On a great stone monument near a flower-strewn grave in the verdant Yamaguchi countryside is a telltale description of the most radical samurai hero to hail from the most radical of samurai domains: “Once he got moving, he was like a bolt of lightening. Once he got started, he was like the wind and the rain.” Takasugi Shinsaku – pampered child prodigy; brilliant disciple of Yoshida Shoin; unruly swordsman who in a drunken rage cut a wild dog in two; sometimes stoic whose escapades in the Nagasaki and Kyoto pleasure quarters are the stuff of legend; restless youth who preferred “to think while on the run”; explosive military commander and gifted poet; creator of Japan’s first modern militia who played on the three-stringed shamisen even as the war around him raged; consumptive who kept his sake cup near the sickbed from which he laid his war plans, in defiance of the disease that would soon kill him.
Aside from a bout of the smallpox that nearly took his life at age nine, Takasugi Shinsaku spent an uneventful childhood as the first son of an elite samurai family in Hagi castle town, the center of the great domain of Choshu. Shinsaku devoted his early youth to fencing practice, receiving at age twenty-one a license to teach the Yagyu Shinkage Style. Three years earlier, in 1857, he had entered the academy of Choshu’s celebrated revolutionary teacher, under whose posthumous influence he would hasten the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
In 1858, Great Britain and France vanquished China in the second Opium War. When Townsend Harris, the United States minister in Japan, received word of the Treaty of Tientsin, which China had been forced to sign in May, he used this news to persuade the shogunate to sign a commercial treaty that many in Japan, including the emperor, adamantly opposed. Harris warned the Japanese that British and French squadrons, no longer needed in China, were headed for Yokohama to obtain commercial treaties, by force if necessary. He convinced the shogunate that Japan would be able to negotiate more favorable terms with the Europeans by first signing a treaty with the Americans. Japan’s first commercial treaty was signed in June aboard a United States warship, amidst the intimidating roar of a twenty-one gun salute over Edo Bay. Similar treaties were subsequently concluded with Holland, Russia, Great Britain and France.
In spring 1862, Shinsaku sailed to Shanghai aboard a Tokugawa steamer as the Choshu representative of a Japanese delegation. He visited European arms dealers in the international port city, observing powerful guns and steam-powered warships. He was struck by the vastly superior technology of this modern weaponry as compared to the antiquated guns and wooden sailing vessels of Japan. He purchased two handguns, including a seven-shooter revolver, but not Armstrong guns, which he coveted, because of their great cost.
As he walked the city streets, the young samurai was not a little troubled by the arrogance of Europeans toward the Chinese, who cowered in the foreigners’ presence. For all practical purposes China had been colonized by Great Britain and France. The Taiping Rebellion would not end for another two years, and while the Japanese delegation was in Shanghai hundreds of French troops landed there. Although Shinsaku had previous knowledge of the situation in China, the short time he spent in Shanghai, observing things with his own eyes, served to further awaken him to the grave and similar danger at home. Shinsaku likened the weakness of the powers that were in China to the incompetence of the Tokugawa Shogunate which had yielded to the demands by foreign nations for unfair treaties.
When Shinsaku returned to Japan in July, he was determined to acquire modern guns and warships – not to expel the foreigners which he knew was impossible, but to overthrow the two-and-a-half-century-old hegemony in Edo which was the Tokugawa Shogunate, because it was incapable of defending Japan.
In March 1863 opposition to the foreign treaties had so intensified that the shogun was compelled to travel to Kyoto to promise the xenophobic emperor to expel the foreigners by May tenth. This first visit to Kyoto by a shogun in over two centuries displayed his regime’s diminishing ability to dominate Japan, emboldening anti-Tokugawa samurai throughout the nation, including the unruly young man from Choshu who was likened to a bolt of lightening.
Takasugi Shinsaku was among the throngs who witnessed the pageantry of high ceremony in the emperor’s ancient capital. The shogun on horseback in full military dress, followed by a retinue of his most elite retainers and the most powerful feudal lords in Japan, escorted the emperor, seated in his palanquin amidst an imperial procession. The procession moved steadily through the town, toward an imperial shrine in the center of the city. Amidst the pouring rain and most of the populace of Kyoto, Shinsaku suddenly screamed the shogun’s ancient and official title, “Commander in Chief of the Expeditionary Forces Against the Barbarians.” The title had not been uttered in public during the two and half centuries of Tokugawa rule, until Shinsaku now challenged the shogun, in a voice filled with irony and wrath, to hold good his xenophobic promise. Had the outrage been committed elsewhere than in the imperial capital, the shogun’s bodyguards would have cut down the blasphemer on the spot. But Kyoto had recently become the gathering place of anti-Tokugawa samurai, and the shogun no longer commanded his unchallenged authority of the past.
Choshu now stood at the vanguard of the Imperial Loyalist movement to overthrow the shogunate and expel the foreigners from Japan. On the evening of May tenth, two Choshu warships fired upon an American merchant vessel in Shimonoseki Strait, in southwestern Choshu. Through this and subsequent attacks on foreign ships, Choshu had taken upon itself the role of enforcing the shogun’s xenophobic promise. As a result, Choshu usurped influence over the Imperial Court in Kyoto at the expense of the shogunate and its supporters, further diminishing Tokugawa authority.
