Biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 16th Century Unifier of Japan

statue of Toyotomi Hideyoshi

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Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1539–September 18, 1598) was the leader of Japan who reunified the country after 120 years of political fragmentation. During his rule, known as the Momoyama or Peach Mountain age, the country was united as a more-or-less peaceful federation of 200 independent daimyo (great lords), with himself as an imperial regent.

Fast Facts: Toyotomi Hideyoshi

  • Known For: Ruler of Japan, reunified the country
  • Born: 1536 in Nakamura, Owari Province, Japan
  • Parents: Farmer and part-time soldier Yaemon and his wife
  • Died: September 18, 1598 at Fushimi castle, Kyoto
  • Education: Trained as a military aide to Matsushita Yukitsana (1551–1558), then with Oda Nobunaga (1558–1582)
  • Published Works: The Tensho-ki, a biography he commissioned
  • Spouse(s): Chacha (principal concubine and mother of his children)
  • Children: Tsurumatsu (1580–1591), Toyotomi Hideyori (1593–1615)

Early Life

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born in 1536, in Nakamura, Owari Province, Japan. He was the second child of Yaemon, a peasant farmer and part-time soldier for the Oda clan, who died in 1543 when the boy was 7 years old and his sister was about 10. Hideyoshi’s mother soon remarried. Her new husband also served Oda Nobuhide, the daimyo of the Owari region, and she had another son and daughter.

Hideyoshi was small for his age and skinny. His parents sent him to a temple to get an education, but the boy ran away seeking adventure. In 1551, he joined the service of Matsushita Yukitsuna, a retainer of the powerful Imagawa family in Totomi province. This was unusual because both Hideyoshi’s father and his stepfather had served the Oda clan.

Joining Oda

Hideyoshi returned home in 1558 and offered his service to Oda Nobunaga, son of the daimyo. At the time, the Imagawa clan's army of 40,000 was invading Owari, Hideyoshi’s home province. Hideyoshi took a huge gamble—the Oda army numbered only about 2,000. In 1560, the Imagawa and Oda armies met in battle at Okehazama. Oda Nobunaga’s tiny force ambushed the Imagawa troops in a driving rainstorm and scored an incredible victory, driving the invaders away.

Legend says that 24-year-old Hideyoshi served in this battle as Nobunaga’s sandal-bearer. However, Hideyoshi does not appear in Nobunaga’s surviving writings until the early 1570s.


Six years later, Hideyoshi led a raid that captured Inabayama Castle for the Oda clan. Oda Nobunaga rewarded him by making him a general.

In 1570, Nobunaga attacked his brother-in-law’s castle, Odani. Hideyoshi led the first three detachments of one thousand samurai each against the well-fortified castle. Nobunaga’s army used the devastating new technology of firearms, rather than horse-mounted swordsmen. Muskets are not much use against castle walls, however, so Hideyoshi’s section of the Oda army settled in for a siege.

By 1573, Nobunaga's troops had defeated all of its enemies in the area. For his part, Hideyoshi received the daimyo-ship of three regions within Omi Province. By 1580, Oda Nobunaga had consolidated power in over 31 of Japan's 66 provinces.


In 1582, Nobunaga's general Akechi Mitsuhide turned his army against his lord, attacking and overrunning Nobunaga's castle. Nobunaga's diplomatic machinations had caused the hostage-murder of Mitsuhide's mother. Mitsuhide forced Oda Nobunaga and his eldest son to commit seppuku.

Hideyoshi captured one of Mitsuhide's messengers and learned of Nobunaga's death the next day. He and other Oda generals, including Tokugawa Ieyasu, raced to avenge their lord's death. Hideyoshi caught up with Mitsuhide first, defeating and killing him at the Battle of Yamazaki just 13 days after Nobunaga's death.

A succession fight erupted in the Oda clan. Hideyoshi supported Nobunaga's grandson Oda Hidenobu. Tokugawa Ieyasu preferred the oldest remaining son Oda Nobukatsu.

Hideyoshi prevailed, installing Hidenobu as the new Oda daimyo. Throughout 1584, Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu engaged in intermittent skirmishes, none decisive. At the Battle of Nagakute, Hideyoshi's troops were crushed, but Ieyasu lost three of his top generals. After eight months of this costly fighting, Ieyasu sued for peace.

Hideyoshi now controlled 37 provinces. In conciliation, Hideyoshi distributed lands to his defeated foes in the Tokugawa and Shibata clans. He also granted lands to Samboshi and Nobutaka. This was a clear signal that he was taking power in his own name.

