Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Bakumatsu (Part 3): Unity of Court and Shogunate

Hitotsubashi Keiki (Yoshinobu), 1867Ii Naosuke and Tokugawa Nariaki’s demise signaled the start of a rocky relationship between the Bakufu, the Imperial Court, and the Daimyos. Explore the attempt to unite the Shogunate and the Emperor.

Kobu Gattai

Unity between the Court and the Shogunate or Kobu Gattai followed after the brutal repression under Ii Naosuke’s regency. All three faction decided to mend their ties together and unite during the prevailing aggressive western incursions to Japan. The unity symbolically materialize in the form of marriage in 1862 between the sister of the Emperor – Princess Kazunomiya – and the young Shogun Iemochi.

Satsuma played a significantly vital role in this unity between three factions. Satsuma, a large domain located in Kagoshima and ruled by the Shimazu Clan, belonged to the class of Tozama Daimyos or Outsiders. Edo forbid them from any government participation, yet allowed them to keep their large size of Kokudaka/Koku (Feudal Japan based the sizes of domain on potential rice production measurement called Kokudaka rather than land area). The domain also commanded influence due to its large tax base along with its large numbers of samurais serving as retainers.

Shimazu Hisamitsu/Saburo, father of the Daimyo of Satsuma and wielded great influence in political affairs, strongly persevered to maintain the precarious Kobu Gattai. He voiced moderate and centrist opinions, yet he remained traditionally weary and critical towards the Tokugawa Shogunate. He worked for the amnesty of members of the Mito Clan, for the wedding of the Shogun and the Emperor’s sister, and for the balance of traditionalist and reformist within the Bakufu. On the latter, he mended the two factions by securing the appointment of Hitotsubashi Keiki (Yoshinobu) and Matsudaira Keiei/Yoshinaga of the Echizen Domain to important and powerful positions within the Bakufu in July 1862. By the following month Hitotsubashi served as guardian of the minor Shogun Iemochi and as head of the state council, wielding great powers that made him a prime mover within the Bakufu.. Matsudaira Keiei meanwhile supported Hitotsubashi in the state council also acquiring great influence as well. Both men, reformed the Shogunate to adjust to the changing times and to uphold the Kobu Gattai. 

Sankin Kotai or alternate attendance, a system of visitation by daimyos to Edo as a means to control and to watch over them by the Shogun, faced reform under Hitotsubashi and Matsudaira. This went on grounds of giving Daimyos time to strengthen their defenses in preparation of any conflict against the foreign barbarians. On the other hand, it signaled the Shogunate’s attempts to distribute power to the Daimyos and to secure their support. However, on the negative note, the change also implied the weakening of Tokugawa central authority as it allows Daimyos, like Choshu, who oppose the Shogunate to move and to plan freely. 

The reform also freed the families of the Daimyos from staying in Edo under virtual hostages. As a result, Edo’s population suddenly dropped and Kyoto’s population instantly rose as many Daimyos supporting imperial restoration or at least, the Court’s stand in support of Jo-I or expel the barbarians, gathered around the Imperial Palace.

The Kobu Gattai, however, faced challenges from situations they never had faced before. The effects of trade with the foreigners caused disturbances in uncontrollable scale.

Immediate Effects of Trade

Inflation caused by trade with foreign countries hampered Japan, challenging the sensitive Kobu Gattai and causing violent social and local unrest.

Opening ports to foreign trade instantly altered the Japanese economy. Rise in demands for commodities like rice and exportation of silk without any growth in production caused rising prices. The issuance of additional currency and its readjustment exacerbated conditions. Worse, government spending in research and defense further inflated price; hence, it brought hardship to many poor Japanese. Furthermore, the sudden need for defense and research spending took much of the budget and reduced the allocation of money meant for stipends of samurai. Penniless samurais took their frustration violently against the Shogunate and foreigners as seen later.

Importation of ready-made and cheap cotton goods strongly competed against local cottage textile industries, resulting to lose of income in many villages. The impoverished peasants and merchants negatively affected by the opening began to lose confidence to Bakufu.

The Bakufu attempted to ease problems by curtailing foreign trade. In May 1860, Edo gave few chosen Edo wholesalers right to sell commodities to foreigners, which seemed to be a virtual monopoly. Foreigners vehemently protested against the law due to its parallelism to the Cohong System imposed in China before. Eventually, the Bakufu experienced difficulty in enforcing the restriction, resulting to the continuation of prevailing problems.

As a result of the sudden changes in public finance and the economy, samurais known as Ronins vented their anger towards Bakufu officials and the hated foreigners.


Emperor Komei
Ronins provided the arm wing of each of the faction within the Japanese political arena during the turbulent Bakumatsu. Ronins were masterless samurais who wondered around the country and rendered their service to anyone who hires them.

