We’re happy to present our readers with the conclusion of our two-part interview with Romulus Hillsborough, author of the recently published Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai. You can read part one of the interview HERE. In the following interview, RH is author Romulus Hillsborough and SA is the Samurai Archives’ Randy Schadel.
SA: One of the more difficult concepts for newcomers to Bakumatsu studies to understand is why the new Imperial Government felt the need to use military force against the Tokugawa after Yoshinobu had resigned the office of Shogun and returned power to the Emperor in 1867. Satsuma and Choshu (in conjunction with some highly placed Court nobles) even went so far as to forge an Imperial edict to attack the Tokugawa and put together phony Imperial flags for the Satcho army. Was this simply a case of the Loyalists led by Satsuma and Choshu wanting to ensure that the Tokugawa would be eliminated from national politics beyond a shadow of a doubt? Or was there evidence that Yoshinobu still had plans to retain his primacy in the political arena?
RH: Regarding this complicated issue, I refer readers to Samurai Revolution since I wrote quite a bit about it there. Let me just say here that the Imperial Court refused Yoshinobu’s request to abdicate and restore Imperial rule in the Tenth Month of Keio 3 (1867) because it wasn’t yet ready to accept the burden of governing; then after the coup in Kyoto in the next month, by which the Bakufu was abolished, Yoshinobu was deposed and a new provisional government was established under the Emperor, Yoshinobu no longer intended to step aside peacefully-which was why he sent 15,000 troops from Osaka to crush 5,000 enemy troops, mostly of Choshu and Satsuma. They clashed at Toba-Fushimi on the way to Kyoto and, of course, the Bakufu side was defeated.
SA: Throughout Samurai Revolution you’re also quoting extensively from the accounts of foreign diplomats and officials, giving their contemporary viewpoint on the Bakumatsu. This gives a valuable outsider’s look at the proceedings and just what the ‘foreign devils’ responsible for much of the unrest thought of what was transpiring. Despite the fact that the English actively supported the Loyalists and the French the Shogunate (with the Dutch watching their own interests, the Russians chipping away at territories north of Japan, and the Americans largely staying out of things due to being involved in their own Civil War) when the actual fighting began in the Boshin War, the Western nations agreed to not become involved and remain neutral. What was it that kept the Western nations out of the conflict and perhaps spared Japan the fate that China suffered at the hands of the European and American powers?
RH: I will not state the reasons that the foreign governments agreed to stay out of the internal conflict in Japan. However, I will say a little about France and Great Britain. Napoleon III, it seems, lost his stomach for overseas adventure, which was why the Bakufu lost France’s support in the latter part of Keio 3 (1867). Great Britain, on the other hand, wanted to secure its lucrative Japan trade, which was predicated on political stability in Japan. This was part of the reason that Ernest Satow published his essays, “English Policy,” in the Japan Times in 1865-66, in which he argued that the best means of assuring political stability in Japan was through a council of powerful feudal lords, including the shogun and his senior councilors, under the authority of the Emperor. Of course this resembles Sakamoto Ryoma’s great plan for the shogun’s abdication and restoration of Imperial rule, which he wrote down aboard ship in the summer of Keio 3 (1867).
SA: The dramatic highlight of the book comes when your two central figures, Katsu Rintaro of the Shogunate and Saigo Takamori of the Imperialists, come together in early 1868 to save the city of Edo from destruction. While it is often assumed that Katsu was negotiating from a hopelessly weak position and threw the city’s fate on the mercy of the Imperial faction, it actually appears as if he had quite a bit to bargain with militarily-particularly the Tokugawa navy. There was also the fact that of all the Tokugawa vassals, he had the best relationship with the leaders of the Imperialists. Nonetheless, the negotiations were dicey with the behavior of extremists on both sides threatening to escalate the situation into all-out warfare. Through it all, Katsu continued to work towards ensuring Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s safety and the financial/political security of Tokugawa vassals. Had there not been such a strong preexisting bond between Katsu and Saigo (or had some other leaders headed up negotiations), was it likely that the city of Edo would have been destroyed-perhaps triggering an all-out civil war rather than the scattered fighting of the Boshin War?
