Boshin War

Boshin War


caption=Samurai of the Satsuma clan, fighting for the Imperial side during the Boshin War period. Photograph by Felice Beato.
date=January 1868 – May 1869
result=End of the Shogunate;
Restoration of imperial rule
combatant1=: " _ja. 短刀一本あればかたづくことだ." in Hagiwara, p. 42. The specific word used for "dagger" was "tantō".]

Although he initially agreed to these demands, on January 17 1868 Yoshinobu declared "that he would not be bound by the proclamation of the Restoration and called on the court to rescind it." [Keene, p. 124.] On January 24, Yoshinobu decided to prepare an attack on Kyoto, occupied by Satsuma and Chōshū forces. This decision was prompted by his learning of a series of arsons in Edo, starting with the burning of the outworks of Edo Castle, the main Tokugawa residence. This was blamed on Satsuma ronin, who on that day attacked a government office. The next day shogunate forces responded by attacking the Edo residence of the daimyo of Satsuma, where many opponents of the shogunate, under Takamori's direction, had been hiding and creating trouble. The palace was burned down, and many opponents killed or later executed. [Keene, p. 125.]

Opening conflicts

On 27 January 1868, Shogunate forces attacked the forces of Chōshū and Satsuma, clashing near Toba and Fushimi, at the southern entrance of Kyoto. Some parts of the 15,000-strong Shogunate forces had been trained by French military advisers, but the majority remained medieval "samurai" forces. Meanwhile, the forces of Chōshū and Satsuma were outnumbered 3:1 but fully modernized with Armstrong howitzers, Minié rifles and a few Gatling guns. After an inconclusive start, [Saigō, while excited at the beginning of combat, had planned for the evacuation of the emperor from Kyoto if the situation demanded it. Keene, pp. 125–6.] on the second day, an Imperial pennant was remitted to the defending troops, and a relative of the Emperor, Ninnajinomiya Yoshiaki, was named nominal commander in chief, making the forces officially an nihongo|imperial army|官軍|kangun. [The red and white pennant had been conceived and designed by Okubo Toshimichi and Iwakura Tomomi, among others. It was in effect a forgery, as was the imperial order to deploy it among the defending troops. Prince Yoshiaki, was also given a special sword and appointed "great general, conqueror of the east," and the Shogunal forces opposing Yoshiaki were branded "enemies of the court." Keene, pp. 126–7.] Moreover, convinced by courtiers, several local "daimyo", thitherto faithful to the Shogun, started to defect to the side of the imperial court. These included "daimyo" of Yodo on February 5, and the daimyo of Tsu on February 6, tilting the military balance in favour of the Imperial side. [A detailed description of the battle is available in Hagiwara, p. 42.]

On February 7, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, apparently distressed by the imperial approval given to the actions of Satsuma and Chōshū, fled Osaka aboard the "Kaiyō Maru", withdrawing to Edo. Demoralized by his flight and by the betrayal by Yodo and Tsu, Shogunate forces retreated, making the Toba-Fushimi encounter an Imperial victory, although it is often considered the Shogunate forces should have won the encounter. ["Militarily, the Tokugawa were vastly superior. They had between 3 to 5 times more soldiers and held Osaka Castle as a base, they could count on the forces from Edo modernized by the French, and they had the most powerful fleet of East Asia at hand in Osaka Bay. In a regular fight, the Imperial side had to lose. Saigō Takamori too, anticipating defeat had planned to move the Emperor to the Chūgoku mountains and was preparing for guerilla warfare." Hagiwara, p. 43. Translation from the Japanese original.] Osaka Castle was soon invested on February 8 (on March 1, Western calendar), putting an end to the battle of Toba-Fushimi. [Hagiwara, p. 43–5.]

At the same time, on 28 January 1868, the naval Battle of Awa between the Shogunate and elements of the Satsuma Navy took place. This was Japan's first engagement between two modern navies. ["Togo Heihachiro in images, illustrated Meiji Navy"] The battle, although small in scale, ended in favour of the Shogunate.

