Civil War and the New Imperial Army I

The Toba-Fushimi fighting marked the opening battle of the Boshin (dragon) Civil War, named after the Chinese zodiacal cyclic character that designated the year 1868. The new army fought under makeshift arrangements with unclear channels of command and control and no reliable recruiting base. Samurai and kiheitai units paradoxically were fighting in the name of the throne, but they did not belong to the throne. To correct this anomaly and defend the court, which was in open rebellion against the shogunate, in early March 1868 the newly proclaimed imperial government created various administrative offices, including a military branch. The next month it organized an imperial bodyguard, about 400 or 500 warriors, composed of Satsuma and Chōshū units augmented by veterans of the Toba-Fushimi battles, yeomen, and masterless warriors from various domains, who reported directly to the court. The imperial court next notified domains to restrict the size of their local armies and contribute to the expenses of a national officers’ training school in Kyoto.

Within a few months, however, authorities disbanded the ineffective military branch and the imperial bodyguard, which lacked modern equipment and weapons. To replace them, in April authorities established the military affairs directorate, composed of two bureaus: one for the army, one for the navy. The directorate drafted an army organization act based on manpower contributions from each domain proportional to its respective annual rice production. This conscript army (chōheigun) integrated samurai and commoners from the various domains into its ranks.

As the Boshin Civil War continued, the newly formed military affairs directorate had expected to raise troops from the wealthier domains. In June 1868 it fixed the organization of the army by making each fief responsible, at least in theory, for sending to Kyoto ten men per each 10,000 koku of rice the domain produced. The policy put the government in competition with the domains to recruit troops, a contradiction not remedied until April 1869 when it banned domains from enlisting soldiers. The quota system to recruit government troops, however, never worked as intended, and the authorities abolished it the following year.

Meanwhile, in mid-March 1868 Prince Arisugawa took command of the Eastern Expeditionary Force as loyalist columns pushed along three main highways toward the shogun’s capital at Edo (present-day Tokyo). Skirmishes involving a few hundred warriors on either side brushed aside bakufu resistance, and the columns swiftly converged on the capital. The advancing army continually proclaimed its close bond with the imperial court, first to legitimize its cause; second, to brand enemies of the government as enemies of the court and therefore traitors; and third, to gain popular support.

For food, supplies, horses, and weapons, the government army established a series of logistics relay stations along the three major thoroughfares. These small depots stocked material supplied by local pro-government domains or confiscated from bakufu agencies, senior retainers of the old regime, and anyone opposing the government. The army routinely impressed local villagers as porters or teamsters to move supplies between the depots and the frontline units. Japan’s largest merchant families also contributed money and supplies to the new army. The Mitsui branch directors in Edo, for example, donated more than 25,000 ryō (US$25,000) as insurance to protect their storehouses from pro-bakufu arsonists and probably government troops as well.

Government propaganda teams accompanied the army to extol the new imperial government’s virtues and to attract adherents by offering an immediate halving of taxes on rice harvests. To complement the effort, the army issued regulations governing conduct. All ranks would share the same food, accommodations, and work details; troops would immediately report anyone spreading rumors that might lower morale; quarreling and fighting in camp were forbidden; attacks against foreigners were strictly prohibited; and commanders were supposed to prevent arson, plunder, and rape from tarnishing the new government’s image. The results were mixed. If the populace cooperated, they were treated fairly, which meant the men might be persuaded to work as military porters or laborers, the villages to donate food, and promises made to cooperate with the government army. But the standard tactic to combat the roving bands of Tokugawa supporters who harassed government columns with hit-and-run attacks was to burn nearby homes to deny the guerrillas shelter. Suspected collaborators were summarily executed.

As the government troops pushed into bakufu strongholds, coercion replaced persuasion. Soldiers requisitioned food; confiscated weapons, valuables, and cash; and impressed villagers for labor details. Although government orders prohibited arson, it was an effective tactic during battle and for pacification purposes. Uncooperative villages risked being burned to the ground, likely because soldiers understood that inhabitants feared arson above all other forms of retribution. In extreme cases, such as the final northeastern campaign, government troops torched more than one-third of the homes in the Akita domain. To avoid that fate, villagers along the army’s route-of-march provided commanders with food, supplies, and intelligence. But this cooperation was based on little more than extortion and did not indicate a sudden shift in allegiance to the new government.

By the time the main loyalist forces reached Edo in early May, Saigō Takamori had already negotiated a peaceful surrender of the city with bakufu agents, the shogunate being divided internally between hard-liners and those favoring an accommodation with the new government. The 41-year-old Saigō stood almost six feet tall and weighed about 250 pounds, making him a giant by Japanese standards. After a decade as a minor provincial official, in 1854 Saigō moved to Edo to promote Satsuma policies. Four years later reactionary shogunate officials forced him to flee to Satsuma, but he was then exiled. After his pardon in 1864, Satsuma officials sent Saigō to Kyoto to handle the domain’s national affairs.

