The Japanese warrior commander Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) completed the military unification of the country in the late 16th century and undertook two invasions of Korea in the 1590s.
The period of the late 15th century and the first half of the 16th is known in Japanese history as the age of provincial wars. During this time neither the ancient imperial court nor the shogunate (military government) of the Ashikaga family, both of which were located in Kyoto in the central provinces of the island of Honshu, exercised any significant control over the country, and fighting among warrior bands raged everywhere. Gradually, however, a group of daimyos (barons) began to impose their rule over extensive territorial domains, and by the mid-16th century much of the land was in their hands. From about the 1550s the greatest of these daimyos, having organized powerful armies composed of infantry as well as cavalry units, began to assert themselves more vigorously than before beyond their own domains, and soon they were engaged in what was clearly a competition to establish a new national hegemony.
The initial victor in this competition was Oda Nobunaga, a daimyo whose domain was located in the region of modern Nagoya. Judicious alliances with certain daimyos and successful attacks on others led to Nobunaga's triumphant entry into Kyoto in 1568. There he received imperial approval of his military exploits and, after abolishing the Ashikaga shogunate in 1573, removed all doubt that he alone was now the holder of real power in the central provinces.
Nobunaga assigned two of his leading generals, Akechi Mitsuhide and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to carry out the invasion of the western provinces of Honshu, where several powerful and especially recalcitrant daimyos had their domains. But in 1582 Mitsuhide, who had temporarily returned to Kyoto, suddenly attacked and killed Nobunaga. Mitsuhide, however, was unable to take advantage of the situation; for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, by far his superior as a commander, rushed back to the central provinces and destroyed him. With great suddenness Toyotomi Hideyoshi emerged both as the avenger of Nobunaga and as potentially the new hegemon of the country.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi's rise to power was one of the most striking examples of upward social mobility in premodern Japanese history. Born into a peasant family of the Oda domain, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had joined Nobunaga's army as a common soldier and had risen by sheer martial prowess to a position of command and territorial enfeoffment. Even before Nobunaga's death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had distinguished himself as probably the outstanding military tactician of the day.
Another important historical factor that contributed both directly and indirectly to unification was the arrival of Europeans in Japan. The Portuguese, who came in the early 1540s, were (so far as we know) the first non-Asians ever to set foot on Japanese soil, and they were followed within a few decades by the Spanish sailing out of the Philippines.
The Portuguese and the Spanish helped to spur a great expansion of maritime trade in East Asian waters during the 16th and early 17th centuries. Apart from missions dispatched infrequently to China, neither the imperial court nor (from the 12th century) the successive warrior governments of Japan had ever pursued overseas commerce with vigor. Private traders and pirate bands, working chiefly out of the harbors of Kyushu and the Inland Sea, had been intermittently active; but it was not until the time of Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi that, spurred on by the Europeans, the Japanese officially sponsored a policy of competitive foreign trade.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi probably had the strongest interest of any Japanese leader of this age in foreign trade. During his period of ascendancy, Japanese commercial vessels sailed as far afield as Malaya and Siam. Yet, interestingly, it was his desire for the profits from foreign trade that presented Toyotomi Hideyoshi with one of his most vexing problems; for the Europeans, with whom the Japanese exchanged on the largest scale, insisted upon combining business with Christian missionary activity, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi increasingly came to view such activity as dangerous and subversive both to his own rule and to Japanese society in general.
Nobunaga had actually encouraged the foreign missionaries, owing probably to his desire to check the militant Buddhist sects that opposed him, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi does not seem at first to have been particularly concerned about their presence in Japan. But in 1587, when he marched into Kyushu to bring that westernmost Japanese island under his sway, Toyotomi Hideyoshi appears to have become alarmed upon seeing at firsthand the territorial acquisitions of the Catholic Church in ports such as Nagasaki. In any case, he suddenly issued a decree ordering the missionaries to leave the country. Although Toyotomi Hideyoshi did not actually enforce this decree, and the missionaries before long openly resumed their activities, his act foreshadowed a growing animosity on the part of Japan's leaders toward Christianity that led ultimately to its proscription in the country in the early 17th century.