Hideyoshi Reunifies Japan

In 1583, Hideyoshi began construction on Osaka Castle, a symbol of his power and intent to rule all of Japan. Like Nobunaga, he refused the title of Shogun. Some courtiers doubted a farmer’s son could legally claim that title. Hideyoshi circumvented the potentially embarrassing debate by taking the title of kampaku, or "regent," instead. Hideyoshi then ordered the dilapidated Imperial Palace restored, and offered gifts of money to the cash-strapped imperial family.

Hideyoshi also decided to bring the southern island of Kyushu under his authority. This island was home to the primary trading ports through which goods from China, Korea, Portugal, and other nations made their way into Japan. Many of the daimyo of Kyushu had converted to Christianity under the influence of Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries. Some had been converted by force, and Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were destroyed.

In November 1586, Hideyoshi sent a huge invasion force to Kyushu, totaling some 250,000 troops. A number of local daimyo rallied to his side as well, so it did not take long for the massive army to crush all resistance. As usual, Hideyoshi confiscated all of the land and then returned smaller portions to his defeated foes and rewarded his allies with much larger fiefdoms. He also ordered the expulsion of all Christian missionaries on Kyushu.

The final reunification campaign took place in 1590. Hideyoshi sent another huge army, probably more than 200,000 men, to conquer the mighty Hojo clan, which ruled the area around Edo (now Tokyo). Ieyasu and Oda Nobukatsu led the army, joined by a naval force to bottle up the Hojo resistance from the sea. The defiant daimyo Hojo Ujimasa withdrew to Odawara Castle and settled in to wait out Hideyoshi.

After six months, Hideyoshi sent in Ujimasa's brother to ask for the Hojo daimyo's surrender. He refused, and Hideyoshi launched a three-day, all-out attack on the castle. Ujimasa finally sent his son to surrender the castle. Hideyoshi ordered Ujimasa to commit seppuku. He confiscated the domains and sent Ujimasa's son and brother into exile. The great Hojo clan was obliterated.

Hideyoshi's Reign

In 1588, Hideyoshi forbade all Japanese citizens besides samurai from owning weapons. This "Sword Hunt" angered farmers and warrior-monks, who traditionally had kept weapons and participated in wars and rebellions. Hideyoshi wanted to clarify the boundaries between the various social classes in Japan and to prevent uprisings by the monks and peasants.

Three years later, Hideyoshi issued another order forbidding anyone from hiring ronin, the wandering samurai with no masters. Towns also were barred from allowing farmers to become traders or craftsmen. The Japanese social order was to be set in stone. If you were born a farmer, you died a farmer. If you were a samurai born into the service of a particular daimyo, there you stayed. Hideyoshi himself rose from the peasant class to become kampaku. Nonetheless, this hypocritical order helped to usher in a centuries-long era of peace and stability.

In order to keep the daimyo in check, Hideyoshi ordered them to send their wives and children to the capital city as hostages. The daimyo themselves would spend alternating years in their fiefs and in the capital. This system, called sankin kotai or "alternate attendance," was codified in 1635 and continued until 1862.

Finally, Hideyoshi also ordered a nationwide population census and a survey of all the lands. It measured not only the exact sizes of the different domains but also the relative fertility and expected crop yield. All of this information was key for setting taxation rates.

Succession Problems

Hideyoshi's only children were two boys, from his principal concubine Chacha (also known as Yodo-dono or Yodo-gimi), the daughter of Oda Nobunaga's sister. In 1591, Hideyoshi's only son, a toddler named Tsurumatsu, suddenly died, followed soon by Hideyoshi's half-brother Hidenaga. The kampaku adopted Hidenaga's son Hidetsugu as his heir. In 1592, Hideyoshi became the taiko or retired regent, while Hidetsugu took the title of kampaku. This "retirement" was in name only, however—Hideyoshi maintained his hold on power.

The following year, however, Hideyoshi's concubine Chacha gave birth to a new son. This baby, Hideyori, represented a serious threat to Hidetsugu. Hideyoshi had a substantial force of bodyguards posted to protect the child from any attack by his uncle.

Hidetsugu developed a bad reputation across the country as a cruel and blood-thirsty man. He was known to drive out into the countryside with his musket and shoot down farmers in their fields just for practice. He also played executioner, relishing the job of chopping up convicted criminals with his sword. Hideyoshi could not tolerate this dangerous and unstable man, who posed an obvious threat to the baby Hideyori.

In 1595, he accused Hidetsugu of plotting to overthrow him and ordered him to commit seppuku. Hidetsugu's head was displayed on the city walls after his death. Shockingly, Hideyoshi also ordered Hidetsugu's wives, concubines, and children all to be brutally executed except for a one-month-old daughter.

