Boshin War: Modern East Asia #4

The Boshin War (1868-1869) was a revolution in 19th century Japan, during which pro-Emperor nationalists overthrew the weak government of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The revolution was in reaction to Western interference in Japanese affairs and the Shogun’s inability to properly resist. The revolutionaries, after taking power, would begin the Meiji Restoration in an effort to modernize Japan into a powerful industrialized nation.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

So before the mid-19th century, Japan did not look like a potential world power at all. Japan at that time was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was founded by the Tokugawa clan in 1600. The time during which the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled over Japan is often known as the Edo Period, because the Shoguns ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo.

Under the Shogunate system, Japan at this time was a feudal country that you would expect from perhaps medieval Europe. The shogun was the effective ruler of the country, with numerous vassals known as daimyo ruling as local, feudal lords. The Emperor, who resided in Kyoto, was no more than a spiritual figurehead. At this point, you could be thinking that Japan at this time was far behind China or Korea. But there was one huge factor that differentiated Japan from those two countries: Rangaku.

Interactions with the West

The Japanese port of Dejima, where they traded with the Dutch.

So Japan was extremely isolationist, as was Korea or China at that time. But unlike Korea, which had nearly no connection with the Western world, China and Japan did allow minimal trade. China allowed foreign trade through our old friend the Canton System, and Japan through the trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki. But Dejima only allowed the Dutch to trade; the only other countries Japan maintained commercial relations with were China, Korea, and the Ryukyu Kingdom, the last of which was mostly only used as a gateway to China’s eastern coast.

So how did Japan, whose only Western trading partner was the Netherlands, modernize faster than China, who traded with the British, the French, the Americans, the Dutch, the Swedish and the Danish? The answer: The Japanese were less xenophobic.

Now, it wasn’t that Japan embraced the West with open arms. They were not completely open to Westerners, as clearly seen in their persecution and suppression of Christians. But, in comparison to China, they were much more willing to learn from the West. Japan maintained relations with the Dutch from 1641 after banning the Portuguese from the islands. From then on they developed the system of Rangaku, or “Dutch Learning,” through which they imported Western ideas from the Netherlands.

Comparison with China

The Rangaku greatly helped Japan keep in touch and up to date with the Western world, and often boosted Japanese sciences. Kaitai Shinsho, for example, was a Rangaku-influenced book which revolutionized Japanese medicine and anatomy. Outside of those two subjects, Rangaku helped Japan keep up with Western physics, chemistry, optics, mechanics, geography and biology.

In comparison, the Chinese saw Westerners as below them, and believed that the West was a threat to their own traditional values. Although they traded with the West they did not like to associate themselves with Western technology or ideas.

Though Japan was more open minded, it’s not as though Japan’s technological capacities were equal to that of the West. The truth was far from that, in fact. This was easily demonstrated in a famous event in 1853 — the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry.

Contact with the United States

On July 8th, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy showed up in a steamship at Edo Bay. He, on orders from President Millard Fillmore, demanded that the Japanese open their ports to the United States. The great cannons and guns of the ship as well as the steam engine terrified the Japanese, and the government was in turmoil because these Americans were so close to the capital, Edo.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry.

On July 17th Perry left for China and promised to return to Japan for an answer. The Japanese government was petrified. The shogun had just died and been replaced with his young and ill son, and therefore the true administrative power was in the hands of the Roju, an advisory council made up of powerful daimyo. The Roju council tried, for the first time in Japanese history, to get public opinion to help them with the decision, but the daimyo to whom the questions were directed did not give helpful responses. The only advice the Roju managed to receive was that Japan should strengthen defenses around Edo to protect the capital from future American attacks.

When Perry returned with a much more massive fleet in February of 1854, the shogunate government had decided to accept all of President Fillmore’s demands. The two parties decided to sign a treaty at Yokohama. Here the Convention of Kanagawa was signed, the first of the Unequal Treaties imposed on Japan. Japan was forced to end its isolationist policy and open up two ports, Shimoda and Hakodate, to trade with the United States. The post of American consul at the Japanese government was also established and the return of American castaways was ensured. After the treaty was signed, Perry introduced to the Japanese several American technologies, such as the locomotive and the telegraph.

Conflict with the West

A string of Unequal Treaties were presented to Japan after this. Later that same year, the British presented to Japan the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty, in which the ports of Nagasaki and Hakodate was opened to the British. The British also gained the Most Favored Nation Status, receiving the same treatment as China and the Netherlands.

Samurai of the Satsuma Domain prepare for rebellion against the Shogunate.

In 1858, Japan was forced to sign an entire set of treaties known as the Ansei Treaties. These treaties were signed with the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, the Netherlands, and France. All of these countries gained the right to exchange diplomats with Japan, and gained the right to the ports of Edo, Kobe, Nagasaki, Niigata, and Yokohama. Citizens of these five countries could live in those five ports and trade whatever they wanted except for opium, and extraterritoriality was applied to them. Tariffs were also to be controlled by these five countries rather than by Japan, which nearly destroyed Japan’s local industry.

Needless to say, these actions by the West infuriated the Japanese. The most angered were the domains of Satsuma and Choshu. The powerlessness shown by the leaders of the shogunate were also perceived as incompetence. When in March of 1863 Emperor Komei declared an “order to expel barbarians,” a surge of nationalism flowed among the Japanese. In the summer of 1863 and autumn of 1864, the Choshu Domain fought a war with the British, Dutch, French, and Americans, in which they were defeated by the superior Western technology. In the summer of 1863, the Satsuma Domain too fought a war with the British, with mixed results. As the British demanded high reparations, anti-Western sentiments increased. As the shogunate failed to strike back, anti-government sentiments arose as well. These two sentiments were summed up in a popular slogan from Japan at that time: Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians.


The Satsuma and Choshu Domains soon formed an alliance in 1866, and they also allied themselves with the Imperial Court in Kyoto. In 1868, they rebelled against the Shogunate, starting the Boshin War. The Western powers that were prominent in Japanese affairs agreed to stay neutral in this conflict. In a bit more than a year, the Alliance destroyed pro-Shogunate daimyo and had driven the shogun out of Edo. Several pro-Shogunate domains defected and joined the Alliance throughout the war. The Emperor was restored as the head of state and the imperial court moved to Edo in 1869, which was now renamed Tokyo. The teenage Emperor Meiji had been sworn in the year before, along with the Five Charter Oath, which expressed Japanese will for modernization. Unlike China, the Japanese had already realized the need to catch up to the West. The Charter Oath went as follows:

The newly crowned Emperor Meiji enters Tokyo.

  1. Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by open discussion.
  2. All classes, high and low, shall be united in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.
  3. The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall all be allowed to pursue their own calling so that there may be no discontent.
  4. Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.
  5. Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule.

The Charter Oath set Japan on a swift path of modernization. The first element of the oath laid the foundations for democracy; the second element established a concept of modern citizenship in Japan; the third element reflected the right to pursue happiness espoused by Western democracies; the fourth element called for religious reforms; and the fifth element, finally, expressed the will and justification for taking in foreign knowledge to strengthen Japan.

Thus began a period of rapid industrialization in Japan, known to history as the Meiji Restoration. To learn more about this fascinating event, please go to this page. Thanks for reading.