The Meiji Restoration

The Karate Tapestry – Part 5

The Meiji Restoration 

By Robert Hunt


Tokugawa Ieyasu was a great man. In the 15th century, Japan was a divided island, ruled, in name, by an Emperor, but buffeted by a mélange of major and minor warlords all vying for power and always at war. The Samurai, who fought the battles, thrived. In 1600, it all changed with a battle at a place called Sekigahara. After much death, trickery and treachery, Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victor, dubbed himself Shogun and initiated a dynasty, a Shogunate, that lasted 268 years. Power now lay in the hands of the Shogun, not the Emperor.

So what? Why do you and I care?

Here’s why.

Tokugawa was wise in the ways of the human spirit and the Japanese heart. The Satsuma clan was part of the losing side and Tokugawa knew that nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven in Japan. The Satsuma, headed by a warlord named Shimazu, controlled the southern section of Japan and Tokugawa knew they would inevitably be back for vengeance (see below.) In order to keep Shimazu occupied, Tokugawa allowed him to conquer whatever stood in his way this side of China. A doomed Okinawa lay 90 miles off the southern coast.

In 1609, Shimazu sent his seasoned, vengeful army to “conquer” Okinawa, which, since Okinawa had no army, took something like a long weekend. The Satsuma were as brutal as Genghis Khan and the Okinawans suffered for most of those 268 years. It can be argued that the Satsuma occupation of the Okinawan Kingdom gave birth to the karate we know. Shimazu outlawed bladed weapons and subjugated Okinawa to a host of indignities. Death awaited anyone caught practicing a martial art and death at the hands of the Japanese could take a lifetime. Karate went underground and, as many underground activities often do, it flourished.

The Okinawans hid their art from the Satsuma, but there was never any threat to the Japanese occupation from a handful of karate masters. No one thought a country the size of Rhode Island could ever drive out the Japanese Empire and I don’t believe the Japanese were ever worried about it either. But the Japanese of the day were not nice people and enforced the subjugation with alacrity. I think that the larger reason the Okinawans hid their art was that they just didn’t want foreigners, especially the occupiers, to learn it. There are still Okinawans who don’t think karate should be taught to outsiders and that the karate practiced in Japan is only a shadow of the real thing. There are a lot of Japanese who believe that last part, too and travel to Okinawa to drink from the source. Tokugawa and his descendents ruled Japan for almost three hundred years. Ironically it was the United States military that planted the seeds of its demise.

When Tokugawa took over in 1600, he sealed Japan’s borders to outsiders. In 1853 Commodore Perry lead an expedition to “open up” Japan to trade. Five years later he came away with a treaty and the course of Japanese history veered off like a gazelle with a famished lion on its tail. After seeing Commodore Perry’s gun boats and modern weaponry, some in Japan realized how far behind their isolationism had left them. After a civil war, Japan was eventually reborn into the modern world and it wasn’t long before businessmen were wearing western suits and ties and speaking English, French and German. It wasn’t an easy birth however, more like a caesarian, the new world ripped from the womb of the old with guns and swords. If you have seen the movie “The Last Samurai”, and I will be very surprised if you haven’t, you will have seen a fairly entertaining dramatization of the period. Although a fiction based on real characters, the movie touched on the major players of the era; 1) business interests looking to move Japan to parity with the western world; 2) a weak and feckless emperor Meiji, controlled, as most Japanese emperors have been, by powerful men with agendas and; 3) a gaggle of Samurai lead forces that didn’t want to jeopardize their demi-god status as arrogant, worshipped executioners.

The stalwart Samurai leader in the film (who miraculously spoke English better than my uncle Fred) was based on a real life character named Takamori Saigo, a throwback nationalist who wanted to maintain Samurai privileges. But Takamori wasn’t just trying to beat back the modern world’s relentless tide. Takamori was Satsuma, (see above), and saw an opportunity for revenge. (Nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven in Japan.) It would be like the Daughters of the American Revolution taking vengeance on the descendents of crazy King George. By that time, the Tokugawa were already gone and Takamori (called Katsumoto in the film) realized, too late, that he was the last dinosaur. Hence the fuss. He did lead a bunch of Samurai into battle, by the way and committed suicide on the battlefield. The Japanese civil war that ended the Tokugawa Shogunate was called the Boshin war. The forces who pursued the war insisted they were wresting power for the Meiji (Enlightened) emperor from the dastardly Tokugawa. They even had the marketing epiphany to call it the “Meiji Restoration“, as if they were actually doing something noble. But poor emperor Meiji never had a chance and never called the shots. Money called the shots.

Here is what the Restoration did, however, for you and me.

With no more sword fights around, the Japanese turned their blades into cash and began to teach sword fighting (Kendo) for the ostensible sake of learning a new “way”. Other Japanese martial arts, Jiujutsu for example, followed and in the 1880’s, Jigoro Kano turned Jiujutsu into Judo (the “soft art” into the “soft way”.) The idea wasn’t lost on Okinawan karate masters. Not long after, Itosu Ankoh decided that “karate” could become “karate-do” and be taught to kids in school to build better citizens. The Meiji Restoration wasn’t really the catalyst for martial arts becoming martial ways. The entire western and much of the eastern world was enjoying a rebirth. By 1900, karate as a fighting art was mostly over and karate as physical training, philosophical pursuit, and arcane hobby well on its way. But fin de siècle students had the opportunity to study it with real karate warriors. Imagine if you had the chance to study gun fighting with Wyatt Earp. That’s what was going on in Okinawa after 1900.

Japan has been ruled by warlords guiding emperors to doom for centuries. As recently as 1936, Tojo lead Japan and emperor Hirohito into the Second World War and ultimate disgrace.

Tokugawa didn’t. He ushered Japan into a new and better era. The 268 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate was a time of peace (although full of much intrigue and fodder for endless chambata films.) The Samurai who so depended on serving warring warlords for their sustenance, found themselves out of work. Many took to wondering the countryside as ronin or masterless Samurai. Now for one more movie plug. There is a Japanese film about the era and the time leading up to the Boshin War, when the various elements were scheming. It is called “Twilight Samurai” and stars Hiroyuki Sanada, the tough, long haired warrior, Ujio, who beat Tom Cruise’s butt in “The Last Samurai.” This movie, based on a short story written by Shuhei Fujisawa called “The Bamboo Sword”, does a better job of depicting the era – Samurai accountants surprised when someone in their midst can actually handle a sword.

Not long after the Meiji Restoration, down in Okinawa, karate began its journey to international household word, driven by the likes of Itosu and Higaonna. Like Jiujutsu before it, the “Art of Karate” became the “Way of Karate” and wormed its way into your life and mine. At least one author titled his historical fiction novel “The Art and the Way” because of it. (Ahem.) Okinawa entered a time of national conflict that continues even today. Japan had been the evil demon for so long that much of the country wanted nothing to do with it and rebuked every attempt to Japan-ize Okinawa. Some, however, Itosu and his student Funakoshi for two, craved acceptance by Japan and the Japanese Budo fraternity. They saw their future as Japanese, not as islanders under the domination an empire.

The story of Okinawa winds its way through the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Satsuma occupation and the Meiji Restoration like the Mississippi river winds through New Orleans and adds another hue to the ever evolving tapestry of karate.

Meiji era SamuraiMeiji era Samurai