Civil War and the New Imperial Army II

After the fall of the fortress, one company of government troops remained in Hokkaidō, but it did little more than police Hakodate city. In 1870 the colonization office responded to increasing friction with Russia over Sakhalin Island by relocating samurai families from Tokyo to Hokkaidō to create self-sufficient military communities organized around units composed of farmersoldiers. Saigō Takamori enthusiastically backed the plan and in 1873 moved more displaced samurai to Hokkaidō to reinforce the garrison, provide jobs for otherwise unemployed warriors, and open the northern island to development. An Ainu (aboriginal) uprising spurred cries for a permanent garrison, but the sparse Japanese population made it impossible to conscript enough soldiers locally to meet troop personnel requirements.

Authorities relied on the tondenhei system promoted by Lt. Gen. Kuroda, concurrently vice director of the colonization office. Beginning in May 1875, the government gave settlers (ex-samurai and army reservists) a small parcel of land, which became their property if they cultivated it for three years. Most of the thirty-seven tondenhei settlements were located along a 120-mile trace running north from Sapporo and protecting the northwest side of the island. Despite Kuroda’s notions about an ideal warrior-farmer ready to take up arms to defend his home and family, Japanese warriors were not farmers, and few wanted to emigrate to faraway Hokkaidō. As late as 1905 Hokkaidō had only about 4,000 regular troops and about 1,000 reservists.

An Assessment

Throughout the northern campaigns of 1868–1869, the government army outnumbered rebel forces and enjoyed overwhelming material and technological superiority. Cannons and rifles, not samurai swords and spears, decided the outcome of the Boshin Civil War. Firepower may have relegated traditional samurai weapons to the scrapheap, but paradoxically the Tokugawa forces consistently displayed superior élan and fighting spirit and atoned for their defeats with collective suicides. In short, antigovernment forces exhibited the type of battlefield behavior and morale that the government rarely saw in the new army’s conscript soldiers.

The campaigns highlighted major differences between field commanders and central headquarters. Army headquarters in faraway Kyoto often proposed plans at odds with the local conditions, and as tensions increased, line officers ignored central direction in favor of unilateral action. Lacking a strong central staff capable of enforcing orders, the army was at the mercy of individual commanders for leadership and direction. Similarly, the absence of unified tactical doctrine and disputes over appropriate tactics and doctrine between line and staff left units to fight according to the tactics favored by their respective commanders. Resentment flared because the nobility and Chōshū and Satsuma samurai monopolized senior army posts. Within the ranks the composition of the new government army, especially its use of commoners, created resentment among soldiers of samurai lineage. Although the restoration wars would later take on a romantic hue filled with swashbuckling samurai, the new government’s military success in the Boshin Civil War left a residue of disgruntled warriors, marginalized commoners, and a torn social fabric.

Reorganizing the Army

Saigō, Ōmura, Ōkubo Toshimichi, and other military leaders of the restoration were divided over the new army’s organization. Saigō was enigmatic, leading the new army yet retaining strong military ties to his regional base in southern Japan. Ōmura sought a strong central government at the expense of the regional domains and recommended a national conscription system to build a standing army under the new government’s direct control. He also proposed European-style reforms for the new army and the abolition of traditional warrior-class privileges such as carrying swords. Ōkubo, one of the most powerful leaders of the new regime, wanted a samurai army, and proposals that filled the national army with commoners and peasants while they eliminated samurai privileges repelled him.

Ōmura and Ōkubo did share a deep-rooted fear about the survival of the imperial government that they had created. Danger seemed everywhere as the new, unstable society seethed with sedition and treachery. In early January 1869, for example, six sword-wielding anti-foreign assassins murdered a senior councilor in broad daylight on a major Kyoto thoroughfare. Riots and peasant uprisings underscored rural instability, disgruntled samurai were suspect, and foreigners might overwhelm Japan as they had China. The authorities first sought to control the reactionary warriors, who represented the immediate armed threat to their new government, by counterposing a military organization that relied on conscription and indoctrination to inculcate soldiers’ loyalty to the government and emperor.

In order to educate junior officers, in 1868 the court and council of state (dajōkan) established a school of military science in Kyoto on the site of the former French training ground. Enrollment was initially restricted to sons of the nobility and government officials. The following year the government converted the former shogunate’s Yokohama Foreign Language School into a French-style military academy to train samurai from Chōshū and elsewhere for an invasion of Korea. In July 1869, however, the government reorganized the military directorate into the military affairs ministry under the titular command of Prince Yoshiaki. Ōmura served as vice minister of military affairs with responsibility for training and organization.

