Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922) was the third and ninth prime minister of Japan and one of the foremost of the Meiji oligarchs that created the modern nation of Japan. Among Yamagata's many achievements he was the chief architect of the modern Japanese army, and as the most senior of the oligarchs following the death of Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata was unquestionably the most powerful man in Japan from 1909 until his death in 1922.


Born to an impoverished samurai family of the lowest rank in the marginalized tozama domain of Choshu, Yamagata's first job was as an errand boy for the domain treasury department. Following the Opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1853, Yamagata was swept up in the sonno joi movement to "revere the emperor and expel the barbarians" while studying at Yoshida Shoin's Shoka Sonjuku school.

By 1863, Yamagata had been named commander of the Kiheitai, the most famous of the Choshu revolutionary forces that battled the shogunate for a return to imperial rule. Serving in the Choshu force during the British bombardment of Shimonoseki in 1864 tempered Yamagata's anti-foreignism, and helped to convince him that Japan's only hope lay in a course of modernization along Western models.

Following the Meiji Restoration in December of 1867, Yamagata was named a staff officer in the Imperial army and led imperial troops in the successful campaign against the last pro-shogunate holdouts in Aizu domain during the Boshin War of 1868.


Yamagata then went on a tour of Europe to study European militaries, where he became particularly enamored of the Prussian model. Returning to Japan in 1870, Yamagata was made a high-ranking official in the Army ministry and set about modernizing Japan's army, converting it from a force of feudal samurai into a modern army of conscripted commoners armed with modern weaponry.

When the Satsuma Rebellion broke out in 1877, Yamagata, by this point full Army Minister, personally led the conscript army he had designed against 40,000-odd samurai led by Saigo Takamori. Armed with modern weapons and tactics, Yamagata's army of former peasants won victory after victory, proving once and for all that the age of the samurai was over.

With his dramatic victory over Saigo, Yamagata established himself as one of the major figures in the Japanese oligarchy. In 1878, he resigned as Army Minister to become chief of the general staff of the army, and proceeded to implement further reforms of the army's structure to bring it even closer to the Prussian model.

In 1882, Yamagata orchestrated the Emperor's Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, which inculcated the ideology that Japan was a "family state" (kazoku kokka) and included the famous admonition that "duty is heavier than a mountain, but death is lighter than a feather" that was later used to justify the kamikaze tactics of World War II.


As Home Minister under the first cabinet government from 1883 onward, Yamagata was the second most powerful man in Japan, after Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi. He made use of his broad authority to modernize the Japanese police system, which he then used to crush the burgeoning Popular Rights Movement, ending the great hopes of many that Japan might become a liberal democracy. Yamagata also regularized the local government system, and did his utmost to quash the rise of the political parties, which he would continue to battle against for the rest of his life.

In 1889, Yamagata was named the first prime minister under the newly promulgated Meiji Constitution, serving until 1891, when he resigned to turn his attention back to his first love, which was the army. Nevertheless, he accepted positions as Minister of Justice (1892-93) and president of the Privy Council (189394). Also, from 1891 he was named one of the genro or "elder statesmen", who constituted an unofficial advisory council to the emperor and thus were the real power behind the throne and by extension all of Japan.


When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894, Yamagata was initially named general of the 1st army in Korea, but had to resign due to a sudden illness. Following the war, Yamagata served as special ambassador to Russia where he negotiated the partition of Korea with the Russians and secured Japanese rights in Manchuria. His elevation to the specially created rank of Field Marshal in 1898 made Yamagata supreme commander of the Japanese military and symbolized his ascendance to the highest circle of power.

Yamagata was the natural choice to become prime minister for a second time in 1898, forming a cabinet more than half composed of high-ranking generals and admirals and proceeding to pursue a vigorous policy of military and imperial expansion, including taking the lead role in the intervention by the Great Powers in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. However, Yamagata's heavy military spending contributed to a financial crisis that forced him to resign in October of 1900. One of his final acts as prime minister was to establish a law that all army and navy ministers in the cabinet had to be members of the active list. This was a profound blow to civilian control over Japan's military, because essentially the Army or Navy could veto any cabinet by ordering its members to refuse to serve, and set the stage for later Japanese militarism.


The year 1900 also marked Yamagata's split from Ito, when Ito committed the unforgivable sin in Yamagata's eyes of forming his own political party, the Seiyukai. While Ito had come to the view that the rise of the parties was inevitable and that the only way forward was through an embrace of party politics, Yamagata continued to see party politics as a tyranny of special interests and adhered to the ideal of "transcendental government", that is, disinterested government by an enlightened elite.

Thenceforward, Yamagata and Ito lived in an uneasy truce, alternating as presidents of the Privy Council and battling each other for control of the state through their proxies and protégés. From 1901 through 1913, the Yamagata faction and the Ito faction alternated control of the cabinet as well, with Yamagata's protégé Katsura Taro and Ito's protégé Saionji Kimmochi each serving as prime minister three times.

During the Russo-Japanese War of 19041905, Yamagata was called out of retirement to again serve as chief of the general staff. For his distinguished service in managing the war he was awarded the title of "Prince" - the highest rank anyone not the emperor could achieve. It was at this time that Yamagata, who all throughout his life had always been profoundly distrustful of the English and the Americans, drew up a contingency plan for a future war with America he believed was inevitable. This plan formed the basis of Japanese military strategy for years to come, and would ultimately help lead Japan to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941.


With Ito's assassination in 1909, Yamagata became the single most powerful man in Japan. Thanks to his complete control over the military and the bureaucracy, Yamagata was nigh unto dictator of Japan, and no cabinet could be established without his personal consent. By then, however, a brilliant campaign of pork barrel politics orchestrated by Hara Kei had firmly entrenched the Seiyukai party in the lower house of the Diet, and Yamagata increasingly had to take the power of the hated political parties into account.

Finally, following the nationwide rice riots of 1918, Yamagata relented and grudgingly allowed Hara Kei to become the first prime minister from a political party, setting the stage for the full-blown party system known as "Taisho Democracy". Nevertheless, Yamagata continued to be a powerful voice in Japanese politics right up until his death in 1922 at age 84.

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