Saturday, May 16, 2015

4 Builders of Meiji Japan

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. Yamagata Aritomo

Coming from a low ranking samurai family, he became widely known for his efforts in modernizing the Japanese military. An educated youth, he showed interest in the military affairs and had a progressive vision in the matter. Later on, his interest met with the new Meiji government. He played a key role in the modernization of the Japanese Imperial Army for the sake of protecting Japan’s independence and pushing its interest across seas.

Born in June 14, 1838, his family lived in the Choshu Domain. His father, an intellect, educated the young Yamagata Aritomo in both literature and martial arts. In the 1860’s, like many in the Choshu Domain, supported the cause of the restoration of imperial power. And by 1868, the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate fell and Japan began a process of industrialization and westernization under slogan of Fukoku Kyohei (Rich Country, Strong Army) and the reign of Emperor Meiji. He actively pursued the modernization of the Japanese Army. He became the vice minister of military affairs in 1870 and in the following year, he went on a mission to Europe to study the militaries of Europe and the United States. But in the end, he saw that the Prussian military provided the best model for the Japanese military. A year after he returned in 1872, he took the post of war minister, which he held up to 1878 and again in 1894 to 1895.

His post gave him the authority to enforce reforms and to apply what he saw in Europe. He promoted conscription as the source of manpower for the military. In 1878, he applied the Prussian general staff system that separated administration from the military command. He also sent Japanese officer to European countries to study modern military warfare. His initial reforms in the army proved to a success when it defeated the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. After becoming War minister, he became a chief of staff of the army until 1882 and again in 1884 to 1885, under which, he supported Emperor’s Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors. The Rescript detailed the duties of a soldier, such as following five principle which were loyalty, propriety, righteousness, and simplicity. Later on, he became the home minister in 1883 and held it until 1889.

As home minister, he became instrumental in reforming the local government system. He participated with other politicians in making the prefectural system of Japan smaller and more efficient. He also reorganized the ministry itself and police force of Japan.

After his job becoming home minister, he took other high government post. For example, from 1889 to 1890 and again in 1898 to 1900. He also became 1892 to 1893 as justice minister. And during his second tenure as war minister, he led Japan to victory during the Sino-Japanese War. In the 1900’s Yamagata continued to work for the Meiji Emperor. He became the President of the Privy Council in 1905 until 1909 and became part of a group of elderly statesmen dubbed as genro. And in 1908, he held the titles of Field Marshall and the high noble title of Prince.

Yamagata Aritomo passed away on February 1, 1922. He enjoyed becoming known as one of the founders of Japan and a modern Japanese Army.

2. Matsukata Masayoshi

When the Japanese economy underwent the process of industrialization, it faced a tough challenge in the late 1870’s. The government and Japan faced the prospect of bankruptcy. But Matsukata Masayoshi executed what he believed to be the right path for his country regardless of the consequence. Nevertheless, his decision saved the industrialization of Japan and placed it in a much stronger position than before.

Matsukata Masayoshi came from the Satsuma Domain, like any other high ranking officials in the Meiji government. Born in 1835 to a lowly samurai family, this did not stop him from attaining proper education. Later on, he work as a clerk handling the finances of the reigning clan in Satsuma. He attained knowledge of trade and finance because of this work. In addition to gaining financial skills, he also met during the course his work a man who later became one of Japan’s highly regarded statesman – Okubo Toshimichi. And so, it was not a surprise that Matsukata joined the imperial faction that desired the downfall of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate.

When the Meiji government succeeded in taking over the country, the government gave Matsukata numerous post in the following years. He amazingly did his job as the governor of Hita. He also took part in reforming the land tax system of the country. But the most important post he took seemed to be his work as part of a Japanese delegation to plan for Japan’s participation in the Paris World’s Fair. There, he had conversations with French finance minister, Leon Say. Say influenced Matsukata with the ideas of laissez-faire or non-government participation in the economy, as well as monetarist views in finance.  Later on it, this principles showed themselves during his time as finance minister.

In 1881, Matsukata became the finance minister of Japan. As finance minister he had to solve the rising inflation and the terrible state of Japan’s finances and began a policy of deflation. To solve the problems of inflation, he founded a central bank named Bank of Japan. He saw that numerous banks printed too much paper money that it caused a rise in the inflation. And so Matsukata gave only the Bank of Japan to print and issue paper money, controlling the amount of note flowing within the economy. In order to repair years of deficit spending of the government, Matsukata sold many government-ran enterprises that accumulated losses instead of profits. By selling these business, the government ceased to take loses from the enterprises and also take back some of the capital invested. Eventually, his measures worked well and by 1886, Japan had a balance budget and its inflation stood lower than before. And Japan’s industrialization continued in the 1890’s in a much stronger position.

However, his measures proved to be devastating to farmers. As value of goods decreased, the amount of their taxes remained high because it was already pegged. This effect of Matsukata’s reform remained a controversy in his image.

