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The Evolution of Imperial Japan’s War Medals (1875-1945)

Article about: The Evolution of Japan’s War Medals (1875-1945) Prolog; Modernization of Japan, 200 years to catch up on As the era of the Shogun and the Samurai drew to a close, and sovereignty returned to

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    Default The Evolution of Imperial Japan’s War Medals (1875-1945)

    The Evolution of Japan’s War Medals (1875-1945)

    Prolog; Modernization of Japan, 200 years to catch up on

    As the era of the Shogun and the Samurai drew to a close, and sovereignty returned to the Emperor in 1868, in what history refers to as the Meiji Restoration, Japan needed to embark on an all out drive to modernize the nation in order to survive and join the ranks of Western powers. This policy was called 富国強兵 (Fukoku Kyouhei, meaning to enrich the nation and strengthen its soldiers/army).

    Western style modern industry, Rail Roads, The Constitution, Medical Research, Guns, War ships and so on was what this meant in concrete terms. But first, they needed foreign currency to import modern machinery from the west, and for that Japan had to export.

    The key to this was silk that ladies in the west loved to have for their dresses. However, even if you had silk, you still had to get it to Yokohama to get it on ships to the USA, etc and this required a railroad system that could negotiate the mountain range that ran through the center of the Japanese archipelago, much in the same way the Rockies divided the USA in the middle.

    The railway to the east and west of this central divide was built without undue difficulty, but a steep mountain pass stood between these two sections. The 28-year old man who was given the job of getting the train through this section was my great grandfather, Sanjiro Kikkawa. He was born into a Samurai family, whose job it was to serve as the personal guard for the Lord of Ogaki, but the end of the Samurai era transformed him into a government employee, more specifically a railroad engineer. He was sent to England to learn about railroad engineering and from there he came to Germany in 1888 to study the new railway they had built to negotiate the steep climb in the Harz Mountains. With this know-how he took home, he was finally able to conquer the notorious Usui pass, and in 1893, the first train chugged across.

    The World Expos 1867 and 1873 and the Medals & Orders Development Mandate

    I wanted to tell the little story above to show one small facet of what it meant for Japan to be reborn as a modern nation after it had opened itself to the outside world after a national isolation that spanned 200 years. We are talking about 200 years of catching up to do, and this meant that the kind of challenge my great grandfather faced needed to be overcome in myriad fields almost all at once by what must have been hundreds of bright young men with boundless energy, sent around the globe on missions to bring back knowledge that made such breakthroughs possible. Modern Japan was built by the young, who had to shoulder huge responsibilities hard to imagine today. But how does the inexperienced go about judging what was necessary for Japan?

    To the fledgling country of Japan, World Expos were a huge source of such inspirations, as these Expos provided an opportunity for Japan to measure itself against other nations, learn of new technologies and make contact with the key people to bring such know-how to Japan. Just like a fledgling militaria collector making his first exciting excursion to the annual militaria shows of Europe and the USA, Japan went to the 1867 Expo in Paris.

    Back then, even before the Meiji era, Japan was already relying on France for help in modernizing its army. Thus, the real historical military advisor which inspired the character played by Tom Cruise in the film, “The Last Samurai” was actually a Frenchman by the name of Jules Brunet, and “The Last Shogun”, Yoshinobu Tokugawa even wore a French general’s uniform proudly on occasion, which had been presented to him by Napoleon the Third. However, on occasions like Expos, the Japanese visitors met heavily decorated and bemedaled European dignitaries, and were made keenly aware that Japan was still lacking a western style system for recognizing and awarding military honors which could adorn their uniforms. Some important milestones in the development of Japan’s Medals & Orders were laid at these Expos, which I will not get into, as Expos are only backdrops to the story I wish to relate to you.

    By the next World Expo in Vienna of 1873, the balance of power in Europe had shifted, and now Prussia, having defeated France, started to gain the attention of Japan.

