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By Marcel Thach


Following the 150 years of civil conflict known as the Sengoku-jidai, (best translated as "The Age of War") Japan entered the Azuchi-Momoyama-jidai which is better known to the West as the War of Unification. To the Japanese, the Azuchi-Momoyama period is a period of reverence and heroism. It was a time when 'inferiors overthrew their superiors' (Perdue, 23.) Three daimyo (feudal lords) are known to history as the Unifiers: Oda Nobunaga,Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. However, 'the most significant of the Unifiers, as far as the Japanese are concerned, is Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Even in his lifetime he was considered one of the greatest of the Japanese and was made a Shinto deity shortly after his death' (Hooker, 3.) To the Japanese, he embodied a true hero; born of a peasant, Hideyoshi rose through the ranks of Nobunaga and became a general. Shortly after Oda Nobunaga's death in 1582, Hideyoshi took up Nobunaga's task of unifying Japan. In 1592, he started what would be the greatest of his military improprieties: the invasion of Korea. Despite being a brilliant general and a skillful daimyo, Hideyoshi did not invade Korea for the purposes of strategic gain. Instead, Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592 and again in 1597 because he was mentally unstable. Japan's inability to make war, Hideyoshi's inability to recognize Korea's military capability, as well as China's growing economy, the mission's lack of strategic gain, and his growing irrationality towards the end of his life prove this statement to be true.

While there certainly was a possibility that the Hideyoshi invasions of Korea could have been successful, the chances of a successful invasion were slim. First of all, Hideyoshi had to confront the famous Korean general, Admiral Yi Sun Sin. Although Korea had very few ships in the late 16th century, the Korean navy was quite powerful. Admiral Yi Sun Shin was a brilliant Korean admiral who employed the use of Kobukson, or 'turtle ships.' (About.com) The Kobukson were formidable ships. They were some of the world's first ironclad warships, preceding the American Civil War by almost 250 years. They possessed iron overhead coverings which had large spikes and blades which discouraged any boarding attempt. As well, they had multiple iron rams and cannons. Furthermore, onboard were numerous archers who fired explosive arrows at the sails and rigging of enemy ships. Finally, the skill with which Admiral Yi Sun Shin utilized the Kobukson was incredible. After Admiral Yi defeated the Japanese successively in the battles of Pusan and Ungch'ont'ae, Hideyoshi's fleet had been completely eradicated from the southern coast of Korea. (About.com) Iron clad ships, however, were not new to Japan and Hideyoshi; Oda Nobunaga, in fact, had many iron clad ships in his fleet. With them, Oda's navy was virtually invincible (Sansom, 309.) Hideyoshi, however, did not employ the use of iron clad ships in his navy during the invasion of Korea, further proving that he was not thinking clearly when he invaded Korea. The usefulness of iron clad ships was further demonstrated to Hideyoshi when, during the second invasion of Korea, Admiral Yi, having a fleet of only 16 ships, defeated a Japanese fleet of 133 vessels (Seal, 13.) Had Hideyoshi been sensible, he would have employed the same iron cladding around his ships which Oda Nobunaga used for the invasion of Korea. Yet, instead, he chose to ignore the lessons of the past and impetuously continued his invasion without the use of iron clad ships.

