It was the winter of 1868.
The fleet of warships steamed northward, the island of Honshu from which they fled receding behind them. The passengers on the eight ships made up a motley crew. Those onboard included officers of the Shogun’s fledgling navy, as well as samurai of greater or lesser repute, including some of the most famous names of their day, and even a group of foreigners - French military advisers who had been sent to Japan by Emperor Napoleon the Third.
But all these had something in common.
Only a short time beforehand, these men had all been associated with the longest-running and most stable military government Japan had ever known, an authority so absolute and matter-of-fact that few Japanese would have even thought to have questioned it. Now, these men were all political refugees, fleeing for the only land they felt they could still claim for the two hundred and fifty-year-old dynasty to whom they held allegiance. Their destination: the snowy and mysterious island of Ezo, known today by the name Hokkaido. Their intention: to take the island, by force if necessary, and to establish there a separate political entity where the way of the samurai and the Tokugawa dynasty could live on.
The Japanese mainland they left behind had fallen. With startling rapidity, the long-isolationist samurai military dynasty of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had ruled Japan since 1603, had been defeated by the advancing rebels from the south. The Shogunate had been abolished, and the marginalized imperial throne, upon which sat the young Emperor Meiji, had been restored to power. These new leaders on the mainland intended to do away with the samurai class system, throwing it out along with the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The Age of the Samurai would end with the Age of the Tokugawa...unless the men aboard these ships heading to Ezo could do something to salvage it.
Waning Years of the Samurai
The trouble had begun some 15 years earlier. The centuries of isolation from outside countries and cultures imposed by the Tokugawa government had been shaken to its core by the arrival of four American gunboats in Uraga harbor. The commander of these powerful “black ships,” as the American vessels became known, was Commodore Matthew C. Perry, and he was under direct orders from President Millard Fillmore to open up the insular country to American trade. Under the menacing gaze of the modern armament on Perry’s ships of war, the Tokugawa government blinked. Despite major opposition towards giving into these foreign demands from many daimyo (大名, powerful feudal lords of the various domains that split up the country), the council of elders that ruled the nation in the stead of the young and sickly shogun saw no other way ahead in the rapidly modernizing world that surrounded Japan.
They gave in to Perry’s desires, opening up for the first time two ports to American trade - one in geographically central Shimoda, the other in Hakodate, the capital of the faraway northern island of Ezo. Soon the British, Russians, and French had managed to open up trade negotiations as well. 220 years of Japanese isolation had ended.
This capitulation had severely weakened the image of the Tokugawa among many of the daimyo who owed them allegiance. While the central government moved quickly to begin modernizing the country militarily and economically and to consolidate their power, the damage had been done. Powerful daimyo from the far western domains of Satsuma and Choshu (in modern-day Kagoshima and Yamaguchi Prefectures) began to rally around the emperor in Kyoto, using his court - which for many hundreds of years had been relegated to a ceremonial position by the military might of Japan’s true rulers, the various Shoguns - in an attempt to undermine the central Tokugawa government. Their rallying cry became “Sonnō jōi! (尊皇攘夷)” - “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians!”
The fermentation of anti-foreign, anti-Shogunal, pro-imperial fervor had major impacts. Emperor Kōmei himself was convinced, and in 1863 broke with established traditions of imperial political non-action by issuing an edict to expel all the foreign “barbarians” in Japan within two months. The Tokugawa government ignored the edict, but supporters of the emperor around Japan took it to heart, carrying out attacks on foreign ships and assassinating foreign traders and Shogunate officials.
Combined Tokugawa and foreign military action put down this first wave of violent rebellion, but the expensive indemnities ordered by the foreign governments whose citizens had been murdered simply made the Shogunate look even weaker. Various western daimyo began to ignore Shogunal orders and entreaties. For the Tokugawa Government, trying to straddle the line between appeasing powerful foreign governments, simultaneously enacting policy to modernize Japan, and avoiding the increasing ire of isolationist nationalists proved a difficult task. The future seemed uncertain.
A Naval Genius Comes of Age
It was during these tumultuous years that one enterprising man, Enomoto Takeaki (榎本武揚), came of age. A young samurai from the Shogunate capital, Edo, the Enomoto family owed fealty directly to the ruling Tokugawa Clan. Growing up in such a situation must have been formative for the young man, as loyalty to the Tokugawa would come to represent a major feature of Enomoto’s life. Two more features defined him: a fascination with the outside world coupled with a perception of its encroaching modernizing forces, and an innate skill and understanding of all matters regarding naval warfare.
