Category Archives: Japan

Early Meiji Relations with Korea, 1873

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. 541-543:

Previously trade with Korea had been carried out through Tsushima Han. With the abolition of the han system, however, the Tsushima envoys in Korea were replaced by officials from the Foreign Ministry. The officials sent to Korea displayed an arrogance and ignorance not shown by the more familiar Tsushima samurai in the past. The Koreans naturally reacted with aversion. In May 1873 (Meiji 6), Korean officials in Pusan erected a billboard claiming that Japan had violated its three centuries-old agreement with Korea by sneaking merchants into Pusan to conduct illicit trade without permission from the Korean government. The breach of protocol, the billboard said, would not be tolerated. Included in the billboard was language to the effect that Japan had sold out to the Western barbarians by shamelessly imitating Western culture and that the perpetrators of such action were unfit to be called Japanese. Japan was offended, needless to say. The Emperor himself was extremely upset, as was his prime minister, Sanjō Sanétomi, while many in the government—including Saigō and his militarist faction—considered Korea’s attitude downright insulting.

Saigō’s alleged advocacy of a Korea invasion presents yet another enigma regarding his thinking and actions during this period, with historians divided as to whether or not he actually called for war. Most historians believe he did, many of whom argue that Saigō was motivated by the anti-Western ideology of Mito and Chōshū Loyalists of the past—i.e., that Japan must conquer Korea to fend off Western encroachment in the region. Supporting this argument is a statement, attributed to Shimazu Nariakira and quoted by Chinese historian Wang Yün-shêng in the early 1930s, laying out the reasons why Japan should occupy China. Masakazu Iwata, Ōkubo Toshimichi’s biographer, provides an English translation of this statement. After alluding to China’s internal rebellion and invasion by foreign powers since the Opium War, Nariakira is quoted as saying that Japan, in order to avoid the same fate, must “take the initiative” and “dominate” China, otherwise:

… we will be dominated. We must prepare defenses with this thought in mind. Considering the present situation, it behooves us first to raise an army, seize a part of China’s territory, and establish a base on the Asiatic mainland. We must strengthen Japan without delay and display our military power abroad. This would make it impossible for England or France to interfere in our affairs despite their strength.

Nonetheless, Nariakira asserted that his purpose was not to bring about “the liquidation of China, but rather to see China awaken and reorganize itself in order that together we might defend ourselves against England and France”—which resembles Katsu Kaishū’s vision of a Triple Alliance with China and Korea. But, Nariakira was quick to add, based on China’s self-proclaimed superiority over Japan, it was doubtful that China would agree to cooperate with Japan. “Consequently, we must first undertake defensive preparations against foreign encroachment…. The initial requirement is the acquisition of both Taiwan and Foochow [Fuzhou].” It would not be too much to presume that after the “initial requirement” was met, Korea might follow. And as we know, Saigō most certainly would have acted on Nariakira’s dictum—as soon as the opportunity availed itself. During the final years of the Bakufu and the first few years of the Meiji era, Japan was simply not prepared to expand into East Asia. But in 1873 things were quite different, and it is by no means farfetched to assume that Saigō was now ready to act.

It is also argued that Saigō called for a Korea invasion as a means of providing a livelihood and career to dispossessed former samurai throughout Japan. The argument follows that in a foreign adventure Saigō perceived a way to overcome the divisiveness within the government.

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How Choshu Beat the Bakufu, 1866

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. 374-377:

By the beginning of the Sixth Month, the Bakufu and its allies surrounded Chōshū on four fronts—Hiroshima to the east, Iwami to the northeast, Kyūshū (at Kokura across the Shimonoseki Strait) to the southwest, and on the Kaminoseki front (coming from Shikoku) in southeastern Chōshū. The so-called War on Four Fronts broke out on the Kaminoseki front on 6/7, when Bakufu naval forces took the island of Ōshima, which belonged to Chōshū.