There was no denying Saigō’s ability, but the man was an enigma, given to lengthy silences that could be interpreted as contemplative wisdom or hopeless stupidity. His indifference to awards, honors, or material trappings, complemented by his dynamic charisma and humanism, made Saigō the most respected personality in early Meiji Japan. His deal with the bakufu, however, had enabled more than 2,000 warriors loyal to the shogun to escape from Edo, and the guerrilla war these reactionaries were waging against the loyalists was ravaging the nearby countryside.

North of Edo pro-bakufu forces held Utsunomiya castle; in early June, government forces defeated the shogun’s troops in a series of minor engagements between Utsunomiya and Edo. They withstood a subsequent bakufu counteroffensive and, strengthened with reinforcements, occupied the castle to secure the northern approaches to Edo. The vanquished bakufu units fled to northern Japan.

Meanwhile, loyalist troops had garrisoned the shogun’s capital without opposition, but their efficiency and morale slowly disintegrated as the provincial troops settled in to the comforts and fleshpots of the big city. As martial skills eroded, Saigō worried about the diehard pro-shogun radicals who retained de facto control of the city. The most powerful of these bands was the Shōgitai (League to Demonstrate Righteousness), formed in February 1868, which eventually enrolled about 2,000 warriors, each sworn to kill a Satsuma “traitor. ”

Operating from its headquarters in Edo’s Ueno district, Shōgitai units selectively cracked down on the roving criminal gangs that had turned the nighttime capital into a place of robbery, murder, and extortion. Besides punishing these outlaws they also ferreted out Satsuma informers and pro-court spies, and while the government army slipped into idleness, Shōgitai units busily constructed strongholds around Ueno Hill. The ongoing fighting in the north and the deteriorating conditions in Edo created the impression that the new government was unable to control the strategically vital Edo region. When reports of the impasse in Edo reached the Kyoto government, leaders Ōkubo Toshimichi (with Saigō a central leader of Satsuma since 1864), Kido Koin (leader of Chōshū with Takasugi from 1865), and Iwakura Tomomi (a high-ranking court noble) sent Ōmura Masujirō to restore government control in the city and eliminate the Shōgitai influence.

Compared to Saigō, Ōmura seemed physically clumsy; and, unlike the gregarious Saigō, his introverted personality and perpetually sour countenance attracted few friends, much less casual admirers. Saigō’s patient wait-and-see style and measured diplomacy left Ōmura seething at the sight of a seemingly powerless government army standing idly by while the Shōgitai incited antigovernment violence in Edo. Ōmura demanded action, but Saigō’s disinclination to turn the city into a battleground was a major reason for his lenient terms with the shogun’s representatives.

Assured from Kyoto that reinforcements and money were on the way, Ōmura and his lieutenant Eto Shimpei decided to attack. They believed that the Shōgitai were few in number and ignored Satsuma commanders’ arguments that more loyalist troops were needed to stabilize the city. Moreover, Ōmura was certain that his artillery would rout the pro-shogunate forces. His only concession was to the weather; he postponed the offensive until the arrival of the rainy season rather than bombard the city during the dry weather, when Edo’s wooden buildings would burn like tinder.

On July 4 Ōmura summoned Saigō and ordered him to attack the Shōgitai’s Ueno strongpoint immediately, overriding Saigō’s objections with a casual wave of his fan. As Saigō and his captains had predicted, the attack ran headlong into a ready-and-waiting enemy, the Shōgitai having been alerted to the impending assault by Satsuma deserters. Although outnumbered two to one, the approximately 1,000 Shōgitai troops fought from behind well-prepared defenses that were anchored by a small lake on one flank and thick woods on the other and could only be taken by a frontal assault.

Ōmura expected that artillery fire would drive the Shōgitai from their shelters, leaving them vulnerable to Saigō’s infantry. From Edo castle, Ōmura watched the billowing smoke and heard the loud explosions and thought that his plan had succeeded. But the artillery guns soon malfunctioned, and the few that did fire were wildly inaccurate, producing noise and fireworks but few enemy casualties. Saigō’s vanguard, led by Kirino Toshiaki, charged directly into the Shōgitai’s barricades, losing at least 120 men killed or wounded. About twice that number of Shōgitai supporters were slain, although many more were apprehended fleeing from Ueno.

