Monday, July 4, 2016

The Bakumatsu (Part 13): Summing Up

Emperor Meiji Moving to Tokyo
With the end of the Boshin War and the Shogunate, Japan moved forward with the Emperor as the sole symbol of the new nation of Japan. Explore the effects of the Bakumatsu and the Boshin War to the history of the Land of the Rising Sun.


After a decade long of wide division between different political factions, at the end, the Tokugawa Shogunate obscured within less than a year. Alongside the Shogunate, a whole medievalistic and feudal Japanese society – embodied by Domains, Daimyos, and the Samurais – also disappeared within a following decade after the end of the Bakumatsu. All for the sake of civilization and modernization under the rule of Meiji or Enlightened Rule.

The immediate concern of the new leaders after the Meiji Restoration was assuring the people of a new society and a new Japan. They must show the Emperor ruled Japan, despite the truth that samurai leaders from the Satcho Alliance wielded real power over state affairs. As part of cementing the minor Emperor Meiji’s rule, they published a manifesto on April 7, 1868 called the Five Charter Oath.

The Five Charter Oath framed the goals and means of the new Japanese government. In its opening statement, it stated the goals of the government to enrich Japan and provide a constitution for the Japanese people. The goals would be made by forming deliberative assemblies discussing wide range of issues, uniting all Japanese, regardless of class, in steering the country, giving all Japanese freedom from stringent social caste system, ending of old “evil customs,” and pursuing of modern knowledge from across the globe. Indeed, the Five Charter Oath defined the transformation that Japan underwent the Meiji Era.

Although the samurais declared an imperial restoration, Emperor Meiji, a teenager during the time of the Boshin War, held no power over state affairs. The true powers fell to the samurai leaders of the Satcho Alliance who grew to become known as the Meiji Oligarchs. Men like Okubo Toshimichi, Kido Koin, Siago Takamori, Yamagata Aritomo, Inoue Kaouru, and Ito Hirobumi governed Japan over the next fifty years. They used the Emperor's name to rally the people behind their course of modernization and civilization for the sake of national independence and defense against foreign invasions.

These men directed the immediate change in Japan’s landscape in all aspects. The oligarchs united the nation by abolishing the age-long tradition of Domains or Hans along with their rulers – the Daimyos. With offers of generous pensions, titles, and positions, in addition to the Imperial government's assumption of their debts and their burden of samurai stipend, many Daimyos surrendered their lands and retired peacefully to their respective residences, leaving the Meiji leaders to reform the local administration. By 1871, Domains and daimyos were officially abolished.

The Meiji Oligarchs then followed thru by ending another long institution - the honorable, proud, and valiant samurais. Samurais formed the foundation of the imperial restoration and manned the fight against the old Tokugawa regime. Yet, the Japanese government saw their abolition as a way to move forward. The government barred the samurais from wearing their swords and their top knots. Their decision to abolish the samurai stipend sparked a rebellion headed by a once imperialist samurai leader – Saigo Takamori. His rebellion known as the Satsuma Rebellion ended in defeat and tragedy, with Saigo committing seppuku as a last respect to a way of life and becoming known as the last samurai. In military terms, the Satsuma rebellion demonstrated the advantage of modernly armed conscripts against the traditional warriors.
Battle of Shiroyama during the Satsuma Rebellion
The end of the Satsuma Rebellion marked the last resistance of the old Japan to the new, paving the transformation unseen in world history – a development of a backward feudal society to a modern and powerful Empire within only a span of about 50 years.

Summing Up

From the events that transpired during the Bakumatsu, it mirrored the reasons that Edward Gibbon’s enumerated for the fall of Rome. The Tokugawa Shogunate or the whole Japanese feudal society weakened as a result of two centuries of peace and isolation. They suddenly faced incursions and attacks from foreign “barbarians” in form the Treaty Powers. In matter of resources and materials, issues of corruption tarnished the image of the Bakufu, however, the of the economy and finances devastated them further. Finally, domestic quarrels, between the Sakoku and Kaikoku and Imperialist and Shogunate supporters set the stage for a showdown, leading ultimately to the collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu.

Injuries of Time and Nature

The long slumber in silence and peace of Japan brought dullness and weakness to the Tokugawa Shogunate. They slumbered for so long, they became oblivious to the realities of the changing world. Japan stagnated in economic, technological, and political aspects. 

