Yoshida Shoin, (Japan, 1850’s-1870’s)

Hagi Where Japan’s Revolution Began.


National Geographic Illustrations Staff


“My name is Tora,” he had written. “Tora means tiger, and the virtue of the tiger is courage. ”

Yoshida Shoin, born a samurai in the Choshu domain and now bereft of his swords and imprisoned by the shogun, sits stiffly on the floor of his small cell. In front of him, guttering candles throw a flicker of light onto seven or eight faces visible in the shadows. The silence of anticipation is broken only by the hoot of an owl in the pine-scented forest.

The year is 1854, and Yoshida, a teacher, is about to conduct this class as a prisoner. His crime was an attempt to leave Japan, an offense that is punishable by death under a decree of the shoguns that has kept Japan tightly closed for more than two centuries.

He has dared to ask Commodore Matthew C. Perry to take him to America; Perry has refused. Yoshida follows the course of honor and turns himself in to the authorities, partly as a protest. An audacious act by an audacious man.

Yoshida thinks the ban on foreign travel is shortsighted: “It is like a person in a dark room holding his breath. ”

Perry’s coming has made foreign invasion seem imminent; the Japanese have the spirit but lack the technology to resist. Unless Yoshida and other Japanese scholars can travel and study in the West, they feel, Japan will never be able to catch up.

Had Yoshida persuaded this “barbarian” commodore to take him to America, or had he been swiftly executed as specified by law, history doubtless would have followed a different course. For Yoshida was a revolutionary whose ideas would turn the prison upside down, and eventually all Japan.

Feudal Japan was in chaos in the years after Perry’s warships first arrived in Edo (now Tokyo) Bay, yet amazed the Western world by quickly emerging to join the circle of modern nations. So swift and so remarkable was the transformation that historians are still arguing about what really happened.

Although the whole country was involved, one feudal domain, the han of Choshu, one town, Hagi, and one school, Yoshida’s Shoka Sonjuku, were ever near the center of the struggle.

Today, hidden far down the rugged coast of southwest Honshu, Japan’s main island, Hagi is still thick with the spirit of the warrior Bushido and with traditional Japaneseness, Yamatodamashii. The castle town of the feudal Mori family and birthplace of Yoshida rests in the arms of the River Abu, facing the sea where mists come off the eastern mountains.

The town is something like America’s Williamsburg, and among Yoshida’s students were a Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. But there the resemblance ends, for democracy was not the goal of these leaders. In their zeal to ward off Western domination, they sought to revive political unity by restoring to the emperor power that his forebears had lost. They then used this unity to bring Japan kicking and screaming into the modern age.

A new young emperor named his era of rule Meiji, and what these patriots did has been called the Meiji Restoration.

My first glimpse of Hagi’s narrow streets and rows of tightly packed tile roofs comes on a cold night in October. Since sunrise the plush Shinkansen, known as the bullet train, has sped me west from Tokyo, but so remote is Hagi that by the time a little local huffs its way into the orange groves that surround the town, it is very late. An icy rain is falling in sheets when I reach the ryokan -traditional inn- named Tomoe. I am greeted with a bow by Kimura-san, the kimonoed hostess. I place my shoes among the rows of others and follow her down long, dimly lit passageways. Everything is made of wood, straw, and paper; the floors creak, and the rain drips loudly into great puddles. A kerosene stove warms my room; the only furniture is a low table bearing a tin of tea and a pot of hot water.

Kimura-san asks, “Ofuro?” I nod and follow her downstairs to the steaming baths. Alone, I soak away the weariness of travel.

Returning to my room, I enjoy the sensation of striding freely in kimono, barefoot over tatami mats. I lie down on my futon -bed with a tiny bean-filled pillow under my neck. Outside the paper screen a cold wind rattles the shutters, but the coziness of the room and the effusive warmth of the bath soon carry me into the Hagi night. I fall asleep to dream of other centuries.

According to ancient chronicles a the islands of Japan were created by the gods separate and apart from the rest of the world, with the emperor himself a divine descendant of the sun goddess.

