Japan and the War of the Meiji Restoration

(1868-69)

Japanese ironclad Kōtetsu.

Stonewall-Class (French Ironclads, 1864) A class of two ironclad rams built in France for the Confederate government during the United States Civil War. One of these, the Stonewall, reached Confederate hands. Her sister was unnamed and never completed. Laid down in 1863 under the cover name of Sphinx, the Stonewall was launched in June 1864. Two months earlier French officials had decided that she would not be given to the Confederacy and had arranged for her sale to Denmark instead. Renamed the Staerkodder, she was intended for service in Denmark’s 1864 war with Prussia and Austria. But when the Danes lost the war, Danish officials refused her, and she was returned to France as the Olinde. The French builders were then able to arrange her transfer to the Confederacy, and she was commissioned at sea in January 1865. The Stonewall displaced 1,390 tons and measured 186’9? (oa; 157’6? bp) x 32’6? x 14’3?. She was propelled by two direct-acting engines on two screws and was capable of 10.8 knots. She had a crew of 135 men. Fitted with a pronounced ram bow, she mounted 3 rifled guns: 1 x 11-inch/300-pounder in the bow to fire directly ahead and 2 x 5-inch carried aft in a turret. The Stonewall escaped Ferrol, Spain, in late March 1865 and reached Cuba, where her crew learned that the Civil War was over. Handed over to the United States, she was sold to the shogun of Japan. Seized by forces loyal to the emperor when she arrived at Yokohama in April 1868 and renamed Kōtetsu, she led the assault on the shogun’s stronghold at Hakodate in July 1869. Renamed Adzuma in 1881, she was struck from the active list of the Japanese navy in 1888.

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After the Perry expedition of 1853 opened Japan to trade with the United States, other naval powers pressured the Tokugawa shogun with similar exercises in gunboat diplomacy. Countries securing trade treaties in the late 1850s included Britain, France, and Russia, and in 1861, Prussia, the latter after sending its only operational screw corvette and three sailing ships to Tokyo Bay. The shogunate wisely recognized that Japan lacked the technology to resist even a third-rate Western navy, but the concessions to foreigners rankled in a country with a proud warrior tradition. An attempt to return to isolationism in 1863 brought British, French, and American squadrons to Japanese waters, and the British shelling of Kagoshima served notice that the Western powers would use force to maintain their treaty rights. Unable to return to the past, Japan could only move forward.

In 1868, after failing to deal effectively with fifteen years of pressure from foreign powers, the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown by a coalition of feudal domains which established a new government in the name of the Meiji emperor, the so-called “Meiji Restoration.” While the new government would be known in the long run for saving Japan by enlisting foreign experts to help modernize and industrialize the country, earlier in the 1860s both the shogunate and the feudal domains opposing it hired British naval advisors and purchased steampowered warships. As early as 1866 the Ishiwajima navy yard completed the screw gunboat Chiyodogata, the first steam warship built in Japan, but the 140-ton vessel reflected the state of Japanese industry at the time, taking five years to build, with machinery and other components imported from the West. The first Japanese ironclad was the former CSS Stonewall, purchased by the shogun in 1867 from the United States. When the 1,360-ton ironclad ram arrived in Japan the following year, it was taken over by the new imperial government. The Japanese initially called the vessel the Kōtetsu, meaning “iron-covered ship,” before renaming it Adzuma.

After the revolution, or “restoration,” of 1868, supporters of the shogunate fought a brief civil war before conceding defeat. Neither side found it easy to impose this agreement on its followers. In Kyoto, Iwakura, Okubo, and Kido had to work hard to overcome the opposition of loyalists who called for something more severe, with the result that a public announcement of the terms was delayed for several weeks. In Edo, Saigo had to use force against 3,000 Tokugawa retainers protesting the treatment of their lord. Part of the Bakufu fleet, commanded by Enomoto Takeaki, fled to the north, rather than surrender. More serious, an alliance of domains in the northeast, led by Sendai and Aizu, showed a willingness to resist the new regime in an organized way. Arguing that Satsuma and Choshii were “evil advisers” and that the Emperor was being misled, they prepared to defend their feudal rights. But in September Saigo took command of large-scale operations against them, and their main stronghold, Aizu’s castle of Wakamatsu, eventually capitulated at the beginning of November. By the end of the year the northeast was pacified, albeit at considerable cost.

