Japanese love watching historical dramas, and one of the most popular times portrayed is the final years of the Edo Period (1603-1868), when the nation went through dramatic change politically, diplomatically and socially with the fall of the shogunate.
In many cases, such TV shows, including NHK’s popular period drama taiga, use prominent historical figures as the main characters. But for a drama set to air on New Year’s Day, NHK will instead focus on British diplomat Ernest Mason Satow and the articles he contributed to The Japan Times, a newspaper established in 1865 in Yokohama, on the peaceful handover of power from the Tokugawa shogunate to Emperor Meiji.
Historically speaking, two key figures — Katsu Kaishu, the shogunate’s army minister, and Saigo Takamori, head of the Imperial forces — negotiated the conditions of the shogunate’s surrender, leading to the bloodless fall of Edo Castle and Emperor Meiji’s restoration to power.
But in “Edo-jo Muketsu Kaijo” (“The Bloodless Fall of Edo),” airing Sunday on BS Premium, a new theory will assert that Satow, one of the most influential non-Japanese figures at the time, played a key role in encouraging Saigo and other feudal lords to oust the shogunate.
A series of articles he wrote in The Japan Times in 1866 claimed that ultimate power rests with the emperor, not the Tokugawa shogunate. Some historians feel these articles served to encourage the Imperial forces.
“We gravely and seriously advocate a radical change. What we want is not a treaty with a single potentate, but one binding on and advantageous to every one in the country,” Satow wrote in an article published on Mar. 16, 1866.
Two months after, in the final article of the series on May 19, he concluded that the country desired “a fair and equitable Convention with the MIKADO and the Confederate Daimios — the real rulers of Japan.”
“The Japan Times article was translated and was made into a book titled ‘Eikoku Sakuron’ (‘British policy’). With Britain heading the diplomatic corps (in Japan), it pushed the backs of groups that were against the shogunate, having written that the sovereignty of Japan lies with the emperor, not the shogunate, and that the shogun is just being entrusted with the authority from the emperor,” said Masakazu Taniguchi, the chief producer of the show.
The book was read by the leaders of the Satsuma and Choshu domains, including Saigo, he said.
Back then, in 1865, Charles Rickerby, a British manager at The Central Bank of Western India, the first bank to be established in Yokohama, bought The Japan Commercial News, a local English-language newspaper, and renamed it The Japan Times. This paper was renamed The Japan Mail in 1870. The Japan Mail was later acquired in 1918 by the current Japan Times, a separate entity established in 1897 as the first English-language newspaper in the nation to be run and managed by Japanese.
Satow served as a translator for Harry Parkes, a British minister, and had close ties with Rickerby. The first edition of The Japan Times in 1865 ran a story on problems related to the Tokugawa shogunate’s reluctance to open Kobe port to foreign traders.
The move prompted “Britain to give up on the shogunate. They wondered, ‘When do we get to conduct trades in Hyogo?’ ” said Taniguchi, adding that Japan was a cash cow for Britain.
In 1867, the shogunate returned its political power to the emperor. The shogunate, however, declared that politics will still be decided by a congress of feudal lords and the monarch, which left Saigo doubtful.
Saigo later formed the Imperial army and demanded the official positions and territories of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Knowing that Saigo’s army would be attacking Edo, the capital, Katsu moved to negotiate with him, saying that he would hand over Edo Castle if Saigo agreed not to use force. The castle thus fell in a bloodless surrender — a move that saved the lives of about a million residents of the city, which would later be renamed Tokyo.
Katsu had also feared foreign countries would take advantage of the situation. Japan was already suffering under one-sided trade treaties.
“Satow was close not only with those in (the) Satsuma and Choshu domains, but also with those on the shogunate side, especially Katsu Kaishu. He had a vast network on both sides,” Taniguchi said.
“He was the perfect person to play a key role in the show, to view objectively the history that leads to the end of the Edo Period. Plus, he left many written records,” he said.
Satow is best known as the author of “A Diplomat in Japan,” a book based on his diaries that recounts the years from 1862 to 1869.
The show is based on a true story and incorporates interviews with historians including Ukeru Magosaki, a former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat who heads the East Asian Community Institute, and Akihiro Machida, an associate professor at Kanda University of International Studies’ Research Institute for Japanese Studies. Senior editors from The Japan Times also appear on the program.
NHK BS Premium has run programs on the Edo Period for the past two years. The first explained the history of Edo Castle, and the second examined the Great Fire of Meireki that burned down major parts of the city in 1657.
“Having experts researching based on British documents, it’s new that we’re seeing the fall of Edo through a British perspective,” Taniguchi said.
“Edo-jo Muketsu Kaijo” (“The Bloodless Fall of Edo”) will air at 9 p.m. Sunday on NHK BS Premium. For more information on the program (Japanese only), visit http://www4.nhk.or.jp/thepremium/