Early governments at Nara and later at Kyoto were modeled after the Chinese civil system, with court and nobles under the emperor. In the 12th century a provincial warrior class rose to challenge the court, and a dual system evolved. Yoritomo, the new military leader of the country, had himselfappointed shogun. The emperor remained a revered spiritual authority, but in politics he was now only a figurehead.

Japan’s complete isolation from the West was broken briefly when the Portuguese arrived in 1543. The Spanish Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier followed, and Christianity enjoyed moderate success until the great warlord Hideyoshi decided the church was but a Trojan horse for political conquest. He ordered the “pope’s generals” out. His successors, the Tokugawa shoguns, went even further, martyring a number of the faithful. In 1639 almost all foreigners were banned.

The Japanese considered their world already complete in itself, refined in art and manners. They viewed Westerners as crude, materialistic. For the only time in modern history a newly discovered land rejected “progress” and its discoverers, and made it stick.

When Yoshida was born in 1830, the country had been closed for almost 200 years. Shoguns of the Tokugawa family had maintained a balance among the country’s more than 250 domains. And they had brought to fruit an amazing warrior culture.

Only samurai were allowed weapons.

Life was ordered according to strict Confucian principles of duty and family loyalty. Peace reigned, and merchant, artisan, farmer, and samurai all served the shogun and emperor. Japan stood still, wrapped in a cocoon to preserve its unique traditions.

Not so the great nations of the West, powered by the industrial revolution, driven by the urge to expand. England, Spain, Portugal, even the bold young United States, roamed the seas in powerful fleets, seeking commerce and colonies. Britain ruled India and forced opium trade upon China, next door to Japan. News of these events leaked through the paper screen.

By the time Perry arrived in 1853, the ban against Western books had been lifted, and there were small pockets of scholars deeply immersed in rangaku, or Dutch studies, as they were called, after the only colony of Westerners permitted in Japan. The areas of greatest interest to these scholars were medicine, mathematics, and military science. They were cautiously attempting a very tricky operation: to cut the superior foreign science free from its barbarian society and transplant it into the pure but aging Tokugawa culture.

“Eastern ethics and Western science” became the slogan of scholars such as Sakuma Shozan, who was to have great influence on Yoshida Shoin, and who saw clearly that purity of spirit alone would not defeat Western cannon. There was a growing perception that unless some careful modernization was undertaken, the tranquil life of the isolated island empire would be endangered. In Yoshida’s birth year, however, few suspected that only 40 years later an epoch would be finished -that they were the last samurai.

Power of pen and personality distinguished Yoshida, who devoted his life to a desperate attempt to change Japan before it was destroyed by the West. Though of the privileged samurai class himself, Yoshida advocated universal education, reward for ability, and the abolition of privilege. At the same time he espoused nativism, a movement that cherished Japanese values such as sensitivity to nature, respect for the spirit, joy in a simple life values that still refresh Japanese life. In 1859, at age 29, he was executed by the shogun. On the day of his death Yoshida wrote: “If my companions . . . take over my task, the seed of the future will not die. ” And they did, ensuring Yoshida a hero’s place in Japanese annals.

I wake in the morning refreshed, eager to set out in search of traces of my hero and his disciples, the shishi, young men of action, still hidden away in Hagi.

Hagi today is a small city, so small that 20 minutes on a bicycle in any direction takes you across a bridge and out of town, or into the shining sea. The rain is gone, the air brisk, the sky full of scudding white clouds. Feeling the freedom of two wheels beneath me, I quickly cross the eastern fork of the river and head along the coast.

Hagi is protected on two sides by mountains, but open to the sea. From a vantage point on the rim of volcanic Kasa Yama I can see the Hagi fishermen’s multitude of boats plying determinedly among the many small sharp islands. Now that samurai stipends are gone, fishing, farming, and the thousands of Japanese tourists who come to see Yoshida’s town are the main sources of income. Incredibly, 54,000 people are packed neatly in Japanese fashion into the miniature city below me. As I leave, I see a woman barbecuing fresh squid over a small fire and buy some for my breakfast, dipping it in the rich brown sauce.

