Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Bakumatsu (Part 9): Satsuma-Choshu Alliance

Satsuma and Choshu Samurais during the Boshin War
Tokugawa Shogunate’s second expedition failed due to lack of support from other Domains in addition to a secret alliance unknown to Edo. Explore the creation of this secret alliance between Choshu and Satsuma that led the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Satsuma-Choshu Alliance

The Satsuma-Choshu Alliance or Satcho Alliance surprisingly formed in 1866 despite both Domains' animosity towards each other. Nevertheless, both came together to achieve one goal – the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This alliance eventually benefited the Choshu Domain especially with a Shogunal army violently barging at its doorsteps.

Choshu and Satsuma Alliance emerged unprecedentedly, especially when the latter assisted in the expulsion of the former from Kyoto in 1863. Choshu extremely believed in Jo-i or the expulsion of the barbarians and the policy of Sakoku, while Satsuma believed in Kaikoku for practical purposes by taking the opportunity to enrich Japan to finance its defense. The two clans clashed with each other when Satsuma joined the Bakufu to expel the extremist Choshu from Kyoto in 1863 and once again in 1864 during the latter domain’s attempted coup.

But the failed August 20, 1864 coup planted the seeds of the alliance. The planter was Saigo Takamori, a renowned Satsuma samurai leader, who questioned the authority and the decisions of the Bakufu, showed mercy and kindness to all of the captured Choshu samurai. He later sent the captives back to their domain bearing gifts of friendship. In late 1864, Saigo sent emissaries to Choshu proposing an alliance with the Satsuma domains. The leaders Choshu felt suspicious and weary - a samurai from an ally of the Bakufu proposing an alliance. But then, Toga samurais Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro asked for the Choshu leaders’ reconsideration.

Sakamoto and Nakaoka both once also deeply believed in Sakoku and Jo-i. Sakamoto for example attempted to assassinate a Bakufu official advocating Kaikoku and modernization - Katsu Kaishu. But Kaishu’s charisma persuaded Sakamoto to forgo his isolationist beliefs for progressive ones. At that point, he worked with Katsu yet continued to hold on to his anti-Tokugawa sentiments. After the failed 1864 coup, both Sakamoto and Nakaoka fled to Choshu along with other extremist and anti-Tokugawa samurais.  There, both mediated for the alliance between Satsuma and Choshu arguing the benefits of such connection especially with latter controlling wealth as well as influence.

Satsuma prospered after they signed the agreement with the British in 1863 resolving the issue on the murder of Charles Richardson. The agreement introduced Satsuma to the British, who viewed the other as more trustworthy than the Bakufu. Satsuma stood moderately in the issues of opening and saw the potential of such enterprise for the benefit of Japan. With Choshu’s blockade of Shimonoseki, many foreign ships passed along the Satsuma Domain and Kagoshima. Not to mention, its close proximity to Nagasaki gave Satsuma an opportunity to trade and develop new industries and cultivate western knowledge. Their contact with foreigners, especially the British, strengthened, resulting to Satsuma’s separate participation to the International Exposition in 1867 in Paris despite of Edo’s protest.

In political terms, after Choshu’s expulsion, Satsuma became the prominent Domain that both supported imperial restoration and critical of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Many of the Tozama Daimyos looked up to Satsuma and its Lord Shimazu Saburo. By 1865, the Bakufu began to reassert its authority over Japan with the re-institution of the original form of the Sankin Kotai or alternate attendance that alarmed Satsuma’s leaders.

An alliance with Choshu, who also held large tracks of land or koku, and samurais, in addition to the Kiheitai, was beneficial. Choshu on the other considered the alliance to find support even discreetly as it faced isolation from other Domains. Samurai leaders from both sides decided to discuss the alliance.

On March 7, 1866, after long talks between Kido Koin from Choshu and Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori from Satsuma (the Three Great Nobles of the Restoration) agreed to a secret alliance where they agreed to mutual defense.

