Friday, June 24, 2016

The Bakumatsu (Part 7): Choshu Expeditions

Modern Units of the Shogunal Army, 1866
After their failed coup in Kyoto, Choshu leaders faced a punitive expedition from the Shogunate, mandated by Emperor Komei. Explore the Choshu Expeditions meant to weaken the rebellious Daimiate instead further weakened the Bakufu.

First Choshu Expedition

On August 24, 1864, Emperor Komei declared the Choshu Lords rebels and ordered the Bakufu to chastise them for their insolence to attack the sacred city of Kyoto. Hitotsubashi Keiei sensed the moment to crush the center of extremism cowering in Choshu and gathered an army to fulfill the imperial decree.

On November 1864, a Shogunal army, led by Tokugawa Yoshikatsu, late Prince of Owari, marched into Choshu. The army faced little resistance since the Choshu political atmosphere changed beforehand. The moderate Vulgar View Party, as their detractors called them, previously disagreed vainly to the attempted coup made on Kyoto and stood at the center on issues such as the expelling of barbarians and the re-imposition of the Sakoku.

After launching a coup bringing them to power, the Vulgar View Party had the Choshu Daimyo Mori Takachika/Yoshichika and his son incarcerated in a temple and had the leaders of the Kyoto attack executed. They meanly presented the heads of these leaders, such as Masuda, Kunichi, and Echigo, to Lord Yoshikatsu to show their sincerity of reconciliation with the Shogunate. 

They then surrendered the remaining disgraced extremist nobles like Sanjo Satenomi, who were spread and left in different Domains. Lastly, they promised to disband the Kiheitai that participated in the Kyoto attack. With much of the Vulgar View Party’s cooperation, the Bakufu left by January 1865.


Oguri Tadamasa
Bakufu Resurgence

The victory in Choshu highly uplifted the Bakufu’s confidence to strongly reassert its authority to the alarm and concern of the Imperial Court, and other Daimyos, especially the Tozama like Satsuma.

It began with the reinstitution of the degrading Sakin Kotai or alternate attendance by Daimyos to Edo. Satsuma and other Daimyos opposed the idea. Kyoto viewed its implications and called for the cancellation of the Bakufu’s plan, to which Edo ultimately rescinded. Nevertheless, other officials within the Shogunate looked at the time as momentous to propose radical reforms. Oguri Tadamasa reorganized the Shogunal Army and adopted western weapons and trainings, developing further the Sampeitai.

In governance, Western government systems as espoused by French minister to Japan Leon Roche, inspired Oguri to propose the abolition of the han system or the Japanese feudal system that divided the country into domains led by Daimyos. But this radical shift failed to materialize as Daimyos in all sides rejected it. Yet the bold proposals of Oguri previewed the reforms made during the Meiji Era.

The sudden resurgence of Bakufu authority cracked the fragile state of Kobu Gattai or Unity of Court and Shogunate. The Imperial Court and the main supporter of the union, Satsuma Lord Shimazu Saburo, feared for the return of the pre-1853 political order, where the Shogun reigned supreme. Satsuma saw a chance to weaken the Bakufu after the events in Choshu and the fresh call from Edo to launch another punitive expedition.

Choshu Power Struggle
Power struggle within the Choshu Domain erupted as the ruling Vulgar View Party faced a rebellion from loyalist and anti-Shogunate factions of the Kiheitai. The relentless victories of these rogue units prompted the downfall of the party and brought another Shogunal expedition against the Domain.

By January, Shogunal forces withdrew from the domain after the Vulgar View Party presented good will towards the Bakufu. But the Vulgar View faced a challenge in disbanding the scattered Kiheitai. The Kiheitai had various units working autonomously from one another, and so when the order to disband came to some units with strong anti-Shogunate and extremist view, they profusely rejected it and launched a rebellion.

Takasugi Shinsaku
On January 13, 1865, units led by Takasugi Shinsuku and Ito Hirobumi along with samurais led by Yamagata Kyosuke (Aritomo) raided government offices in Shimonoseki. The moderates in Choshu capital of Hagi sent an army to quell the rogue Kiheitai units, but they soon faced defeat in the hands of other irregular rifle units of the Choshu army.