It is still early when I pedal back to town and then uphill on the winding road to Yoshida’s birthplace. It is not difficult to find. No longer at the center of Japanese politics, Hagi seems frozen in time. They say a map of the 1800s is all you need today.

Yoshida was born into a samurai family relatively low among the many classes of warrior elite; they had to work the land to survive. The farmhouse itself is gone, but the fields worked by his family are still cultivated. Standing there, I have a fine view down across the river, across the tiled rooftops all the way to the castle grounds on the other side of town.

The Mori were once among the most powerful warlords in Japan, but after opposing the Tokugawa rise to power, their holdings were reduced to this small han, Choshu, where they built Hagi castle in 1604.

As if echoing the brevity of Yoshida’s life, his birthplace lies not far from his grave, which is marked by a simple stone in the family cemetery. It is only another short distance to the museum that recounts his bizarre career. The entrance to the memorial compound is a large parking lot, filled with tour buses and hundreds of bicycles. Paths crowded with visitors lead deeper into the spacious grounds. Students in black spread like flocks of Hagi crows, covering every bare spot. The faces are fresh and young, the uniforms alike, except for sneakers in electric colors that flash discordantly on thousands of feet.

“A great sensei [teacher],” one student solemnly assures me when I ask what he knows of Yoshida Shoin. He and his class have come here to see the famous Shoka Sonjuku, Yoshida’s own little school. Nearby another building displays Yoshida memorabilia: pages from his diaries, a number of his waka (31-syllable poems). And far back in the trees, shining with pure white light, is the Shoin Jinja, Shinto spirit home of Yoshida today. Inside the shrine there is no altar, no image to worship, but a space in which to feel.

Later I work my way through Hagi’s tourist-crowded streets to my rooms at the Tomoe Inn to delve again into the histories. The young Yoshida was precocious, they tell me: a robed Confucian scholar at seven, assistant teacher at the famous Choshu academy by nine. At ten he delivered a lecture on military strategy at Hagi castle, earning the lasting admiration of the Mori daimyo, or chieftain.

Physically Yoshida was small and unimposing, but he seemed filled with energy and intensity. The man who called himself tiger hardly looked the part; he himself said, “If I have the valor of a tiger, it can only be as a teacher. ”

At 18 Yoshida wrote a brash kempaku, a critical memo (the first of many), urging reforms both in the school and in the country: “We have had a long period of peace and . . . the people . . . lead luxurious lives and they do not tread any more the true path.” He credited Bushido, the strict code of the warrior, with saving Japan from China’s fate at the hands of foreigners. The nation, he preached, must be brought back to the simple ways of samurai ethics.

Although related to the martial arts, Bushido was not a fighting technique but rather a way of life, the way of the warrior. Parts of it seem like a Boy Scout code, with instructions for rising early, cleanliness, moderation in dress, courtesy in manner. It called for strict obedience to one’s superiors and care and protection of those below. Thus, one served by being polite and by obeying one’s father and mother. A samurai served the daimyo; he in turn obeyed the shogun, who was serving the emperor.

It was correct behavior that guaranteed peace and tranquillity, and everyone, high and low, was responsible for carrying it out.

But Yoshida Shoin saw great flaws in this ideal realm even before Perry appeared, and he was not alone. A few samurai and lords at the top were rich, but most were impoverished. The strict code of Bushido had given way to personal vanity and indulgence. Yoshida felt that the upper ranks were enveloped in a life of “wearing silk brocades, eating precious foods, hugging beautiful women, and fondling lovable children. ” Natural calamities, including famine, sometimes went unrelieved, and peasant protests of desperation continued.

Meanwhile, traditional fighting skills declined; samurai swords were gathering rust.

I learned something of samurai swords from Tatsunori Yamaichi, a successful Hagi developer. He lives in a beautiful house that has both Western-style rooms and traditional ones with tatami floors and shoji screens. It looks more modern than any Western architecture I have seen, and yet, of course, we sat on the floor.

