This project showcases student project work from Japan and the World, a modern Japanese history course offered at Kanda University of International Studies. It focuses on important themes and individuals from the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) periods, when Japan was beginning to open to the world after centuries of government-enforced isolation.

All submissions are researched, whether in English or Japanese, and references provided. Comments responding to and exploring ideas, suggesting connections or further reading, are most welcome. As entries are written by non-native English speakers, please refrain from non-constructive comments about language use.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Kaientai (海援隊)

By Takahiro Aoyagi

During the Edo period (1603-1868), there was no one who ever imagined that Satsuma Domain and Choshu Domain would join hands in order to overthrow the Tokugawa Government. It is well known that these two domains had been in an unfavorable relationship for long time. However, when it came to the tense political situation, they finally compromised and formed Satcho Alliance against people’s view in 1866. It is not extraordinary to say that this was the moment the overthrow of the government truly started. Nevertheless, it would have been impossible to reach this state if Kaientai had not helped them get together in a lot of ways.

Kaientai was an organization led by Ryoma Sakamoto, who was a low class samurai from Tosa Domain, which mainly spent itself in commercial activity. In Japanese, the name of this organization means “the company which supports Japan over the ocean.” and it is not hard to imagine from its meaning that they already had foresight of importance of overseas despite the period of isolation policy in Japan. Some studies suggest that this was the first stock company in Japan, but it is still argued whether it is true or not. Anyway, there was no such thing in this era, thus, this foundation of a company was very new to people and this was when Ryoma Sakamoto gradually became known by entire country. Ryoma Sakamoto initially predicted the necessity of knowledge and technology from overseas so the company mainly traded firearms, especially a lot of guns, with foreign companies. Besides, it was looking for some naval ship to possess, which only the government had at that age, in order to spread their range of work. No one believed they could get it because naval ship was like an unbelievable item of foreign technology that most ordinary people had never seen, but finally they fulfilled their dream and got some old ships by their profit made through trade. In the end, they literally became the company which could support Japan over the ocean.

Kaientai was an influential political organization as well as one of the first stock companies of Japan. Ryoma Sakamoto was a loyal supporter of the Emperor who used to belong to Tosa Domain, however, he had already left his domain behind when he started this company. That is why he was not under the control of his domain and started looking for a way to compromise between Satsuma and Choshu. Since he was independent, the organization was mainly constructed by non-party people who had left their domain called “Roshi (浪士)”, and a lot of them spent their life working towards the Satcho Alliance. Needless to say, there were many troubles and difficulties during this process. After many efforts by each domain and Kaientai, the Satcho Alliance was concluded through Takamori Saigo from Satsuma, Takayoshi Kido from Choshu and Ryoma Sakamoto from Kaientai at Kyoto in 1866.

After the conclusion of Satcho Alliance, the company still kept supporting the alliance by providing firearms they got from trade for upcoming battle against the government. They not only provided the arms, but also fought against the government with their naval ship in second conquest of Choshu. As a result, Choshu beat the government in the end and the restoration of government to the crown called “Taiseihokan (大政奉還)” occurred in 1867. In this year, one of the biggest goals Kaientai set out was ultimately fulfilled, but meanwhile a shocking tragedy happened. Ryoma Sakamoto, the leader of the company, was killed on November 15th in 1887. This news shook up whole organization and it was broken up within a year. After breaking up, Yataro Iwasaki, who was in charge of accounting of the company, reconstructed the organization. It is widely known that he finally founded one of biggest company in Japan called “Mitsubishi”, based on Kaientai.

Today, Japanese people might learn about Satsuma, Choshu or overthrow of the government in history class, however, there is no specific explanation about Kaientai or Ryoma Sakamoto who devoted their life to the Meiji Restoration. It is a shame they hardly catch light behind a textbook in spite of their contribution. This is a small part of the problem, therefore, I suggest way of education in history class change from memorizing style to discussion style so that people can develop their thinking skills with “how” or “why” than “when” or “where”. We have to keep in mind that our life today is based on many victims and commitments in the past. Kaientai was one of them which supported the Satcho Alliance until overthrow of the government by mainly providing them with firearms. At the same time, they instilled a concept of company in Japan as one of the first commercial organizations. Over 100 years from the Edo period, their will and foundation are still living in Japan today.


Bakumatsuishin Dictionary. (2006, December 23). Retrieved July 24, 2013, from