Admittedly, at the time, no nation in the world possessed more weapons than Japan; by the late 16th century, Japan was manufacturing large quantities of guns and cannons (Sansom, 309.) The fact must be pointed out, however, that Japan, in a social and political sense, had not the capacity for war. A task as large as an invasion of the entire Asian continent would have been nearly impossible for Japan for two reasons. Although by 1592 most of Japan's feudal estates had been taken over by either the Toyotomi house or the Tokugawa house, the fact remains that Japan, at that time, could not invade mainland Asia; it had just been racked with nearly 250 years of civil conflict. Its people desired peace. After Toyotomi Hideyoshi died and Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun, Japan experienced its longest era of peace ever (Sansom, 406.) Secondly, the Unifiers' success-specifically Oda Nobunaga's-in unifying Japan was directly related to their use of ji-samurai and ashigaru.. The ashigaru were farmers who had taken up arms for a feudal lord. The ji-samurai, known as the 'samurai of the land,' were warriors who were not in active service during times of peace (Beasely, 118.) In the twenty two years spanning from the Battle of Okehazama in 1560 to Nobunaga's death in 1582, Oda Nobunaga subdued most of his major rivals in Japan, thus bringing the state near unification. Before 1560, however, Oda Nobunaga was a minor power in Japan. Though his victory against Imagawa Yoshimoto at Okehazama was a product of Oda's military genius, he further reinforced his armies using ji-samurai and ashigaru. Because most of the other warlords in Japan at that time were too prideful to use any military force but traditional samurai, Oda managed to defeat most of his rivals using numbers alone (Sansom, 282-290.) Furthermore, those warlords which did not employ the use of ashigaru or ji-samurai often found themselves at arms with them (Sansom, 201.) Toyotomi Hideyoshi's tactical brilliance and his use of diplomacy would not have been successful had Nobunaga not quelled most of feuding warlords in Japan. Hideyoshi, mindful of his own rise to power, initiated the Great Sword Hunt in 1588, 4 years before the first invasion of the Asian mainland. It banned any farmers from possessing any sort of weapon and allowed only the warrior class of the samurai to possess weapons. Hideyoshi brutally enforced this policy and followed it up with the Edict on Changing Status. This document stated three things. Firstly, all warriors who had returned to village life were to be expelled. Secondly, all villagers were forbidden from becoming merchants or engaging in any sort of trade. Thirdly, the Edict on Changing Status prohibited the employment of warriors who had deserted their previous lords. Hideyoshi clearly drew a line between villager and warrior status; one which he brutally enforced. In a single stroke, Hideyoshi had destroyed social mobility and completely abrogated the concept of both ji-samurai and ashigaru (Beasley, 127.) Had Hideyoshi acted as he previously had when dealing with the Kanto Warlords, he would have held off the invasion of Asia until Japan had enough time to recuperate from the 250 years of civil strife that the country had faced. Furthermore, he would have permitted the use of ji-samurai and ashigaru-by rescinding the Edict on Changing Status-for the invasion of mainland Asia as they were instrumental in winning the War of Unification. Though Hideyoshi would have lost face by rescinding the Edict, it is clear that the daimyos' respect meant little to him for, he also failed to enforce the Explusion Edicts imposed upon the Christian Jesuits. He did not enforce the Explusion Edicts because he needed the daimyo who inhabited Kyushu as allies. The Kyushu daimyo were Christian and, thus, resented having the Christian Jesuits of Japan expelled. Thus, not only did Hideyoshi fail to enforce the Edicts, but he also changed his policy towards the Christians completely (Berry, 93.) He received the Franciscans so well, that their leader reported, "While this King lives we can enjoy much security for he is like a father to us: he has given food to us as the poor and also permission to build a monastery and church" (Cooper, 73.) Therefore, two postulates can be made: one, Hideyoshi had no reservations about rescinding Edicts as he was quite amiable to the Kyushu Christians and thus, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was not thinking rationally when he planned the invasion of Korea for he should have repealed the Edict on Changing Status to allow for the use of ji-samurai and ashigaru.

Aside from Korea, Hideyoshi planned an invasion against China; one surpassing the potential invasion of Korea in absurdity. Although in the late sixteenth century the Ming dynasty was in decline, it still had a much better economy and military than Japan. When Hideyoshi made clear his intention to dominate all of Asia, he then doomed his expedition, for Hideyoshi would have never been able to dominate the Ming Dynasty of China. The Ming Dynasty had just finished an agricultural revolution and was in the midst of a commercial revolution, making it, by far, the strongest Asian power (Hooker, 4.) By the late sixteenth century, China was trading actively with the Portuguese and the Dutch, thereby strengthening its economy. The European demand for tea had been growing steadily and China was Europe's largest supplier. All this trade made China the leading manufacturing economy in the world (Hooker, 4.) Militarily, their fleet rivaled that of any European power. They also actively traded with the Spanish for firearms which were nearly as effective as Japanese matchlocks. The Chinese made up for the small difference in quality with quantity, however, as they possessed far more guns then the Japanese. When Hideyoshi attempted the first invasion of the Asian mainland in 1592, he was stopped by hoards of Chinese troops around Pyonyang (Seal, 13.) Obviously, invading the entire continent of Asia was a foolhardy expedition, but Hideyoshi insisted on attempting it not once but twice, and perhaps more had he not died during the second invasion.