Enomoto began studying Dutch during the early 1850s, a few years before Commodore Perry forced the opening of Japan, when the Dutch trading island of Dejima in Nagasaki was still the only legal contact point between Japan and the Western world. Following the Tokugawa capitulation to Perry’s demands, Enomoto was sent to study at the newly-established Nagasaki Naval Training Center (長崎海軍伝習所). The training center had been created by the Tokugawa with the assistance of Dutch officers from the nearby Dejima, and its purpose was to help develop a new generation of samurai with experience in modern Western naval tactics and technologies. With his knowledge of Dutch, Enomoto was a perfect candidate. When the training facility was shifted East to Edo in order to be farther afield from the anti-Tokugawa samurai clans near Nagasaki, he went with it.
In 1862, Enomoto became one amongst the first waves of Japanese to gain leave to study in foreign lands. He made the voyage to the distant Netherlands, where for five years he continued his education in Western naval strategy and learned more of Western technologies. This tenure in such a distant country, something generations of his forebears would never have been able to imagine, left its mark upon his psyche as well. While living in the Netherlands, Enomoto perfected his Dutch, and added English to his list of linguistic accomplishments.
While Enomoto was residing in the Netherlands, a Tokugawa military mission was there as well, overseeing the construction in the Dordrecht shipyards of a great wooden steamship. Given the name Kaiyō Maru (開陽丸), at 240 feet long she was the largest wooden warship built in the Netherlands up to that date, ordered with the intention of being the powerhouse of the fledgling Tokugawa navy.
When it was finally time for her to launch in October of 1866, Enomoto boarded the proud new Kaiyo Maru, taking passage on the great warship in order to finally return to Japan. As the Kaiyo Maru crossed the Strait of Malacca and passed the Dutch East Indies on its long journey to its new home, Enomoto began to envision a time when an empowered Japan would use its navy to secure foreign land in the Pacific as had the Dutch - a notion that stayed with him throughout his life, and which had major impacts on colonial Japanese policy years after Enomoto had passed on..
Finally arriving to Japan, Enomoto, now a spry 31 year-old, was shortly awarded the position of Vice Admiral of the Navy (海軍副総裁). The young naval expert was suddenly the second most powerful individual in the Tokugawa navy.
The Fading Authority of the Shogunate
As the Tokugawa continued their mad dash to modernize Japan, their opponents in Satsuma and Choshu managed to secretly woo the British away from the central government. British officers began to quietly help train and arm the armies of Satsuma and the British government started to ignore Shogunal requests for assistance in modernizing their military. Then, a coup within the Choshu domain by hardline anti-Shogunal forces led to the Shogun sending a punitive military mission to the Choshu lands - a mission which promptly met with disaster as the Choshu army decimated the army forces of the central government.
Only the sudden deaths of both emperor Komei and Shogun Iemochi Tokugawa and the subsequent shock to both the rebels and Shogunate led to momentary ceasing of hostilities. But the central government was left highly embarrassed, with a huge portion of their prestige shattered.
Arrival of the French Advisers
With the British ignoring the shamed central government, and needing more than ever to modernize and improve their clearly weak military, the Shogunate turned to another Great Power - the French. Emperor Napoleon III, then still quite renowned in Europe, was happy to assist the new Tokugawa Shogun, Yoshinobu. In 1866 he sent a military mission to Japan consisting of 17 officers and soldiers who quickly got to work training a new elite force of Shogunate troops, to be called the Denshutai(伝習隊) - a military group with the distinction of selecting members based on merit rather than samurai lineage. The influence of the French on the Tokugawa regime was great; a photograph remains of Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa dressed in French military regalia.
Among the French mission was one Jules Brunet, a romantic 29 year-old captain who had previously seen action in Mexico, far beyond the usual French sphere of influence. Jules was very active in the training of his Japanese charges, one of which was the high-ranking Tokugawa army officer Otori Keisuke (大鳥圭介). Keisuke, like his contemporary and one-time student Enomoto Takeaki, had studied Dutch and English and had a healthy appreciation for Western culture - he had even suggested to the Shogun that the government be reformed to a have bicameral legislature like did some Western nations. Keisuke and Jules both had a major impact on the creation of the Denshutai.
