Hideyoshi was born the son of a peasant and became a soldier in the army of Oda Nobunaga and fought in many of his major battles. In 1573, after destroying two daimyo, Nobunaga made him a lord of Nagahama, in Omi province. In 1587, he assumed a surname, Toyotomi, which means “wealth of the nation.” He continued to serve with distinction in Oda’s campaigns.
Oda was assassinated by a lieutenant in 1582, followed by a power struggle during which Hideyoshi defeated his rivals in successive campaigns, winning final victory in 1590. As a result, Japan became a unified nation after centuries of divisive wars and an ineffectual shogunal government.
Despite his power, Hideyoshi did not assume the title of shogun because by tradition that office had been held by a member of the Minamoto clan. However, with a faked geneology, he assumed high court posts, including that of chancellor, ruling from Kyoto, but also building a formidable castle at Osaka.
Hideyoshi next decided to attack Korea as a base to invade China. In 1592, he launched his first invasion of Korea, landing his forces at Pusan. The Koreans were taken by surprise and offered only token resistance. Seoul, the capital, and Pyongyang in the north fell in rapid succession. Korea was saved by the Ming government, which eventually sent about 200,000 soldiers to repel the Japanese invaders.
Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin, who built the world’s first metal-plated ships, wreaked havoc on Japanese supply lines, compelling Hideyoshi to abandon his invasion. Since peace negotiations failed, Hideyoshi renewed his attack in 1597, but with his sudden death, the invading forces withdrew in 1598.
Hideyoshi left a young son, Toyotomi Hideyori. Hideyoshi attempted to ensure the boy’s survival by appointing a council of five regents. But by 1600, one regent, Tokugawa Ieyasu, had defeated his rivals to become shogun and in 1615 exterminated all of Hideyoshi’s heirs.
Hideyoshi implemented several important domestic policies. One was to take a general survey of the land as basis to assign jobs to his allies and supporters. To prevent future civil wars he ordered the confiscation of all swords from peasants and ordered that all Japanese remain in their current occupation (warriors, peasants, advisers, merchants). He also issued a ban on Christianity and attempted to regulate foreign trade; these policies would be made effective by his successor.