Starting off as a simple peasant and sandal bearer of the Oda Clan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi progressively rose to prominence. His natural fighting skills and strategic military thinking gained him the praise of the warlord Oda Nobunaga, the first unifier of Japan, who made Hideyoshi into one of his key generals.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the successor of Oda Nobunaga and completed his master’s dream of unifying Japan, even expanding the country’s borders.
1. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Was Born a Peasant & Worked as a Sandal Bearer
We do not know much about Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s childhood. It is said that Hideyoshi’s father was a peasant of Owari Province who occasionally served as ashigaru, or foot soldier, in the Oda Clan armies. Tradition indicates that the future ruler of Japan was born in 1537 in Nakamura, under the name Hiyoshi-maru. As he was born a peasant, Hideyoshi had no surname.
It is said that he joined a temple in his youth but quickly abandoned this way of life. Hideyoshi then wandered into Imagawa territory, a rival clan of the Oda, and served some local rulers. Implicated in a robbery affair, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ran back to Owari in 1557 and joined the services of the Oda Clan as peasant and ashigaru during the Sengoku Jidai: the Warring Clans Period.
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Hideyoshi’s fighting skills were quickly noticed, and he was sent to serve directly under Oda Nobunaga, an ambitious young daimyo who was about to leave his mark in history. Under his service, Toyotomi Hideyoshi became his personal Sandal Bearer, which was considered a privilege among the ashigaru.
2. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Was General & Daimyo Under Oda Nobunaga
Toyotomi Hideyoshi distinguished himself in many aspects under Oda Nobunaga. He displayed strong organization and administration skills, which prompted the daimyo to appoint him as supervisor of the repairs of Kyosu Castle.
Hideyoshi displayed exceptional fighting skills at the Battle of Okehazama in 1560 against the Imagawa Clan, following which Nobunaga raised him to the rank of retainer and samurai. In 1561, he oversaw in a matter of days the construction of Sunamota Castle. This efficiency gained him even more admiration from his overlord.
Hideyoshi also distinguished himself as a diplomat. In 1564, he convinced a number of Mino Province samurais to turn on their daimyo and join the Oda. In 1567, he was behind Nobunaga’s victory at the Siege of Inabayama Castle. This final success saw him made into one of Nobunaga’s main generals.
In 1570, Toyotomi Hideyoshi heroically protected Nobunaga’s retreat after a defeat against his enemies and contributed greatly to the victory at the Battle of Anegawa. In 1573, Hideyoshi was made daimyo of three districts of the conquered Omi Province, where he dramatically increased firearms production.
3. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Avenged the Death of Nobunaga & Became Ruler of Japan
In 1582, Oda Nobunaga and his heir were suddenly betrayed by one of their main generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. After bravely fighting, the two committed seppuku.
At the time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was besieging Takamatsu, an important stronghold of the Mori Clan. Hearing of the betrayal of Akechi, he put his diplomatic skills to use by concluding an advantageous peace with his foes, all while keeping Nobunaga’s death a secret.
With his flank secured, Hideyoshi started a forced march towards Kyoto, walking 40 kilometers a day. He was joined by fellow general Niwa Nagahide and the second son of Nobunaga, Oda Nobutaka.
On 2 July 1582, Toyotomi’s and Akechi’s forces met at the Battle of Yamazaki. Being adept at using firearms, Hideyoshi decimated a charge of his rival and trapped him in a pincer movement. With his army in shambles, Akechi attempted to flee but was caught and killed by Toyotomi’s soldiers. Following this victory, Hideyoshi entered Kyoto and took Oda Nobunaga’s power for himself, ushering in a period of troubles.
4. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Was Made Kampaku
In early 1583, Toyotomi Hideyoshi summoned all of the powerful allies of Oda Nobunaga to Kiyosu Castle in order to determine who would rule the Oda Clan. The remaining sons of the previous ruler, Nobukatsu and Nobutaka, were entangled in a quarrel. Toyotomi and the Oda Clan elders chose Oda Hidenobu, the son of the demised Nobutada, to lead the Clan. Afterward, it was decided that the conquered territories would be divided among Nobunaga’s generals and that a council of four commanders would help Hideyoshi govern from Kyoto.