While serving as finance minister from 1881 up to 1892. In 1891, Matsukata became the Prime Minister, which again he held in 1896 up to 1898. However, his style of handling the Premiership proved to be his undoing. He had no liking in politics and had an attitude for quick and absolute actions, which he showed terribly in his administration. He ruled as an authoritarian who hated opposition and used bribes and intimidation to get what he wants. This explained his short lived terms as Prime Minister.

Matsukata retired from the cabinet in 1901. Nevertheless he continued to serve Japan through the Privy Council and as a genro, or elderly statesman, who advised the government in financial matters. He finally retired from the government in 1922 and passed away on July 2, 1924. Matsukata Masayoshi actions as finance minister deemed to be an act necessary to protect Japan’s economy and, as a whole, its strength to remain an independent country.

3. Okubo Toshimichi

Japan had numerous statesmen during the Meiji Era, one of them, however, passed away tragically as a consequence of his decision to go against some he knew very well. Okubo Toshimichi became a pillar of Japan’s transformation. He supported wide range of changes in the society, local administration, and economy. But a decision to crush a rebellion, proved to be the cause of his sudden demise.

Born on September 26, 1830 in Satsuma Domain, Okubo came also from a family of a samurai with a low status. The young Okubo loved literature and also came to know a prominent samurai in Satsuma named Saigo Takamori. They later worked together fighting for the Emperor as well as administering the country. In 1849, Okubo’s family, however, sided with the wrong faction in a succession battle that led to their exile out of Satsuma. In 1851, however, the new head of the Satsuma Domain allowed Okubo to return to the domain. He then worked closely with the head of the Satsuma Domain Shimazu Nariakira. In 1858, he became a tax collector and became adept to the land tax system.

At that point, Okubo had doubts about the power of the Tokugawa Shogunate, especially after a brute show of force by the modern warships of Great Britain bombarding Kagoshima. Nevertheless, he believed that the Emperor and the Shogun should work together for the benefit of Japan. But after, the Tokugawa launched a campaign to crush the anti-Tokugawa Choshu Domain failed, Okubo along with Saigo Takamori decided to switch sides and drop their belief over cooperation. In the latter period of 1866, Okubo and Saigo formed an alliance between Satsuma and Choshu samurais and later with the imperial court to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Imperial faction emerged as the victor of the civil war and in 1868, the Meiji Era began.

Okubo work tirelessly for the Meiji Government but also for Japan’s transformation and independence. He promoted reforms in the conducts and traditions of the imperial court as well as in local administration, society, and economy. He followed the slogan of Fukoku Kyohei – Rich Country, Strong Army. He supported industrialization of the economy as well as the westernization of Japanese Society. In 1871, while working in the home ministry, he contributed to the shift from the feudal domain system to a modern prefectural system. He also initiated new laws for Japanese society, such as banning of wearing swords in public and abolishing the strict adherence and discrimination under the Confucian caste of society. In In the same, year, he took part in the Iwakura Mission that aimed in renegotiating unequal treaties with European countries and the United States. He returned home in 1873 and became Home Minister once more, at that time, he worked with the Finance Minister, Okuma Shigenobu, and Matsukata Masayoshi, in reforming the land tax system, changing it from crops based to a percentage of the price of the tilled land. He also supported the gradual transition of the Meiji Government from an autocratic absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. As home minister, he also had the duty of suppressing revolts. For example, he led the suppression of a samurai rebellion in Saga Domain. However, in 1877, he had to crush a rebellion of a longtime companion of his Saigo Takamori, who led disgruntled samurais in Satsuma Domain. Arguments had already began between them before when Saigo wanted Japan to invade Korea to which Okubo along with other ministers disagreed because of Japan’s weak status back then. Saigo with sympathy to the cause of samurai who lost their status and the political decision not to invade Korea led him to lead a rebellion. Saigo passed away during the rebellion.

Okubo’s role in ending the Satsuma Rebellion, however, made him look like a traitor to many samurais. They saw him betraying the culture of a samurai and many samurai hated that he fought his once close companion. This hatred of erupted on May 14, 1878. While in Akasaka Disctrict of Tokyo, 6 disgruntled samurais ambushed Okubo and stabbed him to death. Okubo’s contribution to the foundation of a modern Japan remained his lasting legacy.

4. Ito Hirobumi

Ito Hirobumi differed from many statesmen of his age. Many came from families with lowly samurai status. Hirobumi on the other came from the lower echelons of the Japanese society, the peasantry. But faith pushed him forward. Being adopted by a samurai he evolved from a xenophobic to an open-minded learner, Ito Hirobumi rose to become Japan’s first Prime Minister.