Tatsunori-san was giving me a lesson in swordsmanship, a matter of thrust and slash, of points and edges, when he suddenly stopped. “It must be difficult for Westerners to understand Bushido and the sword,” he said, “since you invented the rifle, which is merely a killing machine. The sword represented life, a samurai’s soul.

“With it he defended the honor of the realm and his daimyo. If he failed, he defended his own honor by taking responsibility and committing seppuku, ritual suicide.

“Modern warfare,” he concluded, “is just mass killing. Since the Meiji Restoration [1868], swords are merely decoration, impractical for defense.”

So, too, with another classical Japanese weapon and ancient art.

One afternoon I rode up through the mountains to a rural school, where archery master Yamane Rinsaku was holding class. In a sunny glade high on a hill behind the school the students addressed their sensei; gravely he bowed back. They were dressed in Western clothes and sneakers, but he, small and neat, wore the traditional teaching kimono. Something in his manner and appearance made me think of Yoshida.

Yamane-sensei faced the target, bow and two arrows held high over his head, then in a single smooth motion brought them down and released one. A piercing scream seemed to rise from his stomach as the arrow flew toward the straw target.

Later in his house we sat sipping tea, and he explained that in traditional archery one achieves perfection by ignoring score in favor of form. Yet even though he teaches the traditional method, students now think of it as a sport, little aware of the idea behind it.

“Traditionally arrow was for killing,” said Yamane-sensei. “But modern archery is for fun and health.”

For a Samurai, not only must the body be always ready, skilled in the martial arts, but the mind must be constantly informed as well. Young warriors capped their formal education by traveling within the country, meeting others like themselves. At 20 Yoshida went south, onfoot and by boat, to Kyushu, reading every book he could borrow along the way.

One of the greatest influences on Yoshida was 17th-century military strategist Yamaga Soko, who said, “We are born to die tomorrow, and yet through books we are able to know events of thousands of years.”

It is said that Yoshida, to read on summer nights, would put mosquitoes in the sleeves of his kimono to stay awake, and in winter walked barefoot in the snows.

In Nagasaki he met the Dutch and went aboard one of their strange ships. In his ensuing travels he saw how defenseless were the coastlines. In Edo he fell in with Sakuma Shozan and his students of Western learning. Sakuma urged Yoshida and others to study abroad despite the ban on travel.

Yoshida had heard from another sensei that “lately the foreign countries have made great headway and they have invaded many countries of the East; very soon the foreign poison will reach Japan; the whole nation is greatly worried and the people confused.”

Fast company and heady ideas seem to have made Yoshida reckless. Travel outside one’s own domain was strictly at the pleasure of the daimyo. Impatient, tired of waiting for of ficial permission, he left on another trip without it.

He was later to call this “my first audacious act.”

By now he had come to think of himself as a person with a unique vision, someone who saw reality more clearly than others. That vision, he felt, required him to act outside the accepted tenets of society.

Ordered back to Hagi, he was stripped by the han government of his samurai rank and income. However, this apparently crushing blow early in a promising career took a strange twist. Yoshida had not yet used up all his credit with the Mori daimyo. In a reversal he was forgiven his disobedience and given ten years to travel and study.

He was free at last, free to follow his own path. It led almost straight to Perry, and shortly into the shogun’s jail. During these years Yoshida wrote that for Japan to remain free it must be stronger, must recruit men of talent and ability regardless of class. One of the reforms he long had wanted in the han school was the seating of students by achievement instead of by hereditary rank, as was customary.

Yoshida’s ability to act, to disobey the rules, came from a new realization that the shogun’s regime and the sacred realm of the emperor were two separate things; that what appeared to be a fixed holy reality was simply politics.

Although an academic himself, he increasingly preached against “empty learning.” He espoused Chinese philosopher Wang Yang-ming’s dictum that to know and not to act is not to know. The poet and scholar Yoshida was a true samurai; he believed in the inseparability of the writing brush and the sword. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Today the country is menaced by thousands of dangers and . . . we cannot expect very much from our writings.”