RH: The short answer is yes, I think so. Katsu Kaishu himself stated as much in his narrative, Kainanroku, which he wrote in 1884. And later in the 1890’s in an interview he said that had the Imperial Army sent anyone other than Saigo to speak with him, that person would have laid the blame for the dangerous situation on the Tokugawa, or on Yoshinobu, or on the troops who had fled the city, or on Kaishu himself, and “the talks would have broken down immediately.” However, like so many other things in history, nothing (or I should say, very little) is black and white. Consider this: Saigo had been forewarned by Sir Harry Parkes, the British minister to Japan (Satow’s boss), not to punish Yoshinobu or attack Edo, since the former shogun had already given up. “Killing the former leader of the nation, Parkes asserted, would violate international law. In the eyes of the rest of the world, as long as the Tokugawa agreed to surrender the castle, the Imperial Army lacked a moral justification to attack. Furthermore, Parkes warned, to launch an attack without first officially notifying the foreign representatives in Yokohama and safeguarding the lives and property of the foreign community smacked of anarchy.” (Samurai Revolution)
SA: One of our favorite quotes from the book comes on page 522 courtesy of Saigo Takamori. In responding to a Satsuma man in the Meiji period who remarked that they would now be able to get rid of the foreigners, he states “Are you still talking about that? That was just an excuse to overthrow the Bakufu”. Among the higher-ups in actual positions of power among the various Loyalist han, do you believe that disenfranchising the Tokugawa was always the central goal and that Joi was only a means to garner support?
RH: Originally, no-but after the summer of 1863, yes. Remember what occurred in Satsuma and Choshu that summer. Both of those han, leaders in the “expel the barbarians” movement, were punished by foreign warships in their own backyards – Satsuma by the British, and Choshu by American and French forces. After that they realized that Joi was impossible without first modernizing their militaries, for which they needed to trade with foreign nations. For further details, I refer readers to Samurai Revolution.
SA: Saigo’s Rebellion (the Satsuma Rebellion/Seinan Sensou/Southwest Campaign of 1878) is usually seen as the last stand of the samurai, lashing out at the Meiji government for their loss in status and other assorted grievances. Saigo is often portrayed as aggressively spearheading the movement, most notably in works of pop culture like the film “The Last Samurai” (in the person of his cinematic ‘stand-in’, Katsumoto). But historically, it seems that Saigo ended up as the leader of the anti-Meiji forces almost by accident. Was he the reluctant leader he appears to have been, and if so, how did he end up in that position?
RH: I wouldn’t say it was by accident but rather by circumstance. Saigo, after all, was probably the single most powerful driving force behind the revolution. And, as you will recall, he was hailed as a hero and natural leader by disgruntled samurai not only in Satsuma but throughout Japan. And, as I have explained in the book, Saigo was an extremely complex and enigmatic personality. Analyzing him is extremely difficult and sometimes he is impossible to understand. But as I write, he had “a genuine and reciprocated affection” for the Emperor. I quote Donald Keene that “absolutely nothing suggests that Saigo . . . had hoped another form of government might replace the monarchy,” based on his Confucian ethic that (in my own words) “the Emperor must rule according to Heaven’s will.” But he hated the corruption in the Meiji government. His ultimate objective in the Satsuma Rebellion (even if he did not actually start it) was, according to Keene, “to rid the emperor of the corrupt officials surrounding him so that he might rule undisturbed by their evil influence.”
SA: The assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma in many ways is the Japanese version of the Kennedy assassination in America. While Shinsengumi chief Kondo Isami was unjustly executed for the crime and Imai Noburo of the Mimawarigumi later confessed to it, there are seemingly dozens of theories as to who the perpetrators were. A popular one is that it was agents of Satsuma or Choshu (Ryoma’s ostensible allies) who were concerned that Ryoma meant to work to include the Tokugawa in the new Imperial government or that Ryoma actually intended to maneuver himself into the government’s top spot (in effect, filling in the ‘three blank circles’ on one of his manifestos). What is your preferred theory?
RH: I don’t have a preferred theory.
