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 Kaishu Katsu

Kaishu Katsu

Birth
Tokyo Metropolis, Japan
Death 23 Jan 1899 (aged 75)
Tokyo Metropolis, Japan
Burial Cremated, Other, Specifically: Interred in Senzoku Ike (Pond) Park in Minami-Senzoku, Oota-ku (district), Tokyo
Memorial ID 10930299 · View Source
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One of the most important people in modern Japanese history, considered by Sakamoto Ryoma to be "the greatest man in Japan," Katsu Kaishu was born with the first name, Rintaro, in Kamezawa-cho, Edo on January 30, 1823, the only son of a poor, low-level samurai. He rose to become the architect of Nippon's modern navy, and was a chief advocate of absorbing as much as possible from the West, technologically, and concerning the ideals of democracy and meritocracy. He boldly challenged the "expel-the-barbarians" ethos of the reactionaries in the nation, and dedicated himself to modernizing his country so that it could become both a more equitable society, and one that would be fully able to defend itself against Western control.
When he was six, he got invited by a relative to see the gardens inside Edo Castle. The shogun, Ienari, was so charmed by little Rintaro that he decided to make him his grandson's play and studying companion; such was his role until he became an adolescent.
One day, at the age of nine, as he was walking to a juku (cram school), he saw a mean-looking stray dog heading toward him. In fear, he fell backwards onto the street. The dog attacked Rintaro through his hakama (extra-wide pants), and mauled his groin. The doctor with shaking hands who sewed him up told the little boy's father that the son was not likely to survive to the next morning. But Kokichi was a very devoted father; he himself had suffered a serious groin injury when he had fallen from a cliff at age 14, which had left him unable to leave the house for two years. He was not about to give up on his boy. Each night, he slept next to Rintaro, hugging him to ease the pain and anguish. Along with that, he went to his local Buddhist temple, where he doused himself with cold water, and prayed naked, doing all he could, according to the dictates of his faith, to help his beloved child recover. About two and a half months later, Rintaro was able to walk again. The injury was severe enough to prevent him from beginning kenjutsu (kendo and sword-fighting) training until he was 15. He became an expert in this, under the master, Shimada Toranosuke.
As a young retainer of the shogun, his life was changed when, at 18, he saw his first map of the world: "I was wonderstruck." He became determined to travel as widely as possible. One day, he saw Dutch writing engraved on a cannon at Edo Castle; he became entranced, and committed himself to learning the language and culture of the one Western nation that had been allowed some access into what Herman Melville called that "double-bolted" land.
In spite of having mastered the art of swordsmanship, he claimed to have never drawn his katana on an enemy: "I've been shot at about 20 times ... I despise killing, and have never killed a man. I used to keep my sword tied so tightly to the scabbard that I couldn't draw the blade, even if I wanted to."
In 1850, he started his own private school at his home in Akasaka, Edo, where he taught his students everything he had absorbed from five years' intensive study of the West, mainly regarding military science and politics. Kaishu was deeply into what was called Dutch learning. In 1852, he began working on the building of Western-style cannons, to meet the requests of various daimyo throughout Japan. The following year, American Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry's squadron of black ships had easily entered Edo Bay, frightening and humiliating the once-powerful Tokugawa regime. Following this first incursion by the Americans, Kaishu wrote a letter in which he urged the shogun to build a substantial navy, and to recruit men based on their abilities, not just their aristocratic lineage. He argued for an end to the government's ban on the construction of warships, and made the case for the mass-production of Western-style rifles and cannon. The military, he insisted, had to be reformed along Western lines, with academies established to train men for service in the nation's defense. Further, free international trade should be pursued, so as to enable Japan to acquire as much from the West as possible, and to make the money that would be needed to create a navy that could take on anyone. Kaishu was boldly repudiating the tenets of the sakoku policy -- the two centuries-plus of rigid seclusion, anti-gaijin (foreigner) rules. He also did all he could to overturn the rigid class system that had been instituted by Hideyoshi in 1591, with that dictator's Edict on Changing Status, for he knew that not only individuals but the entire nation failed to flourish in a culture in which one's station at birth usually determined how far he could advance, whether or not he could particpate in government, or serve as a military officer. As it turned out, all his major proposals were soon to be adopted.
In 1855, he embarked on two and a half years of study under Dutch teachers at the Nagasaki Naval Academy. Then, in January of 1860, he commanded the Kanrin Maru, the first sanctioned overseas voyage in the history of Japan. The first American Consul to Japan, Townshend Harris, had heard of Katsu's plan to use a ship designed for travel only in coastal waters, and manned by an all-Japanese crew, so he urged the Bakufu to use a bigger vessel, and have the crew be experienced sailors fom the U.S. and England. Katsu Kaishu was determined to make this historic journey on his own terms, in a way that would bring honor to his country. His ship traveled to San Francisco, ahead of the Japanese delegation which would use Perry's former ship, the Powhatan, to go to Washington D.C. to ratify Nippon's first commercial treaty with America. In San Francisco, he and his crew proudly demonstrated what Kaishu called "the glory of the Japanese navy." There he stayed for two months, studying American democracy first-hand, and growing more deeply impressed with American social mobility, in contrast to Japan's