Tensions escalated quickly between Hideyoshi and the other members of the council. He even fought against fellow member Shibata Katsuie at the Battle of Shizugatake, which ended with Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s victory. A few days later, the rebellious general committed seppuku.
The second challenge to Hideyoshi’s rule came from Oda Nobukatsu and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The latter was a close friend and ally of Nobunaga and thus posed a serious threat to Toyotomi’s rule. The two forces met at the indecisive Battle of Komake-Nagakute in 1584. Hideyoshi reconciled with Nobukatsu and Ieyasu by sending his mother and sister as wards to the Tokugawa daimyo.
One year later, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was made the sole recognized ruler of Japan by becoming Kampaku: Imperial Regent. This action allowed his family to be elevated to the statute of Clan and get formal lordship over Osaka.
5. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Completed the Unification of Japan
Toyotomi Hideyoshi inherited control of central Japan from Oda Nobunaga. Nonetheless, some factions, such as the Negoro-gumi warrior monks, contested his authority. Thus, the kampaku besieged the religious order in Negoro-ji and Ota Castles in 1585, displaying brutality similar to that of his master in his campaigns against the Ikko-Ikki.
In the same year, Toyotomi’s forces sailed to Shikoku Island, dominated at the time by Chosokabe Motochika of Tosa Province. After a quick campaign, Motochika surrendered and accepted Hideyoshi’s rule.
During the summer of 1585, Toyotomi Hideyoshi oversaw the conquest of Eitchu and Hida Provinces, demonstrating strategic thinking that put even Oda Nobunaga to shame. In a matter of days, the two provinces were conquered and fully integrated into the Toyotomi realm.
Just a year later, in 1586, Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Kyushu, one of the largest islands of the Japanese archipelago, controlled by the Shimazu Clan. Hidenaga, the kampaku’s half-brother, landed on the eastern coast, while Hideyoshi attacked Chikuzen Province. The island was conquered in a matter of months.
In 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi conquered the Kanto region. He forced the Hojo Clan to surrender and recognize his rule by building the Ichigakiyama Ichya Castle near their main stronghold in record time. Following this campaign, all of Japan was firmly under Toyotomi’s rule.
6. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Engaged in Major Reforms & Persecuted Christians
In order to pacify the country, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered a “sword hunt.” Various shoguns and daimyos used this strategy to disarm their subjects in order to prevent unrest or outright rebellions. However, Hideyoshi’s sword hunt took unprecedented proportions.
In 1588, the kampaku forbade peasants and farmers from owning swords, confiscated weapons, and severely punished any who resisted. The weapons were melted to build a huge statue of Buddha.
Hideyoshi directly influenced cultural and ceremonial affairs. He ordered numerous changes to the traditional tea ceremony. In one of his outbursts in 1591, he ordered Sen no Rikyu, a famous tea master, to commit suicide. Nonetheless, Hideyoshi supervised many projects inspired by Rikyu’s aesthetic.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi also took a direct interest in Noh, the Japanese dance-drama art. He enforced the tradition of daimyos leading some of the plays. He himself memorized numerous leading roles and performed them in front of the emperor.
Hideyoshi barely tolerated religious diversity. In 1587, he banished Christian missionaries from Kyushu Island and started treating Christian daimyos with suspicion. In the latest years of his rule, he tortured, mutilated, and paraded through many towns 26 Catholic Christians, including six foreign missionaries and several young children. Remembered as the 26 martyrs of Japan, they were crucified in February 1597 in Nagasaki. This was made to discourage conversion to Christianity among the Japanese.
7. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Strongly Worried About His Succession
Hideyoshi’s son, Toyotomi Tsurumatsu, died in September 1591. Then, the future of the Toyotomi dynasty was put even more in jeopardy when Hideyoshi’s half-brother, Toyotomi Hidenaga, died shortly after. Thus, in January 1592, Hideyoshi named his nephew, Toyotomi Hidetsugu, as his successor and gave him the title of kampaku. He became the taiko (retired regent), but it was clear that he was the real power behind the new official ruler.