The Revolution Begins
But within only a year of Enomoto Takeaki returning to Japan and the French mission training their Japanese units, things came to a sudden head. The hardline Choshu rebels had once again formed an alliance with the powerful Satsuma Domain, and this time they had added to their numbers the more moderate lords of the Shikoku Island domain of Tosa (modern Kochi Prefecture). Hoping to avoid outright civil war, the Lord of Tosa reached out to Shogun Yoshinobu with a compromise: step down as Shogun, and give official leadership of the country over to the young Emperor Meiji. In exchange, the ex-Shogun would be made leader of a new government headed by a council of daimyo. Perhaps overwhelmed by his precarious position of trying to simultaneously modernize his country against foreign aggressors while fighting off the growing powers of the rebellious western domains, Yoshinobu made what must have been a terribly hard choice. He stepped down as shogun, ending 264 years of his family holding that near-omnipotent title.
Officially, the Shogunate has suddenly ceased to exist - yet the structure of its government and military was still firmly in place. Before the suggested new form of government could be arranged for, the more hardline anti-Tokugawa Satsuma and Choshu domains, bristling at the idea of having to bear further Tokugawa leadership, took military action. Their forces took control of Kyoto and the imperial court, forcing the Emperor Meiji to denounce Yoshinobu and order the handing over of all Tokugawa lands. For a moment, Yoshinobu acquiesced, but upon hearing rumors of an imperial edict demanding his assassination immediately rescinded his resignation. Violence between pro-Emperor revolutionaries and loyalists to the central government erupted in the Shogunate capital of Edo. Yoshinobu sent a military force to Kyoto to deliver his letter of refusal to the Emperor. Present with the expedition were Jules Brunet and the other French advisers, helping to lead the elite Denshutaiunits.
Unperturbed by the numerical superiority of the Shogunate army, the Satsuma and Choshu military launched a surprise attack on the encroaching soldiers. The first battle of what came to be called the Boshin War had begun. As fighting was going on on land, Enomoto Takeaki, commanding the flagship Kaiyo Maru, engaged Satsuma ships plying the Inland Sea. He stole a victory for the Shogunate in the Battle of Awa, only the second naval battle in modern Japanese history.
Despite Enomoto’s small victory at sea, the various land battles and skirmishes over the next four days resulted in a humiliating Shogunate retreat to the nearby western Tokugawa base at Osaka Castle, where Yoshinobu, despite initial claims at personally leading a counterattack, instead boarded the Kaiyo Maru and fled to Edo. As Yoshinobu took flight, abandoning Osaka, Enomoto Takeaki picked up Jules Burnet’s men in his warship Fujiyama, and, carrying with them Tokugawa treasure from the castle and important documents, sailed after the retreating Shogun towards Edo.
The Shogunate Falls
For those loyal to the Shogunate, what followed can only be described a series of disasters. Back in Edo, the Tokugawa generals along with their French advisers began formulating plans to head off the advancing rebel armies before they could reach the capital, but a depressed Yoshinobu refused to allow the plan be brought to fruition. The leader of the French mission, shocked at what he saw as a defeatist refusal to fight a winnable battle, resigned in protest. Those foreign governments who until then had supported the Shogunate as the rightful government of Japan saw blood in the water, and a strict neutrality was enforced until it was clear which side would win the civil war.
Hoping against hope to halt to rebel advance, a small force of samurai loyalists clashed with imperial forces in modern Yamanashi Prefecture. They were completely routed. Soon Edo was surrounded. While Shogun Yoshinobu fled to a temple in the neighborhood of Ueno, the city was surrendered to the imperialist forces. Those few loyalists who still resisted were soon defeated.
The occupying rebel forces ordered Enomoto Takeaki to hand over the Tokugawa fleet. At first appearing to acquiesce by sending them four of the weaker ships, Takeaki suddenly made an about face.
Loyal to the Tokugawa to the end, not even the submission of the Shogun himself could dissuade Enomoto from continuing the fight. On August 20th 1868, with a complement of eight ships, chief among them the Kaiyo Maru, the very warship on which he had returned to Japan from abroad and which he had commanded to victory in the Battle of Awa, Enomoto departed Edo Bay. He left behind him the occupying imperial forces as well as the deposed shogun to whom his loyalty was sworn. Aboard his ship were 2000 loyalist soldiers, shogunal higher-ups who were not yet willing to surrender, and one Jules Brunet. The French officer had refused to be reassigned when his country had proclaimed neutrality in the civil war, and had instead attached himself to Enomoto in order to keep fighting with the Japanese troops he had trained. A letter of explanation he sent to Napoleon III stated that he felt he could lead troops forces to victory and glory. Whether either his or Enomoto’s skills and conviction would truly be enough to bring about that victory remained to be seen.
