3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
Under a Single Sword The Imjin War


Ch 12 - Japanese Invasions

More Worlds to Conquer

Toyotomi Hideyoshi continues the unification process in Japan, taking the role of Regent following the death of Oda Nobunaga. After establishing his own supremacy over Nobunaga's remaining daimyo, Hideyoshi opened contacts with Seoul in preparation for his planned invasion of the peninsula.

When Oda Nobunaga took control of Kyoto in 1576, Japan was a nation long overdue for reunification. Despite his many accomplishments, Nobunaga never claimed suzerainty over all of Japan. Instead, he seated himself at the head of a thoroughly centralized regional power that controlled thirty-two of Japan's sixty-six provinces. On a rocky plateau overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, just east of Kyoto, he built the great Azuchi castle to control Kyoto and the surrounding lands. Nobunaga saw this fortress as a great symbol of his wealth and power and spared no expense to lavishly decorate the castle both inside and out. Completed in 1579 after an unprecedented effort that involved thousands of forced laborers and compulsive contributions from Nobunaga's vassals and other feudal chiefs, the castle's strong walls and armament made Azuchi both imposing and intimidating in its magnificence.

All Japan needed for true national unity was the development of some form of association or accepted leadership among the daimyo. Oda Nobunaga threw his considerable support behind Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the Shogun of Japan, but the super daimyo's rapid rise to prominence soon prompted Yoshiaki to enter into a conspiracy with Oda's enemies in an effort to check his growing power. The conspiracy gave Oda Nobunaga an excuse to move against Ashikaga Yoshiaki and terminate the shogunate. Ashikaga Yoshiaki fled to the Chugoku at the western extermity of the main Japanese island of Honshu, where he gained the support of two powerful daimyo in the region:   Mori Motonari and Uesugi Kenshin. Years earlier, samurai under Mori Motonari fought numerous battles against the Amako family, which had claimed hegemony over the Chugoku region. After attacking the Amako's headquarters at the massive Toda-Gassan castle in Chugoku, the Mori took firm control over territory formerly held by the Amako family.

Yamanka Shika-no-suke Yukimori, the "Samurai of the Crescent Moon," an Amako clan vassal, began working through the senior Amako family leadership to attempt a restoration of lost territory. He contacted Amako Katsuhisa, who had long been a Buddhist monk in Kyoto, and convinced him to bring together the scattered remnants of the Amako family. Realizing the futility of any attempt to recapture the Toda-Gassan castle, Yamanaka led a guerilla war against the Mori throughout the Chugoku. In 1578, Yamanaka went to Kyoto to seek an alliance with the most powerful daimyo in Japan, Oda Nobunaga, and appealed directly for help to restore the Amako. At the time, the Mori and Oda families were already on a head-on collision over the fact that the Mori were openly supportive of fanatical armed leagues, ikko-ikki, of Buddhist monks opposing Oda Nobunaga and were shipping guns to the Buddhist fortress at Osaka.

A direct assault against the Mori on their home ground would be difficult, since the Mori controlled most of the shipping on the Inland Sea and could easily thwart any overland assault into western Honshu. Oda Nobunaga saw Yamanaka's appeal as an attractive proposition, since having an ally in the midst of Mori territory was very attractive. Furthermore, samurai warriors commanded by Hideyoshi, one of Oda's most able field generals, were already in the heartland of the Mori laying siege to the Kozuki castle in Harima province. Using a tactic favored among contending warlords, Hideyoshi had already inflicted a hellish defeat on two of the Mori castles by literally starving the defenders to death. Once Kozuki was taken, Oda Nobunaga assigned the fortress to Amako Katsuhisa and Yamanka Shika-no-suke Yukimori. Almost as soon as the two men established themselves behind the castle walls, a massive 30,000-man Mori army put Kozuki under seige.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi ranks as one of the most colorful figures in the whole bright pageant of Japanese history. He came from such humble origins that he carried no family name by birth and lacked a last name until the emperor conferred one on him as a reward for services. First known as Kinoshita Tokichiro, he came from a family of foot soldiers in the service of Oda Nobunaga's father. As a country boy familiar with horses, he first found employment in the Shogun's stables. Having started out in life as a bandit, he clawed his way up the military ladder by courage, effrontery and sheer good luck. He joined Oda Nobunaga's army in 1558, and quickly became a favorite of the great daimyo, who called him saru, monkey. Hideyoshi proved his abilities as an able military leader and a master of seigecraft.