On the diplomatic front, the ministers of foreign nations, gathered in the open harbor of Hyōgo (present day Kobe) in early February, issued a declaration according to which the Shogunate was still considered the only rightful government in Japan, giving hope to Tokugawa Yoshinobu that foreign nations (especially France) might consider an intervention in his favour. A few days later however an Imperial delegation visited the ministers declaring that the Shogunate was abolished, that harbours would be open in accordance with International treaties, and that foreigners would be protected. The ministers finally decided to recognize the new government. [Polak, p. 75.]

The rise of anti-foreign sentiment nonetheless led to several attacks on foreigners in the following months. Eleven French sailors from the corvette "Dupleix" were killed by "samurai" of Tosa in the Sakai incident on March 8, 1868. Fifteen days later, Sir Harry Parkes, the British ambassador, was attacked by a group of "samurai" in a street of Kyoto. ["Le Monde Illustré", No. 583, June 13 1868.]

urrender of Edo

Beginning in February, with the help of the French ambassador Léon Roches, a plan was formulated to stop the imperial court's advance at Odawara, the last strategic entry point to Edo, but Yoshinobu decided against the plan. Shocked, Léon Roches resigned from his position. In early March, under the influence of the British minister Harry Parkes, foreign nations signed a strict neutrality agreement, according to which they could not intervene or provide military supplies to either side until the resolution of the conflict. [Polak, p. 77.]

Saigō Takamori led the victorious imperial forces north and east through Japan, winning the Battle of Kōshū-Katsunuma. He eventually surrounded Edo in May 1868, leading to its unconditional surrender by Katsu Kaishu, the Shogun's Army Minister. [Hagiwara, p. 46] Some groups continued to resist after this surrender but were defeated in the Battle of Ueno.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Shogun's navy, Enomoto Takeaki, refused to surrender all his ships. He remitted just four ships, among them the "Fujisan", but he then escaped north with the remnants of the Shogun's Navy (eight steam warships: "Kaiten", "Banryū", "Chiyodagata", "Chōgei", "Kaiyō Maru", "Kanrin Maru", "Mikaho" and "Shinsoku"), and 2,000 members of the navy, in the hope of staging a counter-attack together with the northern daimyo. He was accompanied by a handful of French military advisers, notably Jules Brunet, who had formally resigned from the French Army in order to accompany the rebels. [Polak, p. 81.]

Resistance of the Northern Coalition

After Yoshinobu's surrender, [Tokugawa Yoshinobu was placed under house arrest, and stripped of all titles, land and power. He was later on released, when he demonstrated no further interest and ambition in national affairs. He retired to Shizuoka, the place to which his ancestor Tokugawa Ieyasu, had also retired.] most of Japan accepted the emperor's rule, but a core of domains in the North, supporting the Aizu clan, continued the resistance. [Bolitho, p. 246; Black, p. 214.] In May several northern daimyo formed an Alliance to fight Imperial troops, the coalition of northern domains composed primarily of forces from the domains of Sendai, Yonezawa, Aizu, Shonai and Nagaoka, with a total of 50,000 troops. [Polak, pp. 79–91. Apart from those core domains, most of the northern domains were part of the alliance.] An Imperial Prince, Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa had fled north with partisans of the Tokugawa shogunate and was made the nominal head of the Northern Coalition, with the intention of naming him "Emperor Tobu".

Enomoto's fleet joined Sendai harbour on August 26. Although the Northern Coalition was numerous, it was poorly equipped, and relied on traditional fighting methods. Modern armament was scarce, and last-minute efforts were made to build cannons made of wood and reinforced with roping, firing stone projectiles. Such cannons, installed on defensive structures, could only fire four or five projectiles before bursting. [A detailed presentation of artifacts from that phase of the war is visible at the Sendai City Museum, in Sendai, Japan.] On the other hand, the daimyo of Nagaoka managed to procure two of the three Gatling guns in Japan and 2,000 modern French rifles from the German weapons dealer Henry Schnell.

In May 1868, the daimyo of Nagaoka inflicted high losses on the Imperial troops in the Battle of Hokuetsu, but his castle ultimately fell on May 19. Imperial troops continued to progress north, defeating the Shinsengumi at the Battle of Bonari Pass, which opened the way for their attack on the castle of Aizu-Wakamatsu in the Battle of Aizu in October 1868, thus making the position in Sendai untenable.

