The Republic of Ezo
From the appearance of the Black Ships in 1853 to the Meiji Restoration in the winter of 1867-68, the Tokugawa shogunate was stretched between traditionalist and reforming factions. While Japan’s modernization took off after the imperial takeover, the Emperor’s politics were pro-traditionalist until very late in the game. The first modernizer of Japan was the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, a Gorbachev-like figure who tried to reform feudal Japan in order to ensure its survival. Oddly enough, this means that the defeated side in the ensuing Japanese civil war—the Boshin War—was arguably more progressive than the victors. One sign of this was their attempt, at the very tail end of the fighting, to set up a democratic nation of sorts in Hokkaidō—the Republic of Ezo.
The name Hokkaidō slightly postdates our story, being part of the mass renaming that also changed Edo to Tokyo and turned Kyoto into Saikyo for a little while. At the beginning of 1868 the northernmost Japanese islands were called Ezo, a somewhat nebulous name that took in all the islands to the north of Honshu. If one wanted to talk specifically about Hokkaidō, it was Ezochi. Ezo was the Japanese equivalent of the American West, the wild frontier. For example, Hokkaidō’s modern capital Sapporo is younger than noted cities of antiquity such as Salt Lake City and Melbourne, Australia.
The shogunate faction made its last stand in northern Honshu, and a few weeks before the end the defeated Tokugawan navy steamed north to the Oshima Peninsula, the center of Japanese colonization on Ezochi. Their leader was Admiral Enomoto Takeaki, and they had a few thousand soldiers with them under the command of Ōtori Keisuke. General Ōtori was an interesting case, a French-trained soldier who had put together a thing unheard of in Shogun-era Japan: a brigade of men chosen for their skill rather than their birth, the Denshūtai. For that matter, the Tokugawans had a French military advisor with them, Jules Brunet, and his four subordinates. Together they had resigned from French service so they could keep fighting on the side of their Japanese compatriots after Napoleon III decided his country would be neutral in the civil war.
On the 6th of December these remnants of the shogunate had taken Hakodate, then the largest settlement on Hokkaidō. The local governor was expelled and made his way south to inform the new government that the old one wasn’t quite dead yet.
The Tokugawans quickly took over the rest of the island’s sparse Japanese settlements and, on December 15th, declared the Republic of Ezo. The breakaway nation’s government was modelled on the executive branch of the United States, with a president and vice-president and the franchise extended to all samurai. On the other hand, only the samurai were allowed to vote. Admiral Enomoto was elected president, and General Ōtori made Minister for the Army.
The Republic tried to counter the Meiji faction’s strength with a remarkable petition to the Emperor sent via foreign observers. They would place themselves under Imperial control if he would grant Hokkaidō to the Tokugawa. In return, they would bring three hundred thousand of their retainers north so they could (in the words of one flowery 19th century translation) “level steep mountains, cultivate the desert, and employ hitherto useless people in useful work”. Not incidentally, they also promised to use their military prowess to guard the northern approaches of Japan: the Russians had been moving down Sakhalin Island as the Japanese were moving up it, and the treaty between the two countries about who owned what was nebulous.
The Emperor refused. First he asked the Tokugawas remaining in Honshu to rein in their rebellious retainers, but the last shogun Yoshinobu had resigned as head of the clan in favor of his adopted son. He was only five years old, and a minor didn’t have the moral authority to sway the rebels. They continued fortifying the area around Hakodate in preparation for an assault, and the Meiji government turned back to war.
A fleet of five warships was brought together from those owned by various clans to form the kernel of a new thing: the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was dispatched north in March of 1869 and with them went 7000 soldiers, more than twice what the Republic could expect to muster. However, as the Imperial Fleet sailed the Tokugawans saw a chance to―if not defeat their opponents―at least make it much more difficult for the Meiji government to defeat them. The sides were fairly well-matched at sea with one exception: Kōtetsu, the ship supplied to the Imperial fleet by the central government. It was an up-to-date ironclad steam ram, a fox among the chickens of the wooden ships that made up the rest of both fleets.