Hideyoshi learned of the seige at Kozuki while commanding a seige against the Miki castle. After detaching half his forces to relieve the danger to the Amako daimyo at Kozuki, he received orders from Oda Nobunaga to head at once for Kyoto and to leave the Amako to their fate. Isolated and with no hope of reinforcements, Amako forces surrendered to the Mori general without opposition. In defeat, Amako Katsuhisa committed suicide, thereby destroying the Amako family. Yamanka Shika-no-suke Yukimori was captured and later murdered in cold blood while under escort near the village of Takahashi.

In 1582, Hideyoshi put another of the great Mori castles under seige;  Takamatsu Castle, one of the few water castles in Japan. Surrounded by a moat filled with water channeled from the sea through adjustable gates, Takamatsu turned into lengthy seige for Hideyoshi. In June of that year, Hideyoshi's samurai finally decided to divert a nearby river into the Takamatsu moat, an operation that looked promising as it slowly turned the moat into a vast lake that gradually began flooding the castle itself. It ws in the midst of this flooding operation that Hideyoshi learned the dramatic news of Oda Nobunaga's death.

Oda Nobunaga had ordered General Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his vassal daimyo, to lead his samurai west to assist Hideyoshi in his fight against Shimizu Muneharu. On the journey to join his forces in western Japan, Oda Nobunaga stopped at the Honno Temple in Kyoto for the night. General Akechi turned on his benefactor and sent his samurai into the temple in a surprise attack that trapped Lord Oda Oda Nobunaga's Last Battle. After being pursued throughout the temple, the forty-eight-year-old Nobunaga is said to have finally disemboweled himself as the building was consumed with fire.

Upon hearing the shocking news, Hideyoshi decided he had to rapidly abandon the Takamatsu seige and move before any of Nobunaga's other generals heard the news and became his avengers instead. He hurriedly arranged a peace agreement with Mori Terumoto, an agreement that included the condition that the brave castle defender, Shimizu Muneharu, should commit suicide. Muneharu decided to end his life as dramatically as he had lived it. Rowing a small boat into the middle of the growing artificial lake and waiting until he was sure Hideyoshi's men were closely watching his every move, he committed seppuku, whereupon Hideyoshi hurried to Kyoto to avenge his master's death.

At the time of his death, the powerful Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga held possession of only one third of Japan. He had accomplished a great deal toward reunification, but there was much left to do. Laying claim to leadership as Oda's successor, Hideyoshi turned against those daimyo in central Japan likely to challenge him, including Oda's own son. He defeated General Akechi Mitsuhide at the Battle of Yamazaki, and Shibata Katsuie, the leader of opposition to Hideyoshi, at the Battle of Shizugatake. He also set out to eliminate the remaining daimyo groups in nearby areas still capable of mounting a threat to his dream for national leadership. He could not however, remove the one man who was potentially his most dangerous foe, the daimyo Tokugawa Ieyasu, then occupied in the northeast.

Hideyoshi's triumph resulted from his superior skills as a general and his ability to make bold decisions and take resolute action. While he ruled with a basically personal and at times magnanimous touch, he always backed up his authority to rule with the heavy-handed threat of overwhelming military might. Like all the daimyo of his era, Hideyoshi had a vicious streak. Though not as cruel as Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi's vassals nonetheless lived in real fear of him. Once, after some unknown person or persons had scribbled abusive graffiti on his gate, Hideyoshi had eight Kyoto residents arrested. On the first day he had their noses sliced off, the second day their ears, and on the third day they were strung upside down and impaled.

