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Hideyoshi by Mary Elizabeth Berry, summary and review

Posted May 22nd, 2016 at 09:41 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

A Review and summary of the historical book "Hideyoshi" by Mary Elizabeth Berry; one of the only English books and perhaps the best on this topic and historical personage.
Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. London: Harvard University Press, 1982. 241 pages in all.

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Hideyoshi was the first book published by Professor Mary Elizabeth Berry in 1982. This book was similar in some aspects to her next book: The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto (1994) but different to her more cultural oriented book Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period (2006). As can be seen by these books her research interests are grounded in the early modern period of Japanese history. Judging by “Hideyoshi” and “The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto” much of her research also focuses on politics and the political structure of the state, with the significance of Imperial authority as well as that of military power and the importance of the city of Kyoto. In fact Hideyoshi has many pages dedicated to an explanation of the events prior to Hideyoshi’s rule and how the power structure of the Shogun and Emperor destabilized; this is the main topic of “The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto” but can be found in “Hideyoshi” to provide some context in explaining the nature of Hideyoshi’s government and the circumstances that led to his rule. The major point of this work however is the importance of the figure of Toyotomi Hideyoshi to the reunification of the sixty six Japanese provinces and for his laying the groundwork for the rest of Japanese history. Her main argument was that Hideyoshi built upon the success of his master Nobunaga but that he implemented a federal system of government and kept himself under Imperial authority.

The book begins with a chapter entitled “The Toyotomi Peace” which serves to provide the reader with information on Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s legacy, extraordinary origins and the state of the country upon his death in 1598 (born in 1536), after the nation had been in civil war since 1467. The book starts with a description of Hideyoshi’s funerary rites as they buried him in Kyoto and shows the immediate consequences of his death. His successor Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate) closed his shrine in order to consolidate his own power among the peasants by making them forget the past rule of Hideyoshi. To drive its main point across here the book states that “Long before that time... Hideyoshi had become a legend. Storytellers endlessly recounted the tales of a leader who had changed his country more profoundly than any of his predecessors. A general who had unified Japan after a century of civil war, a governor who had laid the foundation for almost three hundred years of peacetime rule, and a showman without peer who had brought a new pageantry to power, Hideyoshi was the most remarkable man in premodern Japanese history” [1]. The next sentences mention that Hideyoshi was born a peasant and that by service to his lord, Oda Nobunaga the conqueror of over thirty of the sixty six provinces, he was promoted to a high ranking official in his army. After his lord was killed by another rebellious general Hideyoshi was able to avenge his master and become a powerful lord that would eventually conquer the rest of Japan. Through the use of skillful diplomacy and military power he unified Japan and brought many provincial lords into his power. He also patronized the arts, rebuilt many of the palaces, temples and towns and brought the people into a culture of peace. Eventually he would even go on a failed attempt to conquer Joseon Korea and Ming China. Despite all of these successes his young heir was overthrown by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Right after this summarization of events it states “His federation is our principal subject: the conquest and conciliation that made it possible, the motives that inspired an extraordinary powerful man to share authority with his daimyo, and the particular expressions that his federal settlement took” [2]. Within the first seven pages the most important people and events are outlined effectively.
[1] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 1.
[2] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 7.


