The Meji Restoration and the Samurai Class
In 1877, the now mythical Samurai Saigō Takamori led an army of disgruntled Samurai in southwestern Japan’s Kyūshū island and neighboring regions against the only a decade old Meji government. His ranks were filled with Samurai who had become aimless wanderers. Some Samurai had managed to become fundamental parts of the new Meji bureaucracy and army, but thousands of warriors lost their traditional status and the monetary benefits of the Edo period.
These men felt betrayed as their traditional dress and martial culture was replaced with the tight suits and centrally organized hierarchy imported from European armies. Takamori established a system of academies to train his army and update them on possible military tactics to combat the modern Meji armies. These schools were also ideological and carried on the individuality of past samurai culture and stressed the lost elite status of the Samurai. This rebellion and the social networks the schools spawned would ignite a string of events that changed Japanese society forever.
Samurai were abundant on Kyūshū island because of its location near the Korean peninsula and mainland Asia. It was also a significant region for vassal raising throughout the Edo period. These troops through Japanese history were dispatched for war abroad and domestic conflicts. Like the rest of Japan in 1877, the Samurai were still suffering from the nexus of crises that brought about the Meji Restoration. Natural disasters, rice shortages and war had shaken Japan for several years.
The last years of the Edo period brought about a time of extreme uncertainty in Japanese life. Intellectuals began to entertain new ways of thinking about Japan’s relationship to the modern world and its own society. It made the Samurai consider how they would exist in a world with telegrams, firearms, and factories. What would their role be? How would they maintain their dignity and how could they hope to survive this new international and modern style of war?
Kyūshū was the location where the medieval Mongol armies were set to land but were swept away in an epic storm. Now, hundreds of years later, an ambitious Rhode Island raised Jowly American Commodore named Matthew Perry recently forced Japanese ports to open with only a couple of ships after a 250-year policy of isolation. This was a deep assault on Japanese society as their world view was deeply disturbed. Japanese elites saw themselves as defenders of a culture that had been swept away in the rest of east Asia but now this role was under threat.
The Meji Restoration was therefore, imbued with themes of rapid modernization of civil institutions and military bodies. Japanese intellectuals began to import as many books as possible to “catch up” to the European powers. The Japanese were aware of the violent colonial fate that surrounded them. Places like Indonesia and Philippines became home to ungodly massive slave and indentured labor plantations run by the Dutch and Spanish. However, most shockingly to the Japanese psyche was the Opium Wars in China that destroyed and humiliated the once dignified and strong Qing Dynasty. Perry could be a sign of more trouble to come. Japanese elites did not want to be subject to the European colonial hammer. This added a certain intensity and paranoia to the new Japanese army, government, and the remnants of the Samurai whose frustrations boiled over into Takamori’s revolt.
All these changes left the Samurai class, especially in the southwest, behind. Takamori’s revolt had been crushed by the end of 1877 but his legendary status and ideals were affirmed in the culture of the post-Restoration Samurai class. The Samurai had made up part of a noble gentry in Edo Japan. Some were landlords, army officers and businessmen but all were paid a government stipend as part of a power sharing agreement. This was abolished during the Meji Restoration due to the high debt burdens of hyper modernization and developing industry. This impoverished some Samurai who may have grown up rich or heard stories of an affluent past. Samurai were also no longer allowed to bear arms or conduct violence with impunity. Takamori died on the battlefield in 1877, ironically shot with bullets from a European firearm. His legend would live on in the dark gambling houses of Kyūshū.
The Gambling Houses
The remnants of the Samurai rebellion retreated to Kyūshū where they took up a life of debauchery, drinking, gambling, and frequenting prostitutes. The gambling houses the Samurai inhabited were run by a subclass called the Bakuto, who werenative to Kyūshū. During the Edo period, these people were some of the lowest on the caste ladder. The Bakuto had a fluid relationship with another lower subclass, the Tekiya, who during the Edo Period had a reputation as shoddy merchants and scammers. Their Goods included pornography, alcohol, and rarities.
In traditional interpretations, these two criminal classes would go on to form the basis of the Yakuza, the largest organized crime syndicates in contemporary Japan. The name Yakuza comes from an old Japanese saying for a bad hand in a card game. Also present at these gambling houses were Japanese coal barons. Coal like in England, had become the fuel for industry in Japan and Kyūshū had some of the largest coal deposits and some of the first mines. This milieu of disgruntled Samurai, organized crime and resource extraction wealth would go on lead to the formation of a new organization that only seems possible in the unique context of modernization in Japan.
One of the degenerates that frequented these gambling houses was Tōyama Mitsuru. Mitsuru was born in 1855 to a poor Samurai family that had only gotten poorer as the Meji Restoration shook his family’s economic security. Mitsuru had come from a long line of Samurai and wanted to reclaim this glory. He was a student in Takamori’s schools and fought in his failed rebellion at just 22 years old. Mitsuru throughout the years after Takamori’s death began to make deeper connections with his former classmates that inhabited Kyūshū. Conversations over sake between these seemly vastly different demographics of businessmen, martial artist and criminals evolved into conspiratorial thinking and fantasy like dreams of domination.
In 1881 at 26, Mitsuru flashed his ambition and formed a group called Genyosha or the Black Ocean Society that was joined by many disgruntled Samurai and elements of organized crime throughout the following years. The founding of this society is shrouded in mystery, but they were extremely effective in their activities. The ideology was inspired by Mitsuru’s master Takamori, who was vocal about his desire to maintain a place for Samurai in modern Japanese society.
