1859: Yoshida Shoin, samurai sage

Add comment November 21st, 2018 Headsman

The name at the head of this page is probably unknown to the English reader, and yet I think it should become a household word like that of Garibaldi or John Brown. Some day soon, we may expect to hear more fully the details of Yoshida’s history, and the degree of his influence in the transformation of Japan …

Robert Louis Stevenson

On this date in 1859,* Japan’s fading Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded samurai sage Yoshida Shoin as an enemy of the state.

Inheriting leadership of an unprosperous samurai house by the untimely death of his adoptive father, Yoshida (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Japanese) studied war and philosophy from the age of five but understood right away that the classics he knew backward and forward were no match for the American gunships that steamed into Edo Bay in 1853.

Keen to learn the barbarian’s secrets, Yoshida and a friend named Sakuma Shozan* surreptitiously presented the American flotilla with an illicit request to come aboard. The American Commodore Perry never knew their identities, but he remembered the two “men of some position and rank, as each wore the two swords characteristic of distinction, and were dressed in the wide but short trowsers of rich silk brocade. Their manner showed the usual courtly refinement of the better classes, but they exhibited the embarrassment of men who evidently were not perfectly at their ease, and were about doing something of dubious propriety. They cast their eyes stealthily about as if to assure themselves that none of their countrymen were at hand to observe their proceedings, and then approaching one of the officers and pretending to admire his watch-chain, slipped within the breast of his coat a folded paper.” That paper, in courtly Mandarin, implored the visitor that the authors

have been for many years desirous of going over the ‘five great continents,’ but the laws of our country in all maritime points are very strict; for foreigners to come into the country, and for natives to go abroad, are both immutably forbidden … we now secretly send you this private request, that you will take us on board your ships as they go out to sea.

Instead, the shogunate clapped them in cages.

Would that iron bars could contain the shock Commodore Perry’s ships had given to Japan. Those islands had long closed themselves against the West save for narrow apertures on Dutch Learning. The evident superiority of American arms and the consequent necessity of accepting unequal treaties proved a fatal blow to the shogunate. Anger at the shogun manifested in a movement to restore the rights of the emperor — a position that the shogunate had centuries before reduced to a mere figurehead.

Our man Yoshida Shoin emerged from prison as a teacher whose loyalty hewed to the emperor. In vain did the shogunate attempt to purge such characters, for their cause far outstripped this or that man. Several of Yoshida’s students would be important players in the coming Meiji Restoration that did indeed reanimate the imperial office and topple the shogunate by the late 1860s.

By that time, Yoshida was rated a martyr and spiritual forerunner, for the dying shogunate had indeed seen fit to destroy him: “the old story of a power upon its last legs,” as Stevenson’s biography figures it: “learning to the bastille, and courage to the block … He failed in each particular enterprise that he attempted; and yet we have only to look at his country to see how complete has been his general success.”

* The Gregorian date. By the Japanese calendar it occurred in the tenth month, and some sites erroneously place it in October for that reason.

** Shozan was destined to be assassinated in 1864 by Kawakami Gensai.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Japan,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Treason

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