Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) was a famous Japanese warlord, who along with his predecessor Oda Nobunaga and his successor Tokugawa Ieyasu, was one of the "Three Great Unifiers" who combined to reunite Japan and bring an end to the century and a half of chaos and war known as the Sengoku Period of Japanese history. One of history's great self-made men, Hideyoshi literally rose from rags to riches, climbing up from peasant status by sheer talent, guile, and daring to become master of all of Japan.
Mysterious Early Years
Almost nothing can be known for sure about Hideyoshi's youth, as he does not appear in historical documents for the first time until he is well into his thirties. Not surprisingly, Hideyoshi in later years was very reluctant to have anything revealed about his lowly past, and did not have his official biography describe any events before the year 1577, when he was already over 40 years of age and a famous general. But, according to tradition, he was born in a village called Nakamura in Owari province, the son of a peasant footsoldier named Yaemon who was so lowly he did not even have a surname, and who was so poor he had to supplement his income by taking up work as a woodcutter.
Somehow as a youth, Hideyoshi was able to win the attention of Oda Nobunaga, the lord of Owari province, and was said to have been present as Nobunaga's personal sandal-bearer at the crucial Battle of Okehazama, which launched Nobunaga on his road to power. Hideyoshi is famous for having been exceedingly ugly, with his short stature, tiny head, early baldness, sunken features, and wrinkly skin, but Nobunaga loved him anyway, calling him pet names like "Monkey," and "My little bald rat."
Nobunaga was himself famous for recognizing ability above rank or appearance, and rapidly promoted the talented Hideyoshi until he was one of Nobunaga's inner circle of top generals. It was around this time that Hideyoshi decided he needed a last name, so he took the surname "Hashiba," which was simply a combination of two Chinese characters he borrowed from from the surnames of Nobunaga's two most senior generals, Niwa Nagahide and Shibata Katsuie.
Rise to Power
In 1582, Nobunaga was suddenly betrayed and assassinated by another one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, at Honnoji temple in Kyoto. Hideyoshi was away besieging the Mori clan at Bitchu-Takamatsu Castle, but when he heard the news, he immediately broke off the seige and marched back toward Kyoto to intercept and defeat Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki.
His status as the avenger of Nobunaga gave Hideyoshi tremendous prestige, and he was now as senior as any of Nobunaga's generals. When a dispute broke out among the generals over which member of the Oda clan should succeed Nobunaga, several of the other generals lined up behind Hideyoshi in supporting Nobunaga's eldest grandson
Hidenobu rather than his oldest surviving son Nobutaka. Hideyoshi much preferred to have the child Hidenobu in charge rather than the adult Nobutaka, as it would allow him time to build his power for an eventual takeover in his own name.
Not surprisingly, however, Nobutaka himself objected to this idea, and he was supported by a rival faction of generals headed by Shibata Katsuie. War broke out, but Hideyoshi crushed the Shibata army at the Battle of Shizugatake, leaving him de facto ruler of central Japan.
By this time, all of Nobunaga's senior generals swore allegiance to Hideyoshi except one, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who allied with Nobunaga's last surviving son, Oda Nobuo and begain issuing statements decrying Hideyoshi's usurpation of power. Determined to punish Ieyasu for his insolence, Hideyoshi sallied forth with a massive army. But both generals were too powerful for a decisive victory to occur on either side, so after fighting two inconclusive battles at Komaki and Nagakute, they agreed to a truce in which Ieyasu nominally agreed to become Hideyoshi's vassal but in practice remained independent, content for the time being to bide his time.
With his most powerful enemy now neutralized, Hideyoshi turned his attention to eliminating the last resistance to his authority, conquering the island of Shikoku (1586), leading a massive army to pacify Kyushu (1587), and crushing the Hojo clan at the siege of Odawara Castle in 1590. Hideyoshi was now master of all of Japan.
