Soaring Success, Devastating Failure: A Samurai’s Story
Silhouetted against the blue-black sky, the horse-mounted samurai with the horned helmet towered over me like a demon as I knelt in the dirt before him. I could not see his face but there was no mistaking the authority in his growling tone, nor the hint of mockery in his question.
I tried to speak and managed only a faint croak. My mouth had gone dry, as parched as a man dying of thirst. But I had to respond. My fate—and though I didn’t know it then, the fate of all of Japan—rested on my answer.
Raising my head just enough to brave a glance at the demonic figure, I saw him staring at me, like a hawk poised to seize a mouse in its talons.
When I managed to speak, my voice was clear and steady, and I drew courage with each syllable.
It was a time of carnage and darkness: the Age of Wars, when the land was torn by bloodshed and the only law was the law of the sword. A peasant wandered the countryside alone, seeking his fortune, without a coin in his pocket. He longed to become a successful samurai—a career all but impossible for an uneducated peasant unskilled in the martial arts. To be sure, nothing in the demeanor of this five-foot tall, one-hundred-ten-pound boy could possibly have foretold the astounding destiny awaiting him.
His name was Hideyoshi, and on that fateful spring evening in the year 1553, the brash young warlord Nobunaga hired him as a sandal-bearer. Driven by a relentless desire to transcend his peasant roots, Hideyoshi went on to become Nobunaga’s loyal protégé and right-hand man. Ultimately he became the supreme ruler of all Japan—the first peasant ever to rise to the absolute height of power—and unified a nation torn apart by more than a hundred years of civil strife.
Hideyoshi’s true story has inspired countless novels, plays, movies—even video games—for more than four centuries. Born the weakling son of a poor farmer at a time when martial prowess or entry to the priesthood were the only ways for an ambitious commoner to escape a life of backbreaking farm toil, he rose from poverty to rule a mighty nation and command hundreds of thousands of samurai warriors. For generations of men, Hideyoshi became the ultimate underdog hero: a symbol of the possibility of reinventing oneself as a man and rising, Horatio Alger fashion, from rags to riches.
Hideyoshi was driven by a burning desire to rise in the world, and rise he did—beyond his wildest dreams. Sheer hard work, dedication to service, and force of will enabled him to become the first-ever peasant to achieve supreme civil and military power as Taiko, or Imperial Regent—the Emperor’s proxy. Along the way, he pacified dozens of warring clans, built roads, bridges, and Japan’s greatest castles, instituted currency reform, and laid the foundation for a federation of states that would later become Japan’s social democracy—and Asia’s mightiest economic power.
But absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely. In the evening of his days, Hideyoshi stained his legacy by ordering an ill-advised invasion of China via Korea (so illogical was this move that many scholars believe mental illness sparked Hideyoshi’s astounding hubris). The debacle turned into a disastrous seven year war costing hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. To this day, Hideyoshi is reviled by many in Korea as history’s greatest villain. Today the lessons of his life could not be more timely.
In The Swordless Samurai, my second book, Hideyoshi reveals secrets of organizational leadership and success in an imaginative exposition of the peasant-turned-samurai’s personal philosophy, based on true historical incidences and what is known of his enigmatic personality. The work is now available in paperback from St. Martin’s Press.
This essay, excerpted from parts of The Swordless Samurai, first appeared as a guest post at the Art of Manliness.
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