The victory secured Edo for the new government, crushed one of the largest and most violent antigovernment units, restored the momentum of the imperial forces by releasing them to move north, and, by showing that the pro-Tokugawa forces could not defeat the emperor’s army, calmed fears of a prolonged civil war. Despite the artillery fiasco and the heavy government casualties, Ōmura emerged as a hero, acclaimed for his grasp of modern military science, much to Saigō’s chagrin, who had lost face over the incident. Formidable resistance continued in northern Japan, but by controlling Edo the army had turned a corner. To signify the bakufu’s demise, the next month the capital moved from Kyoto to Edo, which had been the de facto political center of Japan for 250 years. On September 3 Edo was officially renamed Tokyo, and the next month Emperor Mutsuhito adopted the reign name of Meiji and henceforth was identified as the Emperor Meiji.

The Northern Campaigns

On June 10, 1868, two Aizu samurai attacked a senior Chōshū officer in a Fukushima brothel. Desperate to escape, he jumped through a second-floor window only to land face-first on a stone walkway, where he was seized by his assailants and later executed. Among the murdered official’s personal effects were confidential government plans to subjugate the northern domains, including the Tokugawa stronghold of Aizu. Reacting to these threats, twenty-five pro-bakufu vassals in northern Honshū formed a confederation to resist the Satsuma-Chōshū government, as distinct from the imperial government. To crush the league, Ōmura devised a complicated strategy to capture the city of Sendai on the Pacific (east) coast and then send converging columns southward to attack the Aizu rebel stronghold at Wakamatsu castle from the rear. Landings in Echigo Province on the Japan Sea (west) coast with probing attacks against the major passes would fix the defenders in place.

Yamagata Aritomo commanded the 12,000-man-strong government army contingent that landed along the west coast in late July and quickly captured Nagaoka castle. Then he hesitated, even though his veteran forces (leavened with about 1,000 kiheitai and Satsuma warriors) outnumbered the rebels three to one. Yamagata spread the entire army along a 50-mile-long defensive front, leaving him no reserve. He parceled out artillery, giving each unit a few guns but not enough firepower to blast through league fortifications. When he tried to evict rebel defenders from strategic mountain passes, the army suffered successive reverses. Thereafter the rainy season made streams and rivers impassable and restricted campaigning. By that time, Yamagata was barely on speaking terms with his second-in-command, the veteran Satsuma commander Kuroda Kiyotaka, who spent much of the campaign sulking in his tent.

The opposing armies faced each other about 6 miles north of Nagaoka, with their flanks bounded on the west by a river and on the east by a large trackless swamp. Stuck in their cold, wet trenches, morale among government troops plummeted, abetted by rebels chanting Buddhist funeral sutras throughout the night. Meanwhile, battle-hardened, aggressive pro-Tokugawa commanders executed an active defense, probing and raiding government outposts and disrupting their rear supply areas.

On the east coast, operations initially went smoother. The main government army moved overland from Edo on Shirokawa castle, which dominated a strategic mountain pass leading to Aizu. By mid-June government troops had taken the castle in a frontal attack coordinated with columns enveloping the town. Government artillery destroyed the prepared defenses and routed the 2,500 defenders. Several smaller domains in the league promptly capitulated. The hardcore Aizu defenders withdrew into their main defenses, which were constructed to blend into the rugged mountainous terrain. With Yamagata’s western campaign stalled, there was little pressure on the Aizu rear, enabling the rebels to concentrate their forces against the eastern prong of the government offensive. The Kyoto high command sent reinforcements under Saigō’s leadership to reinvigorate Yamagata’s operations.

Unable to break into the southern approaches to Aizu–Wakamatsu castle, government troops commanded by Itagaki Taisuke and Ichiji Masaharu maneuvered north along the main highway and in mid-October captured the northern outposts protecting Aizu’s rear areas. They then pivoted west through the mountains and defeated successive Aizu contingents by concentrating artillery fire to pin down defenders while small bands of riflemen turned their flanks. When the rebels shifted troops to protect their vulnerable flanks, loyalist forces smashed through the weakened ridgeline defenses. By late October Itagaki and Ichiji were within five miles of Wakamatsu castle.

Around the same time, Saigō seized Niigata city, a major port on the Sea of Japan about forty miles north of Nagaoka castle. Capturing the port cut off rebel access to imported foreign-manufactured weapons and interdicted a major supply route running from the city to Aizu-Wakamatsu. But the day Niigata fell, rebel troops farther south capitalized on their knowledge of the local terrain to cross the supposedly impassable swamp, outflank the main government lines, and then overwhelm the small government garrison at Nagaoka castle. With government forces divided and their line of communication threatened, Yamagata fled for his life, allegedly discarding his sword and equipment in his haste. Saigō countermarched south and retook the castle five days later. Yamagata, however, failed to cut off the withdrawing rebel forces, and the western campaign stalled again.

