Born into a samurai family from Choshu (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture) in 1848, Katsura Tarō (桂太郎, 1848-1913) fought along his clansmen during the Bakumatsu period. He was quickly recognised by Yamagata Aritomo, who later assisted his political rise.

Katsura was sent twice to Germany (1870-73 and 1884) to study military strategy. He served as military attache to the Japanese embassy in Germany from 1875 to 1878. In 1886, he became vice-minister of war. He led the Japanese troops to victory during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and, in 1896, was appointed governor-general of Taiwan. Katsura served as war minister between 1898 and 1901, then as prime minister between 1901 and 1906). During his tenure, he signed the Anglo-Japanese alliance and received recognition by Britain of Japan’s control over Korea, following the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

Katsura had to resign in 1906 in favour of Prince Saionji due to public dissatisfaction over the Treaty of Portsmouth which settled the Russo-Japanese War but gave Japan less than what the public expected.

He served a second term as prime minister from 1908 to 1911 and oversaw the annexation of Korea after Itō Hirobumi‘s assassination in 1909. After his resignation, he became a kōshaku (公爵, prince), Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal of Japan and one of the genrō (元老, retired elder Japanese statesmen), the “founding fathers” of modern Japan. Just after Saionji entered his second term as premier, he was forced to resign over a military crisis, and Katsura commenced his third term. However, the major parliamentary parties united in opposition and stirred public anger in what was seen as a political manipulation by the genrō. Katsura faced to a non-confidence vote, turned to the emperor for help but was eventually forced to withdraw in February 1913. Soon afterwards, he died of stomach cancer.

Katsura Tarō keeps the distinction of being the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, almost twelve years in total.

References:
  • Beasley, W. G.; Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 (Clarendon Paperbacks), Oxford University Press 1991
  • Irokawa, Daikichi; The Culture of the Meiji Period, Princeton 1988
  • Jansen, Marius B.; The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge 2002
  • Lone, Stuart; Army, Empire, and Politics in Meiji Japan: The Three Careers of General Katsura Taro, Palgrave Macmillan 2000
  • Swayle, Alistair; The Meiji Restoration: Monarchism, Mass Communication and Conservative Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan 2009
Gallery:

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Katsura Tarō (Photo credit)

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Katsura Tarō as a young samurai (Photo credit)