The Swordless Samurai

Leadership Wisdom of Japan's Sixteenth-Century Legend---Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Kitami Masao; Edited and with an Introduction by Tim Clark

St. Martin's Griffin

Chapter One
 
Gratitude, Hard Work,
 
Bold Action, and Devotion
 
So, boy. You wish to serve me?” 
 
Silhouetted against the blue-black sky, the man on horseback, with his 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, so dry I felt as if I were dying of thirst. But I had to respond. My fate—and though I didn’t know it then, the fate of all of Japan—depended on my answer.
 
Raising my head just far enough to brave a glance at the demonic figure, I saw him staring at me, like a hawk poised to seize a field mouse in its talons.
 
When I managed to speak, my voice was clear and steady, and I drew courage with each syllable.
 
“That’s correct, Lord Nobunaga,” I said. “I do.”
 
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. I was a young boy then, wandering the countryside alone, seeking my fortune, without a copper coin in my pocket. Even then I wanted to be a leader of men, but I could never have guessed how far that desire would take me.
 
My name is Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and today I am the supreme ruler of all Japan, the first peasant ever to rise to the absolute height of power.2 I was the only feudal lord—out of more than two hundred who lived during my rule—to earn my position through hard work rather than birthright. I rose from poverty to rule a mighty nation and command hundreds of thousands of samurai warriors. Now, I record these words so that my story might inspire others to become better leaders.
 
Some of you already lead many followers. Some of you have just begun your leadership journey. Some of you follow now, but aspire to lead. Regardless of your station in life, the timeless secrets disclosed in these pages will serve you well, for they apply equally to subordinates and superiors.
 
People called me Monkey for my mischievous ways—and because of my big ears, my oversize head, and my scrawny physique. I’m short and homely. Those who meet me for the first time are shocked—they don’t expect the most powerful person in the nation to resemble a bald, deformed dwarf. Some say I’m the ugliest leader in Japan’s history!
 
So be it. Perhaps I take the prize for the most unsightly overlord, but in my lifetime the people became dedicated to me—because I dedicated myself to them. That is the Secret of Devotion, about which I will reveal more later.
 
You may be surprised to learn that my successful quest to achieve the epitome of leadership was built on the commonplace notions of devotion, gratitude, hard work, and bold action. These principles appear so simple you might not consider them “secrets.” But few people comprehend their true power, and still fewer understand that they form the cornerstone of the samurai code, an honored protocol of conduct handed down for hundreds of years. The samurai code covers far more than the mere use of weapons, which is fortunate for me, since I have a reputation as the worst fighter in Japan’s history! But my most formidable weapon has always been my mind: You might call me the swordless samurai.
 
Throughout my ascent to the pinnacle of leadership I adhered rigorously to these precepts, and they served me well. The leadership lessons I learned then still hold true today, and the samurai code continues to resonate with leaders throughout the realm and beyond.
 
I was born a poor peasant in Nakamura, in Owari Province.3 Penniless, ugly, without social standing, resembling an ape—that was me: Hideyoshi, the monkey boy. My father died young. I changed jobs often and fought constantly with my stepfather. I was uneducated and enjoyed none of the privileges of the elite.
 
But I exploited the few assets I possessed. Poverty became an advantage because it allowed me to understand the common man’s struggles. Ninety-five percent of those who fight in battle are foot soldiers—people who live on the bottom rungs of society. I understand how such men feel and think because I was once one of them. That’s why I became so adept at winning their allegiance, and their admiration; they would do anything for me and gladly. In that respect, no other lord could hold a candle to me. How can those who’ve never wanted for food or clothing understand those who have?
 
My biggest disadvantage—or so I thought at first—was being short and skinny. As a youth, I wanted more than anything to become a samurai, but I lacked sufficient strength and dexterity. During the Age of Wars,4 each lord had to rely on his own private army to maintain power, and they often drafted soldiers from the peasantry. It was tough for those of us with puny physiques to distinguish ourselves. I was never much of a swordsman. Hell, even a third-rate ronin5 could lop off my noggin in a street tussle! I realized I needed to work with my mind rather than my body, especially if I wanted to keep my head attached to my neck.
 
