Takasugi Shinsaku

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Takasugi Shinsaku

Takasugi Shinsaku (高杉 晋作 Takasugi Shinsaku, 1839-1867) is a samurai who contributed to the Meiji restoration.

He used the alias Tani Umenosuke (谷梅之助 Tani Umenosuke) to hide his activities from the shogunate.

Takasugi Shinsaku, a central figure of Japanís Meiji Restoration in 1867 and 1868, which became the starting point for Japanís modernization and Japanís rise to a major power in East Asia, is as well-known for his military talents as he is for his skills as an able politician. Dying at the young age of 28, Takasugi was not to become one of Japanís famous leaders in the Meiji era (1868-1912). However, in his hometown - the castle town Hagi in western Japan - he is still remembered as a mystical and energetic hero, who put all his efforts into opening the way to modernization, westernization and reforms, not only in military matters but in political and social matters as well.

Takasugi was born on 12 September 1839 in the castle town Hagi, the capital of the feudal domain of ChŰshŻ (todays Yamaguchi prefecture, western Japan), which became famous as the Ďcradle of the Meiji Restorationí. He was the son of Takasugi Haruki, a middle-ranked samurai of the domain. Chōshū was a very powerful domain in western Japan until the unification wars in the 16th century, but was reduced to only two provinces after the victory of the forces of the Tokugawa clan and the creation of the Tokugawa Shogunate (Bakufu) in 1603. As an Ďouter domainí (Tozama), Chōshū continued to be one of the most powerful anti-Tokugawa domains in Japan throughout the EdŰ-period (1603-1868) and thus, it is hardly astonishing that Chōshū was one of leading domains bringing the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 and 1868.

One of Chōshū's most vigorous leaders in this process was Takasugi Shinsaku. Takasugi joined the famous private school of the military teacher Yoshida Shoin (Shoka Sonjuku), which produced almost a dozen of Japanís political leaders of the Meiji-era, e.g. Takasugiís heir as military leader of Chōshū forces, Yamagata Aritomo. Takasugi devoted himself to the modernization of Chōshū's military, and with his companion Kusaka Genzui, he became a favorite student of Yoshida. Within Chōshū, Takasugi - in spite of his young age - was an influential factor and well-known as one of the most extreme advocates of a policy of seclusion and expelling the foreigners from Japan.

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Takasugi Shinsaku

In spite of Japanís policy of national isolation in the Edo period, Takasugi in 1862 was ordered by his domain to secretly go to Shanghai to investigate the state of affairs and the strength of the Western powers. Takasugi was shocked by the incidence of Western arrogance and superiority he encountered, and his anti-foreign attitude was even further strengthened. This coincided with the general mood of Japanís warrior class, amongst which a radical and strong Ďmovement to expel the barbarians and revere the Emperorí (Sonnō Jōi Undō) emerged after the Ďopeningí of Japan by the American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1855 and the humiliating ĎUnequal Treatiesí with the European powers and the United States. Takasugi was to become one of the most prominent leaders of this revolutionary Sonnō Jōi-movement in Chōshū and became well known amongst samurai from other parts of Japan, too.

In order to fight the foreigners, Takasugi originated the revolutionary idea of auxiliary irregular troops (shotai). Under the feudal system, only the samurai-class was allowed to own weapons and to engage in warfare. Takasugi promoted the recruitment of commoners of all kinds into new, socially mixed militia units. In these units, neither recruitment nor promotion depended, at least in theory, on social status. Farmers, merchants, carpenters and even Sumo-wrestlers and priests were enlisted in the new units, next to the traditional warriors - the samurai, who still held the majority in most of the Shotai. However, Takasugi clearly saw that an utilisation of the financial wealth of the middle-class merchants and farmers could increase the military strength of the domain, while not weaken its finances any further. Since the leaders of ChŰshŻ were unable - and unwilling - to change the social structure of the domain, the limited use of peasants and commoners enabled them to form a new type of military without disturbing the traditional society.

