This portrait is among the finest of the roughly twenty extant depictions of the great warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598). Superbly executed, it shows Hideyoshi seated with a ceremonial fan in his right hand and his left fist clenched. He wears white silk socks and sits cross-legged on raised mats like those used by emperors. Beside Hideyoshi rests a long, embellished sword indicating his status as a ruler. His headgear, white coat, and loose trousers are the formal garments of a high-ranking noble, representing his status as an imperial regent (kanpaku). Emperor Go-Yozei (1571–1617) allowed Hideyoshi to use a simplified version of the imperial paulownia crest as the Toyotomi family crest. The ink landscape with a large paulownia tree behind him suggests an imperial connection, thus further legitimizing Hideyoshi’s rule.
It was customary in Japan for people close to the deceased to commission commemorative portraits of their loved ones. The commissioner of this portrait was Yakuin Zenso (1526–1600), a Tendai Buddhist priest and Hideyoshi’s physician. Zenso had gained Hideyoshi’s confidence and was his companion during his military campaigns. The inscription was done by Saisho Jotai (1548–1607), the ninety-second abbot of Shokokuji. He was the head administrator of all Zen priests in the hierarchy of the Five Mountain (Gozan) Temples. Jotai worked closely with Hideyoshi and became one of his political advisers; he showed his gratitude by inscribing the painting.
Because Japanese portraits functioned as instruments of mortuary rituals, they were often commissioned just prior to the monthly commemoration (gakki) of the deceased’s death. Accordingly, many paintings of Hideyoshi were dated the eighteenth day of the month, as he died on the eighteenth day. The date Zenso dedicated this portrait—the eighteenth day of the fourth month, 1599—was an extremely important one, as it was the day Hokoku Jinja (Shrine of the Prosperous Country) in Kyoto was dedicated to the deified Hideyoshi. In accordance with the Shinto custom of deifying influential
It is perhaps no coincidence that the dedication of the shrine and the inscription of the portrait occurred on the same day. While it is unclear whether the portrait was present at the dedication ceremony, Zenso was surely inspired to initiate this project with this date in mind.