Chōshū han (Image: Japan Reference/JREF)
Chōshū (長州藩) was a feudal daimyō domain located in modern-day Yamaguchi prefecture, at the Western tip of Honshū. It was also known as Nagato no kuni (長門国, Nagato Province). While Shimonoseki (下関市) was its ancient capital, Hagi (萩) used to be the seat of the Chōshū fief, ruled over by the Mōri clan in the Edo period.

Mōri Motonari was a powerful warlord in the period of the Warring States (戦国時代, Sengoku) and was able to extend his control over vast territories in the Chūgoku region (中国地方, the present-day prefectures of Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori and Yamaguchi. Due to a series of erroneous strategic decision and treason, his grandson, daimyō Mōri Terumoto was removed from his ancestral home in Aki (安芸). After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu slashed the land holdings of the Mōri clan to roughly a quarter of their former domain. As a result of what was subsequently seen as a great act of betrayal on behalf of the shogunate, Chōshū had been harbouring strong anti-Tokugawa sentiments ever since.

Legend has it that every year, the fief’s elders would convene in a New-Year gathering and ask the daimyō:

Has the time for the overthrow of the [Tokugawa] shogunate finally come?” 「今年は倒幕の機はいかに」

To which the clan leader would reply:

“No, not yet!” 「時期尚早」.

In 1866 however, the samurai from Chōshū allied with the Satsuma domain and Kyoto court nobility to confront the bakufu in the Boshin War, triggering the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. The military forces of Chōshū and Satsuma formed the core of what would become the Imperial Japanese Army. Famous samurai from Chōshū who went on to become Meiji statesmen include Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata Aritomo, Inoue Kaoru and Katsura Taro.

The Choshu Five


The Chōshū Five (長州五傑, chōshū goketsu)

The Chōshū Five (長州五傑, chōshū goketsu) were members of the ruling class in the Chōshū domain who in 1862 left Japan illegally to study sciences at University College London under the guidance of Professor Alexander William Williamson. They were disguised as English sailors and brought to Shanghai, from where they travelled to London. The five comprised Ito Shunsuke (later known as Ito Hirobumi), Inoue Monta (later known as Inoue Kaoru, Nomura Yakichi (later Inoue Masaru), Endō Kinsuke and Yamao Yōzō. Inoue and Itō returned to Japan earlier, as they had learned that the Chōshū clan was in danger of attack by the allied powers for trying to close the Straits of Shimonoseki to foreign shipping.


The family crest of the Mōri clan

Recommended reading:


Craig, Albert M., Chōshū in the Meiji Restoration (click to open)

When Commodore Perry arrived in Japan to open the country to Western trade in 1853, he found a medieval amalgam of sword-bearing samurai, castle towns, Confucian academies, peasant villages, rice paddies, upstart merchants, bathhouses, and Kabuki. Fifteen years later, Japan was on its way to becoming the only non-Western nation in the nineteenth century with a modern centralised bureaucratic state and industrial economy. This book is a study of the Meiji Restoration that changed the face of Japan. Prominent historian Albert M. Craig tells its story through that of the domain of Choshu whose role in the formation of modern Japan was not unlike that of Prussia in Germany during the fifteen crucial years between 1853 and 1868. Previous studies have stressed the role of the discontented lower samurai and frustrated merchants and peasants in this transition and claim that they provided the motive power behind the political movements of the Restoration period. This work, however, sharply challenges these earlier interpretations. Craig emphasizes the vitality of traditional values in Japan's early reaction to the West and foregrounds the critical contribution of the old society to the formation of the new Meiji state. Choshu in the Meiji Restoration is a seminal work for scholars and students of Japanese history. (Amazon)