Toyotomi Hideyoshi had been given the nickname Saru, meaning "monkey," from his lord Oda Nobunaga because of his facial features and skinny body resembled that of a monkey.
According to Maeda Toshiie and a European missionary named Luis Frois, Hideyoshi was polydactyl with two thumbs on his right hand. He didn't amputate his extra thumb as other Japanese of this period would have done.
Many legends describe Hideyoshi being sent to study at a temple as a young man, but that he rejected temple life and went in search of adventure. Under the name Kinoshita Tōkichirō, he first joined the Imagawa clan as a servant to local ruler Matsushita Kahei. He traveled all the way to the lands of Imagawa Yoshimoto, daimyo of Suruga Province, and served there for a time, only to abscond with a sum of money entrusted to him by Matsushita Yukitsuna.
Hideyoshi was very successful as a negotiator. In 1564 he managed to convince, mostly with liberal bribes, a number of Mino warlords to desert the Saitō clan. Hideyoshi approached many Saitō clan samurai and convinced them to submit to Nobunaga, including the Saitō clan's strategist Takenaka Hanbei.
Nobunaga's easy victory at Inabayama Castle in 1567 was largely due to Hideyoshi's efforts, and despite his peasant origins, Hideyoshi became one of Nobunaga's most distinguished generals, eventually taking the name Hashiba Hideyoshi. The new surname included two characters, one from one of Oda's two other right-hand men, Niwa Nagahide and Shibata Katsuie.
Hideyoshi led troops in the Battle of Anegawa in 1570 in which Oda Nobunaga allied with future rival Tokugawa Ieyasu (who would eventually displace Hideyoshi's son and rule Japan) to lay siege to two fortresses of the Azai and Asakura clans. In 1573, after victorious campaigns against the Azai and Asakura, Nobunaga appointed Hideyoshi daimyo of three districts in the northern part of Ōmi Province. Initially based at the former Azai headquarters in Odani, Hideyoshi moved to Kunitomo, and renamed the city Nagahama in tribute to Nobunaga. Hideyoshi later moved to the port at Imahama on Lake Biwa. From there he began work on Imahama Castle and took control of the nearby Kunitomo firearms factory that had been established some years previously by the Azai and Asakura. Under Hideyoshi's administration the factory's output of firearms increased dramatically.
At a meeting at Kiyosu to decide on a successor to Nobunaga, Hideyoshi cast aside the apparent candidate, Oda Nobutaka and his advocate, Oda clan's chief general, Shibata Katsuie, by supporting Nobutada's young son, Oda Hidenobu. Having won the support of the other two Oda elders, Niwa Nagahide and Ikeda Tsuneoki, Hideyoshi established Hidenobu's position, as well as his own influence in the Oda clan. Tension quickly escalated between Hideyoshi and Katsuie, and at the Battle of Shizugatake in the following year, Hideyoshi destroyed Katsuie's forces and thus consolidated his own power, absorbing most of the Oda clan into his control.
In 1583, Hideyoshi began construction of Osaka Castle. Built on the site of the temple Ishiyama Honganji destroyed by Nobunaga, the castle would become the last stronghold of the Toyotomi clan after Hideyoshi's death.
Nobunaga's other son, Oda Nobukatsu, remained hostile to Hideyoshi. He allied himself with Tokugawa Ieyasu, and the two sides fought at the inconclusive Battle of Komaki and Nagakute. It ultimately resulted in a stalemate, although Hideyoshi's forces were delivered a heavy blow. Finally, Hashiba made peace with Nobukatsu, ending the pretext for war between the Tokugawa and Hashiba clans. Hideyoshi sent Tokugawa Ieyasu his younger sister and mother as hostages. Ieyasu eventually agreed to become a vassal of Hideyoshi.
