Toyotomi Hideyoshi | 15th Century Warlord Unites The Land of the Rising Sun

Toyotomi hideyoshiI love stories of Warlords, conquerors and explorers from the Medieval Ages and earlier. I can read the same story every year or so and still come away like I just read it for the first time. Since I spent a part of my childhood in Japan I got to hear some cool stories of Japanese Shoguns and Samurais. This one in particular is one of my favorites. I first heard it in my teens and it’s about Toyotomi Hideyoshi; the lone warlord who fearlessly united all of Japan when no one before him could.

For centuries Shogun’s came and went. They conquered lands in the name of the emperor or for their own banner. But none of them ever united Japan. Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s story is extraordinary because he was born into a peasant family, faced struggles, worked his way up through the military ranks and eventually united Japan. This is the type of story that isn’t supposed to happen. It’s the type of story we love. Shoguns and Warlords unite nations. In those days royalty led the military, not a peasant’s son. So who is Toyotomi Hideyoshi and how exactly did he unite Japan when all previous Shoguns couldn’t?

Rough start to life:

Most of what we know about Toyotomi Hideyoshi has to do with his conquests and military time. He was born in 1536 in the Nakamura, Owari Province (Now known as Aichi prefecture). But most of his life’s details up to 1570 aren’t exact. He did commission a biography in 1570 and this is why many of his life’s details after that are better known. We do have enough info though to give us an idea about him, who he was and where he came from. His dad was a peasant and farmer which means they were poor and the future didn’t look optimistic. Because of this he took off as a boy and eventually found himself in Shogun Edo Nobunaga’s army.

For centuries many Shoguns tried to unite the feuding islands. “Conquer” might be a better word than unite because really this is what they were trying to do – unite under their own or the Emperor’s banner. For those that don’t know, Japan at that time was made up of 4 main islands. Their geographic size combined is similar to the state of California. But with water in-between each island it acted as a strong defense.

His character:

In 1568 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi was around 32 or 33 the Shogun Nobunaga set out on a mission to unite eastern Japan with the west. Many battles were fought which resulted in Toyotomi Hideyoshi receiving many opportunities to distinguish himself. He rose through the ranks till he became one of the Generals. He wasn’t a man’s man or great in physical stature. In fact, he was actually a small balding guy and had nicknames like Monkey Servant and Bald Rat . What he did have though was strong people skills and a canny ability to read people. With his humble upbringing he could hang with the guys of all ranks. He received respect for his character and exploits in battle by his peers and those who outranked him.

Golden Gourd

Golden Gourd

During Shogun Nobunaga’s war to unite Japan he sent Toyotomi Hideyoshi on many campaigns. He flew his Golden Gourd (banner) in winning battles at Nagashima (1573, 1574), Nagashiono (1575) and Tedorigawa (1577). In 1576 two strong warlord’s clans, Oda and Mori, opposed Shogun Nobunaga and General Hideyoshi along with General Akechi Mitsuhide were sent to face them. In 1582 Hideyoshi marched on one of the Mori Clan’s strongest castles called Takamatsu. If it fell the Mori Clan would be crippled because Takamatsu castle served as a perimeter defense and was a gateway for future assaults.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi understood the importance of this win and devised an assault plan unique at that time. He knew that bribing or an all-out assault would not work. Because Takamatsu sat slightly below sea level he damned up the surrounding waters and channeled them at the castle until it was surrounded with water. He continued to bombard them with rifle and cannon fire.

Eventually he asked the Shogun for some reinforcements for a final siege and the Shogun commanded General Mitsuhide to offer support. Instead the General decided he’d sieze this moment for betrayal against Shogun Nobunaga, which ultimately led to the Shogun’s death. General Mitsuhide then secretly sent a message to Takamatsu letting them know of his betrayal. Fortunately Toyotomi Hideyoshi intercepted the message and was now faced with a huge decision. Go defend his Shoguns honor and march on General Mitsuhide or continue the siege to bring unification to Japan.

Commitment and remaining fearless in the face of cowardly betrayal can be tough for anyone.

What might seem right based on a heated emotion can turn out to be one’s own demise. How does one remain focused on the mission when their emotions are running opposite directions? Remember, Toyotomi Hideyoshi came from humble beginnings and all he had was given to him by the Shogun. I wouldn’t be surprised if his loyalty encompassed feelings of a father and mentor figure. All this was lost in the blink of an eye. He needed to look deep down and pull out strength he hadn’t summoned before. This is where his conviction came in. He believed in the Shogun’s goal and knew it was unification that was more important than vengeance. Toyotomi Hideyoshi  could have marched on General Mitsuhide but the siege would’ve then been lost and so would Japan’s unification. He stayed fearless and devised a new plan to take down Takamatsu so that he could then march on their betrayer.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi knew Takamatsu was close to surrendering. They just needed a little push. He sent word to the commanding officer that if he surrendered himself everyone in the castle would be spared. They were already suffering from sickness and overall weariness from the siege so the commanding officer accepted and committed harakiri (suicide). This was customary in Japan for the losing commander to do when defeated and handing over his troops. Toyotomi Hideyoshi then took over Takamatsu, fortified it and immediately devised a plan to march on General Mitsuhide before word of Takamatsu’s fall reached him. It took four days for Toyotomi Hideyoshi army to reach them and prepare for battle. This surprise and quick march enabled them to get good ground position. During the march his forces increased when those who heard of him joined in. Once they faced off against General Mitsuhide it took only 2 hours to defeat them. General Mitsuhide ended up dying while fleeing and vengeance was served.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi would be given the title Kampaku (Imperial Regent) by the Emperors Courts. He couldn’t be called Shogun because he was born to a peasant. Over the next decade there would be more battles and uniting Japan didn’t come easy. It wasn’t until January, 1591 that he finally defeated the last provinces of  Hojo Ujimasa and Ujinao to bring unification to all four islands. He now controlled the whole nation.

We can marvel at this conquest and remember that had he not accomplished this Japan would not be where it is today.  It was shortly after that Europeans and explorers started showing up on Japan shores. The Emperor also gained more power instead of just being a puppet. As a nation they united and fought together instead of feuding against each other. So how did one man born a peasant do all this? Was it mere luck? Did he just happen to be in the right place at the right time?

Boys don’t become men by accident

I’m a firm believer that we choose our path. We accept responsibility for where we go and that’s how our path is made. Toyotomi Hideyoshi didn’t let his humble upbringing get in his way. He formed his own character and honed his talents and skills. He put himself in positions to succeed. By distinguishing himself through action, words and beliefs from everyone else he was noticed and became Shogun Nobunaga’s general and trusted close friend. Being fearless is not something you’re born with. It’s a decision.


  1. What an interesting story. I wish I could have paid more attention in history class during my younger years. It fascinates me now but I had no interest 10-20 years ago.

    • Thanks Jason! In history class I very much picked and choosed what I paid attention to. haha! It just isn’t all interesting but we’re going to find the ones that are and write about’m.

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