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Bakumatsu (幕末, bakumatsu, "closing curtain" of the late Tokugawa shogunate) refers to the final years of the Edo period when the Tokugawa shogunate ended. Between 1853 and 1867 Japan ended its isolationist foreign policy known as sakoku and changed from a feudal Tokugawa shogunate to the pre-modern empire of the Meiji government. The major ideological-political divide during this period was between the pro-imperial nationalists called ishin shishi and the shogunate forces, which included the elite shinsengumi swordsmen.


Although these two groups were the most visible powers, many other factions attempted to use the chaos of Bakumatsu to seize personal power. Furthermore, there were two other main driving forces for dissent: first, growing resentment on the part of the tozama daimyō (or outside lords), and second, growing anti-Western sentiment following the arrival of Matthew C. Perry. The first related to those lords who had fought against Tokugawa forces at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and had from that point on been excluded permanently from all powerful positions within the shogunate. The second was to be expressed in the phrase sonnō jōi, or "revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians". The turning point of the Bakumatsu was during the Boshin War and the Battle of Toba–Fushimi when pro-shogunate forces were defeated.

Foreign frictions

Frictions with foreign shipping led Japan to take defensive actions from the beginning of the 19th century. Western ships were increasing their presence around Japan due to whaling activities and the China trade. They were hoping for Japan to become a base for supply or at least a place where shipwrecks could receive assistance. The violent demands made by the British frigate Phaeton in 1808 shocked many in Japan. In 1825, the Edict to expel foreigners at all cost (異国船無二念打払令, Ikokusen Muninen Uchiharairei, "Don't think twice" policy) was issued by the Shogunate, prohibiting any contacts with foreigners; it remained in place until 1842.

Meanwhile, Japan endeavoured to learn about foreign sciences through rangaku ("Western studies"). To reinforce Japan's capability to carry on the orders to repel Westerners, some such as the Nagasaki-based Takashima Shūhan managed to obtain weapons through the Dutch at Dejima, such as field guns, mortars and firearms. Domains sent students to learn from Takashima in Nagasaki, from Satsuma Domain after the intrusion of an American warship in 1837 in Kagoshima Bay, and from Saga Domain and Chōshū Domain, all southern domains mostly exposed to Western intrusions. These domains also studied the manufacture of Western weapons. By 1852 Satsuma and Saga had reverbatory furnaces to produce the iron necessary for firearms.

Following the Morrison incident involving the Morrison under Charles W. King in 1837, Egawa Hidetatsu was put in charge of establishing the defense of Tokyo Bay against Western intrusions in 1839. After the victory of the British over the Chinese in the 1840 Opium War, many Japanese realized that traditional ways would not be sufficient to repel Western intrusions. To resist Western military forces, Western guns were studied and demonstrations made in 1841 by Takashima Shūhan to the Tokugawa Shogunate.

A national debate was already taking place about how to better avoid foreign domination. Some like Egawa claimed that it was necessary to use the foreigners' techniques to repel them. Others, such as Torii Yōzō argued that only traditional Japanese methods should be employed and reinforced. Egawa argued that just as Confucianism and Buddhism had been introduced from abroad, it made sense to introduce useful Western techniques. A theoretical synthesis of "Western knowledge" and "Eastern morality" would later be accomplished by Sakuma Shōzan and Yokoi Shōnan, in view of "controlling the barbarians with their own methods".

After 1839, however, traditionalists tended to prevail. Students of Western sciences were accused of treason (Bansha no goku), put under house arrest (Takashima Shūhan), forced to commit ritual suicide (Watanabe Kazan, Takano Chōei), or even assassinated as in the case of Sakuma Shōzan.

Commodore Perry (1853–54)

When Commodore Matthew C. Perry's four-ship squadron appeared in Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) in July 1853, the bakufu (shogunate) was thrown into turmoil. Commodore Perry was fully prepared for hostilities if his negotiations with the Japanese failed, and threatened to open fire if the Japanese refused to negotiate. He gave them two white flags, telling them to hoist the flags when they wished a bombardment from his fleet to cease and to surrender. To demonstrate his weapons, Perry ordered his ships to attack several buildings around the harbor. The ships of Perry were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, capable of bringing destruction everywhere a shell landed.

Fortifications were established at Odaiba in Tokyo Bay in order to protect Edo from an American incursion. Industrial developments were also soon started in order to build modern cannons. A reverbatory furnace was established by Egawa Hidetatsu in Nirayama to cast cannons. Attempts were made at building Western-style warships such as the Shōhei Maru by using Dutch textbooks.