Takasugi Shinsaku, in command of the Chōshū navy, lived up to his reputation for impetuousness. But first he took a short reprieve. On the way to Ōshima from Shimonoseki on the Heiin Maru—one of five ships in the Chōshū fleet—he stopped at Mitajiri and went directly to the home of a wealthy merchant named Sadanaga. He barged in on Sadanaga and informed him that he would “borrow a second-story room for just a short while.” He went up the ladder staircase—then suddenly all was quiet. After a while the merchant, wondering what had happened, went upstairs to find Takasugi asleep on the floor, his head cradled in his hands, his feet propped up against a wooden post. Sadanaga quietly descended the staircase to go about his business. Presently, he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Takasugi appeared. He thanked the merchant, and said, “I’ll be back,” before hurrying back to his ship.

From Mitajiri Takasugi sailed directly to Ōshima, where he confronted four enemy ships—the bark Asahi, and three steamers: the Shōkaku [later the name of an aircraft carrier], the Yagumo [later the name of a cruiser], and the formidable 1,000-ton Fujisan—all much larger than the Heiin. Under the cover of night he maneuvered the 94-ton Heiin between the enemy ships to launch a surprise attack, in what one biographer calls “the first modern sea battle” in Japanese history. After two nights and one day of fighting, Chōshū retook the island on 6/16, forcing the enemy to retreat.

Meanwhile, fighting broke on the Hiroshima and Iwami fronts. The Chōshū forces at Hiroshima were commanded by Inoué Monta and Kawasé Yasushirō, the latter having commanded the Yūgekitai to fight alongside Takasugi in the rebellion at Shimonoseki. They easily defeated troops of Hikoné and Takada, which had been joined by troops under the Bakufu’s commissioner of the army, Takénaka Shigékata. The Chōshū forces penetrated into the Hiroshima domain, where they were confronted by troops of the Bakufu and Kii. Both sides were armed with modern rifles and artillery, the Bakufu having been equipped by the French. The fighting continued into the Eighth Month, when troops of Hiroshima, inclined toward Chōshū, cut their way between the two sides to force a stalemate. On the Iwami front, Chōshū fighters commanded by Murata Zōroku easily pushed into Hamada. Consequently, on 7/18, Matsudaira Ukonshōgen, daimyo of Hamada, a Tokugawa-related house, burned his castle and fled northeast to Matsué, also ruled by the Matsudaira.

The fiercest fighting took place on the vital southwestern front. Takasugi took command with the objective of capturing Kokura Castle. But his troops were too few—just one thousand Chōshū fighters faced twenty thousand Bakufu troops, including troops of Kokura, Kumamoto, and Kurumé, led by Ogasawara Nagamichi, who intended to cross the strait to invade Chōshū. Takasugi Shinsaku launched the first attack across the strait at dawn on 6/17. Ryōma reported to his family that Takasugi fired up the martial spirit of his fighters with “numerous casks of saké.” Takasugi attacked again on 7/3 and 7/27.

On 6/16, the day before the fighting broke out, Ryōma, with men from his Kaméyama Company, arrived at Shimonoseki on the warship Sakurajima Maru (aka the Union). “I led a Chōshū warship in battle,” he wrote to his family on 12/4. “I had no worries at all about fighting. It was truly amusing.” His amusement notwithstanding, Ryōma was not completely truthful in his devil-may-care attitude. “I was afraid that the Tokugawa navy would cut us off,” he confided in a letter to Miyoshi Shinzō on 8/16. Perhaps his greatest fear during the fighting was that Katsu Kaishū, recalled to his former post, might lead the Tokugawa fleet against Chōshū. “I could never fight against him,” he told Tosa’s minister of justice, Sasaki Sanshirō, in the following year.

Had Kaishū taken part in the fighting, the outcome may well have been different. Deploring the war, he submitted a letter to the Bakufu on 7/19 explaining how he could end the fighting in a matter of days “through leniency and harshness.” He would need to take command of “two or three warships … to attack [Chōshū’s] strategic points.” Then he would lead “two or three companies and hit them hard. Once we are victorious in one battle, I will … calmly solicit the advice of the feudal lords….” But Kaishū did not fight against Chōshū.

Chōshū was clearly winning the war. Senior Councilor Honjō Munéhidé, vice commander of the Bakufu forces on the Hiroshima front, wrote to the senior councilors in Ōsaka that the feudal lords had neglected orders to deploy sufficient numbers of troops, and that the majority of those deployed were peasants. There were shortages of rice and gold. And while the Chōshū troops, including the peasants, were armed with modern rifles, most of the Bakufu side depended on old-fashioned muskets.

