Japan’s Three Great Unifiers | History Before You Go Vol. 1

An artist's rendition of the Battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600.

Japan’s history is a rich and complex tapestry of warriors, emperors, poets, and philosophers. At the core of this narrative is the Warring States period (1467–1603), a time marked by social unrest, political intrigue, and almost ceaseless warfare. During this chaotic era, three figures emerged who would change the course of Japanese history: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Known collectively as the “Three Great Unifiers,” these men were instrumental in consolidating fragmented feudal lands into a unified nation. Their military strategies, political tactics, and personal ambitions created the foundation for modern Japan. With different backgrounds and leadership styles, each brought a unique vision for the future of Japan, laying the groundwork for the Edo period (1603–1868), which would last for over two centuries of peace and cultural development.

Understanding their stories isn’t just a matter of historical curiosity. It offers insights into Japan’s collective psyche, social structure, and enduring cultural traditions. Furthermore, their lives are filled with lessons in leadership, strategy, and human nature, offering timeless perspectives that remain relevant to this day.

So, if you are planning to delve into the history of Japan before your trip or simply wish to appreciate the rich cultural heritage, knowing about the Three Great Unifiers is essential. This article aims to offer you an exhaustive view of who these men were, their achievements, controversies, and their lasting impact on Japan.

Who Were the Three Great Unifiers?

Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the three great unifiers of Japan.

Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu were not just military generals; they were visionaries who saw beyond the chaos of their times. Each began his life in distinct circumstances and had a unique trajectory to power, yet their collective aim was the unification of Japan, a land torn apart by infighting among the various daimyo or feudal lords.

Oda Nobunaga was the first to rise to power, initiating the first significant steps toward unification. Following him, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, once a servant in Nobunaga’s house, continued the mission, focusing on societal reformation and foreign conquest. Tokugawa Ieyasu, a patient strategist, eventually established a lasting regime that ushered Japan into a new era of peace and cultural development.

All three have been subjects of numerous books, films, and plays, and are celebrated as heroes in modern Japan. Yet, they were not without flaws, and their methods often veered into the territory of ruthlessness and subterfuge. Despite their controversies, they left an indelible mark on Japan’s history and remain some of the most studied figures in the country.

Oda Nobunaga’s Story

A statue of Oda Nobunaga at the site of the Battle of Okehazama

Born in 1534 in the Owari Province, Oda Nobunaga was initially perceived as an eccentric and wild youth, giving little indication of his future greatness. However, he soon demonstrated his strategic brilliance in the Battle of Okehazama, where he achieved a stunning victory against all odds. His use of firearms, a novel approach at the time, set him apart from his rivals.

While Nobunaga was a military innovator, integrating new tactics and technologies from the West (firearms most notably), he was also a patron of the arts. He supported the tea ceremony, Noh theatre, and painting, showcasing a cultural sensibility alongside his ruthless ambition.

But his story isn’t one of unmitigated success. His brutal tactics, such as the infamous siege of Mt. Hiei, led to widespread suffering in Japan. Moreover, his alliances were often tenuous, and his aggressive push for power made him many enemies.

Despite being a polarizing figure, Nobunaga set the stage for unification. He subdued nearly a third of Japan before his life was abruptly cut short. In 1582, Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, and forced to commit seppuku in the Honno-ji in Kyoto.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Story

A statue of Toyotomi Hideyoshi at Hokoku Shrine in Osaka.

Born to a poor family in Nakamura, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose from being a sandal-bearer for Nobunaga to one of the most powerful men in Japan. His life is a testament to social mobility in a rigid class structure, making him an exceptional figure in Japanese history.

His ascent to power was marked by a combination of military skill and political shrewdness. After Nobunaga’s death, Hideyoshi avenged him by defeating Akechi Mitsuhide, thus consolidating his position as one of our three great unifiers.

Unlike Nobunaga, Hideyoshi was more a statesman than a warrior. His reforms, such as the Taiko Land Survey, had lasting impacts on Japanese society. He separated the samurai from the farmers, creating distinct social classes and stabilizing the nation.

However, Hideyoshi was also driven by ambition beyond Japan. His invasions of Korea failed, draining resources and leading to a stalemate that tarnished his legacy. Moreover, he attempted to solidify his family’s power by prohibiting the rise of any new daimyo, a move that later backfired.

