Oda’s cunning gambit on a risky ambush had been so deranged that Imagawa Yoshimoto actually mistook the commotion as a dispute among his own men. Having been thoroughly engrossed in a Noh performance, it was already too late by the time that the Imagawa lord noticed that he was surrounded by enemy troops. Try as he might to defend himself, Imagawa Yoshimoto was quickly felled by two of Oda Nobunaga’s faithful retainers.

Due to Oda Nobunaga’s willingness to wager everything on a surprise attack, the Battle of Okehazama was over in a flash. Following the slaying of Imagawa Yoshimoto, the Oda forces went on to butcher all but two of the Imagawa’s high command . With their senior leadership now deceased, the remaining troops either absconded or surrendered and accepted Oda Nobunaga as their new master. In an instant, the Oda went from being one of the weaker players to one of the premier powers in Japan.

Taking a Play from Nobunaga

A painting of the warlord Oda Nobunaga before going into battle at Okehazama

I’ve alluded to it above but there’s a vital learning here that we can take from the Battle of Okehazama. Simply put, you need to be able to tell if something is “above the bar” (i.e. good enough) or “below the bar” (i.e. not good enough) to  borrow Ray Dalio’s framework. In the example of the Battle of Okehazama, a defensive game plan of holing up at Zensho-ji would have eventually resulted in a guaranteed defeat at the hands of the Imagawa. In the words of Ray Dalio, it was by default below the bar even though it looks like the correct play at first glance.

Generally speaking, it is advantageous in life to focus on making conservative decisions that foster incremental gains. However, there will come times when even the most well laid plans lead to a guaranteed failure. Were victory at the Battle of Okehazama even remotely possible for Oda Nobunaga by defensive means alone, then it likely would have made sense to stay put at Zensho-ji rather than gamble on a risky raid. As I’ve mentioned time and time again though, Oda Nobunaga was faced with the unpleasant choice of an inevitable defeat or trying his luck with a roll of the dice.

To the extent possible, it’s best to avoid needing to rely on chance. Tragically though, every now and then life will present you with a sudden curveball where you need to throw caution to the wind and bet on the course of action with the highest probability of success. This of course necessitates that one grapple with the uncertainty of making a precarious ploy. Regrettably, in these instances, the steadfast alternatives are just below the bar and therefore guaranteed to fail. As Oda Nobunaga astutely realized during the Battle of Okehazama, sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and leave it all up to fate.

Inspired by Oda Nobunaga’s brave charge against the Imagawa, I’ve recently made up my mind to believe in my abilities and strike out on my own. For nearly a decade now, I’ve been collecting a decent paycheck while lazily coasting by at a Japanese PR agency. Though this has allowed me to throw money at traveling with reckless abandon, the lack of professional purpose has really been gnawing at my soul lately. I’m the type of person that needs to be pushing the envelope so working at a firm that isn’t aggressively looking to innovate is just below the bar for me.

Over the years that I’ve been with this traditional PR agency, I’ve often tried to change things inside the system so that we didn’t fall behind. While I’ve had a modicum of success adding digital marketing to regular PR scopes of work here and there, progress has always come at the cost of internal friction and many headaches. Though it’s been rather nice having a cushy job for life that allows me to invest in traveling, the sheer apathy here in regards to forward progress has left me feeling quite purposeless and depressed.

Given that we now live in a post-pandemic world, I realize that it might not be the best time to make major changes. Still, the alternative of not making a move is so far below the bar that I cannot really respect myself if I continue to choose safety and a guaranteed bad result. While the prospect of not knowing the future is indeed mortifying, it beats an ever-increasing feeling of depression and existential angst. I need a problem in my professional life that is worth getting out of bed in the morning for and I won’t find that where I am at now.

The Okehazama Battleground Today

A statue of Oda Nobunaga at the battleground of Okehazama

Before I wrap things up on this one, I just want to note that you can still actually visit the site of the Battle of Okehazama today. It’s located here on the Nagoya City border. There, you’ll find a park dedicated to this major turning point in Japanese history. While much of the area has been developed into residential housing, there’s ample signage in both English and Japanese that indicates important spots in relation to the Battle of Okehazama. You can even follow the route that the Oda used to sneak up on the Imagawa’s camp!

While I would only suggest visiting this part of Central Japan if you’re a real Warring State period (1467–1615.) fanatic, it’s still neat to know that you can explore where the Battle of Okehazama occured. That said, if you’re in Japan in early June, know that there’s an annual celebration held on the first Saturday and Sunday of the month to honor the anniversary of the Battle of Okehazama. This is complete with a three-hundred plus person re-enactment so don’t miss it if the timing works out for you!

Until next time travelers…