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Katsu Kaishu
The Man Who Saved Early Modern Japan


Katsu Kaishu—consummate samurai, streetwise denizen of downtown Edo, founder of the Japanese navy, statesman par excellence and always the outsider, historian and prolific writer, faithful retainer of the Tokugawa Shogun and mentor of men who would overthrow him—was among the most remarkable of the numerous heroes of the Meiji Restoration.

Kaishu's protégé was Sakamoto Ryoma, a key player in the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Surely Ryoma would agree that he owes his historical greatness to Kaishu, whom Ryoma considered "the greatest man in Japan." Ryoma was an outlaw and leader of a band of young rebels. Kaishu was the commissioner of the shogun's navy, who took the young rebels under his wing at his private naval academy in Kobe, teaching them the naval sciences and maritime skills required to build a modern navy. Kaishu also imparted to Ryoma his extensive knowledge of the Western world, including American democracy, the Bill of Rights, and the workings of the joint stock corporation.

Kaishu was one of the most enlightened men of his time, not only in Japan but in the world. The American educator E. Warren Clark, a great admirer of Kaishu who knew him personally, called Kaishu "the Bismarck of Japan," for his role in unifying the Japanese nation in the dangerous aftermath of the fall of the Tokugawa. Like Ryoma, Kaishu was an adept swordsman who never drew his blade on an adversary, despite numerous attempts on his life. Indeed, the two men lived in dangerous times.

"I've been shot at by an enemy about twenty times in all," Kaishu once said. "I have one scar on my leg, one on my head, and two on my side." Kaishu's defiance of death sprung from his reverence for life. "I despise killing, and have never killed a man. I used to keep [my sword] tied so tightly to the scabbard that I couldn't draw the blade even if I wanted to."

Katsu Kaishu, who would become the most powerful man in the Tokugawa Shogunate, was born in Edo in January 1823, the only son of an impoverished petty samurai. The Tokugawa had ruled Japan peacefully for over two centuries. To ensure their supremacy over some 260 feudal domains, the Tokugawa had strictly enforced a policy of national isolation since 1635. But the end of the halcyon era was fast approaching, as the social, political and economic structures of the outside world were undergoing major changes. The nineteenth century heralded the age of European and North American capitalism, and with it rapid developments in science, industry, and technology. The development of the steamship in the early part of the century served the expansionist purposes of the Western powers. Colonization of Asian countries by European powers surged. In 1818 Great Britain subjugated much of India. Through the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the first Opium War in 1842, the British acquired Hong Kong. The Western encroachment reached Japan in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy led a squadron of heavily armed warships into the bay off the shogun's capital, forcing an end to Japanese isolation and inciting fifteen years of bloody turmoil across the island nation.

Until Perry's arrival, pursuers of foreign knowledge existed outside the mainstream of Japanese society. Kaishu was an outsider, both by nature and circumstance. But when his swordmaster urged him to discontinue fencing to devote himself to the study of Dutch, with the objective to learn Western military science, the young outsider balked. That it was frowned upon for a direct retainer of the shogun to study Dutch had little, if any, impact on Kaishu. He was innately inquisitive of things strange to him. He was also filled with a burgeoning self-confidence. But the idea of learning a foreign language seemed to him preposterous. He had never been exposed to foreign culture, except Chinese literature. It wasn't until age eighteen that he first saw a map of the world. "I was wonderstruck," he recalled decades later, adding that he had now determined to travel the globe.

Kaishu's wonderment was perfectly natural. His entire world still consisted of a small, isolated island nation. But his determination to travel abroad was strengthened by his discovery of strange script engraved on the barrel of a cannon in the compounds of Edo Castle. The cannon had been presented to Edo by the Netherlands and Kaishu correctly surmised that the engraving was in Dutch. Thus far he had only heard about "those foreigners, the Dutch," who lived in a small, confined community in the distant Nagasaki. "Those foreigners" had occasionally fluttered through his mind as mere phantasm, the stuff of youthful imagination. But now, for the first time, he saw in his mind's eye, however vaguely, the people who had manufactured the cannon, and who had engraved in their own language the inscription upon its barrel. Those undecipherable letters of the alphabet, written horizontally rather than vertically, served as cold evidence of the actual existence of people who communicated in a language completely different from his own, but who until now had only existed as so much hearsay. Since these foreigners were human beings like himself, why shouldn't he be able to learn their language? And once he had learned their language, he would be able to read their books, learn how to manufacture and operate their cannon and realize his aspiration to travel the world.

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