On March 18, 1885, the Prussian Major Jakob Meckel disembarked from a ship in the port of Tokyo. Meckel was an experienced officer and had fought as a young soldier in the wars against Austria in 1866 and against France in 1870/71. He later taught at the War College in Hanover and the War Academy in Berlin. Early in his military career, Meckel had written essays and books on tactics and command as well as on training methods. His contributions were widely read and formed an important basis for general staff training and the understanding of command and leadership in the armies of the German states. But what brought a Prussian officer to Tokyo, what was Jakob Meckel's task in Japan?
A part of the answer to this question is closely linked to the major developments of the thirty years of the 19th century. In many parts of the world, this was an era of upheaval and accelerated change. These processes were rapid everywhere, but one is likely to find few places where the contrast to the recent past was starker than in Japan. In the little over two decades following the fall of the Tokugawa-Shōgunate and the beginning of the 'Meiji Restoration' in the late 1860s, the Japanese islands had been transformed from a closed, feudally organized entity with many different centers of power into an industrialized, imperial superpower by the end of the century. In this process, which is often referred to as 'modernization', the transfer of knowledge across the globe also played a major role, not least military and warfare.
Questions about the structure, training, equipment and deployment of the military and its integration into the political system were controversial issues in many states. Many countries looked to developments in other states. In the course of these processes of observation and adaptation, a high-ranking Japanese military mission toured the German Empire in September 1884. The impressions gathered in Germany strengthened the Japanese government's decision to engage a German general staff officer as an advisor. The choice of the War Ministry in Berlin fell on Jakob Meckel. After personal talks between Meckel and the Japanese delegation, the latter was more than convinced that it had found a suitable officer in Meckel. The job also appealed to Meckel, and he set off for the 'Land of the Rising Sun' with an initial two-year contract.
When Jakob Meckel came to Japan, he was one of numerous foreign advisors, o-yatoi gaikokujin, who acted in government and in many areas of public life. In the army, Frenchmen in particular had been active as teachers in the officers' schools since the late 1860s and shaped troop training. Japanese officials acted very flexibly and pragmatically in the search for 'best practice' and its transfer and adaptation. Meckel's activities were therefore focused on general staff service. Thus, he began his work at the fledgling "Rikugun Daigakkō," the Japanese Army's general staff school.
Using examples from war history, Meckel taught senior Japanese officers the basics of planning and conducting operations and command and control of large formations. 'War games' served to apply the acquired knowledge to the concrete situation of Japan, to deepen it and to draw conclusions from the results. Even though Meckel's activities directly touched only a small circle of the Japanese military, many of his students occupied influential positions and passed on knowledge and methods in their subsequent assignments.
Meckel's impact, however, also went beyond the training of general staff officers and the practice of modern didactic methods. Simulation games had underscored the need for flexible defense to repel invasions and thus also the demand for greater mobility of troop contingents. These conclusions had considerable influence on infrastructural measures, most notably the development of a railroad network in Japan that could be used for military purposes. Meckel's doctrine also emphasized the functionality of the division as the central organizational unit for combat. In addition, the 1880s were marked by the consolidation of the Meiji government and the strengthening of the positions of power it had attained. In matters of the military, reforms in the structure and organization of armed forces were discussed - not only in Japan. Meckel's ideas, based on the Prussian-German model, such as the clear division of tasks between the general staff (mobilization and warfare), the war ministry (administration) and the Inspectorate General (personnel and training), the emphasis on the political and social role of the military and the recourse to values such as loyalty, devotion to duty and obedience, went well with conservative and rather authoritarian positions and goals within the Meiji elite.
Despite a wide range of activities, Meckel's influence should not be overestimated. The Japanese armed forces were not built up or rebuilt by a Prussian major within three years. However, Meckel's influence should not be underestimated either. As an advisor and expert on many military issues, Japanese leaders involved him in their discussions on the transformation of the armed forces, from training and leadership to infrastructure measures and the constitutional positioning and military cultural orientation of the military. Meckel contributed to these debates by showing commitment and sent out important impulses that were sustainable for further development. Meckel was thus an important mediator and translator for the cross-cultural flow and acquisition of ideas between Europe and Asia.
Almost exactly three years after his arrival in Japan, Meckel left the country at the end of March 1888. The reports on Meckel's activities in Japan speak throughout of mutual trust, respect and sympathy. They testify to both differences and linkages between Japan and Germany. The personal connections that Meckel continued to cultivate throughout his Japanese years become clear.
Even during times of tension in German-Japanese relations in the wake of the conflicts between the imperial powers in East Asia in the 1890s, exchanges between the armed forces of the two countries remained close. Nearly 450 Japanese officers were guests in the German Empire as observers or completed parts of their military training there during the period from 1870 to World War I. Many of them were also welcomed by Meckel as part of his further assignments. Even though Meckel only served in Japan for three years, he is - at least in the Japanese military – an icon. As such, Jakob Meckel embodies the more than 160-year-long bond between Germany and Japan, which in its ups, downs and catastrophes is much more closely intertwined than a first glance would suggest.