The American fleet returned in 1854. The chairman of the senior councillors, Abe Masahiro, was responsible for dealing with the Americans. Having no precedent to manage this threat to national security, Abe tried to balance the desires of the senior councillors to compromise with the foreigners, of the emperor who wanted to keep the foreigners out, and of the feudal daimyō rulers who wanted to go to war. Lacking consensus, Abe compromised by accepting Perry's demands for opening Japan to foreign trade while also making military preparations. In March 1854, the Treaty of Peace and Amity (or Treaty of Kanagawa) maintained the prohibition on trade but opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American whaling ships seeking provisions, guaranteed good treatment to shipwrecked American sailors, and allowed a United States consul to take up residence in Shimoda, a seaport on the Izu Peninsula, southwest of Edo. In February 1855, the Russians followed suit with the Treaty of Shimoda.

Political troubles and modernization

The resulting damage to the shogunate was significant. Debate over government policy was unusual and had engendered public criticism of the shogunate. In the hope of enlisting the support of new allies, Abe, to the consternation of the fudai daimyōs, had consulted with the shinpan and tozama daimyōs, further undermining the already weakened bakufu.

In the Ansei Reform (1854–1856), Abe then tried to strengthen the regime by ordering Dutch warships and armaments from the Netherlands and building new port defenses. In 1855, with Dutch assistance, the Shogunate acquired its first steam warship, Kankō Maru, which was used for training, and opened the Nagasaki Naval Training Center with Dutch instructors, and a Western-style military school was established at Edo. In 1857, it acquired its first screw-driven steam warship, the Kanrin Maru. Scientific knowledge was quickly expanded from the pre-existing foundation of Western knowledge (Rangaku, "Dutch learning").

Opposition to Abe increased within fudai circles, which opposed opening shogunate councils to tozama daimyōs, and he was replaced in 1855 as chairman of the senior councilors by Hotta Masayoshi (1810–1864). At the head of the dissident faction was Tokugawa Nariaki, who had long embraced a militant loyalty to the emperor along with anti-foreign sentiments, and who had been put in charge of national defense in 1854. The Mito school—based on neo-Confucian and Shinto principles—had as its goal the restoration of the imperial institution, the turning back of the West.


The period saw a dramatic series of earthquakes, the Ansei great earthquakes, including the 1854 Tōkai earthquake in December 1854, with the 1854 Nankai earthquake the following day, and the 1855 Edo earthquake in November 1855. An earthquake and tsunami struck Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula during the December 23 1854 Tōkai earthquake, and because the port had just been designated as the prospective location for a US consulate, some construed the natural disasters as demonstration of the displeasure of the gods.

Treaties of Amity and Commerce (1858)

Following the nomination of Townsend Harris as U.S. Consul in 1856 and two years of negotiation, the "Treaty of Amity and Commerce" was signed in 1858 and put into application from mid-1859. In a major diplomatic coup, Harris had abundantly pointed out the aggressive colonialism of France and Great Britain against China in the current Second Opium War (1856–1860), suggesting that these countries would not hesitate to go to war against Japan as well, and that the United States offered a peaceful alternative.

The most important points of the Treaty were:

  • exchange of diplomatic agents.
  • Edo, Kobe, Nagasaki, Niigata, and Yokohama’s opening to foreign trade as ports.
  • ability of United States citizens to live and trade at will in those ports (only opium trade was prohibited).
  • a system of extraterritoriality that provided for the subjugation of foreign residents to the laws of their own consular courts instead of the Japanese law system.
  • fixed low import-export duties, subject to international control
  • ability for Japan to purchase American shipping and weapons (three American steamships were delivered to Japan in 1862).
  • Japan was also forced to apply any further conditions granted to other foreign nations in the future to the United States, under the "most favoured nation" provision. Soon several foreign nations followed suit and obtained treaties with Japan (the Ansei Five-Power Treaties, with the United States (Harris Treaty) on July 29, 1858, Dutch (Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Netherlands and Japan) on August 18, Russia (Treaty of Amity and Commerce between Russia and Japan) August 19, Great Britain (Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce) on August 26, and France (Treaty of Amity and Commerce between France and Japan) on October 9).

    Trading houses were quickly set up in the open ports.