Japanese expansion and not the overthrow of the Meji government was seen as a patriotic and nationalist action to the Black Ocean Society. They had made their amends with the new government and proceeded to take up space in the power vacuums modernity presented. The Black Ocean refers to the strait in between Korea and Kyūshū. Takamori had been open about the idea that Korea was what he desired to invade first if he were still alive. It had been traditionally viewed as the entrance to mainland Asia for Japanese imperialist for hundreds of years
The Black Ocean Society’s relationship to the newly rich resource extraction business helped legitimize their ambitions. Through their time together playing Japanese gambling games, these businessmen had formed close relationships with the Samurai and organized crime. The Genyosha had broken strikes at coal mines and other industrial centers. They also had acted as a threat to ensure local politicians stay in the pocket of the growing Japanese conglomerates. The Black Ocean Society became known as fixers, or in Japanese kuromaku, in the political and economic landscape. If a politician or businessman needed a problem fixed, then the Genyosha would decide the level of violence applied, the price asked and the favors that would henceforth be owed. This grew their reputation and began to intertwine them in Japanese politics and the affairs of businesses beginning to expand their overseas holdings. Mitsuru would spend the 1880s playing go or practicing martial arts until someone came with a job for his group of upholders of the Samurai tradition.
Throughout the 1880’s the Genyosha established small cells abroad. These began in Shanghai where other colonial forces had established their own territory and administrative zones after the Opium Wars. These men were typically Tekiya andestablished stores of exotic eastern luxuries that were sold to European colonial officers and merchants. At the same time, they would help procure the most useful western goods. They established a network of renowned brothels in Shanghai where they set about building relationships with the leaders of the famed Chinese triads to enter the illicit drug market. Brothels were also a great means of espionage and growing business contacts among the Chinese elite. This helped Japanese firms and the Genyosha expand their knowledge base and coffers.
After some time in Shanghai, skilled intelligence gatherers were often sent deeper into China, central Asia, and southeast Asia. Their job was to create maps and further the knowledge of the Genyosha and their business partners. These men embraced the individuality of their work as spies traversing long distances. This quickly caught the eye of the Japanese state who paid for intelligence reports. It is important to remember Japan’s centuries old policy of isolation which had left their brain trust of international affairs practically empty. By chance of history, it fell to the former Samurai and the relationships they built to fulfill this extremely important task. Genyosha would typically travel in small groups of disguised merchants. They wanted to draw as little attention as possible. Their constant employment and successes quickly increased their skills in spy craft.
Genyosha and the Takeover of Korea
As the milieu of the Genyosha begin to grow wealthier and more powerful they set their eyes on their forefather’s dream, annexation of Korea. A decade earlier in 1876, Japan had forced Korea’s borders open and forced a treaty inspired by the one Commodore Perry made the Japanese sign. This opened Korean ports to Japan. America had tried earlier to open Korean ports in 1871 to no success. Genyosha crossed the Black Ocean again disguised as merchants and began intelligence activities on the peninsula. This involved the creation of detailed maps that accurately portrayed Korea’s complex mountain ranges. Japan had last tried to invade Korea in 1592 during the Imjin wars but this had failed dramatically as Japan was bogged down in skirmishes in the mountains. The same mistakes would not be made.
The last years of the centuries old Joseon Dynasty in Korea had been rocky to say the least. The caste system which had defined Joseon economic relations was breaking down in the face of expanding international trade and lacking domestic production. An outbreak of anti-Japanese sentiment had arisen among Koreans and Japanese military elements were perceived as taking advantage of Korea’s untouched domestic markets. Korea also had a network of independent revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of Joseon and Japanese influence, to the great pain of the Japanese.
Anti-Japanese sentiment provided a reason for the Japanese to increase troop deployments in southeast Busan and beyond. Black Ocean Society elements were experiencing success in mapping out and understanding the Korean peninsula and in 1894 involved themselves with the Donghak Peasant Revolt. Japan was able to pressure the Joseon government through agitation within the organically grown peasant’s revolt. At the same time, they were applying pressure through trade and diplomatic means. Japan in the short period since Perry’s landing had outclassed Korea in terms of martial and naval superiority. These types of covert strategies show the beginning of the Genyosha’s skillfulness in using ingenious tactics. These are strategies that grew out of elitism and detachment to human life, something the Genyosha knew all too well.
The Korean government requested Chinese assistance to combat this growing revolt but when Chinese troops landed in Incheon, they were crushed by the Japanese who were waiting for them. This brought a swift end to the first Sino-Japanese War. The treaty that ended the war involved China recognizing the full “autonomy” of Korea which ended China’s traditional defense pact with Korea. Japan would help Korea then crush the peasant’s Revolt as it was no longer useful to the deeper desires of Japanese foreign policy.
In 1895 just a year after the end of the revolt, the Korean Queen Min was killed by elements of the Japanese military with Genyosha ronin dealing the final swings of their katanas. This was the effective end of one of the longest lasting dynasties in world history and left Korea in the hands of the Japanese military. Korea would not have independent autonomy over their country for almost a hundred years. Japan would mold its hold over Korea in the coming decades to act as a base for imperial ventures into China, Asia and the pacific.
Japanese industry quickly established a network of extremely profitable hellish factories, mines, and sex trafficking routes. It also created a class of high-ranking Japanese administrators and their families who would rule over Korea until the end of World War 2. Takamori’s dream of dominance over Korea was now complete. Mitsuru had established himself as a key figure in Japanese politics as he helped deliver the first jewel of the coming Japanese Empire. It was also a great place for the Genyosha to recruit as Japanese who raised their received an ultra nationalist education that centered Japanese superiority over the Korean majority.