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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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Ending Satsuma Isolationism

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. 172-173:

Like his great-grandfather, Shimazu Shigéhidé, Nariakira was a patron of foreign learning. Shigéhidé had become daimyo at age eleven, in Hōreki 5 (1755). For generations before Shigéhidé’s reign, Satsuma had isolated itself from the rest of Japan, sealing its borders and setting up checkpoints to bar entrance by outsiders (i.e., anyone not from Satsuma). Kaionji writes that Satsuma’s isolationism derived from its fear of Bakufu animosity for the Shimazu’s opposition to Iéyasu at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. But more than two centuries had passed; what’s more, Shigéhidé’s daughter was married to Shōgun Iénari. Shigéhidé concluded that isolationism was a greater threat to his domain than the Bakufu; and that as a result of their being cut off from the rest of Japan, his people had grown stubborn, narrow-minded, lacking in social graces, ignorant of the outside world, and distrustful of outsiders. In short, they had fallen behind the other powerful feudal domains.

Shigéhidé abolished the isolationist policy of his predecessors and set out to gentrify Kagoshima. He invited teachers from other parts of Japan. He built schools, including a medical school, and an astronomical observatory. He encouraged the opening of theaters, restaurants, and inns—none of which luxuries had ever before existed in Satsuma. He even allowed pleasure quarters, populated by geisha and prostitutes. A lover of the Chinese language, he edited a Chinese dictionary and conversed with his vassals in Chinese. He often traveled to Nagasaki, where he associated with Chinese traders and maintained close relations with successive chief factors of the Dutch East India Company. He was particularly close with Siebold, before the Prussian was banished from Japan.

For all of his progressiveness, Shigéhidé pursued personal extravagance to an extreme. The cost of reforming Satsuma combined with his personal extravagance depleted the treasury. He borrowed money and imposed severe taxes upon the peasants. All of this was met with disapproval by many of Shigéhidé’s samurai vassals, who prided themselves on their masculine strength and the simplicity and austerity of their lifestyles, and who despised what they viewed as the feminization of Satsuma.

I find Hillsborough’s gratuitous use of accents over e in romanized Japanese irritating. Anyone who is going to read this much detail about Japanese history is going to know that e in Japanese is never silent or reduced to schwa.

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Satsuma at Admiral Perry’s Arrival

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. 171-172:

As the twenty-eighth daimyo of Satsuma, Nariakira had been a radical reformer and one of the most progressive feudal lords of his time—even before Perry. He advocated “enrich the nation and strengthen the military” and embraced Western technology, namely warships and guns, to fortify Japan. He realized that the island country must open its ports to foreign trade to acquire that technology; and that the Bakufu and the feudal domains must pool their resources and cooperate with one another to tackle the dangerous problems of the encroaching modern age—all revolutionary ideas in pre-Perry Japan. This is not to say that he advocated abolishing the feudal system in favor of a unified Japanese nation. Such a notion would not be considered by even the most radical thinkers for some years to come. Rather, as daimyo of Satsuma, he planned to reform the Bakufu to give outside lords like himself an unprecedented voice in national affairs. Hisamitsu inherited those plans.

Nariakira began the drive for modern fortifications in his own backyard, radically modernizing Satsuma. In Kaei 5 (1852), the year after his accession, he began the construction of reverberatory and blast furnaces for the manufacture of warships, cannons, rifles, and other modern weaponry, and fortified the coastal defenses of Satsuma, planting mines in the sea approaches to his castle town of Kagoshima. In the Second Month of the following year—four months before Perry’s first arrival—Nariakira began the construction of the warship Shōhei Maru, the first modern ship produced in Japan. He arranged with the Bakufu for permission to build the triple-masted sailing vessel even before the ban on ocean-going ships was lifted—under the condition that it be used for the express purpose of defending the Ryūkyū islands in the south, nominally ruled by their own king but subjugated by Satsuma since the beginning of the seventeenth century.

