In July 2015 UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee approved the inscription of “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” on the World Heritage List. In a new series, we introduce the twenty-three component parts of the inscription, beginning here with the five sites in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
[First published TJJ March/April 2017]
Located on a delta on the Sea of Japan coast of Yamaguchi Prefecture, Hagi is a small, peaceful place notable for its immaculately preserved old townscape. Not so very long ago, however, in the Edo period (1603–1867), Hagi was a seething cauldron of revolutionary political and proto-industrial activity. Intellectuals, bureaucrats and civil engineers living and schooled in Hagi — then the capital of the Choshu domain (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture) — played central roles in bringing about the Meiji Restoration (of imperial rule) of 1868 and led the subsequent modernization of Japan as key figures in the new Meiji government.
The Choshu domain was governed by the Mori family of feudal lords. The Mori clan once ruled over the entire Chugoku region of western Japan, but as a consequence of supporting opposition to the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the latter’s ultimate victory in the Battle of Sekigahara of 1600, the domains of the house of Mori were punitively reduced to less than a quarter of their former capacity.
More than 250 years of peace prevailed in Japan following the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, but in Choshu, resentment of the bakufu government simmered.
It is said there was a Choshu tradition in which, on the first day of the new year, domain elders appeared before the daimyo to ask, “Has the time come to begin the subjugation of the bakufu?” and received the ritual response, “It is still too early; the time has not yet come.”
The Choshu domain established their new capital in Hagi, building a castle in 1604 and prospering despite the heavy financial burden of supporting the Tokugawa shogunate based in Edo (former name for Tokyo). The Choshu domain controlled the Inland Sea trade route off Shimonoseki which overlooks the narrow straits which separate the main islands of Honshu and Kyushu. In 1762, the Choshu domain’s shrewd administrators established a savings and investment institution which financed expenditures even while the domain was in debt. A percentage of the domain’s annual income was saved and directed to income-earning projects such as land reclamation and harbor works, and to the purchase of armaments such as rifles and cannons.
The increasing incursion of foreign ships into Japanese waters and in particular the arrival of Commodore Perry with his black ships from America in 1853 and again in 1854 saw tensions rise around the country. The bakufu demanded that the domains reinforce their defenses, but in Choshu disenchantment with bakufu decisions — such as the signing of the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 which opened Japan to foreign trade — saw the domain take a more radical course.
Led initially by the intellectual and activist Yoshida Shoin (1830–1859), a movement sprang up in open support of the Imperial court against the bakufu. Yoshida, a scholar of Confucianism and military science, ran an academy in Hagi called Shoka Sonjuku which attracted a remarkable number of talented individuals and future leaders.
Among Yoshida’s celebrated students were Kusaka Genzui (doctor, poet, sonno joi activist), Takasugi Shinsaku (military strategist), Ito Hirobumi (drafted the Meiji Constitution; Japan’s first and one of its longest serving prime ministers), Yamagata Aritomo (field marshall in the Imperial Army and twice prime minister of Japan), Yamada Akiyoshi (general and statesman) and Shinagawa Yajiro (statesman).
Yoshida inspired his students to use learning as moral guidance for practical action:
… As things are now the feudal lords are content to look on while the shogunate carries on in a highhanded manner. Neither the lords nor the shogun can be depended upon, and so our only hope lies in grassroots heroes.
… If one is loath to die at seventeen or eighteen, he will be equally reluctant at thirty, and will no doubt find a life of eighty or ninety too short… Man’s life span is fifty years; to live seventy is a rarity. Unless one performs some deed that brings a sense of gratification before dying, his soul will never rest in peace.
Brilliant but impetuous, Yoshida was beheaded in Edo, age 29, for a range of “crimes” against the bakufu, the most serious being his last, a failed plot to assassinate a high-ranking government official on his way to Kyoto to placate the emperor and his court. In death, Yoshida became a martyr and a hero; his soul would rest in peace.
Inspired by the late Yoshida and his influential student Takasugi Shinsaku, who originated the idea of auxiliary irregular militia (shotai), Choshu activists from all classes decided to implement the sonno joi (revere the emperor, expel the barbarian) rhetoric of the shogunate by themselves. In 1863, the militia shelled foreign shipping in the Shimonoseki straits. A year later, an allied foreign flotilla retaliated, destroying the rebels’ gun batteries in such a manner as to suggest they could easily do more. The bakufu too attempted to suppress the Choshu militia, leading to a new perception that the bakufu was beginning to cooperate with the foreigners. The focus of the rebels’ activities now shifted.
A second attempted punitive attack by the bakufu on the increasingly well-armed and trained rebels in 1866 only exposed the backwardness of the Tokugawa shogunate’s military organization: it was easily repelled by the Choshu domain’s superior military strength and tactics. In 1867, as a chastened shogunate sought to reform the bakufu, the newly aligned Choshu, Satsuma and Tosa domains, with the support of the young Emperor Meiji behind them, were readying their troops for a decisive military confrontation.
At last, the Choshu domain’s time had come.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal
Bibliography: The Making of Modern Japan, Marius Jansen; Choshu in the Meiji Restoration, Albert M. Craig; “Hagi, Where Japan’s Revolution Began,” N. Taylor Gregg; “Hagi Sightseeing Guide”