The Boshin War, better known as the Japanese Revolution, refers to a series of battles that transpired from 1868 to 1869 between the forces of the Imperial Court and the Tokugawa Shogunate. Other titles used for the year-long civil war include The Earth Dragon’s War and Boshin Senso.
After the shogunate failed to effectively handle the events that followed the end of the country’s isolation policy, several groups from the samurai class and the nobles found it necessary to step in and help the Imperial Court regain their power over Japan.
The Domains of Tosa, Satsuma, and Choshu, in particular, joined forces and were able to influence the young Emperor Meiji to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate by forming an alliance with several court officials. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the shogun at the time, relinquished his power to the Emperor, seeing no better choice that could help the shogunate remain a part of the government system.
As a means of destroying and ultimately abolishing the shogunate, various efforts and partisan conflicts were promoted by the same forces in support of the Imperial Court. Unwilling to simply sit back and watch his system die in ruins, Tokugawa Yoshinobu decided to retaliate through his own military campaigns.
Summary of the Boshin War Battles
Japan was in the process of modernization when the Boshin War started. Several Western nations were deeply involved in the political matters of the Asian country, which made the war more turbulent than expected.
The forces of the Imperial Court were supported by the United Kingdom, while the forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate were supported by the French Empire. Although the imperial faction was significantly smaller than the opposing group, their modernized artillery and tactics rapidly turned the military tide in favor of them.
After seemingly innumerable battles where about 120,000 men suffered injuries and 3,500 died, Tokugawa Yoshinobu ultimately surrendered to the Imperial Forces, putting supreme rule over the entire country back into the hands of the emperor.
The main battles of the Boshin War are as follows:
The first conflicts of the Boshin War were started by the shogunate forces who attacked the Domains of Satsuma and Choshu in Southern Kyoto, particularly near Fushimi and Toba, on January 27, 1868.
Most of the Tokugawa Shogunate loyalists were composed of medieval samurai warriors and greatly outnumbered the opposing forces at 3:1. However, armed with Minie rifles, Armstrong howitzers, and several Gatling guns, the imperial forces were able to stand strong and eventually gain victory on the second day.
Around the same time, another battle between the Satsuma Navy and the shogunate vessels was taking place in the Awa Bar, just by the city of Osaka. The shogunal faction was led by Enomoto Takeaki who was able to gain one of the handful victories won by the Tokugawa Shogunate during the whole of the Boshin War.
Several daimyos (land rulers), who were supportive of the Tokugawa Shogunate to begin with, then started defecting to the Imperial Court after the surprising end of the initial clashes.
On February 2, 1868, the Osaka Castle, which served as the headquarters of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Western Japan, was seized by imperial forces, following the conflict in Toba-Fushimi.
By February 8, 1868, the Domains of Tsu and Yodo, initially Tokugawa Shogunate loyalists, were actively supporting the Imperial Court. Distressed and demoralized by the daimyos betrayals and the unfavorable events, Tokugawa Yoshinobu and his troops retreated to Edo aboard the Kaiyo Maru.
As such, the victory for opening conflicts of the Boshin war, i.e. Battle of Toba-Fushimi, Battle of Awa, and the Fall of Osaka Castle, was ultimately given to the Imperial Court.
Surrender of Edo
Soon after, Leon Roches, the French Ambassador at the time, started to actively engage with the Tokugawa Shogunate by suggesting a plan to interrupt the advances of the imperial forces at Odawara, Edo’s last strategic point of entry. However, Tokugawa Yoshinobu chose to ignore this plan which greatly shocked the French Ambassador, so much so that he resigned from his post.
Come March, a neutrality agreement between the European nations was commissioned by Harry Parkes, the British Minister, as a way to keep foreign influences from actively supporting either side of the Boshin War.
By this time, the Imperial forces, which consisted of the Domains of Tosa, Satsuma, and Choshu, split accordingly into three columns and made their progress towards Edo through Hokurikudo, Nakasendo, and Tokaido – the then three main highways of Japan.
One of the first main battles of the Boshin War started in Kofu, a stronghold of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was effectively occupied by the forces of the Imperial Court in late March. The same troops then made their way to Katsunuma on March 29, 1868 and went into battle with the shogunal forces, which they outnumbered 10:1.
The Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma ended with the victory in favor of the Imperial Court and resulted in a total of 179 casualties from both sides. Remaining survivors of the shogunal army retreated to Aizu through the province of Sagami.
As the forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate made their retreat up north, they were able to seize the Utsunomiya Castle, given the absence of the daimyo and the resulting peasant riots.
Using these factors as an opportunity to strike, the shogunal forces of Otori fought with the imperial troops of Kasama, Utsunomiya, Ogaki, Hikone, Susaka, Iwamurata, Mibu, Kurobane, and Shinano on May 10, 1868. The same day, the Utsunomiya Castle fell into the hands of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Joining forces with the troops of Hijikata, the shogunal army headed north towards Mibu which they aimed to use as a place to hide and wait for the troops of the Imperial Force. Unbeknownst to them, the castle town was already under the control of the Satsuma Troop, which led the shogunal forces to retreat back to Utsunomiya after suffering a total of 60 casualties.
On May 14, 1868, the forces of Ogaki and Satsuma recaptured the Utsunomiya Castle by launching a counterattack from the Mibu-kaido road. The remaining survivors of the Otori troops had no other choice but to continue retreating north towards Aizu.
Come July, another battle, this time in Ueno, transpired between the Shogitai, the elite forces of the shogunate, and mainly the troops of the Tosa, Choshu, and Satsuma domains.
The shogitai was originally assigned to Ueno in order to protect Tokugawa Yoshinobu. However, as the shogun committed to a self-imposed confinement at the Kan’ei-ji Temple, the Shogitai started harassing members of the imperial army and stirred consequential trouble in Edo which pushed the Imperial Court to take action.
