Famous Low Ranking Samurai

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    Some of the more famous, low ranking, samurai.   They were leaders that had a strong influence in the fall of the Tokugawa and the emergence of early modern Japan.










Sakamoto Ryoma was born the son of a rural "goshi" (low ranking) samurai in the Tosa domain (Sakamoto).  Sakamoto's family had been merchants, brewers, or farmers until 1771 (Sakamoto).  He was not formerly educated, but as history shows he had tremendous foresight about what was best for the country.  He was an excellent swordsman as well.  He went to Edo to study swordsmanship and was there when Perry's black ships appeared in Edo bay.  He was even involved in the preparations to fight the intruders should the need arise fueling his growing xenophobia.  He thought the shogun was defiant towards the emperor and acted cowardly in the face of the foreigners after the signing of the Harris Treaty.  He became a "ronin" (masterless samurai) because he left his domain without permission (Sakamoto).  He became associated with the "SONNO JOI" movement, as many young samurai did, which means, "revere the emperor, expel the barbarians."  He took matters into his own hands and plotted to assassinate Katsu Kaisu, an official of the shogun, because he was the leader in the perceived surrender to the foreigners (Sakamoto).  Katsu saw that he was about to be killed and asked Ryoma to listen to his side of what was best for Japan.  Ryoma did and from that point on he saw that Japan needed to gain the technology that could be had from the foreigners in order to keep Japan from being invaded by them.  Ryoma latter went to Satsuma, the new anti-Tokugawa center.  There he helped the leaders create a small flotilla of armed merchant ships, the KAIENTAI (Sakamoto).  With these ships he was able to convince them to trade locally with the Choshu, another anti-Tokugawa domain, since the Choshu needed guns and the Satsuma needed food.  This was the beginning of the Satsuma-Choshu alliance that would eventually bring down the Tokugawa.  Ryoma not only mediated between the Chosu and the Satsuma but he also helped the Tosa, his original domain, to join the anti-Tokugawa alliance.  The Tosa did not want the others to have all the power should the Tokugawa fall.  Ryoma was able to talk the Tosa leader into directly requesting for the resignation of the Tokugawa.  Ryoma was assassinated in 1867 before the complete fall of the Tokugawa.  For his accomplishments, he is a very admired hero of Japanese history.

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Saigo Takamori was born to a poor samurai family and was the oldest of seven (Saigo). He was an educated military man who went to Edo to attend is lord Shimazu Nariakira (Saigo). He was appointed his principal agent for the promotion of closer ties between the Shogunate an imperial palace. After Ii Naosuke became great elder, in 1958, and pushed out the opponents of the Shogun's foreign trade policy, which involved Shimazu in the ANSEI PURGE. Saigo's lord Shimazu died before Ii could seek revenge, but he knew that Ii would be coming to get him so he and other imperialist attempted suicide by jumping into Kagoshima bay (Saigo). Saigo was rescued and banished to the island Amami Oshima. In 1861 Shimazu Hisamitsu, the new leader of Satsuma, recalled him and ordered him to Satsuma where he was to lead the military force to Kyoto and Edo to unite the court and the Shogun. He did not think it was a good idea so he went instead to Kyoto to stop the samurai uprising. He was banished again, as a criminal, for his actions to Tokunoshima. Later the Satsuma samurai became unruly in Kyoto and he was pardoned to take control of them. He went to Kyoto along with Okubo Toshimichi and took charge of domainal policy in national affairs. In 1864 Saigo was the leader of the army sent to chastise the Chshu. He was encouraged by Sakamoto Ryoma to provide supplies to the Satsuma in exchange for guns (Saigo). In 1867 he defeated the shogun's troops at Toba and led the imperialist forces into Edo (Saigo). Saigo was instrumental in the establishment of a conscript army after the Meiji government was organized and became the top commander of the imperial guards and general of the army (Saigo). When the new government sought to abolish the samurai class, Saigo sought to maintain it. He came up with a plan to employ samurai by invading Korea, but was overruled, and as a result he resigned along with a few others. When the stipends paid to samurai were abolished he went to war against the government he helped to establish. In 1877, he led the "SATSUMA REBELLION", which was a revolt against the new government involving the bitter samurai. It was the last stand of the samurai class.