In 1863, Takasugi himself founded the unit [[Kiheitai]], which consisted of 300 soldiers (about half of them being samurai) and was to become the most famous of the Shotai. It also became one of the major influences in the civil wars and the center of extremist agitation in the ChŰshŻ domain. However, due to his wild and rampant propagation of Sonnō Jōi ideology, Takasugi was imprisoned by the domainís authorities, after an anti-Chōshū coup in the national center Kyoto in the summer of 1863 threatened to jeopardize Chōshū's leading role in national politics.

However, the domain had no choice other than to call on Takasugi again, due to internal and external crisis. After Chōshū had attacked western ships in the straits of Shimonoseki in 1863 as the beginning of a war against Ďthe foreignersí, British, French, Dutch and American naval forces bombarded Shimonoseki, the main port of the Chōshū domain, in summer 1864. The following landing of French troops and their fighting against Chōshū units demonstrated the inferiority of Japanese troops against modern-equipped western units, and convinced the leaders of the domain of the absolute necessity for a thourough military reform on Western lines. The domainís administration called on Takasugi not only to carry out this reform as ĎDirector of Military Affairsí, but he - only 25 years of age - was also entrusted with negotiating peace with the four western powers.

In view of the humiliation of Chōshū forces against the four powers, Takasugi had realized that fighting the foreigners was not an option. Instead, Japan had to learn military tactics, techniques and technologies from the West. Takasugi was one of the first people to see this, he reorganised his Kiheitai into a rifle-unit with western weapons, and introduced training in western warfare. Moreover, he had a great influence on the ideologic development of the SonnŰ JŰi-movement as well. Realizing that a war against the foreigners was doomed to failure, Takasugi promoted a conciliatory policy towards the West and thus, the Ďmovement to expel the barbarians and revere the Emperorí evolved into a pure anti-Bakufu movement with the single aim of overthrowing the Tokugawa regime. After the first Bakufu punitive expedition against Chōshū in autumn 1864, conservative forces, which favored a conciliation with the Shogunate in order to secure the domain, could renew their dominance within Chōshū. Takasugi and some of his compatriots had to leave the domain to avoid renewed imprisonment. With only about a dozen followers, among them future political leaders like Yamagata Aritomo, ItŰ Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru, Takasugi gathered in Kokura on the neighbouring island of KyŻshŻ and prepared an attack on the conservative forces in Chōshū. They opposed the humiliating submission to Shogunate demands and thus soon invaded their domain, starting a civil war on 13 January 1865.

Takasugi and his Kiheitai played a major role in this civil war and proved their military superiority over old-fashioned samurai forces. They are said to have fought with tenacity and even ferocity, knowing that if they failed, neither the Bakufu nor the Chōshū conservatives would have shown much compassion. With a series of quick strikes, Takasugi achieved victory in the short civil war and thus, by March 1865 his role in domestic domain politics was secured. He became one of the main arbiters of the domainís policy and continued to act as the domainís expert on Western military science, devoting his efforts to the import of arms and raising of troops. These reforms proved to be successful when Chōshū was victorious on four fronts against the Bakufuís second punitive expedition in 1866, with the Kiheitai itself securing victory on two fronts. Takasugiís efforts had made a small-scale Ďnation in armsí out of Chōshū , which could not be compared to any other domain in Japan, where soldierdom was still a privilege of the samurai class. By ridding Chōshū of the chains of the feudal society at least in military matters, Takasugi paved the way for the victory of the reformists within the domain, as well as for the victory of Chōshū-forces against the Bakufu in the civil war 1867/68, which led to the Meiji Restoration and the end of the Bakufu regime.

Takasugi did not live to see this success. He died of tuberculosis on 17 May 1867, only 28 years of age. His Kiheitai was now ably led by his follower Yamagata Aritomo. Only a year later, Takasugiís dream of overthrowing the Shogunate, which found obvious manifestation in his alternate name Tōgyō (Go to the East) - was fulfilled by his successors. The Kiheitai was disbanded in early 1870 after the establishment of an army for the new central government in Tokyo.


National Geographic http://www.shotokai.com/ingles/history/hagi.html

Huber, Thomas M.: The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1981.

Craig, Albert M.: ChŰshŻ in the Meiji Restoration. Lanham et al.: Lexington Books, 2000.

Jansen, Marius B.: Sakamoto RyŰma and the Meiji Restoration. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.ja:高杉晋作


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