Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Bakumatsu (Part 6): Choshu Domain

French warships Tancrede and Dupleix attacked Shimonoseki, 1863
Choshu Domain violently closed the vital Shimonoseki Strait as a result of the Order to Expel the Barbarians. The Bakufu in Edo, meanwhile, took the order more cautiously by choosing diplomacy to close the treaty ports. The order resulted to friction between the Sakoku and the Kaikoku parties in the country. Explore these shock waves that hit Japan.

Ikeda Mission - Closing Yokohama

In June 1863, the Shogunate announced to the foreign representatives their plan to close Yokohama through diplomatic negotiations. Sensing negotiations with the Treaty Powers directly into their respective capitals to be more fruitful, a diplomatic mission led by Ikeda Nagaoki/Chohatsu left for Paris on February 1864. The mission failed to achieve its objectives.

When Ikeda arrived in Paris around May, France rejected to negotiate the closing of the ports. Japan made itself for France a major supplier of silk as French domestic silk producers suffered from disease. Thus, Japan’s plan to close the ports meant shortages and negative implications to the French economy. Ikeda, without instructions from Edo, fell to French influence to negotiate on the issue of Shimonoseki, which also affected France's silk supply.

The unauthorized negotiations resulted to the signing of the Paris Convention on June 24, 1864 that obligated Japan to open the vital strait within 3 months and presented possible French naval assistance to achieve it.

After the negotiations in Paris for the closing of the ports failed, the mission cancelled its itinerary foreseeing the same reaction. Ikeda’s mission returned home and when they arrived in August 1864, Edo furiously disavowed his actions and the convention. Ikeda got fired and force retire for his actions in Paris.

With the failure of the mission to negotiate, the issue of closing the ports remained in the air until the Shogunate scrapped the plan in late 1864.

Shimonoseki Problem

Choshu Lords kept the Shimonoseki Strait close since June 25, 1863, the day designated by Emperor Komei to expel the foreign barbarians from Japan. Since then and even in the midst of counter attacks from foreign warships and the Choshu Lords and their allies’ expulsion from Kyoto, the batteries remained steadfast in keeping the strait off limits to foreign ships.

On May 30, 1864, the Bakufu received a note from the ministers of the Treaty Powers condemning the plan to close Yokohama and the discriminating blockade of Shimonoseki Strait. The Bakufu faced a united front from foreign representatives, who just receive a free hand over Japanese affairs from their respective governments to act on the issue. Edo felt more pressure as signs of military escalation proved to be stronger as a British regiment landed to secure Yokohama from June to July 1864.
Ito Hirobumi, First Prime Minister of Japan

In July, two former xenophobic arsonist Choshu samurais turned to British educated students, who just returned home, Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru (future statesmen during the Meiji Era), attempted to mediate negotiations between Choshu and the Treaty Powers. Rutherford Alcock, who returned in March after two years of sick leave, welcomed the mediation of the two students. During the negotiations, the Bakufu faced a threat from the foreign ministers of a coalition army marching to Kyoto if it refused to honor the treaties they signed. Ultimately on August 12, 1864, the negotiations failed.

At the same time, Ikeda’s mission returned to Japan empty handed except the Paris Convention on Shimonoseki, which the Bakufu disavowed. Edo cautiously acted against Choshu due to the growing domestic political tensions.

Meanwhile, the Choshu Domain faced a multinational fleet of warships from the Treaty Power led by Admiral Augustus Kuper. The forts faced a coalition fleet composed of 9 British, 3 French, 4 Dutch, and an American warships with the objective of clearing the Strait of any coastal batteries.

The Choshu forts witnessed the fleet’s arrival upon the horizon of Shimonoseki and on the September 5 - 8, fierce fighting erupted. Both sides took casualties but the batteries of the Choshu ended decimated from stronger and far superior artillery and heavily armed and highly trained soldiers of the Treaty Powers. Both sides decided to negotiate and an agreement for a ceasefire concluded on September 14 demilitarizing the Shimonoseki Strait.

And on October 22, 1864, bowing to overwhelming foreign pressure, the Shogunate surprisingly signed a treaty as if taking the responsibility over the blockade that called for the payment of an indemnity of $ 3,000,000 for damages and cost of the expedition. It also assigned the payment of the indemnity in 6 installments half a million each for the next six quarters. In December, foreign ministers gave the Bakufu an option of opening Shimonoseki to foreign trade instead of paying the indemnity. The Bakufu refused. The agreement brought tremendous financial strains on the Bakufu, which contributed to its decline and downfall.

On the other hand, the Choshu Lords learned a lessons as Satsuma did. They realized that if Japan would resist the foreign barbarians by force, they would be annihilated. Moreover, they saw, like the Satsuma Lords, that interacting and learning from these barbarians would be beneficial and necessary to survive.

Choshu Kidnapping Attempt
Battle scene from the Hamaguri Gate Incident of 1864, Kyoto, Japan,
Printed by Yuzan Mori
In mid-1864, before the fighting in Shimonoseki, Choshu Lords attempted to re-establish their influence to the Emperor by kidnapping him after the Bakufu, Satsuma, Aizu, and other moderate Daimyos expelled them from Kyoto in the previous year. The attempted coup and kidnapping resulted to a fierce battle in the palace gates of Kyoto causing a fire that burnt parts of the imperial capital. The actions of Choshu prompted punitive actions against them, which later became the Bakufu's wrongdoing. 

Choshu Lords and their 7 noble allies got dishonorobly expelled from the Imperial Capital after their extremist violent actions in Shimonoseki Strait due to their literal interpretation and obedience to the Jo-i order of the Emperor. They retreated back to their domain and strengthen their military force while they continued to petition the Emperor for mercy and for approval to return to the imperial capital.

In rearming their Daimiate, the Choshu Lords deviated from the traditional samurai army to a more diverse units composing of commoners and samurai, which became known as Kiheitai or Irregular Units. The responsibility to train, arm, and lead this units fell to Takasugi Shinsaku. “Discipline was strict and the quality of leadership high, since promotion went by ability, not by birth, while a preference for western-style weapons and training made the whole into a formidable force” as Andrew Gordon wrote in his book The Modern History of Japan. The Kiheitai joined with other traditional all-samurai units to fulfill a plan by the Choshu Lords.

The Choshu leaders audaciously planned to kidnap the Emperor and bring him to Choshu to free him from the influence of what they deemed as weak and treacherous Bakufu and their Daimyo allies. The plan went into motion on July 24, 1864 when two large Choshu forces arrived in Osaka by sea from the port of Suwo. The first group included 400 samurais led by Fukuhara Echigo; while the second force, included the Kiheitai and other samurais led by certain Kunishi and Masuda, both retainers of the Choshu Diamyo. The two units split up and occupied the Kyoto suburbs of Yamasaki and Fushimi. As they deployed, the Mori clan petitioned the Emperor to allow their return to Kyoto justifying the causes of their expulsion as maliciously wrong and their actions only obeyed the imperial will. The Emperor rejected their petition.

On July 30, a detachment of Choshu samurais from Yamasaki moved up to Tenriuji, west of Kyoto, giving them 3 positions. Meanwhile, Matsudaira Katamori, military head of Kyoto, and Hitotsubashi Keiei (Yoshinobu), the guardian of the Shogun, mustered their defenses against possible Choshu attacks. They sent urgent orders to the neighboring Daimiates or Hans to send reinforcements immediately from their local forces, and all complied.

On August 3, Kyoto demanded the Choshu Lords to have their forces retreat back to their domain. The commanders of the Choshu forces utterly refused and their forces even became more determined to fight.

On the early morning of August 20, 1864, Choshu Forces mobilized to capture the Imperial Palace but they faced  and clashed with the combined forces of the Bakufu, Satsuma, Aizu, Echizen, Hikone, and other neighboring domains. In the Hamaguri Gate, the fighting was intense with samurais engaging in hand to hand combat and rifle unit firing salvos. When the battle leaned over to the side of the Bakufu, Choshu forces retreated but some remained hiding in the surrounding houses. Hitotsubashi learned this and ordered the burning of suspected houses harboring Choshu samurais. The fire, however, went uncontrollable and engulfed many parts of the city. 

Meanwhile, most of the Choshu forces retreated to Tennozan, while those who remained in the city chose either an honorable way to die by throwing themselves into burning flames or captivity in the hands of the Bakufu and their allies.

Saigo Takamori, a valiant Satsuma samurai leader, treated captured Choshu samurais humanely and kindly, even to the point later of helping them to return to their Domain. This act of Saigo, created a profound effect in the later part of the Bakumatsu Era.

By the end of the day, the leaders of the Choshu army regrettably decided to retreat back to their home Domain and brace themselves for retaliatory onslaught. Back in Kyoto, on August 24, 1864, the attack made by Choshu resulted to an imperial decree ordering the Bakufu to launch punitive expeditions against the renegade domain, to which Edo acted accordingly.

As the Shogunate prepared a punitive expedition, Edo signed a treaty with the Treaty Powers mandating them to pay an indemnity for the actions of the Choshu Domain in Shimonoseki. In Choshu, the Lords saw it as a missed opportunity to open direct relations with the foreign powers to open Shimonoseki to trade and to transfer technology, which they started to view positively like the Satsuma Lords did. In addition, they saw relations with the foreigners as a way to gain their support against the Bakufu. But the Bakufu took the brunt of the Shimonoseki indemnity, which worsened their declining situation - a thing that benefited Choshu. 

With the imperial declaration against Choshu, the Bakufu and its allies prepared for an expedition to crush the rebellious and hardline Domain.

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.

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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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