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Okubo Toshimichi was born the son of a low ranking retainer of the Satsuma daimyo Shimazu Narioki (Okubo). He received a military education and traditional Chinese, Confucian learning. He worked as an aide to the domainal archivist but when his father was banished for political reasons he lost his position (Okubo). The new daimyo Shimazu Nariakira aware of his talents apointed him tax administrator. The daymio was opposed to the Tokugawa policy of opening Japan to foreigners and when he died in 1858 Okubo became an imperialist too. He even organized a group of radical loyalists. He was appointed adviser to the daimyo in 1862 because of his influence with the daimyo. He was an advocate of "kobu gatti" (Movement for union of Court and Shogunate)(Okubo). He saw after the bombardment of Kagoshima that foreign military was superior, and Japan needed to get its hands on such weaponry. Later, he came to realize the court and shogunate would never cooperate and saw the need to overthrow the shogun. He was involved with Saigo Takamori and Kido Takayoshi of Choshu and helped form an anti Tokugawa alliance between the two strongest "tozama" (outside lords) hans. Also, he later worked to renegotiate the so-called "Unequal Treaties" of 1858 (Okubo). He became head of the newly formed home ministry and after Saigo resigned he became very powerful (Okubo). Because of his power he could almost be considered the prime minister, but that office had not been invented yet (Okubo). He helped put down the last uprising of the samurai during the "SATSUMA REBELLION" (Okubo). He was assassinated in order to keep the peace because those he defeated, the displaced samurai, saw him as a traitor. For his contributions he is considered one of the "significant founders of Japan" (Okubo).

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    Ito Hirobumi was the son of a farmer. He was adopted into the Ito family of the Choshu domain (Jansen 389). He was promoted to the rank of samurai in 1863 (Jansen 390). He spoke English and was part of the Iwakura embassy to England (Jansen 390). When he left for England he sympathized with the "SONNO JOI" movement, but once in England he saw the technical superiority they possessed and it changed his view about opening the country. Once back in Japan he joined and assisted the Satsuma-Choshu alliance. He became home minister after Okubo's assassination. Later he was assigned by imperial rescript to study foreign the governments of other countries in order to establish a parliamentary government in Japan (Jansen 390). As chairman of the Constitutional Committee he was the primary writer of Japan's first constitution and became its first prime minister in 1885; a post he held four different times (Ito).

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    Kido Takayoshi was born into the samurai household of Wada Masakage the Choshu domain's physician (Kido). At the age of seven he was adopted by the Katsura, a higher-ranking samurai family, and until 1865 he was called Katsura Kogoro (Kido). Through his adoption he had high social status and was afforded opportunities to attend great literary and military schools. He was a great leader to lower ranking samurai and acted as liaison with the regular domain high officials as well (Kido). The shogun became suspicious of his actions and sent him back to Kyoto in 1862. In Kyoto he joined the "SONNO JOI" movement. He was involved in the failed attempt to capture the palace in the HAMAGURI GOMON INCIDENT and went into hiding afterward. Kido along with Takasugi Shinsaku, another low ranking samurai of the Choshu domain, later used military units made up of samurai and farmers known as "shotai" to defeat the Tokugawa forces in 1865-66 (Kido, Takasugi). He was encouraged by Sakamoto Ryoma to form an alliance with Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi both of Satsuma (Kido). He was involved in drafting the Charter Oath, which was a statement of the new government's principles (Kido). He was also part of the Iwakura embassy to England (Kido).

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    Okuma Shingenobu was born in the Saga domain into a lower rank samurai family. He learned about the financial and commercial practices of the West from the Dutch and English in Nagasaki (Okuma). Because of his business knowledge he was appointed the financial representative of his daimyo (Okuma). He was an early supporter of the anti-Tokugawa movement. While serving in the ministries of foreign affairs and finance he was involved in unifying the currency system, establishing national mint, opening telecommunications, and negotiating a loan from Britain to finance Japan's first railway (Okuma). He eventually became the minister of finance and is given credit for preparing Japan's first national budget and starting the issuance of paper currency (Okuma). He founded Waseda University and in 1914 became Japan's eighth Prime Minister.

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    Itagaki Taisuke was born in Kochi, the castle city of the Tosa domain, to an upper ranking samurai family. He was sent to Edo at an early age to study and was influenced by many politically conscious samurai (Itagaki). Though he was of high rank he identified more with the lower ranks of the samurai because of his anti foreign views (Itagaki). He met Saigo and promised to help with the overthrow of the Tokugawa bakfu (Itagaki). He managed to purchase 300 American-made rifles and along with his followers in Tosa helped defeat the Tokugawa forces in Kyoto (Itagaki). His friendship with Saigo and his ability to lead both upper as well as lower samuri helped him maintain power in Tosa. He became part of the new government and helped to abolish the domains and establish the prefectures (Itagaki). He supported Saigo's plan to invade Korea and resigned along with others after the plan was rejected (Itagaki). He returned to Tosa and began working with others to promote the establishment of a representative national assembly. He is remembered as the founder of Japan's first major political party, the Jiyuto (Itagaki).

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This page was created by Brad Shows:
Updated 5/12/2003