Katsu Kaishu

by Romulus Hillsborough

Katsu Kaishu, the man who saved early modern Japan

Katsu Kaishu - consummate samurai, streetwise denizen of Downtown Edo, founder of the Japanese navy, statesman par excellence and always the outsider, historian and prolific writer, faithful retainer of the Tokugawa Shogun and mentor of men who would overthrow him ­ was among the most remarkable of the numerous heroes of the Meiji Restoration.

Kaishu's protégé was Sakamoto Ryoma, a key player in the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Surely Ryoma would agree that he owes his historical greatness to Kaishu, whom Ryoma considered 'the greatest man in Japan'. Ryoma was an outlaw and leader of a band of young rebels. Kaishu was the commissioner of the shogun's navy, who took the young rebels under his wing at his private naval academy in Kobe, teaching them the naval sciences and maritime skills required to build a modern navy. Kaishu also imparted to Ryoma his extensive knowledge of the Western world, including American democracy, the Bill of Rights, and the workings of the joint stock corporation.

Kaishu was one of the most enlightened men of his time, not only in Japan but in the world. The American educator E. Warren Clark, a great admirer of Kaishu who knew him personally, called Kaishu 'the Bismark of Japan', for his role in unifying the Japanese nation in the dangerous aftermath of the fall of the Tokugawa. Like Ryoma, Kaishu was an adept swordsman who never drew his blade on an adversary, despite numerous attempts on his life. Indeed the two men lived in dangerous times. 'I've been shot at by an enemy about twenty times in all,'Kaishu once said. 'I have one scar on my leg, one on my head, and two on my side.' Kaishu¹s defiance of death sprung from his reverence for life. 'I despise killing, and have never killed a man. I used to keep my sword tied so tightly to the scabbard, that I couldn¹t draw the blade even if I wanted to.'

Katsu Kaishu, who would become the most powerful man in the Tokugawa Shogunate, was born in Edo in January 1823, the only son of an impoverished petty samurai. The Tokugawa had ruled Japan peacefully for over two centuries.

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