Category Archives: military

Three Gorges Dam in Historical Context

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 108-110:

The truth is that the disruption of the dam, which seems massive to an outsider, is really nothing out of the ordinary when one considers recent history in the local context. Within the last fifty years, China has experienced Liberation, the radical (and disastrous) collectivization of the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening.

Fuling and the other Yangtze River towns have the additional experience of being a focal point of Mao Zedong’s Third Line Project, which had an especially large influence on the region during the 1960s. The early preparations for this project started in 1950, when Mao sent Deng Xiaoping to the southwest so he could research the feasibility of moving Shanghai’s military industry to remote mountain areas in Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. The American atomic bomb triggered this plan, as Mao became increasingly concerned that China’s heavily concentrated defense industry was too susceptible to a U.S. attack. The Korean War accelerated the project, and eventually three-quarters of China’s nuclear weapons plants were incorporated into the Third Line, as well as more than half of its aeronautics industry. The project was, as Harrison Salisbury describes it in his book The New Emperors, “something like that of picking up the whole of California’s high-tech industry and moving it bodily to the wilds of Montana as they existed, say, in 1880.”

In comparison it seems a small matter to turn the river into a lake. Much of Fuling’s economy had originally come via the Third Line Project, which made the locals accustomed to massive changes. The local Hailing factory, which now produces combustion engines for civilian use, had formerly been a defense industry plant moved from Shanghai. A few miles upstream from Fuling is the Chuan Dong boat factory, which in the old days made parts for nuclear submarines. All of the local Chang’an-brand cabs—the name means Eternal Peace—are made by a Chongqing factory that originally produced firearms for the military.

Many of the old Third Line factories had been converted in this way since Deng Xiaoping came to power and started dismantling the project in 1980. With China’s foreign relations rapidly improving, the American threat seemed less serious (and, in any case, it was clear that there wasn’t much protection in putting factories in places like Fuling). The Third Line had always been a huge drain on the economy; in some years as much as 50 percent of China’s capital budget was spent on the project. Never before had such a massive country reorganized its economy on such a scale—even Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan couldn’t compare—and according to some estimates, the Third Line did more damage to China’s economy than the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its enormous scale, the project had been developed and dismantled in remarkable secrecy, as few locals in Fuling and the other Third Line towns ever had a clear notion of what was going on. They knew that commands were coming in from Beijing, and that these commands were bringing factories from Shanghai; and they also knew that all of this had a military sensitivity that required secrecy. It wasn’t something you asked questions about, and after four decades of that it seemed natural enough not to ask questions about the dam. These things just came and went—just as the Chuan Dong factory, which arrived to build nuclear submarines, was subsequently converted to a boat plant, and eventually would disappear forever beneath the waters of the new Yangtze.

But even with all of this history in mind, I still found the lack of interest and concern about the dam to be remarkable.

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Notable British Consuls in Kashgar

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 59:

Kashgar’s consulate was the most remote of Britain’s diplomatic outposts in Asia, a three-week ride on horseback from India. The people who passed through included some of the most remarkable figures from the colonial past. The half-Chinese Sir George Macartney, whose same-named ancestor was Britain’s first ambassador to China in the eighteenth century, served as consul here between 1890 and 1918. Sir Percy Sykes, who effectively ran Persia during the First World War, relieved Macartney briefly in 1915.

Great Game players, both legendary and unsung, were regular visitors. Francis Younghusband stayed a winter. He went on to lead a British invasion of Tibet in 1903–4, only to experience an epiphany on the roof of the world that transformed him from an empire-builder into a soldier-mystic. In 1918, Colonel F. M. Bailey was at the consulate en route to an extraordinary series of adventures in central Asia. They included helping to propagate the revolt among Muslims which resulted in so many Kyrgyz crossing into Xinjiang after the Russian Revolution.

Bailey was such an effective spy that he was recruited by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, to hunt himself, the British agent who was stirring up the peoples of central Asia against their new communist masters. He was also a noted naturalist, just as Sykes and Eric Shipton, the last British consul in Kashgar, were part-time explorers. In the days of empire, it was possible to serve your country and collect rare butterflies on the Tibetan plateau, conquer unclimbed mountains or cross unmapped deserts.

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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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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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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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