Shimazu Nariakira - Early Life and Rise To Power

Early Life and Rise To Power

Shimazu Nariakira was born at the Satsuma domain's estate in Edo, on April 28, 1809. He rose to power as daimyō of the domain of Satsuma only after surviving a gruesome and arduous war within his own family and domain, known as the Oyura Sōdō or the Takasaki Kuzure. He faced much opposition in Satsuma since he spent most of his life in Edo; as such he was considered a stranger in his own domain. In his quest to prepare Satsuma for potential Western aggression, he also faced many opposing military schools of thought in Satsuma who disagreed with the Shimazu family’s plan for strengthening coastal defense.

Nariakira did not see eye to eye with his father, Shimazu Narioki, or his father’s chief advisor, Zusho Hirosato. Both Narioki and Zusho were wary of the Tokugawa shogunate. Zusho also saw many similarities in Nariakira and his grandfather, Shigehide. Shigehide also had a great interest in Dutch studies as well as scientific and industrial projects, which promptly led to the deterioration of the domain’s financial position. Having worked so hard to rehabilitate and strengthen the treasury of Satsuma, Zusho did not encourage Nariakira’s ambitious and costly program for a military build-up. Narioki and Zusho’s mutual disdain and mistrust for Nariakira led to their endeavoring to isolate Nariakira from Satsuma’s affairs, which entailed withholding or all together ceasing the flow from all sources of information regarding Satsuma’s officials or their dealings with the shogunate.

Another formidable and dangerous obstacle for Nariakira in not only his plans to bolster the defenses of all of Japan but also his ascendancy to daimyō of Satsuma was Yura, the mother of his half-brother, Hisamitsu. By the time Nariakira had arrived in Satsuma to address a crisis related to the Ryūkyū Kingdom (a vassal state under Satsuma) in 1846, Yura had used her charm to thoroughly convince Narioki to promote the interests of her son Hisamitsu over Narioki’s legitimate son and heir-apparent (Nariakira). Zusho, Narioki, Yura, and Hisamitsu were the key members of the coalition which rallied other Satsuma bureaucrats who felt threatened by Nariakira’s immense and highly intimidating intelligence, and tried to impede all attempts Nariakira made to retire his father as daimyō and take his place.

Nariakira arrived in Satsuma to attempt to resolve the Ryūkyū crisis, as per the orders of shogunal high official Abe Masahiro, on June 25, 1846. A French ship had arrived in Ryūkyū in 1844, and two British ships the following year, demanding treaties of amity and commerce; as the kingdom was semi-independent and not generally regarded to be part of Japan proper, this presented a dilemma. Nariakira and Abe Masahiro decided in the end that, despite the shogunate's policies of seclusion, such relations should be allowed in Ryūkyū, rather than risking violent conflict with the Western powers.

On March 8, 1847, Narioki arrived in Satsuma, making Nariakira’s position, something equivalent to deputy to his father, obsolete. After essentially having the reins of power wrenched from his hands by his own father, Nariakira left Satsuma for Edo. The authority formerly vested him was clearly and quickly being shifted to his half brother, Hisamitsu Hisamitsu was rapidly elevated through the ranks of his father’s court soon after Nariakira’s departure from Satsuma for Edo. He was placed in charge of the newly created office of military service of Satsuma in October 1847. In 1848, Narioki appointed Hisamitsu steward of Chosa District, with the responsibility of acting on behalf of the daimyō in all military matters in the area. At about the same time, Hisamitsu was given the highly respected post of han councilor, a rank which, according to the instructions accompanying the appointment, placed him at the top of the social scale. At ceremonial occasions, Hisamitsu was ordered by his father to sit at a place higher than that of the deputy in charge of the daimyō of Satsuma’s castle. Narioki even went so far as to place Hisamitsu in charge of all of Satsuma whenever the daimyō chose to leave Satsuma for any reason, business or pleasure. It was apparent that Hisamitsu was being groomed to become the next daimyō, completely disregarding the fact that, by primogeniture, Nariakira was supposed to be the heir-apparent.

To further discredit and impede Nariakira’s rise to lord of Satsuma, Yura was rumored to have asked at least five spiritual leaders to cast spells on Nariakira’s eldest sons as well as take other measures to curse Nariakira’s children. Many of Nariakira’s followers believed Yura was the source of the subsequent deaths of his eldest children. This belief caused many of them to call for the assassination of Yura, her son Hisamitsu, and Zusho, whom they felt also played a hand in the deaths of Nariakira’s eldest children. Nariakira was able to restrain them; upon hearing of their plans for murder, Narioki began rooting out Nariakira’s supporters and ordering their deaths by seppuku.

The conflict had gotten so far out of hand that Nariakira was left with no choice but to request aid from Abe Masahiro. Abe, seeing that Nariakira was being hindered in his proceeding with the Ryūkyū crisis by his own father and family retainers, aided in getting Narioki to retire and removing Zusho.

Abe first went about the task of removing Zusho, who was greatly relied upon by Narioki, by inviting him to Edo. Abe’s stated purpose was a desire to discuss the Ryūkyū crisis and its current handling. In the process of the conversation, Abe began to ask Zusho a line of questioning that made it apparently clear to Zusho that Abe, as well as the Tokugawa shogun, knew the truth of the illegal Satsuma-Ryūkyū-Western trade relations, which were being carried out against the shogunate's policy of seclusion. Zusho’s devotion to Narioki pushed him to take full responsibility for the illicit trade by committing seppuku on December 18, 1848. On December 3, 1850, Narioki was called to Edo by the shogun and presented with a prized set of tea utensils, indicating the shogun's desire for Narioki to retire. On February 3, 1851, Nairoki retired and Shimazu Nariakira was made daimyō of Satsuma.

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