*** A word on names: It was common for Japanese people during this period to use a number of names throughout their lifetimes. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was no different, his name evolving along with his social position. Though he did not begin using the name ‘Hideyoshi’ until 1562 and didn’t adopt the clan name ‘Toyotomi’ until much later in life, for the sake of avoiding unnecessary confusion, I have chosen to simply refer to him by the name he is most closely associated with: Toyotomi Hideyoshi. ***
From the mid 15th century to the end of the 16th century, Japan was characterized by endemic warfare on a massive scale. While the Emperors had notionally ruled Japan since the 8th century, in reality power was held in the hands of the Shogun, a position that might be considered a combination of Prime Minister and military dictator that was dominated by various dynasties. In the 15th century, power began to shift away from the Ashikaga Shogunate and into the hands of feudal lords known as Daimyos. In 1467, the Onin War erupted. Though it ended in 1477, the conflict ushered in a period of widespread warfare as warlords across the land fought for power among each other. Over time, the early, ‘petty’ daimyos who often controlled only a single castle were superseded by more powerful individuals that controlled entire provinces. Some of these warlords rank among the most famous and influential in Japanese history. Formidable men such as Takeda Shingen, Uesegi Kenshin, Mori Motonari and many others constantly battled each other, leading armies numbering in the tens of thousands. This was the Sengoku Jidai (Age of the Warring States) and it was during this period of strife that the man who would become Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born in March 1537, in Owari province on Honshu (the main island of Japan). His father, Yaemon, was a farmer who owned his own plot of land and had served the ruling Oda clan as an ashigaru, a common foot-soldier. Almost nothing is known about his childhood. Like many great heroes in Japanese history, there are stories of a child prodigy Hideyoshi organising the boys in his village in games of mock warfare.
Around 1551, Hideyoshi left his village for the life of a warrior. Interestingly, he did not enter the service of the Oda. Instead, he joined the household of a minor retainer of Imagawa Yoshimoto, the powerful daimyo of Suruga and Totomi provinces and the sworn enemy of the Oda.
Hideyoshi’s time with the Imagawa likely lasted a few years, but he soon returned to Owari. According to some stories, he returned to his home province with a sum of money that had been entrusted to him by his former master.
By 1558, it is known that Hideyoshi had entered the service of the young Oda Nobunaga, who had spent the years since his father’s death in 1551 disposing of his rivals within the Oda clan. By 1559, Nobunaga was the undisputed ruler of Owari province.
In the summer of 1560, Oda Nobunaga scored a spectacular victory over the invading Imagawa Yoshimoto, despite being outnumbered ten to one. In doing so, he cemented his place as a formidable military leader. It is not known for certain if Hideyoshi took part in this battle but it seems likely.
With Owari securely under his control, Nobunaga began to consider acting on his own ambitions. He began by turning his attention to the neighbouring province of Mino. The war against the Saito clan of Mino lasted several years but by 1567, Nobunaga had established control of the province. He now felt ready to march on nearby Kyoto. In 1568, Oda Nobunaga rode into the capital and succeeded where Imagawa Yoshimoto had failed. He installed the young Ashikaga Yoshiaki, a brother of a murdered shogun and cousin of the incumbent, as shogun. In reality, though, Yoshiaki was merely a figurehead. It was Nobunaga who exercised the shogun’s power.
It is in 1570 that Hideyoshi’s military career becomes more reliably recorded. During a campaign against Asakura Yoshikage, daimyo of Echizen province (just to the north of Kyoto), Hideyoshi is known to have commanded 3000 men within Nobunaga’s army. Clearly Hideyoshi had begun to show his abilities as a commander in the years prior. This campaign almost ended in disaster when Nobunaga’s brother-in-law, Asai Nagamasa, turned on him and threatened to trap the Oda army between two enemy hosts. However, Nobunaga was able to enact a rapid withdrawal from Echizen before it was too late. This was made possible by a successful rearguard action led by two outstanding commanders in Nobunaga’s service: Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Both men would shape the future of Japan.
Later that year, Nobunaga marched once more against the Asakura and the Asai.
Accompanying him were both Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hideyoshi, the former commanding an allied army and the latter leading the troops raised from Omi province. At the Battle of Anegawa, the three greatest names in early modern Japanese history fought alongside each other for the first time. The battle was a decisive victory for Nobunaga.
However, the anti-Nobunaga alliance was by no means defeated and the fighting continued for several years.