They “were fiercely proud people who understood themselves by virtue of birth and training to be servants of their lords and, beyond that, of a larger and vaguely defined realm of Japan epitomized by the Emperor” as Andrew Gordon in A Modern History of Japan wrote. Clearly, ronins, although masterless, knew their highest loyalty and purpose resided with the Emperor as dictated by the Bushido or the way of the samurai.

Sonno Jo-i or “exalt the Emperor, expel the barbarians” profoundly defined the slogan of the ronins. In addition to economic reasons, ronins also terribly saw foreigners threatening Japan’s society and religion (Shinto and Buddhism) with Christianity. The loyalty of the ronins towards the Emperor earned them names of shishi or ishin shishi – men of purpose.

Domains of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, Hizen, all which belonged to the Tozama Daimyos, in addition to Kyoto, served as havens for these disgruntled ronins. Choshu hired ronins as part of units called Seighi.

The Shogunate, nevertheless, also hired some ronins to form its notorious secret police called the Shinsengumi or new units.

Ronins' wrath against the Shogunate and foreigners resulted to terrorist attacks, including assassinations and arson. Ii Naosuke and the scholar Sakuma Shozan who quoted “Western Science with Eastern Ethics” fell to their swords. Even simple Japanese with interest in foreign relations and studies also faced threats from ronins. Yukichi Fukuzawa, a famous Japanese scholar said, “Any person who showed, by any will or deed, any favor towards admitting foreigners into Japan – indeed, any person who had any interest in foreign affairs was liable to be set upon by the unrelenting ronin.”

Violent actions by ronins also strained the Kobu Gattai as their methods and attacks came to question by the Shogunate and the Court on its nature and effects.


Multiple attacks by ronins worried foreigners and the Bakufu.

Death of Russian sailors in Yokohama in 1859 disgusted Japan’s foreign community. Rutherford Alcock wrote how Count Nikolay Muraviev, Governor General of Eastern Siberia, told him the events that transpired in Yokohama. He wrote:
“… one morning he (Count Muraviev) came to breakfast with me…. In a few moments he told me, he had just received some deplorable intelligence from Kanaga. An officer, with a sailor and a steward of one of the Russian ships, had been on shore about 8:00 the previous evening to buy some provisions, and on their way to the boat, close to the principal street, in which many of the shops were still open, the party was suddenly set upon by some armed Japanese, and hewn down with the most ghastly wounds that could be inflicted. The steward, though mortally wounded it was feared, still lived, having, after the first onset, succeeded in rushing into a shop. The other two were left in a pool blood, the flesh hanging in large masses from their bodies and limbs.”

Killings continued with an assassination of a Chinese servant serving in the French Legation in November 1859 followed by the death of two Dutch captains of merchant ships on February 1860. About a year later, on January 15, 1861, Henry Heuksen, secretary of the American legation and Consul Townsend Harris, brutally fell in the hands of 6 to 7 ronins that terrified the foreign community. Alcock narrated the last moments of Heuksen as he had heard:
“He succeeded to all appearance in breaking through the band, unconscious at the moment of being severely wounded and was able to ride on hundred paces when he felt that he was grievously injured, and calling to his horse-boy, still in sight, though some distance ahead, he endeavored to dismount, and fell to the ground in the attempt. He had received a frightful gash across the abdomen, from which the bowels protruded, besides several other thrusts and cuts of less moment. There he lay, wholly deserted and weltering in his blood, it is not known exactly how long.”
Illustration of the attack on the British Legation, 1861
On July 5, 1861, Alcock himself stratlingly experienced firsthand the attack of 14 Mito ronins on the British legation in Tozenji, Edo, killing 14 Japanese guards and wounding 2 British namely Laurence Oliphant and George Morrison, the British consul in Nagasaki. Alcock resolutely demanded protection from the Bakufu, to which they responded by making foreign legations like prisons for its defense.

Nevertheless, another attack occurred on the British legation in Tozenji in June 1862, just a year after the previous attack, with 2 British guard casualties. The attack finally convinced the foreign community in Edo to retreat to the safety of Yokohama. Shogunate authorities insisted that they could not prevent ronins from attacking foreigners. The British then sent in troops to secure their legations. Alongside the landing of troops, they also demand £10,000 worth of indemnity from the Bakufu for the death of two British guards.

The actions of the ronins pressured the Kobu Gattai. Edo wanted to stop the attacks to prevent the possibility of armed conflicts and retaliations. The Court, however, did not wanted to reprimand the ronins because much of its supporters came from their ranks and they served as its virtual army. Not to mention, they viewed the actions of the ronins aligned to their Jo-i view. Shimazu Saburo, the mediator between the Court and the Bakufu, sympathized with the ronins yet he remained cautious with them. Attacks of the ronins once again created as divide in opinion between the Court, the Bakufu, and the Daimyos, but not enough to end the cooperation between the three.

But in September 1862, a killing of a British merchant brought Japan on the brink of war and altered once again the dynamics of domestic politics.  

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:

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