Yamagata Aritomo (山県有朋, 1838-1922) was one of the seven members of the genrō, the group of senior statesmen who shaped modern Japan in and after the Meiji period. He is considered the father of the modern Japanese army and served twice as prime minister. His authoritarian views and autarchic policies paved the road into Japan’s militarism and its role in World War II.

He was born into a lower-ranked samurai family from Hagi, the capital of Choshu (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture) and supported the Meiji Restoration, serving as a staff officer during the conflict with the bakufu. Yamagata initially shared the views of the “Sonno Joi” (尊皇攘夷, lit. “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”) movement. However, he realised that Japan needed to adopt Western technologies after Western ships bombarded Chōshū in 1864.

In 1869, he was a member of the Japanese delegation sent to study military science in Europe and was strongly impressed not only by the Prussian army but also by Prussia’s transformation into a modern industrial state. It is said that his journey to Europe instilled him with his authoritarian ideas and expansionist aspirations.

In 1873, Yamagata was appointed War Minister, commanding 10,000 troops. He introduced the Prussian conscription model, modernised the army and ended the samurai privilege to bear weapons. As War Minister he founded the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff, serving as its commander for many years. His forces defeated Saigō Takamori‘s rebellion in 1877. He was awarded the rank of Field Marshall in 1898 and played vital roles in the first Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

Yamagata also held various government positions, such as president of the Board of Legislation, Home Minister, Lord Chancellor, became Japan’s third Prime Minister between 1889 and 1891 and served as President of the Privy Council until 1922 when he died. Being a staunch conservative and militarist, Yamagata always distrusted democratic institutions and often came to blows with Ito Hirobumi over political issues. He retired from active politics after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, but as a genrō exerted his political influence through his protégé Katsura Taro, having the final say on who was to be selected Japanese Prime Minister.

He received the title of kōshaku (公爵, prince) under the kazoku system in 1907. He took a keen interest in garden and landscape design. Many of the traditional gardens he designed still exist, the most famous of which is the park of the Villa Murin-an (無鄰菴) in Higashiyama, Kyōto.

References:
  • Beasley, W. G.; Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 (Clarendon Paperbacks), Oxford University Press 1991
  • Calman, Donald; The Nature and Origins of Japanese Imperialism: A Re-interpretation of the 1873 Crisis, Routledge 1992
  • 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, Palgrave Macmillan 2000
  • Swale, Alistair; The Meiji Restoration: Monarchism, Mass Communication and Conservative Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan 2009
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Yamagata Aritomo (Photo credit)

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Statue of Yamagata Aritomo in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Photo credit)