In 1590, three years after his campaign to Kyushu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed the unification of Japan by destroying the Go-Hojo of the eastern provinces of Honshu, who were the last great independent daimyo family that had not submitted to him. From this time on Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the undisputed military dictator of the land.
One of Nobunaga's most trusted allies was Tokugawa leyasu, a daimyo whose domain was also in the region near modern Nagoya. Ieyasu had performed invaluable service in protecting Nobunaga's rear when the latter had advanced to Kyoto, and he might well have been the one to succeed as national hegemon if Toyotomi Hideyoshi had not acted as quickly as he did to take control in the central provinces after Nobunaga's assassination. Toyotomi Hideyoshi never made an all-out effort to force leyasu to submit absolutely to him. Eventually he persuaded the Tokugawa chieftain to move to a domain in the eastern provinces, apparently to place him at a greater distance from the region of Kyoto and Osaka, where Toyotomi Hideyoshi maintained his own base. Yet this must be viewed as historical short-sightedness on the part of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, because the eastern provinces contained the most extensive agricultural lands in Japan, and they provided the wealth and power that ultimately enabled leyasu to take control of the country after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's death.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, because of his lowly origins, sought to improve his personal prestige in Japan's status-conscious premodern society by taking several high titles in the imperial court. These titles, however, had nothing to do with his real power, which was based entirely on his military achievements.
Among Toyotomi Hideyoshi's most important measures as central ruler of Japan were the implementation of a national land survey and the issuance of decrees that defined the social status and duties of the peasant and samurai classes. Many daimyos had already undertaken land surveys in their domains, but Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the first one in a position to order such a survey on the national level. The information thus acquired proved administratively invaluable to the governments of both Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867).
In the earlier centuries of the medieval age there had been no clear distinction between peasants and warriors. Many of the participants in civil conflicts returned to their fields as soon as peace was restored and had to be mustered again whenever fighting was resumed. With the acceleration of warfare during the 16th century, the various daimyos tended increasingly to gather their retainers in their castle towns in order to have them available at all times for service. But it was Toyotomi Hideyoshi who, in a series of decrees issued in the late 1580s, finally made into national law the formal division of peasant and samurai classes.
Peasants were obliged to relinquish all the weapons they possessed and were directed henceforth to remain in the countryside; samurai, on the other hand, were ordered to maintain permanent residence in the towns. Theoretically, there was to be no social intercourse whatsoever between the two classes, although in fact absolute division was never achieved. In some parts of the country samurai stayed on their farming lands, and the migration of peasants from the countryside to the towns was never completely checked. Nonetheless, the fundamental policy of separation of peasants and samurai and thus of rural and urban populations provided the basis for an extraordinary social equilibrium in Japan for nearly 3 centuries.
Shortly after completing unification of the country, Toyotomi Hideyoshi attempted to establish diplomatic relations with Korea and China. The former refused on the grounds that it was already bound by a subordinate, tributary relationship to China, and China simply rejected outright the proposal of an international relationship based on the concept (which was indeed utterly alien to the traditional Chinese world view) of "equality" with Japan or any other country. Thus rebuffed, Toyotomi Hideyoshi organized an invasion force of some 160, 000 men and dispatched it to Korea in 1592.
Yet it is most unlikely that Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to invade Korea solely because of his failure to establish diplomatic ties with either it or China. There is, in fact, good reason to believe that he was driven by the megalomaniacal desire to conquer new lands and that he used the rejection of his overture for such ties (which he fully expected to be rejected) simply as an excuse. He also no doubt saw the advantages to be gained in directing the fighting energies of an exceptionally large warrior class toward overseas aggression. Finally, Toyotomi Hideyoshi's great interest in the expansion of Japanese maritime trade may very likely have prompted him to seek by force from his continental neighbors what they were unwilling to allow him to acquire through peaceful trade.
