Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Bounty of the Sun

By BastWorshiper | Forum thread

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the second of the three leaders who progressively united Japan at the end of Sendoku Jidai period. Hideyoshi rose from obscurity as the son of a peasant to become one of the chief retainers of Oda Nobunaga and a powerful daimyo. Through clever military and diplomatic maneuvers, he achieved Nobunaga’s vision of a united Japan and effectively ended the Sendoku Jidai period; and he introduced social reforms that survived many centuries after his death.

Little is known of Hideyoshi’s early life. Tradition states that he was born in 1536 in a village in Owari province called Nakamura. His father was a peasant farmer and part-time soldier who had fought for the Oda. He did not receive the name by which he is commonly known until later in life. He was named Hiyoshimaru at birth, which translates to “bounty of the sun.” However, since Hideyoshi created the story of his early life, it seems likely that he chose this name to justify the power he gained by hinting at divine inspiration. His father died when he was around seven years old, leaving his mother, sister and himself to subsist on what little they could grow or catch.

His mother remarried and Hideyoshi was shipped off to a Buddhist temple where he learned to read and write. He worked for various craftsmen but could not maintain interest in any job and did not stay with any one profession for long. He was unable to get along with his stepfather; so he left home and meandered through the Imagawa provinces working odd jobs. He became a servant at a castle of the Imagawa family at around 15 years of age, where he learned kendo (fencing with a bamboo sword) and read many Chinese classics, including Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which became valuable when his real career began.

In his early twenties, he stole some money that was entrusted to him and returned to his home province, where Oda Nobunaga had risen to power, because it is probably good practice to not stick around after stealing a large sum of money from a powerful Japanese noble. In addition, Nobunaga did not care for rank and title and promoted men based on merit. Hideyoshi went to work for him, and worked hard at all tasks given. Hideyoshi drew the attention of Nobunaga, who called him “monkey” or “bald rat” (presumably due to Hideyoshi’s rather homely appearance), by improving efficiency in the castle and saving him money. He became involved with the rebuilding of Kiyosu castle where he acted as foreman. He was rewarded with a house of his own and became one of Nobunaga’s sandal bearers. Now, I’m not entirely sure what a sandal bearer does – I suspect it has something to do with carrying shoes – but it doesn’t sound that impressive. Nevertheless, it was apparently a great honor. Nobunaga also gave Hideyoshi command of a small group of soldiers.

When you rule the entire country and still cannot produce an attractive portrait….

His command grew as a result of a series of successes. Hideyoshi showed that, unlike Nobunaga who addressed all troubles with force, he had learned the value of passing money into the right hands and industriousness. He bribed a bunch of Mino warlords to abandon the Saito resulting in an easy victory for the Oda in 1564. He and his men then built a fortress just a couple of miles from the castle at Inabayama in a week. By the time he was attacked the fortress was secure giving him the protection he needed to capture the castle which he attacked from behind after probably paying someone off to gain knowledge of the secret route. Once he controlled the castle, he was able to capture the whole province. Nobunaga rewarded Hideyoshi with the castle, to which he relocated his mother and his wife, Nene.

A few years later, Hideyoshi was a general commanding 3,000 soldiers, and he was active in Nobunaga’s campaigns against the Asai and Asakura. When the Oda defeated the Asai in 1573, Nobunaga gave several of the former Asai provinces to Hideyoshi. Now, Hideyoshi was a daimyo. He located his base at a port on Lake Biwa, called Nagahama (or Imahama, depending on source), where he addressed domestic concerns. He exempted merchants and craftsmen from taxes, to draw them into his provinces, and began a detailed survey of the land, to foreshadow the social reforms he would institute when he would control Japan.

Hideyoshi’s golden gourd standard

In 1576, the Oda engaged in a war with the Mori, who were the most powerful faction in western Japan. Nobunaga sent two of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide and Hideyoshi, along separate campaign routes to reduce the Mori holdings. The Mori daimyo, Terumoto, was a cautious leader and offered little resistance to Hideyoshi as he bribed or captured Mori territories, even though Hideyoshi was frequently outnumbered.

In 1582, Hideyoshi entered Bitchu province and laid siege to the castle at Takamatsu. He was concerned that Terumoto would eventually attack him in force; so he chose to drown the castle, rather than execute a conventional siege. Hideyoshi dammed seven rivers and redirected their flow into the plain upon which the castle sat. Within weeks, Takamatsu castle was a tiny island in a large lake, which is pretty awesome; and Hideyoshi bombarded the castle from the surrounding lake from stone towers on barges. Mori eventually did bring a large force, but they were more than a little confused by the view that greeted them and held up to see what would happen to the newly formed stone island.

Valuable waterfront property

Hideyoshi requested reinforcements from Nobunaga, who sent Akechi Mitsuhide and also led an army himself. However, it seems Mitsuhide decided he had more to gain by attacking Nobunaga than reinforcing Hideyoshi; so he betrayed Nobunaga who was killed by Akechi troops near Kyoto. Mitsuhide dispatched a message to the Mori, but the message was intercepted by Hideyoshi. He and another of Nobunaga’s chief retainers, Shibata Katsuie, both stood to benefit from avenging Nobunaga’s death, depending on who could get to Mitsuhide first. Both would have to extricate themselves safely from their respective campaigns before marching their armies to Kyoto.

