In this blog post, Gabriele Esposito, author of MAA 530 Japanese Armies 1868–1877, explains the causes behind the two conflicts analysed in his book: The Boshin War and Satsuma Rebellion, and which events were used as the starting point for creating the script of the movie “The Last Samurai” starring Tom Cruise.

 Japanese Armies 1868–1877 Book Cover


Until the 1840s, Japan remained a fairly isolated country, closed to any contact with the rest of the world and characterized by the presence of strong traditions that had barely changed during the last three centuries. Following the crucial Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Japan had been ruled by the Tokugawa Dynasty, as established by the famous warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu. He emerged as the sole ruler of the country after obliterating the feudal anarchy that had characterised Japan since the early Middle Ages. Up to 1600, the country had experienced an almost continuous internal struggle between various aristocratic families that controlled the territory. Different nobles, backed by their professional feudal warriors known as ‘samurai’, were constantly at war with each other with the objective of expanding their possessions or exerting a stronger influence over the Emperor. Formally Japan was ruled over by an Emperor; however, he acted only as a symbolic figure and generally had very little political importance. With the ascendancy of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan began to be ruled over by a dynasty of powerful warlords who were known as ‘Shoguns’. Since they were part of the Tokugawa family, this new form of government assumed the denomination of “Tokugawa Shogunate”. The Shoguns had to control the warlike aristocracy of the various provinces in order to maintain their power and to continue exerting a special influence over the Emperor; as a result, they always had the best and most numerous contingents of samurai under their direct orders. The Imperial Family, highly honoured but with very little practical function, lived in a state of semi-captivity in the ancient capital of Kyoto. The Shoguns governed from the important administrative centre of Edo. Between 1600 and 1868, a total of fifteen Tokugawa Shoguns ruled Japan without interruption, being, for all intents and purposes, a sort of military dictatorship. As a result, this period of Japanese history is commonly known as the “Edo Period”.

The last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, from 1853 to 1868, are collectively called the “Bakumatsu” (a word which means “end of the Shogunate”). These years were characterised by the arrival of the first foreigners in Japan after several centuries of almost complete isolationism: the Shoguns, in fact, had always done their best to avoid any contact with the rest of the world and, in particular, with European countries. The Japanese feared that colonial powers, like the Netherlands or Portugal, would be interested in invading their country or in assuming control over Japan’s economy (as they had already done in other areas of Asia). The Shogunate had complete control over the Japanese economy and did not permit any form of foreign trade: internal commerce was the only economic activity of Japan’s merchants. This situation came to an abrupt end around the middle of the 19th century when European powers and the United States put pressure on the Shoguns to obtain the disclosure of Japanese ports. Japan had the potential to become a lucrative market with great economic potential, thanks to its numerous population and natural resources; however, the Shogunate’s authorities had no intention of opening their world to the modern ways of life brought by foreigners (who were all considered “barbarians” by the majority of the Japanese population). Japan’s isolationist policy was also strongly linked to religious reasons as the Shogunate’s government (the “bakufu”) feared the influence of foreign religions would cause an irreversible decay within Japanese society. The events of the First Opium War (1839–1842), however, clearly demonstrated that an Asiatic country like China or Japan could not remain isolated forever: European colonial powers, thanks to their superior technological and military capabilities, had all the required potential to defeat any traditional Asiatic military force and to force an opening of their ports.