Last Gasps of Resistance in the Home Islands
Enomoto’s force sailed into northern Sendai Bay on August 26th, intent on assisting the combined forces of the northern daimyo who now made up the last serious resistance to the otherwise victorious imperial forces. Within less than two months of arriving, however, it was apparent that this Northern Coalition (奥羽越列藩同盟) was crumbling under a continuous series of losses as the imperial army moved up the island of Honshu.
Sensing the impending defeat of the Coalition and the final loss of the Japanese mainland, Enomoto decided he had a single, radical option remaining to him, one which might just allow the Shogunate to live on - even if it had to be in a new form. Taking on a thousand more troops onto his vessels, including Jules Brunet’s former partner Keisuke Otori, as well as the Shinsengumi Tokugawa bodyguard and legendary warrior Toshizō Hijikata (土方歳三), and four more Frenchmen who had left their regiment to join the Shogunate rebels, Enomoto commanded his fleet to leave Sendai. Their new destination was even farther north, far beyond the battles raging on Honshu or the grasp of the imperial forces. They sailed for the huge, “barbaric” island of Ezo, a snowy frontier land that even then had not yet become truly Japanese.
If the age of the Tokugawa, and perhaps the samurai themselves, was over on the Japanese mainland, Enomoto would simply create a new, modern nation where their way of life could continue. The impetus for the Republic of Ezo had been born.
To the Island of Ezo
Ezo, our modern Hokkaido, had long been considered by the Japanese to be a mysterious, inhospitable frontier island, its deep forests populated by non-Japanese “barbarians” we now know as the indigenous Ainu people. Its winters were too cold for Japanese housing methods, and worse yet, lasted too long for rice cultivation. A Japanese colony ruled by the Matsumae Clan had existed on the southern tip of the island on Oshima Peninsula for hundreds of years, but the vast majority of the land of Ezo remained wild, “barbaric,” un-Japanese. Major pushes by the central Japanese government to bring the island under full Japanese control and to begin settling the land belonging to the Ainu had only just started in the last years of Tokugawa rule, mostly as a response to Russian expansionist activities in nearby islands. As Enomoto Takeaki and his three-thousand shogunal refugees approached the island, Ezo was still largely undeveloped and untamed. What better place to found his new government?
To his followers, this unknown land held a desperate sort of promise. These former Tokugawa retainers, exhausted from months of losing battles and retreat, were now jobless, title-less, and purposeless. Ezo, perhaps a blank slate in their minds, could represent a new start, a new way forward without the shame of complete defeat.
Enomoto himself may have seized upon an idea proffered only months earlier by his liege lord. Following the defeat of Tokugawa forces by the imperial rebels in Kyoto and during their following march on Edo, the capitulating Shogun had requested that his family and retainers be allowed to relocate to Ezo to develop the land. His request was refused by the Meiji leaders, likely fearing the power the shogun might develop on that land. Enomoto held true to these same ideas, as well as a general sense of loyalty to the Emperor in Kyoto. In his messages to the new Meiji rulers south in Edo, now newly-named Tokyo, he maintained his loyalty to the country, insisting the purpose of the voyage was to develop Ezo and make it a military bastion against Russian intrusion.
In the dead of winter, Enomoto’s troops finally made landfall on the southern tip of Ezo. If they had expected to be welcomed as fellow compatriots by the Matsumae lords of the island, they were soon disappointed: the new Meiji government had already ordered the bugyo (the Shogunate magistrate) of Ezo replaced by their own man, Shimizudani Kinnaru, who, together with the Matsumae, immediately began to resist the incursion by these former Tokugawa retainers.
Enomoto’s men had to engage in many battles to secure Ezo for themselves, including one at the old domain capital at Matsumae. Legendary Shinsengumi vice-commander Hijikata Toshizō led the attack on the city, defeating his opponents and taking Matsumae Castle, the most northerly traditional Japanese castle ever built. Enomoto’s forces moved on to take the coastal town of Esashi. Alas, despite achieving victory, they were dealt a blow to their overall military strength that had nothing to do with the town’s defenders. On November 15th, 1868, as a storm raged while Enomoto’s navy waited in the waters off Esashi, the Kaiyo Maru, the most powerful ship on either side in Japan, was sunk - dragged down by destructive waves.
Enomoto managed to escape the sinking ship with his life, but a navy man through and through, it must have been a shock to lose his military’s flagship, and one to which he had such a personal history. It would be an omen of things to come.
