A former US slave turned a prime minister of Japan. His relationship with Jacob Henry Schiff, a Jewish American banker and philanthropist, made the initial finance possible for the Russo-Japanese War.
This blog appeared on Red Room many years ago, but unfortunately RR is no longer in operation. With some people's interest, I decided to post it here.
After all these years, I paid very little attention to violent war stories, I finally decided to read a long novel on Russo Japanese War of 1904 – 05. First, my translation of Sakano ueno kumo is “Clouds Over the Hill.” And the hill was called 203-Meter –High Hill by Japanese. The bloodiest battles took place there. The war is horrific, but the developments of events and details captured my interest. It was amazing.
Because of the book, I became interested in a few historical figures, Korekiyo Takahashi and Jacob Henry Schiff. I read more about them. I knew the name, Korekiyo Takahashi because he was a prime minister long ago, but I never thought I would be reading as interesting book as “the autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Arthur Haley” when I bought “Takahashi Korekiyo Jiden.”
He was born in 1854 in Edo (Tokyo). It was during the opening of Japan. Commodore Perry and black ships showed up in Shimoda in 1853. When he was three or four days old, a low rank samurai family of Sendai clan took him in and reared him. After two years, the family adopted him, and the grandmother of the family took care of him. The Meiji Restoration (1868) was near. All the samurai would be unemployed, and the members of the low rank samurai were renting their home from their heads.
His birth and adoption was a bit complicated, but that was quite common. The difference from the west is that for Japanese births, house as a unit comes first before individual, and people must belong to a house. This house concept is very important even today, and because of it, many people’s birth records seem complex like Korekiyo’s. Also the samurais who belonged to the regional clans faced added complication. They didn’t have a home to go back after the Restoration. Many were born in Edo like Korekiyo, and older folks like Korekiyo’s grandmother were used to the life of Edo. Even if they wanted to go back, they had no place to live.
The lives of the samurai class became increasingly competitive, and this was also the exciting time in Japan’s history to see the members of the low rank samurai class (underdog) go up in social status by excelling themselves in studying English, German, French, and Russian.
I’m interested in knowing how they learned foreign languages. Anyway, with the recommendation of their senior samurai, Korekiyo and his friend were sent to Yokohama to study English. They were both eleven years old. They learned English from English-speaking missionaries and their wives. Unlike my English, they had opportunities to learn from native speakers early on. This is great advantage in learning foreign language.
Korekiyo and his friend were fourteen. Through an American business man’s help, they went to the U.S. to study. They landed in San Francisco, and soon after, they found out they were sold to slavery. They had no idea. Japanese then were very trusting, and they were young. Isn’t this news shocking? A former Japanese prime minister was a slave in the U.S. This fact alone made me turn pages.
His story is filled with adventures and twists and turns. He moved in the U.S. several times, and one American woman in Oakland was especially good to him. Nevertheless, the slavery was not acceptable to him and his samurai friends. They went to see the honorary consulate in S.F. and resolved the case. The man (I’m unsure of spelling but maybe his last name was Vanlead) who arranged the slavery contract for Korekiyo. He told the consulate that he paid $50 for his trip to the U.S. in exchange of three years labor. So I think the money was paid, and the contract was dissolved. Back home, the Meiji Restoration was underway. They were fifteen when they returned home.
Korekiyo became a teacher a number of times and started a school. He translated newspapers and books. He was quite successful in a series of his job hopping. Not in chronological order but I want to mention three of the practical jokes he played on people. The first is when he worked for Mr. Shand, an English banker in Yokohama. Korekiyo used to cook rats on his plate! Mr. Shand looked at what Korekiyo was up to from the upstairs of their building, and in his calm voice, he said to Korekiyo, “Please do not use my plate to cook rats.” Korekiyo wrote he felt shame. He should be. The second is about a group of geishas who began showing up to serve foreigners where he worked and lived. The Geishas arrived in a boat led by an older woman. They carried lighted lanterns and walked from the boat to a street. It wasn’t like today. It was very dark at night. Korekiyo sneaked up to them and turned all the lights off and ran away! The third, he was on his way to the U.S.. He shared his room with two Chinese men with a long braid hair. During a night while they slept, he tied their long hair together. What happened in the morning is your guess. Those Chinese men had a nightmare sharing a room with young Korekiyo, and they awoke with another nightmare. His book is filled with mischief, drinking, relationships with geishas, and other outrageous stories. This is the story of a man who had an extraordinary career in Japan’s politics and finance.
One of his great adventure and also big failure was the Peru’s Silver Mine project. He just set up the first patent office in the government, but he quit the position, gathered money from many investors, and went to Peru. Probably they all had the yen design in their pupils. He and his supporters went to Peru and climbed a high mountain. The place was cold, and the air was thin. They persevered and got up to the mountain. But it turned out that the mine was empty. The silver was long gone. The man who was sent before them for research had assessed the mine based on a photo he had seen in a magazine, and he didn’t actually make a visit to the mine and examine inside!
Korekiyo kept his detailed journal. His situation was serious but hilarious. They all lost money, but it could have been worse if they went ahead to work on digging silver further. The researcher who had failed in his role was later arrested. But I think they were all to be blamed. The researcher didn’t have any formal training in assessing silver mines. He was young and inexperienced. And the rest of the investors and Korekiyo himself were also inexperienced in such business.
Korekiyo's biggest contribution, I think, is on building the base of our modern banking systems. He became the president of Yokohama Shokin Bank and later of Japan Bank. Also his big contribution in Russo Japanese War was that he acted as a sole negotiator to raise funds in the U.S. and Europe. He revealed step by step how he did it. The way he dealt with English bankers and later with Jacob Henry Schiff is fascinating and educational. Without enough money, the war was Japan's suicide.
Probably not by himself, but someone added the following story to his autobiography. Korekiyo met Jacob Henry Schiff, a Jewish investor, at a party after he was at last successful persuading English bankers to fund a half of the money required by the Japanese government. At the party, Schiff sat next to Korekiyo and asked many questions. Later, Schiff offered to be responsible for the rest. This incident itself is truly amazing story. And I was intrigued with this Jewish man, and his real reason beyond his investment.
At the time, under the Russian Empire, Jewish people were suffering. Schiff wanted to rescue his people. After Korekiyo accepted Schiff `s offer, Schiff sent Mr. Shand to bring Korekiyo to where he was staying. This was in London. To Shand’s persuasion to accompany him to go see Schiff, Korekiyo got angry. He told Shand that he appreciated Schiff’s help in finance, but Schiff should come to see him because Korekiyo was a Japan’s representative.
Korekiyo needed Schiff’s help, but he could not lower his pride. Shand tried to convince Korekiyo, but Korekiyo didn’t budge. Later, Schiff and Shand arrived at the hotel where Korekiyo was staying. The hotel was the fourth or the fifth in rank. The deal was completed at the shabby hotel. Later, it was Korekiyo’s turn to make a thank-you visit to Schiff. Schiff's hotel was the top rank in London. I was amazed at Korekiyo’s attitude as well as Schiff’s. This made me think about pride, stubbornness, and warm gestures in spite of them.
The book covered Korekiyo’s life up to his 52nd year. He was assassinated at the age 82 by a rightist officer. It is called the 2.26 incident.