In 1573, Nobunaga defeated the Asakura and Asai once and for all. Hideyoshi, now among Nobunaga’s senior commanders, was rewarded for his service with the former territories of the Asai in Omi province. These lands had an assessed income of 180,000 koku of rice (one koku was the theoretical amount required to feed one man for a year). The son of a farmer, Hideyoshi was now a daimyo in his own right, though he was a vassal of Nobunaga. As was typical for such men, Hideyoshi ruled his province with considerable freedom in all matters except the making of war. For that, they were subservient to the will of Nobunaga. As daimyo, Hideyoshi gathered around him men he could trust, including his half-brother Hidenaga and several other members of his extended family. He organised a land survey of the province and parcelled out the land to the samurai that had joined his service. Many of these men would remain in Hideyoshi’s service for the rest of his life.
Over the next five years Hideyoshi continued to serve Nobunaga on campaign, including at the famous victory over the powerful Takeda clan at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 and the decisive defeat at the hands of the famous Uesugi Kenshin (considered among the greatest generals of the period) at the Battle of Tedorigawa in 1577.
However, it was in 1577 that Hideyoshi truly came into his own. As early as 1575, Nobunaga had been making plans for a campaign against Mori Terumoto, the only man who could rival him in wealth and power. The territory of the Mori clan and their allies encompassed the entire western peninsula of the island of Honshu. Their specialisation in naval warfare meant they dominated the Inland Sea. They had drawn Nobunaga’s ire when their ships broke the blockade surrounding the fortress of Ishiyama Hongan-ji, which continued to withstand Nobunaga’s siege until 1580, when it finally surrendered after 11 long years.
Nobunaga planned a two-pronged invasion. One army, under the command of Akechi Mitsuhide, would advance on the northern road along the Sea of Japan. The second force, led by Hideyoshi, would advance on the southern coastal road directly into the heart of Mori territory. This was Hideyoshi’s first truly independent command. Since by this stage Nobunaga preferred to delegate much of his military operations, Hideyoshi was essentially given free reign to conduct the campaign as he wished, as long as the objectives were met. When he commissioned his biography later in life, this was the moment he considered the true beginning of his story.
The first castle in Hideyoshi’s line of march was Himeji. Through the use of skilful negotiation, Hideyoshi was able to obtain its submission without any loss of life. The commander of that castle, Kuroda Yoshitaka, would serve Hideyoshi loyally for the rest of his life. The second objective was the fortress at Miki. Unlike Himeji, however, the siege at Miki lasted a full year before it was brought to a conclusion. Using a combination of force and persuasion, Hideyoshi managed to slowly but surely make his advance along the south road. Meanwhile, in the north, Akechi Mitsuhide’s campaign met with initial success but soon became bogged down in the face of dogged resistance to his siege operations.
In 1580, Hideyoshi was granted the two newly conquered provinces of Harima and Tajima as his domain, with his headquarters at Himeji.
His previous holdings in Omi province were transferred to another of Nobunaga’s generals. This was typical of Nobunaga’s relationship with his senior followers. They were allowed a great degree of independence in their provinces, but he regularly moved them around. In this way, they were, in spite of ruling their own territories, still dependent on him for their lands (i.e. power) and also served to discourage any excessively independent thought. In Hideyoshi’s case, the transferal meant more than ruling two provinces instead of one. Between them, Harima and Tajima stretched across the peninsula from the Inland Sea to the Sea of Japan. Hideyoshi now effectively commanded the entire front in the war against the Mori clan. Clearly, Oda Nobunaga recognized his abilities and trusted him to achieve victory against the most formidable foe of Nobunaga’s entire career.
With his base now close to the front lines, Hideyoshi was able to campaign more aggressively. In late 1580, he invaded Inaba province (on the Sea of Japan coast) and laid siege to the mountain fortress of Tottori. When his typical attempts at negotiation were rebuffed, Hideyoshi personally commanded the siege operations. The fortress was surrounded by siege fortifications, which cut the bastion off from any attempts to re-supply. Rather than assault the formidable fortress, Hideyoshi chose instead to simply starve the garrison into submission. To make sure there was absolutely no chance of any supplies being smuggled into the fortress, he even purchased all the available rice in the province at above the market price. Over the course of 200 days, the garrison slowly starved. Any who attempted to escape were shot by Hideyoshi’s soldiers. Finally, after supposedly resorting to cannibalism, the garrison commander agreed to surrender. One of the conditions was his own suicide. The Siege of Tottori was a clear example of Hideyoshi’s patience, stubbornness and his capacity for ruthlessness in pursuit of his goals.