    In that same year, 1873, in the same manner that my great grandfather was assigned the task of studying western railroads, the government assigned another former 34-year old Samurai, Yuzuru Ogyu to the task of studying the system of how other nations honored meritorious deeds and develop an award system suitable for Japan.
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    1875, Japan Establishes its Orders and Campaign Medal

    What Ogyu eventually launched on 10th April 1875 were the 8 classes of the Order of the Rising Sun and one general purpose campaign medal. They were so new to Japan that he even had to struggle for words what to call them in Japanese, as until then they only used the French word “Medaille”, which the Japanese pronounced as “Medaiyu”. He improvised by applying a Chinese word 牌 Hai, meaning tablet. So Orders were called 賞牌(Shouhai, Award Tablet)and the campaign medal was called 従軍牌(Jugun Hai, Military Service Tablet). But they soon realized that trophies and plaques were also being called Shouhai, so in order to avoid confusion, they switched words to the current 勲章(Kunsho, Symbol of Merit )for orders and 従軍記章(Jugun Kisho, Military Service Commemorative Symbol)for the War medal the following year on 15th November 1876.
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    1875-1890, A Growing Hierarchy of Orders

    Thus for the first 13 years in the history of Japanese orders, there were only Rising Suns to be won. The very first order awarding ceremony in Japanese history was held on December 31, 1875 and 8 members of the Royal Family were awarded first classes. Prince Arisugawa Takahito, thus received the very first citation with the number “1” on it.

    The lesser grades of the Rising Sun were presented later in connection with the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. This rebellion virtually became the death throes of the Samurai class, disillusioned by the ban on wearing swords and cancellation of their traditional salaries by the Meiji government, which they saw as the last straw of affront to the pride of the Samurai class. Losing this war was indeed the “last of the Samurai”.

    In 1888, the 8 classes of the Order of the Sacred Treasure joined to become a series junior to the Rising Suns, and 8 classes of the Order of the Precious Crown adorned with pearls were introduced as the Rising Sun equivalent for women. This was because the Rising Suns could only be awarded in those days to men, which is no longer the case now .

    Both the Rising Sun and Sacred Treasure were awarded to civilians and military members alike, but in 1890, the Order of the Golden Kite was added as a purely military order. Whereas the former two could also be awarded to government employees for long service, the Golden Kite was based strictly on deeds of valor, which is why this was the only order that got discontinued at the end of WW2 while all other orders continue to exist today. (Clint Eastwood was awarded the 3rd class of the Rising Sun in 2009 for his contribution to US and Japan relations through his film making).

    The various classes of Golden Kites were also clearly segregated from the classes of orders additionally by how each class was called. For instance a 3rd class Order of the Rising Sun or Sacred Treasure would be called 勲三等(Kun San Tou, 3rd Grade of Merit) whereas the Golden Kite 3rd class would be called功三級(Ko San Kyu, 3rd Class of Merit). In English they end up the same, but in Japanese the distinction is clear. These also became part of a person’s title, so if a “Rising Sun 2nd class” citation said 勲二等功四級 (2nd Kun, 4th Ko) before the person’s name, you automatically knew that he was already a recipient of a 2nd class order, which in this case would mean he had a Sacred Treasure 2nd class, as well as the 4th class of the Golden Kite.

    There were also some orders that got added above the Rising Suns. The Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum was founded in 1876 and above it the Collar of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum in 1888. The Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun with the Paulownia Flowers was also introduced in 1888.  
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    What goes into a Medal?

    I will not dwell any further on the subject of orders, as that would be a subject for another time. Rather, here I would like to trace the evolution of the tradition of Japanese war medals that started with the plain “Military Service Tablet” which Ogyu unceremoniously stuck to the very end of his first lineup of Rising Suns.

    A full story of all the Japanese war medals would become a book in itself and be outside the scope of what I wish to accomplish here. However, neither do I wish to only just zoom past the medals and give short captions like a picture book. So let me offer you a compromise. I will present you full stories on the first 3 and last 3 medals and run through the other medals in between in simple catalog style.

    Whenever something totally new gets started, it takes several attempts until a clear consensus is formed that becomes a self-perpetuating tradition. The 4W1H of medals also swayed this way and that way until it firmed up. Taking a look at the first 3 medals shows us what thoughts and drama went into the medals as they gradually congealed into a tradition.

    Of the last 3 medals, two of them never really saw the light of day, as the Empire fell before they could really be issued. As they are medals related to WW2, they are much discussed, but no one in the last 70 years has ever been able to successfully lift the shroud of mystery surrounding the circumstances of the stillbirth of medals that today ought to have been so common to be in every collection. This will be the first time many of their secrets will be revealed.