The major danger by now, of course, was the barbarian. The shogunate had attempted internal reforms before Perry appeared,including the limited encouragement of Western technology. But still for many Japanese the ideal realm was the one they inherited from Tokugawa Ieyasu; their idea of reform was to return to the 1600s. After Perry they suddenly saw that was impossible.

The shogunate had earlier dismissed Russian and British missions, and during Perry’s first visit in 1853 had suggested with smiles and bows that he return later, preferably much later. But when he came back seeking trade concessions in 1854, anchoring his warships athwart the shipping lanes to Edo, the shogun’s headquarters, both sides knew that he would not leave empty-handed again.

After Perry’s first visit the shogunate asked the daimyos their opinion. Some favored a treaty, but many were outraged by the American blackmail. Some even arguedfor an attack on Perry’s fleet. Several, including the Mori of Choshu, told the imperial court that they were ready to fight.

But on Perry’s return in 1854, the embarrassed and militarily weak shogunate felt that it had little choice but to sign a treaty. The real crisis occurred four years later when the shogunate signed a second treaty against the emperor’s wishes. It agreed to a disastrous exchange rate and granted the foreigners exemption from Japanese law. This opened the floodgates.

For patriots like Yoshida this was shocking and totally unacceptable. The government’s inability to handle the crisis, and the resulting insult to the emperor and threat to the realm, turned concern into shrill anxiety. The seeds of rebellion were sown.

“Sonno Joi -Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarian”- was originally a popular slogan of support for the Tokugawa shogunate. Now it became the cry of those who wished to topple the inept regime in order to save Japan.

While jailed for attempting to leave the country on Perry’s ship, Yoshida, ever the sensei, conducted classes for his fellow prisoners. And, characteristically, his was a new kind of teaching.

When I visited historian Naramoto Tatsuya, who has spent years studying and writing about Yoshida, he told me: “Yoshida went around the jail, interviewing each man to discover what his talents were and then arranged to have that man give classes to the others. He found one talented in haiku, 17-syllable verse; another knew Chinese philosophy, and so on. Soon the prisoners’ pride was restored, and the whole atmosphere of the prison changed. Eventually, Yoshida arranged for the release of many of those in Hagi prison.”

When finally released himself, he took over his uncle’s tiny school in Hagi, the Shoka Sonjuku. Again unconventionally, he accepted as students anyone who wished to learn regardless of hereditary class. Most of his students were young, under 30.

According to Professor Naramoto, Yoshida seldom lectured, preferring instead the Socratic method. “He was a humanist, a very warm person. He would give out different texts to different students, sometimes philosophy and often novels.” At times he taught in a grassy field, with the class also pulling weeds, helping him with the farming chores. But constantly, passionately, he warned of the dangers the country faced.

The Shoka Sonjuku, or “private academy under the pines,” became a highly unorthodox but quite successful center of learning.

Using the school as a base, Yoshida laid the foundations for a tightly knit political organization, aimed at rebellion. He started an in-house newspaper, which he named Flying Ears, Long Eyes. Since he personally was prohibited from traveling, he sent his students out all over the realm to act as investigative reporters.

He also took his students to a nearby field where they joined in close-order drill withlocal farmers, using sticks for rifles. His drilling of samurai and commoners together was a trial run for the mixed shotai rifle companies that would later prove effective against the shogun’s armies.

Many in other domains shared Yoshida’s feelings; rebellious movements sprang up in hans all over Japan, but in Choshu they were not extinguished.

During this period Yoshida had been a samurai of the brush, and his kempakus, like editorials, flowed rapidly upon each other. Then the shogunate moved to stifle the radicals, rounding them up in Kyoto and Edo, then in the provinces. It was obvious that many would be executed, including some of Yoshida’s friends. It was time to put down the brush and take up the sword.

He sounded the call for a general uprising of “retainers of the grassy field,” unattached samurai all over Japan. While many refused, a small band of his own students joined him in a plot to assassinate the shogunate’s purge leader in Kyoto. The plot failed, and Yoshida was arrested and sent in a small cage to prison in Edo. His students followed along the way to a place under some pine trees. A heavy rain was falling.

