Satsuma Contributions to Meiji Modernization

One of my favorite times in Japanese history is the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when Japan re-opened itself to the world and rapidly modernized. Inevitably it was a time of turmoil. There was substantial economic and social upheaval as Japan industrialized and the rigid structures of shogunal Japan were abandoned.

Satsuma Domain (now known as Kagoshima), is one of the regions of Japan instrumental in bringing about the end of the Tokugawa shogunate that had governed Japan from 1603 to 1868. A number of Meiji Period leaders were also from Satsuma. I recently had a chance to learn more about the Satsuma role when I visited the Kagoshima City Museum of Meiji Restoration.

Located on the banks of the Kotsuki River in a neighborhood once occupied by samurai families, the museum highlights the substantial contributions to modernization made by Satsuma people. Download an app or borrow a tablet to get detailed explanations of each exhibit in English (Chinese and Korean are also options).

IMG_9294One aspect I found particular refreshing was the substantial display on Meiji Period women of Satsuma. Ranging from Shimazu Atsuko (1836-1883), who became known as Atsuhime (Princess Atsu) when she was married to Tokugawa Iesada (the 13th Tokugawa shogun), to Togo Masuko (1812-1901), mother of Navy Admiral Togo Heihachiro, whose battle strategies helped Japan defeat the Russians in 1905, and Nogi Shizuko (1859-1912), wife of General Nogi Maresuke. As with most of the rest of the world, women are often invisible in history and I was glad to see the museum highlighting these historical characters, even if their lives were predominately dedicated to the traditional roles of wife and mother.

There was also a small display on Meiji Period “daughters of Satsuma” who chose to have careers outside the home, including the Florence Nightingale-like Machida Eiko (1851-1933), a war-time nurse during both the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and instrumental in the establishment of the Japanese Red Cross, and Tange Umeko (1873-1955), a chemist/nutritionist who earned doctorates from both Johns Hopkins University and Tokyo Imperial University and went on to teach at Nihon Women’s University.

Even during the Tokugawa Period the Satsuma Domain was responsible for Japan’s relationship with Okinawa and generally had a more international outlook than most other parts of Japan. It stands to reason, then, that the people in Satsuma would recognize earlier than most that the shogunate was moribund and could not withstand Western encroachment.

Indeed, one of Japan’s first naval vessels, the Shohei Maru, was built in Kagoshima by Shimazu Nariakira (1809-1858) in 1853-54 in response to the 1853 visit to Japan of Admiral Matthew Perry’s black ships. There is a scale model in the museum, showing the three-masted wooden frigate, with five cannon on either side. The original was 31 meters long and is believed to be the first vessel to fly the red and white Hinomaru (rising sun) flag that later became the national flag of Japan.

Other displays nearby explain how Kagoshima absorbed other Western influences, including clothing and uniforms. The stories of various Satsuma people and their roles in the political upheaval at the end of the shogunate and in the early modernization efforts are so plentiful that they seem to be an endless source of TV drama material, as is shown with an entire corner of the museum dedicated to those programs.

One of Satsuma’s most famous sons is Saigo Takamori (1828-1877), the legendary giant who led Imperial troops to victory over Tokugawa troops during the Boshin War of 1868-69 and negotiated for the surrender of Edo Castle (now Tokyo’s Imperial Palace). A few years later, disappointed with the direction taken by the new Meiji government, Saigo became a leader in the Satsuma Rebellion–a rising against the Imperial government by disillusioned former samurai–which ended with his death. He is often referred to as Japan’s last great samurai.

The museum makes it clear that Saigo was certainly not the last great man of Satsuma, as there are detailed exhibits on many other Japanese leaders to emerge from Satsuma, as well as displays of various items of use by samurai, noble ladies and other 19th century luminaries. The amount of detailed material in this part of the museum will make you thankful to have the app.

In the central area of the museum’s main floor is an interactive display, principally for children (and other big kids), focusing on samurai education and training, presenting the notion that it was the values inculcated by such education and training that produced men who could become such great regional and national leaders.

On the museum’s lower level there are a number of displays on how Satsuma/Kagoshima embraced Meiji-era industrial technology, especially machinery and weaponry.

There is also a roomful of dioramas depicting various forms of modernization and technological adoption undertaken during the Meiji Period as well as a theatre with different shows at different times of day. One show features animated mannequins, including one of Saigo Takamori, telling the story of Satsuma’s contribution to Japan’s modernization. Other shows are documentaries and dramatizations, including one about several young Satsuma men who were smuggled out of Japan in the mid-1850s, when it was still illegal to leave the country, to study in the West and acquire knowledge to enable Japan to hold its own against Western powers.

The museum is open daily, 9:00-17:00. Admission is JPY300 for adults and JPY150 for children.

Be sure to explore the neighborhood near the museum as well. The museum sits in the middle of a riverside park that also contains the restored home of a low-level samurai, a relatively simple accommodation.

A nearby mapboard shows the locations of other sites in the neighborhood associated with various historical figures, many whom you got to know at the museum. Even today, with so many modern buildings around, Sakurajima, the active volcano that is a symbol of Kagoshima, can be seen from here. This was surely prime real estate back in the day.

Another dozen meters downriver and across the lane is a small park marking the birthplace of Saigo Takamori, with an igloo-like stone marker erected in his memory by his younger brother, Saigo Tsugumichi (1843-1902), who, after Takamori’s death, went on to serve in several government ministerial posts, another loyal son of Satsuma.

The Meiji Period was a truly amazing time for Japan. There was so much going on in the country and I’m glad for places like this where I can learn more.

© 2021 and Vicki L. Beyer
We’re thrilled if you share this; if you want to re-use in any other way, please request permission.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s