A Frog in a Well Knows Nothing of the Great Ocean: Japan’s Modernization and the Death of the Samurai

A Nation in Isolation

In 1877, a samurai in the Japanese city of Kagoshima took his own life; an action expected of a samurai when facing the humiliation of defeat. However, this man’s death was different; his death ended not only his own life but also the history of the samurai. That man’s name was Saigo Takamori, leader of the Satsuma Rebellion and his death brought to an end the last stand of the samurai, the final chapter in their legend. The tale of the end of the samurai begins 24 years earlier with an ominous pillar of smoke rising out of the ocean off the coast of Edo.

In 1853 the Japanese were in the 250th year of their isolation, cut off from the rest of the world by the will of the ruling Shogunate (the Tokugawas). However this all came to an end when Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy arrived in Edo harbour at the helm of a strange ship spewing a cloud of black smoke. The Japanese had been cut off from the rest of the world for two and a half centuries and had never seen steam power and so were terrified of these strange ‘black ships’. Perry had come to Japan to deliver an offer of trade from the United States encouraging Japan to open its borders once again and trade with the United States, however refusal to trade would be seen as an act of aggression. While Japan had a disciplined and trained warrior class in the samurai, they stood no chance against a modern military. Thus in 1854 Japan opened its borders and returned to a new and industrialised world.

A Japanese artist's impression of Commodore Perry.

A Japanese artist’s impression of Commodore Perry.

A Rude Awakening

Japan was centuries behind the rest of the world and soon other European nations wished to exploit her, forcing her into unequal treaties where she had no say in the conditions as she could not risk war against an industrialised modern military.

Here it seemed as though the samurai were redundant, their years of training and extensive list of martial skills were useless when faced with the awesome power of modern weaponry. The militant realms of Satsuma and Choshu both attempted to wage war against the British in an attempt to drive the foreigners from their land. They were both crushed with ease by the British Navy who shelled their fortifications from the safety of their battleships, the samurai’s training and honour unable to stop the raining shells. It seemed as though the samurai were without a purpose; what good is a warrior class if they can’t defend their own realm?

A depiction of foreigners arriving in the port city of Yokohama.

A depiction of foreigners arriving in the port city of Yokohama.

The Boshin War

Dissatisfaction was spreading throughout Japan as the Shogun continued to bow to the demands of foreign powers. A cry rang out through the discontented realms Sonno Joi; revere the emperor, expel the barbarian.The age of the samurai had not yet come to an end. Those who were tired of the Shogun bowing to foreigners banded together and began planning a revolution, a plot to overthrow the Shogun and return the power to the Emperor. What made this military operation so unique was that not all involved in the plot were samurai. Japan’s strict class system had previously excluded non samurai from having a role in planning military operations, however (while few in number) this operation consisted of both samurai and non samurai.

The rebel imperialist forces were lead by the domains of Satsuma and Choshu, and perhaps it was the resounding defeat of their samurai that resulted in this integration of non samurai into the domain of war. However once the revolution, later known as the Boshin War, broke out the samurai were once again in their element. While the samurai were incapable of fighting a modern industrial army the samurai found themselves fighting a foe that had faced countless times before; other samurai.

The imperialists took Kyoto in a bloody struggle then turned to march on Edo. The Shogun chose to surrender rather than draw out the war. The Emperor assumed the name Meiji meaning ‘enlightened rule’ and renamed the city of Edo Tokyo, naming it his new capital.

A photograph of Emperor Meiji wearing western clothing. Meiji believed that for Japan to succeed it would have to embrace Western culture.

A photograph of Emperor Meiji wearing western clothing. Meiji believed that for Japan to succeed it would have to embrace Western culture.

Modernization and the End of the Samurai

The Meiji Era was one of swift modernisation for the Japanese, the Emperor and his government realised that in order to compete with the great powers of the world they would need to modernise and industrialise their nation and their military. Japan modernised quickly undergoing their industrial revolution with haste in an attempt to become a major player on the world stage. Japan’s military underwent rapid change, with the establishment of the Japanese Imperial Army, a modern army trained by the British. The samurai had no place in this army, where a farmer operating a Gatling gun could do more damage than a samurai who had trained his whole life in the martial arts. However, many samurai found their way into the government, especially those samurai who had aided the Emperor in coming to power. The most significant of these men was Saigo Takamori, a man who was personally close to the Emperor, leader of the imperialist forces during the Boshin War and Meiji’s Army Minister. Saigo saw the decline of the samurai class and devised a plan to preserve the samurai. He proposed that Japan attack Korea with an invasion lead by samurai, there the samurai would prove their worth to both the government and the people. However the government refused the idea and instead in 1873 began lessening the government paid stipends to the samurai. Between 1873 and 1877 the samurai’s stipends and hereditary rights were lessened until in 1877 the samurai class was abolished altogether, removing all hereditary rights, stipends and titles from the samurai.

Many samurai felt betrayed by this, after all was it not they, the samurai who had fought to bring the emperor to power? And yet the very government they helped create was now abandoning them. Outraged, samurai rallied to the Satsuma city of Kagoshima under Saigo Takamori and lead the Satsuma Rebellion, a desperate last stand for the samurai. The rebellion was crushed by the Japanese Imperial Army, the samurai once again defeated by a modern military. Defeated, Saigo Takamori took his own life, ending the Satsuma Rebellion and ending the samurai.

Chikanobu Yōshū's depiction of the Battle of Kagoshima.

Chikanobu Yōshū’s depiction of the Battle of Kagoshima.

Ironically, it was this very defeat, a defiant rebellion in the face of overwhelming odds that solidified the legend of the samurai in Japanese history. Refusing to abandon tradition, they stood tall against the winds of change. Embracing neither modernisation nor Western influence, in dying the samurai ensured their legend would be one of honour and tradition.

Recommended readings:

Beasley, W. G. The Meiji Restoration, California: StanfordUniversity Press, 1972.

Hidehiro, S. “The Decline of the Japanese Warrior Class 1840-1880.” Japan Review 1 (1990): pp. 125-134.

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Massachusetts: HarvardUniversity Press.

Storry, Richard. The Way of the Samurai. London: Orbis Publishing, 1978.


3 comments on “A Frog in a Well Knows Nothing of the Great Ocean: Japan’s Modernization and the Death of the Samurai

  1. mhis300 says:

    Evocative post, Dom, though it didn’t display your research as well as it might have. Well done, Kate

  2. owentaunton says:

    Awesome Post, incredibly interesting. Can honestly say taht i learnt a lot

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