This mutual defense went into effect covertly during the Second Choshu Expedition. Although Satsuma did not send troops to Choshu to fight for the domain’s defense, it did not also sent contingents to the Bakufu too. The decision of non-participation on the Bakufu’s campaign influenced many Tozama Daimyos to boycott the expedition as well. In addition to this, Choshu also received weapons from Satsuma, who then purchased it secretly from British firms in Nagasaki. Even before the alliance, in 1865, Choshu natives Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru smuggled weapons in Nagasaki for Choshu.

The absence of Satsuma and its secret support to Choshu contributed to the failure of the Second Choshu campaign, which in turned weakened the Bakufu further.

Declining Shogunate

Shogunate authority and power to maintain order disintegrated ever since the issue of open-country aroused. Besides its ineffectivity to prevent assassinations and other acts of terrorism to its own officials and foreigners, Edo also began to lose its grasp over peasants in the countryside as well as over city dwellers.

Already, the assassination of Ii Naosuke marked the decline of the Bakufu’s prestige, it worsened as the Japanese economy falters while trekked the path towards opening. With government finances strained by defense and research plus indemnity payments, samurai stipend dropped bringing massive dissatisfaction among the warrior class as stated before.

The inflation caused by rise in exports, stagnating production, and fluctuations in currency affected commoners and merchants, resulting to riots in the countryside and other cities. Peasants and urban dwellers attacked money lenders, blaming them for the ills of the society. Samurais assassinated Bakufu officials supporting the opening of the country alongside foreigners if they had the chance.

In the midst of the Order to Expel the Barbarians in 1863, the Heavenly Chastising Force or Tenchugumi in Nara revolted in support of the imperial edict. Samurais and many peasants joined the revolt, which lasted about a year before being suppressed by the Bakufu.

The revolts did not ended with the Tenchugumi. Along with the chaos of the Second Choshu Expedition in 1866, 106 peasant uprising aroused, most complained about the worsening poverty in the countryside. Reports of urban riot, around 35 in 1866, reached Edo as well.
Drawing of the Ee Ja Nai Ka Dancing Scene
In late 1867, a hysteria that many interpreted as a sign of dissatisfaction of the Bakufu broke out. In Osaka, Edo, and other major cities, the people danced wildly and festively in the streets of the city while singing Ee Ja Nai Ka – Who cares?! Stories suggested that people began to dance when good luck charms rained down on the city and people rejoicing suddenly danced, sang, and did everything liberally to the point of some ran naked and committed orgies in the streets. An illustration of the desperation of the people, which made them impressionable.

The riots, protests, and hysterias reported illustrated the growing uneasiness of the people in the prevailing condition and the Bakufu’s crumbling power to maintain order and to provide satisfactory leadership to its people.

Death of the Shogun and the Emperor

What triggered the final parts of the Bakumatsu was the death of two prominent figures and symbols of Japan – the Emperor and the Shogun. Their demise meant changes in state affairs especially in a complex political situation. The changes defined Japan’s path towards end of the Bakumatsu and short but dramatic civil war.

On August 29, 1866, Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi passed away after months of illness. His death gave way to the ascension of Hitotsubashi Keiki as the new Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Yoshinobu used the death of the late Shogun as a pretext to end a disastrous Second Choshu campaign. From his new position of power, Yoshinobu aimed to modernize Japan in all aspect to catch up with west as a means to protect his country’s independence.

Then a few months later, on February 3, 1867, Emperor Komei passed away as well. Many speculated his death to be of divine punishment for conceding to open Japan. His son, a fifteen year old Prince Mutsuhito, ascended to the throne. He became the new symbol of imperial restoration and indeed the face of Japan’s transformation under his reign name Meiji. 

With the death of these important personages of the 1860’s Japanese politics created a new dynamics in a complicated situation. Their demise energized various competing and fighting factions to forward their respective agendas, especially for the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance. The alliance used the change as an opportunity to finally ruin the Tokugawa Shogunate.

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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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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