Although the Shogunate boasted a prosperous economy, it failed to realize the full potential of the Japanese people, especially with their qualities of industriousness, discipline, and dedication. 

In technological aspects, even though it had scant knowledge of few western technologies they got it from a country considered a second rate power at that time – the Dutch. 

The long peace also made the Tokugawa government incompetent, oblivious, and corrupt. Their duty remained the maintenance of status quo rather than interacting with other countries and initiate radical and progressive reforms. The dormant status of Japan led to its incapacity to defend itself against foreign interest.

Also, the stringent society of the Tokugawa Japan stagnated progress in many fields. People lacked the drive to advance beyond their social classes because of the strong influence of Confucianism. As a result, men who could perform better than those in the government failed to enter simply due to their birth. Although many decided to do well in their respective social classes, it failed to completely unleash their potential again for the development of Japan.

Lastly, in military terms, the long peace decayed the spirit of the samurai. Ironically, because of peace, which benefited the whole country and contributed to the longevity of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it weakened the Samurais as a military class, with their katana and armors collecting dust and rust. Without war or even rebellions, they did not taste any blood for generations. As a result, by the time Commodore Perry arrived, they ceased to be formidable warriors to defend the country in conventional battles.

Hostile Attacks of Barbarians and Christians

The arrival of the so-called foreign barbarians lit the fuse that blew up Tokugawa Japan. It caused the start of the Bakumatsu, causing domestic political upheaval and a terrible economic crisis. It revealed the underdevelopment of Japan compared to the west and the caused cracks that tarnished the once strong and powerful Tokugawa Shoguante.

In political terms, the foreigners brought humiliation and rifts to the Tokugawa Shoguante. They undermined the Bakufu in the eyes of its people by forcing them to sign unequal treaties, giving Japan a semi-colonial status. Their gunboat diplomacy and the audacity of their negotiator created domestic divides within Japan, causing the violence of the ronins, differences between Daimyos, and the resurgence of Imperial influence with its slogan of Jo-i. This resulted to the rise to challengers and alternatives to Tokugawa rule.

The economic effects of the arrival of foreigners did not also went well to the side of the Tokugawa regime. The sudden and forcible opening of Japan to the world brought disruptions to its once isolated economy. Inflation rose as a result of export and government decision to rapidly launch a modernization program. The Tokugawa attempted to catch up technologically by launching massive research and defense initiatives that drained much of its coffers. Indemnity payments demanded by foreigners, especially the Shimonoseki Protocol, for all the violent attacks made by disgruntled ronins and hostile Domains placed more strain to the already burdened Bakufu finances.

But not all of the actions of the foreigners went negatively. For many Japanese, the actions of the foreigners paved the path for Japan’s later development. The aggressive actions of the Treaty Powers in Kagoshima and Shimonoseki created a deep impact to the mindset of many later leaders of the Meiji Era. The awesome firepower and technological advancement of the west displayed in the two places changed the views of once xenophobic samurais, like Ito Hirobumi and Sakamoto Ryoma, from extremist Jo-i to a supporter of study and emulation of western technologies and ways as a means to strengthen Japan and to maintain independence.

The arrival of the foreigners contributed to the fall of the Shogunate, yet it defined the direction to which Japan took after the Bakumatsu period.

The Use and Abuse of Material

Although allegations of corruption and opulent lifestyle tarnished their reputation, the Tokugawa Shogun’s greatest failure in material terms by the time of the Bakumatsu was its economic and financial weakness.

By the time of Perry’s arrival, Japanese coastal defenses and military stood in a pathetic state. The Bakufu mishandled the budget to maintain its military strong, which might gave the Japanese the confidence to face foreign warships. It continued to fail in managing the budget properly when it immediately embarked on a rapid massive rearmament and research program. While revenues remained as normal, it failed to raise it when its expenditure soared tremendously, causing inflation and budgetary crisis.

