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 soon became war minister (1898-1901), then prime minister (1901-1906), during which term he signed the Anglo-Japanese alliance, then got 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 settling the Russo-Japanese War but giving Japan little compared to the public’s expectations.

He served a second term 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, but was eventually forced to withdraw in February 1913. He died soon afterwards 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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A young Katsura Tarō as a samurai (Photo credit)