After establishing his own supremacy over Oda Nobunaga's remaining daimyo, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rebuilt the great castle at Osaka as the seat of his new military government. Like Oda Nobunaga, he coveted the position of shogun, but he never took the title. His background made him ineligible. Instead, Hideyoshi drew on the imperial court for his legitimacy. In 1585, Hideyoshi had himself appointed to the post of kanpaku, regent, by Emperor Oogimachi. The following year, he had himself appointed to the post of Chancellor, dajodaijin. He was not yet supreme throughout Japan, however. The daimyo Shimazu Yoshihisa in Kyushu refused to acknowledge Hideyoshi's authority. In response, Hideyoshi gathered an army reportedly consisting of some 200,000 men and marched directly into Satsuma in 1587. After routing Shimazu's forces north of the Sendai River, he returned to Kyoto in triumph. The following year, he invited Emperor Go-Yozei to his residence, where all the daimyo pledged their loyalty to the Emperor and the regent, Hideyoshi.

The conqueror of Japan did not simply rest on his laurels. Instead, he fell prey to the Alexandrian desire for more worlds to conquer, and in East Asia that meant China. As early as the spring of 1586, years before he completed the subjugation of all his enemies in Japan, Hideyoshi's fertile imagination led him to lay down plans for a great Oriental Empire ruled by a Japanese sovereign. In expressing his dream to the Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gaspar Coelho, he stated that his sole ambition was to leave behind a great name. His plan was simple and direct. He resolved to cross the sea at the head of a large expeditionary force and form an alliance with Choson's King Sonjo. Japan would then march northward up the Korean peninsula with Choson troops in the vanguard and conquer the Chinese Ming Empire "as easily as a man rolls up a mat."

Hideyoshi began preparations for his grandiose campaign by ordering the construction of 2,000 ships. He asked Coelho to provide his navy with two Portuguese carracks. Anxious to please the regent, Coelho agreed and, in an attempt to gain Hideyoshi's support for the Christians, offered to ask Portuguese authorities for help with the campaign against China. These injudicious offers only proved to Hideyoshi how dangerous these foreigners were. If they promised warships to him this year, they might arm some other daimyo next year, and civil war would erupt again. The following year, on his way back from the campaign against Shimazu Yoshihisa on Kyushu, Hideyoshi visited a small ship anchored at Hirado Island off northwest Kyushu. On July 24, 1587, Hideyoshi and Coelho had another meeting at which the two men celebrated Hideyoshi's victories with generous amounts of wine.

Sometime around midnight, samurai awakened Vice-Provincial Coelho and dragged him before Hideyoshi for a chilling interrogation. Why did the Portuguese force Japanese to become Christians or urge their followers to destroy Buddhist temples? Why did they offend Japanese by killing and eating such useful animals as horses? And who gave them authority to carry Japanese off as slaves to India? The befuddled Jesuit priest denied the charges, but Hideyoshi ignored his explanations. Hideyoshi ordered all Jesuit missionaries out of Japan within twenty days and commanded them to collect in Hirado. The port of Nagasaki, which had been placed under Jesuit control in 1580 by the local daimyo, was returned to Japanese jurisdiction. Oddly, Hideyoshi seemed to lose interest in the matter after issuing his expulsion order. The Jesuits continued their work, but they knew well their position was insecure.

The frequent diplomatic missions between Japan and Choson during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were terminated after a particularly vicious pirate attack on the Cholla coast in 1555. The activities of Japanese pirates remained virtually uncontrolled, but the situation gave Hideyoshi a convenient pretext for an attitude of injured dignity. With a firm grip on Japan, Hideyoshi undertook an exercise in international diplomacy in 1587. Using the offices of the So clan of Tsushima, the only daimyo then having formal relations with the Yi court in Seoul, Hideyoshi sent a short note to King Sonjo with a request that the reciprocal exchange of diplomatic envoys be resumed. King Sonjo was reluctant to restart this expensive custom, a matter which had never been approved by the Ming court in Beijing. Hideyoshi sent another mission to Choson the following year to reiterate his demand and not to return until they had the king's agreement. Choson held the Japanese at arm's length for nearly two years while court officials discussed and argued Hideyoshi's proposal The Dangerous Life of a Diplomat. In their closest approach to an actual decision, they replied to Hideyoshi that they would consider his request if he eliminated the problem of pirate raids on the peninsula.