During the countrywide debate on whether to accept Perry’s demands, Nariakira urged Edo to enter into protracted diplomatic negotiations with the Americans to stall them until Japan could prepare itself to repel the foreigners by military force. As a means to this end, he advised the Bakufu to abolish the ban on oceangoing vessels. When the ban was lifted, he manufactured more warships. He westernized the Satsuma military, training his troops in modern artillery methods. He modernized Satsuma, transforming it into the most militarily, economically, and industrially advanced entity in all of Japan, bar none—including the Tokugawa Bakufu.

Satsuma was no doubt spurred into action by Admiral Perry’s visit to Okinawa in 1852, a year before he first arrived in Edo.

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What Surprised Japanese POWs

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), pp. 144-145:

Traditionally, Japanese have lived in a society that highly prizes the reciprocal giving and receiving of favors, including those exchanged between superior and inferior. Once drawn into a “human” (that is, emotional) conversational relationship with their interrogators, the prisoners realized that they had already received many favors from their captors. They had generally been treated decently. Of particular importance to the Japanese, they had not generally been insulted or humiliated. These Americans did not generally look down on them with contempt.[…]

In addition to all the material benefits they had received, some prisoners mused, the Americans had given them their life, if only by not killing them. For the Japanese, this huge imbalance of “favors” granted and received represented a serious problem. Many solved it by giving the Americans the only thing they had to give—answers to seemingly innocuous questions.

While Japanese prisoners were impressed by the material things the Americans shared with them, they were deeply affected by the more personal touches. They could not easily cast these aside saying the “rich Americans” could afford such things. It was not only that the Americans readily took out a cigarette from their own pack; more significant for them was that they were prepared to do so within plain sight of others. A few former Japanese POWs noted in their memoirs that they might have had the chance during the course of their military service to slip an American POW a cigarette. Now that the roles were reversed they were ashamed that they had lacked the courage to overcome the Japanese convention of the time, that all POWs of any nationality properly deserved total contempt. Prisoners so badly wounded that they could not even light or hold a cigarette were overcome with inexpressible gratitude when an order lit the cigarette and passed it from his lips to theirs.

Of all the many unfamiliar things the Japanese encountered in the prison camps, probably the most astounding was their medical treatment. They could hardly believe that prisoners received treatment identical to that accorded their captors. They would find themselves in hospital beds adjacent to beds occupied by their “enemy.” Even more astounding, American medical orderlies deigned to lift them up with their own hands and even clean them when they soiled their bed. That Americans gave officer status to nurses often amazed the Japanese. That these nurses would not only treat lowly enemy enlisted men but also at times give them a smile astounded them even more.

Discovering that they received the same food and in the same quantities as their captors surprised them as well. For a status-conscious Japanese prisoner who viewed himself as beneath contempt, such recognition of common humanity left an abiding impression. In this sense, the whole atmosphere of the prison camp became conducive to maintaining a civil, personal relationship with the Americans. While not designed for the purpose, in some instances this could only further American efforts to gain intelligence.

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Korean-Japanese POW in India

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), p. 191:

The last Japanese POW challenge to Allied prison authorities took place in the spring of 1945 at the British-run facility at Bikaner, located on the edge of the Indian desert some two hundred forty miles west of Delhi. In this camp, originally constructed to house German prisoners of the First World War, the first prisoner was Senior Sergeant Aoki Akira, whose plane was shot down over Rangoon and crash-landed. He eventually became one of the POW section leaders. Although a Japanese citizen, as were all Koreans at the time, Aoki was a member of the royal house of Korea. Mizui Hajime, a Japanese fellow prisoner deeply imbued with the justice of Japan’s cause, paid Aoki the ultimate tribute of noting that he possessed “a high degree of military spirit as well as strong leadership qualities,” even though he spoke Japanese with a heavy accent.

In a curious historical footnote, Aoki, reverting to his family name Rhee, achieved a measure of renown in 1949 when he became the first commandant of the Republic of Korea’s nascent air force academy. In the following year, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, it was Colonel Rhee who took possession of a shipment of ten American P-51 Mustang fighters at Itazuke Airfield on Kyushu. After only three days of training on the new planes, Colonel Rhee, still full of the old fighting spirit, led a formation of three P-51s in a low-altitude raid on a North Korean concentration of T-34 tanks south of Seoul. Hit in the exchange of fire, Rhee crashed his plane into the enemy formation on a suicidal dive and was posthumously promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

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