Samurai of the Satsuma Clan, during the Boshin War period (1868–1869), by Felice Beato

Looking Back on the Boshin War

The Boshin War is a notable conflict in Japan’s history. It finally ended the military rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate and returned political power to the imperial court. Samurai in western clothing of the Tokugawa Shogunate army. On the right side is a samurai with traditional Japanese clothing, 1866.

 Samurai in western clothing of the Tokugawa Shogunate army. On the right side is a samurai with traditional Japanese clothing, 1866.

The Boshin War (), “War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon,” was a civil war in Japan from 1868 to 1869 between the Tokugawa Shogunate forces and those opposed to their rule. The war stemmed from the dissatisfaction felt by many samurai and Japanese noblemen on how the shogunate handled trade issues when they opened Japan’s trade to other countries, and the increase in Western influence on the local economy.Samurai of the Satsuma Clan, during the Boshin War period (1868–1869), by Felice Beato

Powerful domains of Satsuma, Tosa, and Chōshū  influenced the young Emperor Meiji to ally with their beliefs. The reigning shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, saw the danger of his impending predicament and agreed to relinquish his political power to the young emperor.

Satsuma samurai during the Boshin War.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu initially believed that doing this would preserve the Tokugawa house as part of any future government. Consequent imperial decrees by Satsuma and Chōshū that abolished the house of Tokugawa, military advancements by imperial forces, and partisan violence in Edo prompted Tokugawa Yoshinobu to make a desperate military attack to seize control of the the emperor’s court in Kyoto. The imperial faction had less troops but more modern capabilities, and after a series of battles, forced Yoshinobu to surrender. Others who were still loyal to the Tokugawa fled to northern Honshū and later to Hokkaidō where they formed their own Ezo republic. The Battle of Hakodate put an end to the last few stragglers, made imperial rule supreme all throughout Japan, and finally completed the military aspects of the Meiji Restoration.

Bakufu troops near Mount Fuji in 1867

Bafuku troops near Mt. Fuji.

The imperial reign adopted a policy of continued modernization, and Tokugawa loyalists were shown clemency. Many of the shogunate leaders were given positions under the new government. Japan adopted a level of development similar to industrialized Western nations but vehemently rejected Western enforced free trade, since it undermined the local economy. The Boshin War is often romanticized and some view the Meiji Restoration to be a “bloodless revolution” even though thousands perished in the battle.