In 1853, however, after several failed attempts from the European powers, it was the US Navy who were finally able to force the Tokugawa Shogunate to open Japanese ports. In May of that year, after an epic journey starting from Virginia, a naval squadron under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry reached the Japanese islands with the clear objective of establishing diplomatic and commercial relations with the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Japanese were extremely impressed by the massive US warships (which they called the “black ships” because of their colour) and by the exacting discipline of Perry’s Marines. However, the situation came very close to open military confrontation when the Americans threatened to march on Edo in order to conduct official meetings with the Shogun. In the end, after months of tensions and demonstrations, Perry was permitted to land and to deliver a letter written by the US president to the Japanese government. For the moment, the Americans sailed to China and left the Japanese coast, but it was clear to the Japanese that their defences were no match for the US military threat. In 1854, Perry returned to Japan at the head of a larger naval squadron, this time with the firm intention of receiving a clear response and of concluding a diplomatic/commercial treaty with the Shogunate. Finally, on 31 March 1854, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed between Japan and the USA and the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate were opened to American merchant ships. During the following years, Japan signed similar treaties with other foreign powers like Britain, France, Russia and the Netherlands. The Netherlands had been the only country to maintain some minimal commercial relations with Japan during the previous centuries, thanks to the existence of a small Dutch trading post on the little island of Deshima (the only place in Japan where the Shogunate permitted contact with the foreign world). The Japanese had been forced to open their ports because of their military difficulties, but this situation was by no means definitive in their view: the ports would remain open only for the time needed to reform the Shogunate’s military forces and to bring them up to the same level as the foreign ones “visiting” Japan. In reality, some sort of modernization/westernization of the Japanese military forces had already been going on since 1840 (as a result of China’s defeat in the First Opium War).

The years between 1853 and 1868 were characterized by the emergence of a deep internal division inside Japan: on one side there were the Shogun’s Tokugawa clan and its allies (favourable to the opening of the country to the rest of the world) and, on the other, there were the Imperial Family and its allies (opposed to any further concessions to foreign “barbarians”). In reality, for the first time in centuries, an Emperor was trying to restore absolute power over Japan. To achieve this ambitious objective, the Tokugawa Shogunate had to be eliminated. The Imperial Family was supported by major aristocratic families opposed to the Shogunate: these were mostly settled in south-western Japan and comprised the two major families of Satsuma and Choshu. Since 1860, the clans had supported isolationism by launching a series of murderous attacks against individual foreigners who were now active in Japan: in their view, these attacks would be the cause of direct military intervention from “western” powers which would lead to the defeat and removal of the Shogun. In reality, these attacks caused serious diplomatic troubles for the “bakufu” and led to various military demonstrations from Europeans (which were part of that period’s “gunboat diplomacy”). Members of the isolationist faction were commonly known as “shishi”, which means “determined men”– from an ideological point of view their main goal was to defend the honour and traditions of their homeland from the negative influence of foreigners. In September 1862, Charles Richardson, a British merchant, was killed outside Yokohama by a group of Satsuma samurai; this event, known as the “Namamugi Incident”, caused the outbreak of what has become known as the “Anglo-Satsuma” War. The British government asked for a huge compensation sum of £100,000 for the killing of Richardson and the “bakufu” government, after some negotiation, agreed to pay in order to avoid military action against Edo. The Satsuma clan, on the other hand, did not apologize for the incident and did nothing to capture the killers. On 6 August 1863, a British naval squadron left Yokohama with orders to conduct a retaliatory action against the Satsuma’s main centre of Kagoshima.

The British warships captured three Satsuma merchant vessels, burned them and then, after some preparation, the naval squadron started a bombardment of the Japanese port (which had already been fully evacuated). The British commander decided not to land troops but the clash resulted in a clear British victory: the Satsuma clan had not been able to sustain the foreign attack and had to pay compensation to the British government. Meanwhile, in March of the same year, the Emperor issued a formal “Order to expel barbarians” decree which was clearly in opposition to the official dispositions of the Shogunate, but which was soon executed by the Choshu clan. All foreigners living on Choshu territory were expelled using extremely harsh methods, while all foreign ships passing across the Shimonoseki Strait were bombarded by Choshu coastal guns. The “western” powers were appalled by this situation, particularly because the Shimonoseki Strait was very important to them from a strategic point of view. The Choshu clan, in contrast to the Satsuma clan, had access to some modern artillery: five 8-inch Dahlgren guns, presented to Japan as a “gift” by the United States, and three steam warships built in America. As a result, the attacks on “western” ships passing across theShimonosekiStraitcaused serious human and material losses. On 16 July 1863, the Americans attacked three modern vessels deployed by the Choshu clan, sinking two of them and severely damaging the other; on 20 July, the French followed the American example and bombarded the Shimonoseki coastal batteries. These events led to an escalation of Japanese hatred against foreigners, resulting in attacks against properties and legations from “western” countries. Fearing that this situation could transform into a full-scale xenophobic insurrection, an international naval squadron was formed to conduct retaliatory action against the Choshu clan. This “western” fleet comprised nine British warships, four Dutch warships, three French warships and one American support vessel. Between 5 and 6 September 1864, during the so-called Battle of the Shimonoseki Strait, European warships destroyed most of the Choshu military potential. On 8 September, the Choshu defenders surrendered after suffering heavy casualties and losing most of their artillery. After such a profound defeat, the Tokugawa Shogunate was required to pay an immense compensation of $3,000,000 for the damages suffered by foreign ships; this sum, however, was never paid by Japan.

In August 1864, the Choshu clan, despite having suffered some temporary setbacks, launched a surprise attack against the Shogunate troops in Kyoto with the objective of freeing the Emperor from the control of the Shogun. The raid, known as the “Kimmon Incident”, was not successful and caused the burning of most of Japan’s ancient capital. The Shogun was extremely angry by the rebellious behaviour of the Choshu clan, which had threatened the heart of his power and had caused such a terrible diplomatic/military crisis with “western” powers. As a result, to re-establish the authority of the “bakufu” over the Choshu territories, the Shogunate launched a first punitive campaign against the south-western clan in September 1864 (known as the “First Choshu Expedition”). This saw no proper combat, since both sides were in no condition to fight. The Choshu leaders who had planned the raid on Kyoto were arrested and handed over to the Shogun, but the territory of Choshu was not invaded by the central government. During the following months, however, tensions between the “bakufu” and the Choshu clan continued to grow and, finally, in June 1866, the Shogun launched a “Second Choshu Expedition” in order to crush the rebellious clan. Against all the odds, the Shogunate Army was soundly defeated by the military forces of the Choshu clan, which had recently been modernized and westernized because of the imminent conflict with the central government. Most of the feudal contingents comprising the Shogunate Army were already sympathetic to the cause of the Emperor and of the Choshu clan; among them were also those sent by the Satsuma clan, which was ready to conclude a formal alliance with Choshu. After the military disaster of the “Second Choshu Expedition”, it became clear that the Tokugawa Shogunate was in no condition to retain control of Japan: the power of the Shogun could now survive only if defended by a new and stronger army, reformed according to western lines. To achieve this objective, and in view of possible future confrontations with the Choshu and Satsuma clans, the “bakufu” invited a French military mission to Japan that arrived during 1867.

The task of the military mission, which was intended by Napoleon III as a tool to augment France’s influence over Japan, was extremely difficult: it had to re-organize, re-train and modernize the military forces of the Shogunate as soon as possible (transforming them into a proper “westernized” army). At the same time, the Shogun requested military assistance from Britain with the objective of also modernizing their Navy. As a result, in 1867, the Royal Navy sent the so-called “Tracey Mission” to Japan.

The French Military Mission consisted of 17 members: a captain (commander of the mission and an attaché to the Imperial General Staff in Paris), four other officers (two infantry instructors, one cavalry instructor and one artillery instructor), ten NCOs and two soldiers. For little more than one year, the French were able to train a selected part of the Shogunate Army (800 soldiers), which was known as the “Denshutai”; the outbreak of the Boshin War in 1868, however, prevented them from re-organizing the whole land force of the Shogun. The foreign military mission was ordered to leave Japan in October 1868 but five of its members decided to remain in the country to fight for the “bakufu” government during the Boshin War. The latter, deriving its name from the Japanese term used to indicate the year 1868, was fought between an alliance guided by the Emperor (including the Choshu and Satsuma clans) and the military forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate (comprising the feudal troops of various clans that were allied to the Tokugawa family). In February 1867, the young and ambitious Emperor Meiji had ascended to the Japanese throne with the firm intention of restoring the ancient power of the Imperial Family (with the decisive support of the Choshu-Satsuma Alliance). This process, commonly known as the “Meiji Restoration”, culminated with the outbreak of the Boshin War and with the proclamation of the Japanese Empire in 1869.


Japanese Armies 1868-1877 publishes 19 March 2020. Preorder your copy here.