Born into a Hagi samurai family in 1830, the charismatic Yoshida Shōin believed that the only way self-isolated, military-ruled Japan could face up to the industrialized world – knocking at the country’s door in the insistent form of Commodore Perry – was to ditch the Tokugawa government, reinstate the emperor and rapidly emulate the ways of the West. To this end, he tried to leave Japan in 1854 on one of Perry’s ships, together with a fellow samurai, but was handed over to the authorities who imprisoned him in Edo (Tokyo) before banishing him back to Hagi.
Once at home, Yoshida didn’t let up in his revolutionary campaign to “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”. From 1857 he was kept under house arrest in the Shōka Sonjuku (now within the shrine grounds of Shōin-jinja), where he taught many young disciples, including the future Meiji-era prime minister Itō Hirobumi. Eventually Yoshida became too big a thorn in the shogunate’s side and he was executed in 1860, aged 29, for plotting to assassinate an official.
Five years later, samurai and peasants joined forces in Hagi to bring down the local Tokugawa government. This, and similar revolts in western Japan, led to Yoshida’s aim being achieved in 1867 – the restoration of the emperor to power.