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Japanese Historical Figures (3) - Enomoto Takeaki

Name : Enomoto Takeaki (榎本武揚)
Life : 1836-1908. Final period of Edo Era (江戸時代, circa 1602-1868) to Meiji Era (明治時代, 1868-1912)
Birthplace : Edo (江戸), modern Tokyo

The life of Enomoto Takeaki has two stages: a young captain of old Tokugawa Shogun government’s navy, and a tactful diplomat and politician of new Meiji government.

Takeaki was born in a family of a hatamoto (旗本, middle-rank vassal of Tokugawa Shogun). His father Enbe-e (円兵衛) was said to be good at mathematics. Enbe-e was a disciple of famous land surveyor Ino Tadataka (伊能忠敬), and traveled northern Japan to make a total map of Japan. Takeaki also showed a talent of acquiring western sciences, that were rapidly imported to Japan in his younger days. In his teenage he learned both Chinese classics and English language at schools in Edo. At age 19 he was appointed to an attendant of the chief administrator of Ezo-chi (蝦夷地), modern Hokkaido and surrounding areas, that was still unsettled territories between Japan and Russia. At age 22 he joined Nagasaki Navy School (長崎海軍伝習所), the first navy school in Japanese history. There he learned mechanics of steam engines, navigation technique, and chemistry. Teachers of the school Van Kattendijke and Pompe van Meerdervoort, both of whom were of Netherlands (Netherlands were long the sole western country that had a tie with Edo Era’s Japan), appreciated Takeaki for his diligence.

At age 27 Takeaki and his colleagues were sent to Netherlands to learn western sciences more. It was in year 1862. Japan was in turmoil inside by battles between Shogun government and anti-Shogun government groups, and outside by western powers’ demands to open the country more. In Netherlands Takeaki learned international laws along with technologies. He and his colleagues got back to Japan in 1867 boarding on Kaiyomaru (開陽丸), a battleship that was just built in Netherlands for Shogun government. He was designated as the captain of this new battleship.

But as soon as he returned home Shogun government collapsed. Meiji Restroration began, and Shogun government lost battles against new Meiji government with the Emperor of Japan as its head. Last Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川慶喜) loathed to make himself an enemy of the Emperor, and rejected to continue fighting. Shogun government surrendered, and Edo, the capital of Shogun government, was ceded to the Meiji government. But Takeaki decided not to obey the order. In 1868 he drove Kaiyomaru and ran away from Edo to the northern Japan with his followers (by then he had been raised further to vice-president of Shogun’s navy). He occupied Hokkaido and set a de-fact government in Hakodate (函館). He was elected as the president of it, and told Meiji government in Tokyo (renamed from Edo in 1868) that his intention was to give Shogun government’s vassals a new frontier to live. But Meiji government didn’t hear him and dispatched army and navy to Hokkaido. Takeaki resisted against them, but finally Hakodate fell in 1869. Before he decided to kill himself, Takeaki asked one of his men to hand a book to Meiji government. It was a textbook for international laws written in French language and commented by Takeaki’s teacher in his days in Netherlands, that he brought back to Japan. He thought it must be crucially important knowledge for Japan because there was almost no one in Japan who knew international laws fully. But this book spared his life.

Kuroda Kiyotaka (黒田清隆) was in charge of the staff officer in Meiji government’s army when it fell Hakodate. When he was handed Takeaki’s book, he realized that his knowledge was necessary for Japan’s future. Takeaki failed to commit suicide and surrendered to Meiji government. Kiyotaka made a full effort to spare Takeaki’s life while he was in prison. Fukuzawa Yukichi (福沢諭吉), famous enlightment philosopher in Meiji Era, was said to also acknowledge that Takeaki’s knowledge was necessary when he was forwarded Takeaki’s book from Kiyotaka. Takeaki was released in 1872. After that time Takeaki and Kiyotaka got close friends for life.

Kiyotaka was of State of Satsuma, modern Kagoshima Prefecture, from where many politicians and officials occupied Meiji government. Kiyotaka became one of the most important figures of Satsuma-born politicians. He used Takeaki in the government for a variety of tasks such as an official to pioneer Hokkaido and so on, but in his appointed tasks the most important was diplomatic ones. In 1874 Takeaki was appointed to an envoy (ambassador plenipotentiary) to Russia. His main task was to make a treaty to settle the border between Japan and its northern counterpart. He went to St. Petersburg and got a hard negotiation there. But in a letter he wrote to his wife in Japan, he told her about his business in Russia as:

(English translation: "The deals of that I’m in charge are quite big, but I think them not difficult, contrary to commoners’ belief, because they are all done by human beings.")

Finally he could conclude a treaty with Russia about the border. It was in 1875. He knew international laws deeply and understood how power, justice, and negotiation could work in international society. Even after he ended his negotiation, he didn’t think his task was over. He went back to Japan through traveling Siberia in a long way in order to take out as much information of Russia as possible for his home country, that he thought was also a task for an ambassador. He is now respected as one of the best diplomats in Japanese modern history.

He was appointed to a number of ambassadors and ministers in Meiji government after then, and died in 1908. When he got an important figure in Meiji government later, Fukuzawa Yukichi criticized Takeaki saying he once fought for Shogun’s government and drove many of his men dead, but now he was happy to enjoy a high profile in his enemy’s government, whose morality wasn’t worth to get respected. Old Takeaki didn’t seem to send a clear rebuttal against his criticism.

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