In the cruel and callous world of feudal Japan, the harsh reality was that Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born a nobody. He had no samurai lineage to speak of. He was supposed to be just another nameless grunt who did the bidding of his lord. We weren’t even supposed to remember his name, let alone deem him worthy enough of a Biographics article.
And yet, here we are, and right from the beginning, we get at the heart of what made Toyotomi so special. He was born a peasant and everyone expected him to die the same way since upward mobility was an almost alien concept in feudal Japan. But Hideyoshi was intelligent, shrewd, and hard-working, and he made perfect use of all of his skills, attaining a status considered unthinkable for someone of his station. He is now remembered as one of Japan’s three “Great Unifiers.”
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born circa 1536 in the village of Nakamura in Owari Province. Just a quick reminder, using Japanese naming conventions, Toyotomi was the surname, while Hideyoshi was his given name. Although he wasn’t actually called this until decades later when he founded his own clan, we are going to stick with it from the beginning to make it less confusing.
His birth name was Hiyoshi and he was the son of Kinoshita Yaemon, a farmer who also served as an ashigaru – a foot soldier from the lower classes who did all the military work that was unworthy of the samurai.
One of the downsides to being born a peasant (apart from the miserable living conditions, backbreaking labor, and short life expectancy) was that nobody considered you important enough to write down your history, which means that the first part of Toyotomi’s life is one big, ol’ question mark. One thing that we are familiar with, though, is the violent and bloody world that he grew up in – the Warring States or Sengoku Period of Japan. By that point, the power structure in Japan had fractured completely. There was still an emperor and a shogun, but neither one wielded sufficient authority to unite the entire country under their rule. Instead, power had been disseminated among dozens of lords known as daimyo, who had spent the last hundred years or so fighting with each other. It seemed that Japan was destined to carry on like this forever, if not for the efforts of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the other two “Great Unifiers” – Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
One thing the Sengoku Period did create was a constant demand for military work. If growing vegetables wasn’t your thing and you weren’t good at crafting anything, then the nearest daimyo always had a need for an extra body to arm and fling at his neighboring rival. The pay was usually better than that of a farmer and there was also the chance of promotion, so it is not surprising that many saw this as their best career option.
Given that his father served as an ashigaru, it made sense for Hideyoshi to follow in his footsteps. In 1551, when he was around 15 years old, he enrolled in the army of a daimyo named Imagawa Yoshimoto. This was an unusual move because it would have made more sense for Hideyoshi to join the Oda Clan. Not only was it the clan that ruled over his native Owari province, but it was also where his father had served as ashigaru. Who knows what Hideyoshi’s motivations were? Back then, ashigaru were more akin to mercenaries, who were only in it for the money and were quick to change allegiances, so maybe he thought that Imagawa had a better shot of coming out on top. Even so, after a few years in his army, Hideyoshi had a change of heart and, in 1558, he left Imagawa’s employ and joined the Oda clan which, at that point, was ruled by the ruthless and ambitious Oda Nobunaga.
Rising Through the Ranks
If you want an in-depth look at Nobunaga’s role in the unification of Japan, you can check out our Biographics video that we did on him a while back. Basically, he first fought his relatives for leadership of the Oda clan and, once he triumphed, he set his sights on the whole of Japan, which basically involved fighting all the other major clans, one by one.
We are not sure what role Toyotomi assumed in Nobunaga’s clan, but he certainly did not start out at the top. Some sources suggested that Hideyoshi was a construction supervisor, who oversaw the repair of one of Nobunaga’s castles, or a fuel supervisor, who made sure that all the various camps were adequately supplied with firewood. The most fanciful tale claimed that Hideyoshi served as Nobunaga’s sandal-bearer which, historically, was a pretty important position, since it always kept the servant in close proximity to his lord.
Whatever roles Toyotomi might have fulfilled, it seems that he impressed Nobunaga with his diligence and hard work. There is one story, probably made up, of Nobunaga waking up very early one bitterly cold morning and taking a walk through his castle to find that everyone was still sleeping soundly, wrapped up nice and snug in their warm beds. Everyone except for Hideyoshi, that is, who had already woken up and started working. This kind of dedication brought Toyotomi ever closer to Lord Nobunaga, who gave his servant the nickname “Saru,” which wasn’t exactly the most flattering compliment in the world but, then again, nicknames rarely are. Saru meant “monkey” and Nobunaga called Toyotomi this because he had a small, skinny body and an ugly face. Other lords used “Saru” as an insult against Toyotomi, but he rarely took exception to this. It would not have been proper since they outranked him, but his goal was to ensure that one day they would be the ones washing his feet.
