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A reckless adventure in Taiwan amid Meiji Restoration turmoil




The Meiji Restoration had two main aspects. One centered on domestic reforms to nurture industry and the right caliber of people in an effort to transform Japan into a modern nation with centralized government. The other was sending troops overseas, a policy that led to militarism.

PhotoPaiwan aboriginal people listen to Taiwanese and Japanese researchers' views about Japan's decision to dispatch its troops to Taiwan in 1874. Photo taken by Yoshifumi Katakura in Mudan Township, Pingtung County, Taiwan.
PhotoA carving of a Paiwan aboriginal person resisting the Japanese advance is shown atop a gate at the entrance to Mudan Township. Photo taken by Yoshifumi Katakura in Mudan Township, Pingtung County, Taiwan.
PhotoTakamori Saigo, Tsugumichi Saigo
PhotoToshimichi Okubo (1830-1878) Hailing from the Satsuma Domain (now Kagoshima Prefecture), he was a central leader of the Meiji Restoration. As opposed to the "tragic hero" Takamori Saigo, Okubo was considered to have a cold personality focused on power, and he was not very popular. (Photos including those of Takamori Saigo and Tsugumichi Saigo provided by the National Diet Library)
PhotoLi Hongzhang (1823-1901) He was a politician at the end of the Qing Dynasty and leader of the Self-Strengthening Movement that promoted industrialization. He often made compromises with foreign governments, so he was criticized by opposing camps as being weak on foreign policy.
PhotoGojong (1852-1919) He became the 26th king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty at the age of 12. He implemented modernization policies, in contrast to his father Daewon-gun. He tried to accept Western civilization and introduced electricity in his palace at the earliest opportunity. Some say that was because he mostly worked during the night dealing with state affairs.

In time China and Korea learned from the former, but the latter policy threw East Asia into turmoil.

Why did political leaders at that time steer the country toward external aggression so soon after initiating domestic reforms?

Asahi Shimbun reporters flew to Taiwan to find the answer. This is because Taiwan became the first destination to which modern Japan dispatched troops. Some years would elapse before other military ventures on the Korean Peninsula and in mainland China.

The Asahi Shimbun reporters arrived in Mudan Township, in southern Taiwan, on June 4, 2007. The area basked in sparkling, tropical heat.

In May 1874, Japan launched an attack here with 3,600 solders led by Army Lt. Gen. Tsugumichi Saigo, younger brother of Takamori Saigo, a great hero of the Meiji Restoration.

The reporters attended a symposium about the Taiwan Expedition being held at the local town hall. Many of the 100-plus participants were Paiwan aboriginal people dressed in colorful traditional clothing, who gathered to learn more details and truths about the battle their ancestors fought.

Li Jin-shui, an 87-year-old Paiwan, grew up listening to stories about his grandfather fighting in the war.

"I heard that he tried to shoot Japanese soldiers from the top of the mountain," Li said. "He ran out of ammunition, and after a while a Japanese soldier who had been on the ground suddenly stood up, so he scrambled to run away. The story went something like that."

This battle has almost been forgotten in Japan, but how is it remembered in Taiwan?

Another Paiwan, Du Shi-yun, a 33-year-old elementary school teacher, interviewed elders as a university student.

"No one knew the details of the war," Du said. "Even if someone knew, they simply clammed up."

In 1949, the Kuomintang escaped to Taiwan after losing the civil war raging in China to the Communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung. Under the Kuomintang government, the history of the island's indigenous people was shrouded in darkness. Now that democratization has advanced, there is finally rising momentum to shine a light on that history.

Anyway, why was the Japanese military deployed to Taiwan? The origins lie in what happened three years before the Japanese attack.

Miyakojima island officials slain

A vessel with 69 officials and others from Miyakojima island in Ryukyu (today's Okinawa Prefecture) ran ashore in Taiwan due to bad weather, and 54 of them were killed by the Paiwan. The Paiwan believe that the villagers initially extended their hospitality, but came to regard the Ryukyuans as enemies because they fled.

But that certainly is not the way the Japanese government saw events as having unfolded. It aimed to punish those who killed the Ryukyuans and take their land if circumstances allowed, leading to the Meiji government sending an expedition to Taiwan.

There was a lot of opposition within the government. Takayoshi Kido stepped down from his position as a policymaking councilor to protest the expedition.

Even from today's perspective it appears to have been a highly reckless expedition. Japan lost 12 men in battle, but more than 500 succumbed to malaria and other illnesses, likely due to inadequate intelligence and a lack of military doctors and medicine. Despite winning the battle, a senior officer wrote in letters that conditions were terrible.

