Wednesday, May 20, 2015

4 Builders of Meiji Japan II

Japan emerged as Asia’s representative major power in the end of the 19th century. It achieved in less than five decade the process of transforming from an agricultural and feudal society to a full fledge industrial and constitutional country that protected Japan from the clutches of western imperialism. Much of this drastic changes had been attributed to the following officials.

1. Iwakura Tomomi

Iwakura Mission became Iwakura Tomomi’s most famous contribution to the Meiji Era and Japan’s development to a modern country. Coming from a different background than the rest of the Meiji oligarchs, he never lag behind when it came to loyalty to the Emperor and Japan. This he displayed in his mission and in his later career.

Born on October 26, 1825, Iwakura Tomomi came from a family of low ranking nobility as Horikawa Kanemaru. Later on, the Iwakura, a more prominent family in the nobility adopted him and took their last name. In 1854, his service to the imperial family began when he served as Emperor Komei’s chamberlain. Because of his duty to the Emperor, politics went close to him.

Even as a chamberlain, Iwakura voiced his political opinions. For example, he joined with 88 nobles in condemning the Tokugawa’s decision to conclude the unequal Harris Treaty. He also believed that the Emperor should be restored to political power. Nevertheless he believed that cooperation by marriage and not by an armed conflict should be used to achieve the return of imperial power. In 1862, because of his proposal of a marriage between an imperial princess and the shogun, many anti-shogunate nobles in the court removed him from his position and to the extent of banishing him out of Kyoto. Iwakura had no other option but to retire to his faith in a Buddhist monastery outside the imperial capital.

Although chased out of the imperial court, Iwakura continued his loyalty and devotion to the Emperor. While in exile, he had contacts with anti-Tokugawa samurais in the domains of Satsuma and Choshu. In 1867, with the ascension of a new Emperor, Emperor Meiji pardoned Iwakura allowed him to return to Kyoto and in the imperial court. Iwakura planned the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate alongside other samurai like Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori. Eventually, they succeeded, the Tokugawa fell and the Meiji Era started.

Iwakura became tremendously active in the Meiji Government. He held several key positions and duties. In 1871, Iwakura became Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the same year, his proposal of a mission to the United States and Europe pushed through the government. Along with other talented officials and later statesmen, Iwakura headed the mission that later bared his name – Iwakura Mission. It aimed for the revision of the unequal treaties and to learn and see firsthand the developments in the western world. 

The mission returned in 1873. Most of the mission’s members received high position and began to initiate reforms based on the knowledge they learned from the west. Iwakura became part of the State Council and became an influential figure in the Meiji Government. Upon his return from his mission, he became involved in the issue of Japan’s reaction to Korea’s decision not to recognize the authority of the Meiji Emperor. For Iwakura, he opposed the idea believing like many officials that the time for conquest was not yet ripe. On the other hand, Iwakura became instrumental in reforming the government. He supported the implementation of the prefectural system of local government and also giving the Emperor strong political power. In 1881 he sided with Ito in opposing the idea of creating a constitution and a parliament. However, both of them saw the need for a constitution in the future and prepared for the moment. Iwakura pushed for the approval for Ito to go to the United States and Europe to learn about western constitutions and what constitution best for Japan to emulate. 

In the early 1880’s, Iwakura concentrated in his duties to the imperial household. He handled the office in charge of court peerage. He also handled the holdings of the imperial household and expanded it, adding for example the Japan Railway Company to some of the companies that the Emperor had interest in.

Iwakura Tomotomi passed in July 20, 1883, his legacy and named continued to be remembered through the mission he led.

2. Okuma Shigenobu

A statesman who did not fear removal from office to stand in the side of what he thought was correct. Okuma Shigenobu served Japan both as a politician and as an educator.

Born of March 11, 1838, Okuma Shigenobu came from the Saga Domain in Kyushu Island. He developed a deep sense of patriotism that led him to join the anti-foreign movement called the sonno-joi. Because of his involvement in the militant activities of the sonno-joi, he got expelled. But his view of the foreign world change when he entered in a rangaku school. In the school, he learned the superiority of western technology through the books and lessons that the Dutch in the Nagasaki’s Dejima Island proliferated. From the school, he discovered how backward Japan became during the Tokugawa Shogunate. In the 1860’s, Okuma advocated an alliance between the Saga Domain and the anti-Tokugawa Choshu Domain. Soon, Saga sided with the Emperor and joined with Satsuma and Choshu Domains in deposing the Tokugawa Shogunate, which they did in 1868.

In the new Meiji Era, Okuma became an active official and politician. In 1869, he took the position of an assistant in Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Interior. He also worked to establish the Ministry of Public Works. In 1873, he became the finance minister. As a finance minister, he established the Yen as Japan’s currency and founded a mint to produce coins. After the successful Taiwan expedition in 1874, Okuma also became the head of the office responsible for the affairs of the island. In 1877, he also handled successfully the quelling of the famous Satsuma Rebellion. During the course of the rebellion, he forged a close relation with the Zaibatsu Mitsubishi that provided provisions to the army. From that point, he became Mistubishi’s Iwasaki Yataro’s patron.

