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Japanese Historical Figures (2) - Ishida Mitsunari

Name : Ishida Mitsunari (石田三成)
Life : 1560-1600. Azuchi Momoyama Era (安土桃山時代, circa 1568-1600)
Birthplace : State of Omi (近江国), modern Shiga Prefecture

Ishida Mitsunari is now regarded as the most competent vassal of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), Japan’s ruler in Azuchi Momoyama Era.
But in Edo Era (江戸時代), 270 years that followed Azuchi Momoyama Era ruled by Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) and his successors, who took over the Japanese government after Hideyoshi’s death, he had been looked down as an uncanny henchman of Hideyoshi, a narrow-hearted official who disliked and was disliked by brave Samurais like Kato Kiyomasa (加藤清正), or a petty plotter who tried defeating great Ieyasu in vain. Edo Era was the time of Samurai class, who put bravery as the supreme value. Add to that Mitsunari was a man who tried to kill Ieyasu in the Battle of Sekigahara (関ケ原の戦い, 1600) after Hideyoshi’s death, but was crushed down. Even after Meiji Restoration, that toppled Tokugawa’s government, Mitsunari’s reputation had been lower than another Hideyoshi’s vassal Kiyomasa.
It is the recent 50 years that saw Mitsunari’s rapid re-evaluation. Japanese people got to evaluate cleverness than bravery, and add to that got to realize what should be regarded as sincere when a person was in charge of business. Now Mitsunari is praised as the cleverest administrator in his era, a loyal vassal of Hideyoshi with no selfishness, and a tragic hero who was defeated by strong and cunning Ieyasu. Recent historical movies and TV programs often describe Mitsunari as heroic and tragic, but on the other hand Kiyomasa, whose popularity was high 100 years ago as a brave and noble-hearted Samurai, is now seen as no more than a second-grade figure who had more force but much less insight than Mitsunari.

Mitsunari was born in an inconspicuous family. He was picked up by Hideyoshi in his young days. Hideyoshi was also picked up by Oda Nobunaga (織田信長), the warlord who proceeded the unification of Japan, from a lower class peasant to one of the highest commanders in Nobunaga’s army. Due to his lower origin Hideyoshi didn’t have inherited vassals, so he was eager to raise his own youngsters like Kiyomasa or Mitsunari. After Nobunaga was assassinated by his commander Akechi Mitsuhide (明智光秀), Hideyoshi defeated Mitsuhide swiftly and took over Nobunaga’s power. In 8 years after then he completed the unification of Japan in his hand. In Hideyoshi’s government Mitsunari accomplished important tasks such as unified taxation system or disarmament of peasant class. He surely made a crucial role to change Japan from Sengoku Era (戦国時代)’s strife-torn state to Edo Era’s pacified society.

Hideyoshi died in 1598, leaving his infant successor. Then Ieyasu was the most powerful daimyo (大名, regional lords) and soon reached his influences to the government and became the de fact top-figure in it. Mitsunari saw Ieyasu as an usurper. So he tried to gather anti-Ieyasu daimyos and make a battle. But he was thought much less by other daimyos than Ieyasu, so he couldn’t gather enough allies (many of his colleagues such as Kiyomasa ran to Ieyasu). Worse than it in the battle of Sekigahara many daimyos in his allied force deceived Mitsunari and fought for Ieyasu. Mitsunari was decisively defeated, and killed by Ieyasu. 15 years after the battle of Sekigahara, Ieyasu destroyed Hideyoshi’s successor by the siege of Osaka Castle (大坂の陣).

Mitsunari had been neglected by Tokugawa government in Edo Era, and even so in Meiji Era (Meiji government didn’t grant him any posthumous titles). Only contemporary people have a deep sympathy with this tragic and loyal Samurai.

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