FAMILY NURTURED LEGENDARY PATRIOT SHOIN YOSHIDA
On a recent lecture trip to Yamaguchi Prefecture, I came across a rare copy of The Thought and Life of Shoin Yoshida, which I found deeply moving. Published by a local bank in 1969 as part of its employee education program, the 256-page book is a compilation of six lectures given by the late Toshio Kumura, a renowned expert on the legendary educator/philosopher regarded as a spiritual leader of the Meiji Restoration. Shoin was executed in 1859 at age 29 for having been involved in a failed plot to assassinate a senior shogunate official over the unfair terms of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce Japan had been compelled to sign with the US.
As is generally known, Shoin taught only two and a half years at Shokason-juku, a private school he ran in his native Hagi in the Choshu domain (now Yamaguchi Prefecture), attracting some 60 aspiring young men of various social classes. Shoin died a decade before the Restoration, but the young patriots he taught went on to play important roles in reshaping Japan, ending the 260-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. Among those with a samurai background were Shinsaku Takasugi, who secretly traveled to Shanghai under domain orders in 1862 to investigate the state of affairs in China and the strength of the Western powers; Issei Maehara, who was decapitated following the Hagi Rebellion by radical Choshu reform activists; and Akiyoshi Yamada, who served as Justice Minister 1885-88.
Shoin’s students with a common soldier background also contributed significantly to the reversion to imperial rule. They included Eitaro Yoshida, who committed suicide by disembowelment at the Choshu clan residence in Kyoto which he barely managed to reach on his own after being seriously wounded in the famous “Ikedaya Incident” in the old Japanese capital on July 8, 1864; Sugizo Irie, killed during the Kinmon Rebellion by Choshu reformists against the shogunate in 1864; Hirobumi Ito, who became Japan’s first prime minister; Aritomo Yamagata, who served as Chief of Staff of the Emperor’s army; Yajiro Shinagawa, who served as Home Minister; and Yasushi Nomura, who was posted in France as minister at the Japanese embassy in Paris in 1891.
Among those with neither background was Shodo Matsuura, a fishmonger’s son who is known to have painted the existing portrait of Shoin sitting upright.
As an aside, Shoin’s first student was Tokumin Mashino, a doctor’s son. His second student was Eitaro Yoshida, who lived next door to the family of Yurinosuke Sugi, Shoin’s real father who had given him up for adoption by the Yoshida family. Following the adoption, however, Shoin continued to live in his parents’ home. Matsuura the painter was Shoin’s third student.
Kumura discusses the significance of Shoin’s choice of his first three students: they were sons of a doctor, a foot soldier, and a fishmonger—extraordinary in light of the traditional norms. A class system comprising warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants was rigidly established in Japan then, requiring sons of warriors to study at prestigious domain-administered schools, with sons of the common people entering private elementary schools. The Choshu domain had its own school for warriors’ children, called Meirin-kan.
In total disregard of class background, Shoin treated every student equally. His posture reminds one of the spirit of the Imperial Oath of Five Articles declared on April 4, 1868 at the birth of the Meiji government: “Deliberative assemblies shall be established on an extensive scale, and all governmental matters shall be determined by public discussion. All classes, high and low, shall unite to carry out vigorously the plan of government.”
It was the fundamental principle that permeated the Meiji Restoration. Born in 1830 and executed in 1859, Shoin died a decade before the Restoration. But he was ahead of his time, practicing what he preached as he spurred his promising young students on to remaking Japan.
Why So Many Leaders from Shoin’s School?
Well over 20 of his 60 students have left their names in history. Does this mean exceptionally talented people happened to be born in large numbers in his village? I don’t think so. As Kumura points out, there would have been people across Japan who could have developed their potential if they had been lucky enough to happen across a great teacher. In other words, Shoin was a born mentor. But where did that ability come from? Above all else, Kumura points to Shoin’s family.