The coalition crumbled, and on October 12 1868 the fleet left Sendai for Hokkaidō, after having acquired two more ships ("Oe" and "Hōō", previously borrowed by Sendai from the Shogunate), and about 1,000 more troops: remaining Shogunate troops under Otori Keisuke, Shinsengumi troops under Hijikata Toshizo, the guerilla corps ("yugekitai") under Hitomi Katsutarō, as well as several more French advisers (Fortant, Garde, Marlin, Bouffier). [Polak, p. 81.]

On October 26, Edo was renamed Tokyo, and the Meiji period officially started. Aizu was besieged starting that month, leading to the mass suicide of the "Byakkotai" (White Tiger Corps) young warriors. [An account of the resistance of the Byakkotai can be accessed [ here] (English)] After a protracted month-long battle, Aizu finally admitted defeat on November 6.

Hokkaidō campaign

Creation of the Ezo Republic


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Following defeat on Honshū, Enomoto Takeaki fled to Hokkaidō with the remnants of the navy and his handful of French advisers. Together they organized a government, with the objective of establishing an independent island nation dedicated to the development of Hokkaidō. They formally established the Republic of Ezo on the American model on December 25, Japan's only republic ever, and Enomoto was elected as President, with a large majority. The republic tried to reach out to foreign legations present in Hakodate, such as the Americans, French, and Russians, but was not able to garner any international recognition or support. Enomoto offered to confer the territory to the Tokugawa Shogun under Imperial rule, but his proposal was declined by the Imperial Governing Council. [In a letter of Enomoto to the Imperial Governing Council: "We pray that this portion of the Empire may be conferred upon our late lord, Tokugawa Kamenosuke; and in that case, we shall repay your beneficence by our faithful guardianship of the northern gate." Black, pp. 240–241 ]

During the winter, they fortified their defenses around the southern peninsula of Hakodate, with the new fortress of Goryokaku at the center. The troops were organized under a Franco-Japanese command, the commander-in-chief Otori Keisuke being seconded by the French captain Jules Brunet, and divided between four brigades. Each of these was commanded by a French non-commissioned officer (Fortant, Marlin, Cazeneuve, Bouffier), and were themselves divided into eight half-brigades, each under Japanese command. [Polak, pp. 85–9.]

Final losses and surrender

The Imperial navy reached the harbour of Miyako on March 20, but anticipating the arrival of the imperial ships, the Ezo rebels organized a daring plan to seize the "Kotetsu". Three warships were dispatched for a surprise attack, in what is known as the Naval Battle of Miyako. The battle ended in failure for the Tokugawa side, owing to bad weather, engine trouble and the decisive use of a Gatling gun by Imperial troops against samurai boarding parties. [Collache was onboard one of the ships that participated to the attack. He had to wreck his ship and flee overland, until he surrendered with his colleagues and was transferred to a prison in Tokyo. He ultimately returned to France safely to tell his story. The encounter is detailed in Collache, "Une aventure au Japon". ]

Imperial forces soon consolidated their hold on mainland Japan, and, in April 1869, dispatched a fleet and an infantry force of 7,000 to Ezo, starting the Battle of Hakodate. The Imperial forces progressed swiftly and won the naval engagement at Hakodate Bay, Japan's first large-scale naval battle between modern navies, as the fortress of Goryokaku was surrounded with 800 remaining men. Seeing the situation had become desperate, the French advisers escaped to a French ship stationed in Hakodate Bay - "Coëtlogon", under the command of Dupetit-Thouars - from where they were shipped back to Yokohama and then France. The Japanese requested that the French advisers be given judgement in France; however, due to popular support in France for their actions, the former French advisers in Japan were not punished for their actions.

Enomoto had resolved to fight to the end, and had sent his valuables to his adversary for safekeeping. [These included the Naval Codes he had brought back from Holland, which he entrusted to the general of the Imperial troops, Kuroda Kiyotaka,] but Otori convinced him to surrender, telling him that deciding to live through defeat is the truly courageous way: "If it's dying you want you can do it anytime." [Polak "et al."] Enomoto surrendered on May 18 1869, and accepted the Meiji Emperor's rule. The Ezo Republic ceased to exist on June 27 1869.