Ōmura refused to perpetuate the samurai monopoly on warfare. He first incorporated the school of military science into the military affairs ministry and then in September transferred the Kyoto facility to Osaka, the country’s maritime and overland transportation hub. Osaka’s strategic central location would allow government troops to move rapidly in any direction to suppress antigovernment uprisings. The decision also shifted the military locus of power westward to check Satsuma’s growing influence. Ōmura next constructed a French-style maneuver area and barracks cantonment for a battalion of Chōshū troops as well as a major arsenal. His ambitious five-year plan anticipated a revised conscription system, standardized equipment, military academies to train noncommissioned officers and educate professional officers, and a new army force structure.

With institutional army reforms in progress, in September 1869 Ōmura traveled to Kyoto to inspect the new school and stayed at a nearby inn. In Kyoto’s late summer twilight, assassins stormed into the two-story latticed wooden inn and mortally wounded Ōmura in a wild sword-swinging melee. His two lieutenants jumped through a paper lattice window into the alley, only to be cut down by waiting gang members. Believing that one of their bloodied victims was Ōmura, the murderers fled. Ōmura succumbed to his wounds in an Osaka hospital in early November.

Twenty-four years later the army officially dedicated a statue to Ōmura during ceremonies held at the Yasukuni Shrine in 1893. Ōmura’s statue, the first western-style bronze work commissioned in Japan, still rises over the entrance to Yasukuni, garbed in samurai finery and bearing two swords. The period representation, however, misrepresents the man who was determined to build an army of commoners and peasants and was a driving force in the abolition of samurai privileges, including their right to bear swords. It is faithful in one respect. Ōmura looks out at Ueno Park, scene of his greatest military victory, and one that ensured the Meiji ascendancy.

An Army in Turmoil

The attack on Ōmura shocked the fledgling Meiji government. Acting on a nationwide alert, police quickly apprehended the killers, who turned out to be reactionary samurai from northern Japan and disgruntled former kiheitai members. Ōmura’s death threw the army’s leadership into turmoil with major implications for the institution’s future. Maebara Issei succeeded Ōmura but soon resigned after quarreling with Kido’s decision to forcibly suppress rebellious kiheitai units (and subsequently quit the government altogether in September 1870 for reasons described below). Itagaki Taisuke was nominated to fill the vacancy, but he did not get along with Ōkubo, who vetoed his selection. Kuroda Kiyotaka, Yamagata’s nemesis during the Boshin War, was unavailable, having departed the army in 1870 to oversee Hokkaidō’s development. This left Yamagata Aritomo, who had promptly returned to Japan from his European inspection tour after learning of the attack on Ōmura. In August 1870, the council of state appointed Yamagata minister of the military department, a post that had been vacant for almost one year.

Yamagata’s remaining rival within the army was Maj. Gen. Yamada Akiyoshi, the deputy minister of the military department, known as the Little Napoleon because of his planning skill as the Eastern Expeditionary army’s chief of staff during the Boshin War. Critics, however, dismissed him as a poseur. Shortly after Yamagata took control of the army, Yamada joined the Iwakura Mission that departed Japan in November 1871 for an extended inspection tour through the United States and Europe with a delegation of Japan’s most prominent statesmen. Yamagata’s last serious rivals, Itagaki Taisuke and Saigō Takamori, quit the government in 1873 over the Korea controversy. Itagaki became involved with the liberty and people’s rights movement, and Saigō, an army general, commander of the Imperial Guard, and concurrently a senior councilor, became a magnet attracting disaffected samurai.

With his major competitors gone, Yamagata would dominate the army and cultivate a clique of Chōshū officers to consolidate his power base. Due to his patronage, by 1888 sixteen of forty-two general officers were of Chōshū lineage. With the exception of imperial family members, men from Satsuma and Chōshū would monopolize the top positions in the army until 1907. Protégés such as Katsura Tarō, Kawakami Sōroku, Kodama Gentarō, and Terauchi Masatake, among others, would lead the army’s next generation and also rise to the highest civilian cabinet positions. Yamagata eradicated localized loyalties that might threaten central authority while he created his personality-based regional power base.

