Visionary moderniser and industrialist
Shimadzu Nariakira (1809-1858) was feudal lord of the Satsuma domain, and the 28th generation head of the Shimadzu family.
Greatly interested in western learning and technology, Nariakira was widely seen as one of the wisest leaders of his time.
Nariakira did not have a good relationship with his father Narioki, and despite being named heir to the Satsuma domain at the age of three, found himself being pushed out of domain politics as an adult in favour of his younger brother Hisamitsu. After a prolonged power struggle Nariakira leveraged his friendship with Shogunate high official Abe Masahiro to force out Narioki by revealing the illegal trade with Ryukyu that supported a large portion of Satsuma domain income.
Narioki grudgingly retired and Nariakira became the daimyo of Satsuma. Narioki’s trusted retainer Zusho was removed from office and committed seppuku in December of 1848 to take full responsibility for the illicit trade with Ryukyu.
Nariakira went about introducing educational reforms in Satsuma and modernising the military as soon as he took power, but maintained that young samurai of the domain should understand the Confucian classics in order to avoid becoming too westernized.
Troubled by the Opium War in China, Nariakira felt that Japan had to modernise in order to prevent colonisation by the west. He ordered a modern factory complex to be created next to his residence at Sengan-en and work was started on smelting iron, shipbuilding, glassware, pottery, cotton spinning, and a number of other projects. Nariakira knew that military might would be necessary to protect Japan, but also that culture should be fostered as well. His slogan fukoku kyohei (enrich the country, strengthen the military) shows this desire for a modern and relevant Japan ready to particiate in the modern world.
This painting of Nariakira is by “Nobunaga’s Ambition” artist Tsuyoshi Nagano. It shows Nariakira in front of the Reverberatory Furnace, a structure built next to Sengan-en to melt iron for the production of cannon.
The furnace was based on designs found in a Dutch textbook, which Nariakira is holding. Nariakira ordered his samurai to construct a furnace based on the drawings in the book. Japan was closed to the outside world at the time so it was impossible to ask foreign engineers for advice or import materials for construction.
The samurai began to panic saying that it was impossible, but Nariakira assured them that western men were only human, and that if they tried hard enough they could build a furnace for themselves.
The first effort was a total failure. The fireproof bricks inside the furnace melted and the whole structure leaned over to one side. After propping it up with bamboo it began to lean to the other side and eventually collapsed.
Remembering Nariakira’s advice, the samurai tried again. This time local craftsmen provided their clay to create stronger fireproof bricks, and local stone cutters provided a sturdy foundation for the furnace with gaps to let out humidity that would build up inside. The second furnace was a success and was successfully used to melt iron and produce cannon.
This early success in industrialization was the result of combining Japanese craftsmanship with western scientific learning and lay the groundwork for the modernization of the rest of Japan. Because of this it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site related to Meiji Japan’s Industrial Revolution in 2015.
Nariakira’s Shuseikan Project also produced side products such as Satsuma Kiriko crystal glassware, and decorated Satsuma-ware pottery, both of which were intended for export to Europe. Unfortunately Nariakira never lived to see his plans come to fruition, and passed away to illness at the age of 49.
His nephew Tadayoshi became daimyo of Satsuma, and despite initially scaling back the industrialisation projects started by Nariakira, soon saw the need to continue them to their conclusion after the shocking bombardment of Kagoshima by the British Royal Navy.
Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.
He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.