Following victory, the new government proceeded with unifying the country under a single, legitimate and powerful rule by the imperial court. The emperor's residence was effectively transferred from Kyoto to Tokyo at the end of 1868. The military and political power of the domains was progressively eliminated, and the domains themselves were soon transformed into prefectures, whose governors were appointed by the emperor. A major reform was the effective expropriation and abolition of the samurai class, allowing many samurai to change into administrative or entrepreneurial positions, but forcing many others into poverty. [Most legal distinctions between samurai and ordinary subjects were soon abolished, and the traditional rice stipends paid to samurai were first converted into cash stipends, and these were later converted at a steep discount to government bonds (Gordon pp. 64–65).] The southern domains of Satsuma, Chōshū and Tosa, having played a decisive role in the victory, occupied most of the key posts in government for several decades following the conflict, a situation sometimes called the "Meiji oligarchy" and formalized with the institution of the genrō. [For example Saigō Takamori, Okubo Toshimichi, and Tōgō Heihachirō all came from Satsuma. Discussed in "Togo Heihachiro in
] In 1869, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo was built in honour of the victims of the Boshin War. [ [ BBC News article, Tuesday, 15 August 2006] ]

Some leading partisans of the former Shogun were imprisoned, but narrowly escaped execution. This clemency derives from the insistence of Saigō Takamori and Iwakura Tomomi, although much weight was placed on the advice of Parkes, the British envoy. He had urged Saigō, in the words of Ernest Satow, "that severity towards Keiki [Yoshinobu] or his supporters, especially in the way of personal punishment, would injure the reputation of the new government in the opinion of European Powers." [Quoted in Keene, 143.] After two or three years of imprisonment, most of them were called to serve the new government, and several pursued brilliant careers. Enomoto Takeaki, for instance, would later serve as an envoy to Russia and China and as the education minister. [Discussed in Polak "et al." See also, Keene.]

The Imperial side did not pursue its objective to expel foreign interests from Japan, but instead shifted to a more progressive policy aiming at the continued modernization of the country and the renegotiation of unequal treaties with foreign powers, later under the nihongo|"rich country, strong army"|富国強兵|fukoku kyōhei motto. The shift in stance towards the foreigners came during the early days of the civil war: on April 8, 1868, new signboards were erected in Kyoto (and later throughout the country) that specifically repudiated violence against foreigners. [Keene, p. 142.] During the course of the conflict, Emperor Meiji personally received European envoys, first in Kyoto, then later in Osaka and Tokyo. [Keene, pp. 143–4, 165.] Also unprecedented was Emperor Meiji's reception of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in Tokyo, "'as his "equal" in point of blood.'" [Parkes, quoted in Keene, p. 183-7. Emphasis in the original.]

Although the early Meiji era witnessed a warming between the imperial court and foreign powers, relations with France temporarily soured due to the initial support by France for the Shogun. Soon however a second military mission was invited to Japan in 1874, and a third one in 1884. A high level of interaction resumed around 1886, when France helped build the Imperial Japanese Navy's first large-scale modern fleet, under the direction of naval engineer Louis-Émile Bertin. [Discussed in Evans and Peattie.] The modernization of the country had in fact already started extensively during the last years of the Shogunate, and the Meiji government ultimately adopted the same orientation, although it was better able to mobilize the whole country towards modernization in a more efficient way.