We have to presume that Toyotomi fought in most of Nobunaga’s conflicts, starting with the Battle of Okehazama in 1560, where the Oda clan bested Hideyoshi’s former master, Imagawa Yoshimoto. However, he likely only fulfilled minor roles, which is why information of this period is scarce. Due to his small stature, it was evident that Toyotomi would not be best used as a simple rank-and-file soldier, which is why in the years that followed he was employed for subterfuge and diplomacy, which lined up better with Hideyoshi’s skill set.
During that time, Nobunaga was warring with the Saitō clan, which was ruled by the young and inexperienced Saitō Tatsuoki, who wasn’t really fit to stand in the grand shadows left by his father and grandfather. For Toyotomi, this was an opportunity to gain some allies without bloodshed, as he persuaded or bribed many of Saitō’s samurai and minor lords to switch sides to the winning team. He also oversaw the construction of Sunomata Castle, located on the border of the two clans, to act as a launching pad for his lord’s army. Toyotomi became quite adept when it came to constructing or repairing castles although, despite the popular legend that surrounds Sunomata, it was not actually built in a single night. It was effective, though, so when Oda launched his attack on the Saitō clan on September 13, 1567, he conquered his enemy following a short, two-week siege of Inabayama Castle. For his role in the victory, Toyotomi was promoted to general, officially becoming one of the Oda clan’s most valuable officers.
Becoming the Boss
With the help of skilled generals like Toyotomi Hideyoshi, during the 1570s, Nobunaga either subjugated or allied himself with around half the daimyos in Japan, while also marching on Kyoto and installing a shogun who acted as his puppet. It seemed like his conquest of the entire country would only be a matter of time, but Nobunaga’s leadership came to a sudden halt in 1582, following his betrayal and death at the hands of a retainer named Akechi Mitsuhide.
With Oda Nobunaga out of the picture, his goal of unifying Japan now fell to his trusted retainers, with Toyotomi Hideyoshi leading the pack. The first order of business was to punish Akechi for his treachery and avenge his former lord.
By and large, Akechi Mitsuhide’s plan was to unite the enemies of the Oda clan under his leadership and proclaim himself shogun, but he did not count on such a swift response from Hideyoshi. He thought that he had picked the time of his betrayal perfectly – not only was Nobunaga defenseless, but all his retainers were off fighting in faraway lands. However, as soon as Toyotomi heard of what had happened, he immediately understood that the longer he waited, the more time Akechi had to consolidate his position. Therefore, he ended his fight against the Mōri clan as fast as possible and rushed his army to Kyoto. Just 11 days after Nobunaga’s death, his betrayer and his avenger met in combat at the Battle of Yamazaki, concluding with the death of Akechi and the victory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Once that was settled, there was another important matter to determine – who would succeed as Oda Nobunaga’s heir? Toyotomi’s strength and his actions certainly made him a viable contender, but would that be enough to persuade all the other daimyos to pledge their allegiance to him? I think we all know the answer to that – of course not. For starters, Nobunaga had actual heirs – sons and grandsons who could carry on the Oda name. His eldest son and his original heir, Oda Nobutada, had died alongside his father, but that still left two other sons, Nobukatsu and Nobutaka, who both wanted to take over the clan. Toyotomi did not feel like either son was fit to take up their father’s mantle so, instead of supporting either one’s claim, he instead backed Oda Hidenobu, Nobunaga’s grandson, as the new leader of the clan.
Since Toyotomi was one of the most powerful men in the faction, many others lent their support to Hidenobu. There was one tiny problem, though, since Hidenobu was still a baby when his grandfather was killed. Therefore, although he was the heir, somebody else still needed to make all the important decisions. Now, who could that person be? Well, why not Toyotomi Hideyoshi? It was an obvious power grab, one that many other daimyos agreed with, but not quite all of them. If Hideyoshi wanted the position, there were a few people standing in his way.
First up was Shibata Katsuie, one of Nobunaga’s former generals who supported his third son, Oda Nobutaka, as the new clan leader. The two sides fought in May 1583, at the Battle of Shizugatake, which ended with a decisive victory for Toyotomi. Shibata committed seppuku following his loss, while Nobutaka surrendered and also killed himself a few months later.
