Tuesday 14 May 2019

The Warlord, His Wife and His Concubines - by Lesley Downer

'That bald rat.' Official court portrait of
Toyotomi Hideyoshi by Kano Mitsunobu (1561-1608)
Your beauty grows day by day. Tokichiro complains about you constantly and it is outrageous. While that bald rat flusters around trying to find another good woman, you remain lofty and elegant. Do not be jealous. Show Hideyoshi this letter.

So speaks the unexpectedly kindly voice of Oda Nobunaga in a letter addressed to Nene, Hideyoshi’s wife, around 1575. The imperious Nobunaga was, at the time, lord of half Japan and determined to conquer the rest of it in short order. 

Hideyoshi, ‘that bald rat’, also known as Tokichiro, was Nobunaga’s right hand man. As the adage went, if a nightingale refused to sing, Nobunaga’s response would be to kill it. Hideyoshi’s would be to persuade it to sing - and to sing the song he wanted.

I love the way the letter takes us all the way back to 1575 and gives us a sense of Nobunaga’s, Hideyoshi’s and Nene’s personalities. At the time Hideyoshi was 37 and famously had an eye for the ladies. Nene was 25 and they’d been married for 12 years.
Hideyoshi on his horse with his splendid headdress
(unknown artist)

Meanwhile in England, some 6000 miles away, Elizabeth I - born in 1533 and a near contemporary of both Nobunaga (b 1534) and Hideyoshi (b 1537) - was on the throne. That same year, 1575, Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester organised a magnificent three week party at his lavish palace, Kenilworth, as an extended marriage proposal to his queen. He failed, of course.

Wives of the Warlords, Part II

Twelve years earlier, in 1563, Nene was thirteen, strikingly beautiful and vibrant with a wisdom and calm beyond her years. She was the daughter of a mid-ranking samurai and lived in the castle town of Kiyosu where Nobunaga was daimyo. She had plenty of suitors, handsome eligible samurai of high rank. But there was also Tokichiro, a short, scrawny 25-year-old with a face like a monkey. People called him ‘Monkey’, which didn’t seem to bother him.

Hideyoshi with some of his ladies by Sasaki 
Toyokichi - Nihon Hanazue, 1896 (Walters Art 
Museum; gift of Mr and Mrs C.R.Snell Jr.)
Tokichiro was low class, of farming stock, but had miraculously risen through the ranks to enter Nobunaga’s service. He’d been Nobunaga’s sandal bearer, stable boy, gardener and other menial jobs. He certainly didn’t seem to have many prospects. But Nene decided to marry him. One can only assume it was a love match - extraordinary in those days.

By the time Nobunaga sent his letter, Tokichiro had risen in rank to daimyo and was building his first castle. He was now a general with the name Hideyoshi. He was a superb strategist and a brilliant man. But his key quality was his golden tongue. He could talk himself out of the most hopeless of situations and charm people into doing practically anything he wanted. In fact he turned around battles just by his ability to use surprise tactics and his powers of persuasion. 

He was also genuinely likeable. Nobunaga became fiercer with age and was prone to terrifying rages. But whenever he heard Hideyoshi’s voice in the distance, a smile would twitch the corner of his lips. He’d be unable to carry on being angry no matter how hard he tried. Hideyoshi had the unfailing ability to make him relax and laugh.

The Power Behind The Throne
Lady Kodai-in - Nene in old age
(after Hideyoshi's death she took the tonsure)

As Hideyoshi was building his castle, a town sprang up around it. Being a kind-hearted man, Hideyoshi didn’t demand a huge amount of tribute from the townsfolk. But the people in neighbouring towns started to complain because they had to pay so much more tribute than the folk in Hideyoshi’s new town so he decided he’d better increase it. 

At this point Nene stepped in. Throughout their marriage he discussed everything with her and when they were apart they regularly exchanged letters. Very few of hers remain but his have been collected and translated. On the matter of tribute, he writes to her that he has followed her advice and decided not to raise it. ‘Because you refused I froze it. Although I issued a new order, because you refused it I decided to exempt their tributes.’