The inflation resulted to massive disturbances in the country, inciting anger and desperation to the people. It caused riots and mass hysteria, in form of the bizarre Ee Ja Nai Ka.
Depiction of Ee Ja Nai Ka
The indemnity, mission expenditures, and failed military campaigns caused the emptying of the Bakufu’s coffers. Shimonoseki Protocol, signed in 1864, drained much of the Tokugawa’s budget, evident from the request of delays. But the Choshu Campaigns, not only brought political disaster, it also delivered a huge financial catastrophe to the Shogunate, resulting to the disbandment of several military units, lessening its capability to protect and to assert its authority.
Domestic Quarrels

Internal divisions and conflict also brought the Tokugawa Shogunate down, especially after the Treaty Powers’ coercion of Japan to sign unequal treaties. The main contentions were the issue of Sakoku (closed country) and Kaikoku (open country); the issue of power between the Emperor and the Shogun; and the division between Fudai and Tozama Daimyos.

The arrival of Perry’s squadron in Uraga Bay in 1853 hammered a chisel that caused a cleavage to Japan for the next decade and a half. Abe Masahiro, the chief elder of the state council, did not know how to react over an unprecedented issue and decided to consult the Daimyos and the Emperor for opinions. The act revive the political nature of these entities. Abe failed to gain a consensus and instead revealed a huge divide between those who wanted to maintain the isolationist Sakoku Policy and those who wanted to pursue a more realistic Kaikoku Policy.

The divide continued as more foreigners continued to come to Japan, seeking commercial treaties. Tokugawa Nariaki led the Sakoku believers in opposing the policy of concessions of the Bakufu, while Ii Naosuke balanced the scale by supporting the Bakufu’s policy as a practical means to increase national wealth and to maintain peace.

Those believing in Sakoku gained the support of Emperor Komei in Kyoto. From then on, they began to shout the slogan Sonno Jo-i – Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians. Opposition towards the Bakufu’s concessionary policy led an opposition not just to call for the return of Sakoku but also for an imperial restoration, after realizing the Emperor supported their cause.

Ii Naosuke’s rise as head of the state council and regent, however, tipped the balance of power in favor of the Bakufu and the Kaikoku party. He clamped down on opposition and imperial supporters by launching a purge. He interfered with Shogunal succession to favor a traditionalist candidate who ascended as Tokugawa Iemochi.

Ii, however, fell victim to an assassination committed by a group of ronins. Ronins complicated the situation of the Bakufu. Most of these masterless samurais viewed foreigners as threat to the daily lives of the Japanese and strongly and violently adhered to Jo-i. They attacked and assassinated foreigners and Bakufu officials alike. Ii fell to their katanas in 1860, resulting to the realization of the need of cooperation rather than competition to prevent another massive purge.

The Bakufu and the Imperial Court attempted to unite under the slogan Kobu Gattai – Unity of Court and Shogunate.

Shimazu Saburo
The Kobu Gattai, nevertheless, also revealed a division within daimyos. Already, the Daimios had been classified into Tozama (Outsiders), Fudai, and Shimpan. The Tozama Daimyos like that of Choshu and Satsuma held historic long resentment of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Nevertheless, they held huge Koku, samurais, and local power to become influential. Tozama Daimyos experienced division with the Satsuma Domain supporting the Bakufu in the issue of opening for practical reasons and the Choshu Domain urging extreme and aggressive expulsion of the barbarians. Satsuma Lord Shimazu Saburo mediated between the Court and Shogunate to achieve Kobu Gattai and helped in the appointment of Hitotsubashi Keiki, the reformist candidate in the 1858 Shogun succession contest. Hitotsubashi and Shimazu together worked for a successful Kobu Gattai.

But divide continued to persist especially with the attacks made by ronins and other samurais. Their attacks on foreign legations and nationals led to different reactions over the effects. Shimazu washed his hands while the Court supported them due to the fact that they held the brunt of imperial support. The Bakufu, on the other hand, felt weary as these attacks resulted angry protest from foreign ministers and worse indemnity payments, which drained government coffers.

The rift showed further in 1863, when the Court issued an order to expel the barbarians by June 25, 1863. Hitotsubashi and Shimazu voiced their opposition but the Court persisted and the two had no choice but to obey. Hitotsubashi decided the Bakufu would diplomatically negotiate the closing of the treaty ports.

Choshu, however, took things to the extreme. They shut down the strategic strait of Shimonoseki from foreign shipping by using their coastal batteries. In Kyoto, this led to the military clash between the extremist Choshu and the combined force of Satsuma and Bakufu. The Choshu lose in a coup, resulting to their expulsion and the Imperial Court falling into moderate hands.

