The Boshin War (戊辰戦争, Boshin Sensō, "War of the Year of the Dragon") was a civil war in Japan, fought from 1868 to 1869 between forces of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and those seeking to return political power to the imperial court. The war found its origins in dissatisfaction among many nobles and young samurai with the shogunate's handling of foreigners following the opening of Japan the prior decade. An alliance of southern samurai, particularly the domains of Choshu and Satsuma, and court officials secured control of the imperial court and influenced the young Emperor Meiji. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the sitting shogun, realizing the futility of his situation, abdicated political power to the emperor. Yoshinobu had hoped that by doing this, the Tokugawa house could be preserved and to participate in the future government. However, military movements by imperial forces, partisan violence in Edo, and an imperial decree promoted by Satsuma and Choshu abolishing the house of Tokugawa led Yoshinobu to launch a military campaign to seize the emperor's court at Kyoto. The military tide rapidly turned in favor of the smaller but relatively modernized imperial faction, and after a series of battles culminating in the surrender of Edo, Yoshinobu personally surrendered. Those loyal to the Tokugawa retreated to northern Honshū and later to Hokkaidō, where they founded the Ezo republic.

Defeat at the Battle of Hakodate broke this last holdout and left the imperial rule supreme throughout the whole of Japan, completing the military phase of the Meiji Restoration. Around one hundred and twenty thousand men were mobilized during the conflict, and of these about three and a half thousand were killed. In the end, the victorious imperial faction abandoned its objective to expel foreigners from Japan and instead adopted a policy of continued modernization with an eye to eventual renegotiation of the Unequal Treaties with the Western powers. Due to the persistence of Saigō Takamori, a prominent leader of the imperial faction, the Tokugawa loyalists were shown clemency, and many former shogunate leaders were later given positions of responsibility under the new government. The Boshin War testifies to the advanced state of modernization already achieved by Japan barely 14 years after its opening to the West, the already high involvement of Western nations (especially the United Kingdom and France) in the country's politics, and the rather turbulent installation of Imperial power. The War contributed to Japan's more militant and expansionist polity that, in the next century, propelled her into imperial competition with other powers, to colonial ambition in Korea, Manchuria and further afield leading up to and during World War II. This war was internal but the momentum it generated spilled across the seas. Following defeat in 1945, Japan had redirected her creativity, ingenuity and energy into becoming an economic power, not a military one. Many people in Japan, originally a nation of "great harmony," feel that they should contribute their various resources for the sake of the world in order to atone for their past militaristic aggressions

Political Background

Early discontent against the Shogunate

Campaign map of the Boshin War (1868-1869). The Southern domains of Satsuma, Chōshū and Tosa (in red) joined forces to defeat the Shogunate forces at Toba-Fushimi, and then progressively took control of the rest of Japan until the final stand-off in the northern island of Hokkaidō.

For the two centuries prior to 1854, Japan had severely limited exchange with foreign nations, with the notable exceptions of Korea via Tsushima, Qing China via the Ryūkyūs, and the Dutch through the trading post of Dejima.23 In 1854, Commodore Perry opened Japan to global commerce with the implied threat of force, thus initiating a period of rapid development in foreign trade and Westernization. In large part due to the humiliating terms of the Unequal Treaties, as agreements like those conveyed by Perry are called, the Shogunate soon faced internal hostility, which materialized into a radical, xenophobic movement, the sonnō jōi (literally "Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians").4

The Shogunate's Kanrin Maru, Japan's first screw-driven steam warship, 1855. The Shogunate actively pursued modernization, but was faced by growing internal discontent against the harm to national sovereignty brought on by contact with Westerners

The Emperor Kōmei agreed with such sentiments, and-breaking with centuries of imperial tradition-began to take an active role in matters of state: as opportunities arose, he fulminated against the treaties and attempted to interfere in the shogunal succession. His efforts culminated in March 1863 with his "Order to expel barbarians." Although the Shogunate had no intention of enforcing the order, it nevertheless inspired attacks against the Shogunate itself and against foreigners in Japan: the most famous incident was that of the English trader Charles Lennox Richardson, for whose death the Tokugawa government had to pay an indemnity of one hundred thousand British pounds.5 Other attacks included the shelling of foreign shipping in Shimonoseki.6