As Yamagata consolidated his position, the same regional and individual loyalties that had provided the glue that held the government army together during the restoration wars became suspect as impediments to the new government’s goal of a unified Japan. Central authorities rapidly disbanded the independent military organizations of the various domains in favor of a national army, but regionalism and factionalism dominated the selection and training of the army’s future leaders.

In 1869, ostensibly for financial reasons, the government reduced the size of the quota-based conscript army that it had assembled from various domains. Government authorities questioned the conscripts’ reliability, and domain leaders disliked their troops serving as long-term conscripts in a military force outside their control. That December the government eliminated the Chōshū kiheitai and similar units as part of an army-wide reorganization.

Younger men replaced the older veterans when the army dismissed soldiers over 40 years of age or in poor physical condition. Army authorities raised officers’ pay but lowered it for the more numerous rank-and-file to save money. The discarded veterans were the foot soldiers who had borne the brunt of the fighting in the restoration wars. In return they received miserly pensions and no rewards for their service. Kiheitai veterans, especially peasants and townsmen, vigorously protested plans to cut the 4,000-man force by half and the associated reforms.

Reactionaries played on these grievances to foment armed revolt in Chōshū. Insurgents opposed the dissolution of volunteer units, resisted westernization of weapons and equipment, and refused to obey their officers’ commands. In January 1870 about 1,800 disaffected former kiheitai members, more than 70 percent of them peasants, attacked Yamaguchi castle, surrounded the government’s administrative offices, and temporarily seized power. Peasants and merchants, aggrieved by poor harvests and runaway inflation, joined former government soldiers to raid government offices and stockpiles. Peasant revolts also broke out in nearby areas, forcing Kido, one of the government’s three senior councilors (Saigō and Ōkubo were the others) to mobilize loyal units in Chōshū and elsewhere to suppress the uprising by early February 1870. About 200 men on both sides were killed or wounded in the fighting, but the government executed an additional 130 rebels. The harsh sentences were aimed less at disaffected samurai than at cowing a possible peasant uprising that Kido feared would quickly sweep across Japan.

Building the New Army

Most of the new government’s leaders favored some form of national conscription to create a centralized military force to maintain domestic order, but there was a fundamental question about who was qualified to serve in the army. Yamada had originally allied himself with the late Ōmura’s Chōshū followers in the military department to deflect the attempts of Ōkubo, Kuroda, and other Satsuma leaders to create a professional military caste. In March 1870 the government instituted a revamped conscription system based on rice production, requiring each domain to maintain 60 troops per 10,000 koku of arable land production. The abolition of domains in late August 1871 simultaneously swept away the administrative infrastructure underpinning the conscription system, although a quota of five men from any class between the ages of 20 and 30 for every 10,000 koku of the new prefecture’s harvested rice stayed in effect.

Meanwhile, in March 1871,Yamagata, Iwakura, Saigō, and Kido had organized samurai from the three most powerful loyalist domains—Chōshū, Satsuma, and Tosa,—into an Imperial Guard to protect the throne and replace the diminished national army. The emperor donated 100,000 ryō to underwrite the new unit, which was directly subordinate to the court. The 6,200-man imperial bodyguard consisted of infantry and artillery units with a few cavalry squadrons and doubled as a national army, marking the beginning of modern Japan’s military institution.

More institutional changes soon followed. The military department was reorganized in July 1871, and on August 29, simultaneous with the decree abolishing the domains, the council of state ordered local lords to disband their private armies and turn over their weapons to the central government army. Though Yamagata played on the foreign threat, especially Russia’s southward expansion, to justify a national army, the government’s immediate perceived danger was domestic insurrection. Consequently, on August 31, with the court’s approval, the military department accordingly divided the country into four military districts, each with its own garrison or chindai, to deal with peasant uprisings or disaffected samurai insurrections. The Imperial Guard formed the Tokyo garrison whereas conscripts filled the ranks at the Osaka, Kumamoto, and Sendai garrisons. The four garrisons marshaled about 8,000 troops—mostly infantry, but also a few hundred artillerymen and engineers. Smaller detachments guarded outposts at Kagoshima, Fushimi, Nagoya, Hiroshima, and elsewhere. By late December 1871 the military department set army modernization and coastal defense as priorities. Yamagata and his deputies devised long-range plans for an army to maintain internal security, defend strategic coastal areas, train and educate military and naval officers, and build arsenals as well as supply depots. Despite Yamagata’s previous heated rhetoric about the foreign menace, little serious planning was directed against Russia.

