My favorite Japanese historical figure is Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became the de facto leader of Japan in the 1580s after avenging Oda Nobunaga’s assassination.
This story is about how he succeeded in his conquest of Odawara, then occupied by the Hōjō’s clan, and what we can learn from it.
The undefeated castle
Odawara Castle had been said to be impregnable for centuries. Rising proudly on the top of a hill with natural defenses, it had been a symbol of the Hōjō’s resistance to submission.
When Hideyoshi arrived with his army, it wasn’t the first time someone tried to siege Odawara. The Hōjō were always prepared with several months of food reserves.
At the first sign of invasion, they set fire to the rice fields surrounding the castle so that invaders wouldn’t feed themselves from the local yields. Bringing food to the battlefield is a burden, and history has witnessed many assailants running out of food within a few weeks and giving up out of starvation.
Years in the making
But this time was different. Hideyoshi came prepared. In hindsight, years of preparation were in the making.
He first imposed a standard measuring unit system across Japan to ensure homogeneous and reliable taxation. More tax revenue meant richer and more obedient officials, which led to a highly efficient administration.
Hideyoshi had also spent considerable efforts to modernize transportation logistics and infrastructure. Never before had it been easier to transport provisions and ammunitions to a battlefield.
Hideyoshi even had devised a vacation system for his warlords to spend time with their families during the siege to keep their spirits high.
To Hōjō’s despair, after three months of siege, Hideyoshi’s troops were still surrounding the castle and not showing any sign of capitulation. The starvation strategy hadn’t worked, and Hōjō’s provisions were becoming scarce.
And then, the coup de grace. Unbeknownst to the Hōjō, Hideyoshi had secretly been building a castle on the hills facing Odawara. Once completed, he ordered his troops to cut all trees surrounding the newly built castle during the night.
The following day, the sudden apparition of a castle seemingly “built overnight” broke Hōjō’s spirit, and they surrendered immediately.
What can we learn from this masterpiece of strategy?
- Overnight success is an illusion that hides years of hard work
- Innovation often happens at the intersection of more mundane improvements
- Previous successes don’t warrant future outcomes