Upon his coronation, Meiji issued his Charter Oath, calling for deliberative assemblies, promising increased opportunities for the common people, abolishing the "evil customs of the past," and seeking knowledge throughout the world "to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule." [Jansen, p. 338. See Jansen, pp. 337-43 for political developments during and relating to the course of the war. See Keene, 138–42, for discussion of the Charter Oath and signboard decrees.] Prominent reforms of the Meiji government included the 1871 abolition of the domain system, by which the feudal domains and their hereditary rulers were replaced by prefectures with governors appointed by the emperor. [Many daimyo were appointed as the first governors, and subsequently given peerages and large pensions. Over the following years, the three hundred domains were reduced to fifty prefectures. Jansen, pp. 348–9.] Others included the introduction of compulsory schooling and the abolition of Confucian class distinctions. The reforms culminated in the 1889 issuance of the Meiji Constitution. However, despite the support given to the imperial court by samurai, many of the early Meiji reforms were seen as detrimental to their interests: the creation of a conscript army made of commoners, as well as the loss of hereditary prestige and stipends antagonized many former samurai. [Jansen, 367–8.] Tensions ran particularly high in the south, leading to the 1874 Saga Rebellion, and a rebellion in Chōshū in 1876. Former samurai in Satsuma, led by Saigō Takamori, who had left government over foreign policy differences, started the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. Fighting for the maintenance of the samurai class and a more virtuous government, their slogan was nihongo|"new government, high morality"|新政厚徳|shinsei kōtoku. It ended with a heroic but total defeat at the Battle of Shiroyama. [Hagiwara, pp. 94–120. Saigō himself professed continued loyalty to Meiji and wore his Imperial Army uniform throughout the conflict. He committed suicide before the final charge of the rebellion, and was posthumously pardoned by the emperor in subsequent years. Jansen, 9p. 369–70.]

Later depictions

In modern summaries, the Meiji restoration is often described as a "bloodless revolution" leading to the sudden modernization of Japan. The actual facts of the Boshin War clearly show that the conflict was quite violent: about 120,000 troops were mobilized altogether with roughly 3,500 known casualties. [Hagiwara, p. 50.] Later Japanese depictions of the war tended to be highly romanticized, showing the Shogunal side fighting with traditional methods, against an already modernized Imperial side. And although traditional weapons and techniques were used, both sides employed some of the most modern armaments and fighting techniques of the period: including the ironclad warship, Gatling guns, and fighting techniques learned from Western military advisers.

Such Japanese depictions include numerous dramatizations, spanning many genres. Notably, Jirō Asada wrote a four-volume novel of the account, "Mibu Gishi-den". A film adaptation of Asada's work, directed by Yojiro Takita, is known as "When the Last Sword Is Drawn". A ten-hour television "jidaigeki" based on the same novel starred Ken Watanabe. The 2001 "Goryokaku" film is another "jidaigeki" highlighting the resistance in Hokkaidō. The famous Japanese anime "Rurouni Kenshin" is set 10 years after the Boshin War.

Elsewhere, the 2003 Hollywood movie "The Last Samurai" combines into a single narrative historical situations belonging both to the Boshin War, the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, and other similar uprisings of ex-samurai during the early Meiji period. The elements of the movie pertaining to the early modernization of Japan's military forces as well as the direct involvement of foreign (mostly French) forces relate to the Boshin War and the few years leading to it. However, the suicidal stand of traditionalist samurai forces led by Saigō Takamori against the modernized Imperial army relate to the much later Satsuma Rebellion.



* Collache, Eugène. "Une aventure au Japon" "Le Tour du Monde", No. 77, 1874
* Hagiwara, Kōichi (2004). _ja. 図説 西郷隆盛と大久保利通 ("Illustrated life of Saigō Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi") ISBN 4-309-76041-4, 2004 (in Japanese)
* "Le Monde Illustré", No. 583, June 13th, 1868
* Polak, Christian (2002). _ja. 日仏交流の黄金期  _fr. "Soie et Lumière, L'Âge d'or des échanges Franco-Japonais" (in Japanese and French). Hachette Fujingaho.
* Polak, Christian, et al. (1988). _ja. 函館の幕末・維新 "End of the Bakufu and Restoration in Hakodate." ISBN 4-12-001699-4 (in Japanese).
* Tōgō Shrine and Tōgō Association ( _ja. 東郷神社・東郷会), "Togo Heihachiro in
_ja. 図説東郷平八郎、目で見る明治の海軍), (Japanese)

Further reading


ee also

* France-Japan relations (19th century)

External links

* [ The Boshin War] (Japanese)
* [ The Battle of Ezo] (Japanese)
* National Archives of Japan: [ "Boshinshoyo Kinki oyobi Gunki Shinzu," precise reproduction of Imperial Standard and the colors used by Government Army during Boshin War (1868)]

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