Toyotomi Hideyoshi: How an Adventuresome Peasant Boy Became Japan’s Second Great Unifier
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a powerful Japanese daimyo (feudal lord) who lived during the 16th century. He is regarded as Japan’s second ‘great unifier’, the first being Oda Nobunaga, and the third being Tokugawa Ieyasu. Hideyoshi’s life story is quite remarkable, as he was born into a peasant family, but eventually rose to become the most powerful man in Japan.
A Youthful Hideyoshi Searches for Adventure
Little is known about Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s early life. He is recorded to have been born in 1537 (some sources have 1536 or 1539) in Nakamura, Owari Province. His father, a man by the name of Yaemon, was a farmer / ashigaru (foot soldier) who served the Oda clan. As a young boy, Hideyoshi was sent to a temple to study. This type of contemplative life did not suit him, however, and Hideyoshi ran away to lead a life of adventure. According to some sources, Hideyoshi’s father died when he was seven years old, and his mother remarried a man who also served the Oda clan.
Hideyoshi first came into the service of Matsushita Yukitsuna, a retainer of the Imagawa clan in the Totomi Province. He then went to the Suruga Province to serve Yukitsuna’s lord, the daimyo Imagawa Yoshimoto. Having served the Imagawa clan for several years, Hideyoshi decided to return to his home. According to some sources, Hideyoshi had absconded with a certain amount of money that was entrusted to him.
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100 Aspects of the Moon #7, Inaba Mountain Moon - The young Toyotomi Hideyoshi leads a small group assaulting the castle on Inaba Mountain (Yoshitoshi, 1885). ( Public Domain )
In 1558, Hideyoshi was back in the Owari Province, and he offered his services to Oda Nobunaga as a lowly servant. According to popular tradition, Hideyoshi became one of Nobunaga’s sandal-bearers, and was present at the Battle of Okehazama in 1560. During this battle, the much smaller force of the Oda clan ambushed and defeated the army of Imagawa Yoshimoto. In addition, Yoshimoto himself was killed during the battle, thus paving the way for Nobunaga’s rise to power.
Hideyoshi Gains Power
Whilst Hideyoshi is said to have served the Oda clan in various capacities over the next decade, he only definitively appears in the historical records in 1573. In that year, the Asai clan of Omi was destroyed by Nobunaga, and Hideyoshi was awarded three districts in the northern part of that province. In the following years, Hideyoshi continued to serve Nobunaga, both as a military commander and as an administrator. In 1582, Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, which resulted in the former committing suicide at Honno-ji, a temple in Kyoto. Shortly after this, Nobunaga was avenged when Hideyoshi defeated Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi on his horse. Note his unique helmet. ( Public Domain )
Nobunaga’s death brought a succession crisis in the Oda clan, as different members of the family were supported by different retainers. Hideyoshi himself supported Nobunaga’s grandson, Oda Hidenobu. He clashed with other retainers, such as Tokugawa Ieyasu, who supported Nobunaga’s oldest surviving son, Oda Nobukatsu. In the end, however, Hideyoshi prevailed, and Hidenobu became the new daimyo of the Oda clan.
Nobunaga’s true successor was in fact Hideyoshi, as Hidenobu was but a mere child when he was appointed as the head of his clan. One of Hideyoshi’s biggest rivals was Shibata Katsuie, another of Nobunaga’s retainers. With the defeat of Katsuie at the Battle of Shizugatake in 1583, however, Hideyoshi was able to remove this obstacle. Another of Hideyoshi’s adversaries was Tokugawa Ieyasu, whom he fought in 1584. This conflict, however, ended with a truce, and an alliance was even formed between the two men.
Image said to represent Toyotomi Hideyoshi ( Public Domain )
Hideyoshi’s Big Plans
In the same year that Katsuie was defeated, Hideyoshi began the construction of a castle in Osaka. This was meant to symbolize his power, as well as his ambition to rule the whole of Japan. This reunification of Japan would eventually be accomplished in 1590, following the destruction of the Hojo clan, which was centered on Edo (modern day Tokyo).
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Toyotomi Hideyoshi. ( Public Domain )
But Hideyoshi’s ambitions were not limited to Japan. He is reported to have had plans to bring Korea, China, and even India under Japanese rule. Although two military campaigns were launched against the Koreans, both ended in failure.
In 1598, Hideyoshi died at the age of 62. Although Hideyoshi was disturbed by the setback faced by his forces his Korea, his greatest concern as he lay dying was in fact the fate of his successor, his five-year-old son, Toyotomi Hideyori. Hideyoshi did all he could to ensure that his son would take his place when he came of age. Nevertheless, the Toyotomi clan was near the end of its fortunes, and it was soon the turn of the Tokugawa clan rule Japan.
Houkokubyo (Mausoleum of Toyotomi Hideyoshi) Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top image: A portrait of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Toyotomi-Hideyoshi