The main problem Toyotomi Hideyoshi had in asserting his rule as the Taiko (Retired Regent) was that he was not of Minamoto birth and, thus, could not assume the title of Shogun (General.) By 1592, a few daimyo still silently opposed the Toyotomi rule and sought to undermine his authority over Japan (Seal, 12.) It could, therefore, be concluded that Hideyoshi invaded Korea to bleed away the power of those that sought to defy him. This theory, though popular in Japan itself, overlooks a few key facts. Firstly, the majority of those who saw action in Korea were those who supported Hideyoshi; the Kato, Mori, and the Konishi are three such examples (Seal, 12.) During his invasion of Kyushu, all three aforementioned families played an active role in subduing Kyushu. Moreover, two of his most skilled commanders were from the Kato and Konishi families. Hideyoshi's trust in the Kato, Mori, and Konishi was further displayed after his conquest of Kyushu; the Mori family was given most of Northern Kyushu as a fief (Sansom, 322.) Hideyoshi clearly trusted those families which he sent to Korea. The Kato family, under Kato Kiyomasa sent 10,000 soldiers-the third-most amount of soldiers a single daimyo sent to Korea. Moreover, the Mori family, under the leadership of More Terumoto sent 30,000 soldiers to Korea-more than several daimyo combined (Sansom, 353.) On the other hand, those families which Hideyoshi could not trust never set foot in Korea; notably Tokugawa Ieyasu and Date Masamune. It is clear that Toyotomi Hideyoshi did not trust Date Masamune. It is said that a general should, as the maxim goes, 'keep his friends close, and his enemies even closer.' While Hideyoshi knew not of his maxim, he saw the wisdom of employing such a strategy. In 1592, during the invasion of Korea, he ordered many daimyo to live near him in his mansion in Kyoto. Those that lived closed to Hideyoshi 'were either political confidants or potentially dangerous tozama' (Berry, 143.) Data Masamune was included among the latter. Furthermore, he had even less trust for Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu was the most powerful daimyo in Japan; with a fief of 2,400,000 koku, he made more revenue per year than Hideyoshi himself (Berry, 96.) At the Battle of Nagakute in 1584, Tokugawa Ieyasu even took arms against Hideyoshi. The two generals, however, reached an agreement, realizing that together, with Ieyasu as Hideyoshi's vassal, they could conquer all of Japan (Turnbull, 98.) What should be noted now is the uneasy alliance which the two formed. It is, therefore, conclusive to say that, when Hideyoshi invaded Korea, he was not looking to disadvantage rival daimyo as those whom he did trust were sent to Korea while those he did not never set foot in Korea.

Aside from the lack of rational reasons for the invasion itself, Hideyoshi's mental health was clearly affected by a number of traumas he faced at home. It is necessary to look at these traumas in order to prove that Hideyoshi was actually mentally unstable and not, as some may argue, an old general who had lost his reason. It is clear from many letters that Hideyoshi wrote to his mother that he dearly cared for her. He boasted such pride when he wrote to her, on July 14 1592 that 'Seoul will soon fall, and that by the autumn [I] will be able to receive [your] presents in the capital of China' (Sansom, 363.) When word came to Hideyoshi that his mother's health was fading, he left for Osaka on August 30. That day, however, his mother died. It is said that when he heard the news in Osaka, he fainted, stricken with grief (Sansom, 363.) While this tragedy in and of itself might not have been enough to destroy Hideyoshi's sanity, other events took place around the same time which proved to. Hideyoshi was obsessed with forming a dynasty; he wished to be remembered for all time. Thus, when his infant son Tsurumatsu died two years earlier, Hideyoshi did not take the news well. At the time of his mother's death, his nephew Hidetsugu was the heir to the Toyotomi dynasty (Berry, 218.) An infant son was born to Hideyoshi in 1593, however, and he could not have been more delighted. He celebrated his birth with festivities, Noh theater, and banquets. After Hideyori's birth, he rarely strayed far from his son. He showered him with gifts and was filled with pride for the young boy. At the same time, however, Hideyoshi also began to isolate his nephew, though he did continue to treat Hidetsugu with respect; he was allowed to participate in Hideyoshi's pilgrimage to Mount Koya where Hideyoshi further demonstrated his love for his mother. He was left at Kurakutei where he continued to be Hideyoshi's heir, possessing the title, Kampaku (Regent.) In September of 1595, however, Hidetsugu was ordered into exile at Mount Koyo and was ordered to commit seppuku (ritualistic suicide) immediately. A Jesuit who was witnessed the slaughter reported that,

When the carts [came] to the place of execution, behold there a hangman...[Hidetsugu's] three children were first murdered and then all the other Ladies in rank one after another were taken out of the cart and their heads were stricken off. All their bodies by order from [Hideyoshi] were thrown into a pit made for [them] over which he [built] a little Chapel with a Tomb in it with this inscription: the Tomb of Traitors. (Berry, 219)