When Choson finally sent its mission to Kyoto, Hideyoshi's vanity had been so ruffled by the lengthy delays in dealing with Seoul, he kept the Choson envoys waiting for over a year. After treating the envoys unceremoniously, he sent them home along with two Japanese envoys carrying a letter to King Sonjo that went far beyond a mere request to reopen formal relations between the two countries. The envoys were instructed to make it public that the Chinese had refused to receive a Japanese embassy (at best an excuse) and that if Choson gave Hideyoshi free passage through the peninsula to invade China and remained neutral they would be unmolested. Japan's future friendship with Choson depended on the answer. The two Japanese envoys underscored the seriousness of Hideyoshi's proposal with a surreptitious warning, telling the Choson officials who received them that a refusal to cooperate might invite a Japanese invasion. King Sonjo flatly rejected the idea, noting that Choson had been friendly with China for centuries and pointing out the hopeless project was like a bee stinging a tortoise. Why Go Through Korea?

In 1590, still unable to reach a definite conclusion on Hideyoshi's proposal, King Sonjo sent a large diplomatic mission to Kyoto to discover whether or not the Japanese could actually carry out their threat of invasion. The senior member of the Kyoto delegation, a member of the court's So-in (Western) faction, had as his deputy a member of the court's Tong-in (Eastern) faction. To Sonjo's dismay, the mission returned with typically conflicting points of view. While the chief of the embassy presented an alarming report indicating the extent of Japanese military preparations already underway, his deputy stressed the lack of any evidence whatsoever to support Japanese preparations for an attack on Choson. As too often happened, the truth of the matter disappeared in the shuffle as faction members at court closed ranks behind their man to support his judgment, right or wrong.

Although Choson was militarily weak at this point, it was not as unprepared to defend itself as one might suspect. In response to the resumption of sporadic pirate attacks against Choson during the mid-sixteenth century, the Yi government entrusted the country's defense to its Border Defense Command. Jointly staffed with civil and military officials, this government agency eventually evolved into a kind of executive council that completely reorganized the Choson army. The Border Defense Command reorganized artillery, bowmen and spearmen into specialty units. It also pressed private slaves, once exempt from conscription, into service. In the year 1420, there were about 200,000 government slaves. By 1484 the number had risen to 350,000, and in later years their numbers, as well as the slave population owned by private individuals increased markedly. Desperate for both funds and manpower, the Sonju government pressed many slaves into military service, a move that brought with it an automatic upgrade in status. Frequently, the government had no other option but to free large numbers of slaves for no other reason than it could no longer afford to feed and house them. Korea's new military structure soon became permanent and saw no significant changes for nearly three hundred years.

Choson's yangban, accustomed as they were to peacetime conditions, could not be easily moved by national issues. Once the matter of Japanese military readiness became seriously enmeshed in factional conflict, a concerted national effort became impossible. As a result, the Choson military took only half-hearted defensive measures. Instead of accelerating troop training, Choson's top generals merely ordered an inventory of all weapons. Armed with few guns of any sort, when warned of Japan's big advantage in cannons and muskets, one commander said dismissively, "They can't hit their targets every time they shoot, can they?"  Had it not been for the efforts of Chief Minister Yu Songnyong, a member of the Namin (Southerner) faction, Choson would likely have made no defensive preparations at all. Unwilling to let Choson's defense die in the hands of competing factions, Minister Yu insisted after considerable debate that a report be immediately sent to the Ming court in Beijing. By this time the Chinese had already learned of Hideyoshi's intentions through similar reports from its envoys from the Ryukyu Islands. As a result of Yu Songnyong's prodding, a number of cities began repairing and reinforcing their defensive walls. Facing Japan across the Tsushima Straits, a dozen or so towns in Kyongsang Province built new defensive walls. From early in the fifteenth century, as a direct result of pirate raids and the military reorganization of King Sejo, towns in Kyongsang Province took on the appearance of virtually armed camps. By 1591, all the principal towns in Korea and most of its inland towns had defensive walls.