Born on October 14, 1841 as Hayashi Shonsuke, Ito came from a peasant family in the Choshu Domain. At the age of 14, a low ranking samurai adopted him, and Hayashi Toshisuke adopted the last name of Ito. With his adopted samurai family, he received good education. His samurai family also inculcated to him the value of loyalty to Japan. In 1859, the young Ito went to Edo in a period of rapid decline of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. In addition, threat of western imperialism loomed around the seas of Japan. In 1862, Ito joined the militant anti-foreign known as the Sonno Joi. The group became involved in the burning of a British Legislation in December 1862, in which Ito participated. In 1861, the head of the Choshu Domain wanted to upgrade their army. They sent Ito to Nagasaki, a long time port with a Dutch enclave and later hosted numerous foreigners. There Ito learned more about western military arts and technology. Moreover, it changed his heart from an anti-foreigner, he became inspired the developed western civilization. He both admired and feared the west’s military capability when it bombarded Shimonoseki.

During the Boshin War, Ito sided with the Emperor. His active participation resulted to his elevation as a state councilor after the war. By becoming a member, Ito participated and supported the transformation of Japan into a Westernize, modern, and industrial nation under the new Meiji era. In 1869, he became the Governor of Hyogo, and from that point, he changed his name from Toshisuke to Hirobumi. Ito also held the post in the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, and in government offices involving finance, administration, and industry. In the early 1860’s one of his contribution to the industrialization of Japan was participation in the planning of the construction of the Yokohama-Tokyo Line. In finance, he also took part in the initiation of a new land tax. In 1870, Ito went to the United States to study their monetary system. When he came back to Japan, he became the president of the mint and paved the way to the creation of national currency under the yen. In 1871, Ito went to another mission abroad, this time, to take part in the Iwakura Mission, which aimed for the renegotiation of the unequal treaties of Japan. In 1873, Ito became the Minister of Public Works and also the chairman of the assembly of prefectural governors, cementing and improving the new system from domain to a modern prefectural system of local administration. In 1878, he became the home minister, which made him crash the Satsuma Rebellion.

In the 1880’s Ito became active in setting up Japan’s constitution. In 1882, he went to Europe to study its different constitution. He had conversations with legal experts like Rudolf von Gneist and Lorenz von Stein. Eventually, he saw the Prussian constitution as the best fit for Japan. He put his knowledge into good use in 1888 when he became the chairman of a commission designated to formulate the Japanese constitution. As part of the Meiji Constitution, the Privy was founded and Emperor Meiji promulgated the new constitution on February 11, 1889.

Meanwhile, Ito also made a mark in Japanese history as the first Prime Minister. In 1885 up to 1889, Ito served as the first Prime Minister when the cabinet system replaced the state council system. He once again became the Prime Minister in 1892 until 1896. Under that period, he won the Sino-Japanese War and negotiated the Shimonoseki Treaty. He also pushed forward in renegotiating Japan’s unequal treaties. In 1898, he once more, became the Prime Minister, however, he fell at odds with Japan’s new political parties. At that time, he showed tremendous autocratic rule when he dissolved the parliament in order to weaken the parties. Eventually, he resigned again and he did yet for another time when he became Prime Minister for a fourth time in 1900 to 1901.

After his resignation in 1901, he decided to retire. He went to Russia in order to establish good relations with them, opposing the idea of placing too much complacency and trust to the British Empire. He could not have been wrong, as Japan went to war with Russia and Britain’s support led to the victory of Japan in the conflict. In 1903, he became the head of the Privy Council. In 1905 he went to Korea as its new resident general and mastermind its fall to Japan. Koreans hated him for his role in the fall of their country. On October 26, 1909, a Korean nationalist named Anh Chung-gun, shot Ito Hirobumi in Harbin, Manchuria. In Korea, his death was celebrated, but it Japan, he was mourned and given a state funeral. His lasting legacy remained the Meiji Constitution that remained in effect until the fall of Japan in World War II and becoming Japan’s first Prime Minister.

See also:

Bibliography:
Yamagata Aritomo:

Hackett, Roger. "Yamagata Aritomo." in Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism. Edited by James Huffman. New York, New York: Routledge, 1998.

"Yamagata Aritomo" in Japan Encyclopedia. Edited by Louis Frederic Translated by Kathe Roth. Paris: French Ministry of Culture, 2002.

Matsukata Masayoshi:

Sagers, John. "Matsukata Masayoshi." in Japan at War: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Louis Perez. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013.

Bailey, Jackson. "The Meiji Leadership: Matsukata Masayoshi." in Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History. Edited by Harry wray & Hilary Conroy. Hawaii: University of Hawa'i Press, 1983.

Okubo Toshimichi:

Perez, Louis. “Okubo Toshimichi.” in Japan at War Encyclopedia. Edited Louis Perez. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

“Okubo Toshimichi.” in Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History. Compiled by Janet Hunter. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1984.

Ito Hirobumi:

"Ito Hirobumi" in Japan Encyclopedia. Edited by Louis Frederic Translated by Kathe Roth. Paris: French Ministry of Culture, 2002.

Perez, Louis. "Ito Hirobumi." in Japan at War Encyclopedia. Edited Louis Perez. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

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