Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai, Romulus Hillsborough

Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai, Romulus Hillsborough

For two and a half centuries the Tokugawa shoguns had ruled an isolated stable Japan, maintaining a world of feudal lords and samurai right into the middle of the nineteenth century. This all changed in 1853 when an American fleet under Commodore Matthew Perry used the threat of overwhelming force to force the country to open up foreign trade. This caused outrage across Japan, and undermined the authority of the Shoguns. Fifteen years later, after a period of increasing instability, the Shogunate collapsed, marking the birth of modern Japan.

This book takes an interesting approach to the topic. We get both the wide-ranging narrative account of events and a more detailed insight into one key figure's role and views, following the activities and views of Katsu Kaishu, a key figure in the Tokugawa government, founder of the Japanese Navy and the final commander-in-chief of the Shoguns' armies. Katsu was partly responsible for the largely peaceful transfer of power in 1868, and was one of the few key figures in this story to survive into old age, so we have both his contemporary writings and his later thoughts on events.

Late Tokugawa Japan wasn't quite as isolated as I had believed. There was a long standing trade agreement with the Dutch, who had a small enclave at Nagasaki. In the half century before Perry appeared at Edo a long series of other foreign ships had approached Japanese shores, often to ask for trade privileges. A number of important figures in Japan were aware of the changing nature of the outside world and the country's relationship with foreigners was already a topic for some concern. After Perry two main schools of though emerged - one that wanted to expel the foreign barbarians and maintain the long centuries of isolation and one that wanted to open the country in order to strengthen her, using Western technology to create a strong navy and army that would be able to repel any Imperialist adventure.

Some aspects of this period will feel very familiar to anyone who has studied pre Second World War Japan, in particular the persistent problem of assassinations. Here it is gangs of rogue Samurai who were mainly responsible, killing a considerable number of important figures on both sides. By the 1930s it was mainly junior military officers, especially from the army, but the killings continued.

This is a large and complex topic, so the list of key figures at the back came in very handy, especially when someone reappeared after a significant absence. Hillsborough has produced a very readable account of this complex period, and his in-depth knowledge of Japan helps the reader understand the complexities of the issues involved and the difficulties faced by Japan's leaders in a time of unexpected change.  

This is a fascinating study of a fascinating period, when an ancient culture was forced to come to terms with the modern world and almost uniquely managed to achieve a rapid transformation, something that most of its neighbours failed to achieve.

Book 1: The Fall of the Tokugawa Bakufu (1853-1868)

Part I: The Outsider
1 - The Beginning of the End of the Tokugawa Bakufu
2 - The Outsider
3 - The Nagasaki Naval Academy
4 - The Rise of Ii Naosuké
5 - The Transpacific Voyage - '… for the glory of the Japanese navy'
6 - Katsu Kaishu's San Francisco Experience
7 - The Onset of the Age of Terror

Part II: The Outsider Steps In
8 - A Brief Discussion on Bushido
9 - 'The Group of Four'
10 - Satsuma Han
11 - The Commissioner and the Outlaw
12 - Choshu's Yoshida Shoin and Takasugi Shinsaku
13 - 'Went up to the castle'
14 - Choshu on the Brink
15 - '… along came Saigo'

Part III: The Outside Steps Back
16 - 'unexpected folly'
17 - The Road to Revolution: The Rise of Takasugi Shinsaku's Rebel Army
18 - Rumours of Tyranny: The Bakufu Gone Awry
19 - The Satsuma-Choshu Alliance
20 - 'The Bakufu … must willingly fail'
21 - Peace Talks with Choshu
22 - The Shogun, the Emperor and the Opposition at Court
23 - Yoshinobu Scores a Victory
24 - Gathering Forces in the 'Great Drama'
25 - The Restoration of Imperial Rule and the End of the Tokugawa Bakufu

Book 2: The Rise of Imperial Japan (1868-1878)

Part IV: The Outside Takes Control
26 - Civil War
27 - Yoshinobu Capitulates
28 - Kaishu vs Saigo (1): The Challenge
29 - Kaishu vs Saigo (2): The Messenger
30 - Kaishu vs Saigo (3): The Talks
31 - The Surrender of Edo Castle

Part V: The Outside and the Imperial Government
32 - 'an abomination'
33 - The End of the Boshin war and the Onset of the Meiji Era
34 - Saigo and the Meiji Government (1): The Return
35 - Saigo and the Meiji Government (2): The Departure
36 - Samuri Revolt, Foreign Adventure
37 - Saigo and the Meiji Government (3): The Rebellion

Epilogue: The Shogun's Last Samurai
Appendix: On the Value of Katsu Kaishu's Histories, Biographies and Memoirs
Main Characters
Important Feudal Domains
Important Japanese Terms

Author: Hardcover
Edition: Romulus Hillsborough
Pages: 640
Publisher: Tuttle
Year: 2014

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