In 1582, Hideyoshi marched along the Inland Sea coast through Bizen province, which he had brought into the Oda fold without spilling a single drop of blood. He entered the hostile Bitchu province and advanced on the fortress of Takamatsu (commonly referred to as Bitchu-Takamatsu to distinguish it from another castle of the same name). Initially, Hideyoshi attempted to bribe the garrison commander, Shimizu Muneharu, with a generous offer of control of the entire Bitchu province if he surrendered the fortress. His offer was rebuffed, likely because Muneharu knew Takamatsu lay in a very favourable position. The fortress was surrounded on three sides by hills, but these were too distant for use in siege operations. They also meant the castle could not easily be cut off from supply as Tottori had been. Lastly, unlike Tottori, Takamatsu was within easy reach of the Mori heartlands. If he so wished, Mori Terumoto could send a relief army without overstretching his resources.
Aware that his position was somewhat disadvantageous, Hideyoshi decided to change to lie of the land. Literally as well as figuratively. He ordered the construction of a massive earthen dyke (approximately 22m wide at the base, 7.3m high and 2.8km long) that diverted the flow of the Ashinorigawa (Ashinori River) and created an artificial lake. In the middle of this newly formed body of water lay Takamatsu. The dyke was completed in just 12 days and soon the rising water began to lap at the walls of the fortress.
Hideyoshi’s generals took up positions in the hills around the new lake and boat-mounted guns regularly bombarded the castle. Still, Muneharu refused to surrender, a fact that was of increasing concern for Hideyoshi. While the castle was completely cut off by the lake, his forces were now scattered in the hills nearby and could not quickly coalesce if needed. He would be extremely exposed if a Mori army arrived to break the siege.
When he received word that Mori Terumoto was indeed preparing such an operation, Hideyoshi sent an urgent request to Oda Nobunaga for reinforcements. This request would change both the course of his life and the course of Japanese history.
For Nobunaga, the request for aid was good news rather than bad. At long last, Mori Terumoto had been drawn into the open by Hideyoshi’s siege of Takamatsu. Now, Nobunaga was presented with the opportunity to meet the Mori in a decisive engagement and he was determined to grasp it with both hands. The impending confrontation would be of such significance that he decided to lead his army in person.
He dispatched several generals on ahead of him to prevent Hideyoshi being overwhelmed. Among these was Akechi Mitsuhide, who Nobunaga sent back to his domains in Tamba province (which was on the way to Bitchu) to gather his army. Nobunaga himself moved west to Kyoto where he intended to stay the night in the Honno-ji temple.
However, upon gathering his army 13,000 men, Akechi Mitsuhide marched not west but east. Back to Kyoto.
Mitsuhide’s captains were informed that they were to be inspected by Oda Nobunaga himself before marching to battle.
When they neared the Honno-ji temple, instead of forming up for parade, they were given the order to attack the temple. It was not an inspection, but a coup.
Nobunaga’s household guards were caught completely by surprise and were quickly overwhelmed. Oda Nobunaga himself fought like the devil before committing suicide, keeping his honour intact. But Nobunaga was not the only target for assassination that fateful night. His son and heir, the talented Oda Nobutada, was staying in the nearby Myokakuji temple and was also killed. In one fell swoop, Akechi Mitsuhide had apparently cut the head off the Oda snake. Nobunaga’s remaining sons were too far from Kyoto to respond effectively and were likely confused by the conflicting reports of what had actually occurred and who was involved in the conspiracy.
The only man in the region capable of responding in a meaningful manner was Tokugawa Ieyasu, but he had been visiting Nobunaga just days earlier and was separated from his army back to the east. When he did finally assemble his forces and march west, he was informed upon reaching Owari province that his services were no longer needed.
Akechi Mitsuhide was dead and Oda Nobunaga had been avenged.
Mitsuhide would have been keenly aware who the greatest threats to the success of his coup were. One was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was separated from his army. The other was Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Given Hideyoshi’s urgent request for reinforcements, it must have seemed to Mitsuhide that Hideyoshi was in great peril. If a Mori army were on its way, Hideyoshi would not have been able to abandon the siege of Takamatsu without catastrophically exposing his rear to an inevitable Mori attack.
Just to make sure there was absolutely no chance of Hideyoshi marching eastwards, Mitsuhide sent a messenger to Mori Terumoto informing the powerful daimyo that no Oda army was coming to reinforce Hideyoshi and Terumoto would be greatly rewarded if he finished him off for good.