    For your reference, here are the various war medals and commemorative medals instituted for the Empire of Japan including Manchuria. We will only be discussing the war medals from this lineup.
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    The First 3 Medals and the Forming of a Tradition

    1875, Japan’s First War Medal Template

    When Ogyu launched the Rising Sun Orders he added a general purpose war medal at the end. It was general purpose in the sense that this was supposed to be the medal for all wars and the campaign names were to be simply added as bars on the ribbon, an idea taken from the British style of campaign medals. Therefore although the institution date of the 1874 War Medal is normally said to be the same time as the Rising Sun Orders, in truth that particular edict merely launched a blank medal, which provided space for the year of the conflict on the back and a blank bar on the ribbon where the name of the campaign was to be added.

    In this sense, what was launched on 10th April 1875 was only a general template for future campaign medals and no 1874 War Medal. There actually should have been a separate decree, announcing the application of this template to the War of 1874, and which should have further spelled out the name of the campaign to go on the bar and the official date to be stamped on the rear, but such a document was never issued as the army itself confirmed later during the planning of the Boxer Rebellion Medal.

    A citation I have as well as another one I have seen are both dated 26th December 1876, which is 1 year and 8 months after the so-called institution date. Although these medals were supposed to have been launched at the same time as the Rising Suns, they were only issued a full year after the presentation of the 8 first classes of the Rising Suns, so it is fairly clear that the decision to issue the 1874 War Medal came later than the introduction of the Rising Sun Order, but never followed due process of the law to formalize it. Remember they were youngsters, doing this for the first time in Japan.
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    1874, The Malaria Ridden Taiwan Incident

    This plain medal was what was presented as the first war medal for modern Japan’s very first military excursion abroad. Actually, it was not even supposed to be a military campaign, but only a crime investigation. By later standards, it was nothing that really deserved a war medal.

    What had happened was that in 1871 a ship from Okinawa got marooned off the coast of southern Taiwan and 54 members of the crew were massacred by a tribe of natives there. Taiwan was supposed to be part of China, so Japan demanded that China conduct an investigation. However, China declined to get involved, claiming that the Taiwanese were not China’s responsibility. So Japan eventually had to send its own investigators, but as the case was a mass murder, with many victims, they decided to send the military instead of just the police. Official records only showed 8 killed in action and 25 wounded, but out of the roughly 6000, including noncombatant civilians, who were sent there, as many as 561 perished of malaria and statistics show that each of the 6000 got this disease 2.7 times on average during their 9 month stay in Taiwan.
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    The 1874 War Medal

    For this action in Taiwan, a total of 2,638 individuals received the 1874 War Medal, 2,352 for army personnel and 286 for the navy. At this time, the Japanese army was dominated by former Samurai of the Satsuma and Choshu Domains, as they were the victors of the coupe against the Shogunate , which established modern Japan under the rule of the emperor. Therefore those who were sent to Taiwan were generally from southern Japan, particularly many were from the former Satsuma Domain from what is now Kagoshima prefecture, as many in this area also volunteered to become permanent settlers in Taiwan after the campaign.

    Among the troops sent to Taiwan were also three Americans who were hired by the Japanese government as advisors. From the US Navy a Lt. Commander Douglas Kassel was there, who died of the malaria he contracted in Taiwan after his return to the USA. Another American was a James Earl Watson a major who had been working for the foreign office at that time. Fairly detailed CVs of the three are filed in the Japanese National Archives, because the Japanese government considered awarding them with orders. Douglas Kassel was passed over, due to his early death, but Watson was recommended for a Rising Sun 4th class, and although the records do not specifically mention it, he would have received the Taiwan Campaign Medal as well.
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    The obverse side of the medal had the neutral word 従軍記章 (Military service symbol/medal) surrounded by paulownia sprays. Above it was the bar which read Taiwan. As it was an all purpose medal, above the Taiwan bar, the supporting frame already had extra holes to accommodate a bar for a future campaign.

    The reverse said 明治七年, 7th Year of Meiji and歳次甲戌, Year of the Dog (Chinese Zodiac), both meaning 1874. The medal was of silver and measured 25mm in diameter, making it the smallest of Japanese medals.

    Japan did not have the know-how yet to add the fancy water patterns one sees on later medal/order ribbons, and the ribbon was also not silky, but quite stiff to the touch as it was woven with hemp as a core. The water effect on silky ribbons only came after 1881, when Seikichi Sugimura finally succeeded in copying the European process.

