Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Bakumatsu (Part 11): Early Boshin War

Battle of Toba Fushimi - Shogunate forces (Left) against Choshu and Tosa (Right)
The Boshin War was a short dramatic chapter in Japanese history where the ancient old Tokugawa Shogunate, or at least, its clan and allies, fought for its dignity against imperial restoration and abolition of their privileges and wealth. Explore this conflict that decided Japan’s destiny.

The Beginning of the War

Resignation of Yoshinobu

The Boshin War began from a proposal sent by the Daimyo of Tosa, Yamauchi Toyoshige, through his adviser and emissary Goto Shojiro. The proposal asked the Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, to step down in heading state affairs in favor of the Emperor. In addition, Goto convinced Yoshinobu of heading a council of great Daimyos that would rule side by side with the Emperor. And lastly, resigning for imperial restoration and leadership of the council would allow Yoshinobu to retain Tokugawa power, influence, and prestige.

Yoshinobu considered the plan for many reasons, embedding from personal to political considerations. Personally, the idea of imperial restoration came from his childhood, especially being the son of Tokugawa Nariaki, a great supporter of the idea. He also owed his advancement to Kyoto in 1862, when emissaries from the imperial court gave him another chance in politics and offered him an influential post.

On the other hand, he viewed the old system of the Bakufu as antiquated and unfit for reforms. He viewed a new leadership or government as a chance to reform Japan for the future. He also saw the dual government as precarious giving an impression of disunity that aggressive foreign imperialist powers might take advantage to establish a sphere of influence or worse, an invasion.

Much to these considerations, on November 19, 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu sent his resignation to Kyoto, ending two hundred years of Tokugawa rule, and about a millennium history of Shoguns.

Vying for Influence in Kyoto

With the resignation of Yoshinobu came the question of imperial rule and who would help and assist them. For centuries, the Emperor and the Court had no experience in state administration and some daimyos sympathetic to Yoshinobu memorialized Kyoto to consider the late Shogun for a position to assist in ruling the country. However, those who wanted the fall of the Tokugawa Clan resisted.

Daimyos allied to the late Shogun recommended the Court to accept Yoshinobu’s advices and help in running state affairs. The regent of the minor Emperor Mutsuhito, Nijo Nariyuki, an ally of Yoshinobu, suggested to create a council of great Daimyos to be headed by the former Shogun. Such movement for the retention of power and wealth of the Tokugawa clan greatly alarmed tozama Daimyos, especially the Satcho alliance.

Iwakura Tomomi
The two allied domains joined forces with anti-Tokugawa nobles in the court, like Iwakura Tomomi, who assisted Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi in influencing the Emperor. Other than influence, samurais from the two domain plotted a coup of the Kyoto imperial palace. On December 28, they informed Goto of their planned takeover of the Palace; and, on the following day, Iwakura enlisted the assistance of the Owari, Tosa, Aki, and Echizen Daimyos for the coup. Echizen’s Matsudaira Keiei, a known close associate and colleague of Yoshinobu, and Tokugawa Yoshikatsu found it best to join the coalition, viewing imperial restoration as a better path towards unity than maintain the status quo.

Rising tensions

On January 3, 1898, on the urging of anti-Tokugawa nobles and lords, the Imperial Court ordered the removal of Aizu troops from their duty of guarding the palace gates. Following this, combined forces of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, Hiroshima (Aki), Owari, and Echizen entered Kyoto. The Court followed with a decree abolishing the Shogunate, hence declaring an imperial restoration and an end of centuries of bakufu, as well as the regency, being handled by Yoshinobu’s ally.

On January 5, 1868, the Court restored the former status of the Mori Clan of the Choshu Domain and their noble allies. The act infuriated Yoshinobu and his supporters. The restoration led Yoshinobu to think his position in Kyoto as precarious and retreated back to Osaka and the safety of its castle.

Yoshinobu’s retreat to Osaka made the situation more strained than ever. Foreign representatives sensed trouble and barred their citizens from selling arms and ammunition to any involved parties. On January 19, a Yoshinobu supporters attacked the residence of the Satsuma Lord in Edo, where a number of its ronins lived. By that time, any amity between Yoshinobu and Shimazu Saboro had ended completely.

Few days after the incident, Lord Tokugawa Yoshikatsu and Matsudaira Keiei arrived in Osaka as envoys of the imperial court and mediators to secure peace and cooperation. They offered Yoshinobu to submit to the Emperor and return to Kyoto where he would be given a respectable position. Moreover, the two informed Yoshinobu that he must come to Kyoto with little escort to avoid any armed conflicts.

For Yoshinobu’s supporters, Lord Matsudaira Katamori of Aizu and Matsudaira Saadaki of Kuwana warned the late Shogun of threats to his life once he returned to Kyoto with little to no escort. Both Lords offered the late Shogun the support of 10,000 samurais to accompany him.

At this point, confusion prevailed as whether Yoshinobu agreed to the massive escort or not. But for sure, combined forces of Aizu and Kuwana domain left ahead of Yoshinobu on January 26, 1868. The clear military movement of huge number of troops immediately alerted Kyoto, to which it quickly responded by sending Satsuma and Choshu forces to the two nearby Kyoto suburbs of Toba and Fushimi to intercept the incoming Shogunal army of supporters.

According to the Kinse Shiriaku, the Bakufu Forces stood at around 30,000 men while the combined Satsuma and Choshu forces that made up the imperial army stood at around 6,500. Both sides had modern weaponry, including artillery. Ijichi Shoji of the Satsuma contingent, and Yamada Ichinojo of the Choshu contingent blocked the roads in Toba and Fushimi leading to Kyoto.

On January 27, 1868, a messenger from the Bakufu Forces arrived in Fushimi demanding the removal of the barricade by the “Imperial” Forces. The Imperial Forces rejected it even to the threat of force by the messengers. Few hours later, as the Bakufu Forces came near Fushimi, Imperial Forces opened fire with their artillery. The first battle of the Boshin War began.

War Ravaged

Battle of Toba-Fushimi and the Fall of Osaka
Skirmish in Toba, January 27, 1868

On January 27, 1868, the Battle of Toba-Fushimi began. Choshu and Satsuma forces planned to prevent the combined forces of Aizu and Kuwana, both supporters of Yoshinobu, from coming to Kyoto via the two suburbs of Toba and Fushimi. Commanders of the Choshu and Satsuma forces rejected the demand of the other side to open up the roads leading to the imperial capital. And as the Aizu and Kuwana armies approached the suburbs, the artillery of the make shift imperial army opened fired.

First skirmishes raged in Fushimi and ended in stalemate. Afterwards, on the night of the 27th, Satsuma and Choshu spies reported the Bakufu Forces camping and eating their meals in Toba. Imperial Forces then launched a surprise attack against this camp, causing huge casualties to the Bakufu Forces. Meanwhile, in Osaka, Satsuma samurais residing in the home of the Satsuma Daimyo were burned alive as Yoshinobu supporter’s attack in revenge of Toba and Fushimi.
Map of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, from History of Japan
by Francis Adams
On the 28th, the battle in both suburbs continued with the Imperial Forces gaining the upper hand and the Bakufu Army retreating to Yodo. In the town, the castle of the local lord refused to open its gates to the Bakufu army, leaving them exposed to enemy attacks. Meanwhile, as the land battle pressed on, Satsuma ships in Awa Bay in Shikoku suffered a defeat in hands of the Bakufu Navy led by a Dutch educated mariner Enomoto Takeaki.

On the 29th, Imperial forces pursued the Bakufu Forces in Yodo, causing the latter’s retreat either back behind barricades held by ally Idzu samurais in Yamazaki or to the other side of the nearby Yodogawa River in Hashimoto. Kyoto sent emissaries to the Idzu samurais in Yamazaki to convince them to defect to their side in the midst of the legitimacy of their cause as well as their military strength. Idzu defected, opening Yamazaki to Imperial Forces.

As Yamazaki opened, the Imperial Army also attacked Hashimoto and flushed out the Bakufu Army. The remaining Bakufu soldiers retreated back to Osaka behind its formidable castle.

In Osaka, Yoshinobu decided to leave the port city for the safety of his capital Edo. On February 1, 1868, the former Shogun boarded the Kaiyo Maru for Edo. Few days later, Imperial Forces marched into the city and burned the Osaka Castle. The fall of the Osaka Castle and the victory in Toba-Fushimi uplifted the spirits of the Imperial Lords. Despite facing numerically superior Shogunal Forces, the Imperial Army succeeded in evicting them in Osaka. Later on, Emperor Mutsuhito or Meiji visited the port city and reviewed his troops and ships to show a new vibrant imperial rule.

The fall of Osaka also marked a change in roles and situation in Japan’s politics. In February 5, 1868, an imperial decree designated Yoshinobu as a rebel for his disobedience to the orders of the Emperor and ordered all Lords to contribute troops to punish the late Shogun. The event marked a shift from the situation five years ago, when Yoshinobu received an order to chastise the Choshu Domain. But by then, he became the hunted from the hunter and different Lords led by the Choshu and Satsuma, supported by his relatives and former allies like Echizen and Owari, formed a coalition against him.

After the pronouncement marking Yoshinobu as a renegade, a huge coalition of various Lords formed up. In addition, the Emperor and his advisors also moved to gain the recognition of foreign representatives over the change in leadership within the country. Although not easy and smooth, the Emperor made a pronouncement that indeed changed Japan’s perception over foreigners.

The Imperial Court aimed to capture Yoshinobu and his capital of Edo in order to finish the civil war. Lord Arisgawa Takahito commanded what became the Imperial Army made by samurais and militias from Satsuma, Aki, Choshu, Todo, Bizen, Sadowara, Kameyama, Minakuchi, Omura, Oki, Higo, Echizen, Tosa, and Ogaki Domain. Later on, many more, mostly Tozama Daimyos and from the western parts of the country joined the Imperial Army. This army stood poise to advance to Edo and cement the position of Emperor Mutsuhito as the head of Japan.

Foreign Relations
Emperor Meiji with Foreign Representatives during the Boshin War

Meanwhile, Emperor Mutsuhito and his court decided to get the recognition of foreign ministers. On February 8, 1868, Kyoto informed foreign representatives that Japan, from that day on, would be led by the Emperor and notified them of Yoshinobu’s status as a rebel. They then invited the representatives to an unprecedented private audience with the Emperor himself – a turnaround from the Emperor who ordered to expel foreigner barbarians.

They designated March 23 as the day of the audience in the imperial capital of Kyoto itself. The mere invitation of the Emperor led the foreigners to declare at least their neutrality over the conflict on February 18.

The Emperor’s audience with the French and the Dutch went well, however, Henry Parkes, British minister to Japan, faced an attempted assassination by some disgruntled samurais. The attempted assassination prompted a new edict that proclaimed the Emperor’s recognition of the treaty and its enforcement as well as ordering the Japanese people to treat foreigners as guest of his Imperial Majesty.

But by getting the support or at least their neutrality from the civil war, the Imperial Forces needed to take on a huge coalition of Tokugawa supporters before completely establishing an Imperial rule.

Explore also:


Alcock, Rutherford. The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years' Residence in Japan. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1863. 

Beasley, W.G. The Modern History of Japan. New York, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publisher, 1963.

Craig, Albert et. al. East Asia: The Modern Transformation Volume 2. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965. 

Fukuzawa Yukichi. The Autobiography of Yukichi FukuzawaTranslated by Eiichi Kiyooka. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume 12. B. London: Whitrow and Company, 1820.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gubbins, J.H. The Progress of Japan, 1853 - 1871. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911. 

Harris, Townsend. The Complete Journal of Townsend Harris: First American Consul and Minister to Japan. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1959.

Jansen, Marius (ed.). The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 5: The Nineteenth Century. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Marquis de Moges. Recollections of Baron Gros's Embassy to China and Japan in 1857 - 1858. London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, 1861.

Murray, David. Japan. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.

Oliphant, Laurence. Narrative of the Earl of Elgin's Mission to China and Japan in the Years 1867, '58, '59. London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1860. 

Satow, Ernest (Trans.). Japan 1853 - 1864 or Genji Yume Monogatari. Tokyo: n.p., 1905. 

__________________. Kinse Shiriaku: A History of Japan, From the First Visit of Commodore Perry in 1853 to the Capture of Hakodate by the Mikado's Forces in 1869. Tokyo: The Naigwai Shuppan Kyokwai, 1906. 

Ward, A.W. et. al. The Cambridge Modern History Volume XI: The Growth of Nationalities. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1909.

Lord Elgin. Edited by Theodore Walrond. "Letters and Journals of James, Eight Earl of Elgin." In Project Gutenberg. Accessed on June 19, 2016. URL: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10610/pg10610-images.html

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