Choson knew the military uses of gunpowder and had a few firearms, but it lacked the manufacturing technology to produce its own muskets. With no available source to supply these weapons, virtually all Choson's troops carried swords, spears, bows and arrows. Choson also faced a a major problem gathering a defensive army, since most peasants bought an exemption from military service by paying the exemption tax. What soldiers there were had little real military training and spent most of their time employed in public works projects such as building defensive walls. Although a few active military units guarded the northern border region and repelled Japanese pirates, Choson had no full-scale field army. Given the condition of the government and the economy at the time, training and mobilizing such a force would have taken years. Nevertheless, under the guidance of the military district headquarters at Andong, located in the northern interior near the headwaters of the Naktong River, military officers in each town drilled the local peasants in tactics and the use of weapons twice a year. Choson's "citizen soldiers" were no match for any invading army.

Hideyoshi's final challenge to his supremacy came in the south central region of Honshu, where the Hojo family, linked by marriage to Tokagawa Ieyasu, barred access to the Kanto Plain through the commanding position of their great castle at Odawara at the foot of the Hakone mountain range. To clear the way, Tokagawa Ieyasu joined forces with Hideyoshi to mount a lengthy seige against the mountain fortress. Odawara finally surrendered on August 12, 1590, clearing the way for Toyotomi Hideyoshi to establish control over all of Japan. He persuaded Tokagawa Ieyasu to give up his former domains in the west and accept new domains in the Kanto region. Ieyasu thus took command of the stronghold at Edo, the site of modern Tokyo, located in the center of the Kanto Plain.

Oda Nobunaga attempted to unify Japan through sheer brute force and by 1590, after subduing northern Honshu, Hideyoshi finished the task of restoring national political unity in Japan. By concentrating on the arts of peace and administration, Hideyoshi began to forge a new administrative organization to guarantee unification. Even though he was the undisputed master of Japan, he did not try to establish a centralized government under his control. Instead, he sought to establish a national structure that would allow regional daimyo to remain independent and yet still cooperate among one another. He built a government on the foundation of the old feudal system of personal loyalties rather than a centralized administration.

When peace came suddenly to Japan, Hideyoshi found himself in control of a nation with a population of nearly twenty million people, an economy with extensive experience in seafaring and commerce, and a mobilized military force brimming with samurai warriors and no wars to be fought. His greatest challenge was how to restructure the country to guarantee a lasting peace among the warring feudal domains. Concerned about people like himself and his former lord, Oda Nobunaga, men who had risen from obscurity through ruthless, single-minded ambition, Hideyoshi instituted a number of measures designed to restrict social mobility. He made social class a permanent status for individuals and their offspring. The samurai became a separate class and no one who was not a samurai was permitted to carry weapons or armor. The sweeping katana-gari, or Sword Hunt, begun in 1588, was pursued ruthlessly in order to disarm the peasantry, prevent possible uprisings, and to distinguish clearly between farmers and samurai. Hideyoshi ordered that samurai must not shift their loyalty or take up the business or farming, and everyone was encouraged to inform on violators.

Hideyoshi destroyed many feudal strongholds, leaving defeated daimyo in possession of their estates and carefully relocated a number of fiefdoms by rewarding his supporters with confiscated lands. This process, known as kunigae (province change), ensured that the daimyo who were transferred had to build up a new following. He thus made it difficult for would-be warlords to attract the manpower needed for revolt even as he conferred local security and tax exemptions upon loyal daimyo. A population census taken in 1590 further helped ensure that farmers remained tied to their land for life. In effect, Hideyoshi's reforms aimed to prevent the possibility that any other warlord might build a career similar to his. The far-flung commercial interests of Japanese merchants and the country's new international orientation gave Hideyoshi a strong desire to turn the daimyo's military strength outward to prevent them from engaging each other in power struggles inside Japan.


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Under a Single Sword The Imjin War