As a twelve-year-old boy of the Chosu Clan, he joined a rifle unit in 1859, but was a drummer because he was too small to carry a gun. Nevertheless, he saw combat at first hand, as Western-trained Tokugawa troops smashed the Chosus. He went to the Language School in 1969, which soon became the School of Military Studies.
By 1874, he entered an army containing conscripts. A specialist in German military doctrine, he studied in Europe, and returning in 1878, instituted doctrine and training programs for Aritomo Yamagata.
In 1886 he became vice war minister. During the First Sino-Japanese War, he commanded the 3rd Division.
After serving as the second governor-general of Taiwan, and chief of the Tokyo Defense Force, he became war minister in the third Ito cabinet, the first Obuma, second Yamagata and fourth Ito cabinets.
He became prime minister in an alternation with Kinmochi Saionji (the so-called "Kei-En Age"). He led Japanese initiative on Pacific policy matters such as hthe conclusion of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, the Russo-Japanese War, and Japan's annexation of the Korean Peninsula. One of his governments fell after public indignation of the Russo-Japanese treaty ratified on 28 August 1905; Saonji, known as an opponent of the war, took over.
Emperor Taisho came to the throne in July 1912, believing Japan had to become more of a force in the world. Yoshihito and his key advisers asked Katsura to carry out his plans, which centered on "perfection of national defense", or a military buildup that would permit trans-Korean empire building. The government of the Constitutionalists, under Prince Saionji, opposed it on financial grounds. On December 12, however, Saionji's War Minister resigned, causing the fall of his cabinet. On 21 December, Taisho simply named Katsura as the new prime minister; Saionji resigned as head of the consitutionalists. Riots broke out all over Japan, and Katsura resigned three days later.
Saionji helped the Throne save face by making Admiral Gonbee Yamamoto the new prime minister, and cut naval spending. Yamamoto was replaced over financial improprieties, by the diplomat, Takaaki Kato.
- Stewart Lone (2000), Army, empire and politics in Meiji Japan: The Three Careers of General Katsura Taro, Palgrave MacMillan, ISBN 978-0312232894, pp. 7-9
- Katsura, Taro, National Diet Library
- David Bergamini (1971), Japan's Imperial Conspiracy, Morrow, pp. 292-295