Takasugi Shinsaku (高杉晋作, 1839-1867) was born in the castle town of Hagi in the domain of Chōshū (modern-day Yamaguchi Prefecture) to Takasugi Kochuta (高杉小忠太), a middle-ranked samurai with a revenue of 200 koku of rice. He also used the name Tani Umenosuke (谷梅之助) as an alias in his activities against the shogunate.
Takasugi joined the shōka sonjuku (松下村塾), the private academy of Yoshida Shōin, where he studied the Chinese classics and military sciences and soon became one of Shōin’s favourite students. He continued his military studies at the shoheiko (昌平坂学問所), a military school under the direct control of the shogunate in Edo.
In 1859, he returned to his domain and became one of the most ardent proponents of the sonnō jōi (尊皇攘夷 “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians”) movement, which aimed at restoring the central role of the emperor and at vehemently resisting foreign interference. The movement was particularly strong in Chōshū. Despatched on a reconnaissance mission to China by his domain in 1862, he was genuinely appalled by the impact of European imperialism on China.
Shotai (小隊) and kiheitai (奇兵隊)
Based on the conceptions of his former teacher Yoshida Shōin, Takasugi formed so-called shotai (小隊, “platoon”) units, which consisted of samurai and commoners from all walks of life, to fight the forces of the Tokugawa shogunate. These units were later equipped with rifles, trained according to European military methods and financed by the domain’s wealthy merchants. Although samurai, many of them rōnin, comprised the majority of shotai units, social status was insignificant. In 1863, Takasugi organised a special unit called kiheitai (奇兵隊, “irregular militia”), which consisted of up to 400 men, many of them volunteers from neighbouring domains. Due to his radical views and as a result of an anti-Chōshū coup by the domains of Aizu and Satsuma in Kyoto, he was imprisoned by the Chōshū domain in the summer of 1863.
In the same year, American, French, British and Dutch naval forces bombarded the city of Shimonoseki, because Chōshū had closed the Straits of Shimonoseki to foreign vessels and fired upon foreign ships. The forces of the domain were easily defeated by French marine troops, making the inferiority of the Japanese military evident. Convinced of the urgency of military reform, the domain not only freed Takasugi, then just 25 years old, but put him in charge of the domain’s military affairs, involving the peace negotiations with the Western powers. He reorganised the kiheitai units, equipping them with modern rifles and training them in the latest Western military tactics. Also, he steered the sonnō jōi radicals into a more placatory position, redirecting their insurgent vigour against the bakufu.
Chōshū Civil War
The conflict with the Western nations had weakened the domain immensely and made it vulnerable to an expedition force sent by the bakufu in autumn of 1864 in retaliation for previous attempts to seize control of Kyoto. At first, conservative Chōshū forces, which favoured conciliation with the shogunate to secure the domain, were dominant in Chōshū politics, and Takasugi and some of his followers had to leave the domain to avoid renewed imprisonment. Takasugi, with only about a dozen compatriots, including future political leaders Yamagata Aritomo, Itō Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru, prepared an attack on the conservative forces in Chōshū. The subsequent Chōshū civil war began on 13 January 1865. Takasugi played a major role in this civil war, and his kiheitai militia proved its superiority over old-fashioned samurai forces. With a series of quick strikes and the support of Kido Takayoshi, Takasugi achieved victory by March 1865. He became one of the main arbiters of the Chōshū domain’s policy and continued to act as the domain’s expert on Western military science, devoting his efforts to importing arms and raising troops. These reforms proved to be successful when Chōshū was victorious on four fronts against the bakufu‘s Second Chōshū expedition in 1866, with the kiheitai itself securing victory on two fronts. Takasugi’s efforts had made a small-scale ‘nation in arms’ out of Chōshū, giving it a military strength out of proportion to its relatively small size. With its victory over the Tokugawa forces, the military power of the bakufu was discredited, and traditionally rival domains decided to join forces with Chōshū in the subsequent battles which led to the Meiji Restoration and the end of the Tokugawa regime.
Takasugi Shinsaku was not going to see his political dream of toppling the shogunate come true: in May 1867, he died of tuberculosis. His actions, however, proved pivotal in paving the road to modernisation. The kiheitai was disbanded in 1868.
- Craig, Albert M.; Choshu in the Meiji Restoration, Lexington 2000
- Earl, David Magarey; Emperor and Nation in Japan: Political Thinkers of the Tokugawa Period, Praeger 1981
- Huber, Thomas; The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan, Stanford University Press 1990
- Jansen, Marius B.; The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge 2002
- Jansen, Marius B.; Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration, Columbia University Press 1995
- The Choshu Compendium: Takasugi Shinsaku (via Internet Archive)
- Hagi Where Japan’s Revolution Began (taken from a National Geographics article)
Takasugi Shinsaku (高杉晋作, 1839-1867)
Takasugi Shinsuke in kendo gear (Photo credit)
Kiheitai (奇兵隊) unit (Photo credit)