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With the Restoration of imperial authority in Japan in 1868, the emperor assumed supreme command over both the army and the navy. Although these forces were not yet constituted, the principle of imperial authority was established at the outset. In the atmosphere of the Restoration the Japanese army, which had existed in the form of clan forces from time immemorial, was speedily brought into line with European armies. The professional warrior class (samurai), though not excluded from service in the new national army, often chose to seek other occupations, after being pensioned off. The army was to become a conscript one, drawn from males of every class, though conscription did not in practice affect all classes equally. Active service became obligatory for all aged over 20 and lasted for three years. Service with the reserve was compulsory for those who had completed their stint with the colors and lasted over four years. The army in 1914 exceeded half a million men.
By his prerogative the emperor had to appoint the minister of war, who was responsible for military administration (gunsei), and the chief of the general staff, who was responsible for military command (gunrei). The latter had by convention the right of direct access to the throne and was therefore separate from, and independent of, the civilian ministers of state. It was already the practice before 1914 for the minister of war (as also the minister of marine) not to be a civilian.
This is an introduction to the journey of the Iwakura Embassy which was sent out by the Japanese government in 1871. It was an ambitious journey round the globe and lasted for nineteen months. The chronicler of the Mission, Kume Kunitake, skilfully indicates both the wonderment of the visitors at what they saw and the hard-working intensity of their programmes. On the other side, it shows the open-heartedness of the countries visited whose citizens were ready to show off their wares and share their technology with their unfamiliar visitors from Japan.
Kume Kunitake (1839–1931) was chosen by Prince Iwakura as his secretary for the journey. Kume, a young Confucian scholar from a samurai background, was born in the domain of Saga in the island of Kyushu, not far from Nagasaki. That port was the access-point for foreign traders, whether from China, Korea or the Netherlands, in the days of Japan's seclusion from the rest of the world. Through his father's bureaucratic connections with trade, Kume would presumably have become acquainted with some of the ways of the non-Japanese world. His experiences by the age of thirty-two were such that he was neither bewildered nor star-struck by what he discovered as the Embassy travelled round the world's capitals and met the world's leaders. On the contrary he makes shrewd observations throughout. It was Kume's task to take notes and, on his return to Japan, to edit them for publication.
The relationship between China and Japan is a many-layered cake, impossible to eat all at once. This article will concentrate on the diplomatic layer of the relationship. Diplomatic history is essentially about the decisions of governments and the documents that are subsequently exchanged. Each of these aspects has its difficulties for the historian of East Asia. For substantial parts of the period under review “government” in a western sense hardly existed in China, while in Japan even the considered decisions of the government in Tokyo frequently failed to reflect the situation on the ground. In Japan's relations with China there was often a dual – if not a multiple – diplomacy at work where the army (among others) had an independent hand in fashioning “policy.”