Japan’s first national army


Yamagata Aritomo: As War Minister, Yamagata pushed through the foundation of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff, which was the main source of Yamagata’s political power and that of other military officers through the end of World War I. He was Commander of the General Staff in 1874–76, 1878–82, and 1884–85.

Yamagata in 1877 led the newly modernized Imperial Army against the Satsuma Rebellion led by his former comrade in revolution, Saigō Takamori of Satsuma. At the end of the war, when Saigo’s severed head was brought to Yamagata, he ordered it washed, and held the head in his arms as he pronounced a meditation on the fallen hero.

He also prompted Emperor Meiji to write the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, in 1882. This document was considered the moral core of the Japanese army and naval forces until their dissolution in 1945.

Yamagata was awarded the rank of field marshal in 1898. He showed his leadership on military issues as acting War Minister and Commanding General during the First Sino-Japanese War; as the Commanding General of the Japanese First Army during the Russo-Japanese War; and as the Chief of the General Staff Office in Tokyo.

He is considered political and military ideological ancestor of the Hokushin-ron as he traced the first lines of a national defensive strategy against Russia after Russo-Japanese War.

Japan’s first national army emerged: it was national in that all male citizens were, if selected by ballot, obliged to serve. Citizens could, however, buy themselves out, which meant that the army quickly became identified with poor regions, and the balance of its composition shifted from west to east. The first generation of officers, however, came predominantly from Choshu and Satsuma. It was a small army: its effective size was a mere 33,544 men in 1877, a tiny figure for a country of 33 million, facing a hostile outside environment. Meiji Japan was a society of school teachers and postmen rather than soldiers. Either lack of urge or financial inability held back any tendency to militarise Japanese society: the consequence was that early Meiji Japan perpetuated the non-military character of Tokugawa society, virtually the only country in the world to have been at peace for two and a half centuries.

The daimyo were treated generously in the new Japan. This was not only the case financially but they (along with court nobles) also remained a prominent group in the new, and in other respects, plebeian aristocracy that the new regime created. The samurai fared less well, both economically, and even more in their entire loss of status, legal and social. At the outset, as an ominous sign of the change, the regime opted for a conscript army rather than for a samurai army. Their economic condition, hardly rosy before 1868, worsened; and an existing pattern of engaging in socially lower employments became more marked. If some fared better, it was by the exercise of initiative in striking out in novel directions (a consequence of individual choice, and not of the special motivation often painted for the samurai as a class). Samurai discontent in regions where samurai had been numerous, hence largely in the south, was a factor in the various risings of the 1870s (of which only one, in the most samurai-rich han of all, was militarily serious). This discontent, in its search for a role in the new state, was a factor behind the rise of the political parties; and some samurai, given a tradition of commentary on public affairs, helped to account for the vigour of the new press. Nor was discontent non-productive in a historical sense. Japan’s rulers were well aware of it, and this awareness accounted for the fact that, even if progress was slow, there was no urge to turn back from the commitment to the creation of a participatory public life.

Apart from the 1860s, when exports were in their infancy and the need to import ships and armaments on both shogunal and han account created an adverse balance of payments (worsened by problems in adjusting the currency of a formerly isolated country to the demands of international trade), the export sector did not pose real difficulties for Japan. The idea that the treaties could be renegotiated to end trade concessions or less sweepingly to confine trade to Nagasaki and a few remote centres – much abroad at the end of the 1850s – was no longer seen as realistic. The accompanying idea of the late 1850s that Japan could restore the old status quo by a build-up of military strength – a belief which had been central to securing what was a broad acquiescence in the treaties – evaporated: this was an inevitable consequence of realistic appraisal of the formidable might of western powers and of Japan’s own puny fiscal, and hence military, resources. Political calculation rather than the brave and brash assumptions of the bolder spirits of the late 1850s held the upper hand. Defence issues remained sensitive, rapidly shifting, however, from the concept of defending Japan itself from encroachment to protecting or securing a stake in continental bridgeheads in danger of being overrun by westerners.

External issues were at times overshadowed by internal political differences. The messy settlement of 1868 meant on the internal front not only tensions between the great tozama and the other han, but the perpetuation of divides which had occurred in the 1850s and 1860s within han themselves (two han had in the early 1860s experienced civil war within their boundaries; Choshu briefly, and in a more debilitating fashion, Mito). In post-1868 times risings occurred in Saga (Hizen) and Tosa in 1874 and in Satsuma in 1877. Only the Satsuma rising – internal strife within Satsuma and revolt against the Meiji government combined – was on a large scale, and its suppression, as in the case of the other and smaller risings, was made easier because some of the han leaders counted among the Meiji politicians who opposed and defeated rebellion. In Satsuma, Saigō, who had resigned in 1873, was reluctantly drawn into the rebellion. Defeat in 1877 and his own suicide gave Meiji Japan its great tragic victim. The contrasts between Choshu and Satsuma were telling in some respects. The new Choshu leaders, who had changed the policy of their han in the wake of victory in the short-lived civil war at the end of 1864, and who had used an army made up of commoners as well as samurai, had more sweeping views on internal reform than others. In 1868, as a result of the han’s own internal political renovation in 1864-5, its leaders already envisaged the pensioning of daimyo, and wider innovation. That contrasted with Satsuma or Tosa where in the 1860s there had been internally a more consistent policy. Above all, Satsuma, with a history of two successive shrewd daimyo, Narioki and Nariakira and later, Hisamitsu (1817-87), regent or de facto daimyo, working closely on a common agenda with their samurai officials, was very different from Choshu. For that reason it had farther to travel in rejection of the old order: having kept its internal good order through the stormy decade of the 1860s, Satsuma, like Mito and Choshu before it, was to succumb to internal tumult in 1877, before supporters of the new order prevailed.

The interests of Choshu and Satsuma had not coincided either before or after 1881. Choshu’s position was helped by the tragic death of the two strong men of early Meiji Japan, both Satsuma men, Saigō the victim of the Satsuma rebellion of 1877, and Okubō, fellow Satsuma man but pillar of the new Tokyo government, assassinated in 1878 in revenge for Saigō’s tragic end. Saigō’s resignation in 1873 had already made it possible for Choshu to increase its influence over the army: some 2,000 Satsuma men followed his example by resigning. These circumstances provided the opportunity for the rising army prominence of Yamagata of Choshu, who was both chief of staff of the army and a leading politician for much of the Meiji era. The expansion of the army in the 1890s consolidated his position (as well as providing scope for the entry of other Choshu generals into national politics). Katsura Tarō (1847-1913), a prime minister three times within 1901-13, is an outstanding example. A political general of the old school, he was cautious and was prepared to stand up to the armed forces themselves as events in 1912 proved. Tanaka Giichi (1864-1929), a Choshu general who became prime minister in 1927, was of a younger generation, lacked vision, and had a real part in Japan’s slide into reckless adventurism at the end of the 1920s. If Satsuma lost out in the army, it preserved its say in the navy, at first a much smaller force. Given the rivalries, as late as 1890 Itō opposed a history of Japan as it might rekindle Choshu and Satsuma conflict in the new parliamentary institutions, and two decades later the twelve-volume official history of Choshu maintained a very neutral tone.

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