SA: In your opinion, what impact might it have had on Japanese history if Tokugawa Yoshinobu been named Shogun instead of Tokugawa Iemochi in 1858?
RH: I think it is safe to say that had Yoshinobu become shogun at that time, Ii Naosuke would have been defanged, and therefore would not have been able to purge his enemies from the government or to conclude the trade treaties without Imperial sanction. Therefore, he would not have been assassinated. And since his assassination marked the beginning of the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu . . . well, I think you can see where I’m headed with this logic. However, I prefer not to elaborate further in this forum, because I will discuss this in detail in my next book.
SA: As well as providing an engaging narrative, we found Samurai Revolution to be an excellent reference work. It has extensive footnotes, a glossary of important terms, domains, and figures, a bibliography filled with excellent Japanese sources, and a sizable index. What were some of the issues you faced trying to balance the two-keeping the narrative interesting while making sure the book retained its usefulness as an historical text? In a related point, how did you handle the issue of bias among your sources-how to determine whether to take them at face value or read between the lines?
RH: Writing requires technique, which, for me, has developed over many years. In other words, it is a craft that needs to be learned. Maintaining historical accuracy is an academic task. Writing a narrative to hold readers’ interest, maintaining historical and cultural accuracy, and presenting the humanity of my characters have been my overriding objectives in all my books. As you know, my first book, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, is an historical novel. As such, I did not cite my sources in that book. And while most of the dialogue is my own creation, it is based on historical documents including Ryoma’s letters, and definitive biographies of Ryoma and other main characters in the book. I took as much care to maintain historical and cultural accuracy in that book as I have in all subsequent books, including the historical narrative (i.e., nonfiction) Samurai Revolution, which is my best book thus far.
Regarding your second question about taking my sources at face value or reading between the lines, I will limit my answer to a brief discussion of two compilations of interviews of Katsu Kaishu, from which I quote extensively in Samurai Revolution. As I explained in the Appendix, one of these, Hikawa Seiwa, is a compilation of interviews that originally appeared in newspapers and magazines. They were erroneously edited and partially rewritten by the editor of the original 1897 publication. Katsu Kaishu’s most authoritative biographer, Matsuura Rei, meticulously researched the original interviews to correct those errors. Matsuura’s annotated edition of Hikawa Seiwa, published by Kodansha in 1973, was my source. The other compilation of Kaishu interviews, Kaishu Goroku, was the work of one person, who conducted all of the interviews himself. As such, the original 1899 publication, which appeared shortly after Katsu Kaishu’s death, was a more reliable source than Hikawa Seiwa before the Kodansha edition. The Kaishu interviews are “oral histories,” recounted in the 1890s, decades after the fact. As such, they may be viewed with skepticism. But, as I write in my new book, their credibility “is reinforced by their agreement with Katsu Kaishu’s journals, written memoirs, and histories–as if he had drawn on them for the interviews–and by the fact that the contents in both volumes, though recorded, edited, and published separately, often replicate each other.”
SA: You were a long term resident of Japan and made it a point to visit many of the locales and historical sites where the events described in Samurai Revolution took place. What advantages did that give you in the writing process over someone who had only read about them in documents and books?
RH: I won’t speak for other writers, but I would not have been able to write any of my books in the style that I have chosen, had I not been able to visualize certain of the historical events and places depicted. Visiting and observing–and feeling–the actual sites, not only buildings and other man-made structures but also the natural surroundings and topography of the places, aided in the visualization process. It also helped me to better understand the men who lived and died in those places.
SA: Now that you’ve written a comprehensive examination of the Bakumatsu and books on several of its most well-known figures and organizations, what projects can we expect from you in the future?
RH: I am currently working on a new book of the same historical era. I hope to finish the manuscript this year.
SA: Thank you, Mr. Hillsborough, for your insights and thoughts on this pivotal period of Japanese history, and best of luck on all your future projects.
You can order Samurai Revolution on the SA’s Amazon store HERE or directly from Tuttle Publishing’s website HERE . Visit Romulus Hillsborough’s Samurai Revolution website for more about the book along with interesting essays and news items (such as documents recently discovered in Kochi sealed with Sakamoto Ryoma’s blood).