In February 1872 the military department was abolished and separate army and navy departments were established. The Imperial Guard also underwent several reorganizations, and in January 1874 Yamagata became the Guard commander and concurrently vice army minister. Although created to defend the home islands against foreign aggression, the elite unit’s principal mission was to protect the throne by suppressing domestic samurai revolts, peasant uprisings, and antigovernment demonstrations.

No one, however, held high hopes for a quota-based, conscript-manned garrison system. By the summer of 1871, the army had inducted about 1,500 conscripts but found 25 percent of them to be physically unfit for military service. The remaining 1,100 or so were divided into various branches—infantry, cavalry, artillery, construction, and a bugle corps—collectively known as the Osaka unit.

The conscripts found themselves in a new, much more westernized world. They were forbidden to wear Japanese-style swords, although they could attach western-style bayonets to their uniform belts. New diets introduced the conscripts to meat, a change from the traditional rice and vegetable staples and one that caused indigestion and worse. In theory the conscripts received standardized uniforms, but a contemporary newspaper account described a mixed bag of conscripts, some wearing wooden clogs, others straw sandals, and a potpourri of tunics and jackets. Even more distressing, some were talking or reading books while on duty. One senior officer later recalled inspecting otherwise resplendent but bare-footed conscripts. In short, garrisons suffered from lack of weapons, money, authority, and personnel recruiting.

Military Training and Education

In early 1874, under French direction, the army relocated its small-arms firing ranges to the estate of a former shogunate official. The new home of the Toyama Infantry School (founded in 1873) taught minor tactics, marksmanship, bayonet practice, and physical education designed to prepare junior officers for command assignments. The eight-month course eventually standardized infantry doctrine and officer training throughout the army. The army concurrently established specialized technical schools in Tokyo for ordnance, military construction, and high explosives under the arsenal bureau’s direction as well as veterinary science, farriery, and equestrian schools. Each had around sixty students, and by 1875 numerous French-designed training facilities, rifle ranges, and specialized schools were active in Tokyo.

The army invested heavily in officer and noncommissioned officer (NCO) education. The reorganized school of military science opened in January 1870 with fifty-seven students enrolled in junior officer or NCO courses. The same year the government ordered each prefecture to send cadets in numbers proportionate to their respective rice production, and thereafter classes annually averaged about 100 students. The Yokohama facility also relocated to Osaka in 1870.

The Osaka school was renamed the Army Military Science School in November 1871 and moved to Tokyo in early 1872, where the army reorganized it into three provisional sections: a preparatory school with a middle school curriculum plus instruction in western languages, in effect a junior cadet school; a military academy that taught branch technical skills; and an NCO academy, which was removed from the cadet school the following year. In October 1874 the officers school formally became the military academy, and the following May the preparatory school was designated the cadet academy. The military science school was abolished. In January 1877 the cadet school was amalgamated into the military academy.

Military academy classes originally enrolled two types of cadets, regular (graduates of preparatory academies or those qualified by examination) and provisional (graduates of the NCO academy or selected NCO volunteers under 27 years of age). The former had a three-year course, the latter about half that, although both received regular commissions. The curriculum covered ordnance and weapons, equestrian skills, marksmanship and physical training, foreign language (French), and records administration. Almost all of the original students were of samurai stock, with just 13 commoners versus 719 warriors enrolled in the 1872 classes. One of Yamagata’s first decisions after taking over the military department, however, was to open the school of military science to commoners, and by 1881 the numbers had tilted in favor of commoners, whose 258 cadets outnumbered the 158 from warrior families.

Former samurai had as much trouble with the new military discipline as peasant conscripts. When the school of military science prohibited officer candidates from wearing swords and encouraged cadets, who were overwhelmingly from the samurai class, to cut their traditional topknot, many quit. Those who stayed had to adjust to wearing western-style clothing, which was as uncomfortable for them as it was for conscripts. Pants chafed, and boots and shoes caused blisters and were generally uncomfortable.

Even time changed because the military academy used the western measurements of minutes and hours to govern curriculum and schedules. Freshly commissioned officer graduates in turn drilled their conscript soldiers with the new way to measure time, and the draftees brought the concept back to their villages, factories, or offices. By the early 1870s senior officers carried pocket watches, an acknowledgment that coordination of troop movements, training schedules, and timetables made the clock a technological reality of military life.

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