Hideyoshi’s second wife, Yodo-dono, gave birth to another son in 1593: Toyotomi Hideyori. Deeply worried about the safety of his newborn, the taiko started displaying major signs of paranoia. He ordered that his nephew and heir, Hidetsugu, abandon his title and go into exile on Mount Koya. In 1595, Toyotomi ordered that Hidestugu and all of his relatives commit suicide; those who refused were prosecuted and murdered, including women and children.
In addition to his random rage fits, Hideyoshi’s paranoia was a significant foreshadowing of his slow descent into madness. The man who completed the work of Oda Nobunaga was about to turn into an outright mad tyrant whose actions would bring Japan to the brink of collapse.
8. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Attempted Two Invasions of Korea
Toyotomi Hideyoshi dreamed of conquering China. He believed that to achieve this objective, he had to go through the Korean Peninsula, ruled by the Joseon Dynasty at the time. Twice, he tried to persuade Korea to allow him safe passage through their lands, and twice he was refused. Frustrated, Hideyoshi ordered the preparation for an invasion in 1591. This was the beginning of the Imjin War.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi appointed Ukita Hideie as general commander of the invasion, and in April 1592, he ordered him to set sail. In four months, Japanese land forces overran Korean positions and occupied much of the country, including Seoul and Pyongyang.
In 1593, King Seonjo of Joseon sent a call for aid to his overlord, Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in China. The latter answered by sending a force of 43,000 men led by Lee Ru-Song who managed to recapture Pyongyang. Nevertheless, the Japanese managed to repeal the Chinese offensive near Seoul at the Battle of Byeokjegwan.
Japan was victorious on land. But, on the sea, and against all odds, the illustrious Admiral Yi Sun-sin managed to cut off Kyoto’s supply lines. The Korean Navy then proceeded to destroy the Japanese Naval Forces in a succession of spectacular battles.
By the end of 1593, Japan started to withdraw from Korea, and negotiations began between Kyoto and Ming China, with both sides declaring victory. From 1594 and 1597, embassies conveyed wrong messages, insisting on their respective rulers that the enemy surrendered and even accepted being the other’s vassal.
In late 1597, hostilities were resumed, and this time Toyotomi appointed Kobayakawa Hideaki to lead the armies. However, the Japanese land force was less successful than the previous offensive. The Koreans and Chinese managed to pin down Kobayakawa in Gyeongsang Province and stop any further expansion despite suffering numerous setbacks while trying to totally dislodge the Japanese from the peninsula.
The final strike came from the sea. Admiral Yi Sun-sin inflicted defeat after defeat on the Japanese, rendering their position in Korea untenable. By the second half of 1598, Japan’s land army was cut off from supplies, and the navy was severely maimed. Nonetheless, Toyotomi refused to admit defeat.
9. Toyotomi Hideyoshi Died Delirious & Left Behind a Weakened Country
The catastrophic news from Korea did no good to Hideyoshi’s growing paranoia. Uncontrolled rage fits were the norm for his close servants. The Imperial Regent became increasingly delirious, and soon, he fell terminally ill.
Seeing his death coming, Toyotomi Hideyoshi named a council of five elders to assume regency while his son Hideyori was still underaged. This council consisted of Mori Terumoto and Uesugi Kagekatsu, the unfortunate commanders of the Korean Campaign, Ukita Hideie and Kobayakawa Takakage, and the infamous Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in September 1598, leaving the Toyotomi Clan coffers empty due to the ongoing conflict with Korea. The ruling council quickly recalled their remaining soldiers from Korea, thus ending the Imjin War.
In the next few years, the council members turned on each other. Tokugawa Ieyasu managed to come out on top in the confrontation that followed. He then established the Tokugawa Shogunate, starting the Edo period. The Tokugawa Clan ruled Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Despite his shortcomings, Toyotomi Hideyoshi is still celebrated today as the second great unifier of Japan, alongside Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.