Shogunal troops in 1864. Illustrated London News

During 1864, these actions were successfully countered by armed retaliations by foreign powers, such as the British Bombardment of Kagoshima and the multinational Bombardment of Shimonoseki. At the same time, the forces of Chōshū, together with xenophobic ronin, raised the Hamaguri rebellion trying to seize the city of Kyoto, where the Emperor's court was held, but the future shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu led a punitive expedition and defeated them. At this point initial resistance among the leadership in Chōshū and the imperial court subsided, but over the next year the Tokugawa proved unable to reassert full control over the country as most daimyo began to ignore orders and questions from Edo.7

Foreign military assistance

Bakumatsu troops near Mount Fuji in 1867. The painting by French officer Jules Brunet show an eclectic combination of Western and Japanese equipment.Training of the Shogunate troops by the French Military Mission to Japan in 1867

Despite the bombardment of Kagoshima, the Satsuma domain had become closer to the British and was pursuing the modernization of its army and navy with their support.8 The Scottish dealer Thomas Blake Glover sold quantities of warships and guns to the southern domains.9 American and British military experts, usually former officers, may have been directly involved in this military effort.10 The British ambassador Harry Smith Parkes supported the anti-Shogunate forces in a drive to establish a legitimate, unified Imperial rule in Japan, and to counter French influence with the Shogunate. During that period, southern Japanese leaders such as Saigō Takamori of Satsuma, or Itō Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru of Chōshū cultivated personal connections with British diplomats, notably Sir Ernest Mason Satow.11

The Shogunate also was preparing for further conflict by modernizing its forces. In line with Parkes' designs, the British, theretofore the Shogunate's primary partner, proved reluctant to provide assistance.12 The Tokugawa thus came to rely mainly on French expertise, comforted by the military prestige of Napoleon III at that time, acquired through his successes in the Crimean War and the War of Italy.13 The Shogunate took major steps towards the construction of a modern and powerful military: a navy with a core of eight steam warships had been built over several years and was already the strongest in Asia. In 1865, Japan's first modern naval arsenal was built in Yokosuka by the French engineer Léonce Verny. In January 1867, a French military mission arrived to reorganize the shogunal army and create an elite force, and an order was placed with the United States to buy the French-built ironclad warship CSS Stonewall, a relic of the American Civil War. Due to the Western powers' declared neutrality, the Americans refused to release the ship, but once neutrality was lifted, the imperial faction obtained the vessel and employed it in engagements in Hakodate under the name Kōtetsu (literally "Ironclad").14

Coups d'état (1866-1868)

Tokugawa Yoshinobu in French military uniform, c. 1867

Following a coup within Chōshū which returned to power the extremist factions opposed to the Shogunate, the Shogunate announced its intention to lead a second expedition against Choshu to punish the renegade domain. This in turn prompted Chōshū to form a secret alliance with Satsuma. In late 1866, however, first Shogun Iemochi and then Emperor Kōmei died, respectively succeeded by Yoshinobu and Emperor Meiji. These events "made a truce inevitable."15 On November 9, 1867, a secret order was created bySatsuma and Chōshū in the name of Emperor Meiji commanding the "slaughtering of the traitorous subject Yoshinobu."16 Just prior to this however, and following a proposal from the daimyo of Tosa, Yoshinobu resigned his post and authorities to the emperor, agreeing to "be the instrument for carrying out" imperial orders.17The Tokugawa Shogunate had ended.18

While Yoshinobu's resignation had created a nominal void at the highest level of government, his apparatus of state continued to exist. Moreover, the shogunal government, the Tokugawa family in particular, would remain a prominent force in the evolving political order and would retain many executive powers,19 a prospect hard-liners from Satsuma and Chōshū found intolerable.20 Events came to a head on January 3, 1868 when these elements seized the imperial palace in Kyoto, and the following day had the fifteen-year-old Emperor Meiji declare his own restoration to full power. Although the majority of the imperial consultative assembly was happy with the formal declaration of direct rule by the court and tended to support a continued collaboration with the Tokugawa (under the concept of "just government" (公議政体派, "just government" kōgiseitaiha), Saigō Takamori threatened the assembly into abolishing the title "shogun" and order the confiscation of Yoshinobu's lands.21

Destruction of the Palace of Satsuma by Shogunate forces in Edo

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."22 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 outerworks 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.23

