Sensei’s Death: Yoshida Shoin

Yoshida Shoin and the Black Ships
Yoshida Shoin and the Black Ships

 

On 21st November 1859, a 29-year old youth knelt down before the Edo executioner, calm and proud, clothes straight and clean. He asked for a piece of paper to write down the final message:

Parents’ love for their child is greater than that of a child to his parents
How will my parents grieve to hear of today?

Such were the last words of Yoshida Shoin, a teacher, a poet, a conspirator – a revolutionary. One of the many larger-than-life characters spawned by the chaotic Bakumatsu period, Yoshida was among the most tragic, and most influential ones. His candle shone brief, but bright, and ignited the flames that burned the old order into cinders from which modern Japan sprouted.

Bakumatsu, the end of Shogun’s Japan, was not a calm time. Political disagreements were more likely to be resolved with a sword’s blade or the blast of a cannon rather than debate. Born in this environment, Yoshida Shoin’s legacy was an unlikely one, but proved far more resilient than that of any of his more militant peers. For Yoshida was no warrior; all his students remember him in the same way: fragile, quiet, peaceful. But make no mistake: he was no peace-lover, not the MLK or Gandhi of his time. He was strong-willed and determined to overthrow the Shogunate’s corrupt rule, with violence if need be.

shoin_yoshida[1]That he managed to achieve so much before his untimely death, was a mark of his singular genius. A scholar of Chinese philosophy since the age of 8, advisor to the daimyo of Choshu at the age of 18, student of the great Sakuma Shozan at the age of 20, at the age of 27 he returned to his home town of Hagi – after witnessing personally the arrival of Perry’s Black Ships and various spells of imprisonment by the Shogunate officials – to establish a private school, based on Western patterns. In there, he taught not only modern economics, politics and art of war, but first and foremost he tried to instill in his students the dream of social equality and democracy: a dream of a nation not divided into immovable castes of warriors, merchants and peasants, but one where men of all classes can participate in the body politic freely, under the benevolent command of the Imperial government – ideas revolutionary not only in Japan at the time.

His teaching lasted less than two years, but, in the familiar, Christ-like pattern, those last two years of his life, ending in a violent death, were far more important than anything else he had done before. He may have died himself, executed for taking part in a minor assassination plot which never came to fruition – but his students – his disciples – from that period were instrumental in the revolution that swept the Shogun, and everything that happened after that. Their names are carved into the Japanese history forever, and are familiar to anyone with even passing interest in the Meiji era (though not all are remembered fondly today, especially by Japan’s neighbours). Takasugi Shinsaku, founder of Japan’s first modern troops, the kiheitaiIto Hirobumi, Japan’s first and, some say, greatest Prime Minister; Yamagata Aritomo and Omura Masujiro, the two fathers of Japanese armed forces; Kido Takayoshi, the great reformer and constitutionalist; Nomura Yasushi, Minister of Interior in Ito’s cabinet; Inoue Kaoru, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the same. And many others, some of whom did not live long enough to make such an impact, but who were nonetheless crucial in the events of the period. All they had in common was one thing: they all were, at one point or other, students of a 28-year old man from Hagi, Yoshida Shoin.

Yoshida's statue in Shimoda
Yoshida’s statue in Shimoda

Waiting for the executioner’s sword in a prison cell in Edo, Yoshida foretold his unending legacy clearly, in the poem written two days before his death:

Even if my body falls on the Musashi Plain *)
The spirit of Yamato will remain forever.

*) Musashi Plain is archaic and poetic name for the area around Edo/Tokyo

Related: Birthday Boys – Keisuke Ito and Philipp Von Siebold

Birthday Boys – Keisuke Ito and Philipp Von Siebold

Dutch_trader_watching_an_incoming_VOC_ship_at_Dejima_by_Kawahara_Keiga
A man from Dejima, his wife and his child. Could be von Siebold himself.

Two very important people were born on February 17th and February 18th. Important for Japan, for science – and for the events described in my “The Year of the Dragon” books.

Bundespost_Philipp_Franz_von_SieboldIn 1796, on February 17th, a child was born into the family of von Siebolds, Wurzburg doctors and professors of medicine. Christened Philipp Franz Balthasar, the boy studied natural sciences under some of the best names at the time, and by 1820, he became a medical doctor.

A friend invited him to join the Dutch Navy, and in 1822 Philipp Von Siebold embarked on his first journey to the Orient, on board of a Dutch frigate Ariana. It was to be the most important decision of his life; while recovering from illness at the Batavian governor’s villa, he impressed his peers so much they invited him to visit the secret jewel in the Dutch colonial crown: the Dejima Outpost in Japan.

Dejima, where von Siebold spent seven years of his life (modern reconstruction)
Dejima, where von Siebold spent seven years of his life (modern reconstruction)
Kusumoto Otaki
Kusumoto Otaki

He arrived in Nagasaki on August 11, 1823 as the new resident physician and scientist. The mutual first impressions must have been great: von Siebold stayed in Japan for the next seven years, establishing a medical school and teaching modern Western science to 50 students; in turn, the Japanese taught him their customs, and welcomed him among themselves as equal. Eventually, as often happened with the lonely residents of Dejima far away from home, he found love: a Nagasaki woman by the name of Otaki.

Monument to Carl von Thunberg, von Siebold's predecessor, set up by von Siebold himself.
Monument to Carl von Thunberg, von Siebold’s predecessor, set up by von Siebold himself.
Oine
Oine

Siebold’s legacy today lies mostly in his botanical interests; his collection of Japanese flora was unparalleled at the time. His name is remembered in many of the plant species he first described for the benefit of the West. Alas, his varied interests proved his downfall, when in 1826 he was discovered to be in possession of detailed maps of Japan and accused of spying. In 1829 he was forced to leave Nagasaki, abandoning his wife and his two year old daughter, Ine. He had to wait thirty years before the transforming Japan allowed him to return. By then, Ine had grown up to become Japan’s first female doctor, and established a gynecology clinic in Nagasaki.

Von Siebold's gardens at Dejima
Von Siebold’s gardens at Dejima
Ito Keisuke
Ito Keisuke

One of Siebold’s 50 students was another birthday boy: Keisuke Ito. Born February 18th in 1803 in Nagoya, thanks to the knowledge he had gained in Nagasaki and his own talent, Keisuke became one of early modern Japan’s most prominent physicians. In 1852 he returned to his homeland to study smallpox – and developed an effective vaccine to the disease which ravaged Japan for centuries, killing peasants and Emperors alike. In 1868 he established a medical school in Nagoya which formed the basis of what is now Nagoya University. By the time he died at the grand age of 98 (only two years before the death of his mentor’s daughter), he was a baron and the professor of University of Tokyo; his long life having spanned the age of greatest change and turmoil in Japan’s history.

Happy Birthday, Phillip Von Siebold!

Happy Birthday, Keisuke Ito!