April 28, 2014

Reliving the past

The ongoing chaos in the Ukraine, with Putin stirring the pot from afar, reminds me of the tactics of Saigo Takamori, commander of the Satsuma and Choshu forces battling the Tokugawa regime in the middle of the 19th century.

From early in the campaign, Saigo directed a network of agents provacateur operating behind the lines in Edo (Tokyo). They initiated a series of brazen arsons,

starting with the burning of the outerworks of Edo Castle, the main Tokugawa residence. This was blamed on Satsuma ronin, who on that day attacked a government office. The next day shogunate forces responded by attacking the Edo residence of the [governor] of Satsuma, where many opponents of the shogunate, under Takamori's direction, had been hiding and creating trouble.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
These incidents provoked the shogunate into acting prematurely and convinced the populace that the government couldn't even control the capital in which it was ensconced.

By the time the rebel army, now bearing the standard of the emperor, swept up the Tokaido and reached Edo, resistance had mostly melted away. After a brief skirmish at Ueno (where a statue of Saigo now stands), he secured the unconditional surrender of the city.

And speaking of the past merging with current events, the last known letter written by Sakamoto Ryoma was recently discovered on a Japanese version of Antiques Roadshow.

Call him Japan's Alexander Hamilton. Sakamoto Ryoma was a political philosopher who founded Japan's first independent corporation (and dared sue the government when one of its ships damaged one of his). Like Hamilton, he died before his time, assassinated in 1867.

Ryoma negotiated the secret alliance between Choshu and Satsuma that eventually spelled the end of Tokugawa rule. He used his shipping company to smuggle British arms from Satsuma to Choshu, while in public Satsuma pretended to still be backing the regime.

He then helped engineer a silent coup d'etat, convincing the Tokugawa government to yield sovereign authority to the emperor ("like the European powers"). As soon as Satsuma made known its true intentions, the emperor issued an edict abolishing the shogunate.

At that point, the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, threw up his hands and quit (and as a result outlived most of his contemporaries).

Like Lincoln, Sakamoto Ryoma is one of the great "what-ifs" in Japanese history. What if he had lived? Could he have restrained Saigo Takamori's destructive demands for territorial expansion? Could he have established a more republican form of government?

In the newly-discovered letter, Ryoma discusses what structure the new government should take, and how it should replace the existing feudal order (which wasn't truly eradicated until the American Occupation eighty years later).

In any case, I have to believe that Ryoma-the-businessman would be highly amused that a letter worth pennies in materials at the time, purchased for ten bucks at an antique store thirty years ago, has an estimated worth of $150,000. Now that's a profit margin.

Courtesy Asashi Shimbun

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