3 Top Military Leaders in Japanese History; All From the Same Place?!

Strange but true, three of the men considered to be at or close to the top of any greatest Japanese military leader list all come from the same area!

These are among the most famous figures in Japan. All school children learn their names, their deeds, even their personalities in the same way that we learn all about George Washington (for our US readers…). Countless books, manga, anime, TV dramas, movies, and video games have been made featuring these men. In effect, they founded modern Japan, or at least laid the groundwork to make it possible by uniting the land. The strangest fact of all: They all come from the same place, even the same prefecture if we use modern geographic lines.

The 3 great unifiers of Japan

I won’t keep you in suspense. The men are Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

OdanobunagaOda Nobunaga

Hideyoshi-1Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Tokugawa_1Tokugawa Ieyasu

There is a famous poem about these three men all schoolchildren learn. It goes:

What if a bird doesn’t want to sing? “Kill, it!”, said Nobunaga. “Make it want to sing”, said Hideyoshi “Wait”, said Ieyasu

I’ll examine each of these men in separate posts. For now, let’s look at the Japan they were born into and what they achieved.

Civil War!

Japan in the 16th century wasn’t a very fun place. The shogun was the ruler of the country in theory, but in reality he had completely lost all control of the land. Local lords, or daimyo, were taking more and more power for themselves and completely ignoring the shogunate government. As the daimyo grew stronger and stronger, they started warring with each other in attempts to conquer more land for themselves. Because this was happening all over the country, this entire century (generally about 1477 to 1603 to be more exact) is known by historians as Sengoku Jidai, or the Warring States period.

Taking control of the country

This is what the three men I mentioned above were born into. Nobunaga was born in Owari providence, which is the western half of modern day Aichi prefecture. He quickly became a force to be reckoned with and conquered most of central Japan. He likely would have done more, but was assassinated by one of his generals.

Hideyoshi, another Owari native who was also one of Nobunaga’s top generals, quickly took over and more or less completed Nobunaga’s conquest of Japan. He then turned his sites to China and invaded Korea as a first step, but nothing much came of that.

After Hideyoshi died, Ieyasu, born in Mikawa, the eastern neighbor of Owari, stepped in and destroyed all remaining rivals to fully and completely conquer Japan and become the next Shogun. His family would go on to rule Japan for over 200 years until the Emperor took back control of the country and started the modern era.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at the first of these three great uniters of Japan. But until then, let me leave you with another common saying in Japan about these men:

Nobunaga made the pie and Hideyoshi baked it, but Ieyasu was the man who ate it.


Interested in more about the Sengoku jidai leaders? Read about the Battle of Okehazama

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23 Responses to 3 Top Military Leaders in Japanese History; All From the Same Place?!

  1. kyushudan Wednesday, 18 November 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    An enjoyable post.

    I hadn’t heard that pie analogy before but I like it a lot.

    (I like Nobunaga. I’m no bird lover either.) .-= Japanese Castles

    • JapanDave Thursday, 19 November 2009 at 9:05 am #

      See, I’m partial to Ieyasu. But guess I could be influenced by living in his old hometown! 😉

  2. Tornadoes28 Thursday, 19 November 2009 at 12:29 am #

    The pie analogy is very famous.

    If it wasn’t for Akechi Mitsuhide, Nobunaga’s Assassin, Nobunaga most likely would have conquered all of Japan by force. Unlike Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu subjugated Japan with a mixture of force and alliance. Technically Hideyoshi and Ieyasu did not militarily conquer all of Japan, only those that refused to submit to their rule were subjected to military force. All other daimyo saw the writing on the wall and decided they were better off submitting.

    Good post.

    • JapanDave Thursday, 19 November 2009 at 9:04 am #

      Thanks for the input, Tornadoes28!

      We can see that a little in the kid’s poem, can’t we? Ieyasu was content to let other’s do the heavy lifting for him and wait for his chance, Hideyoshi preferred to win by not using force, if possible, but Nobunaga was the real warlord. As good as the other two men were, I don’t think they could have done much without Nobunaga paving the way, or making the pie.

  3. Tornadoes28 Thursday, 19 November 2009 at 5:18 am #

    Have you ever visited Ieyasu’s Mausoleum in Nikko? It is incredible and a must for anyone visiting Japan. Nikko is my favorite place in all of Japan. And that’s probably why I am partial to Tokugawa Ieyasu. 🙂

  4. JapanDave Friday, 20 November 2009 at 11:52 am #

    No, I’ve not yet made it to Nikko in my Japanese travels. It’s on my list of places to go, however, and I might be close by this New Years. Of course it will be completely packed at new years, so that might not be the best time…

  5. PoolofZen Saturday, 21 November 2009 at 6:31 pm #

    I started out liking Ieyasu because of his reputation and of course his legacy carried on by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Then I learned more about Nobunaga and his relationship and reliance on Hideyoshi. When its all said and done I think I prefer Hideyoshi.