Hideyoshi passed away in 1598, leaving behind a largely unified Japan and a two-year-old heir. His death (along with his foolish execution of his nephew and former heir) set the stage for a new power struggle, which was ultimately resolved by the third unifier, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Story

A statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu somewhere in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Tokugawa Ieyasu was born into the tumultuous environment of the Warring States period (1467–1603) but was groomed for leadership from a young age. Ieyasu’s rise to power was a product of patience and long-term strategic planning. Unlike his predecessors, he was willing to wait for the opportune moment to seize control.

Ieyasu served under both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi loyally but was always careful to maintain his autonomy from the two warlords. He bided his time, gradually expanding his influence and territory while avoiding overt challenges to Hideyoshi’s rule.

The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 was the defining moment for Ieyasu. It ended the power struggles between the various factions and established the Tokugawa as the ruling shogunate, a position they would hold for over 250 years.

Ieyasu’s governance was characterized by a focus on stability and economic growth. He established a bureaucratic system that lasted well into the modern period. His legacy is most visible in the development of Edo (now Tokyo), which became a cultural and economic center.

Though he achieved what Nobunaga and Hideyoshi could not — long-lasting peace and governance — his dynasty was not without its dark aspects. Ieyasu’s grandson established the isolationist Sakoku policy, which closed Japan off from the rest of the world for over two centuries, contributing to its stagnation in some respects.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

The Yomeimon gate of Nikko Toshogu Shrine is emblematic of just how powerful and affluent the Tokugawa shogunate was.

Ieyasu’s victory at Sekigahara ushered in the Edo period (1603–1868), an era of peace and stability that lasted for more than two centuries. This period allowed for the flourishing of the arts, including the development of kabuki and ukiyo-e.

Under the Tokugawa rule, Japan was divided into a strict hierarchy of samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants and unlike in the years prior, social classes were frozen in place. The national policy focused on agricultural growth, making it the backbone of the Japanese economy.

Despite the surface-level tranquility, the Edo period (1603–1868) was also characterized by stringent social controls, including restrictions on travel and the aforementioned class-based system that was difficult to transcend. Moreover, the period’s peace was something that was only possible due to the Tokugawa’s military might.

Nevertheless, the Edo period (1603–1868) set the stage for Japan’s modernization in the Meiji period (1868–1912) The relative peace allowed economic systems to mature. When Western ships started to show up on Japan’s doors, much of the infrastructure for rapid change was already there.

The governing principles established during this period, including a centralized bureaucracy and a focus on Confucian values, continued to influence Japanese governance long after the fall of the shogunate. Much of the Meiji Restoration has its roots in Tokugawa policies.

Did Tokugawa Ieyasu Steal It All

An artist's rendition of a major samurai battle during the Warring States period (1467–1603).

Tokugawa Ieyasu remains a contentious figure for some, largely because he succeeded where his predecessors failed. But did he achieve this by dishonorable means? He was often seen as opportunistic, biding his time and letting Nobunaga and Hideyoshi do the heavy lifting of unification before seizing power for himself.

However, could this not also be viewed as strategic brilliance? Ieyasu avoided the pitfalls that ensnared his predecessors: Nobunaga’s ruthless aggression and Hideyoshi’s overreaching ambition. As you’ll see if you go to the Nikko Toshogu Museum, Ieyasu’s best quality was his patience.

Also, while it’s easy to accuse him of capitalizing on the groundwork laid by Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, it’s worth noting that maintaining a unified Japan was no small feat, requiring its own set of skills and strategies. Ieyasu put his life on the line to finish the job and finish the job he did.

Yet, it’s also essential to remember that Ieyasu was not above using treacherous methods to achieve his goals. His path to power was marked by alliances made and broken, a willingness to betray former friends to achieve his objectives.

So, was Tokugawa Ieyasu a dishonorable man who stole the fruits of others’ labor, or a brilliant strategist who accomplished what others could not? The final judgment, as with many historical figures, is perhaps best left to the eye of the beholder.

Understanding the Three Great Unifiers offers a nuanced view of Japanese history and a better appreciation for the complexities that shaped this fascinating country. We invite you to delve deeper and make your own judgments about these compelling figures.

Until next time travelers…

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Ai Mirai
Ai Mirai

Using the latest in generative AI technologies, I work with Donny Kimball to help curate insightful content that tourists should read before coming to Japan.

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