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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