This excessive cruelty was not an isolated incident in Hideyoshi's later years. He also ordered his friend and tutor, the tea-ceremony master Rikyu, to commit seppuku at the age of 69 in 1591. In 1596, he ordered the crucifixion of six shipwrecked Spanish Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, and 17 Japanese Christians at Nagasaki.

Invasions of Korea

Throughout the late 1580s and early 1590s, Hideyoshi sent a number of emissaries to King Seonjo of Korea, demanding safe passage through the country for the Japanese army. Hideyoshi informed the Joseon king that he intended to conquer Ming China and India. The Korean ruler made no reply to these messages.

In February 1592, 140,000 Japanese army troops arrived in an armada of some 2,000 boats and ships. It attacked Busan, in southeastern Korea. In weeks, the Japanese advanced to the capital city of Seoul. King Seonjo and his court fled north, leaving the capital to be burned and looted. By July, the Japanese held Pyeongyang as well. The battle-hardened samurai troops cut through the Korean defenders like a sword through butter, to China’s concern.

The land war went Hideyoshi's way, but Korean naval superiority made life difficult for the Japanese. The Korean fleet had better weaponry and more experienced sailors. It also had a secret weapon—the iron-clad "turtle ships," which were nearly invulnerable to Japan's underpowered naval cannon. Cut off from their food and ammunition supplies, the Japanese army got bogged down in the mountains of northern Korea.

Korean Admiral Yi Sun Shin scored a devastating victory over Hideyoshi's navy at the Battle of Hansan-do on August 13, 1592. Hideyoshi ordered his remaining ships to cease engagements with the Korean navy. In January 1593, the Wanli Emperor of China sent 45,000 troops to reinforce the beleaguered Koreans. Together, the Koreans and Chinese pushed Hideyoshi's army out of Pyeongyang. The Japanese were pinned down and with their navy unable to deliver supplies, they began to starve. In mid-May1593, Hideyoshi relented and ordered his troops home to Japan. He did not give up his dream of a mainland empire, however.

In August 1597, Hideyoshi sent a second invasion force against Korea. This time, however, the Koreans and their Chinese allies were better prepared. They stopped the Japanese army short of Seoul and forced them back toward Busan in a slow, grinding drive. Meanwhile, Admiral Yi set out to crush Japan's rebuilt naval forces once more.


Hideyoshi's grand imperial scheme came to an end on September 18, 1598, when the taiko died. On his deathbed, Hideyoshi repented sending his army into this Korean quagmire. He said, "Don't let my soldiers become spirits in a foreign land."

Hideyoshi's biggest concern as he lay dying, however, was the fate of his heir. Hideyori was only 5 years old and unable to assume his father's powers, so Hideyoshi set up the Council of Five Elders to rule as his regents until he came of age. This council included Tokugawa Ieyasu, Hideyoshi’s one-time rival. The old taiko extracted vows of loyalty to his little son from a number of other senior daimyo and sent precious gifts of gold, silk robes, and swords to all the important political players. He also made personal appeals to the Council members to protect and serve Hideyori faithfully.

Hideyoshi's Legacy

The Council of Five Elders kept the taiko's death a secret for several months while they withdrew the Japanese army from Korea. With that piece of business complete, though, the council broke down into two opposing camps. On one side was Tokugawa Ieyasu. On the other were the remaining four elders. Ieyasu wanted to take power for himself. The others supported little Hideyori.

In 1600, the two forces came to blows in the Battle of Sekigahara. Ieyasu prevailed and declared himself shogun. Hideyori was confined to Osaka Castle. In 1614, the 21-year-old Hideyori began to gather soldiers, preparing to challenge Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu launched the Siege of Osaka in November, forcing him to disarm and sign a peace pact. The next spring, Hideyori tried again to gather troops. The Tokugawa army launched an all-out attack on Osaka Castle, reducing sections to rubble with their cannon and setting the castle on fire.

Hideyori and his mother committed seppuku. His 8-year-old son was captured by the Tokugawa forces and beheaded. That was the end of the Toyotomi clan. The Tokugawa shoguns would rule Japan until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Although his lineage did not survive, Hideyoshi's influence on Japanese culture and politics was enormous. He solidified the class structure, unified the nation under central control, and popularized cultural practices such as the tea ceremony. Hideyoshi finished the unification begun by his lord, Oda Nobunaga, setting the stage for the peace and stability of the Tokugawa Era.


  • Berry, Mary Elizabeth. "Hideyoshi." Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1982. 
  • Hideyoshi, Toyotomi. "101 Letters of Hideyoshi: The Private Correspondence of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Sophia University, 1975.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. "Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Leadership, Strategy, Conflict." Osprey Publishing, 2011. 
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 16th Century Unifier of Japan." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, September 7). Biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 16th Century Unifier of Japan. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 16th Century Unifier of Japan." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).