In a beautiful poem Yoshida wrote:

This is the journey
From which probably
For me there shall be no return.
Wholly drenched
Is the pine tree of tears.

On the 21st of November, 1859, at age 29, Yoshida was executed. “Today I am to die,” he wrote. “But when I think of the four seasons of the year I am comforted…. Yoshida . . . has already had his four seasons; he has sent forth his ears [of corn] with ripe grain…. If my companions … take over my task, the seed of the future will not die.”

After quietly thanking a prison attendant, the samurai-scholar, traditionalist, and rebel bowed to the headsman’s blade.

Yoshida died nearly a decade before the Sonjuku leaders fulfilled the rebellion he had called for. Although it is called the Meiji Restoration, it was not only restoration of power to the emperor but also a full-scale revolution. The years were bloody, and many of the best and brightest of Yoshida’s Sonjuku group were killed. Finally the rifle units advocated by Yoshida and led bv his student Takasuei Shinsakuproved successful. Composed of both samurai and commoners using covertly purchased American Civil War weapons, they won their civil war in Choshu, then marched against the surprised samurai of the shogun.

When it was over, almost all the Sonjuku group that survived became officers in the new government. Their names are familiar to Japanese schoolchildren today: names like Ito Hirobumi, the nation’s first prime minister, who wrote a constitution ending feudalism and guaranteeing many individual rights; Yamagata Aritomo, who created a modern army; MaebaraIssei, who became a minister of defense. A national education system was created, and a national university open to all classes, based on talent and ability. The new government adopted a Western-style parliamentary system of government. From Western science Japan received the railroad, the telegraph, a postal system, and modern weaponry.

Even more drastic, the feudal domains were turned into prefectures; the daimyos gave place to governors. And the most dramatic act of all was the law that made it illegal to dress or act like a samurai. The privileged class was ended by the last samurai themselves.

The coming of Perry and the actions of Yoshida Shoin and his disciples had set in motion a series of events that snapped the long cord of Japanese history. The perceived notion of the world was broken, and it shattered like glass.

And yet, picking and choosing from the world of modern Western powers -Germany, France, the United States, and Great Britain- they made something new, and totally Japanese. As Emperor Meiji put it in a poem that became a motto for the new age:

May our country,
Taking what is good,
And rejecting what is bad,
Be not inferior
To any other.

When it is time to leave Hagi, I know I still have many questions.

On a final ride through town, as I pedal slowly along the crowded shopping arcade, I encounter a familiar figure approaching, a scholar who has told me much of the life of Ito Hirobumi. He too is riding a bicycle. As his eyes widen in recognition, I prepare to wave, only to note that he is bowing. Unfortunately, I have not yet mastered the bicycle bow, and in the process only narrowly avert a head-on collision. I am, I remind myself, still a barbarian.

I hear the crows call in the quiet afternoon as I leave the business area of Hagi and wheel through the section of samurai houses, the houses of Takasugi and the rest, on the way toward the old castle grounds. The ride takes me through streets lined with beautifully straight white walls topped with tiles, and, in places, much older walls whose orange clay and shattered sticks and stones now lie bare.

Ahead stand the great outer ramparts of the castle with their zigzag entrance that prevented any direct charge by enemy hordes. Once inside, there is still a moat to cross before I reach the massive stone foundations, all that remains of the castle keep.

It was dismantled in 1874 to show allegiance to the new government at a time when many samurai felt they had been betrayed by Ito and the others. Some found the new rule lacking in jin -warmth and love for the people- that was so much a part of Yoshida; others didn’t want to become too westernized. They tried to turn back the clock, to restore the old samurai order. But it was too late. Japan had changed forever.

Maebara Issei, one of those who most revered Yoshida and his teachings, eventually died here in Hagi, leading a revolt against the new Meiji regime. He and others like him are also revered for giving up their lives even though the cause was lost. In Japan virtue always wins, even when it loses.