The Afterlife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi


A review of The Afterlife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Taikōki and the Reinterpretation of Japan’s Past, by Susan Westhafer Furukawa.

Susan Furukawa mines a rich literary vein in her exploration of the diverse twentieth-century reincarnations of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98), the warlord who reunited Japan after over a century of civil war at the end of the middle ages but failed to establish a ruling dynasty that could outlive him.

Even for a time of upheaval, Hideyoshi’s career arc was unheard of: having risen from complete obscurity (he is generally believed to have been born a peasant), at the time of his death he ruled Japan more firmly than anyone before him. But as his heir Hideyoshi left an infant child, and before long his sometime-ally Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) took the child’s place and founded a regime that lasted until 1867.

As a result of Hideyoshi’s swift political eclipse, authors writing about his life during the early modern period had to tread lightly. Still, a number of biographies were produced in the early seventeenth century, the most notable of which was Oze Hoan’s Taikōki (Chronicle of the Retired Chancellor), which soon came to be regarded as the canonical account of Hideyoshi’s life. Little was ever known with any certainty of his early years, and Hideyoshi took advantage of this to engage in his own mythmaking. Subsequent authors, whether writing war tales or serious chronicles, either paid lip-service to the official version Hideyoshi promoted, or filled in the blanks as they saw fit.

It is with the latter group that Furukawa’s project is concerned, and particularly with the ways a lacunose record could be exploited by twentieth-century authors seeking to refashion Hideyoshi’s personality and achievements in the context of contemporary debates—debates about Japan’s military expansion on the East Asian continent in the 1930s and 1940s; about the ideal employee during the years of the country’s postwar economic miracle; about the changing roles of women in society during those same years.

The dissertation is made up of four thematic essays bookended by introductory and concluding remarks.

Furukawa opens her Introduction by situating the project in the context of studies of national identity: “As Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson have so eloquently shown, national memory and history have proven to be quite malleable in the modern era” (p. 1). Following in the footsteps of Carol Gluck (Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985) and Takashi Fujitani (Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), among others, who have shown how modern Japanese nation-building was carried out through selective use and outright fabrication of the past, Furukawa sets out to show how twentieth-century writers of popular fiction used and reinvented the figure of the sixteenth century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi to lend authority to evolving models of ideal citizenship.

In Chapter 1, “Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Taikōki: A Fictional Hero Emerges,” Furukawa outlines the early phases in the formation of Hideyoshi’s protean persona. She examines famous episodes in his life to show how subtle variants in contemporary and near-contemporary accounts allowed for very different interpretations of his conduct, and argues that the lack of a certainty about even such better documented events spurred contemporary observers and chroniclers to fill in the blanks in the record—a trend that has continued in modern times. Indeed, Hideyoshi’s life’s quality as an empty vessel of sorts, Furukawa contends, was one of the principal reasons for its abiding popularity: not only could readers and consumers of Hideyoshi’s biography in various media sympathize with his rags-to-riches journey, they could also project their own concerns and aspirations onto his largely undocumented early rise. Hideyoshi himself was not innocent here, for he assiduously forged (in more senses than one) mythical tales about his birth and fanciful accounts of his ancestry, openly associating himself with the greats of the past.

Furukawa shows how Taikōki became the foundational text for all subsequent reimaginings of Hideyoshi. In the early modern period it gave rise to illustrated versions, theatrical adaptations, and wood block prints. Another reason for Taikōki’s popularity, Furukawa suggests, was that it allowed authors to vent to their dissatisfaction with the current Tokugawa regime by alluding to the man whose authority the Tokugawa had usurped. And in the twentieth century it was Taikōki, even more than Hideyoshi’s life more generally, that became the foundation for numerous reinventions.

Chapter 2, “Hideyoshi’s War: Yoshikawa Eiji’s Shinsho Taikōki and Toyotomi Hideyoshi as World War II Hero,” centers on a modern re-writing of Taikōki that ran in the daily newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun from January 1, 1939 to August 23, 1945. This new version of Hideyoshi, Furukawa explains, was shaped by the dual need to increase circulation and support the war effort. Indeed, Yoshikawa was chosen by the newspaper’s management because he was already successful as a writer of historical fiction and a supporter of the war, having just completed serialization of the biography of another famous warrior, Miyamoto Musashi, for a rival newspaper, Tokyo Asahi Shinbun.