But Choshu retaliated with force by attempting to launch a coup of Kyoto and kidnap the Emperor in the following year. Their attack of Kyoto, however, failed resulting to two expeditions mounted against them.

After the First Expedition, another rift between Satsuma and Bakufu emerged. The Tokugawa Shogunate embarked on reforms meant to strengthen again its authority over Japan. Such movement by the Shogunate, alarmed Satsuma, who decided to form an alliance with another fellow Tozama Daimyo, Choshu. Although both side once faced in different factions in the battlefield, they both held a same feeling towards the Shogunate, which led them to become Tozama or outsider – hatred of the Tokugawa. As a result of the alliance, Satsuma and other Tozama Daimyos boycotted the Second Expedition despite an imperial sanction. This weakened the prestige and the economic and political strength of the Shogunate.

The death of Shogun Iemochi, the rise of Hitotsubashi as Yoshinobu and ascension of the minor Emperor Meiji altered once again the situation. Yoshinobu desired to reform the Shogunate even with imperial restoration at the end. Meanwhile, Choshu and Satsuma alliance vied with Yoshinobu for influence on the new Emperor.

Eventually, the Satcho Alliance won when Yoshinobu resigned and failed to keep Tokugawa lands, prestige, and influence. The alliance dominated the Courts and many Daimyos to prevent the wishes of Yoshinobu. By January 1868, their forces marched triumphantly to Kyoto. Yoshinobu retreated to Osaka and counseled with his allies.

The Boshin War followed. Although questions remained whether Yoshinobu knew 10,000 samurais marched ahead of him to Kyoto, this led to the first battles of the Boshin War.

In the end of the Boshin War, divisions ended with the Shogunate collapsing and the issue of opening finalized. The Court, Choshu, and other Domains in 1869, realized that resistance to foreign powers would be suicide and death for Japan, opting for opening and learning from the west.

Because of its long dormant state, mismanagement of resources, continuous aggressive incursions of foreign powers, and struggle for domestic dominance, the Tokugawa Shogunate followed the same path of Rome towards its decline and collapse. In just a span of a short period, the history of Japan changed during the time of the Bakumatsu.

Significance of the Bakumatsu

The Bakumatsu was the turning point for Japan from a feudal divided society into a modern nation state. The Tokugawa Shogunate’s weakness in many aspects placed it in a position where reforms and modernization faced tremendous challenge – disunity, lack of political mandate especially when challenged by the Imperial Court, among others. The Imperial Restoration on the other hand offered a fresh start with a stronger mandate – divine and strength through the support of Satsuma and Choshu.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was feudalistic and orderly. So orderly it lacked the social mobility to drive the people to strive for their development. Its lack of connection with the outside world deemed it oblivious to modern developments. Its power stood in an unstable foundation as it rely on the support of the Daimyos, their samurais, and existed only through the will of the Emperor centuries ago. Loyalties were divided. Loyalty of the samurais laid within their Lords and Daimyos and not the whole Japan. Daimyos had sense of regionalism, especially the Tozama Daimyos, yet they answered to two higher authorities – for political, the Shogun, and for religious, Emperor. When the samurais, Daimyos, and the Emperor abandoned the Shogunate, it meant the end, making any radical and far reaching reform in the Tokugawa regime difficult, leading eventually to its fall.

The Meiji Restoration, on the other hand, provided a clean slate for Japan. With the support of a strong military of Satsuma and Choshu Domains and their Daimyos, who submitted to the Emperor’s will, or at least, to the oligarchs who ruled in the shadows, led to the transformation of society from feudalistic and divided into a united nation. With each of the Daimyos surrendering their domains to the Emperor meant also the transfer of their people’s loyalty – from them to the Emperor. The Emperor on the other hand, as the sovereign of the country, represented the nation of Japan. The idea of loyalty to Japan as citizen strengthened as the country’s local administration was reformed, strict social order was broken, and responsibilities, such as conscription, was mandated to all.

The Bakumatsu did not just ended the Tokugawa regime, its short epic historical significance also laid in it being the birthing pain of a modern nation state of Japan.

Explore also:


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