For all that it was only five years old, Kōtetsu had had an interesting life. Starting in 1864 it was the Sphynx while it was being built in a private French shipyard, L’Arnan, for the Confederate States of America. L’Arnan reneged on their commission, though, and sold it to the Danish. The Danes briefly renamed it , then turned around and sold it to the CSA themselves. It was renamed again, this time the CSS Stonewall, and left Spain for the Americas on March 24th, 1865. While at sea, Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and the disposition of the ship became one of the matters that needed to be wrapped up for the war to finally end. In those pre-radio days, her captain only found out about the surrender when Stonewall reached Havana. He sold the ship to the Cubans, and then they in turn sold it to the United States. Its journeys were not over even then, as three years later the US arranged to sell it to the Shogunate government of Japan only to put a hold on the sale when the Boshin War broke out. The ship finally came to Japan when the Meiji faction gained the upper hand, and it had been delivered to them in February of 1869.
The Tokugawans were determined to make it change hands one more time. On March 25, 1869, every ship in the Imperial Japanese Navy (all eight of them, including three transports) was moored in Miyako Bay in northern Honshu when the Republic’s forces assigned to the battle—two ships, both steam-powered but wooden—came in after them under an American flag. The lead ship was the Kaiten (a name later recycled for Japan’s suicidal human-steered torpedos in WWII), which raised the flag of the Republic at the last moment. It then rammed the Kōtetsu, and attempted a boarding action using the remnants of the Shinshengumi (like the Denshūtai, another unheard-of force made up of peasants, though this one trained as samurai rather than as Western soldiers). With the only ironclad in Japan on their side, they could hope to turn the tide of the invasion.
It was not to be. The boarders were met with Gatling gun fire and mostly killed. Kaiten did herself considerable damage too, ramming the iron hull with her own wooden one. She managed to escape anyway, but her companion ship Takao had been damaged during a storm prior to the battle and could make only a measly three knots. She was scuttled, and her crew scattered.
From then on it was just matter of time until the Republic was brought to heel. It took another two weeks for the Imperial fleet to reach Hokkaidō, but they landed their troops and started grinding away at the Tokugawan positions. The Kaiten was sunk trying to prevent this, and then the IJN forced the destruction of the remaining rebel fleet in the Battle of Hakodate Bay. The Republican army put up the sort of suicidal defense that would become well-known during World War II, but surrendered at the last moment. After his faction had taken control of Japan, the Emperor took a shockingly lenient attitude by Japanese standards of the time; some sources say he didn’t impose a single death penalty. Now it paid off: down to just a European-style star fort, Goryokaku, the Republic’s leadership gave up. They and the half of their men that remained to them surrendered to the Meiji government.
Admiral Enomoto and General Ōtori were charged with treason and imprisoned, but were released in 1872. It’s a measure of the Meiji government’s about-face on modernization that both went on to high positions in it and important roles in strengthening Japan through westernization. By 1880, Enomoto was Navy Minister. He then held a series of cabinet positions from 1885 to 1892. Ōtori was an ambassador to China, then was commander of the Japanese forces in Korea in the lead-up to the First Sino-Japanese War. He played a large part in Japan’s crushing success in the war, which gave the West their first proof that Japan was successfully modernizing.
And as the land battle at Hakodate had raged, the French military advisors escaped to a French ship off-shore. Public opinion in France saved Jules Brunet from formal recriminations, despite a Japanese request, but he was in a bad odor until distinguishing himself in the suppression of the Paris Commune after the Franco-Prussian War. The French military was shaken up by that disaster and heroes were in short supply, so Brunet was rehabilitated. By the end of the century he had been promoted to General and appointed Chief of Staff for the French Army. In 2003 a heavily modified version of his time in Japan was told in the movie The Last Samurai. Under a different name (and nationality) Brunet was played by Tom Cruise. Punishment enough.