    Although the 4th to 8th classes of the Rising Sun Orders came with a hook and eyelet device on the rear of the ribbon to facilitate wearing on the chest, no thought seemed to have been given by the planners of the campaign medal to how recipients were supposed to fix the medal on the left chest, as when presented, the rear of the ribbon did not yet have the hook and eyelet arrangement, customarily seen on Japanese medals of later introduction. It may even be possible that they intentionally did not add any hanging device, as they still anticipated that another campaign bar might need to be added in the near future, as suggested by the vacant holes remaining on the frame. That is, if an additional bar were to be added, the folding point of the ribbon above the bar needed to shift up, so the eyelet position would have required adjustment.

    Examples in collections today that have this hook and eye for mounting must have had them added by the owner after the introduction of the Red Cross medal of 1888 and the Imperial Constitution Promulgation Commemorative Medal of 1889, which came with hook and eyelet in the rear. The same hardware as used on these later medals was retrofitted to the 1874 War Medal by those who wanted to wear them. However, judging from the fact that most examples show up without any mounting provisions, the majority of the recipients seem to have just stashed them away in some closet corner. Remember that they were still hardcore Samurai who hardly knew anything about Western ways, being more comfortable with a sword than with guns.

    It was only by Ordinance 38, dated 13th May 1879 that belated instructions were given on how to arrange loops in braided silk cord on the chest of the uniforms to hang the be-ribboned orders and the 1874 medal.
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    The case was equally plain, a wooden box with a hinged lid without any inscription to identify the medal inside. Unlike later medals, the inside of the case didn’t even have a recess in the shape of the medal for firmly seating the medal in place to prevent it from rattling around.

    Later medals would get smaller citations with less flowery adornment, but the citation for this medal was identical to what one received with a Rising Sun Order, reflecting an, as yet, underdeveloped concept of differentiation between order and medal. The wording was naturally different from those of orders, but the floral design framing the citation, paper size and quality were all identical to those of the Rising Suns. The citation did mention that the recipient had served in the Taiwan campaign, but the name of the medal is simply printed as "Campaign Medal", not "1874 war medal" nor the "Taiwan campaign medal" so that the same form could be used for future campaigns as well.

    As Yuzuru Ogyu, the man who set up Japan’s award system spent the rest of his career in the Decoration Bureau, his name also continued to appear as issuer of the citations until 1907 or so (He died in 1910).

    Delivery of the medal seemed to take forever. A document dated 8th February 1878 inquired how the war medals should be delivered to the recipients. It pointed out that the only sensible way to get them to the soldiers was to have the municipality where each soldier lived handle it, as the units had long been disbanded and many men had already been discharged from the army. Those still remaining in the army were also now scattered around Japan. So more than a year after the citation dates I have seen of December 1876, they still had not figured out how to get them to the recipients.
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    1895, The Sino-Japanese War Medal made from American Cannons

    As the 1874 War medal had already laid the groundwork for a general purpose war medal, the medal for the Sino-Japanese War should have been a no-brainer. Those who had received the 1874 War medal with the Taiwan bar would now have received a “China” bar to add above it, and those who did not have the medal yet would have received a medal identical to the 1874 medal, but with the China bar only and with dates for the Sino-Japanese war in the back. That was how Ogyu had planned it back in 1875.

    However, many felt that the victory in the Sino-Japanese War was particularly sweet and special, deserving something more than a mere campaign bar, something that made it more of an honor medal. The Sino-Japanese War Medal was, in the minds of many, a justified exception to the formula established by the founding fathers of the Japanese system of medals & orders.

    In addition it was already 20 years from the Taiwan campaign and there also had been the recent introductions of two commemorative medals, celebrating the Imperial Constitution (2nd August 1889) and the 25th Wedding Anniversary of Emperor Meiji (5th March 1894), so Japan had gotten a bit more medal savvy by the time of establishing the 1894-1895 War Medal.

    This time, the army also couldn’t help making some suggestions rather than leave the designing entirely to the Decoration Bureau. It is fortunate, however, that the army didn’t have too much of a say in the actual design, as their design ideas were quite limited to put it mildly (See below for some of their idea sketches). However, the army did come up with some sensible suggestions for some symbolic features which should give the medal that extra sense of significance.
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