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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Stephen Turbull

Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Leadership, Strategy, Conflict

Command 6, Oxford: Osprey 2010. 64pp.  $18.95.  ISBN-13: 978-1846039607.

Stephen Turnbull contributes an effective and enlightening look at the career of Hideyoshi Toyotomi in the sixth installment of Osprey's Command series.  The series, with entries detailing famous commanders such as Hannibal, Henry V of England, and Erwin Rommel, had been missing an Eastern military leader, and Turnbull's contribution fills the void nicely.  Stephen Turnbull has published over thirty books dealing primarily with military history, and specifically the military history of medieval Europe and Japan.  He currently lectures at Leeds University in the United Kingdom, from whom he received his Ph.D. in 1996. [ed. note: he is also the historical consultant on Keanu Reeve’s new samurai movie, so we expect at least a reasonable historical portrayal]

Turnbull brings his wealth of experience with comparative military history to bear on this slender, and generously illustrated, volume.  His use of modern military nomenclature and imagery, while occasionally bordering on the anachronistic, does succeed in placing Hideyoshi into the broader context of military history, a field that is often dominated by western examples from the ancient world, early modern Europe, and modern Europe.  Turnbull thus succeeds in presenting Hideyoshi in a way that is familiar to those who have a general (Western) background in military history.

In style and presentation, the book is both attractive and appealing.  Turnbull, and his illustrator Guiseppe Rava, make excellent use of both contemporary and modern paintings to bring Hideyoshi's remarkable story, and the vitality of sixteenth-century Japan, to life.  Turnbull also utilizes a number of clear, attractive maps to track Hideyoshi's campaigns, and his use of simplified NATO symbols make them easy to interpret.  

Turnbull seeks to provide as comprehensive an overview of Hideyoshi the general and the man as can be expected in a short work.  In the introduction he contextualizes Hideyoshi within the political fragmentation of sixteenth century Japan, and immediately credits him with establishing the circumstances, namely the unification of Japan, of the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603. 

The bulk of the book is divided into chronological chapters dealing with the historical background to the sixteenth century, a basic overview of sixteenth century military life, and then a careful narration of Hideyoshi's career.  The bulk of the text is devoted to Hideyoshi's active career in service to Oda Nobunaga and then on his own between 1558 to 1591.  The final three chapters are brief, though fascinating, thematic studies devoted to Hideyoshi's "mind", post-war politics, and the early historiography on his life. 

Turnbull does not simply present Hideyoshi's military genius and strategic brilliance through a careful narration of his battles and campaigns, but instead he illuminates the complex and nuanced political approach that Hideyoshi took to subjugate Japan.  He stresses the importance that Hideyoshi placed on diplomacy as part of a broader look at his strategy for national control, especially in his dealings with daimyo such as Mori Terumoto and Date Masamune.  He also speaks at length about the importance of the battles that Hideyoshi chose not to fight, including his decision not to wage a war of attrition in subjugating Shikoku, nor in invading Dewa province to contend with the multiplicity of minor lords there. (56) He concludes this look at Hideyoshi's restraint and overall strategic competence by noting Tokugawa Ieyasu's invocation that the most powerful sword is the one in the scabbard. (56)

The book concludes with a fascinating look at Hideyoshi's "mind".  Here Turnbull illuminates various aspects of Hideyoshi's strategic, diplomatic, and political thought, though he does not offer a coherent synthesis of Hideyoshi's overall personality.  He does discuss Hideyoshi's use of the existing court system of ranks to augment his power, first through his appointment as kampaku (a regent who acts on behalf of a minor emperor) and eventually as taiko (a retired kampaku), and also Hideyoshi's refusal to take the position of shogun, but he does not bring these two strands together effectively. 

Turnbull paints a lively and entertaining picture of early modern Japan's most famous and successful general.  Drawing on his vast wealth of knowledge about Japanese history, as well as his expertise in military history, he crafts a compelling narrative of Hideyoshi's life and times.  He also includes a valuable glossary of standard Japanese terms, as well as an abbreviated, but valuable Further Reading section.  Overall, the book makes a fine addition to the Command series, as well as an excellent introduction to sixteenth century Japanese warfare.

Craig M Nakashian, Ph.D.

Texas A&M University- Texarkana <craig.nakashian@tamut.edu>

Page Added: January 2011