Daily Archives: 8 December 2018

Japan’s First Commoner Army Unit

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 243-245:

On 6/6, the day after the humiliation by French warships at Shimonoseki [in 1863], Takasugi was summoned to Yamaguchi Castle, his ten-year sabbatical over in just two months. He had been conspicuously absent from the fighting at Shimonoseki—during the initial attacks on the foreign ships and the retaliation by the Americans and French. One might suspect that the man who, in the previous months had burned down the British Legation in Edo and verbally challenged the shōgun on the streets of Kyōto, misread his countrymen, and did not believe that they would actually fire upon the foreign ships. But he had not misread them. Rather, as symbolized by his cropped hair, he had evolved beyond most of them, throwing off their xenophobia—and with their outdated ideas many of their outdated values—because, like his friend Sakamoto Ryōma, he had finally realized the futility of the Expel the Barbarians movement. Rather than fight the foreigners, Takasugi, with Ryōma’s help, would utilize them—that is to say, their guns and warships—to bring down the Bakufu. And so, while his countrymen fought the foreigners at Shimonoseki, Takasugi spent a quiet time at his home in Hagi.

But after the bombardment of Shimonoseki, and the occupation by French troops, Takasugi had had enough. On the same day that he reported to Yamaguchi Castle, he formed Japan’s first modern militia, the Kiheitai (“Extraordinary Corps”). The Kiheitai was extraordinary for its superior fighting ability, and as Japan’s first fighting force in which men of the merchant and peasant classes fought alongside samurai. Until then Chōshū’s military, like the militaries of all the han, consisted entirely of samurai, whose sole purpose for hundreds of years had been to protect their domains. But as the Chōshū samurai had demonstrated against the French, many of them had forgotten how to fight during the two centuries of Tokugawa peace. Takasugi solicited the service of all able-bodied men with the will to fight, regardless of caste. His objective: the creation of a “people’s army” that valued ability over lineage—resembling Katsu Kaishū’s vision of a national navy. He established the Kiheitai at Shimonoseki and equipped it with modern weaponry, including rifles and cannons. He would later lead it in a revolutionary assault on the foundations of the antiquated Tokugawa system.

A couple of months after the Kiheitai was formed, animosity broke out between the new militia and the Senpōtai (“Spearhead Corps”), a traditional samurai unit of the regular army that had fought poorly against the foreigners. Takasugi’s men, peasants included, looked down upon the Senpōtai. One of Takasugi’s officers, a samurai by the name of Miyagi Hitosuké, verbally abused men of the Senpōtai who had fled from the French. The men of the Senpōtai resented Miyagi and the Kiheitai. They were jealous of the special attention given to the Kiheitai by the daimyo’s heir. On the night of 8/16, after heavy drinking, some men of the traditional samurai corps threatened to kill Miyagi. Fearing for his life, Miyagi sought the protection of his commander. Takasugi, irascible as ever, proceeded immediately to Senpōtai headquarters at a Buddhist temple called Kyōhōji. Others from the Kiheitai followed. All but five men of the Senpōtai fled for their lives. One of the five was killed, the others wounded. The Chōshū authorities, including the daimyo’s heir, became involved. The so-called Kyōhōji Incident was finally settled when Miyagi took responsibility by committing seppuku—but as a result Takasugi was relieved of his command just three months after establishing the Kiheitai.

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