In early June, ships of the United States and France retaliated by bombarding Shimonoseki. French troops destroyed a local village and temporarily occupied a battery, humiliating the Choshu samurai. Clearly the warriors of Choshu were unable to defend their domain. But Takasugi Shinsaku was not about to remain idle as Japan became another China. “Once he got moving, he was like a bolt of lightening. Once he got started, he was like the wind and the rain.” Three days later he formed Japan’s first modern militia, which he named Kiheitai, “Extraordinary Corps.” Kiheitai was extraordinary not only for its superior fighting ability but also as Japan’s first fighting force in which men of the merchant and peasant classes fought alongside samurai. Until then the military of Choshu, like that of all feudal clans in Japan, consisted entirely of men of the warrior class, whose sole purpose for hundreds of years had been to protect their domain. But after two and a half centuries of peace under Tokugawa rule, these samurai had forgotten how to fight. Shinsaku now challenged the social structure of Tokugawa feudalism by arming the commoners. While Shinsaku had ostensibly formed his corps to defend Choshu from foreign invasion, his true motive was nothing less than overthrowing the antiquated Tokugawa Shogunate.
Meanwhile, representatives of foreign nations in Japan were threatening another attack unless Choshu would cease its anti-foreign stance, which continued to menace foreign ships sailing through Shimonoseki Strait. The attack came in August 1864, by a combined foreign fleet consisting of seventeen warships of Great Britain, France, Holland and the United States. Nine days later Takasugi Shinsaku negotiated a peace treaty between Choshu and the four foreign nations, not because he suddenly embraced the “barbarians” as friends, but because he knew that not only Choshu, but Japan as a whole, lacked the military wherewithal to expel the foreigners. Shinsaku’s success in the treaty negotiations earned him the ire of die-hard xenophobes, so that he now went into hiding to avoid assassination. This is not to say that he placed more value on his own life than on the revolution; rather, it was his uncanny sense of his own indispensability in the impending showdown against the Tokugawa that compelled him to precaution.
Choshu split into two factions. The conservatives, who were in power, favored pledging allegiance to the shogunate at any cost. The radical Imperial Loyalists argued that Choshu must prepare its military for the great showdown that lay ahead. In December, Shinsaku threw precaution to the wind and returned to Choshu from his self-imposed exile. At great odds, he raised a tiny rebel army of just eighty men to oust the conservative faction. “Courage and resourcefulness, the abilities to face an enemy without wavering, move when opportunity strikes and win by extraordinary means describes Takasugi Shinsaku,” wrote a fellow Loyalist.
Shinsaku now invaded and occupied the Choshu government offices in Shimonoseki. Here he set up his base of operation against the conservatives, seizing guns, ammunition, food, gold and other supplies. Next he led his army eastward into the Port of Mitajiri on the Inland Sea, capturing three warships. He anchored these ships off Shimonoseki to fight the conservative troops who would come by land.
Shinsaku’s great risk – not only to his own life and the lives of his men, but to the revolution which was the Meiji Restoration – cannot be overemphasized. Had he failed, Choshu would probably have continued under conservative rule, instead of playing its all-important role in overthrowing the Tokugawa. But Shinsaku was confident that if even only a small band of men would stand up and fight at this crucial point in time, then surely others would join them. Shinsaku’s intuition proved correct. By the beginning of 1865, he was in command of an army three thousand strong. They marched northeast from Shimonoseki toward Hagi, on the Sea of Japan, to crush the conservatives. By mid-January the rebels had driven the government troops all the way back to Hagi, where they intimidated them with blank shots fired with cannon from one of the warships they had captured earlier. After one month of civil war, the rebels achieved a coup d’etat in Choshu. The entire Choshu military was under the undisputed command of the 25-year-old Takasugi Shinsaku, who now declared war on the Tokugawa Shogunate.
In April the shogunate issued orders for thirty-one feudal domains to dispatch armies to Western Japan to attack Choshu. The shogunate, however, was unaware that Choshu had recently armed itself with modern rifles and warships procured from foreign merchants in Nagasaki. In contrast, most Tokugawa troops were armed with old-fashioned guns. The shogunate lacked the capital to wage a war and the moral support among the feudal clans to sustain one. The Lord of Choshu, meanwhile, ordered the people throughout his realm, commoners and samurai alike, to prepare for all-out war.
The shogunate’s expedition against Choshu, dubbed the “War on Four Sides,” was waged on land and at sea on four fronts: the southeastern, eastern, northeastern and western borders of the renegade domain. Takasugi Shinsaku’s long-awaited showdown finally came in June 1866, when a Tokugawa warship fired upon and captured the island of Ohshima in the southeast. Shinsaku, “thinking while on the run,” rushed to the scene with his Extraordinary Corps, aboard one of his five warships. Confronted by four enemy ships, each one at least five times the size of his own, Shinsaku issued a surprise attack under the cover of night. After two nights and one day of fighting, Shinsaku’s army retook the island as the Tokugawa forces retreated. Meanwhile fighting broke out on the eastern and northeastern fronts, where Choshu was also victorious. Unlike the enemy troops, who were reluctant to fight, the entire Choshu domain, samurai and commoners alike, fought for their very survival.
The fiercest fighting took place on the vital western front, in the battle for Kokura Castle on Kyushu. At the beginning of August, as the rebels were about to claim their fourth victory, their leader began coughing blood. Shinsaku had been unwell since traveling to Shanghai four years earlier. In July he had been so ill as to lay his war plans from a sickbed. At the end of July, he threw his life to the wind to lead his troops to certain victory before retreating to his sickbed to await certain death. He died a half-year later on April 14, 1867, at the age of twenty-seven, exactly six months before the shogun would announce his decision to abdicate and restore Imperial rule.
Written by Romulus Hillsborough
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Tokyo Journal.