This left only Enomoto, who escaped with eight ships and about 2,000 men-among the senior Bakufu officials Itakura Katsukiyo, Ogasawara Nagamichi, and Nagai Naomune-to Ezo (Hokkaido), which they requested be made a Tokugawa fief. This was more than Kyoto could grant, for all that Enomoto was respected there, so in 1869 a strong force was sent to suppress the “rebels” as soon as spring made fighting possible. Hakodate fell on June 29, thus restoring peace to the whole of Japan. Appropriately, Enomoto signaled the event by sending the notes on navigation he had made as a student in Holland to the commander of the force that had defeated him. They would, he said, “be of use to the country,” whatever happened to him.

Many standoffs of the civil war came close to blows, but ended with surrender before a local potentate dared attack the imperial banner. Although not every group of rebels surrendered so easily: fighting in several northern towns was fierce. A group called the White Tiger Corps (Byakkotai) achieved lasting fame during the war, not so much for their military prowess as their adherence to samurai ideals. Largely comprising teenage sons of the Aizu-Wakamatsu domain, and intended to be held in reserve, a group of the White Tigers mistakenly believed that smoke in the distance was a sign that their castle had fallen, and committed suicide en masse. When the castle did eventually fall, the samurai resistance lost its best foothold in the north of the country, and retreated even further.

The last of the old-school samurai installed themselves at the southern end of Ezo Island, in the vast star-shaped fortress of Goryō kaku (‘The Pentagon’). There, they hoped to salvage some semblance of their dignity by proclaiming themselves to be a samurai nation, the Republic of Ezo, which still proclaimed loyalty to the Emperor, but regarded itself as a state independent from Meiji Japan.

If the last of the samurai had hoped for foreign aid, it proved to be unforthcoming. Foreign ships watched the conflict unfold, and the French military advisers controversially resigned their native commissions in order to lead the Republic of Ezo’s armies, but the Boshin War was a mop-up operation against a dwindling foe.

The Republic of Ezo began with limited resources – a mere handful of ships in its fleet, and whatever supplies could be scraped up in Hakodate, the treaty port close to Goryō kaku. The French mounted a daring operation to the south, where they intended to steal an ironclad warship, the Kōtetsu, newly delivered from America. Ships from the Republic of Ezo, flying the American and Russian flags as camouflage, got near enough to the Kōtetsu to board her, with some of the Shinsengumi forming the suicidally brave raiding party, leaping from the high deck of the Republic’s ship to the low-lying Kōtetsu, directly into the path of the Kōtetsu’s deck-mounted machine guns.

The mission to steal the Kōtetsu was a failure, and before long, the imperial forces had pursued the samurai rebels to Hakodate itself. Hijikata Toshizō led the last remnants of the Shinsengumi in the defence of one of the outlying strongpoints, but was forced to recognize that the Republic of Ezo was doomed, and that its hastily selected president was sure to make a deal with the imperial forces.

The naval battle of Hakodate, May 1869; in the foreground, Kasuga and Kōtetsu of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The conflict featured naval battles off southern Hokkaido and northern Honshu, in every case chaotic melées between ill-trained forces. In June 1869 at the decisive Battle of Hakodate, an imperial squadron led by the Kōtetsu defeated the shogun’s squadron of wooden steamers, destroying the largest of the latter, the 1,450-ton paddle steamer Kwaiten (the former Prussian Danzig). A second ironclad, the 1,430-ton armored broadside corvette Ryujo, did not join the navy in time to participate in the brief war. Originally a speculation ship built in Britain during the American Civil War, it was purchased in 1869 by Prince Hizen, an opponent of the shogun, who subsequently gave it to the emperor as a gift. Following the elimination of internal rivals, the new imperial government proceeded to lay the foundations of Japanese power at sea as well as on land.

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