The narrative starts with the second chapter; “A World without a Center” in which the author gives the story of Hideyoshi’s origins. Growing up as a peasant in Owari province, Hideyoshi experienced the life of most other peasants. Although he lost his father at a young age his family had their own plot of land. Just as his real father and his step-father he had served in the military of the local rulers, the Oda clan, as a foot soldier. The chapter gives a good impression of the life of an average peasant. Later on this is completed by other information such as the distribution of land, collaboration with local soldiers and taxation in the second chapter. Moreover chapter one describes vividly the regular state of affairs in Japan since 1467; “Hideyoshi came to maturity during the last half of a period historians call Sengoku-the era of the country at war” [3]. The rest of the chapter continues with a short history of Japan from their encounter with the Tang China and the establishment of centralized rule in Japan during the Yamato period (660). The centralized administration collapsed after infighting between powerful families of the nobility and the victory of one of these established the Minamoto Shogunate and kept the Emperor only as a figure head (1185). Centralized rule could not be maintained however and the Shogun was overthrown when the Emperor tried to reclaim power. The Emperor was overthrown by another warlord who established the Ashikaga Shogunate which was able to control the imperial court and the provincial warlords with the use of feudalism (1336). Through the feudal system many of the government officials were able to gain more lands and wealth than the Shogun, to the point where warlords were able to overthrow the provincial governments and take over the provinces. The Shogun lost control of the country outside of Kyoto and conspiracies by his officials led to the killing of the Ashikaga Shogun.
Having given these background details, professor Berry is able to connect this with the changes that would begin in Japan. Oda Nobunaga, the son of a local warlord which seized Owari province, was able to defeat other such warlords in the surrounding provinces. Having brought into his sphere of influence four provinces the Shogun’s dead brother goes to Nobunaga and convinces him to attack the conspirators in the capital (Kyoto). Nobunaga conquers Kyoto and establishes his claimant as Ashikaga Shogun in 1568. But Nobunaga’s success brought him enemies from the surrounding families and the heavily militarized religious institutions; this continues into chapter three “The Terror”. From 1570 until his murder in 1582 Nobunaga was constantly at war. Since he pursued centralist policies this likely brought him many enemies even from within his own clan and the Shogun himself. Nobunaga even sent orders to the Shogun saying “the affairs of the realm have been fully entrusted to Nobunaga, all judgments shall be rendered in accord with his perceptions and without consulting the Shogun” [4]. Nobunaga conquered the main port cities, mines and manufactories of armour and weapons and conceded the Jesuits the right to build a church in exchange for trade. Having been able to take all of these key areas of the nation and becoming self sufficient he was thus able to defeat his many foes. His expanding territories were governed in much the same way that he controlled the Shogun and very importantly he did not accept titles from the Emperor either. His order to the provincial governors included things such as this “Needless to say, you will firmly resolve to act in all things in conformity with Nobunaga’s orders… it is essential that you always have concern for me” [5]. Slowly Nobunaga had defeated all of the rival clans, militant monks and the Ashikaga Shogun, in 1582 he was about to defeat the Mori clan when he ordered his army to destroy that clan in the south and left himself without troops to guard him. One of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, took advantage of his temporary insecurity attacking and murdering Nobunaga and declaring himself the new Shogun. Chapters two and three are therefore crucial to understanding the politics of Japan and how Hideyoshi would choose to govern. His rule would build upon what was established by Nobunaga with some alterations to the style of governing.
[3] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 10.
[4] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 44.
[5] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 56.


Chapters four, five and six are concerned with explaining how Hideyoshi was able to take control of the country and his style of ruling. Chapter four relates the story of how Hideyoshi received news that his lord had been killed and immediately made peace with the Mori clan in order to march north and defeat the traitorous general. He gathered other Oda clan generals in order to defeat and kill Akechi Mitsuhide in only about 15 days after the death of Nobunaga. His real challenge was holding onto his privileged position and so he began giving Oda generals territory to rule in his own name. These actions alerted the other generals and Nobunaga’s two sons so they went to war with Hideyoshi. During this war Hideyoshi was able to bring some of these generals over to his side (including one of Nobunaga’s sons) by promising them land. As a result of the mass desertion Hideyoshi was able to win and gain thousands of troops and experienced lords in the process. This same system of reconciliation allowed Hideyoshi to conquer more clans and add the defeated clans to his army, making his wars much quicker than those of Nobunaga. The author uses primary sources to make her point clear; in a letter by Hideyoshi to one of these lords it contrasts with the orders of Nobunaga “Because of your assistance to me, I bestow upon you all the rights to Shiso in the province of Harima, this area shall be your domain in full” [6]. Using methods such as removal of weapons from temples and villages his policy of reconciliation included the militant Buddhists and also peasants. By taking the weapons he made sure he could control religious institutions and the peasantry. This act also ensured that the social order could be forced into complying with his own demands as the ruler of Japan so that peasants would stay peasants, rich merchants could not rebel and warriors only served the state. In exchange all of these would be allowed to practice their trades in peace. So not only did Hideyoshi take away the means for commoners to rebel but he made sure that the lords would be indebted to him. This was followed by nationwide land surveys in order to make permanent tax rates in order to control the activity of the nobility by forcing them to provide local revenues to the state. It created a stable society that he could control, this system of federation allowed Hideyoshi to maintain power: the author contrasts this with Nobunaga’s policies by pointing out the amount of resistance to Nobunaga’s centralization. Hideyoshi’s policy gave no reason for the warlords to resist him, so long as they joined his government they could have vast amounts of land to rule in Hideyoshi’s name. By 1590 Hideyoshi had effectively subdued the whole country. Professor Berry makes an effective example of the changes Hideyoshi brought to Japan after the warring states period from chapters four to six.