In the 1880’s Okuma got involved in a nasty political dispute that cost him his position. Okuma supported the call for the creation of a constitution. He advocated the use of the British-model parliament for Japan. However, he went into a conflict with those who deemed it too early to make a constitution. The influential statesman Ito Hirobumi did not supported the idea of a constitution. And even if he supported it, he believed that the British model did not fit Japan’s condition and believed that the Prussian model was more suitable.

In addition to the issue of constitution, Okuma and Ito also had disagreements in solving the worsening financial conditions of the country. Okuma proposed the use of foreign loans to alleviate the terrible financial situation of Japan. Ito, however, opposed the idea because he believed that foreign loans equated to allowing foreign interference in Japanese affairs, which they wanted to avoid. So, Ito moved for Okuma to be removed and replaced by one of his deputy, Matsukata Masayoshi.

Although out of position, Okuma remained politically active. In 1882, he founded one of Japan’s earliest political party, the Rikken Kaishinto or the Constitutional Reform Party. It gained members who supported Okuma’s idea of a constitution. Meanwhile, he also dealt with education and founded the Tokyo Senmon Gakko, a school for higher learning. Later on, his school became the Waseda University, one of Japan top and prestigious schools today. In 1888, Okuma made a political comeback when Ito, recognizing Okuma’s influence both in government and in business, gave him the position of foreign minister. Renegotiating the unequal treaties that Japan signed during the late Tokugawa Shogunate took the top in Okuma’s list as foreign minister. However, the Japanese people saw him as considerate to the foreigners and unassertive. In anger, in 1889, an assassination attempt was made to Okuma that resulted to the loss of a limb. It also traumatize him and left his position.

After his resignation in Ito’s cabinet in 1889, he became a member in the Privy Council. He supported Japan’s aggressive territorial expansion, when the Sino-Japanese War broke out.

In 1896, he became active once more in politics. He founded a new party from the Rikken Kaishinto known as the Shinpoto Party or the Progressive Party. In the same year he became once again the foreign minister for a year and also the agriculture and commerce minister in the following year. However, when the authoritarian and ruthless Matsukata Masayoshi became the new prime minister whose ways Okuma disliked, and he resigned in his position in the cabinet. In 1898, he forged an alliance with another party, the Jiyuto Party, to form the Kenseito or Constitution Party to oust Matsukata by having the majority in the Japanese parliament or the Diet. With the removal of Matsukata, Okuma became the Prime Minister. He promoted a union of Asian countries under the leadership of Japan, an idea similar to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But once again, internal conflicts in the coalition led to his resignation as Prime Minister. Nevertheless, he continued to be the leader of the party until 1907.

His later years continued to revolve in politics. In 1914, just having the position of Chancellor of Waseda University, he became the Prime Minister again and led Japan into the First World War. At the same time, he drafter the hated Twenty-One Demands to China. In 1916, he went into a political conflict again within his cabinet and resulted to his resignation and full retirement in politics. Okuma Shigenobu passed away on January 10, 1922.

3. Saigo Takamori

The Last Samurai, he became known, Saigo Takamori led a rebellion to the government he himself helped to form. Along with other samurai, he helped the revival of imperial power in Japan. But with political defeats and sympathy to the growing hardships of the samurais in the new Meiji Era, he resorted to a rebellion that led to his demise.

Saigo Takamori, also known as Takanaga, born on January 23, 1828, came from the Satsuma Domain like most of official who later ruled the Meiji Era. When he began to serve the head of the Satsuma Domain, he quickly forged a good relationship with the daimyo of the Satsuma Domain Shimazu Nariakira. While under the service of the daimyo, he showed displeasure towards the foreigners who began to encroach in Japan. The fortune of Saigo turned after the death of Shimazu Nariakira, he sided with the wrong faction in the succession feud and with his anti-foreign sentiment that the Tokugawa disliked, and he went into exile to the island of Oshima, where he stayed for a year. The new daimyo of Satsuma pardoned Saigo for his past crimes. But their relation later on soured causing Saigo’s second exile this time to Tokunoshima, where he lived for two years. But in the mid-1860’s Saigo received permission to return to Satsuma and served as an agent for the domain in Kyoto. There, he met another samurai critical of the Tokugawa Shogunate – Okubo Toshimichi. In 1866, both men worked for the Tokugawa Shogunate when they received orders to lead an army to crush the anti-shogunate Choshu Domain. But in a twist, both men turned their backs to the shogunate and formed an alliance between the Choshu and Satsuma Samurai that advocated the return of imperial power and the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Saigo led the imperial forces well into the civil war against the Tokugawa known as the Boshin War. He scored a decisive victory in the famous battle of Toba-Fushimi. He became instrumental in the fall of the Edo Castle, which signaled the final fall of the Tokugawa regime.