Hideyoshi sought the title of shogun in order to be truly considered the active ruler of Japan. However, the emperor did not grant that title to Hideyoshi. He requested the last Muromachi shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, to accept him as an adopted son, but was refused. Unable to become shogun, in 1585 he took the more prestigious position of regent (kampaku). In 1586, Hideyoshi was formally given the name Toyotomi by the imperial court. He built a lavish palace, the Jurakudai, in 1587 and entertained the reigning Emperor Go-Yozei the following year.
Afterwards, Hideyoshi subjugated Kii Province and conquered Shikoku under the Chōsokabe clan. He also took control of Etchū Province and conquered Kyūshū. In 1587, Hideyoshi banished Christian missionaries from Kyūshū to exert greater control over the Kirishitan daimyo. However, since he made much of trade with Europeans, individual Christians were overlooked unofficially. In 1588, Hideyoshi forbade ordinary peasants from owning weapons and started a sword hunt to confiscate arms. The swords were melted down to create a statue of the Buddha. This measure effectively stopped peasant revolts and ensured greater stability at the expense of freedom of the individual daimyo. The 1590 Siege of Odawara against the Late Hōjō clan in Kantō eliminated the last resistance to Hideyoshi's authority. His victory signified the end of the Sengoku period.
In February 1591, Hideyoshi ordered Sen no Rikyū to commit suicide. Rikyū had been a trusted retainer and master of the tea ceremony under both Hideyoshi and Nobunaga. Under Hideyoshi's patronage, Rikyū made significant changes to the aesthetics of the tea ceremony that had lasting influence over many aspects of Japanese culture. Even after he ordered Rikyū's suicide, Hideyoshi is said to have built his many construction projects based upon principles of beauty promoted by Rikyū.
The stability of the Toyotomi dynasty after Hideyoshi's death was put in doubt with the death of his only son Tsurumatsu in September 1591. The three-year-old was his only child. When his half-brother Hidenaga died shortly after his son, Hideyoshi named his nephew Hidetsugu his heir, adopting him in January 1592. Hideyoshi resigned as kampaku to take the title of taikō (retired regent). Hidetsugu succeeded him as kampaku.
In the first campaign, Japanese forces were initially very successful. By May 1592, Seoul was occupied, and in only four months, Hideyoshi's forces had a route into Manchuria and occupied much of Korea. However, despite the Japanese success on land, naval forces under Admiral Yi Sun-sin soon counterattacked the Japanese fleet, cutting off the Japanese army's supply lines and effectively strangling the invasion in Korea. In 1593, Ming Chinese Emperor Wanli sent an army under Admiral Li Rusong to block the planned invasion of China and recapture the Korean peninsula. Chinese and Korean forces drove the Japanese army from Seoul and Pyongyang. The war reached a deadlock, and after the conclusion of a cease-fire agreement, Japanese troops retreated to Japan.
The birth of Hideyoshi's second son, Hideyori, in 1593 created a potential succession problem. To avoid it, Hideyoshi exiled his nephew and heir Hidetsugu to Mount Kōya and then ordered him to commit suicide in August 1595. Hidetsugu's family members who did not follow his example were then murdered in Kyoto, including 31 women and several children.
After several years of negotiations (broken off, because envoys of both side reported to their master that the opposition surrendered), Hideyoshi launched his second invasion of Korea in 1597, but met with less success. Japanese troops would remain largely in Gyeongsang province. By June 1598, the campaign was stalled and reduced to approximately 60,000 warriors under the Shimazu clan commanders, Shimazu Yoshihiro and his son Tadatsune. The remaining Japanese forces fought desperately, turning back several Chinese attacks in Suncheon and Sacheon as the Ming army prepared for a final assault. The Koreans' unexpected talent for guerilla warfare continually harassed Japanese forces. While Hideyoshi's last battle at So-chon, was a major Japanese victory, all three parties to the war were exhausted and Hideyoshi himself now accepted that the war could not be won. He told his commander in Korea: "Don't let my soldiers become spirits in a foreign land.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in September 1598. His death was kept secret by the Council of Five Elders to preserve morale. It was not until late October that they sent a decree to the Japanese commanders to withdraw. In the last major conflict of the war, the Battle of Noryang, combined Korean and Chinese naval forces led by admirals Yi Sun-sin and Chen Lin blocked the Japanese withdrawal. Japanese forces suffered heavy damage and Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin was killed, but the remaining Japan forces broke through and withdrew to Busan at a cost of 200 ships destroyed and 100 captured, according to Korean records.
