Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

The Lord of the Golden Water Gourds

In the last chapter mention was made of the low origin of Hideyoshi, and in a former chapter I told you how the Japanese nobles adopted coats of arms or crests, just as the noble families of Europe did during the Middle Ages. Hideyoshi, of course, had no crest; but when, in 1575, he obtained a command, he adopted a water gourd as his emblem, and added another one for every victory he gained, until the number grew into a large bunch, and he was called The Lord of the Golden Water Gourds.

When Hideyoshi heard of the death of his friend and master Nobunaga, he knew that it was his duty to punish the murderer. But, if for that purpose he should raise the siege, he was quite certain that the rebel chieftains would fall upon his rear, and endanger the situation. His decision, however, was soon made. He informed the besieged of the murder, and frankly confessed that he was about to pursue the man who was responsible for Nobunaga's death. He concluded by saying that he was willing to make peace with them for a time or forever; but if they did not accept his terms then and there, he would soon return with as powerful an army as could be raised in Japan. You will readily understand how those proud chieftains hated the upstart, but they knew also that "the crowned monkey," as they called him on account of his features, was not the man to make idle threats, and that the army of Nobunaga would be ready to join him. They therefore accepted his terms and agreed to serve under him. Reënforced by his former enemies, Hideyoshi now advanced upon Kyoto.

Brave and reckless as he was, the anxiety to reach the capital before Nobunaga's traitor captain could secure a foothold, caused the general to hurry on before his army. About halfway between Hiogo (hee-yoh-goh)  and Osaka, he came unexpectedly upon a scouting party of the traitor, and a fight ensued in which he was parted from his guard.

There was a small temple, surrounded by rice fields, which resemble swamps because of the constant irrigation needed in the growing of rice. A narrow path, scarcely wide enough for a horse, led to the temple, and Hideyoshi spurred his horse over it. Near the temple he jumped off, turned his horse on the path, and pricking it with his dirk, sent it galloping back. He then ran into the temple, where he found the priests taking their baths. The bath room in Japan is a large square apartment where all can take their baths at the same time. So Hideyoshi threw off his clothes and jumped in, and when his pursuers searched the temple, they took only a cursory glance at the bathing priests. But now Hideyoshi's guard had come up, and the scouting party was driven off. Hideyoshi put on his clothes and continued his march at the head of his troops.

For twelve days the traitor who had planned to take Nobunaga's place had been master in Kyoto, when Hideyoshi with his army approached the Yodo River. The same battlefield where Japan's fate had been decided when the Minamoto were defeated by the Taira, was to see a new ruler rise to direct her destinies. The traitor's troops were routed, and as he was trying to escape, he was nearly killed with a pitchfork in the hands of a peasant. He ended his life in the usual way, by hara-kiri, but his head was cut off and put on a stake near the place where Nobunaga had fallen. This victory made Hideyoshi master of the situation, and he was not the man to neglect his opportunities.

It was natural enough that the chieftains, who had unwillingly and after repeated struggles submitted to Nobunaga, should object to obey the orders of a man of such humble origin as Hideyoshi. But it was not long before they learned that, willingly or not, the orders issued by the "crowned monkey" must be obeyed. He marched against the chieftains who denied his authority, and after a few decisive battles, convinced them that a strong hand ruled in Kyoto. Then, for the first time in many years, order was restored and Japan began to recover from the long period of misrule and civil war.

Roadside shrine


Nobunaga had been a general and nothing more. The Lord of the Golden Water Gourds was not only an able general: he was also a crafty politician. In those days the Japanese were very superstitious; in fact, they are so even to this day. I do not mean the few who have traveled in this country or, in Europe, but the great mass of the people. I have told you before that the principal food of the Japanese is rice, and the peasants have the greatest respect for Inari (ee-nah-ree), the god of rice. Wherever you go in Japan, you will see shrines erected to him, sometimes by the roadside near a village, at other times hidden in a beautiful copse of maples or evergreens, or again covered by the leaves of the bamboo, near the fence of a farmyard. The peasants also believe that the fox is the servant of the rice god, and that he can bewitch people. One of Hideyoshi's maidservants took a notion that a fox had bewitched her, and was so convinced of the fact that the other servants began to be afraid of her. The matter was reported to Hideyoshi. He smiled, and said there was a cure for this. He wrote a letter to the god of rice, requesting him to find out which fox had done the deed, and to punish him if he could give no good reasons for his action. The woman, firmly believing that this letter would have the desired effect, was soon cured.

On one of his campaigns, it was necessary to ship a number of horses across an inlet of the sea. The boatmen were afraid. "We don't like to," they said; "the sea god might be angry, and what would become of us then?" Hideyoshi quietly called for pen and paper, and gravely indicted a letter which read as follows:—


The horses belonging to the army of the Heaven Child must be transported across this inlet, and I, the unworthy commander of these troops, have engaged the boatmen to perform this work. As they are acting in the service of the Tennô, you will please grant them a safe passage.

This letter was read to the boatmen and then cast into the sea. Satisfied that this would appease the sea god, the boatmen promptly transported the horses.

Hideyoshi had now pacified Japan; that is, the daimio acknowledged him as their master, because they had been made to understand that any disobedience would bring swift and sure punishment. The Lord of the Golden Water Gourds was sure of his army, and he was no niggard in giving land to his faithful captains. From this time, the land really did belong to the daimio, although in theory they held it in fief, that is, as a loan, from the Tennô.