After Nobunaga’s shocking murder in 1582 Hideyoshi set to work to finish off his project of bringing Japan together under his banner, transforming it from 260 warring princedoms into a single unified peaceful country. While he was away campaigning it was Nene’s job to run the castle. She was in charge of the money and of taking care of his mother and their adopted children and of policing and punishing miscreants.
Hideyoshi cherryblossom viewing
with Lady Chacha

Nene advised him on everything - from how to run his military campaigns to how to run the empire. He in his turn wrote to her describing every political decision and every military action - hostages taken, heads taken, how he overcame this clan and that clan. He also wrote on projects he was just beginning to think about, like subjugating Korea and China. Nene always had wise advice to give.

Some of his letters to her are rather sweet. After describing his latest military campaign he writes that his skin is getting dark and his hair is turning grey and he’s afraid she might not like him any more.


Then there were the concubines. Any sensible warlord’s wife knew perfectly well that her husband would have concubines - it went with the job. Hideyoshi did however take it rather to extremes. The Jesuit priest Luis Frois who was around at the time wrote that he had a hundred concubines - though as a Jesuit Frois probably wasn’t clear on exactly who was a concubine and who was a lady attendant. Nevertheless it was pretty good going for a short scrawny bloke with a face like a monkey.

Lady Chacha (Yodo Dono)
Nene put up with it all with good humour - until Lady Chacha came along. It’s impossible to imagine how people felt over four centuries ago. Nevertheless we can guess that Nene wasn’t happy. 

Nene never had any children and neither did all those concubines - until Chacha. When Hideyoshi was 52 Chacha (who was 23) gave him a son and heir, Tsurumatsu. Hideyoshi doted on him and wrote him many letters signed, touchingly, ‘Daddy’. But the ‘little prince’ died when he was two and Hideyoshi was distraught. Then Chacha gave him another son, Hideyori, who survived him and became his heir.

Chacha was a famous beauty and came from the most noble possible lineage. She was the daughter of Nobunaga’s sister, Lady Oichi, another famous beauty who had gone to her death in a blaze of glory, accompanying her husband in death when he fell foul of ... yes, Hideyoshi. While Nene was modest and down to earth, Lady Chacha was a prima donna and when she became the mother of the heir demanded her own castle. Hideyoshi had one built for her - Yodo Castle, half way between Kyoto and Osaka.
Hideyoshi with some of his women
by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)

Japanese Renaissance

In the end Hideyoshi reigned for twelve years after unifying Japan and ushered in a glorious golden age of the arts. He loved culture, perhaps because he had grown up without anything, in poverty. He studied Noh dancing assiduously and became a great aficionado of the tea ceremony. He once famously invited the entire populace of Kyoto to a ten day tea ceremony (though he got bored and it only lasted a single day) and he filled Kyoto with beautiful buildings and was a great patron of the arts. The Momoyama period has gone down in history as a Golden Age.

He died - not on the battlefield but in his bed - in 1598. Both Nene and Lady Chacha survived him. The question was, who would be his successor? Wisely, Nene backed Tokugawa Ieyasu - who, as the adage went, waited and waited for that stubborn nightingale to sing; and now finally it sang. Lady Chacha and her son Hideyori backed those who opposed him and, like her mother, Chacha ended in a blaze of glory, killing herself as Osaka Castle went up in flames around her.

For, as all students of Japanese history know well, the age that followed did not belong to Hideyoshi’s rather useless heir, Hideyori, but to the stolid, patient Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan just as it was coming out of the Tokugawa period and is out now in paperback. For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Alas, there are no pictures of the young Nene. 
'Monkey.' Portrait of
Toyotomi Hideyoshi


Sue Purkiss said...

They really come alive in your writing - these people from so far away and so long ago! Fascinating.

Lesley Downer said...

Thanks, Sue! I do love this period - new for me!