Because of his failure to capture Korea, Hideyoshi's forces were unable to invade China. Rather than strengthen his position, the military expeditions left his clan's coffers decreased, his vassals at odds over responsibility for the failure, and the clans that were loyal to the Toyotomi name weakened. The dream of a Japanese empire throughout Asia ended with Hideyoshi. The Tokugawa government not only prevented any military expeditions to the mainland, but closed Japan to nearly all foreigners. It was not until the late 19th century that Japan would again fight a war against China through Korea, using much the same route that Hideyoshi's invasion force had used.
After his death, the other members of the Council of Five Regents were unable to keep the ambitions of Tokugawa Ieyasu in check. Two of Hideyoshi's top generals Katō Kiyomasa and Fukushima Masanori had fought bravely during the war, but returned to find Toyotomi clan bureaucrat Ishida Mitsunari in power. He held the generals in low esteem, and they sided with Tokugawa Ieyasu. Hideyoshi's underaged son and designated successor Hideyori lost the power his father once held, and Tokugawa Ieyasu was declared shogun following the Battle of Sekigahara.
Class reforms affected commoners and warriors. During the Sengoku period, it had become common for peasants to become warriors, or for samurai to farm due to the constant uncertainty caused by the lack of centralized government and always tentative peace. Upon taking control, Hideyoshi decreed that all peasants be disarmed completely. Conversely, he required samurai to leave the land and take up residence in the castle towns. This solidified the social class system for the next 300 years.
Furthermore, he ordered comprehensive surveys and a complete census of Japan. Once this was done and all citizens were registered, he required all Japanese to stay in their respective han (fiefs) unless they obtained official permission to go elsewhere. This ensured order in a period when bandits still roamed the countryside and peace was still new. The land surveys formed the basis for systematic taxation.
In 1590, Hideyoshi completed construction of the Osaka Castle, the largest and most formidable in all Japan, to guard the western approaches to Kyoto. In that same year, Hideyoshi banned "unfree labor" or slavery; but forms of contract and indentured labor persisted alongside the period penal codes' forced labor.
Hideyoshi also influenced the material culture of Japan. He lavished time and money on the tea ceremony, collecting implements, sponsoring lavish social events, and patronizing acclaimed masters. As interest in the tea ceremony rose among the ruling class, so too did demand for fine ceramic implements, and during the course of the Korean campaigns, not only were large quantities of prized ceramic ware confiscated, many Korean artisans were forcibly relocated to Japan.
Inspired by the dazzling Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, he also constructed a fabulous portable tea room, covered with gold leaf and lined inside with red gossamer. Using this mobile innovation, he was able to practice the tea ceremony wherever he went, powerfully projecting his unrivaled power and status upon his arrival.
Politically, he set up a governmental system that balanced out the most powerful Japanese warlords (or daimyo). A council was created to include the most influential lords. At the same time, a regent was designated to be in command.
Just prior to his death, Hideyoshi hoped to set up a system stable enough to survive until his son grew old enough to become the next leader. A was formed, consisting of the five most powerful daimyo. Following the death of Maeda Toshiie, however, Tokugawa Ieyasu began to secure alliances, including political marriages (which had been forbidden by Hideyoshi). Eventually, the pro-Toyotomi forces fought against the Tokugawa in the Battle of Sekigahara. Ieyasu won and received the title of Seii-tai Shogun two years later.
Ieyasu left in place the majority of Hideyoshi's decrees and built his shogunate upon them. This ensured that Hideyoshi's cultural legacy remained.
The Toyotomi uji was simultaneously granted to a number of Hideyoshi's chosen allies, who adopted the new uji "豊臣朝臣" (Toyotomi no asomi, courtier of Toyotomi).