Lord of the Realm
The question arose, however, of how Hideyoshi might legitimate his rule without having to constantly resort to force of arms. Other warlords might have taken the title of "shogun" but Hideyoshi's humble origins would have rendered an attempt to forge a connection to the shogunal house of Minamoto too implausible to be accepted, but he was able to work around this by getting himself adopted into the Fujiwara clan of nobles and having himself named to the prestigious post Kampaku, or regent ruling on behalf of the emperor. Hideyoshi then enthusiastically embraced the trappings of the nobility, moving to Kyoto, building a lavish palace, and taking up noble pasttimes such as poetry and tea-drinking (indeed, it was under Hideyoshi's patronage that the formalized Japanese Tea Ceremony was developed by tea master Sen no Rikyu). Just to put the finishing touches on his ascent to the pinnacle of power, Hidyeoshi also adopted the grandiose new surname of "Toyotomi," which literally meant "Bountiful Minister".
It now fell to Hideyoshi to actually govern the new realm he had won for himself on the battlefield, but he proved just as able at administration as he had at warfare. Hideyoshi was extremely attentive to the day to day affairs of the realm, and hundreds and hundreds of his letters survive, giving detailed instructions to vassals and officials on all manner of minutiae. Among Hideyoshi's major policies and accomplishments, he launched a massive, nationwide land survey to rationalize the taxation system, standardized weights and measures nationwide which greatly facilitated trade across domains, and embarked on a nationwide "Great Sword Hunt" to ban anyone but actual samurai from owning weapons of any kind, thus solidifying the class structure that would shape the Edo Period, and in effect cutting of the very road he himself had taking to power.
Decline and Death
But by 1591, Hideyoshi was getting old, and restless. Perhaps the power had gone to his head, or perhaps he was developing some sort of mental illness. Or maybe he was just bored. But in any case, Hideyoshi somehow decided that it was his destiny to invade and conquer China. When the uppity Koreans refused his repeated requests to allow his army passage through Korea to China, he launched two extremely costly, brutal, and ultimately unsuccessful invasions of Korea, in 1592, and then again in 1597. The second invasion was only slightly less disastrous than the first, and was called off when Hideyoshi died in 1598 and more rational heads prevailed.
Hideyoshi's death was extremely untimely for the Toyotomi clan, because his appointed heir, Toyotomi Hideyori, was still a young boy. For many years, Hideyoshi's heir had been his adopted son, Toyotomi Hidetsugu, but when his manipulative wife Yodo Gimi had finally bore him a healthy son of his own, he had ordered (probably at Yodo Gimi's instigation) Hidetsugu into exile, and eventually demanded Hidetsugu and his entire family commit suicide, murdering all of those who refused.
Because Hideyoshi was a self-made man rather than a hereditary samurai from a large extended clan, this left no adult male in the immediate Toyotomi family to watch out for young Hideyori's interests, and Hideyoshi knew it. So when he felt his death approaching, he summoned his top five generals, including Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari, and made them all swear an oath that they would only act as regents until Yoshinori came of age, and would then peacefully step aside and let him assume power. Hideyoshi had hoped that by having five different generals jointly act as regents, no one of them could take over because the other four would not allow it.
Dawn of a New Era
But by this point, however, Tokugawa Ieyasu had finally tired of biding his time. Soon after Hideyoshi's death, it became clear that Ieyasu had no intention of waiting around for Hideyori to grow up, and was preparing to seize power for himself. Ishida Mitsunari became the leader of the loyalist faction, consisting primarily of all the daimyo from western Japan, whereas most of the daimyo from eastern Japan lined up behind Ieyasu. After a year and a half of preparation and political maneuvering, the two armies clashed climactically at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The battle was a decisive victory for Ieyasu, who would go on to establish the Tokugawa Shogunate that would finally bring lasting peace to Japan and oversee the cultural flourishing of the Edo Period.
Toyotomi Hideyori, meanwhile, would hold out with Yodo Gimi and several loyal Toyotomi vassals for several years in his father's mighty stronghold of Osaka Castle, but was finally besieged and killed by the Tokugawa in 1615.