Hideyoshi's irrational slaughter of his family clearly indicates that he was suffering from a severe mental imbalance at the time. Hideyori was, subsequently, made his heir and Kampaku. Hideyoshi could have, however, simply appointed Hideyori Kampaku without the brutal slaughter, however, he chose to butcher his family as he was clearly mentally unbalanced (Berry, 223). Continuing along similar lines, it is clear that the execution or Hidetsugu was unwise as it removed him from the position of Kampaku. Hideyoshi, himself, rose to power in a dispute over his predecessor, Oda Nobunaga's succession. Oda Nobunaga had not intended to die as early as he did-he was assassinated in 1582-and, thus, did not appoint a successor. Hideyoshi, taking advantage of Oda Nobunaga's death, saw that Nobunaga's two sons were quarreling over succession, and, as Nobunaga's top general, placed Nobunaga's infant grandson, Samboshi in charge of the realm (Sansom, 311.) Thus, Hideyoshi was able to rise to power more easily because of the lack of a leader in the Oda family. Oda's empire was fractured among a few of Oda's generals at which point, Hideyoshi rose to power. It can be concluded, therefore, that he knew the follies of placing an infant son in a position of succession. Yet, Hideyoshi, by killing Hidetsugu, named Hideyori his heir. He was so sure that it could work that, upon his deathbed, he created a Council of Regents to take care of the realm until Hideyori came of age (Sansom, 368.) He appointed five individuals to this Council of Regents: Maeda Toshiie, Uesugi Kagekatsu, Mori Terumoto, Ukita Hideie, and, most interestingly, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Berry, 235.) As has been outlined earlier, Hideyoshi knew that Ieyasu was the most powerful daimyo in Japan and he would have realized, had he not been mentally unstable, that within a couple of years, Ieyasu would have overpowered Hideyoshi's Council of Regents as Hideyoshi himself had done in 1584. Hideyoshi, being quite irrational, did not, however, realize this and, thus, the Council of Regents ruled Japan until Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the remainder of the Council at the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Ieyasu went on to claim the title of Shogun since he was of Minamoto birth and the Tokugawa bakufu ruled Japan until 1867. As for Hideyoshi, he continued to plead for the Council of Regents' loyalty until his death on September 18, 1598.

Japanese and Western historians alike generally agree that Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the greatest Japanese leader ever. Despite this fact, from the evidence shown: the lack of wisdom shown in his later Edicts, the lack of thought given towards Admiral Yi, the arrogance with which Hideyoshi planned to invade China, his irrationality in choosing who would fight in Korea, and his growing fanaticism towards the end of his life prove that Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592 and again in 1597 because he was mentally unstable. His mental illness towards the end of his life doomed the Toyotomi dynasty as, after Hideyoshi's death, Tokugawa Ieyasu began to isolate the Council of Regents and eventually, claimed the title of Shogun in 1603. Hideyori lived in Osaka Castle until 1615 when Tokugawa Ieyasu finally succeeded in taking the castle. He committed seppuku and died with honour along with his mother and, thus, the Toyotomi name was eliminated. (Turnbull, 119-124)


1. Beasley, W.G. (1999) The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan, Phoenix Press, Toronto
2. Berry, Mary Elizabeth (1982) Hideyoshi, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
3. Cooper, Michael (1971) The Southern Barbarians, Kodansha International, Tokyo
4. Hooker, Richard, "Ming China," (Washington State University: World Cultures), 6 June, 1999 <http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MING/MING.HTM> (Accessed 29 December, 2001)
5. Hooker, Richard, "Tokugawa Japan," (Washington State University: World Cultures), 6 June, 1999 <http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/TOKJAPAN/TOKJAPAN.HTM> (Accessed: 29 December, 2001)
6. Perdue, Peter C. "Section VI, Chapter 16: Russia, Central Eurasia, China, Japan, 1500-1700: Centralization and Comercialization," (Chapter for Global Connections: A World History [forthcoming]), 30 August, 2000 <http://web.mit.edu/21h.504/www/perdue_16.htm> (Accessed 20 December, 2001)
7. Sansom, George (1961) A History of Japan: 1334-1615, Stanford University Press, California
8. Seal, F.W., "Samurai Archives Japanese History Page - Toyotomi Hideyoshi," (Member of History Television Online Network), 24 March, 2002 <http://www.samurai-archives.com/hideyoshi.html> (Accessed 13 December, 2001)
9. Turnbull, Stephen (1996) Samurai: The Warrior Tradition, Arms and Armour Press, New York

Marcel Thach is in Grade 11 at Northern Secondary School in Toronto, Ontario and would like to thank Michael Butler for his support and inspiration.