Why Japan Invaded Taiwan in 1874

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. 551-554:

Kaishū’s rather uneventful career at the center of the Meiji government ended just ten months after his dual appointments as navy minister and cabinet member. His resignation, it seems, had to do with problems with China, which were directly related to Japan’s invasion of Taiwan in April 1874. Ostensibly, the purpose of the invasion was to punish aborigines in southeastern Taiwan who had murdered shipwrecked Ryūkyūan sailors around the end of Meiji 4 (1871). The Ryūkyū Islands were formerly the suzerainty of Satsuma; and after the Meiji Restoration, Japan, which considered the Ryūkyūs part of its empire, claimed the right to protect Ryūkyūans and to punish the Taiwan aborigines because China, which also claimed Taiwan, had refused to accept that responsibility by punishing the savages or compensating the victims’ families. But Japan’s real objective in the invasion was to affirm its sovereignty over the Ryūkyūs, which had been under the nominal suzerainty of China since 1372.

Japan had yet other motives for invading Taiwan, which overlapped those for the proposed invasion of Korea. We have seen that Shimazu Nariakira, probably no less revered by Ōkubo Toshimichi and other Satsuma men in the central government than by Saigō Takamori himself, had called for the conquest of Taiwan and Fuzhou to defend against foreign encroachment. We also know that since the closing years of the Tokugawa period samurai of Mito and Chōshū had advocated Japanese expansion to demonstrate their country’s strength, with the aim of fending off Western encroachment in East Asia. And, according to certain historians, through Taiwan, Japan perceived an opportunity to dispel the widely held belief in the West that it was still the weakened nation it had been during the final years of the Bakufu. A Taiwan expedition also promised to provide dispossessed former samurai with a livelihood—and, Parkes observed in a letter dated April 14, 1874, it would “quiet the hot bloods [who still called for a Korea invasion, and], who think Japan should enter on a career of conquest.”

The cabinet in Tōkyō approved a punitive expedition to Taiwan on February 6, 1874, ten days before the outbreak of the Saga Rebellion. Kaishū attended that meeting; but it is unknown whether he opposed or supported the expedition. His words and actions over the coming months suggest that he opposed it, as does his prior vision of a Triple Alliance between Japan, China, and Korea. The only clear dissenter in the cabinet was Kido Takayoshi, who did not attend the February 6 meeting. Kido, as we know, had supported Kaishū’s scheme for a Triple Alliance; and he had opposed a Korea invasion. His opposition to foreign intervention had not changed. Some two months later, on April 2, Kido was the only cabinet member not to affix his seal to the resolution on the Taiwan expedition. Kaishū, who attended the April 2 meeting, signed the resolution (although this seems to contradict his true intent).

Saigō Tsugumichi’s forces easily achieved their purported objective of chastising the aborigines on Taiwan. But the real trouble began soon after that, when the Chinese government demanded the immediate withdrawal of Japanese troops from Taiwan, while Japan challenged China’s jurisdiction over the southern part of the island because it had failed to accept responsibility for the actions of the aborigines. Neither side showed any sign of backing down, and war seemed imminent. The government in Tōkyō, meanwhile, was divided over the issue of withdrawal. One side argued that since the primary objective of punishing the aborigines had been accomplished, it was time to bring the troops home. Theirs was a practical viewpoint. We have already noted Parkes’ assessment of the meager state of Japan’s navy. A war with China, they feared, would be too dangerous. Supporting their argument was the minister of war himself. On August 4, Yamagata Aritomo reported on the feeble state of the Japanese military, and warned that the instability at home redoubled the danger of a foreign war.

The other side, represented by Home Minister Ōkubo, Finance Minister Ōkuma, and Justice Minister Ōki, insisted that before withdrawing the troops, Japan must obtain an indemnity from China as a matter of honor. To that end they needed a diplomatic settlement. If a settlement could not be reached, they insisted, there must be war. The hard-liners, led by the powerful home minister, prevailed—but even so Ōkubo, advised by Yamagata, was mindful of the grave danger of a war with China. Ōkubo was dispatched to China to negotiate a settlement, with the powers to decide on war or peace. On August 6, Kaishū was among a party who saw Ōkubo off on his journey at Shimbashi Station in Tōkyō, where the latter boarded a train for Yokohama. Kaishū wished Ōkubo a quick return to Japan upon accomplishing his mission “without difficulties”—implying, it seems, his hope for a peaceful settlement with China. Ōkubo arrived in Peking on September 10. In the midst of his negotiations with the Chinese, during which neither side showed any sign of backing down, Ōkubo determined that Japan would not start a war.

The British, of course, had a vested interest in seeing a peaceful settlement—i.e., safeguarding their considerable China trade, which amounted to some US$250 million at the time. On June 23, Parkes had written that the Chinese “have no pluck” for not demanding the immediate evacuation of the Japanese troops from Taiwan. On September 15, he wrote that he could not imagine the Chinese “sinking so low as to give in.” But the Chinese did give in, and on October 31 the two sides signed an accord, through the mediation of the British minister, Sir Thomas Wade. China agreed to indemnify the families of the murdered Ryūkyūans and to compensate the Japanese government for expenses incurred in the construction of roads and buildings for the expedition, which the Chinese would be allowed to retain after the withdrawal of the Japanese troops. China’s acceptance of Japan’s legitimacy in undertaking the Taiwan expedition implied that it recognized Japan’s sovereignty over the Ryūkyūs, which had been Tōkyō’s main objective from the start. The Meiji government’s first foreign adventure was a success, though it might have ended in disaster.

This is my last excerpt from this book, which I was motivated to read because I have been watching the NHK Taiga Drama Segodon, about Saigo Takamori.

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Filed under Britain, China, Japan, military, nationalism, Taiwan, war

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