Tokugawa retainer, Meiji politician and naval engineer

Katsu Kaishū (勝海舟, 1823-1899) was born in Edo (江戸, in modern-day Sumida-ku, Tokyo). Throughout his life he used a lot of aliases and was also known as Katsu Rintarō (勝麟太郎), Katsu Yoshikuni (勝義邦), Awa (安房) from his title Awa-no-kami (安房守) and after the Meiji Restoration as Katsu Yasuyoshi (勝安芳).

He was born into a family of hatamoto (旗本), samurai in the direct service of the Tokugawa shogunate. His father Katsu Kokichi (勝小吉), leading an idle life and barely able to support his family, had to cede his role as paterfamilias once Kaishū/Rintarō reached the age of fifteen. Katsu Kokichi’s autobiography, Musui’s Story (夢酔独言 他 Musui Dokugen), describes the escapades of stealing, brawling and self-indulging samurai and provides a refreshing perspective on Japanese society, customs, economy, and human relationships in the late Edo Period.

His sword master urged Rintarō to give up fencing and focus on rangaku (蘭学, literally “Dutch Learning”), the study of Western technologies, and Dutch language. Reluctant at first, Kaishū/Rintarō became fascinated with Western culture and was recruited into government service, serving as a translator for the Shogunate. From 1855-59, he studied at the Nagasaki Naval Academy as one of thirty-seven Tokugawa retainers.

In 1860, Katsu Kaishū was commissioned an officer in the shogunal navy and commanded the Kanrin-maru (咸臨丸), Japan’s first sail and screw-driven steam corvette, ordered in 1853 from the Netherlands. The Kanrin-maru escorted Japan’s first delegation to the United States on the first authorised overseas voyage in the history of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The journey served to study Western science and technologies but was also meant to show off Japan’s ability to master modern technologies. Katsu Kaishū stayed in San Francisco for two months, observing all aspects of American culture. It is beyond doubt that his subsequent commitment to modernisation and political liberalism can be attributed to his exposure to foreign cultures and ideas.

Upon returning to Japan, he held a series of high ranking posts in the Tokugawa Navy, and in 1862, Kaishū was appointed vice-commissioner of the Navy. He established the Kobe Naval School in 1863, which turned into a hotbed of progressive political ideas and reform. It was around the same time that Katsu Kaishū became the patron of Sakamoto Ryōma, who had initially been intended to assassinate Katsu but eventually worked as his assistant. Also in 1863, Kaishū was promoted to the post of navy commissioner, receiving the honorary title awa-no-kami (安房守, “Protector of Awa Province”). In October 1864, Kaishū was recalled to Edo, dismissed from his post and placed under house arrest for harbouring enemies of the Shogunate. His Naval Academy was closed, and his generous stipend reduced.

In 1866 however, he was reinstated and intermediated between the bakufu and the domain of Chōshū, which – along with Satsuma – fought against the shogunate in the Boshin War. Kaishū surrendered Edo to pro-Imperial forces under Saigō Takamori without resistance to avoid tremendous losses of life and property and to allow for a peaceful transition of power. Although highly critical of the Shogunate, he never openly opposed its government. He followed the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu into exile.

Surprisingly, this is not where his career had ended: he became one of the highest-ranking former Tokugawa retainers in the Meiji Period. In 1872, he was appointed Vice Minister of the Imperial Japanese Navy and served as Minister of the Navy from 1873 until 1878. He became a member of the genrō in 1875. Other positions and titles include sangi (参議, vice counsellor), member of the Privy Council (枢密院 sūmitsu-in) and hakushaku (伯爵, “Earl” or “Count” under the kazoku (華族) system, the hereditary peerage of the Empire of Japan). His role was limited to advisory functions, as the majority of higher positions in the Imperial Navy were filled with officers from Satsuma.

Katsu Kaishū wrote a series of historical publications and released his diaries. He died in Tokyo in 1899. His statue can be found in Sumida-ku, Tokyo.



  • Jansen, Marius B.; Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration, Columbia University Press 1995
  • Jansen, Marius B.; The Emergence of Meiji Japan, Cambridge University Press 1995
  • Katsu, Kokichi; Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai, University of Arizona Press 1991
  • Miyoshi, Masao; As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States, Paul Dry Books 2005



Katsu Kaishū in San Francisco 1860 (Photo credit)


The Kanrin-Maru (Image credit)


Katsu Kaishū (Photo credit)


Katsu Kaishū (勝海舟) as a samurai


Katsu at an advanced age (Photo credit)


Statue of Katsu Kaishū in Sumida-ku, Tokyo (Japan Reference/JREF)