So I became a samurai who relies on wits rather than weapons. I chose strategy over swords, logistics over lances. My approach to leadership allowed me to best all rivals. Scores of samurai followed me, and the lowborn and elite alike gave their very lives on my behalf. I’m deeply grateful for their sacrifices. And gratitude lies at the heart of leadership, as you will see.
 
Leaders Must Be Grateful
 
My tale has a humble beginning. Besides being poor, uneducated, and of undistinguished lineage, I was short, weak, and odd-looking. But I refused to allow those disadvantages to dictate my destiny. I had a passion for life rarely seen in this world. Though born a sharecropper’s son, I wanted to be a leader, and I was determined not to let my imperfections stand in the way. Deep in my heart I knew I was more than what the rest of the world thought me to be.
 
My father started out as a farmer, then became a foot soldier in the Oda army, only to be crippled in battle. My mother had to make ends meet by working as a farmhand. After my father’s death, when I was seven years old, she married a man named Chikuami, another farmer and former Oda soldier.
 
I was devoted to my mother, whose life had been a succession of trials from childhood onward. Even as a young boy, I sensed the depth of her hardships, and my desire to ease her burden shaped my destiny—but not before I caused her even more pain.
 
For I was a naughty lad who detested school and loved throwing rocks and playing at war. My mother had trouble controlling me, so she entrusted my care and education to a Buddhist temple, hoping I would learn some discipline. But I ignored my would-be teachers and romped outdoors all day long, brandishing bamboo spears at stray cats and battling butterflies with wooden swords. The monks threw up their hands. Buddha himself lacked the patience to look after Hideyoshi, they said. So I returned to my family.
 
Back home, I cut grass and caught fish to help my mother make ends meet, but we often went hungry nonetheless. Worse, my stepfather and I were constantly at odds, and he took to whipping me. One day, my mother could take no more.
 
“Hideyoshi,” she said. “Since you’re unable to stay in school, and the monks will no longer accept you, I’ve arranged an apprenticeship with a nearby family, so that you can learn a trade.”
 
I couldn’t believe it. I had always thought of my mother as my one true ally. “How can you do this to me?” I asked. Hearing that, she seized me in an embrace so tight I could barely breathe, as tears streamed down her face.
 
“I’m afraid of what might happen if you continue to fight with your stepfather. One day he may not be able to stop himself when he beats you. I can’t bear it any longer. Please, in heaven’s name, leave this house. I’ll miss you with all my heart, but you must go.”
 
“No! I don’t want to leave!” I cried. “I love you, Mother!”
 
“Listen to me carefully, Hideyoshi,” she sobbed. “In this world you need land and money to get by. I didn’t want to remarry, but I had to survive. Now you must do your part, for all our sakes.”
 
That was not the last time I would leave home to pursue an apprenticeship at my mother’s insistence. The same scene played out over and over, each time with the same results. My mother would plead with me to find a steady position. I would leave, apprentice with another family, get fired after a few months, then return home. Mother scolded me. She wept. She wailed with exasperation. But I’d lost ears for her counsel, and patience for any profession other than serving a samurai.
 
One day I reached a decision. “Mother, I’m leaving for good to find my own way,” I announced. “I won’t return until I’ve made a name for myself.” Though I was only fifteen years old, the resolve in my eyes convinced her that argument was useless.
 
Before saying a tearful good-bye, she presented me with a heavy sack of copper coins, enough to buy a year’s supply of rice. My mother knew the dangers a young boy roaming the countryside alone would face and feared we might never see each other again. So she gave me the money she’d been saving for my inheritance. This was a greater legacy than most working farmers could leave. How she must have scrimped and saved to put it aside! Suddenly I realized how deeply she loved me and how much she had sacrificed. For the first time, I felt true gratitude. That very day, as I walked down the dirt road leading out of Nakamura, the only village I’d ever known, I resolved to give my mother a better life. I would work my way up, take her away from the farms, and provide her with the kind of comforts she’d only known in dreams.
 
Gratitude sparked in me a burning desire to better myself and help others. Contrary to what many think, the essence of leadership lies in serving, not in being served. Those who aspire to motivate followers need to learn the Secret of Gratitude: Leaders must be grateful.
 
Copyright © 2005 by Kitami Masao. Translation and Introduction copyright © 2007 by Tim Clark. All rights reserved.