Why is Oda Nobunaga called “Nobunaga-sama”?

I love watching and reading works of historical fiction. What I love to do is use these works of historical fiction to learn something about its historical setting, then go research about it, and then watch or read it again with my newfound knowledge. The first is about discovery, and the second is an appreciation for its interpretation of history with an understanding of the creative liberties it took.

In particular, the Sengoku period (戦国時代) of Japanese history interests me. By extension, I find myself always drawn to historical fiction in this setting. But just the other day, I was watching the drama adaptation of a manga called “A Chef of Nobunaga” (信長のシェフ) for the second time and was enjoying it for a while when I realized… why do they call Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) as “Nobunaga-sama” (信長様)?


Calling someone by their first name in Japan requires a certain level of intimacy, otherwise you risk insulting them. A high-ranking lord is definitely not among the list of people I would expect to be called by their first name. So despite the usage of the formal honorific -sama (様), I couldn’t believe that people actually said “Nobunaga-sama”, whether it is addressing him directly or even just referring to him in conversation with others.

I did some research, and unfortunately, all English searches didn’t lead to anything substantial. I ended up in finding books and web pages explaining Japanese honorifics and titles, Japanese ranks, how to address the Imperial family, etc. Maybe my keywords were wrong. But I just couldn’t find information on how honorifics worked in the Sengoku period (I know the modern honorific -san (さん) was not in use at that time), or how people called each other back then.

After finding nothing, I turned to searching in Japanese. Considering the subject, this should have been my first choice, but English is always easier for me so I can’t be blamed for trying. My Japanese search turned up a lot of results and it seems this exact question isn’t exactly uncommon.

Names, Titles and Manner of Address

In the Sengoku period, people change their names multiple times throughout their lifetime. They have a childhood name (幼名、ようみょう), which is the name they are given from birth and which they use until their coming-of-age ceremony (元服、げんぷく).  After that, they will have a real name (諱、いみな or 実名、じつめい), as well as a pseudonym (仮名、けみょう or 輩行、はいこう). There are also people who have received a dharma name (戒名、かいみょう or 号、ごう). For example, Takeda Shingen’s “Shingen” is actually a dharma name, and his real name is “Harunobu”.

Despite the many names, people were usually called by the rank or office that they hold. And for people who didn’t hold any rank, they were called by their pseudonyms. Real names, on the other hand, were a representation of one’s self and others would not use it, as a sign of respect to that person. Calling someone by their real name is extremely rude and it almost never happened.

Nobunaga’s childhood name was Kipposhi (吉法師), his real name was Nobunaga (信長), and his pseudonym was Saburo (三郎). While he is often called “Nobunaga-sama” in works of fiction, this is most likely a creative decision to make things easier to understand for the viewers, and he was not actually called as such in his time. Along with the appropriate honorific, he would have been called as Kipposhi as a child and then Saburo after his coming-of-age ceremony. As a man of power, he was likely referred to by his rank. During his time as the Minister of the Right (右大臣), for example, he was called Ufu-sama (右府様), which I honestly do not know how to translate.

Due to the lack of documentation on women of the era in general, there is no hard evidence for naming customs in relation to females. But unlike the men, it seems they only had and used the name they were given at birth.

An unmarried women is called by her name along with the appropriate honorifics. After marriage though, a women can be referred to by the castle from which she originated or the castle to which she married into. For example, Chacha (茶々) was a privileged class lady and would have been called Chacha-himesama (茶々姫様) before she got married. However, after she received the Yodo Castle from Toyotomi Hideyoshi, she became known as Yodo-dono (淀殿) or Yodogimi (淀君).


In the end, I gathered all the above information in approximately 3 hours of reading web pages. This was all a matter of satisfying my curiosity and for now, it is sated. Information is by no means complete.  However, I did do my best to check for correctness.

If you find mistakes, please let me know!


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