The newspaper sought to drum up interest in the upcoming serialization and shore up its author’s historical bona fides by staging a round-table discussion of Hideyoshi’s career and publishing a series of articles based on it—at the roundtable and in the essays that followed, various luminaries competed to lavish praise on Hideyoshi as a paragon of leadership and humaneness.

In a timely manner, Yomiuri Shinbun and Yoshikawa created a narrative that focused on “Hideyoshi’s reputation as a humane leader, a decisive military strategist, and a common man who achieved uncommon success,” giving shape to “the perfect nationalist ready to lead Japanese expansion into the rest of East Asia” (p. 56). Episodes from his imagined childhood and youth served to create the image of a Hideyoshi intent on “breaking free from his past and taking control of the realm,” an image meant to be relatable for Japanese readers called to give their all in support of a country that was in the midst of “asserting its own power on the international stage” (p. 80).

To do so, of course, Hideyoshi’s failure in Korea had to be played down: if Hideyoshi’s adventure on the mainland was meant to embolden readers at home, it was to do so by virtue of its intent rather than its disappointing outcome. This was made easier by the end of the war, which came before the serialized narrative reached Hideyoshi’s final years. When a revised book version of the work appeared after the war (as Shinshō Taikōki [A new Taikōki], in 1950), Yoshikawa could claim to be more interested in Hideyoshi’s struggle to rise to the top than in his uses of power, thus also de-emphasizing some of the more overtly jingoistic elements in his own retelling.

In Chapter 3, “The Salary Man’s Hero: Hideyoshi as Business Model,” Furukawa traces the diffusion of Hideyoshi’s most radical re-imagination yet: as the ideal sararīman—the white-collar employee in a large corporation—a category that, more generally, came to be characterized as the archetype of the Japanese worker in the years of the postwar economic boom. With the exception of a brief period under the Allied Occupation, the figure of Hideyoshi was never cast aside because of its wartime association with imperialism. In fact, Furukawa observes, his surprising reinvention is itself a symptom of public opinion’s desire to look away from the recent past. Rather than reject Hideyoshi the warrior, postwar authors and readers (and viewers) embraced Hideyoshi the savvy leader and Hideyoshi the skilled manager of human resources. As Japan sublimated its wartime quest for military preeminence into one for economic might, it recast the symbols of the earlier enterprise—Hideyoshi among them—to suit the changing times: “Readers in the 1960s and 1970s were drawn to Warring States leaders as models because they felt they were involved in an equally critical effort to rebuild their nation and to create a stable foundation for a peaceful future” (p. 124)

Hideyoshi remained a popular subject, continuing to appear in historical novels (and in historical dramas, once they began, with the spread of television), but also in how-to books and business novels. Soon enough, Hideyoshi had become the epitome of the modern businessman. Furukawa’s essay analyzes representative works in these genres.

In Kasahara Ryōzō’s business novel series, Sararīman shusse Taikōki (Taikōki of a salaryman’s rise in the world), published between 1957 and 1960, Hideyoshi and other warriors’ thinly disguised modern avatars move through situations and challenges typical of the corporate workplace, drawing on the wisdom offered by analogous episodes in the original Hideyoshi’s (conveniently embroidered) life.

In how-to books, like those in the Sengoku manējimento shirīzu (Warring States period management series, published in the early 1960s) Hideyoshi and other warlords are taken up, unadorned by modern aliases, as examples of savvy resource and personnel management. These books grew in popularity as Japan’s economy took off in the 1960’s and 1970s; here we catch a glimpse of the fascination with Warring States strategic thinking that spread to business schools far beyond Japan’s borders in the 1970s and 1980s. In these books, Hideyoshi and his peers are lionized for their rational, scientific problem-solving skills with blithe disregard for the historical record.

