JAPANESE SAMURAI / ITAGAKI Taisuke

AUGUST 2021 (VOL. 166)

板垣退助 ITAGAKI Taisuke

1837 – 1919

The Politician Who Led the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement

People Call Him Weirdo

Itagaki Taisuke was born in Tosa (Kochi-prefecture) in 1837 as the son of an elite samurai family.  He was a unique kid who was interested in many things.  And because the things that Taisuke was interested in were unnormal, people called him a weirdo.  Taisuke was doing unusual experiments all the time, such as throwing an amulet in the toilet to see if it had protected him from catastrophes, or eating tempura and watermelon together to see if he would get a stomach-ache.  Taisuke was also interested in people.  Although the elite samurai did not usually talk to lower-ranked people at the time, he liked spending time with them and listening to their life situations that tend to be vastly different and worse than Taisuke’s.  Samurai around him thought that Taisuke was strange, talking to lower-ranked people, but this fellowship would influence him and give him a hint for Taisuke’s future achievements later on.

Becoming A Politician

Taisuke was blessed with an environment that motivated him to work hard, allowing him to eventually be promoted to the position of leading Tosa.  At that time, there was a battle (Boshin War) between the Shogunate, which had been running Japanese politics for 260 years, and a new government group, which wanted to put the Emperor at the center instead of the Shogunates.  Taisuke led Tosa’s soldiers to fight as a new government group, successfully bringing a great victory to the new government army.  After that, Taisuke started to work as a politician in the newly established government.

The Power of The Name, Itagaki

Taisuke originally went by the name “Inui.” He was a descendant of an incredibly famous samurai Nobukata Itagaki, who fought with Shingen Takeda in the Sengoku era.  The name “Itagaki” was famous and had considerable power and influence.  It was during the Boshin War, the battle between the new government army and the Shogunate army, that Taisuke changed his name from Inui to Itagaki.  Story goes that many Shogunate members heard the name Itagaki and transitioned over to the side of the new government army because they didn’t think they could beat someone whose name was Itagaki!

Proposed A New System of Politics

Japan led by the new government needed to build a lot of factories and educate the army to compete with foreign countries.  However, the newly established government did not have enough money to do so.  The government started to partner with rich companies and entrepreneurs to make money.  This inevitably led to a social system that benefitted only the rich.  Seeing that, Taisuke returned to his hometown to start The Freedom and People’s Rights Movement under the slogan of “People’s opinions should be reflected more in politics.”  He formed the nation’s first political organization, Aikokusha, in 1875.  After that, he submitted a “Petition for the Establishment of a Popularly Elected Assembly” to construct a political system in which politics were run by representatives selected by the people.  Taisuke then formed the Liberal Party of Japan.

“Itagaki May Die, But Liberty Never Will.”

One day, Taisuke was giving a two-hour-long speech to the people who would gather to listen to him speak.  The speech went well, but on the way back home, Taisuke got attacked by a man with a dagger, who held animosity against him.  Taisuke’s hand and chest were slashed, bleeding profusely.  Taisuke realized that he would die, and left the iconic line, “Itagaki may die, but liberty never will.”  He, however, fortunately escaped from death.

The Criminal Who Nearly Killed Taisuke

The criminal who attacked and injured Taisuke was an elementary school teacher.  He was a nice man, respected by both his students and their parents.  Yet despite that, the man injured Taisuke, receiving a sentence of life imprisonment.  He reasons that he couldn’t resist Taisuke’s political policies that were against his.  While in prison, however, he was a well-behaved prisoner.  Surprisingly, Taisuke himself requested to release this man.  The man visited Taisuke to apologize after he left the prison.

The Change of Japan

The Freedom and People’s Rights Movement was one of the biggest major movements in Japanese history.  The movement welcomed anybody to participate.  Taisuke successfully won the hearts of not only his people but even his rivals’ by always taking a fair position during arguments and rarely resorting to violence.  Rumors about him spread nationwide, and Taisuke Itagaki’s name became famous.  The government gradually showed its support for him, and in 1889, “The Constitution of the Empire of Japan” was established.  Following that year in 1890, the first House of Representatives Election took place.

LOUIS VUITTON’s First Japanese Customer

Taisuke went on a trip to Hong Kong, Paris, and London in 1883 with Shojiro Goto, who was also from Tosa.  During the trip, Taisuke purchased a trunk from Louis Vuitton in Paris.  This suitcase can still be found today as it is kept by his descendants.

Taisuke Worked Hard as a Politician

Taisuke has never been a member of the Diet himself despite his immense contribution to the creation of one.  He was actually invited to become prime minister of Japan, but he refused, saying, “I’m not enough to be the prime minister” although many people admitted that he was.  Taisuke’s Liberal Party was dissolved because of the government’s crackdown.  He then served as Minister of Interior of the Cabinet, and retired from politics in 1900.  Even after his retirement, he worked for the country and died at the age of 82.  It is thanks to Taisuke and his life-long devotion that Japan has a political system in which people’s opinions are reflected.  Taisuke is still one of the most respected historical figures in Japan.  A portrait of Taisuke was printed on the 100-yen bills for 20 years until 1974.