Whatever the precise reasons for its dispatch, the Japanese invasion force (which Toyotomi Hideyoshi did not personally accompany) advanced rapidly up the Korean Peninsula. At the Yalu River on Korea's northern border, however, it was met by Chinese armies and, having over-extended its supply lines, was forced to pull back southward. Eventually the campaign had to be abandoned altogether.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent another force, in 1597, but this achieved little and was withdrawn upon Toyotomi Hideyoshi's death the following year. Thus the Korean invasions were utter failures and indeed constituted virtually the only major setbacks in Toyotomi Hideyoshi's otherwise brilliant military career.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi did everything on a grand scale. He built several great castles in the central provinces, including a mammoth structure in Osaka that is still an imposing sight in that city today, and had them lavishly outfitted and decorated. Even his entertainments, especially his famous "tea party" in Kyoto in 1587, were open to hundreds and even thousands of people.
In sharp contrast to the esthetics of the preceding age, which were based chiefly on Zen Buddhist principles of restraint and simplicity, the tastes of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and many of his contemporaries ran to the grandiose and the spectacular. This was no doubt in part a reflection of the new vigor and heroic spirit of the age of unification; but it was also a prelude to the new bourgeois culture that was to flourish in the urban centers of Japan in the next century.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi's final years were darkened not only by the failure of the Korean campaigns but also by his growing concern over succession to the leadership of the Toyotomi. Toyotomi Hideyoshi wished to bequeath his position as family head and national hegemon to his infant son, Hideyori (who was a mere 5 years old when Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598). Near the end, Toyotomi Hideyoshi made almost frantic efforts to extract pledges of loyalty to Hideyori from the various leading daimyos. He also appointed a board of five regents from among the leading daimyos to handle the affairs of government during Hideyori's minority.
Of the five regents, by far the most powerful was Tokugawa leyasu, who had established firm control over his new domain in the Kanto region, which was even more extensive than Toyotomi Hideyoshi's own. Upon Toyotomi Hideyoshi's death leyasu emerged as the unquestionably logical successor to the national hegemony, despite the arrangements made for Hideyori; and indeed the events of the next 2 years centered on the formation of two great daimyo leagues, the pro-leyasu and the anti-leyasu. In 1600 these two leagues met in a decisive battle at Sekigahara between Nagoya and Lake Biwa. Ieyasu's resounding victory in this encounter enabled him to found a shogunate that provided Japan with more than 2½ centuries of almost uninterrupted peace.
None of the great unifiers—Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, or leyasu—was a political innovator. Although, owing mainly to the coming of Europeans, they undoubtedly knew more of the outside world than any previous Japanese rulers, they still had no direct exposure to governing practices other than their own. Hence we should probably not be surprised that they put their respective hegemonies together almost exclusively on the basis of the time-honored procedures they knew as daimyos and did not attempt to establish a more centralized government in Japan.
Because of his early death Nobunaga was unable to complete the task that he had begun, and the greatest glory in the course of unification went to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. So spectacular were Toyotomi Hideyoshi's achievements in completing unification, in fact, that he has impressed many later historians as the greatest leader in premodern Japanese history. Although he failed to sustain the rule of his family as leyasu was subsequently to do for Tokugawa rule, it also seems likely that leyasu, on the other hand, lacked the military genius to have first accomplished military unification in the manner of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
A biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in English by Walter Dening, A New Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1904), is dated. Good accounts of the period of unification, however, can be found in George Sansom, A History of Japan (3 vols., 1958-1963), and in John W. Hall, Government and Local Power in Japan, 500 to 1700 (1966). Highly recommended for general information about the age, although they are more specifically concerned with the Western impact on Japan during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, are Charles R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 (1951; corrected 1967), and Michael Cooper, ed., They Came to Japan (1965).
Berry, Mary Elizabeth, Hideyoshi, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.