THE HISTORY OF HISOKA MAEJIMA– and why he should be voted “most notable” person from Joetsu.

At a recent visit to my local post office, all staff, including manager Tanaka, were wearing red T-shirts with an inscription to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Japan postal system. A system that was created shortly after the Meiji restoration (1868), during that remarkable period in which Japan had concluded that it was preferable to let the barbarians in — but on Japanese terms — than to try and keep them out.

Admiral Perry had made it abundantly clear that he was not going to accept the latter option. In order to build up a position of strength, Japan started on the acquisition of foreign technology and know-how with the objective of reaching par with Western nations as quickly as it could.

To this end, Japan hired foreign experts to provide them with that technology and know-how, but also sent its own young men abroad to learn and to experience first-hand how foreign countries had become so much stronger economically, politically and technically than Japan at the end of the period of its self-imposed isolation (“sakoku).

One of these young Japanese was Maejima Hisoka. He was born in 1835 in Shimoikebe (in present day Joetsu) under the name Ueno Fusagorō. After the death of his father, his mother moved back to Takada. She was a major influence in his life and was teaching him, using books obtained from Edo. An uncle in Itoigawa who was a medical doctor encouraged his interest in medical studies.  At a young age he went to Edo to study rangaku, medical science and English. He traveled around Japan, including a spell in Nagasaki to study naval architecture. In 1866 he was allowed to take over the responsibilities of a Kyoto Bakufu official, Maejima Jojiro, thus inheriting the name Maejima. At about the same time he married Naka, daughter of another Bakufu official, Shimizu Yoichiro.

In 1870 he was sent to Great Britain for further study and this included the workings of its General Post Office. , Upon his return to Japan in 1871, his proposals for the creation of a postal system in Japan were quickly approved and implemented.

The Japanese post office began operation in April 1871 with a daily service linking Tokyo with Osaka, with 65 post offices in between. Maejima also created a system of postal savings banks in 1874. In 1877 Japan was admitted into the Universal Postal Union. Over the years, the postal system has developed into a postal service combined with bancassurance activities, since 2007 under the umbrella of the Japan Post Group. In that year the Group also took its first steps towards privatization, a process undertaken more for political reasons than anything else and unlikely to run its natural course to full privatization.

Japan Post has about 24,000 offices — although reflecting population dynamics, an increasing number of offices is being closed — offering a range of economic, social, and cultural functions.

The question who is the most notable person from Joetsu can easily be answered in the minds of most people in Joetsu. Uesugi Kenshin of course, the 16th century daimyo of Echigo province. In his younger years he lived in Joetsu’s Rinsenji whereas later in life he was the best-known occupant of Kasugayama Castle. Kenshin was the main subject in several historical novels, movies and NHK Taiga dramas. He also was featured in many video games. He is omni-present in Joetsu. But was he really Joetsu’s most notable person, considering the achievements of Maejima?

After successfully establishing Japan’s postal system, Maejima was appointed in 1878 to the Genrou-in (a predecessor of the Diet), and in 1879, he was appointed Vice Minister for Home Affairs. Not content with being “Father of the Postal System”, Maejima started his own newspaper in 1872, the Yubin Hochi Shimbun, later renamed the Hochi Shimbun and in 1942 merged with the Yomiuri Shimbun.

He played a role in establishing the Tokyo Semmon Gakkō and served as its principal from 1886 to 1890. The school was renamed Waseda University in 1902.

Maejima established the Kansai Railroad Company in Osaka and in 1894 established the Hokuetsu Railway connecting Niigata with Naoetsu.  

He was actively involved in establishing the Rikken Kaishinto which became the 2nd largest political party. He was Vice Minister of Communications from 1888 to 1891, and in that capacity founded Japan’s telephone service.

In recognition of his services, he became a baron (danshaku) in 1902 and served as a member of the House of Peers from 1904 to 1910. He died in 1919 at the age of 84 at his summer cottage in Yokosuka. His wife had already passed away in and he was survived by one son and three daughters and a number of grandchildren.

Answering the question who is the most notable person from Joetsu, my choice would be Maejima Hisoka. That raises the next question. Are Maejima’s achievements recognized in his birthplace? Kenshin’s historical exploits as daimyo of Echizen obviously speak to the historical imagination of the Japanese much more than the life and times of Mr. Maejima. But if only as “Father of the Postal System”, Maejima’s relevance to present-day Japan is very significant as a major contributor to the modernization of Japan in the Meiji era.

Considerably more modest than what remains of Kasugayama Castle, there is a small Maejima Memorial Museum in the middle of the rice fields in his birthplace, Shimoikebe. 

View from the entrance of the Maejima Memorial Hall on rice fields and local shrine
Toilet window in Maejima Memorial Hall
It was not all study and business. Maejima was an accomplished and recognized shakuhachi player.

In front of the museum stands a large statue of Maejima and you have to wonder whether a man with Maejima’s stature should not be more appropriately recognized in his home town by relocating this sculpture to Takada where he spent the first of his formative years.

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