By some stroke of fate, Hideyoshi intercepted Mitsuhide’s messenger. He immediately began negotiations with the Mori. He was prepared to make considerable concessions to bring the siege to sudden conclusion, including the immediate cessation of hostilities in return for the cession of just three provinces to Oda Nobunaga’s control. Given one of these provinces was already under Oda control, the fall of another was inevitable and the last one could easily be abandoned, it must have seemed to the Mori that Hideyoshi feared their power. They were completely unaware of the developments in Kyoto. If they had been, they may simply have crushed Hideyoshi without hesitation. The Mori agreed to Hideyoshi’s terms.
It was only after Hideyoshi had set off back to the east on June 25 that Mori Terumoto learned why his opponent was willing to make such significant concessions.
For Hideyoshi, time was of the essence. Speed was paramount. The longer Akechi Mitsuhide remained unchallenged, the more secure his position became. In two days, Hideyoshi and his army covered 62km from Takamatsu to his headquarters at Himeji. After a day of planning, he set off on a 80km forced march to Osaka, arriving on June 28. There he was joined by another of Nobunaga’s generals and, more importantly, Oda Nobutaka (Nobunaga’s third son). The presence of one of his murdered master’s surviving sons gave Hideyoshi the moral authority to do what he was about to do.
By June 29, Akechi Mitsuhide had learned of Hideyoshi’s approach and positioned his army near the village of Yamazaki. On July 2, Hideyoshi launched his assault against the Akechi position and, after a period of fierce fighting, routed the enemy army. Akechi Mitsuhide fled the battlefield only to be killed nearby by some bandits. His ‘rule’ lasted only 13 days.
Oda Nobunaga’s death left a huge power vacuum and, for his part, Hideyoshi was determined to fill it. A month after the assassination, all of his former vassals gathered to select at heir that was acceptable to all. Shibata Katsuie, Nobunaga’s most senior general and advisor, favoured the third son, Nobutaka. Others favoured the second son, Oda Nobuo.
Hideyoshi’s position as their fallen master’s avenger gave him considerable moral influence and he used it to full effect when he proposed a third candidate: Samboshi, Nobunaga’s three-year old grandson.
The council quickly agreed to recognize Samboshi as Nobunaga’s heir and, at a stroke, Hideyoshi had isolated the adult (and thus more inclined to independent thought) sons of his former master. They could now be seen as potential rivals.
Now, all Hideyoshi had to do was wait until one or both sons grew to hate him enough to act on it.
It was Oda Nobutaka who broke first. He bound Shibata Katsuie to him by marriage (to his aunt) and attempted to muster support, painting Hideyoshi as a servant trying to usurp his former master’s domains. In this, he was actually right. That was exactly what Hideyoshi planned on doing. Unfortunately, the generals that turned against him did not do so in a coordinated manner. Their efforts were isolated from each other and, one by one, they fell before Hideyoshi.
Still, the greatest threat to Hideyoshi remained intact. Shibata Katsuie, his sons and his allies still controlled a significant portion of the former Oda domains. Katsuie himself was based in Echizen province, to the north and within striking distance of Kyoto.
Unfortunately for Katsuie, Nobutaka made a serious blunder. He decided to make a move against Hideyoshi on his own before the snows that blocked the Echizen mountain passes had melted. Fully aware that Katsuie could not come to Nobutaka’s aid, Hideyoshi quickly marched on Nobutaka’s base in Gifu. Such was his reputation for conducting successful siege operations by any means necessary that Nobutaka immediately surrendered.
Rather than disposing of Nobutaka, Hideyoshi showed great restraint. He allowed Nobutaka to remain in Gifu in exchange for a pledge of loyalty. This represented a shift in the power dynamics. Nobutaka was required to swear loyalty to Hideyoshi. Suddenly it was the former vassal who was in control.
With the coming of Spring, the snows melted and the mountain passes opened. Freed from his prison, Shibata Katsuie led his army south but was blocked by a string of mountain fortresses. Hideyoshi marched to meet his opponent but soon had to turn around when word reached him that Nobutaka had rebelled once more. Hideyoshi rushed back and laid siege to Gifu. After hearing reports that Katsuie was on the verge of taking the last fortress blocking his path, Hideyoshi left 5,000 men under the command of Oda Nobuo (the third son) and marched the rest north to face Katsuie. Using an overnight forced march, Hideyoshi was able to achieve complete surprise and, in a confused, chaotic encounter sprawled across a mountain top, crushed Katsuie’s army at the Battle of Shizugatake in May 1583. Having served the Oda all his life, Shibata Katsuie had done his duty to his late master’s sons. He later committed ritual suicide, as did Oda Nobutaka.
