Military conscription from the peasantry, for the formation of a standing army loyal to the central Imperial government, was chiefly only practiced in Japan in the Asuka and Nara periods, and again from the Meiji period into the 20th century; during the Heian through Edo periods, government relied on samurai forces (either hired, or called up by feudal obligations) for military action.
Asuka & Nara Periods
The Yamato court introduced a Chinese-style militia by the end of the 7th century, along with its adoption of many other features of Tang Dynasty-style government. Each province had one militia commanded by the provincial governor, formed by drawing upon the peasantry through a corvée system connected to the equal-field system for infantry, and drawing upon prominent families for cavalry. Most provinces had only one militia group per province, but extra units were stationed in Kyushu to defend against possible invasion from the continent (in the aftermath of the wars with Tang & Silla).
During this period, the militias chiefly saw battle against the Emishi, skilled horsemen against whom the Chinese-style system of ranks of infantry, armed chiefly with crossbows, was cumbersome and not particularly effective. Conscription, furthermore, proved a heavy burden on the peasantry, and was ultimately abolished in 792.
Military conscription was first established in Meiji period Japan by a set of Conscription Acts in 1872-1873, and later revised in 1883. Prior to that, in 1871, Iwakura Tomomi and Ôkubo Toshimichi led the organization of a national army, roughly ten thousand strong, composed solely of samurai. By 1873, however, Yamagata Aritomo had convinced the rest of the government to go forward with conscription, having seen its successes in Europe. This established the first citizen army in Japan - the Imperial Japanese Army - and the first organized in service to the nation-state in the modern sense of the term. Men of all classes were conscripted into service for a period of three years active duty, and four years reserve.
The chief figures involved in pushing for the institution of conscription included Ômura Masujirô (who suggested it as early as 1868 and was assassinated for the suggestion the following year), as well as Yamada Kengi of Chôshû, Tani Kanjô of Tosa, and Yamagata Aritomo. They saw conscription not only as a means by which to strengthen the country's defenses against outside attack, especially from the Russians, but also as a means of strengthening it against uprisings against the new government. A centralized military would also help guard against regional governors gathering power and becoming regional warlords.
A set of recommendations submitted in 1872 by Vice Minister of Military Affairs Yamagata Aritomo, and Deputy Vice Ministers Kawamura Sumiyoshi, and Saigô Tsugumichi presents the case for the threat posed by Russia, and the need for a standing army, citing standard practices in Europe and their effectiveness. The official regulations adopted the following year made all men twenty years of age and older eligible for the draft, with a number of exceptions, including those who were too small, sick, infirm, or disabled; those serving as head of household; those serving in certain official positions or studying certain subjects of strategic importance (military academies, medicine, etc.); those whose brother was already in the army; and those who could afford the large sum of 270 yen to buy their way out. Once recruited, a man was to serve a three-year term, and then be entered into the reserves, and allowed to return home.
E.H. Norman points out that there remained, throughout these years, strong elements within the Meiji government, and new-formed military, who still believed strongly in samurai ideals, who believed that commoner/peasant troops could not be as loyal and dutiful nor as skilled in combat as the samurai, people who might lead pro-feudal revolts against the new government in order to restore samurai rule if they were rubbed the wrong way. They were to be proven right, as the 1870s saw numerous samurai uprisings of this sort, particularly in Kyushu, culminating with the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, in which the conscript army also proved itself.
Conscription was deeply unpopular not only among the (former) samurai class, but among the citizenry as well. Many people worked to find ways to claim an exemption, and in 1873-1874, nearly 100,000 people were arrested for involvement in riots attacking enrollment/registration centers.
Conscription was only first extended to Ainu communities in the 1890s, and to parts of Okinawa prefecture in 1898, with the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands only being incorporated into the system in 1902.
- Norman, E.H. Soldier and Peasant in Japan: The Origins of Conscription. New York: Institute for Pacific Relations, 1945. pp41-42, 49.
- William de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol 1, Columbia University Press (2001), 266.
- Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 66.
- David Lu, Japan: A Documentary History, ME Sharpe (1997), 315-320.
- Gordon, 75.