Japanese Battleships 1905–1940. Vol. I

It is perhaps worthwhile at this point to touch upon some issues related to Japan’s political and social situation in those days. In order to fully appreciate it let us go back in time some 250 years. In 1603 Ieyasu Tokugawa was granted the title of Shogun by the ruling emperor Go-Yozei. In the early days the title was equivalent to a military rank denoting commanders in charge of the imperial army. In time it evolved to become a hereditary title of Japanese warlords ruling the country. Through a series of intrigues the Tokugawa Shogunate seized absolute power which gave rise to a long period of the Tokugawa clan rule. In 1640 Ieyasu Tokugawa closed the country’s borders to all foreigners, except limited contacts with the Chinese and the Dutch. During Tokugawa’s rule the Japanese society assumed a highly hierarchic structure with privileged Daimyō cast and samurais at the top, followed by farmers, craftsmen and merchants. The Emperor’s rule was reduced to a purely ceremonial function and Tokugawa clan reigned supreme in the entire country. That status quo proved to be beneficial, since the Empire enjoyed a period of relative stability and peace, due mainly to its isolation from the rest of the world. But, over time, Tokugawa’s power began to weaken. A quick rise in the rural population meant that more farm workers were needed. Additionally, ever increasing numbers of peasants began to move into the booming cities in search of work. The numbers of migrant workers increased significantly in the winter months: more and more people sought work in crafts and trade. Suddenly there was a surplus of labor gravitating towards the cities and not enough skilled farm laborers, which made control of rural population increasingly more difficult. The samurais were also beginning to show dissatisfaction with the Shogunate and more and more openly demanded the restoration of imperial rule. They believed that the country’s further development in total isolation from the world would be all but impossible.

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Before Perry’s ships arrived in Japan the country had been ruled by Emperor Osahito who adopted the name Kōmei (“glorious obedience”) after his succession, following the death of his father on February 21, 1846. His reign witnessed a gradual decline of shogun’s power and an inevitable end of Tokugawa Shogunate’s rule. It was then, in the seventh year of Kōmei’s reign, that Commodore Perry arrived demanding an audience with the ruling head of state. Instead Perry negotiated with a representative of the Shogun, who, despite his power, was not the actual head of state. Even if Perry had known that (and he did not) an audience with the Emperor was at that time completely unattainable for a foreigner. Despite those procedural difficulties the negotiations were successful and led to a treaty between the United States and Japan which was signed on March 31, 1854 in Kanagawa (a section of today’s Yokohama). The main purpose of the Kagawa Convention was to open two of the Japanese ports – Shimoda and Hakodate – to trade with the United States. Based on the treaty Japan was obliged to guarantee the safety of shipwrecked U.S. sailors and to allow the Americans to set up coal depots on Japanese soil. The convention also established the office of a U.S. consul to Japan.

JapPancV1   zdj 4Let us go back to the relations between the Shogunate and the supporters of the Emperor’s court. In an effort to improve the relations with the Shogunate Emperor Kōmei arranged a marriage between his younger sister, Princess Chikako and the Shogun. The marriage was part of a larger unification and stabilization plan for the country, which was brought to a sudden end when Iemochi died on August 29, 1866. Iemochi’s death was an ideal opportunity for the Emperor’s court to introduce some radical changes in the country. Yoshinobu Tokugawa, Iemochi’s successor, realized that his power and influence was in grave danger and swiftly ordered the Emperor to be poisoned and his immediate family slaughtered. Tokugawa was granted his wish to eliminate the Emperor and his family when the 35 year old Kōmei died of smallpox on January 30, 1867. Kōmei’s successor was his second oldest son, Mutsuhito, the only surviving child of the late Emperor.