    While Nobunaga started the process, and Ieyasu put the final wrapping on the package… Hideyoshi did all the heavy lifting in between. Plus, for Hideyoshi to rise from being a peasant to ruling Japan is a pretty amazing accomplishment in modern times, let alone Medieval Japan.

    (Plus having no tact or strategic abilities of my own I admire that quality in Hideyoshi.)

    (I always think its cool to go from site to site and see the same people visit them all.)

    • JapanDave Sunday, 22 November 2009 at 2:34 am #

      I definitely like Hideyoshi more than Nobunaga, tho Nobunaga did grow on me a bit after watching the NHK drama with Ken Watanabe. Most Japanese I talk to also seem to prefer Hideyoshi. There is something to be said for the smooth way he dealt with people.

      • Tornadoes28 Sunday, 22 November 2009 at 7:47 am #

        I am a fan of all three. But I am most interested in Ieyasu and the Tokugawa Bakufu. But Nobunaga is an incredible figure. I really wonder what he could have accomplished if he had not been assassinated. How would the history of Japan have been different. If he had been able to conquer Japan militarily so that he had ultimate centralized authority, would Japan have been the closed and isolated nation that it was under the Tokugawa? I think not. .-= Tornadoes28

        • JapanDave Sunday, 22 November 2009 at 11:53 pm #

          What if… There’s so many different directions it could have gone it, it’s tough to say. I’m not so sure they wouldn’t have still closed the country tho. Nobunaga probably wouldn’t have, but a future Oda may have — there’s no way to tell. It would be super interesting to explore this stuff. I wonder if any books have looked at this “what if” situation.

  6. PoolofZen Sunday, 22 November 2009 at 7:40 am #

    What was name of the NHK Drama with Ken Watanabe? You’ve got me curious! I can already tell it has to be good. .-= PoolofZen

    • JapanDave Monday, 23 November 2009 at 12:00 am #

      “Oda Nobunaga” 🙂 Easy enough, right? It ran for 53 episodes (I think) and was popular enough that the first dozen or so were subtitled and sold in the States. (again, I think. My info isn’t rock solid on this one). You can find the first few episodes on youtube, but alas, no subtitles. Here’s a clip someone uploaded from the English sub version:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJantYB1Qz0

  7. JapanDave Monday, 23 November 2009 at 8:53 am #

    What if… There’s so many different directions it could have gone it, it’s tough to say. I’m not so sure they wouldn’t have still closed the country tho. Nobunaga probably wouldn’t have, but a future Oda may have — there’s no way to tell. It would be super interesting to explore this stuff. I wonder if any books have looked at this “what if” situation.

  8. Vigo Doria Tuesday, 2 October 2012 at 8:03 am #

    Where is General Kuribayashi, heroic defender of Iwo Jima ?

  9. Charles Felipe dos Santos Monday, 25 April 2016 at 10:52 am #

    Hello. Firstly, congrats for this very good article. I’d like to know how the Japanese people see those three important guys, nowadays. I’d like to know if they consider those men just as important people to the history, or if they see those guys as idols. My English is not that good, i’m still learning, so I’m sorry for any mistake. Thanks for your attention, and I would be very pleased if could answer my question.

    • JapanDave Monday, 9 May 2016 at 10:36 pm #

      Depends on the area. People in the Okazaki area generally still love Ieyasu. Elsewhere in Aichi they still look highly on Hideyoshi and Nobunaga. But outside of these areas, many people don’t think about them very much or may not even know them. For example, my father-in-law from Tochigi didn’t know who Ieyasu was when my wife moved here to Okazaki.

      Japanese historians of course still view all three as very important.

      • Charles Felipe dos Santos Saturday, 14 May 2016 at 10:10 pm #

        Thanks Dave, you helped me a lot with your answer. I asked you it because I’m writing a book of fantasy, and three characters were inspired in Ieyasu, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Actually, my inspiration to create the characters was the poem which you also put in the article: “What if a bird doesn’t want to sing? “Kill, it!”, said Nobunaga. “Make it want to sing”, said Hideyoshi “Wait”, said Ieyasu” I was worried that I could offend japanese people by using those guys as inspiration (the names of the characters aren’t equal, but are very simillar to their names also). But, by what you said, I think it wouldn’t happen, and there are many other works based on those men also. Thanks again Dave, hugs!

  10. Maneesha Monday, 17 October 2016 at 9:45 am #

    Can you please tell me where the Bird poem comes from. I cannot find a source for it anywhere and would like to know who wrote it or who was the first to say it. Thank you. 🙂

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