Japan, at last, was one — unified, united; no longer a splintered welter of “warring states” but an embryonic nation. The year, if it is to be pinned down to one, is 1590; the unifier, if one alone is to be named, is Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98).

The beginning of the end of the frenzied, bloody, to modern eyes scarcely sane dance with death known as the Sengoku (Warring States) period (c. 1467-1603) was Hideyoshi’s seizure of Odawara Castle in Sagami Province, today’s Kanagawa Prefecture. Resistance crumbled. Hideyoshi was irresistible. He had subdued the “home provinces” around Kyoto, the capital; he had subdued Kyushu; the northeast, too, was his. He was as generous in victory as ruthless in combat. He slaughtered when he had to, but negotiated when he could, investing former enemies with land and authority, securing thereby their submission and loyalty.

What next? Peaceful enjoyment of the fruits of peace? Generations would pass before that came naturally. Japan was his. Peasant-born, he broke the mold. He was a great man. In Hideyoshi’s day, greatness had one goal and one validation: conquest. Japan was conquered. What next? Korea, China. Why should they too not be his?

His low birth, shrunken physique and facial ugliness — “bald rat” is one contemporary description of him — were counterbalanced by boundless pride and limitless confidence. His letters demanding submission or tribute from Asian powers — the Ryukyu Kingdom, Taiwan, the Philippines — include this boast: “At the time my mother conceived me she had an auspicious dream. That night, a ray of the sun filled the room as if it were noontime. All were overcome with astonishment and fright, and when the diviners had gathered, they interpreted the event, saying: ‘When he reaches the prime of life, his virtue will illuminate the four seas, his authority will emanate to the myriad peoples.'”

The siege of Odawara had been a cake-walk, the feudal opposition’s last gasp. It “took on the atmosphere of a carnival,” writes historian Mary Elizabeth Berry in “Hideyoshi” (1982). “Hideyoshi gathered his concubines and his tea men about him. His generals summoned their women and their entertainers as well. Merchants hawked their wares, burlesque players were abundant, musicians and dancers relieved the tedium of summer evenings.”

That was in the sixth month of 1590. Five months later he wrote the King of Korea, “My object is to enter China, to spread the customs of our country to the 400 and more provinces of that nation.” He demanded the right of passage through Korea. “My wish,” he wrote, “is nothing other than that my name be known throughout the three countries” — Japan, India and China.

Korea, under Chinese suzerainty, did not say no, it did not say anything, its contemptuous silence adding insult to annoyance.

China had long been in Hideyoshi’s sights. As early as 1586, the wars in Japan far from over, he remarked to a confederate, “I shall extend my conquest to China.” In 1590, a month before Odawara, he wrote his nephew, “Our sovereign (the Emperor) shall move to the Ming capital. … Both Korea and China will be taken without trouble.” In his mind, it was all settled.

Japan invaded Korea in 1592. Busan fell immediately, Seoul three weeks later. The Koreans were no match for the battle-toughened Japanese. The Japanese had been at war among themselves for 130 years. They had firearms. The Koreans had none. It was no contest. Korea was defeated. Couldn’t she see that?

Oddly enough, she could not. The war dragged on. The standing army retreated but guerrillas filled the vacuum, burning crops and cities, depriving the conquerors of the fruits of conquest. Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River — a new headache for the Japanese.

Then there was the Korean Navy. Well-led, well-manned and well-equipped, it did what the army could not — drove the Japanese back. Historian Jurgis Elisonas writes in “The Cambridge History of Japan” (1991), “The Korean war was a complete failure for the Japanese, who won most of their battles but gained none of their objectives; having suffered grievous losses, they withdrew ignominiously from the peninsula.” It was Hideyoshi’s first defeat.

He sued for peace, seeking, absurdly, a victor’s terms — Korean hostages, Korean territory, a Chinese imperial daughter as a consort for the Japanese Emperor. China stalled, Hideyoshi waited. His patience exhausted at last, he launched, in 1597, a second invasion.

“The war was fought with terrible cruelty,” Elisonas writes, “and its history is marked with atrocities that are amply attested in the contemporary records of the Japanese themselves.”

He elaborates: “In the manhunts conducted by the Japanese, … many thousands of Koreans were killed or mutilated. No distinction was made among combatants and noncombatants, men, women and children.” Instead of collecting the heads of the slain — trophies sanctioned by tradition — they collected noses. “A running account was kept, as the noses formed a sort of capital: Their number represented the quantification of that intangible quality, martial valor, and could be used as the basis for calculating future rewards.”

A Japanese Buddhist priest, accompanying the Japanese Army as a physician, recorded his horror in his diary, which Elisonas summarizes: “People being led away in chains and tight bamboo collars through burning fields and hillsides that resounded with the wild voices of a soldiery intoxicated with their own arson; parents being killed before the eyes of their wailing children, who will be led away into captivity … the dreadful punishments meted out for the slightest remissness.”

Koreans captured and sold as slaves in Japan are estimated to have numbered some 50,000. Among them were the highly skilled potters to whose advanced techniques the beautiful Japanese ceramics of the 17th century owe so much.

This is part one of three installments focusing on Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Sengoku period. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos,” is now on sale.

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