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Katsu Kaishū

Katsu Kaishū, originally born as Katsu Yoshikuni, was a Japanese statesman and naval engineer towards the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji period. He was born in the village of Edo, now known as Tokyo, on March 12, 1823 and died on January 21, 1899, buried with his wife, Tami, on the shores of the park, Senzoku Pond in Tokyo.Throughout his life, Katsu Kaishū held many nicknames such as Rintaro, Yasuyoshi, and Katz Awa. However, the nickname and pseudonym he is most well-known for is “Kaishū”, which was inspired by Sakuma Shōzan’s calligraphy, “Kaishū Shooku.” During his youth, Katsu Kaishū studied military science under the Dutch and Europeans and became an expert in military technology. Kaishū’s expertise in the field later allowed him to play an important role in the creation of the Japanese navy. All of his proposals were adopted by the shogunate and Kaishū even served as vice-commissioner from 1862-1864 for the Tokugawa Navy.

Aside from his role in the modernization of Japan’s navy, Katsu Kaishū was also an avid learner and a well-respected historian and writer. When Kaishū visited San Francisco during the 1860s, certain aspects of American democracy and culture inspired him to modernize and democratize feudal Japan. Kaishū observed that in comparison to Japan’s rigid social hierarchy, “There is no distinction between soldier, peasant, artisan, or merchant. Any man can be engaged in commerce.” He also states “I had not expected the Americans to express such delight at our arrival to San Francisco, nor for all the people of the city, from the government officials on down, to make such great efforts to treat us so well.” Kaishū’s memorable experience in San Francisco shaped his impressions of Americans, as seen when he sends his son, Katsu Koroku to study under Professor David Murray at Rutgers University in 1870. The following year, Kaishū welcomed Rutgers alumni and educators William Elliot Griffis and Edward Warren Clark to Japan. Griffis taught western science in Echizen or Fukui, while Clark was invited to teach in Shizuoka. Clark greatly respected Kaishū as an intellectual, even calling him “the Bismarck of Japan” for helping stabilize and unify Japan after the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The two also met in 1894 and Clark even wrote a brief, but unpublished memoir about Katsu Kaishū. 

While Katsu Kaishū played an important role in westernizing Japan, Kaishū also helped save Japan by preventing the outbreak of civil war. Though loyal to the Tokugawa until the end, after recognizing the inevitable end of the shogunate, Kaishū decided to surrender Edo Castle to Saigo Kichinosuke of the opposing imperial of forces, saving millions of lives in Edo and ultimately, the face of modern Japan. 


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Clark, Edward Warren, et al. “Life and Adventure in Japan.”

“Katsu Kaishu.” Katsu Kaishu – New World Encyclopedia,

“Katsu Kaishu: The Man Who Saved Early Japan.” Romulus Hillsborough’s Samurai Revolution,