Nothing about his birth or childhood presaged greatness. Who was Toyotomi Hideyoshi? We know what he did, know his environment and the shattering and shaping impact he had on it; but the man himself escapes us.
He was born in 1536 in Owari Province, part of today’s Aichi Prefecture. His father was an armed peasant, a sometime foot soldier. It’s what Hideyoshi himself would have been, in normal times.
These were not normal times. An emperor reigned, a shogun ruled — impotently. Territorial warlords battled each other for supremacy. It was chaos, carnage. Warlord of Owari was Oda Nobunaga (1534-82). Hideyoshi, at age 22, took service under him. They flourished together — greatness serving greatness, greatness rewarding greatness.
Nobunaga had visions of Japan unified. Brilliant and ruthless, he defied all obstacles, physical and moral — killing, betraying, torching, finally meeting an end worthy of his means, of which more shortly.
A man’s lowly birth, to Nobunaga, was no mark against him if the man in question showed military genius, as Hideyoshi did. Almost nothing is known of his early years with Nobunaga, but by 1570 we see him commanding a detachment, 3,000 strong, in battle against a Nobunaga rival. The peasant boy has come a long way. Did he himself sense then how very much higher he would yet rise?
One of Hideyoshi’s earliest surviving letters, quoted by historian Mary Elizabeth Berry in “Hideyoshi” (1982), pertains to the 1570 campaign. It is addressed to a merchant of the commercial city of Sakai: “I have urgent business with you. Send gunpowder of the highest possible quality.”
It marks a decisive shift in Japanese warfare — from swords to guns, hand-to-hand combat to mass slaughter. Nobunaga represented the vanguard. If he didn’t invent military terrorism, he gave it a new dimension — most horribly, perhaps, in the razing by fire in 1573 of the ancient and vast Enryakuji temple complex on Mount Hiei overlooking Kyoto. Monks of the time were more militant than prayerful, and Enryakuji’s warrior monks had taken sides with Nobunaga’s enemies. The price they paid was a veritable holocaust. Thousands died.
Nine years later Nobunaga, himself at the peak of his power, died in a blazing temple — Honnoji in Kyoto, where he was hosting a tea party. The arsonist and assassin, his motives unclear, was one of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide.
Pursuit of Akechi fell to Hideyoshi. Two weeks later he arrived at Honnoji with the traitor’s head — “for the approval,” writes Berry, “of Nobunaga’s spirit.” It was evidently forthcoming. Nobunaga had laid the foundation for Japan’s unification. Hideyoshi, as Nobunaga’s successor, completed the task. By 1590, Japan was one as it had not been for 130 years — and Hideyoshi ruled, all but unchallenged.
Ravaged, exhausted, the country lay prostrate. That explains partly — not fully — the general submission to Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi’s evolution from soldier to statesman is no less a part of the story. The warrior turned conciliator, winning over his rival warlords with land grants and acknowledgment of their local autonomy. In these gestures, peace was conceived. The gestation was long and the birth complicated but, miraculously, the baby survived. For some 250 years, from the early 17th until the mid-19th century, peace becalmed this warrior nation — Hideyoshi’s peace, it might almost be called, though he did not live to see it.
His last years are marked by incongruities so gaping that madness, to some scholars, seems the only explanation. He gave Japan peace — and immediately grew restless. Peace could not contain him.
His first peacetime measure was the famous “sword hunt.” Berry quotes his decree: “The farmers of the various provinces were strictly forbidden to possess long swords, short swords, bows, spears, muskets, or any other form of weapon” — eliminating in a stroke the peasant foot-soldier class to which he himself had been born. It was swords to plowshares — the metal would be melted down for construction of a Great Buddha statue. “This,” he wrote, “will be an act by which the farmers will be saved in this life and in the life to come.”
Other pursuits, too, pointed to peace. The tea ceremony and noh were his particular passions. He staged vastly extravagant mass tea parties — to which commoners as well as warriors and nobles were welcome. Noh drama, likewise, flourished under his enthusiastic patronage. He was a many-sided man — a too many-sided man. China beckoned. Could he bear to die without conquering China?
The crushing failure of that venture was the subject of last month’s column. Two further episodes mar his legacy — the execution of his chief tea master Sen no Rikyu in 1591 and, in 1597, the crucifixion at Nagasaki of 26 Christians. Berry absolves him of insane sadism. Both acts, she argues, were political — cruel, but explicable by the standards and condition of the times.
Christianity intrigued Hideyoshi. In 30 years it had made remarkable inroads. Its message appealed. Hideyoshi was sympathetic. He befriended foreign missionaries and their Japanese converts, some of whom were daimyo. Suddenly his mood changed. When the missionaries began to seem like an advance guard for European imperialism, he struck, and struck hard. The innocent victims were six foreign and 20 Japanese Christians. To us today, it’s grotesque.Different times beget different responses. “The crucifixion of the Christians,” writes Berry, “was unremarkable to Japanese observers. Hideyoshi’s contemporaries understood it for what it apparently was, a rebuke to aggressive foreigners who had threatened the peace.”
Rikyu, a tea man of immense distinction, was a subordinate who may not always have known his place. Hideyoshi, enraged by a real or imagined slight, ordered Rikyu to commit suicide. Outrageous to us, it was less so to contemporaries — not at all, apparently, to Rikyu himself, who, after a farewell tea party, ritually disemboweled himself with a serenity befitting his religious enlightenment.
This is part two of three installments focusing on Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Sengoku period. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos,” is now on sale.