By March 12, 1865, Takasugi’s army along with Kido Takayoshi/Koin reigned supreme in Choshu and called for the reinstatement of the Mori Clan.

Meanwhile, in Osaka, the Shogun arrived to deal with the punishment for the Mori clan. The news of the events in Hagi haven’t yet reach Osaka. The Shogun, after pleading from other Shimazu and other Daimyos, agreed to give a more lenient punishment than sending Mori Yoshinaka and his son to Edo as prisoners and as trophies of Bakufu supremacy. Instead, he agreed for the abdication of the present Daimyo in favor of his grandson and the reduction of the size of the Domain by 100,000 koku.

But when the  news of the punishment arrived in Hagi, Kido and other extremist samurais and Lords wholly rejected it. Kyoto then sanctioned another expedition against Choshu on May 1865 by the Bakufu and upon Hitotsubashi’s request despite the objections of Shimazu Saboro, Katsu Kaishu, among others.

Second Choshu Expedition

Preparations for the expedition, however, lasted for about a year. 

First, diplomatic issues distracted the Shogun and Hitotsubashi Keiei. Foreign representatives demanded the early opening of Osaka and Hyogo to foreigners as stipulated in the London Protocol and demanded the approval of the Emperor on all of the treaties signed by Edo. Another reason was the difficulty in mustering troops for the expedition. Satsuma and other Tozama Daimyos like Tosa refused to support the expedition and withhold sending contingents for the expeditionary force. They believed the punitive action went beyond tolerable not to mention hugely expensive. And so it took until July 1866 before the Bakufu assembled a sizable force in Hiroshima to fight the Choshu army.

The Second Choshu Expedition was not as easy as the first. Matsudaira Katamori and Osagawara Nagamichi led the campaign setting up three fronts against Choshu – Aki (southeastern), Iwami (northeastern), Buzen (southwestern coming from the other side of Shimonoseki in the island of Kyushu).

The sampeitai led the assault with contingents from other Daimyos on the island of Oshima in the Iwami Front on July 12, 1866. They succeeded in taking the island but later faced a counter attack by Choshu vessels ordered by Takasugi Shinsaku and Aritomo Kyosuke. 

Shogunal coalition forces in Aki advanced on July 26 but suffered from a devastating ambush by Choshu forces, compelling them to retreat to Ono. 

At the same time Bakufu forces in mainland Iwami retreated back after facing heavy attacks from Choshu forces led by Inoue Bunta (Kaouru) and Omura Masujiro.

Before July ended, Bakufu positions in Buzen endured naval attacks from Choshu warships upon orders of Yamagata. They then fought an amphibious attack from Choshu samurai at 8 am causing a battle that raged until 4 pm. Bakufu forces suffered a defeat.

On July 29, a French warships en route to Nagasaki arrived in the port of Shimonoseki and threatened the Choshu Domain of military action if they don’t surrender to the Bakufu, their said allies, giving the rebels 10 days to reply. Upon the departure of the French warships Choshu forces continued to attack Buzen. And as the French warship returned, the Choshu leaderships justified the aggression of the Bakufu as their main reason to fight. The French eventually left when their rival the British arrived.

The fighting continued and Bakufu forces faced once again another onslaught from Choshu forces in Shijuhassaka on August 5, 1866. The battle described by the Kinse Shiriaku stated, “…both sides fought with desperation, and lost so many men in killed and wounded that the field were covered with corpses.”

By September, 1866, Bakufu forces retreated back from Buzen as Choshu forces advanced. On the 16th, Ono fell and the Bakufu army retreated back to Hiroshima and the coalition army collapsed. At the end of September, news of the death of Shogun Iemochi reached the frontlines; and Matsudaira Katamori and Hitotsubashi Keiei used the mourning for the demised Shogun as a pretense for a ceasefire to save the face of the Bakufu from a humiliating defeat.

Before the fighting ended, rumors of a Satsuma and Choshu alliance with the support of the British had already spread. The alliance resulted to a strong resistance by Choshu and the second expedition took the prestige and wealth of the Bakufu. 

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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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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