caste system: "There is no distinction between soldier, peasant, artisan, or merchant. Any man can be engaged in commerce." Not only that, he reported, but "American husbands hold their wives' hands!" His loathing for the old heirarchy in Japan was embodied in this observation he once made: "It is much better to speak with an uneducated illiterate than to listen to a lame political discussion." He believed in what Thomas Jefferson had called the "natural aristoi:" that the most talented folks were randomly distributed throughout society, that there was no connection between the class one was born into, and how much a person could or should learn, contribute, and prosper. When the maverick Ryoma first met Katsu, on a mission to Edo in 1862, he was startled to hear Kaishu encouraging him to join him in his project to create a mighty navy for Japan. He, Ryoma, was, in the minds of the elite, just a low-born ronin, one who had fled the Tosa clan he served, and was hardly fit to receive training in naval sciences, for that was the domain of sons of the well-to-do. But Katsu saw the greatness that was in Ryoma; the class he had been born into was meaningless.
That same year, Katsu was appointed Vice-Commissioner of the Tokugawa navy, and then, the following year, established his own private naval academy in Kobe, with the help of Ryoma. He taught his students all about maritime skills, naval sciences, American democracy and culture, the Bill of Rights, and how a joint stock company works. In 1864, he was appointed Navy Commissioner, but then fired a few months later after the shogun decided that Kaishu had been too friendly with enemies of the government. His academy was closed, his stipend was cut to almost nothing, and he was placed under house arrest.
Soon after his first meeting with Saigo Takamori, the Satsuma leader had this to say of the man he had assumed to be an arch-rival: "He is certainly an amazing man. Although I had at first intended to strike him down, I soon bowed my head in reverence to him." Saigo was almost six feet tall, and about 240 pounds; Katsu was just under five feet, and very thin. He got seasick easily, though he was the father of Japan's modern navy. Nearly everyone who met him was deeply impressed by the wisdom and frank eloquence of this little giant -- a man who had been trained in the rigors of Zen bushi living, who had mastered the art of the sword, but who prided himself on his ability to avoid violence: "Depending on the circumstances, a truly courageous man might let himself be cut before cutting someone else."
In 1866, after the shogun's army was badly beaten by forces from Choshu (Yamaguchi), Katsu Kaishu was reinstated to his high position by Yoshinobu, who was soon to become the last of the Tokugawa rulers. These two did not like each other. Kaishu had always stood up against the establishment when he thought he knew what was better for the country. He had advised the lame 17-year-old shogun, Iemochi to abdicate, had openly criticized several powerful men in Edo, and had given advice to foes of the regime. Still, a desperate Yoshinobu had no choice but to ask Kaishu to return to service in the capital, since he alone had the respect of the men who sought to emasculate the Tokugawa bakufu.
In August of 1866, Kaishu traveled alone to Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, as representative of the shogun, in negotiation with leaders of the superior forces of the Choshu. This was a very dangerous mission, as he could've easily been assassinated, but he succeeded in arranging for a peace treaty with the men who would ultimately bring about the restoration of imperial power. Following this diplomatic work, he resigned his post, and retired to his home.
In October, 1867, Yoshinobu abdicated, and announced that power would revert to the Meiji emperor. But civil war erupted when Tokugawa loyalists refused to give up. In a major battle near Kyoto, forces under Saigo Takamori of Satsuma (Kyushu) routed a much larger army of Tokugawa men in three days. Following this decisive victory, Saigo demanded that Yoshinobu commit seppuku, and threatened to send in 50,000 of his troops to burn Edo to the ground.
Katsu Kaishu wanted to avoid any more bloodshed, but he was a retainer of Yoshinobu, and felt it his duty to defend the shogunate, no matter how deep his criticisms of it were. He considered using his fleet of twelve warships to defend the capital. At this time, he was, for all intents and purposes, the most powerful person in Edo: head of the 50,000-man army and the navy. The path he chose was peace: he sent a letter to Saigo, arguing that the top samurai around the shogun were essential to the future of Japan, and that both sides in this civil war must get together to form common ground against the threat of Western invasion and colonization. Saigo responded by demanding that Edo Castle be peacefully surrendered. On this condition, the House of Tokugawa would be spared the executioner's sword, and further warfare made unnecessary. On March 14, 1868, Kaishu met with Saigo to accept the surrender terms, and to save his city. This is what he said to his victorious opponent: "Edo is not the Tokugawas' anymore. It is the capital of Japan. Do you want to burn Edo to the ground?" Saigo's response was: "I understand. I'll give your opinion to my superiors, as if it's my own." Thus was Japan's premier metropolis spared annihilation.
Kaishu went on to become Lord High Admiral and advisor to the Privy Council in the new Meiji government. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Tokyo on January 23, 1899, after having taken a bath and drinking a bit of brandy. His remains are interred in a park bordering Senzoku Lake in Oota-ku, Tokyo. He is celebrated, by those of his compatriots who know and care, for saving the capital of Nihon.


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  • Created by: Keith Fitzgerald
  • Added: 8 May 2005
  • Find A Grave Memorial 10930299
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Kaishu Katsu (30 Jan 1823–23 Jan 1899), Find A Grave Memorial no. 10930299, ; Maintained by Keith Fitzgerald (contributor 46567816) Cremated, Other, who reports a Interred in Senzoku Ike (Pond) Park in Minami-Senzoku, Oota-ku (district), Tokyo.