Opening conflicts

Battle scene at Toba-Fushimi. Shogunate forces are on the left, including battalions from Aizu. On the right are forces from Chōshū and Tosa. These are modernized battalions, but some of the forces were also traditional samurai (especially on the Shogunate side)A Satsuma battery in action at Toba-FushimiDoctor William Willis, of the English Legation, managed the military hospital for the Satsuma forces during the Toba-Fushimi battle and throughout the Boshin War.24

On January 27, 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,25 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 imperial army (官軍, kangun).26 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.27

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.28 Osaka Castle was soon invested on February 8 (on March 1, Western calendar), putting an end to the battle of Toba-Fushimi.29

At the same time, on January 28, 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.30 The battle, although small in scale, ended in favor of the Shogunate.

The killing of French sailors in the Sakai incident. Le Monde Illustré

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.31

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.32

Surrender of Edo

Kondo Isami, leader of the pro-Shogunate Shinsengumi, facing soldiers from Tosa (distinctive "Red bear" (赤熊, Shaguma) wigs of the officers) at the Battle of Kōshū-KatsunumaPart of the fleet of Enomoto Takeaki off Shinagawa. From left to right: Mikaho, Chōgei, Kanrin, Kaiyō, Kaiten. The Banryū and Chiyodagata are absent. 1868 photograph

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.33

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 defeat after Katsu Kaishu, the Shogun's Army Minister, negotiated the surrender.34 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.35

Resistance of the Northern Coalition

Troops from Sendai, following their mobilization in April, joined a northern alliance against Imperial troops in May 1868.Wooden cannons used by the Sendai fief during the Boshin War. Sendai City Museum

After Yoshinobu's surrender,36 most of Japan accepted the emperor's rule, but a core of domains in the North, supporting the Aizu clan, continued the resistance.37 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.38 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.39 On the other hand, the daimyo of Nagaoka managed to procure two of the three Gatling guns in Japan and 2000 modern French rifles from the German weapons dealer Henry Schnell.

Ruined castle of Shirakawa-Komine, during the Battle of Aizu

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.

Troops of the former Bakufu, being transported to Hokkaidō.

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).35

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. After a protracted month-long battle, Aizu finally admitted defeat on November 6.

Hokkaidō campaign

Creation of the Ezo Republic

The French military advisers and their Japanese allies in Hokkaido

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.40

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.41

Final losses and surrender

The Imperial Navy's ironclad Kotetsu

The Imperial navy reached the harbor of Miyako on March 20, but anticipating the arrival of the imperial ships, the Ezo rebels organized a daring plan to seize the Kotetsu. Led by Shinsengumi commander Hijikata Toshizo, 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.42

The French Navy officer Eugène Collache participated in the Naval Battle of Miyako in samurai attire.

Imperial forces soon consolidated their hold on mainland Japan, and, in April 1869, dispatched a fleet and an infantry force of 7000 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.43 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."44 Enomoto surrendered on May 18, 1869, and accepted the Meiji Emperor's rule. The Ezo Republic ceased to exist on June 27, 1869.


The 16-year old Meiji Emperor, moving from Kyoto to Tokyo, end of 1868.

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.45 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.46 In 1869, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo was built in honour of the victims of the Boshin War.47

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."48 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.49

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 "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.50 During the course of the conflict, Emperor Meiji personally received European envoys, first in Kyoto, then later in Osaka and Tokyo.51 Also unprecedented was Emperor Meiji's reception of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in Tokyo, "'as his equal in point of blood.'"52

Reception by the Meiji Emperor of the Second French Military Mission to Japan, 1872.

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.53 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.

Saigo Takamori, in his army uniform, with officers of the Satsuma Rebellion

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."54 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.55 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.56 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 Saigo 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 "new government, high morality" (新政厚徳, shinsei kōtoku). It ended with a heroic but total defeat at the Battle of Shiroyama.57

Legacy: Political

The Boshin War contributed to Japan's more militant and expansionist policy that, in the next century, propelled her into imperial competition with other powers, to colonial ambition in Korea, Manchuria and throughout Asia and the Pacific leading up to and during World War II. Following defeat in 1945, Japan had redirected her creativity, ingenuity and energy into becoming an economic power, rather than a military one. Many people in Japan, originally a nation of "great harmony," feel that they should contribute their various resources for the sake of the world in order to atone for their past mili