Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

The second great unifier of Japan spent much of his life in Ōmi.

place Area: access_time Published: 2020.12.28

Name in Japanese: 豊臣 秀吉
Dates: 1537 – 1598

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the second of three samurai warlords from the Nagoya area who worked successively toward the unification of Japan by force. He was proceeded by Oda Nobunaga and succeeded by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Although he was from Owari Province, he played an important role in the history of Ōmi, so here we’ll look at the part of his career spent in this region.

Little is known about his youth, although his father was an ashigaru, a peasant foot-soldier in Owari Province, today’s Nagoya. Taking the name Kinoshita Tōkichirō, he too became a foot-soldier, eventually serving as a page to Oda Nobunaga. He showed his worth in battle and then as a negotiator in Nobunaga’s regional diplomacy. The then Tōkichirō used bribery and other blandishments to persuade vassals of Nobunaga’s rival clans to defect, making it easier to defeat the weakened rival.

Having achieved the status of one of Nobunaga’s trusted commanders, he took a new name, Hashiba Hideyoshi, borrowing parts of the names of Nobunaga’s two leading generals, Niwa Nagahide and Shibata Katsuie. Hideyoshi would later eclipse Nagahide in political power, and defeat Katsuie in battle at Shizugatake in Ōmi.

Hideyoshi’s master Nobunaga came into conflict with the Asakura clan of Fukui who were allied with the Azai of Ōmi. In 1570 when Nobunaga successfully took an Asakura fortress in their home territory, he faced attack by both the Asakura and Azai, and Hideyoshi covered Nobunaga’s retreat to safety. Later that year, in Ōmi, the home territory the Azai, Hideyoshi led Oda forces at the Battle of Anegawa, where Nobunaga allied with Tokugawa Ieyasu. At the Siege of Odani Castle, the base of the Azai clan, Hideyoshi led the final attack on the fortress that led to the extinction of the Azai.

As a reward for his successes, Nobunaga made Hideyoshi lord of three districts of northern Ōmi Province in 1573. For a while, Hideyoshi made Odani Castle his base, but preferring to be close to Lake Biwa, he soon moved to Kunitomo, home to Ōmi’s gun making industry, which he expanded significantly. Hideyoshi then began building a major castle slightly north of Kunitomo at the port of Imahama, which he renamed Nagahama to honour Nobunaga. From his base at Nagahama, Hideyoshi continued to participate in Nobunaga’s campaigns, battling the Takeda and Mōri clans.

Around this time, while Hideyoshi was out hunting with falcons, he stopped at a temple in Nagahama for refreshment and was served tea by the teenage Ishida Mitsunari. He was so impressed by the boy’s finesse that he took him on as a page. Mitsunari would continue to serve the Toyotomi loyally even after Hideyoshi’s death, fighting to preserve the Toyotomi line at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

In 1582, Oda Nobunaga was attacked and killed at Honnō-ji temple in Kyōto by the forces of one of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Mitsuhide also killed Nobunaga’s eldest son Nobutada. Hideyoshi took quick action to avenge his lord and secure the succession for himself. He made peace with the Mōri clan and thirteen days later defeated Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki, between today’s Ōsaka and Kyōto.

In 1582, Hideyoshi began building Ōsaka Castle. But while his position was strong, it was not entirely secure, and he was obliged to manage the rivalries of Nobunaga’s remaining heirs and generals. One of these generals, Shibata Katsuie, resented the rise of the ‘upstart’ Hideyoshi, who took steps to strengthen his own position, setting the stage for conflict. In 1583, Katsuie came down from his fief in Fukui and at the Battle of Shizugatake in northern Ōmi, Hideyoshi destroyed Katsuie’s forces. Ishida Mitsunari scouted Katsuie’s movements and was the first to engage the enemy at the battle.

Hideyoshi had consolidated his power and controlled thirty provinces, but Nobunaga’s other son, Nobukatsu, resisted Hideyoshi, seeking support from Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1584, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu fought inconclusively at Komaki and Nagakute in today’s Aichi Prefecture, which resulted in the two clans forming an alliance.

In order to bring some nobility to his status, Hideyoshi had himself adopted by the noble Konoe Sakihisa, after which he received court titles such as Chancellor, and ultimately Imperial Regent. In 1586, Hideyoshi was formally given the new clan name Toyotomi by the Imperial court. He built a palace in Kyōto, the Jurakudai, where he entertained the reigning Emperor.

Now the most powerful man in Japan, Hideyoshi continued his conquests in all directions, taking Shikoku and Kyūshu among other domains. Not content with conquering Japan, Hideyoshi wanted to conquer China too, which involved passing up the Korean Peninsula. He twice attempted to invade Korea, squandering his resources and prestige as the only result.

The stability of the Toyotomi dynasty after Hideyoshi’s death was put in doubt with the death of his only son, three-year-old Tsurumatsu in 1591. Consequently, Hideyoshi named his nephew Hidetsugu his heir, adopting him in January 1592. Hideyoshi resigned as Imperial Regent and took the title of Retired Regent, and Hidetsugu became Imperial Regent. The two men ruled as a team. However, in 1593, Hideyoshi had a second son, Hideyori, whom he wanted to make his heir. So he exiled Hidetsugu to Mt. Kōya. In 1595, he ordered him to commit suicide and had scores of Hidetsugu’s family beheaded in Kyōto, including women and children.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi died on September 18, 1598, having gained control of a large percentage of Japan. The succession was contested at the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Ōsaka Castle, and Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victorious.

Hideyoshi largely laid down the foundations of the peaceful state that came into being in the Edo period. He forbade ordinary peasants from owning weapons and started a sword hunt to confiscate arms. This effectively ended peasant revolts and meant that individual daimyō didn’t need to maintain constant military readiness. He destroyed the influence of Christianity with savage suppression of foreign missionaries and their followers. He also set rules governing the status and movement of people, ending predation by violent outlaws.

Hideyoshi’s hobbies included the tea ceremony and Noh theatre. Nagahama in Ōmi was a centre for the ancient farmer’s entertainments that led to the development of Noh, and Noh is still enjoyed as a part of daily life in the area. Nagahama Castle has been reconstructed, and you can visit the many battle sites around Ōmi where Hideyoshi fought in his gradual rise to power.