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.
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 kiheitai. Ito 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.
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.