Finally chapters seven and eight continue her narrative into the life of Hideyoshi. These last two chapters are defined by their targeting the issues of legitimization of his rule and his final acts. Unlike Nobunaga, Hideyoshi accepted court ranks from the emperor. Quite clearly she states “After climbing to the pinnacle of the imperial bureaucracy, he revived the ceremonies of state… he fitted himself to a princely post and legitimated his rule by becoming the Emperor’s ranking minister” [7].
According to her assessment Hideyoshi needed a way to justify his rule after war had ended. Tying himself to the ancient institution of the Imperial court was the best way to do it in the eyes of his subjects. Rather than becoming a Shogun and being associated with military control he took the title of Regent which implied servitude to the Emperor but also control of the state. He did not lose his military power however and built a grand fortress at Osaka but maintained an image as a minister of the state. Ultimately this position led him to organizing entertainment for Emperor Go Yozei and the nobility in the form of tea gatherings and theater. He was also obligated to rebuild parts of the capital, shrines for the Imperial Family of Japan, palaces and gardens. The last act in his quest for legitimacy was an invasion of Korea with the goal of conquering China. Mary Berry’s stance is that Hideyoshi’s main goal was recognition from overseas as well as in Japan to the extent of his power. An important insight is her quoting from Hideyoshi’s letter to the Korean King “My wish is nothing other than that my name be known throughout the three countries (China, Korea and India)” [8]. The war proved a failure for Hideyoshi after the Chinese and Koreans overpowered the Japanese military and the Korean navy sank the Japanese ships. The great defeat overseas is widely considered one of Hideyoshi’s greatest mistakes; Professor Berry also takes this stance. The other great mistake was the execution of his own nephew and heir so that Hideyoshi’s very young son, Hideyori, could rule. Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in September of 1598 leaving behind the problems of war in Korea and his own succession. Being still an infant Hideyori was overthrown by his own vassal Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600 who established the Tokugawa Shogunate, Hideyori himself died in 1615 during a revolt against Tokugawa rule (the fact that Tokugawa allowed Hideyori to live that long shows a similarity with the policy of conciliation). After Hideyoshi had died his own family would no longer rule but the society and government that he created would remain largely in place under the peaceful Tokugawa rule until their overthrow by the Emperor in 1868. Again Professor Berry succeeds in creating a strong narrative that explains the events during the last years of Hideyoshi.
[6] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 81.
[7] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 168.
[8] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 216.


In conclusion the book “Hideyoshi” by Mary Elizabeth Berry is an excellent study of the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Not only his life; it is also a brilliant analysis of the nature of Japanese rule and feudalism which helps to provide a broad context in which to place Hideyoshi and his administration. It captures the major events of this period and places them into the context of Japanese history as a whole as well as the actual reign of Hideyoshi. Her arguments transition well and the narrative flows with the many facts that she uses to support them. Of note was the use of letters, histories and state documents written by the people of that era. The book not only serves as a biography, but it is also a history of Japan and a political history, even containing details of the economy. This is in fact one of the very few books on the subject of Hideyoshi, in fact the only one of recent years.
The only other biography I know of is "The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi" by Walter Dening published in 1888. In some ways this book is almost a political biography of Oda Nobunaga as well and so of great value for that reason. Due to the painful lack of books regarding Toyotomi Hideyoshi, as well as many other Japanese subjects, this book would be an automatic treasure.