Shoin strongly desired to win passage to America aboard Commodore Matthew Perry’s flagship USS Powhatan, one of the four black ships he brought to Japan in 1853 to force open Japanese ports. From Hagi, Shoin traveled with a disciple to the port of Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture, where Perry’s ships were anchored. The duo hid in a cave, waiting for the right moment to reach Perry’s ship on a small fishing boat. On April 24, 1854, they managed to climb onto the flagship, but failed in their attempt to meet Perry or get his consent. A downhearted Shoin turned himself in to the authorities, confessing that he had attempted to stow away to America against the shogunate’s ban on foreign travel. He was arrested and sent back to Hagi six months later to be handed over to his father Yurinosuke, who served as the chief of Hagi police then.
To make a long story short, Shoin was thrown into the Noyama-goku prison in Hagi along with 11 young samurai. There he spent his time absorbed in books. “When he was deeply moved, he couldn’t keep back his tears,” writes Kumura. “When he got agitated, he opened his eyes widely and read out a passage aloud in a harsh and corrosive tone, or he would slap his thigh and read in an animated voice when he was delighted.” His inmates saw the son of the police chief least despondent despite being in jail, totally immersed in reading and having a grand time instead. Inspired by Shoin, the inmates proposed that Shoin host roundtable talks.
Asked why he was so happily immersed in reading when there appeared no hope of ever being released, Shoin replied: “Confucius says that if a man hears the Way in the morning, he may die in the evening without regret.” He explained that if he had only another day to live, the most important thing for him was to learn the way of life. Even if he could hardly expect to be released, he went on, he could still choose to die by deciding to stray from—or keep to—the path of righteousness. It all depended on how one made up his mind, Kumura quotes Shoin as stressing.
Impressed by Shoin’s personality and immense intellect, the prison chief changed strict rules, allowing him to light a fire for reading in the dark and use brushes, ink, and paper as much as he pleased. And then one day, he asked Shoin to take him under his wing as a disciple.
Obviously, it was Shoin’s personality and wisdom that enabled him to change his otherwise drab prison life. In this episode one realizes how his uniquely independent character enabled him to uphold his principles under trying circumstances and refuse to be put down by what he saw as petty surroundings. But one should not overlook the forces that supported him from behind. Kumura explains that it was the caliber and tradition of his family that nurtured him.
Enviable Family Culture
An ordinary father would certainly have called him to task. After all, he was a police chief and his son was thrown into jail after having been punished for attempting a stowaway—an act stringently banned by state law during the days of Japan’s national isolation under the shogunate. But in point of fact none of his family was angry—not his parents or his brother, or sister, or uncle. Everyone backed him wholeheartedly.
Noyama-sangoku Dokushoki—the record of the books Shoin read during the years he spent in prison (October 1854-April 1857)—shows that he read an average of 40 books a month for a total of 1,460 books over two and a half years.
Most of these books were acquired by his brother Umetaro, who regularly made the rounds of bibliophiles in neighboring villages and towns. He would also often order copies of precious books made in Edo (Tokyo) and have them shipped to Hagi. It was a lot of work to provide the books Shoin desired one after another, he later admitted.
Not only that. When Shoin was finally released to rejoin his family, his father, brother, and uncle asked him to take them on as disciples. Shoin agreed and started lecturing on current affairs, politics, life, education, and other subjects—an extension of the roundtable talks he had held with the 11 inmates. His new lectures led to his masterpiece Komo Yowa—a compilation of talks he gave at home on the thought of Mencius.
In addition to Mencius, Shoin and his family read important other important works such as Keizai Yoroku (“The Epitome of Economics”) by the Edo philosopher Nobuhiro Sato; Shinron (“A New Thesis”) on national defense by Seishisan Aizawa: and Nihon Gaishi (“An Unofficial History of Japan”) by historian Sanyo Rai. All his family did their utmost to take care of Shoin, who for a long period was under house arrest with strict orders to not leave home. It is said that mother, sister and other female members of the Sugi family even set up a women’s book club with Shoin at the center.
Shoin had an enviable family. Kumura gives special credit to his father. Families nurture great souls. It was Shoin’s loving family that fostered his rich personality, with which he was able to objectively take note of the human qualities of individuals without being influenced by their status or wealth. The Thought and Life of Shoin Yoshida brought home to me a message, loud and clear, that his family’s traditional values immeasurably influenced Shoin during his 29 short but laudable years on earth.
（Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 981 in the December 30, 2021-January 6, 2022 combined issue of The Weekly Shincho）