Toyotomi Hideyoshi |

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Toyotomi Hideyoshi

The second of Japan’s great unifiers, Hideyoshi rose from obscurity to become one of the most unlikely, ambitious and influential leaders the country ever produced. Hareth Al Bustani unravels his legend
Hideyoshi’s tale is one of extreme social mobility; it’s an irony that his edicts established a rigid class system that prevented anyone else from following in his footsteps

It is 1536, and Japan is a collection of fractured provinces, controlled by local warlords. Though loyal to a symbolic emperor, no longer do they fear his once-supreme shōgun, the de facto military dictator. In this vacuum, they battle one another for land and glory, drenching the country in blood. Their domains are plagued with extremist monks, peasant rebellions, violent bandits and cut-throat pirates. Amidst the chaos, a child is born in a backwater village of Owari Province. He will one day rule them all.

Sufflce to say, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the son of a farmer and part-time foot soldier, was not of noble birth. Having lost his father at seven, he left home in his mid-teens to find a worthy master to serve. He enlisted in the army of Imagawa Yoshimoto, the most powerful lord in the Kant region, who blackened his teeth and shaved his eyebrows in imitation of Kyoto’s nobles. However, Hideyoshi soon left him, joining Oda Nobunaga, a lord with fewer graces and greater infamy, in 1558.

Nobunaga was a force to be reckoned with, having killed his own uncle and brother to seize Owari. In 1560, Hideyoshi’s first master, Yoshimoto, marched an army through Nobunaga’s territory, hoping to reach Kyoto. Though his forces outnumbered Nobunaga’s tenfold, they were crushed and Yoshimoto killed. Eight years later, Nobunaga began a campaign to unify Japan and, by ambition, strategic brilliance and brute force, subjugated a third of the country.


Oda Nobunaga is credited with developing Japan’s first armoured ships, called Ō-atakebunes, They were covered in large, iron plates, armed with cannon and large-calibre muskets.


Hideyoshi started out as Nobunaga’s sandal bearer, but his intelligence and charm rapidly propelled him into samurai nobility. By the 1580s, he had become one of Nobunaga’s leading generals, seizing numerous fortresses across Honshu (Japan’s largest island) – for which he was awarded his own castle. He had proved an ingenious strategist; digging moats around one besieged holding, burrowing mines beneath others and famously building dykes to divert a river towards an enemy fort, flooding it. Nobunaga’s lofty campaign was cut short in 1582, when one of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, betrayed and attacked him at Kyoto’s Honno-ji Temple. Caught off guard, the great warlord committed seppuku – the ritualistic belly-cutting suicide. Outraged at this treachery, Hideyoshi immediately attacked and routed the traitor’s army at the Battle of Yamazaki. By avenging his master with such speed, Hideyoshi staked his own claim – not based on his bloodline, but his prestige.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

In this month's issue… Everything you ever wanted to know about castles The complete story of the greatest emblem of the medieval age: how they evolved from simple forts into impregnable bastions, how they were built without modern machinery and how you could break into one. Plus: the Women's Liberation Movement; the peasant who became Japan's second great unifier; top 10 ancient board games; the football match that sparked a war; and a graphic guide to London Zoo's most famous residents.