When looking at the formation of modern nation-states, it is rather remarkable to see just how quickly a polity can change. Take Germany, for example – within a few short decades, Bismarck managed to turn Prussia and a confederation of various states into a single nation; a nation that would, at the turn of the 20th century, become one of the most powerful countries in the world. As remarkable as this is the example of Japan: within a little more than thirty years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan transformed from a country that was far behind the West in terms of technological advances into a Great Power that could stand on its own and protect itself from the interests of the colonial powers.
This was only really possible with the fall of the once-mighty Tokugawa Shogunate, which had held power in Japan since 1600. Though Japan, like China, had always had a dynastic emperor of sorts, the distinguishing factor between the two countries was that, in reality, Japan had been ruled by a shogunate – bakufu in Japanese – for centuries. The Emperor had always been little more than a symbolic head of power ever since the 12th century, with shoguns wielding practical power. This was in part due to the importance of martial might in Japanese culture; shoguns were, of course, little more than warlords at the head of a feudal system not unlike the European variant.
But the Meiji Restoration changed all that, doing just as its name implies – the Meiji Emperor was restored to prominence, the shogunate having been formally dismantled in 1868. Of course, the Emperor himself did not have quite as much authority as he probably would have liked. He became something of a puppet for a circle for very powerful oligarchs, and really they were the ones that led Japan into modernity.
Leaving that aside though, just how did centuries of military rule and tradition crumble so easily? More than that, how did it crumble so rapidly – restoration of Imperial rule was officially declared on the 4th of January, 1868, and on the 11th of April Edo itself surrendered to Imperial forces. The small Battle of Toba-Fushimi, which kick-started the Boshin War – the short civil war that broke out in Japan as a consequence of the Meiji Restoration – is perhaps one of the principal factors here.
Some background is probably necessary before delving in further, however. The most obvious reason that conflict between Imperial forces and the Shogunate erupted was because of incompatible philosophies, particularly in regards to the treatment of foreigners. Japan had been ‘opened’ up by Commodore Perry and others in the 1850s, just as China had earlier in the century, and this prompted a series of crises in the country. Japan had been, for the most part, closed off from the foreign world for two centuries, and it was only through the implied threat of force and a series of unfair treaties and negotiations that this was changed. It was clear to the Japanese then that they had been severely outpaced by the West. The Shogunate was suddenly faced with a rather violent, nationalistic movement that advocated the expulsion of the ‘barbarians’ and a return to more Imperial power. This was particularly prominent in west of Japan, particularly in the Satsuma and Choshu Domains – two areas where the Shogun was never especially powerful to begin with.
Needless to say, the Emperor at the time, Komei, sympathized with this movement, ordering the shogun to close Japan yet again. Obviously, the Tokugawa Shogunate was in no position to follow through – both the British and the French had entrenched themselves in various ports in the country, with their steamship naval forces on-the-ready. But, the edict had symbolic importance, regardless; it marked the end of Imperial recognition of bakufu primacy.
Satsuma and Choshu hard-liners became all the more prominent in the Imperial court and eventually, Shogun Yoshinibu realized that he had no choice but to abdicate. Those two factions were not particularly happy with the prospect of the Tokugawa house even existing, though, and later they forced the Emperor to decree the abolishing of all Tokugawa estates. Needless to say, Yoshinibu was not pleased and marched on Kyoto, to rid the court of enemy influences once and for all.
It should have gone rather well for him – the Shogunate’s army was 15000 men strong, outnumbering the Satsuma-Choshu force 3:1. However, while the Imperial forces were much smaller, they were exceptionally modernized, using Western weaponry such as Gatling guns and modern rifles; though the Shogun had some of that at his disposal, a large part of his force was still very traditional. It should be noted at this point that, while this radical faction was, at the superficial level, against opening Japan up, in reality the entire ordeal was little more than an excuse to simply ride the Tokugawa Shogunate of power. As history shows again and again, ideology is often little more than a cover for pragmatic power-plays.
The two armies clashed at the southern entrance of Kyoto, split up on two different roads – Toba and Fushimi. Over the course of the next two days, the two armies, both heavily spread out, in an array of different encounters. But this was not like the battles of Japanese yore – these were modern battles, and they were battles that the shogunal forces were not at all prepared for.
Eventually, the Shogun’s forces, having been slightly whittled down, retreated to Osaka Castle, Yoshinibu’s base, to regain morale. However, the story goes that Yoshinibu saw the Imperial banner raised over his enemy’s forces at the castle gates, and abandoned his army, quickly sailing for Edo the next day. He had lost the will to fight, and his forces scattered entirely.
This was not a battle of much military significance. Though the shogun himself would surrender shortly after, and most fighting would die down in a few months, there were still a few pockets of resistance, notably in Hokkaido where a Republic was formed for a short while in opposition to the Imperial government. The Boshin War itself would only officially end in 1839. However, the Battle of Toba-Fushimi is an excellent example of a symbolic battle. This was less about Shogun versus Emperor, than it was tradition versus modernity.
One small battle like this put an end to what was nearly 700 years of martial traditions, and ushered Japan into a new age of radical modernization. Moreover, it initiated the discussion within the country of finding a balance between tradition and modernity – this is still an issue in the country today. While we shouldn’t go too far to oversell the importance of the battle in this wider discussion, it is still something of a watershed moment.