With one pretender dead, this left the other son, Oda Nobukatsu, who also didn’t feel like giving up his birthright to an infant. There was one key difference, though. Nobukatsu had a very powerful ally – Tokugawa Ieyasu, another one of his father’s former generals. If that name is familiar to you, that is because we have already mentioned him as the third and final of Japan’s “Great Unifiers.”
Following Nobunaga’s death, Tokugawa and Toyotomi found themselves at odds with each other and met in battle several times during the mid-1580s, in what became known as the Komaki Campaign. However, they were evenly matched, both in terms of army size and military skill, and their encounters resulted in a series of stalemates. Fortunately, both men were sensible enough to realize that all they were doing was helping out their enemies and that the pyrrhic victor of their conflict would become easy pickings for the other daimyos who were gleefully sitting back and watching them tear each other apart. Therefore, the two made peace and Tokugawa willingly became a retainer of Toyotomi. Nobukatsu did the same. It wasn’t quite as willingly, but without Tokugawa’s support, he knew he had no chance of winning, so he hitched his wagon to the winning horse.
One final detail. Now that there was no more confusion about who the leader was, there was no point in pretending that the Oda clan was still in charge. Hideyoshi went to the emperor who, as we mentioned before, was a powerless figurehead, and got himself appointed as “kampaku,” which was something like a chief councilor or regent. The Imperial Court then bestowed on Hideyoshi a new clan name, and only now did he actually become known as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the founder of the Toyotomi Clan.
One Lord to Rule Them All
At the time of his death, Nobunaga had subdued roughly half of the provinces in Japan. Now that the Toyotomi clan was the most powerful faction in the country, Hideyoshi’s purpose became clear – conquer the rest of Japan. This challenge was more time-consuming than anything else. Toyotomi had the strongest army in Japan and also benefited from the endorsement of the Imperial Court, which conveyed his mission a certain air of authority, even though the emperor likely didn’t have a real choice in the matter.
This became Toyotomi’s main preoccupation for the next five years or so, starting with Shikoku Island. In June 1585, the clan leader invaded the island with a force of over 100,000 men that kept on growing as Hideyoshi added more provinces under his belt. The conflict was fairly one-sided and, within two months, Toyotomi brought the whole island under his control. Afterward, he extended his dominion over the eastern half of Honshu and the southern island of Kyushu.
By 1590, the only real threat to Hideyoshi’s hegemony left in Japan was the Hōjō clan in the Sagami Province. They were a formidable foe, as they had a large army and were headquartered inside one of the most secure strongholds in the country, Odawara Castle. But, of course, Toyotomi went this far, he wasn’t about to stop when he was just a few feet away from the finish line. In May of that year, he launched a three-month-long campaign to conquer this final adversary. It culminated with the Siege of Odawara which was, quite predictably, where the bulk of the Hōjō clan forces was concentrated. However, after a few months, when food and supplies started to dwindle, the enemy leader Hōjō Ujimasa committed seppuku and his clan surrendered. With this final victory, Toyotomi Hideyoshi accomplished something that was once thought impossible – he unified the whole country under his rule, bringing an end to the Sengoku Period of Japan.
For the time being, Toyotomi’s mastery over Japan was absolute, but he knew just how fleeting power could be. After all, his former lord was also on his way towards achieving this goal before one mistake ended it all for him. Therefore, Hideyoshi enacted multiple policies that all sought to limit the power that other people could achieve so that they would not become threats to him. He nationalized certain industries such as silver and gold mining to increase the country’s revenue and to prevent daimyos from gaining monopolies. He conducted a great land survey and census and then a country-wide disarmament campaign known as the Sword Hunt in order to keep the peasantry content, subservient, and, most importantly, defenseless. In the past, agrarian uprisings had been a common problem, so Toyotomi hoped that these measures would deter them or, at least, limit the damage they caused.
Some of these ideas, like the Sword Hunt, actually came from Nobunaga, who enacted them first, and Hideyoshi thought they were good enough to use for himself. Another measure he nicked from his former master was to move daimyos around the country from their original provinces. The reasoning behind this was that, if a daimyo was new to a place, the local populace would not feel a sense of duty and obligation towards him and were less likely to fight on his behalf. Hideyoshi also imposed restrictions on marriages between certain daimyo families, so that they could not form alliances.
Toyotomi was big on castles, ever since his time with the Oda clan. Osaka Castle is probably his crowning achievement, as the majestic fortress still stands today, located in the middle of the modern city. But Hideyoshi was also a prolific castle destroyer. He knew from firsthand experience how useful a castle in the right location could be in a battle, so once he was in power, he didn’t want them to be used against him, so he tore down his fair share of castles.