These setbacks and the slow progress on the eastern front sowed doubt among government leaders in Kyoto that the army could finish the campaign before the region’s heavy winter snows made further campaigning impossible. Satsuma troops, which formed the backbone of the army, came from southern Japan and were neither acclimated nor equipped for winter operations. Rather than risk the imperial army’s carefully crafted reputation for invincibility and its best troops, Ōmura suspended eastern operations against Aizu until the following spring.

Itagaki and Ijichi ignored Kyoto’s orders and unilaterally assaulted the main Aizu stronghold, forcing the heavily outnumbered Aizu samurai to commit their entire reserve. One such unit, the White Tiger Brigade, consisted of a few hundred 16- and 17-year-olds and suffered severe losses. Retreating toward Wakamatsu castle, sixteen survivors mistakenly assumed that the thick black smoke and red flames rising from the adjacent castle town meant the castle had fallen. With all hope apparently lost, they committed suicide, an act of sincerity that redeemed their treason and apotheosized the White Tiger Brigade as a symbol of loyalty and selfless courage that resonated powerfully among the public.

Once the main Aizu defenses collapsed, the army overran minor strongholds in rapid succession and rebel survivors fled to Wakamatsu castle. Although the government artillery could not penetrate the thick castle walls, the defenders were unprepared for a winter siege and surrendered in early November. Losses of pro-Tokugawa forces for the entire campaign were around 2,700 killed. Sporadic fighting continued in northern Japan until mid-December, when the league finally capitulated and its leaders took responsibility for defeat by committing ritual suicide.

During the Tokugawa period suicide to atone for mistakes or defeat was an accepted cultural norm among the warrior class. During the Boshin Civil War warrior customs regarding fallen enemies or prisoners likely encouraged battlefield suicides. Both armies routinely cut off the heads of dead or wounded enemies for purposes of identification or morale-enhancing displays. In one case a bakufu leader’s severed head was brought to Kyoto for public display. The gruesome practice was widespread, and western doctors working in Japan reported that they rarely saw wounded enemy soldiers, apparently because of the criteria for head-taking and surrender.

Surrender was recognized, provided both sides agreed on terms for capitulation. During the Boshin War’s early stages, potential prisoners were usually executed for suspected cowardice for surrendering (the idea of the shame of surrender) or because their wounds testified that they had resisted government troops. Suspected spies or bakufu agents were summarily executed. Many Shōgitai prisoners captured at Ueno fit all categories and were promptly beheaded. In the later stages of the war, the new army accepted surrenders of pro-bakufu troops as the government realized that reconciliation was necessary to unify the nation.

This conciliatory attitude did not carry over to the disposition of the dead. The government honored its war dead with special ceremonies that Ōmura later institutionalized by establishing the Shōkonsha (shrine for inviting spirits) in June 1869 as the official shrine to commemorate government war dead. He hoped that official memorialization of the war dead would stimulate a popular national consciousness by enshrining the concept of an official death for the sake of the nation, not merely a private death in a meaningless vendetta.

Enemy dead were regarded as traitors and ineligible for enshrinement in government shrines. Their beheaded corpses were often left where they fell, and local villagers would furtively bury the remains. Partly because the Aizu warriors had so fiercely resisted the government army and partly owing to Aizu’s long-standing enmity with Chōshū, the Meiji leaders forbade even the burial of Aizu corpses and ordered them left to rot in open fields.

At the end of 1868, Tokugawa supporters still controlled Ezochi (Hokkaidō). In October 1868, bakufu ground and naval units from Sendai had landed on Hokkaidō’s south coast and overwhelmed the undermanned army garrison. The remaining government troops abandoned the island, fleeing to the safety of nearby Honshū. In the spring of 1869, reconstituted and much-strengthened government ground and naval forces returned and converged on the major rebel stronghold at Hakodate. The outnumbered pro-shogunate rebels fell back and by early May prepared for a final stand from Hakodate’s pentagon-shaped fortress.

Constructed by the bakufu between 1857 and 1864 to protect Ezochi from the Russian threat, the first western-style fortress in Japan defended Hakodate’s harbor, where the three remaining bakufu warships were sheltered. During naval battles on May 11, one government ship sank after a shell exploded its powder magazine, but two bakufu warships ran aground, and the third was previously damaged. The subsequent fighting for the fortress produced more sound and flash than bloodshed. Thousands of government artillery shells fell on the fortress, causing three casualties. Government losses were two dead and twenty-one wounded. The siege did reduce the rebels to near starvation, forcing them to surrender on May 25.

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