    Political crisis

    Hotta lost the support of key daimyōs, and when Tokugawa Nariaki opposed the new treaty, Hotta sought imperial sanction. The court officials, perceiving the weakness of the bakufu, rejected Hotta's request which resulted in the resignation of himself, and thus suddenly embroiled Kyoto and the emperor in Japan's internal politics for the first time in many centuries. When the shogun died without an heir, Nariaki appealed to the court for support of his own son, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (or Keiki), for shogun, a reformist candidate favored by the shinpan and tozama daimyōs. The fudai won the power struggle, however, installing the 12 year old Tokugawa Iemochi as shogun whom it was perceived Tairō Ii Naosuke would have influence over, ultimately placing Nariaki and Yoshinobu under house arrest, and executing Yoshida Shōin (1830–1859, a leading sonnō-jōi intellectual who had opposed the American treaty and plotted a revolution against the bakufu) known as Ansei Purge.

    Attacks on foreigners and their supporters

    From 1859, the ports of Nagasaki, Hakodate and Yokohama became open to foreign traders as a consequence of the Treaties. Foreigners arrived in Yokohama and Kanagawa in great numbers, giving rise to trouble with the samurai. Violence increased against the foreigners and those who dealt with them. Murders of foreigners and collaborating Japanese soon followed. On 26 August 1859, a Russian sailor was cut to pieces in the streets of Yokohama. In early 1860, two Dutch captains were slaughtered, also in Yokohama. Chinese and native servants of foreigners were also killed.

    Japanese Prime Minister Ii Naosuke, who had signed the Harris Treaty and tried to eliminate opposition to Westernization with the Ansei Purge, was himself murdered in March 1860 in the Sakuradamon incident. A servant of the French Minister was attacked at the end of 1860. On 14 January 1861, Henry Heusken, Secretary to the American mission, was attacked and murdered. On 5 July 1861, a group of samurai attacked the British Legation, resulting in two deaths. During this period, about one foreigner was killed every month. The Richardson Affair occurred in September 1862, forcing foreign nations to take decisive action in order to protect foreigners and guarantee the implementation of Treaty provisions. In May 1863, the US legation in Edo was torched.

    Economic and social crisis

    The opening of Japan to uncontrolled foreign trade brought massive economic instability. While some entrepreneurs prospered, many others went bankrupt. Unemployment rose, as well as inflation. Coincidentally, major famines also increased the price of food drastically. Incidents occurred between brash foreigners, qualified as "the scum of the earth" by a contemporary diplomat, and the Japanese.

    Japan's monetary system, based on Tokugawa coinage, also broke down. Traditionally, Japan's exchange rate between gold and silver was 1:5, whereas international rates were of the order of 1:15. This led to massive purchases of gold by foreigners, and ultimately forced the Japanese authorities to devalue their currency. There was a massive outflow of gold from Japan, as foreigners rushed to exchange their silver for "token" silver Japanese coinage and again exchange these against gold, giving a 200% profit to the transaction. In 1860, about 4 million ryōs thus left Japan, that is about 70 tons of gold. This effectively destroyed Japan's gold standard system, and forced it to return to weight-based system with International rates. The Bakufu instead responded to the crises by debasing the gold content of its coins by two thirds, so as to match foreign gold-silver exchange ratios.

    Foreigners also brought cholera to Japan, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

    During the 1860s, peasant uprisings (hyakushō ikki) and urban disturbances (uchikowashi) multiplied. "World renewal" movement appeared (yonaoshi ikki), as well as feverish hysteric movements such as the Eejanaika ("Why Not?").

    Several missions were sent abroad by the Bakufu, in order to learn about Western civilization, revise unequal treaties, and delay the opening of cities and harbour to foreign trade. These efforts towards revision remained largely unsuccessful.

    A Japanese Embassy to the United States was sent in 1860, on board the Kanrin Maru and the USS Powhattan. A First Japanese Embassy to Europe was sent in 1862.

    Imperial "Order to expel barbarians" (1863)

    Belligerent opposition to Western influence further erupted into open conflict when the Emperor Kōmei, breaking with centuries of imperial tradition, began to take an active role in matters of state and issued, on March 11 and April 11, 1863, his "Order to expel barbarians" (攘夷実行の勅命, jōi jikkō no chokumei).

    The Mōri clan of Chōshū, under Lord Mori Takachika, followed on the order, and began to take actions to expel all foreigners from the date fixed as a deadline (May 10, Lunar calendar). Openly defying the shogunate, Takachika ordered his forces to fire without warning on all foreign ships traversing Shimonoseki Strait.

    Under pressure from the Emperor, the Shogun was also forced to issue a declaration promulgating the end of relations with foreigners. The order was forwarded to foreign legations by Ogasawara Zusho no Kami on June 24, 1863:

    "The orders of the Tycoon, received from Kyoto, are to the effect that the ports are to be closed and the foreigners driven out, because the people of the country do not desire intercourse with foreign countries."