If there are any criticisms which might be placed against the book it might be that the book is too general at times. After all, the entire book is supposed to be a general analysis at only 241 pages. However some of the events might require more information specifically when rating Hideyoshi as a military commander. Great emphasis is placed on the speed of his conquests but sometimes this is attributed to his diplomatic skill (such as when the Oda generals defected to his side throughout 1583/84). For instance she relates the defeat of his enemy Shibata Katsuie at around that time in the Battle of Shizugatake with the basic description “Once informed of the defeat of his men in Omi province, Hideyoshi immediately set off for vengeance. Said to have covered the fifty-two kilometers from Mino to Shibata Katsuie's camp in an implausible five hours, he had nine of his most trusted lieutenants lead a contingent of horsemen against the unprepared Shibata army estimated at 30,000, in the field of Shizugatake. The enemy scattered. Hideyoshi pursued Shibata Katsuie to Echizen where, on the twenty-fourth day of the fourth month, Katsuie took his own life” [9]. The description of that battle appears very basic and it is hard to understand how this victory was possible. Somehow a contingent of cavalry defeated 30,000 men and they decided to retreat to their home base without putting up a fight after that, or at least that is what one can infer. One could also point out that it was Shibata's general Sakuma Morimasa who engaged Hideyoshi at Shizugatake against Shibata's orders and was ultimately defeated for it. Shibata Katsuie however was still in Echizen at the time and so could not have been present at Shizugatake. A more detailed description of that battle and other similar events would have been preferable in order to clear these issues. In either case the book provides an excellent account of Hideyoshi’s deeds and of Japanese feudalism. “Hideyoshi” works both as an in depth study and a general and straight forward history of 16th century Japan.
Regardless this book is strongly recommended and is necessary for any library that requires books on the Sengoku Jidai.
[9] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 77.
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    Alternate Ending:

    "In conclusion the book “Hideyoshi” by Mary Elizabeth Berry is an excellent study of the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Not only his life; it is also a brilliant analysis of the nature of Japanese rule and feudalism which helps to provide a broad context in which to place Hideyoshi and his administration. It captures the major events of this period and places them into the context of Japanese history as a whole as well as the actual reign of Hideyoshi. Her arguments transition well and the narrative flows with the many facts that she uses to support them. Of note was the use of letters, histories and state documents written by the people of that era. If there are any criticisms which might be placed against the book it might be that the book is too general at times. After all, the entire book is supposed to be a general analysis at only 241 pages. However some of the events might require more information specifically when rating Hideyoshi as a military commander. Great emphasis is placed on the speed of his conquests but sometimes this is attributed to his diplomatic skill (such as when the Oda generals defected to his side). For instance she relates the defeat of his enemy at around that time with the basic description “he had nine lieutenants lead a contingent of cavalry against the unprepared Oda army which numbered 30,000 men at the Battle of Shizugatake. The enemy scattered. Hideyoshi pursued the Oda general, Shibata Katsuie, to Echizen where he took his own life” [9]. The description of that battle appears very basic and it is hard to understand how this victory was possible. Somehow a contingent of cavalry defeated 30,000 men and they decided to retreat to their home base without putting up a fight after that. A more detailed description of that battle and other similar events would have been preferable in order to clear these issues. In either case the book provides an excellent account of Hideyoshi’s deeds and of Japanese feudalism. “Hideyoshi” works both as an in depth study and a general and straight forward history of 16th century Japan.
    [9] Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Page 77."
    Posted December 19th, 2016 at 12:09 AM by Lord Oda Nobunaga Lord Oda Nobunaga is offline
 

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