In a new Meiji Era, Saigo became a politician and an administrator. For his service to the Meiji Emperor, Saigo became a member of the State Council in 1871. He became also the commander of the Imperial Guards. When most of the Meiji high officials went on the two-year Iwakura Mission, Saigo, along with Okuma Shigenobu and Itagaki Taisuke, headed the caretaker government. In 1873, before the mission returned Saigo pushed for an invasion of Korea as a punitive measure for its non-recognition of the authority of the Meiji Emperor. The debate over the invasion became known as the Seikanron. However, many opposed his idea seeing it as untimely and Japan was not yet in a strong position to do so. Okubo and Ito returned to Japan ahead of the Iwakura Mission just to oppose Saigo’s proposed invasion. In the end, the Saigo lost and he along with the supported of the Seikanron resigned from the government.

Saigo returned to Satsuma after his resignation. From 1874 to 1876, he opened private school that provided the traditional and specialized military training. With his private schools, he became popular and influential. He also began to sympathize to the disenfranchisement of the once glorious samurai. The Meiji Government, however, saw Saigo’s activity as a threat for national security and moved to reduce any chances of a well-armed rebellion. They sent a warship to dismantle the Kagoshima arsenal in Satsuma. Furious samurais attacked government forces. The Meiji government’s decision anger most of the samurais in Satsuma and rose up in rebellion. They then went to Saigo for leadership, which Saigo accepted. The Satsuma Rebellion went on until 1877, ending with Saigo committing suicide during his and his follower’s last charge against the government forces on September 24, 1877. His contribution to the Meiji Restoration remained strong and he remained a respected figure even he passed away while fighting the government he helped to create. Decades after his demise, in 1891, Emperor Meiji rehabilitated Saigo. Today, Saigo’s memory remained in his loosely depiction in the Tom Cruise’s movie The Last Samurai. Saigo became the inspiration for the character Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe.

4. Meiji Emperor

Meiji Era became known as the transformation of Japan from an agricultural and feudal society to an industrialized and modern country. The era came from the name of the ruling Emperor Mutsuhito who received the reign name of Meiji or the Enlightened.

The Meiji Emperor, born on November 3, 1852 in Kyoto as Sachi No Miya, was the son of Emperor Komei and Nakayama Yoshiko. He later received the name of Mutsuhito. In 1869, he became the crown prince and in 1867, at the young age of 14, he became the 102nd Emperor of Japan. But because of his young age, Nijo Nariyuki, had to rule Japan as regent until he reach the age of majority.

As an Emperor, he had an ironic taste. He disliked western culture at the beginning. He valued Japanese traditional culture enthusiastically. But because of the prevailing conditions, he had to show that Japan stood equal with the west by giving the impression of a westernized Japanese. And so, he wore western style clothing along with his family. Later on, from clothing, he also developed a satisfaction for western culture.

In 1868, the Boshin War resulted to the return of imperial power. He moved his home from Kyoto to Edo and renamed it Tokyo or the Capital of the East. However, political power did not truly laid in Mustuhito but to several samurai who became high ranking government officials and became known as the Meiji Oligarchs. Nevertheless, his moral and religious authority provided a tremendous moral support, inspiration, and guidance. He supported his government’s agenda. He shared the support for the slogan of Fukoku Kyohei – Rich Country, Strong Army – and urged the Japanese people to modernize. In 1890, the Meiji Constitution laid out the Emperor role as the supreme authority in the land and commander in chief of the military. Nevertheless, the fact remained, as stated earlier, real power rested in the aging statesmen known then as genro. During the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, Emperor Meiji visited the military headquarters in Hiroshima and made himself very involved and contributed what he could. The affairs eventually took a toll in his health, which declined in the first decade of the 20th century.

Emperor Mutsuhito passed away on July 30, 1912. He received the reign name of Meiji or the Enlightened. A shrine, the Meiji Jingu, was erected in his honor. Prince Yoshihito ascended to the throne with the reign name of Taisho. Although not politically powerful, his symbolism provided the moral authority for Japan’s modernization and transformation.

See also:

Bibliography:
Iwakura Tomomi:

"Iwakura Tomomi." in Japan Encyclopedia. Edited by Louis Frederic. Translated by Kathe Roth. United States: n.p., 2002.

Grunden, Walter. "Iwakura Tomomi (1825-1883)." in Japan at War: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Louis Perez. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013.

Okuma Shigenobu:

Grunden, Walter. "Okuma Shigenobu." in Japan at War Encyclopedia. Edited Louis Perez. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

Perez, Louis. "Okuma Shigenobu." in Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism. Edited by James Huffman. New York, New York: Routledge, 1998.

Saigo Takamori:

"Saigo Takamori." in Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History. Edited by Janet Hunter. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1984.

"saigo Takamori." in Japan Encyclopedia. Edited by Louis Frederic. Translated by Kathe Roth. United States: n.p., 2002.

Meiji Emperor:

“Meiji Tenno.” in Japan Encyclopedia. Edited by Louis Frederic. Translated by Kathe Roth. United States: n.p., 2002.


Grunden, Walter. "Meiji Emperor." in Japan at War Encyclopedia. Edited Louis Perez. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

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