Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

How a Peasant Boy Became Premier

In the history of nations there have been many instances of a man descended from the lowest class of the populace reaching the highest rank. Kings, conquerors, emperors, have thus risen from the ranks of peasants and laborers, and the crown has been worn by men born to the beggar's lot. In the history of Japan only one instance of this kind appears, that of one born a peasant who supplanted the noble families and became lord of the people and the emperor alike. Such a man was Hideyoshi, the one of Nobunaga's generals who bore the popular nickname of "Cotton," from his fertility of resources and his varied utility to his chief.

Born in 1536, the son of a peasant named Yasuké, as a baby he had almost the face of a monkey, while as a boy he displayed a monkey-like cunning, restlessness, and activity. The usual occupations of the sons of Japanese peasants, such as grass-cutting and rice-weeding, were not to the taste of young Monkey-pine, as the villagers called him, and he spent his time in the streets, a keen-witted and reckless young truant, who feared and cared for no one, and lived by his wits.

Fortune favored the little vagrant by bringing him under the eyes of the great soldier Nobunaga, who was attracted by his wizened, monkeyish face and restless eyes and gave him occupation among his grooms. As he grew older his love of war became pronounced, he took part in the numerous civil turmoils in which his patron was engaged, and manifested such courage and daring that Nobunaga rapidly advanced him in rank, finally making him one of his most trusted generals. No man was more admired in the army for soldierly qualities than the peasant leader, and the boldest warriors sought service under his banner, which at first bore for emblem a single gourd, but gained a new one after each battle, until it displayed a thick cluster of gourds. At the head of the army a golden model of the original banner was borne, and wherever it moved victory followed.

Such was the man who, after the murder of Nobunaga, marched in furious haste upon his assassin and quenched the ambition of the latter in death. The brief career of the murderer has given rise to a Japanese proverb, "Akechi ruled three days." The avenger of the slain regent was now at the head of affairs. The mikado himself dared not oppose him, for the military power of the empire lay within his grasp. There was only one man who ventured to resist his authority, and he for no long time.

This was a general named Shibata, who took the field in defence of the claim of Nobutaka, a son of the slain regent. He did not realize with whom he had to deal. The peasant general was quickly in the field at the head of his veteran army, defeated Shibata at every encounter, and pursued him so hotly that he fled for refuge to a fortified place now known as Fukui. This stronghold Hideyoshi besieged, establishing his camp on the slope of a neighboring mountain, from which he pushed his siege operations so vigorously that the fugitive gave up all hope of escape.

In this dilemma Shibata took a resolution like that of the Epicurean monarch of Assyria, the famed Sardanapalus. He gave a grand feast in the palace, to which all the captains and notables of his party were invited, and at which all present danced and made merry as though victory hung over their banners. Yet it was their funeral feast, to be followed by a carnival of death.

In the midst of the banquet, Shibata, rising cup in band, said to his wife,—

"We are men, and will die. You are a woman, and have the right to live. You may gain safety by leaving the castle, and are at liberty to marry again."

The brave woman, the sister of Nobunaga, was too high in spirit to accept this offer. Her eyes filled with tears, she thanked her lord for his kindness, but declared that the world held no other husband for her, and that it was her sole wish to die with him. Then, reciting a farewell stanza of poetry, she calmly stood while her husband thrust his dirk into her heart.

All the women and children present, nerved by this brave example, welcomed the same fate, and then the men committed hara-kiri, the Japanese method of suicide, Shibata having first set fire to the castle. Soon the flames curled upward round the dead and the dying, and the conqueror found nothing but the ashes of a funeral pile upon which to lay hand.

Hideyoshi, all resistance to his rule being now at an end, set himself to tranquillize and develop Japan. Iyeyasu, one of Nobunaga's favorite generals, became his friend and married his sister; Mori, lord of the West, came to the capital and became his vassal, and no man in the empire dared question his power. His enemies, proud nobles who were furious at having to bend their haughty heads before a peasant, privately called him Sava Kuan ja ("crowned monkey"), but were wise enough not to be too open in their satire. Their anger was especially aroused by the fact that the mikado had conferred upon this parvenu the lofty office of kuambaku, or prime minister of the empire, a title which had never before been borne by any one not a noble of the Fujiwara clan, for whom it had been expressly reserved. He was also ennobled under the family name of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The new premier showed as great an activity in the works of peace as he had shown in those of war, putting his soldiers to work to keep their minds employed. Kioto was improved by his orders, splendid palaces being built, and the bed of the river Kamo paved with flat stones. Ozaka was greatly developed, an immense fortress being built, the river widened and deepened, and canals dug in great profusion, over which were thrown more than a thousand bridges. Various other cities were improved, great towers and pagodas built, and public works erected in many parts of the realm. In addition Hideyoshi won popularity by his justice and mercy, pardoning his opponents, though the rule had hitherto been to put the adherents of opposite parties to death, and showing no regard for rank, title, or service to himself in his official duty as judge.

He had married a peasant girl while a peasant himself, but as he rose in rank he espoused new wives of increasingly high station, his last being of princely descent. In the end he had as many wives as the much-married Henry VIII., but not in the same fashion, as he kept them all at once, instead of cutting off the head of one to make room for the next.

Hideyoshi had one great ambition, born in him when a boy, and haunting him as a man. This was to conquer Corea, and perhaps China as well. He had begged Nobunaga to aid him in this great design, but had only been laughed at for his pains. Now that he was at the head of affairs, this plan loomed up in large proportions in his mind. Corea had long ceased to pay tribute, and Corean pirates ravaged the coast. Here was an excuse for action. As for China, he knew that anarchy ruled there, and hoped to take advantage of this state of affairs.

Patting the back of a statue of Yoritomo in a patronizing fashion, he humorously said, "You are my friend. You took all the power in Japan, a thing which only you and I have been able to do. But you came from a noble family, and were not, like me, the son of a peasant. I propose to outdo you, and conquer all the earth, and even China. What say you to that?"

To test the feeling of the gods about his proposed expedition, he threw into the air before a shrine a hundred "cash," or Japanese small coin, saying, to translate his words into the American vernacular, "If I am to conquer China, let these come up head."

They all came up "head," or what in Japan answers to that word, and soldiers and ruler were alike delighted, for this omen seemed surely to promise success.

Nearly fourteen hundred years had elapsed since the previous conquest of Corea by the famous empress Jingu. Now an army said to have been five hundred thousand strong was sent across the ocean channel between Kiushiu and the Corean coast. Hideyoshi was at this time sixty years of age and had grown infirm of body, so that he felt unable to command the expedition himself; which was therefore intrusted to two of his ablest leaders, Kato, of noble birth, and Konishi, the son of a druggist, who disgusted his proud associate by representing on his banner a paper medicine-bag, the sign of his father's shop.

Notwithstanding the ill feeling between the leaders, the armies were everywhere victorious, Corea was overrun and the king driven from his capital, and the victors had entered into serious conflict with the armies of China, when word came from Japan (in 1598) that Hideyoshi was dead. A truce was at once concluded and the army ordered home.

Thus ended the second invasion of Corea, the second of the events which gave rise to the claim in Japan that Corea is a vassal state of the island empire and were used as warrants to the nineteenth century invasion.