In those days, Taiwan belonged to China, then ruled by the Qing Dynasty, and the invasion could have caused the Qing to retaliate. In effect, the Sino-Japanese War could have broken out 20 years earlier than it did.

Still, Japan went ahead and dispatched its military. Why?

Toshihiko Mouri, professor emeritus at Osaka City University, has been pursuing the question with a focus on Toshimichi Okubo, the most powerful statesman of the time.

Okubo gained power during the political upheaval over Seikanron (the debate about conquering Korea, see Fact File 2) in 1873, the year before the Taiwan Expedition. Mouri believes that huge miscalculations were made. Takamori Saigo, Okubo's close friend and a highly respected figure who was also from Kagoshima, resigned as a policymaking councilor after a clash with Okubo and left for his hometown.

Unpopular governments act the same the world over regardless of the times. A quick way to get public support is by focusing on foreign affairs rather than domestic issues. Planning for the Taiwan Expedition was already under way.

"It has been long thought that Okubo simply rubber-stamped the expedition as he was dragged along by its momentum, but I believe he strongly and consistently supported it," Mouri said.

It should also not be overlooked that peasants reluctant to serve in the military rioted fiercely soon after they were drafted. Some researchers believe the government leaned toward a war against a foreign land to demonstrate to the public that the draft system was necessary.

Peasants were not the only ones who were dissatisfied. Former samurai in Kochi Prefecture who were outraged by the political turmoil over Seikanron attacked Tomomi Iwakura, who controlled the government along with Okubo. The situation was becoming precarious. In fact, the government itself may have been in danger unless it steered the grievances outside the country.

In addition, the Satsuma Domain of Kagoshima, which was the most powerful among the discontented samurai groups, was eager to invade Taiwan. The Satsuma Domain had controlled the Ryukyu Islands from the beginning of the Edo Period, so the murder of the islanders hit close to home. In fact, about 300 men working for Takamori Saigo joined the Taiwan Expedition.

However, Ryukyu had been sending delegates to the Qing Dynasty to maintain a balance between Japan and China. It was no surprise that this fact also became a bone of contention between Japan and the Qing Dynasty.

Qing Dynasty pays compensation

"It was an extremely adventurous military action, and Okubo was well aware of that," said Lu Wan He, a former director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences in China.

Okubo went to Beijing to negotiate with the Qing government. His published diary and other documents illustrate the difficulties he faced.

Okubo pressed the Qing, citing international law under the guidance of French legal adviser Gustave Boissonade, saying that Qing rule did not extend to the area of the expedition. The Qing government countered that it reigned over Taiwan in its own manner, and criticized Okubo for not upholding the Japan-Qing Treaty of Friendship.

The Japan-Qing Treaty of Friendship took effect just a year earlier. Japan and the Qing had previously had no other choice than to sign unequal pacts with the United States and European nations, and it was the first treaty on equal terms for both countries in which they promised not to invade each other.

In the end, Japan withdrew its troops in exchange for the Qing government's payment of 500,000 Kuping taels in indemnity and its recognition that Japan's Taiwan Expedition as a "fight for justice to protect its people." The deal was worked out through the mediation of a British envoy stationed there.

"The Qing government was slow to take military action and its diplomatic stance was also weak," said Lu. "Okubo turned his failure into a victory through negotiation, recovering his reputation."

The Qing government must have felt strongly that it was betrayed by Japan. Statesman Li Hongzhang had led the charge to sign the Japan-Qing Treaty of Friendship, expecting that Japan's support would help in dealing with the United States and Europe. However, he began saying: "The United States and Europe are major powers but they are located far away, while Japan is watching us closely at our doorstep. This will always be a major worry for China."

After the Taiwan incident, the Qing government quickly built up its military, considering Japan a potential enemy. This is when the "seeds for the Sino-Japanese War were sown," Mouri said.

For the Qing, the biggest mistake was to recognize Ryukyuans as citizens of Japan. The following year, the Japanese government ordered Ryukyu to stop sending tributes to the Qing. Four years later, it renamed Ryukyu as Okinawa Prefecture, taking over complete sovereignty.

"Ryukyu was forced to abandon its China-centered way of doing things after centuries of maintaining a suzerain relationship with China," said Seikiyo Matayoshi, an Okinawa University professor and an expert on the history of Taiwan. "This was significant because it marked the beginning of the end of Sino-centrism."

Even in China at that time, some people were concerned about tributary countries leaving their relationships. He Ruzhang, the first Qing envoy sent to Japan based on the Japan-Qing Treaty of Friendship, sent a letter home saying, "If Ryukyu perishes, that would affect Korea."