In 1584, tensions between Oda Nobuo and Hideyoshi grew worse and worse. Nobuo began looking for someone to back his claim to his father’s dominions. He found that someone in Tokugawa Ieyasu, the last of Nobunaga’s former generals that posed a threat to Hideyoshi. The two generals met at the Battle of Komaki and Nagakute. For the first and only time in his career, Hideyoshi suffered a defeat, though it was far from a decisive blow and the campaign soon became a stalemate. Eventually, both armies withdrew. Tokugawa effectively abandoned Nobuo’s cause and Hideyoshi was quick to use the opportunity to deal with Nobuo without the interference of a third-party. He systematically took Nobuo’s castles in Owari province, managing to turn a defeat at the hands of Ieyasu into a victorious campaign.
Later, Hideyoshi married his sister to Tokugawa Ieyasu and, in 1586, Ieyasu pledged allegiance to the former farmer’s son.
1584 marked the year in which the power dynamic shifted once and for all. Hideyoshi finally threw off any pretence that he was acting in the interests of the Oda clan by making symbolic grants of land to both Oda Nobuo and Oda Samboshi. Now it was clear that it was the Oda who were his vassals, just as he had once been theirs.
At this point, either through his own rule, that of his vassals or his allies, Hideyoshi effectively controlled no less than 37 provinces. His position as the most powerful man in Japan was now beyond dispute.
But Hideyoshi was not yet finished. Japan was not yet unified.
In 1585, Hideyoshi launched his invasion of the island of Shikoku. Three separate armies totalling around 175,000 men landed in three different provinces on the island.
The Chosokabe clan, who had taken 25 years to conquer the island, was hopelessly outclassed. Their part-time samurai were amateurs in comparison to the essentially professional warriors that made up Hideyoshi’s army. While initially hostile to the idea of submitting to the invaders, Chosokabe Motochika eventually, grudgingly, surrendered. As a reward, he was allowed to keep one of the four provinces on Shikoku. The other three were given to Hideyoshi’s generals.
Towards the end of 1586, Hideyoshi invaded the great island of Kyushu. The ostensible reason for the expedition was to prevent the Shimazu clan from conquering the Otomo (and in doing so, gain control of the entire island).
To this end, Hideyoshi launched the largest military operation in Japanese history until the 20th century. A colossal host of 250,000 troops was split into two smaller but still massive armies. One, commanded by Toyotomi Hidenaga (Hideyoshi’s half-brother) advanced down the eastern side of the island, while the other, under Hideyoshi himself, advanced down the western side.
Initially, only Hidenaga faced any serious resistance, with Hideyoshi marching west virtually unopposed.
In June of 1587, Hideyoshi finally met opposition at the Battle of Sendaigawa, where there was fierce fighting before sheer weight of numbers forced the Shimazu to withdraw.
Soon after, the combined forces of Hideyoshi and Hidenaga surrounded the Shimazu fortress-capital at Kagoshima. Though their stronghold was among the most formidable in all of Japan, the Shimazu recognized the futility of resistance in the face of such overwhelming force and surrendered. As with the Chosokabe, Hideyoshi recognized that the provinces of Kyushu would be difficult to control from far away Kyoto, so he confirmed the Shimazu in their home province of Satsuma.
With the islands subdued, Hideyoshi now turned his attention to the east, where the powerful Hojo clan remained outside of his control. In 1590 Hideyoshi invaded Hojo territory, with the campaign culminating with the Siege of Odawara. There was little fighting during the siege and after three months the Hojo surrendered. However, the mercies of Shikoku and Kyushu were not for the Hojo, whose lands were confiscated and given to Tokugawa Ieyasu. These provinces would later prove to be the stepping-stone for Ieyasu on his own march to power.
Soon after, the daimyos of northern Japan, whose vast provinces represented a full third of the island, began to submit to Hideyoshi, one after the other.
By the end of 1590, Hideyoshi had succeeded in his dream. Japan was unified once more. After 123 years, the Sengoku Jidai finally came to an end.
However, Hideyoshi never assumed the position of shogun. It was certainly his for the taking, but it seems that decades of shoguns wielding little or no power had eroded the prestige of the position. Instead, he took the title of Imperial Regent, reviving an older position of power before it had been replaced by the shogun.
Before his death in 1598, Hideyoshi would begin the long process of centralising power, commission the first national Land Survey, establish a massive compulsory disarmament program (known as the Sword Hunt) and, through a series of edicts, solidify the rigid class system that would define Japanese society for the next 300 years.
All of these policies and more would be built upon by the later Tokugawa Shogunate and served to form the basis of the modern state of Japan.
Not bad for the son of a farmer.
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- Turnbull, Stephen. Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.
- Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Harvard University Press, 2002.