Between 1560 and 1600, powerful military leaders arose to defeat the warring daimyo and unify Japan. Three major figures dominated the period in succession: Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), each of whom emerged as a major overlord with large military forces under his command. As their power increased, they looked to the imperial court in Kyoto for sanction. In 1568 Nobunaga, who had defeated another overlord's attempt to attack Kyoto in 1560, marched on the capital, gained the support of the emperor, and installed his own candidate in the succession struggle for shogun. Backed by military force, Nobunaga was able to control the bakufu.
Initial resistance to Nobunaga in the Kyoto region came from the Buddhist monks, rival daimyo, and hostile merchants. Surrounded by his enemies, Nobunaga struck first at the secular power of the militant Tendai Buddhists, destroying their monastic center at Mount Hiei near Kyoto and killing thousands of monks in 1571. By 1573 he had defeated the local daimyo, banished the last Ashikaga shogun, and ushered in what historians call the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1600), named after the castles of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Having taken these major steps toward reunification, Nobunaga then built a seven-story castle surrounded by stone walls at Azuchi on the shore of Lake Biwa. The castle was able to withstand firearms and became a symbol of the age of reunification. Nobunaga's power increased as he enfeoffed the conquered daimyo, broke down the barriers to free commerce, and drew the humbled religious communities and merchants into his military structure. He secured control of about one-third of the provinces through the use of large-scale warfare, and he institutionalized administrative practices, such as systematic village organization, tax collection, and standardized measurements. At the same time, other daimyo, both those that Nobunaga had conquered and those beyond his control, built their own heavily fortified castles and modernized their garrisons. In 1577 Nobunaga dispatched his chief general, Hideyoshi, to conquer twelve western Honshu provinces. The war was a protracted affair, and in 1582, when Nobunaga led an army to assist Hideyoshi, he was assassinated.
After destroying the forces responsible for Nobunaga's death, Hideyoshi was rewarded with a joint guardianship of Nobunaga's heir, who was a minor. By 1584 Hideyoshi had eliminated the three other guardians, taken complete control of Kyoto, and become the undisputed successor of his late overlord. A commoner by birth and without a surname, Hideyoshi was adopted by the Fujiwara family, given the surname Toyotomi, and granted the title kanpaku, representing civil and military control of all Japan. By the following year, he had secured alliances with three of the nine major daimyo coalitions and continued the war of reunification in Shikoku and northern Kyushu. In 1590, with an army of 200,000 troops, Hideyoshi defeated his last formidable rival, who controlled the Kanto region of eastern Honshu. The remaining contending daimyo capitulated, and the military reunification of Japan was complete.
All of Japan was controlled by the dictatorial Hideyoshi either directly or through his sworn vassals, and a new national government structure had evolved: a country unified under one daimyo alliance but still decentralized. The basis of the power structure was again the distribution of territory. A new unit of land measurement and assessment--the koku--was instituted. One koku was equivalent to about 180 liters of rice; daimyo were by definition those who held lands capable of producing 10,000 koku or more of rice. Hideyoshi personally controlled 2 million of the 18.5 million koku total national assessment (taken in 1598). Tokugawa Ieyasu, a powerful central Honshu daimyo (not completely under Hideyoshi's control), held 2.5 million koku.
Despite Hideyoshi's tremendous strength and the fear in which he was held, his position was far from secure. He attempted to rearrange the daimyo holdings to his advantage by, for example, reassigning the Tokugawa family to the conquered Kanto region and surrounding their new territory with more trusted vassals. He also adopted a hostage system for daimyo wives and heirs at his castle town at Osaka and used marriage alliances to enforce feudal bonds. He imposed the koku system and land surveys to reassess the entire nation. In 1590 Hideyoshi declared an end to any further class mobility or change in social status, reinforcing the class distinctions between cultivators and bushi (only the latter could bear arms). He provided for an orderly succession in 1591 by taking the title taiko, or retired kanpaku, turning the regency over to his son Hideyori. Only toward the end of his life did Hideyoshi try to formalize the balance of power by establishing certain administrative bodies: the five-member Board of Regents (one of them Ieyasu), sworn to keep peace and support the Toyotomi, the five-member Board of House Administrators for routine policy and administrative matters, and the three-member Board of Mediators, who were charged with keeping peace between the first two boards.
Momoyama art (1573-1615), named after the hill on which Hideyoshi built his castle at Fushima, south of Kyoto, flourished during this period. It was a period of interest in the outside world, the development of large urban centers, and the rise of the merchant and leisure classes. Ornate castle architecture and interiors adorned with painted screens embellished with gold leaf reflected daimyo power and wealth. Depictions of the "southern barbarians"--Europeans--were exotic and popular.
In 1577 Hideyoshi had seized Nagasaki, Japan's major point of contact with the outside world. He took control of the various trade associations and tried to regulate all overseas activities. Although China rebuffed his efforts to secure trade concessions, Hideyoshi succeeded in sending commercial missions to present-day Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. He was suspicious of Christianity, however, as potentially subversive to daimyo loyalties and he had some missionaries crucified.
Hideyoshi's major ambition was to conquer China, and in 1592, with an army of 200,000 troops, he invaded Korea, then a Chinese vassal state. His armies quickly overran the peninsula before losing momentum in the face of a combined Korean-Chinese force. During peace talks, Hideyoshi demanded a division of Korea, freetrade status, and a Chinese princess as consort for the emperor. The equality with China sought by Japan was rebuffed by the Chinese, and peace efforts ended. In 1597 a second invasion was begun, but it abruptly ended with Hideyoshi's death in 1598.
SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress