Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Bakumatsu (Part 12): End of Boshin War

Yoshinobu Looking at the Burning of the Osaka Castle
With the Battle of Toba-Fushimi and the fall of Osaka, the Boshin War was on its climax. Explore the following battles and events in this short but momentous segment in Japanese modern history.

Yoshinobu’s Submission

In Edo, Daimyos loyal to the main Tokugawa house and the former Shogun met in a war council. Yoshinobu himself, however, lose his will to fight. Nevertheless, many of his allies continued to struggle while some of his retainers decided to sue for peace.

Yoshinobu stayed in Edo while his advisers and allies discussed their next moves against the Imperial Army closing in from the Tokaido and Koshu Roads. One of Yoshinobu’s retainers suggested for him and the former Shogun to commit hara kiri to preserve the honor of the Tokugawa house. Yoshinobu refused, believing in his responsibility to all of those who were in Edo; and so, the retainer went alone in his ritualistic suicide.

Meanwhile, some Bakufu officials in other cities and provinces began to leave their positions. Shogunate governors in Hyogo and Nagasaki left, leaving Imperial supporters in power, sparing the cities from the ravage of war.

Many Lords proposed to launch a counter attack against the Imperial Army either by launching a naval attack on Osaka or a defense in the Hakone pass. But Yoshinobu fell in anxiety and regret, as the Kinse Shiriaku described him as “already repented of his late conduct, and animate by a spirit of respectful obedience, refused to entertain their proposals.” Personal beliefs, respect to the Emperor, and realization of sudden changes in his political situation troubled his mind.

On March 1868, he met with his trusted retainers Katsu Kaishu and Okubo Ichio. In their conference, Yoshinobu finally decided to act in submission to the Emperor’s will. He issued an order to all his loyal supporters and soldiers to surrender to the Imperial Army. He also submitted himself in retirement in the Kuanyeiji in Uyeno to await the Emperor’s wishes on his own faith.

However, many of his supporters refused to submit to the imperial will and continued to fight. On March 29, 1868, in the Koshu Road, near Katsunuma, few miles north of Mt. Fuji, the Bakufu supporters fought in vain with the advancing Imperial Army. While in the south, the Imperialist advance to take over the Sunpu Castle with 2,000 to 7,000 men before advancing to the Hakone Pass and into Odawara.

On April 25, 1868 (according to the Kinse Shiriaku), Imperial envoys delivered an ultimatum to Edo Castle. The ultimatum demanded the surrender of the Edo Castle along with all the weapons and ammunition they had. They promised clemency to Yoshinobu and less severe punishment to his subordinates and supporters who fought against the Imperial Army. They set May 3 as the deadline for the Shogun’s answer.
Old Tokugawa Yoshinobu

Katsu Kaishu counseled with Yoshinobu over their response. But beforehand, Yoshinobu made up his mind to surrender to Emperor Mutsuhito. On May 2, Katsu surrendered the Edo Castle. Yoshinobu resigned himself to the Emperor’s punishment, which placed him retirement to his home domain of Mito and the reduction of the Tokugawa lands to about 700,000 koku from more than 10 million koku. All of this demand Yoshinobu accepted with resignation, and remained a private citizen until his death on November 22, 1913, outliving Emperor Meiji by about a year.

An order for the surrender of weapons and disbandment of the Shogunal army was issued to all, to which many disobeyed. Many ardent supporters of the Shogun, however, refused to give up. Many continued to fight especially daimyos from the north, which returned to their home Domain and formed what became known as the Northern Alliance or the Hokubu Doumei, with the Aizu Lord, Matsudaira Katamori, as the virtual leader. Over their resistance to the Imperial forces, 3,000 perished and took over about a year to end.

Continuing Resistance

In May 1868, supporters of Yoshinobu continued to fight the Imperial Army. They settled themselves in the Utsonomiya Castle, just northeast of Edo. The Imperial Army attacked the castle, which fell after about a week of siege.

Within the outskirts of Edo, resistance to the Imperial restoration remained. A group of soldiers known as the Shogitai seized the Toeiza Kaneiji as their headquarters. They attacked suspected Imperial soldiers in the streets of Edo and acted rowdy that earned them notoriety. Imperial authorities decided to suppress the Shogitai on July 4, 1868. The Battle of Uyeno resulted to the end of the Shogitai at the cost of burning the temple’s main hall.

After consolidating their control in Edo, the Imperial Army attacked the northern Daimyos, who refused to submit to the Emperor and Yoshinobu’s order to surrender. The massive campaign led to frantic battles in the domains of Echigo, Sendai, Nambu, Yonezawa, and Shonai. However, they saw their campaign in these provinces fruitless with different resistances continuing to reappear. They then decided to attack what they analyzed as the center of this resistance – Aizu and its leader, Matsudaira Katamori – as Francis Adams pointed out, an attack on the domain would “root out” the resistance and its branches (opposition in other provinces and domains) would collapse.
Fighting in the Wakumatsu Castle
On October 30, 1868, Imperial forces advanced to the Wakamatsu Castle of the Aizu Domain. There, Matsudaira Katamori and his retainers and counsel resisted. For a week, the castle held out until November 6, 1868 when they finally surrendered to the Imperial Army. Matsudaira expected harsh punishment for himself, but the Emperor gave him clemency in form of house arrest.

The defeat of Matsudaira led to the collapse of the resistance of other domains, leaving one bastion of resistance remaining – the Republic of Ezo.

Ezo Republic

The Ezo Republic was a renegade “democracy” centered in the island of Ezo (modern day Hokkaido) that served as refuge for Shogunate supporters. They escaped from the Imperial Forces and landed in Hakodate to establish their very own government that remained loyal to the Shogunate and the Tokugawa clan. They practiced democracy in some ways, making them the first republic in Japan. However, the Imperial government refused to allow such rebellious entity in the northern part of the country to exist and to jeopardize the Meiji Restoration.

Enomoto Takeaki
On October 4, 1868, the day designated for the surrender of all weapons and ships of the Bakufu to the Imperial Forces, 8 Shogunate ships led by Enomoto Takeaki, the hero of the Battle of Awa, left Edo for the safety of the northern island of Ezo to escape and to resist Imperial authority. He along with Matsudaira Taro, and a ran away French military adviser from 1867 mission, Jules Brunet, and 3,000 men sailed with 8 ships north. Along their small squad of ships included the Emperor, the yacht given by Queen Victoria to Japan, and the Kanrin Maru, the ship that brought the 1859 Japanese mission across the Pacific and into America. Upon their arrival in Hakodate, they deposed the Imperialist Lord of Matsumae and established a Republic.

Enomoto, a Dutch educated mariner, decided to establish a democratic form of government inspired by his studies in Europe as well as by their French colleagues. They performed an election with a very narrow suffrage – only samurai or soldiers. In this election, they elected Enomoto Takeaki as President and Matsudaira Taro as Vice-President. While Arai Ikosuke served as Navy Minister and Otori Keisuke as Army Minister.

The days of the Republic, however, suffered terribly in the north. No foreign government recognized their Republic due to the neutrality declared by the ministers at the start of the war. In addition, they experienced shortages in rice and hunger set in especially when harsh northern winter came. Soon, they faced military challenges when an Imperial expedition set out to subdue them.

According to the Kinse Shiriaki, on April 29, 1869, the Imperial Navy composed of 7 warships including a formidable ironclad Kotetsu. On May 6, the warships from Ezo launched a preemptive attack on the Imperial Navy in Miyako Bay. But bold strike force suffered a defeat and they retreated back north. Imperialist troops then landed near Hakodate. By May 22, two sides engaged near Matsumae where the Republican army pushed the Imperialist back. 

Few days later, on the 28th, the Imperialist Army launched another attack on Matsumae, this time successfully chasing out the rebels but at the cost of huge casualties. Ezo rebels retreated to Hakodate.

From June 4 to 20, 1869, Imperialist forces furiously attacked Hakodate. Engagements in both land and sea raged from day till night, mostly ending in stalemate. By June 20, the Imperial Navy scored a victory at the bay, eliminating the naval support for the rebels in the besieged port. The remnants of the republic fled to Kameda.

The Imperial army pursued the last bastion of the Ezo Republic where Enomoto himself hid. However, facing shortages and military disadvantages, on June 26, 1869, the leaders of the Ezo Republic sued for peace. Enomoto himself wished to commit hara kiri, but the Emperor stopped him, facing only imprisonment as punishment. Later on, Enomoto received an imperial pardon and elevated within the new aristocracy of the Meiji Era.

The surrender of Enomoto and the Ezo Republic marked the end of any massive resistance by supporter of the Shogunate against the Meiji Restoration.

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. 

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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:

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