Trip through time: Samurai's travel improved homeland

Trip through time: Samurai's travel improved homeland
The Bund in the heart of Shanghai. Many tourists visit the streets lined with Western-style stone architecture.

The Bund is a tourist area of Shanghai where the streets are lined with old stone buildings in a Western style. With the high-rise Shanghai Tower (632 meters) that looms across the Huangpu River nearing completion, the Bund appears to be a reflection of the times.

In the early summer of 1862, a young man from Japan set foot in the Bund. That youngster was Takasugi Shinsaku from the Choshu domain (now Yamaguchi Prefecture) who would later go on to establish the Kiheitai volunteer militia.

"There are merchant ships and thousands of battleships from Europe anchored here. The boat slips are filled with masts," Takasugi wrote in his diary upon his arrival in the city.

The Western-style architecture that was already seen throughout the Bund was described by Takasugi as being "beyond description." It seems that he was completely stunned by the prosperity in Shanghai.

The Qing dynasty, which had been defeated by Britain in the Opium War, signed the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 and opened up the port of Shanghai.

The British, who had been eyeing the area along the Huangpu River, established a settlement there in 1845 after negotiations with the Qing dynasty. That area eventually developed into the Bund. What Takasugi witnessed was the city only 17 years after the British settlement's establishment.

Takasugi had managed to become a part of the delegation sent by the Edo shogunate to accompany a vassal of the shogun. The shogun's sailboat, Chitose Maru, was believed to be anchored in front of the Dutch Consulate at the Bund's southern tip. The delegates stayed at the inn next to the consulate.

A castle about five kilometers in circumference once stood only a five-minute walk from the inn. Behind the castle walls the old city of Shanghai was to be found, while the British and French settlements lay outside. Takasugi went back and forth numerous times, passing through the city gates.

The castle was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century, and today a beltway runs on its former grounds.

Back then, the difference between the inside and the outside of the castle walls was dramatic.

"The inside was less advanced, dark and poor, whereas the Shanghai settlement was modern, developed and prosperous," said Prof. Chen Zuen, who teaches the modern history of Shanghai at National Donghua University. "There was a great contrast in living conditions inside and outside the walls."

Although Takasugi starts out expressing his astonishment over the bustle of Shanghai, he soon changes his mind. After 15 days in Shanghai, one diary entry reads as follows:

"When the British or French walk down the street, the Qing people all avoid them and get out of the way. Shanghai has become like a British or French territory. Japan must keep its guard up."

It seems that Takasugi was impressed by his visit to the Wen Miao (Confucian temple), located centrally within the castle walls.

The land had been conceded to the British Army back then in order to protect Shanghai from rebels. Seeing that the British Army acted as if they owned the place, Takasugi jotted down in his diary, "Deplorable, indeed."

Applying lessons learned

After a two-month stay in Shanghai, Takasugi returned home with a rising sense of crisis toward Japan's old-fashioned feudal government. A year later, he established the Kiheitai volunteer militia - comprising members of various social classes - and the unified Choshu domain, which centred around those plotting to overthrow the shogunate.

Choshu's victory in 1866 against the second Choshu expedition spelled the collapse of the Edo shogunate. However, Takasugi became ill and died in November 1867 without witnessing the return of political power to the emperor.

Yoshihiro Baba, the 58-year-old chairman of a Shanghai association of people from Yamaguchi Prefecture, remarks that he is reminded of Takasugi's visit to Shanghai: "You become much more aware of Japan when you go abroad. You long for the mountains and rivers back home."

It is not difficult to imagine how Takasugi's daring actions had roots in his experiences in Shanghai.

Suzuki is a correspondent in Shanghai.

Takasugi was born as the eldest son of a samurai family of the Choshu domain in present-day Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture. He studied at the Shokasonjuku, a private academy established by Yoshida Shoin, and participated in the movement to restore the emperor to power and expel foreigners. After the Choshu domain fired at Western ships in the Kanmon Straits in 1863, Takasugi was put in charge of Shimonoseki's defence. He then established the Kiheitai volunteer militia, which welcomed members of various social backgrounds. Furthermore, he was entrusted with the role of peace negotiations when a combined fleet of British, French, Dutch, and American ships bombarded Shimonoseki. He was a field commander during the shogunate government's second Choshu expedition. Takasugi died of tuberculosis six months before political power was returned to the emperor.

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