Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Three Great Men—Hideyoshi

When the news of this terrible crime reached Hideyoshi, he at once started for Kyoto to avenge his master. He had captured the castle, and he bade his troops march towards the capital. In his eagerness he outstripped the army and pushed on, attended only by a small body-guard. Akechi feared the vengeance of Hideyoshi, and sent a band of assassins to waylay him. As it happened, the assassins came upon the general when he was alone, for he had ridden far in advance of his body-guard, and he had to fly. He galloped along a narrow lane which led between rice-fields to a small temple, and the assassins followed in hot pursuit. Midway in the lane, Hideyoshi leapt down, turned his horse round, and stabbed the powerful creature in the hind leg. Mad with pain, the horse galloped furiously back and charged full into the band of pursuers, hurling them in all directions. Hideyoshi ran on swiftly to the temple.

When he got there he found the priests taking a bath in a big common bath-tub. He told them quickly who he was and begged their aid. They told him to leap in and hide himself among them. He stripped off his clothes and sprang into the tub, so that when a number of the assassins rushed into the temple they could find nothing but a bath-tub full of priests. Away they hurried, thinking that the fugitive was racing ahead, and when the anxious body-guard came up, they found their master clad in the garb of a priest, and taking a comfortable rest after his refreshing bath.

Hideyoshi soon overcame Akechi, and the latter was slain; Hideyoshi now became the chief man of Japan. He was never made Shogun, for his family was too humble, but he held the power of the office with a grasp too firm to be shaken. He had no easy task to make himself supreme. There were many great princes who despised and disliked this man who had risen from the people, and they only bowed to his authority after his marvellous military skill had crushed their armies and broken their power. His fiercest fight was with the great Satsuma clan, who were all-powerful in the island of Kyushu. The Satsuma warriors were famous for their bravery, their country was wild and difficult to traverse, and eight provinces owned the Daimyo of Satsuma as their lord.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


Hideyoshi marched against these dangerous enemies and fought with his never-failing skill and good fortune. He beat the Satsuma here, he beat them there, and finally he cooped them up in their chief city. All waited to see Hideyoshi crush his enemies with one last tremendous blow: he showed how clever a man he was by doing nothing of the sort. He admitted the Satsuma to peace, and gave them excellent terms. He restored to them the territory of their clan, merely imposing the condition that they should hold it as a grant from the emperor. In this way he conquered the Satsuma more surely than by the sword: they became, and remained, his faithful vassals.

One more great struggle lay before Hideyoshi and then he was master everywhere. This was a campaign against the great Hojo chief, who held several provinces in the south-eastern corner of the main island, in the neighbourhood of the sacred mountain Fujisan. This campaign is noteworthy because it marks the rise of the city of Yedo, which, under a change of name, has become the capital city of Tokio. When marching against the Hojo chief, Hideyoshi found that he must send many horses across the sea of Enshu, so he called upon the boatmen to ferry the horses over. They would not do so. They were very superstitious, and greatly feared the god of the sea, Ryujin. They declared that Ryujin did not like horses, and that he would raise a storm and sink them all if they took horses upon his waters. The wily general set himself to calm the fears of these men whose help he needed. He told them that the sea-god was far too polite to hinder any expedition for which the emperor had given orders. But to make things quite sure, he would write a letter to the god and ask him to ensure a safe passage for the ships. So a letter was written and addressed to "Mr. Ryujin"; it was then taken out in a boat and thrown into deep water. The simple boatmen now believed that all would be well, and the horses were ferried over without delay.

In the quelling of this Hojo chief, Hideyoshi was greatly helped by Ieyasu. When the campaign was over, the conquered country was placed in the charge of Ieyasu, and he fixed the seat of his lordship at Yedo, a little fishing village beside the sea. Under Ieyasu, Yedo grew into a place of great importance, and is now the chief town of Japan.

It was about this time that Hideyoshi began to look with an unfriendly eye upon the Christians. It was not that he disliked the Christian faith: he seems to have been a man who troubled very little about any form of religion, but he became very uneasy about foreign influence in the country. He had hosts of spies, and one of these brought him a report of the chatter of a Portuguese sea-captain. "The king, my master," said the captain, "begins by sending priests who win over the people; and when this is done he despatches his troops to join the native Christians, and the conquest is easy and complete."

Hideyoshi knew that this had happened in India, in China, and several other parts of the East, and he made up his mind that it should not happen in Japan. So in 1587 he issued an edict ordering every missionary on pain of death to leave Japan within twenty days. This edict was not obeyed, but it caused the missionaries to go about their work more quietly, though they made converts apace.

Nor, for some time, did Hideyoshi pay more attention to the Christians, for he had the greatest war of his warlike career on his hands. He sent troops to assail Korea, and when Korea was overcome he intended to subdue China. The project failed, and the only result of this war was to crush Korea to the earth as a kingdom. Her fields were laid desolate, her cities were burned to the ground, and the country which had taught Japan so much fell into a hopeless, helpless state from which she never fully recovered. In her misery she still continued to teach, for many of her skilled craftsmen were carried across to Japan, where they improved the methods of the native workmen. Most renowned among the craftsmen were the seventeen families of Korean potters whom the Prince of Satsuma brought home from the war and settled in his province. They formed a little guild, who turned out those lovely examples of glazed pottery famous all the world over as Satsuma ware.