At the same time, historical novels continued to be written and read in great numbers, and Hideyoshi remained a popular subject even as his likeness was being borrowed for how-to books and business novels. But here as well Hideyoshi underwent a refashioning: Furukawa analyzes Shiba Ryōtarō’s Shinshi Taikōki (The new historical Taikōki, 1973), which returns yet again to Hideyoshi’s poorly documented early years to fashion a sort of merchant hero. In keeping with the characterization of warlords as managers that was fashionable at the time, Shiba depicts a Hideyoshi whose rise in the world is made possible by an unusually sharp business mind. Capitalizing on his protagonist’s notoriously ambiguous origins, he conjures a figure that straddles the military and mercantile worlds, drawing from the best of each for the common good.

A fascinating aspect of Hideyoshi’s afterlives, which recurs in the various chapters but becomes most evident in Chapter 3, is the progressive accretion of fictional details onto the historical truth. Just as Yoshikawa Eiji had built on the narrative of Oze Hoan’s Taikōki (itself one step removed from the documentary record) and had added the verisimilitude of fictional details to the lacunose “truth” of the chronicle, so too authors of postwar business novels and how-to books superimposed their own layer of plausible invention to the “truth” of Yoshikawa’s version, which was now used as a source and characterized as a historical baseline of sorts.

Chapter 4 “The Women of the Realm: Hideyoshi as Social Criticism,” centers on analysis of the historical fiction of Nagai Michiko and Ariyoshi Sawako. “While Ariyoshi and Nagai may not have considered their writing about Hideyoshi and the women he impacted to be explicitly feminist,” Furukawa observes, “an increasingly public discourse on gender roles in which both authors participated facilitated new interpretations of him” (p. 162). Indeed, it is in these works that we first see critical appraisals of Hideyoshi. Here, he is depicted as sixteenth-century women saw him, though his conduct is once again used as a stand-in for that of contemporary men, and his wife’s plight as a reminder of the condition of women in postwar Japan. Further, “Nagai and Ariyoshi question what it means for contemporary Japanese scholars and authors to exalt these ‘great’ (male) heroes of the past when contemporary discourses challenge the very notions of Japanese identity that these so-called heroes represented” (p. 162).

Nagai’s novel in particular, Ōja no tsuma: Hideyoshi no tsuma Onene (The monarch’s wife: Hideyoshi’s wife Onene, 1971), tells Hideyoshi’s story through the eyes of his first wife. Onene married Hideyoshi early in his career, and accompanied him in his rise to power, but because she was unable to give him the heir he so desperately needed, she was eventually displaced in her husband’s favor by younger and more fertile women. As Furukawa shows, though, Nagai does not characterize Onene as defeated by these trials. On the contrary, Nagai exploits the familiar lacunae in the record to offer up a portrait of a woman who dealt with Hideyoshi as a peer despite the limited roles society assigned to her, offering him support but also skepticism when he started to believe his own mythmaking. Drawing on the work of Sharon Sievers (Flowers in the Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983), Furukawa argues that despite being eventually marginalized by her rivals, Nagai’s Onene remains lucid and independent, lamenting not her lot in life but rather the patriarchal order of society that pits women against each other.

Furukawa’s ambitious dissertation sits at the sometimes uncomfortable disciplinary intersection of history and literature, but its breadth will render it appealing to scholars working in both fields. We look forward to the book it will one day become, which promises not only to attract those interested in a study of memory and national identity in modern Japan, but also to foster stimulating debates among modernists and pre-modernists about the uses and continuing relevance of more distant historical periods.

David Spafford
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Pennsylvania

Primary Sources

Oze Hoan, Taikōki 太閤記
Yoshikawa Eiji, Shinshō Taikōki 新書太閤記
Shiba Ryōtarō, Shinshi Taikōki 新史太閤記
Kasahara Ryōzō, Sararīman shusse Taikōki サラリーマン出世太閤記
Nagai Michiko, Ōja no tsuma: 王者の妻

Dissertation Information

Indiana University. 2012. 246 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard Rubinger.


Image: Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like