Lastly, we should talk about Toyotomi’s persecution of Catholics. This was still in the very early stages of Japan’s relationship with the West. Europeans had only arrived a few decades prior, but Hideyoshi was interested in trade, so Portuguese and Spanish merchants were welcomed to the country. However, with commerce also came Christianity, and Toyotomi knew that religious groups, if left unchecked, could become just as dangerous and powerful as daimyos. His former master had this problem with a Buddhist movement known as Ikkō-ikki, so Hideyoshi became wary when he heard that missionaries were acquiring significant territory, particularly in the port city of Nagasaki where the daimyo himself had converted to Christianity.
In 1587, Toyotomi issued a decree ordering all missionaries to leave the country, but it wasn’t enforced since he was still busy back then conquering the Japanese provinces. It wasn’t until a decade later that he passed a new decree and this time, to show he was serious, he crucified 26 Christians in Nagasaki, who went on to become known as the 26 Martyrs of Japan, a pivotal moment in the early history of Japanese Catholicism. Ultimately, though, Hideyoshi abandoned his goal of ridding Japan of Christianity for two reasons. One, he did not want the trade to stop, and two, he had his sights set on a new target – Korea.
Collision in Korea
So far, Toyotomi had proven himself to be a skilled and resourceful military leader, but like many before him, he became too drunk with power. Once Japan was under his dominion, he wondered “why stop at just one country when I could have an empire?” He looked across the water at the Korean Peninsula and developed lofty ambitions of conquering not just Korea, but China, as well. So with that in mind, in 1592 Toyotomi Hideyoshi sailed across the Sea of Japan and invaded Korea.
Despite being blinded by his military aspirations, Toyotomi did not turn into an idiot. He knew that war with Korea would likely mean war with China since the two dynasties had close ties to each other and the former was a tributary of the latter. He also knew that the Chinese army was a lot bigger than his, but he thought that he had picked his opportunity well because China was engaged in other major conflicts against the Mongols and several rebel groups. Therefore, the beginning of the war went in Toyotomi’s favor. Throughout the year, the Japanese forces successfully besieged and captured numerous prominent Korean cities such as Busan, Pyongyang, Daegu, and even Seoul, back then called Hanseong.
It was a promising start but, by the end of the year, China had managed to put out some of its own fires and was ready to commit its army towards stopping the Japanese invasion. Add to that the fact that Korea still had a strong navy and the tide began to turn. In 1593, it was the allied Chinese-Korean forces who started laying sieges to recapture their lost cities. Momentum was on their side until the Second Siege of Jinju, which was won decisively by Japan. The Japanese samurai showed their viciousness in full force here, as they took no prisoners and executed everyone in sight, soldiers and civilians alike, and sent tens of thousands of heads back to Japan as trophies for their lord who had stayed behind.
Around 60,000 people were killed at the massacre of Jinju, which represented the worst loss for Korea since the start of the war. Afterward, the two sides reached a stalemate and entered negotiations for a peace treaty. The Japanese army withdrew, but talks between the two sides weren’t going so well, mainly because Toyotomi’s demands were in line with that of a conqueror, and China would never agree to give him what he wanted. Ultimately, the talks broke down completely and Japan launched its second Korean invasion in 1597.
This one started off worse for Toyotomi because he no longer had the element of surprise on his side, but he was also losing a second battle, one that he had no hope of ever winning – that against Father Time. By this point, Hideyoshi was in his 60s and his health had begun deteriorating rapidly. In September 1598, the ruler of Japan was on his deathbed in his castle in Kyoto, seemingly regretting his decision to invade Korea. He died on September 18, aged 62, and his last words were reported to be “Don’t let my soldiers become spirits in a foreign land.”
This created a tricky situation regarding his succession because Hideyoshi’s son and heir, Toyotomi Hideyori, was just five years old when his father died. Hideyoshi tried to solve this issue by creating the Council of Five Elders, consisting of five of his most powerful daimyos who would act as regents. He hoped that this solution would prevent one man from trying to claim power for himself, but it did not pan out. One of the Five Elders was Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi’s former foe and ally. Decades earlier, Tokugawa agreed to cede authority to Toyotomi Hideyoshi for both of their benefits, but he was not about to do the same thing for some snot-nosed five-year-old. He challenged the claim and went to war against the Toyotomi clan, but that’s a story for another day…