(1838–1922) Japanese political leader
Yamagata Aritomo was a Japanese politician who was prime minister on two occasions (1889–91 and 1898– 1900) and an elder statesman during the first decades of the 20th century, when he played an important role as an adviser to other politicians.
Born in Hagi in the town of Choshu, he was the son of a low-ranking samurai. He started working as an errand boy for the treasury and also for the police. As a youth he was influenced by the Sonno Joi movement, which operated under the slogans “Revere the Emperor” and “Expel the Barbarians.” At the age of 30 he played a minor role in the Meiji Restoration.
In 1869, Yamagata was sent to Europe to study the system of military training in the West. On his return in 1870, he was appointed the assistant vice minister of military affairs. Two years later the army ministry subsumed the ministry of military affairs, and in the following year Yamagata was put in charge of the new ministry. As a result, he was involved in the Conscription Ordinance of 1873 but did not take part in the decisions over whether Japan should send a punitive expedition to Taiwan, a province of China. In 1878, he reorganized the Japanese army along the model of the Prussian armed forces and led it in the defeat of the Satsuma Rebellion four years later. One of the important units that Yamagata established was the Goshimpei (“Imperial Force”), which later became the Konoe (“Imperial Guard”).
In December 1878, Yamagata resigned as minister of the army and became the first chief of the Japanese general staff. This was part of his move to separate the military from politics, which he confirmed in 1882 in the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors that urged soldiers to follow the orders of the emperor and not the politicians. However, it was not until 18 years later that Yamagata was able to get a law passed that allowed only active generals and admirals to serve as cabinet ministers of war and the navy. Although this was aimed at ensuring separation, it did not prevent the military governments of the 1930s and early 1940s, where rapid promotion ensured that newly created generals could become ministers.
Made a count in 1884, Yamagata resigned as chief of the general staff later in the same year to become minister for home affairs, a post he held from 1883 until 1889. During this time he remodeled his department, changing the system of running the police force. He also ensured that the police came under the direct control of the minister. In 1888, Yamagata, still a minister, went to Europe and after a year there returned with new ideas. He became the first prime minister of Japan on December 4, 1889, under a newly established Japanese diet. Political infighting led to Yamagata’s resignation on May 6, 1891. He became minister of justice from 1892 until 1893, and then president of the privy council for two more years.
With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Yamagata returned to the army as commander of the First Army, which was deployed to Korea.
On November 8, 1898, Yamagata became prime minister again. He had just been promoted to field marshal and appointed many generals and admirals to the cabinet, emphasizing his view that Japan should take a far more aggressive foreign policy. He also issued a government regulation that only officers in active service could become the army or navy minister. This coincided with the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in China; Yamagata immediately sent over a large military force, which was to play a role in the allied attack on Beijing (Peking) and ensured Japan’s role in subsequent negotiations.
However, Yamagata was worried about Russia’s territorial ambitions. As a result, he drew up a contingency plan in which Japan would be prepared to fight both Russia and the United States simultaneously. Part of the plan was implemented in World War II. By this time, Yamagata’s service was recognized, and he was raised to the dignity of a prince.
When Ito Hirobumi was assassinated in 1909, Yamagata, as the “elder statesman,” became the most powerful politician of Japan, and cabinet ministers sought advice from him. During the Chinese Revolution of 1911, Yamagata was keen on preserving the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty. Three years later he led Japan into World War I as an Allied power. Yamagata overplayed his influence in 1921 and was publicly censured for his criticism of the marriage of the crown prince (later Emperor Hirohito). He had wanted the prince to take a bride from the Satsuma family. He was still in disgrace when he died on February 1, 1922.
Further reading: Hackett, Roger F. Yamagata Aritomo in the Rise of Modern Japan, 1838–1922. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.