‘Even monkeys fall from trees.’
Nobunaga nicknamed Japan's second great unifier kozaru, ‘little monkey,’ because his face and skinny features resembled one. Others called him the ‘bald rat.’ Born in 1536 to Yaemon, a low-ranking peasant foot soldier with no surname, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had no samurai lineage, and it should have been impossible for him to evolve into the formidable general and innovative leader that would become. His childhood name was Hiyoshi-maru, ‘Bounty of the Sun.’ Nobunaga made it, Hideyoshi baked it, Tokugawa ate it.
His approach was more lenient than Nobunaga’s, but still more interventional than Ieyasu’s. Make it want to sing.
At the age of 21, he began as a humble sandal-bearer for Nobunaga, and three years later, carried out the repairs and managed the kitchen of Kiyosu Castle. Four years later, according to legend, he constructed a fort in Sunomata, overnight, with bandits and prefabricated palisades, demoralizing the enemy and discovering a secret route into Mount Inaba.
Hideyoshi’s persuasive powers were enhanced by his ability for bribery and, in 1564, he managed to convince a number of Mino warlords to abandon their allegiance to the Saitō. His military prowess was as impressive, known for diverting rivers to flood enemy villages and clans, and easily taking Inabayama Castle in 1567. After leading the victory against the Azai and Asakura clans in the Battle of Anegawa three years later, Nobunaga appointed him daimyô of three districts in northern Ōmi Province. Later in 1573 Hideyoshi moved to the shores of Lake Biwa to build Imahama Castle, and take control of the nearby Kunitomo firearms factory, which dramatically increased its output.
Six years after Hideyoshi conquered the magnificent ‘White Egret’ Himeji Castle from the Mori clan in 1576, he made a hasty peace with them, to avenge Nobunaga’s assassination, by pursuing and killing Akechi Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki less than two weeks later.
With the same resolute behavior that Nobunaga had demonstrated, Hideyoshi’s power within the Oda clan grew rapidly.
A meeting was held at Kiyosu to decide Nobunaga’s successor. Hideyoshi supported his first son’s young son, Hidenobu, over the candidate proposed by the clan's chief general Katsuie, Nobunaga’s third son, Nobutaka. With the support of the other two Oda elders, Hideyoshi established Hidenobu's position, as well as the assumption of all control in the Oda clan.
Tension quickly escalated, and in May of 1583, Katsuie attacked Hideyoshi's fortifications on Shizugatake. Supposedly at least four days' march away, as soon as Hideyoshi learned of the assault, he led his men on a forced march through the night, and easily smashed through the besieging army defenses within 36 hours. He pursued them back to Katsuie's Kitanosho Castle. They seized the fortress but not before the general set the keep on fire, killed his family and committed seppuku.
Hideyoshi's chief seven generals in the Battle at Shizugatake earned great fame and honor, would later become some of his closest retainers, and came to be known as the shichi-hon yari or ‘Seven Spears of Shizugatake.’
In 1583, Hideyoshi began construction of the massive Osaka Castle, the largest and most formidable in all Japan, to guard the western approaches to Kyoto, on the site of the temple Ishiyama Honganji destroyed by Nobunaga. After Hideyoshi's death the castle would become the last Toyotomi stronghold, where Tokugawa Ieyasu would kill his only surviving son Hideyori, and end the line.
But, for the moment, Ieyasu was still in the process of becoming a vassal of Hideyoshi, having received his younger sister Asahi and mother Ōmandokoro as hostages.
For 19 months beginning in 1586, just after he assumed the prestigious post of kampaku regent, Hideyoshi constructed the Jurakudai, a lavish palace with gold leaf roofing tiles. On completion he held a sumptuous feast for the reigning Emperor Go-Yōzei, met Tokugawa Ieyasu here, and provided quarters for tea-master Sen no Rikyū within the grounds. He went on to subjugate Kii Province and Shikoku and Etchū, and to conquer Kyūshū.
At the pinnacle of his power, Hideyoshi may have begun to feel a little trapped by the trappings. He was known for his temper. Unlike lord Nobunaga, he had no particular affection for Christian missionaries and, in 1587, banished them from Kyūshū, despite the gifts that were still exchanged with the governor of the Philippines. The black elephant in particular I found most unusual.
In February 1591, Hideyoshi ordered Sen no Rikyū, a trusted retainer and master of the tea ceremony under both Hideyoshi and Nobunaga, to commit suicide. Rikyū had made significant changes to the tea ceremony aesthetics that influenced many aspects of Japanese culture. Hideyoshi’s own construction projects were based upon principles of Rikyū’s aesthetic beauty. Rikyū's last act was to hold an exquisite tea ceremony. After serving all his guests, he presented each of his guests with a piece of the equipment as a souvenir, with the exception of the bowl, which he shattered.
“Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man.” He said. As the guests departed, one remained to serve as witness to his death.
Following Rikyū's death, Hideyoshi turned his attention from tea ceremony to Noh drama. Hideyoshi memorized the lead roles parts of ten plays, which he then performed, even before the Emperor.
As his health began to falter, Hideyoshi looked for some accomplishment to solidify his legacy. He adopted Oda Nobunaga's dream of a Japanese conquest of China, by way of Korea. Communications with the Koreans requesting unmolested passage into China had taken place for four years, before the Joseon government finally refused, in July of 1591. Masses of Ming Chinese troops battling Hideyoshi's troops on Korean soil posed an unacceptable risk. In August, Hideyoshi ordered preparations for invasion.