Hideyoshi was in the better position, but he could not leave the Mori; and they would not negotiate until the castle at Takamatsu fell. Hideyoshi would need Shimizu Muneharu to surrender Takamatsu and would need to force the capitulation of the Mori before Teremoto learned of Nobunaga’s death. He was able to do both and then quick-marched his army to Kyoto, picking up additional troops along the way. With twice as many men as Mitsuhide, the two armies engaged at Yamazaki, where Mitsuhide’s army was routed in about two hours. Hideyoshi’s army was able to crush the Akechi coup in about 11 days, while Oda’s other generals were still en route to Kyoto. As a result of his quick diplomatic and military maneuvers, the honor of avenging Nobunaga’s death belonged solely to Hideyoshi, and he presented the head of Akechi Mitsuhide at Nobunaga’s funeral.

A couple of weeks later, in mid-July of 1582, Hideyoshi had a commanding position at a meeting of Nobunaga’s remaining sons and generals to choose an heir. Shibata Katsuie supported Oda Nobutaka, Nobunaga’s third son. Hideyoshi, however, argued that according to Oda family laws, the proper successor was the three-year-old son of Nobunaga’s deceased eldest son. The divisive issue resulted in war between Hideyoshi and other supporters of the succession of Oda Samboshi and an alliance between Shibata Katsuie and Oda Nobutaka. Katsuie tried to gain the support of the Mori against Hideyoshi but failed, probably due to the fact that Hideyoshi was willing to allow the daimyos to retain their lands, as long as they deferred to him, unlike Nobunaga, who chose to conquer all.

In December, Nobutaka prematurely defied Hideyoshi resulting in open war. Hideyoshi’s ally, Nobunaga’s second son, was able to surround Nobutaka’s castle and force his surrender. Hideyoshi then attacked Katsuie’s army before they were ready for battle forcing Shibata’s surrender. In defeat, both Shibata Katsuie and Oda Nobutaka committed seppuku. This secured the succession of Oda Samboshi. However, Hideyoshi was then the de facto ruler of Japan. Not bad for a farm boy.

Hideyoshi’s best samurai warlord impression.

The Emperor, Go-Yozei, appointed Hideyoshi as regent in 1585 and also conferred upon him the family name, Toyotomi, which means “bountiful minister.” He was nearly 50 years old before he attained the name by which we know him today. As regent, Hideyoshi began enacting the social reforms on a national level, which he had enacted in his own provinces, when he was a daimyo. He began a national land survey to determine the size and value of farmer’s lands and created a system by which no one could farm land without the approval of the central government. It created a regulated tax structure to support the daimyos who, in turn, provided soldiers and laborers to Hideyoshi.

Hideyoshi conquered the island of Kyushu in 1587, where he left the defeated daimyos in control of several territories. Thus, he converted defeated enemies into grateful allies. He was, however, concerned with the influence of the Christian missionaries. He did not want the missionaries to gain the power that the Buddhist monks had acquired before Nobunaga had defeated them decades before. While he did not prohibit individuals from converting to Christianity, he banished all of the Christian missionaries. He did not actively enforce the banishment, but it forced them into hiding, preventing the missionaries from getting involved in politics as the monks had done.

He continued, however, to support trade with the Portuguese merchants. He continued Nobunaga’s policies of promoting free trade by abolishing toll barriers as well as guild monopolies. He prohibited farmers, merchants and priests from owning weapons and confiscated swords, bows and matchlocks. Samurai were then given the choice of retaining their land or their swords; so most relocated to castle towns. By disarming the countryside, travel through Japan was safer; and as a result of the samurai moving to castle towns, the commoners had greater control over their lives. The new social order that resulted from Hideyoshi’s repressive laws remained remarkably stable for nearly 300 years.

In 1590, Hideyoshi forced the surrender of the Hojo, the last defiant clan; and within a few months all the daimyos of Japan had pledged their loyalty to Hideyoshi. Japan was finally united under the rule of a man who had risen from peasant origins to become the de facto ruler of all of Japan. It may be history’s greatest rags-to-riches story.

In his later years, there is evidence he may have lost his psychological balance, though. He had about twenty-five Christians, Franciscan priests and many converts, executed, mutilated and crucified upside-down. However, the priests were openly preaching in the streets, ignoring Hideyoshi’s expulsion order; and it’s possible he was just reminding them to keep their heads low, since Christians such as the Jesuits who practiced quietly were not bothered. He also launched two invasions of mainland Asia in an attempt to conquer China. Both campaigns began with an invasion of Korea, and both ended in disaster and utter defeat, the second being somehow more disastrous than the first.

Korean vacation

In 1598, Hideyoshi became ill and summoned his five most powerful daimyos to swear allegiance to his five-year-old son, Hideyori. He chose Tokugawa Ieyasu as Hideyori’s guardian, which may not have been the smartest decision. Within two years of Hideyoshi’s death, Ieyasu was the undisputed ruler of Japan. He waged a war against his ward, Hideyori, and upon defeat Hideyori committed seppuku. Hideyori’s suicide ended Hideyoshi’s line as he was left with no other descendants.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the first man to unite Japan under a single ruler, and his rule ended the warring states period. Despite his disastrous attempts to invade mainland Asia, he proved himself a gifted military tactician in his campaigns in Japan. He was clever enough to use diplomacy to gain the allegiance of the most powerful daimyos and secure his rule. He enacted social reforms which, while restrictive, resulted in a stable social system that lasted centuries. The unification of Japan created nationwide trade and greater prosperity for all of Japan. The growth of cities resulted in higher literacy rates which led to Japan’s rich culture in succeeding centuries and contributed to the rapid industrialization of the 19th century. While certainly an imperfect figure, Hideyoshi’s contributions to the development of Japan cannot be understated.