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Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the second unifier of Japan after a period of more than 100 years of civil wars that had ravaged the country. His career from a poor farmer's son to the most powerful man in Japan is more than unusual.
First Publication: February 2003
Latest Update: May 2013
After his death the Japanese built him a shrine, promoted him to the ranks of a Shinto deity and gave him the title Hokoku - wealth of the nation. For the Japanese Hideyoshi is subject of great reverence until today. But Saru Kuanja - The Monkey Servant - as he was called by some of his countrymen because of his ugly appearance, had several faces. He was the good, the bad and the ugly in one person.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born as the son of a poor farmer in a village in Owari province. When he was eight years old his father had died. His step-father sent him to the local temple and later to a blacksmith for instructions. But the young Saru Matsu - monkey pine - as he was nicknamed, was a real trouble-maker, who sought for adventures. He never stayed longer than one month in a place and then ran away.
Hideyoshi finally found service with the young Oda Nobunaga, then a minor warlord in war-torn Japan. The clever and courageous lad soon got the attention of Nobunaga and moved the military ranks up to the position of general.
Hideyoshi won battle after battle and conquered castle after castle in the service of Nobunaga. During this period he amassed great worldly wealth. Each conquest of enemy castles was encouraged by a simple incentive system - the winner gets it all.
By around 1580 Hideyoshi had risen to one of the top generals of Nobunaga. But not everyone could stand the often insulting pranks of the tyrant Nobunaga. In 1582 Akechi Mitsuhide, another top general under Nobunaga turned against his lord, defeated him and forced him to commit suicide - the infamous seppuku ritual.
When Hideyoshi received news of the assassination of his lord, he rushed back with his army to Shoryuji Castle in four days and defeated Akechi Mitsuhide in the battle of Mount Tennozan.
Hideyoshi was now the uncontested actual ruler of Japan, although he never held the official position of shogun. He took the title of taiko - prime minister.
Not only the career, but the whole appearance of Hideyoshi was out of the usual. He was a short man on thin legs with a bald head and the sunken and wrinkled face of Western movie star Lee van Cleef. Nobunaga, anything else but being sensitive towards his subordinates, used to call him saru - monkey.
Hideyoshi was said to enjoy alcohol and women in his younger years. When he was at the peak of his power from 1590 on, he spent a part of his great wealth in promoting arts and turned himself to the more refined cultural aspects of life. He even went into poetry.
During the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi the tea ceremony became popular in Japan. But that did not prevent Hideyoshi from ordering Sen no Rikyu, the great master of the Japanese tea ceremony to commit ritual suicide ("seppuku") in 1591.
Hideyoshi was a smart guy and his tactics in achieving his goals were different from those of Nobunaga. While Nobunaga used brute force and did not lose much time in convincing his opponents with nice words, Hideyoshi tried other methods as well - diplomacy and bribery.
He conquered several enemy castles by bribing the guards inside to open the doors. Often it was sufficient to demonstrate his power by showing up with a huge army. But when necessary, Hideyoshi was ready to use military force.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi soon introduced reforms in the provinces he had subjugated. He conducted a survey of the farmland to have a better basis for fixing taxes. Taxes were paid by the Japanese farmers in kind - mainly in rice - until the nineteenth century.
Another fundamental reform affected the military system. Until then, the samurai warriors had their own land which they cultivated. And only in war times, the samurai abandoned their principal job as peasants.
Hideyoshi introduced a strict separation of farmers and warriors. The samurai had to live permanently in castles. To assure their living, they received a certain amount of rice contributions. The farmers were disallowed to possess any weapons.
Hideyoshi sent out his troops to confiscate any weapons from the rural population as a preemptive action against a potential uprise. These were the famous sword hunts, practiced before by Nobunaga.
Another edict from 1591 established a firm and immobile system of classes between peasants, samurai and merchants (basically the townspeople). Under the new system the affiliation to a class became hereditary and it was impossible to raise into another class.
What an irony that the man who rose from a poor farmer's son to the uncontested ruler of Japan, introduced such a rigid class system! This system was further refined and enforced by his successors, and lasted until 1868 when the last Shogun of the Tokugawa family resigned and the Meiji era began.
After Hideyoshi had established his uncontested rule over Japan by circa 1590, he looked out for new adventures outside the island country.
In 1592 an army of 200,000 samurai landed on the Korean peninsula. After swift initial gains the attack got stuck near Pyongyang. The brave Koreans organized fierce resistance and received reinforcements from the Chinese army. The war on the Korean peninsula and the Chinese mainland continued for another 6 years with no decisive victory for any party until the death of Hideyoshi in 1598.
His generals then abandoned the military adventure that had devastated the Korean peninsula. The Japanese had raged terribly among the Koreans. Hideyoshi himself had never set foot outside Japan. He had left the execution of his attack to his generals and daimyo, the provincial leaders.
The speculations why Hideyoshi started this military adventure continue among historians until today. Some say, he had to keep a huge army busy that knew nothing but war. The more probable reason were sheer megalomaniac ambitions.
Saru Matsu, the 'monkey servant', died September 18, 1598. With him died the power of his family. He had tried to secure his position for his only son Hideyori.
But his old rival, Tokugawa Ieyasu, proved stronger and became the third and last pacifier of Japan and the first Shogun of the Tokugawa family. Their rule would last until 1868 and is called the Edo period - named after the new capital Edo in the East (now called Tokyo).
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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