Korea is next

That message was about to become reality. The Asahi Shimbun reporters flew to Seoul to learn about that history first hand.

Incheon International Airport is located on Yeongjong Island. The Japanese military made a surprise attack on the island in September 1875, killing some 30 residents. The incident started when the Japanese warship Unyo provoked a gun emplacement on neighboring Ganghwa Island, resulting in an exchange of fire.

Japan took the Ganghwa Island Incident, which is known as the Unyo Incident in Korea, to force Korea to sign the unequal Korea-Japanese Treaty of Amity. The pact opened up Korea in a manner similar to what had been done to Japan by Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet of Black Ships in 1853.

Ganghwa Island has changed dramatically since then. The remains of the Chojijin gun emplacement from where the country fired on the Unyo are a great viewing spot, so tourist buses and passenger vehicles came one after another.

"This is where Korea encountered modern times," said cultural and tourism commentator Park Song Ok. "It has become a tourist destination close to Seoul."

A report on the Ganghwa Island Incident by the commander of the Unyo that was discovered in the library of the National Institute for Defense Studies has shed new light on the situation.

The report was written earlier than the document previously discovered.

Japan's claim based on the previously discovered document was that the Unyo approached the island to get supplies of water and was attacked despite openly flying its national flag. However, in the newly discovered report there is no mention of water.

The reporters went to see Seoul National University Professor Yi Tae Jin, a researcher who looked closely at the new document.

"The longer-known report was rewritten the day before officials met a British envoy who wanted to learn what actually happened," Yi said. "The report was also shown to a French envoy the next day as well. I suspect the Japanese government wanted to leave the impression that Korea was a barbaric nation that didn't even know international law, and get Britain and France on its side. It was a maneuver to gain an edge in treaty negotiations."

In addition to Boissonade, French-American Charles LeGendre and other foreign advisers gave the Japanese government the idea during the Taiwan Expedition that Tokyo should eventually occupy Taiwan.

Yi doubts the accepted theories regarding the Ganghwa Island Incident and the treaty. "I suspect the theory that Japan opened up Korea from a period of isolation and brought benefits was a Japanese explanation that later resulted in the annexation of Korea," he said.

Two years before the Ganghwa Island Incident, 22-year-old Gojong, the king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, announced that he was taking sole rule of the country. Yi points out that Gojong was years ahead in his thinking, having realized the country would not survive without the ability to handle international relations skillfully. That meant opening the country to the world was unavoidable.

"Gojong was enthusiastic about signing the treaty, considering that Japan's support was needed for Korea's modernization," Yi said. "Korea was willing to open up, and the Treaty of Ganghwa (Korea-Japanese Treaty of Amity) was established based on a mutual agreement."

Both parties freely agreed to sign the accord, Yi said, even though the two nations later had clashes.

The treaty contained a clause stating that "Korea is an autonomous country and has equal rights with Japan." This can be interpreted as undermining the Qing Dynasty's suzerainty over Korea, and it eventually was used as a reason for starting the First Sino-Japanese War.

Fact File (1): Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration refers to a chain of events where the political regime governed by the Tokugawa Shogunate and individual domains was toppled and a new centralized government carried out a wide range of reforms.

Under the new political system, individual domains were destroyed and prefectures were established. A military draft was introduced based on U.S. and European models; support measures for new industries were implemented; and education and tax systems were fundamentally changed, in efforts to establish Japan as a modern nation.

The reforms reverberated in neighboring countries. For example, in China (then under the Qing Dynasty), Kang Youwei kept a close watch on Japan's transformation under the Meiji Restoration in his attempt to reform the system of government and appoint capable people after the First Sino-Japanese War.

These measures were blocked after 103 days, so the period is now known as the Hundred Days Reform.

Fact File (2): Seikanron (debate about conquering Korea)

From the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867) through the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) there was much debate within and outside the government about sending troops to conquer the Korean Peninsula or forcing it to make political changes.

Korea rejected diplomatic relations with Japan after the new Meiji government was established, on the grounds that its diplomatic documents were drawn up in a different format than those from the Edo Period.

In May 1873, after Japan learned that Koreans had posted a document insulting Japan in front of the gate of a building in Pusan where Japanese resided, Councilor Taisuke Itagaki argued in a Cabinet meeting that troops should be dispatched in the name of protecting Japanese citizens in Korea.

However, Takamori Saigo opposed any deployment and urged the government to send him to Korea as an envoy instead. With Itagaki and other leaders' support, Saigo's mission was initially approved, but Tomomi Iwakura reported the decision to the emperor and asked him not to give his permission.

Thus, the mission was canceled even though it had been approved by the Cabinet.(IHT/Asahi: July 22,2007)

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