Satsuma troops were the first of the imperial forces to attack the Shogitai and suffered large casualties due to being greatly outnumbered. From the rear, the Choshu troops made another attack which unhinged the shogunal forces and helped the Satsuma troops gain a stronger defense. Forces of the Tosa Domain then stepped in with their Snider guns and Armstrong cannons to finally end the last resistance in Edo.
All three battles, i.e. Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma, Battle of Utsunomiya Castle, and Battle of Ueno, led to the ultimate fall of Edo to the hands of Emperor Meiji. On the 3rd day of September, the city was given its new name, Tokyo, and was designated as the country capital.
After Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s surrender to the Imperial Court, the majority of Japan accepted the abolishment of the shogunate system and the reinstated power of the Emperor. However, there still remained several daimyos, particularly in the north, who continued to fight against the imperial troops. These groups were collectively referred to as the Northern Alliance or the Republic of Ezo.
Battles that ensued after the establishment of Tokyo as capital include the Battle of Hatchooki (August 10, 1868 – September 11, 1868), Battle of Bonari Pass (October 6, 1868), Battle of Aizu (October – November 1868), Battle of Noheji (November 7, 1868), Naval Battle of Hakodate (May 4 – 10, 1869), and Battle of Hakodate (December 4, 1868 – June 27, 1869), Battle of Miyako Bay (May 6, 1869).
Map, Uniforms, and Weapons of the Boshin War
As previously mentioned, Japan was in the process of modernization during the Boshin War, which transpired at different areas between Hakodate and Toba-Fushimi.
The domains of Satsuma and Choshu, in particular, were considered to be fully modernized, having been equipped with Gatling guns, Minie rifles, and Armstrong guns, among other artillery. Of course, the forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate had their own sets of weaponry to combat that of their opponents but were medieval, in comparison.
Regardless of the neutrality agreement signed in March 1868, both sides that fought in the Boshin War were able to gain access to various uniforms, warships, and artillery through the support of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland, and the French Empire:
Given the nations that supported the Boshin War, most of the uniforms worn by the forces of the Imperial Court and the Tokugawa Shogunate featured a Western style. These garments typically made use of dark-colored materials and greatly resembled the uniforms of the British and French armies.
Members of the shogunal and imperial forces were distinguished from each other by the helmets they wore, which primarily varied in shape. For example, forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate wore rounded helmets, while forces of the Imperial Court such as the Satsuma troops and the Choshu troops wore tall-conical helmets and flat-conical helmets, respectively.
Some traditional samurai warriors of both sides chose to wear their usual battle clothes and accessories.
In terms of artillery, troops that participated in the Boshin War made use of wooden cannons. Given its use of wood, this kind of cannon could only fire three to four shots before bursting apart.
At the time of the war, the Tanegashima Matchlock, a rifle gun unique to Japan, was already in use by the majority of the local troops. This particular gun and many other types were developed through the various rifles imported from countries such as France, Germany, Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands.
The forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Imperial Court made use of these guns during the Boshin War, alongside newer imports such as American Handguns, Chassepot Rifles, Dreyse Needle Guns, Gatling Guns, Gewehr Smoothbore Guns, Minie Rifles, Snider-Enfield Rifles, and Spencer Repeating Rifles.
Aftermath of the Boshin War – Abolition of the Samurai Class, Meiji Restoration, Etc.
Given its relatively small number of casualties and losses, the Boshin War has been dubbed as a bloodless revolution. Of all the battles, the Tokugawa Shogunate and the later formed Northern Alliance were only able to merge victorious out of the Battle of Awa, Battle of Hatchooki, and Battle of Noheji.
As early as late 1868, the Imperial Court was able to establish a new government that gave the Emperor supreme power over all of Japan and ultimately unified the country. After the capital city had been transferred to Tokyo from Kyoto, the Meiji Restoration commenced, marking the start of the Meiji Period.
The Meiji Restoration is basically a term used to indicate the reinstatement of the Imperial Court and the various changes that were made to the government system and social hierarchy of Japan. Some major changes include the elimination of domains, the transformation of domains to prefectures, and the abolition of the samurai warrior class.
According to records, the samurai warriors were among the few who had a harder time adjusting, given their former roles in the society. Some of them adapted by taking on entrepreneurial or administrative tasks, while others simply fell into poverty. Nonetheless, the majority of the Imperial Court’s efforts to unify the country and its communities was well-accepted.
Documentary Films, Movies, Books, and Anime Shows about the Boshin War
The modern depictions that look into the battles of the Boshin War range from violent action-history films to romanticized adaptations in line with the war’s “bloodless revolution” title. Two of the best Japanese depictions worth checking out for more information or a new angle on the Boshin War are “Mibu Gishi-den” by Jiro Asada and “When the Last Sword” is Drawn by Yojiro Takita.
Mibu Gishi-den is a novel written by Jiro Asada which consists of four volumes. In 2002, this series was adapted into a movie known as When the Last Sword is Drawn by director Yojiro Takita.
Both depictions revolve around the lives and struggles of two samurai warriors named Saito Hajime and Yoshimura Kanichiro who have nearly opposite morals when it comes to family, loyalty, and honor.
As for Western depictions of the Boshin War, “The Last Samurai”, an American film by Edward Zwick serves as the most notable one. This single narrative combines various aspects of the Boshin War, the Satsuma Rebellion of Saigo Takamori in 1877, and other conflicts of the Meiji Period into a brilliantly dramatic movie that is relatively easy to follow.
Depictions in Japanese pop culture, particularly in the form of anime, include Rurouni Kenshin and Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto.