Taiwan Expedition of 1874

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The Taiwan Expedition of 1874 was a punitive expedition sent by the Meiji government to punish Taiwanese aborigines for killing 56 Miyako Islanders who had been shipwrecked on Taiwan in 1871. The Miyako Islanders were perceived to be Japanese subjects, or at least people subordinate to Japan, and since it was believed by the Japanese government that Taiwan was outside of Chinese authority, it was felt that the Japanese had a responsibility to exact retribution for the killing of their people.

The expedition was led by Saigô Tsugumichi. Japanese troops first landed on Taiwan on May 2nd, and fighting ended the following month.


The Miyako Islanders were shipwrecked and killed in the last month of 1871. Roughly six months later, Yanagihara Sakimitsu, a Japanese official in Shanghai at the time, returned to Tokyo and reported the incident to the government. Shortly afterwards, various figures from Satsuma (now Kagoshima prefecture), especially Kabayama Sukenori, a former samurai retainer to the Shimazu clan of Satsuma han, and now commander of the second Kyushu outpost garrison, pressured Tokyo to send some sort of punitive military expedition to Taiwan.

In the aftermath of the Seikanron, a heated 1873 debate in which the Meiji government ultimately decided against an invasion of Korea, despite the resignation of Saigô Takamori and a number of his fellows from government, there were still many who felt that some sort of military expedition was necessary to redirect former samurai restlessness and anger, and to prevent rebellions against the new government. Indeed, Etô Shinpei, one of the oligarchs who resigned in protest following the decision to not invade Korea, led a rebellion in Saga which began just a week or so before the Feb 6, 1874 decision to attack Taiwan.[1]

In negotiations with the Chinese over the 1871 incident, the Qing disavowed any responsibility for the actions of the aborigines, claiming they had no effective control over those regions of Taiwan. US officials Charles DeLong and Charles LeGendre reassured the Japanese that under Western ("modern") systems of international law, this also meant the Chinese were renouncing any claims they had to those parts of the island, rendering those regions terra nullius, and free for the taking.[2] Planning and preparation for the expedition began the following February.

The Expedition

Some 3,600 Japanese troops (along with some number of Americans)[3] first landed on Taiwanese shores on May 2nd, 1874. On the 22nd of that month, they fought the Battle of Stone Gate, which would be the chief battle of the conflict. Saigô himself first arrived within the next week or so, and the fighting ended in June.

Though the Japanese were ultimately victorious, the expedition suffered from numerous difficulties. The initial landing on the island is said to have been poorly executed, and the Japanese forces were, in various ways, ill-prepared for the tropical climate. More than five hundred men lost their lives to malaria,[4] and much equipment was useless in that environment and had to be abandoned.[5]


In October 1874, a treaty was signed in which China admitted less than total sovereign control over certain areas of southern Taiwan (i.e. areas dominated by aboriginal control), recognized the Ryukyuan peoples as Japanese subjects, and agreed to pay an indemnity to Japan.[6]

The issue of Chinese and Japanese claims to Taiwan and Ryûkyû was not entirely settled, however, and would almost lead to outright war in 1879. That year, Ulysses S. Grant brokered a peace, though China ultimately did not sign the formal document, and Japan fully abolished the Ryûkyû Kingdom, annexing its territory as Okinawa Prefecture, over Chinese objections. War between China and Japan eventually broke out less than 20 years later, in 1894. Japan defeated China and took Taiwan as a formal colony, though whether or not this can be considered to have "settled" the matter remains a matter of interpretation or debate.


  • Uemura Hideaki. "The Colonial Annexation of Okinawa and the Logic of International Law: The Formation of an 'Indigenous People' in East Asia." Japanese Studies 23:2 (2003). pp107-124.
  1. Jordan Walker, "Archipelagic Ambiguities: The Demarcation of Modern Japan, 1868-1879," Island Studies Journal 10:2 (2015), 216.
  2. Walker, 214.
  3. "China's Worst Diplomat," The Economist, 21 Dec 2013, 72.
  4. Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 74.
  5. Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 192.
  6. There remains some debate as to whether the Chinese officials intended to recognize the Ryukyuans as Japanese subjects in this agreement, or whether their willingness to pay indemnities for the damages suffered by Japanese subjects refers only to a group of four sailors from Oda prefecture killed by aborigines in 1873. While some Chinese historians today continue to advocate for this view, the Japanese officials at the time, most likely along with the British mediator Thomas Wade, saw the indemnities paid for the suffering of Japanese subjects as including the Ryukyuans killed in 1871 as well. The latter seems to be the dominant view in scholarship today. Walker, 217n23.