Finally, Enomoto’s forces made their way to the capital of Ezo, Hakodate. Landing in Uchiura Bay, they marched on the city, reaching it in December 1858. They encountered no resistance in the city, as the Meiji magistrate had fled with his staff to Aomori on the mainland, leaving Ezo behind them (though he had first warned the local foreign consulates that the city was about to fall).
The Hakodate of the day was by far the island’s largest population center, and since the opening of Japan had been one of the few places foreign consulates had been allowed. Representatives from Britain, America, France and Russia, along with their families, all called the city home, as did various foreign sailors and whalers.
But the city’s most distinctive feature by far, now as then, was the massive star-shaped fort of Goryokaku (五稜郭).
Created with the intention of warding off foreign attacks from the sea, and built in modern fashion based on the most up-to-date European standards, its construction began in 1857 and finished seven years later in 1864. Though located in a then-rural district outside of the main population center when it began construction, the area around the fort became heavily populated by the time if its completion, with many Ezo officials living nearby - including the bugyo, the Tokugawa minister of Ezo, who had moved his residence into a grand building within the fort itself. A second smaller fort (Benten Cape Fort) was built at the entrance to the harbor, with cannons gifted to Hakodate by a Russian ship.
Enomoto set himself up in Goryokaku, using the former magistrate’s housing as his government headquarters. Having taken the Japanese-held lands in Ezo, he now had the territory to begin his new nation-building project. What he needed next was a government. But how to structure it? Enomoto had been the de-facto leader of his ragtag group of 3000 men, yet amongst those men were people of all sorts of birth, status, and background. Some were former Shogunal council-of-elders members, some were former daimyo, lords of defeated domains. Some, like Enomoto himself, had been navy higher-ups, while others like Otori had been major generals in the army. By traditional standards, who should be proclaimed leader amongst such a diverse crowd was hard to decipher. So something revolutionary was decided.
For the first time in Japanese history, the leader of a government would be decided in a general election.
That they would take such a step makes sense; both Enomoto and Otori were modernizers who knew other cultures and languages well, and Jules Brunet and his Frenchmen were prominent in the leadership of the rebels. They all new that elections had proved effective in modern countries like the United States, upon whose basis they created their electoral and governmental structures. But while this vote was revolutionary, it was not fully “democratic” in the way we now imagine, and as foreign observers have often misreported in years since. Those enfranchised to this new voting system consisted of only those of higher regard with the rebel forces - samurai lords and officers. The non-commissioned men could not vote, to say nothing of the townspeople and Ainu who lived in the erstwhile government’s new domain.
And yet, here we have the birth of something we can call a “samurai democracy.” This election, the structure of the new government, and the modernizing will of its leaders have lead the ex-Shogunate governmental entity that came to be in Hakodate to be termed, after-the-fact, as a “Republic.” “The Republic of Ezo (蝦夷共和国),” a name never used by Enomoto or anyone involved, is still the name given to this government in both Japanese and English that has gone down in history.
The elections resulted in a clear winner. Enomoto Takeaki was proclaimed president of this new “republic,” with a Matsudaira lord, himself a relative to the Tokugawa, as his vice-president. Otori was made Minister of the Army. On December 15th, 1868, the new government was declared.
Ezo's time would be short lived. Enomoto's mechinations would soon prove insufficient in the face of a rapidly Meiji-led army and navy. Yet, for a brief moment, the remnants of Japan's samurai past managed to meld the legacy of their past with the trappings of a modern democracy. It was a daring move that bought them a little extra time before the forces of modernity came crashing down upon them.
Irish, Ann B. Hokkaido: A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan's Northern Island. McFarland, 2009. Print.
Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Harvard University Press, 15 Oct 2002
De Hubner, M. Le Baron. A Ramble Round the World, 1871, vol. 2. London: Macmillan, 1874.
Peattie, Mark R. Nan'yo: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese in Micronesia, 1885-1945. University of Hawaii Press, 1992
Drye, Paul. The Republic of Ezo. Passing Strangeness, January 28, 2009, https://passingstrangeness.wordpress.com/2009/01/28/the-republic-of-ezo/. Accessed Febuary 15th, 2019.
榎本武揚. フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』,https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%A6%8E%E6%9C%AC%E6%AD%A6%E6%8F%9A. Accessed Febuary 15th, 2019.
Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have lead to appearances at speaking events and popular podcasts. Noah is currently working on his Masters Degree in Global Studies at Leipzig University in Germany.
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