    Lieutenant-Colonel Neale, head of the British legation, responded on very strong terms, equating the move with a declaration of war:

    "It is, in fact, a declaration of war by Japan itself against the whole of the Treaty Powers, and the consequences of which, if not at once arrested, it will have to expiate by the severest and most merited chastisement"

    A Second Japanese Embassy to Europe would be sent in December 1863, with the mission to obtain European support to reinstate Japan's former closure to foreign trade, and especially stop foreign access to the harbor of Yokohama. The Embassy ended in total failure as European powers did not see any advantages in yielding to its demands.

    Military interventions against Sonnō Jōi (1863–1865)

    American influence, so important in the beginning, waned after 1861 due to the advent of the American Civil War (1861–1865) that monopolized all available U.S. resources. This influence would be replaced by that of the British, the Dutch and the French.

    The two ringleaders of the opposition to the Bakufu were from the provinces Satsuma (present day Kagoshima prefecture) and Chōshū (present-day Yamaguchi prefecture), two of the strongest tozama anti-shogunate domains in Edo period Japan. Satsuma military leaders Saigō Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi were brought together with Katsura Kogorō (Kido Takayoshi) of Chōshū. As they happened to be directly involved in the murder of Richardson for the former, and the attacks on foreign shipping in Shimonoseki for the latter, and as the Bakufu declared itself unable to placate them, Allied forces decided to mount direct military expeditions.

    American intervention (July 1863)

    In the morning of July 16, 1863, under sanction by Minister Pruyn, in an apparent swift response to the attack on the Pembroke, the U.S. frigate USS Wyoming under Captain McDougal himself sailed into the strait and single-handedly engaged the U.S.-built but poorly manned rebel fleet. For almost two hours before withdrawing, McDougal sank one enemy vessel and severely damaged the other two, along with some forty Japanese casualties, while the Wyoming suffered extensive damage with fourteen crew dead or wounded.

    French intervention (August 1863)

    On the heels of McDougal's engagement, two weeks later a French landing force of two warships, the Tancrède and the Dupleix, and 250 men under Captain Benjamin Jaurès swept into Shimonoseki and destroyed a small town, together with at least one artillery emplacement.

    British bombardment of Kagoshima (August 1863)

    In August 1863, the Bombardment of Kagoshima took place, in retaliation for the Namamugi incident and the murder of the English trader Richardson. The British Royal Navy bombarded the town of Kagoshima and destroyed several ships. Satsuma however later negotiated and paid 25,000 pounds, but did not remit Richardson's killers, and in exchange obtained an agreement by Great Britain to supply steam warships to Satsuma. The conflict actually became the starting point of a close relationship between Satsuma and Great Britain, which became major allies in the ensuing Boshin War. From the start, the Satsuma Province had generally been in favour of the opening and modernization of Japan. Although the Namamugi Incident was unfortunate, it was not characteristic of Satsuma's policy, and was rather abusively branded as an example of anti-foreign sonnō jōi sentiment, as a justification to a strong Western show of force.

    Repression of the Mito rebellion (May 1864)

    On 2 May 1864, another rebellion erupted against the power of the Shogunate, the Mito rebellion. This rebellion also was in the name of the Sonnō Jōi, the expulsion of the Western "barbarians" and the return to Imperial rule. The Shogunate managed to send an army to quell the revolt, which was ended in blood with the surrender of the rebels on 14 January 1865.

    Chōshū rebellion

    In the Kinmon Incident on 20 August 1864, troops from Chōshū Domain attempted to take control of Kyoto and the Imperial Palace in order to pursue the objective of Sonnō Jōi. This also led to a punitive expedition by the Tokugawa government, the First Chōshū expedition (長州征討).

    Allied bombardment of Shimonoseki (September 1864)

    Western nations planned an armed retaliation against armed Japanese opposition with the Bombardment of Shimonoseki. The Allied intervention occurred in September 1864, combining the naval forces of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and the United States, against the powerful daimyō Mōri Takachika of the Chōshū Domain based in Shimonoseki, Japan. This conflict threatened to involve America, which in 1864, was already torn by its own civil war.

    Conservative reaffirmation

    Following these successes against the imperial movement in Japan, the Shogunate was able to reassert a certain level of primacy at the end of 1864. The traditional policy of sankin-kōtai was reinstated, and remnants of the rebellions of 1863–64 as well as the Shishi movement were brutally suppressed throughout the land.

    The military interventions by foreign powers also proved that Japan was no military match against the West, and that expelling foreigners was not a realistic policy. The sonnō jōi movement thus lost its initial impetus. The structural weaknesses of the Bakufu however remained an issue, and the focus of opposition would then shift to creating a strong government under a single authority.

    Hyōgo naval expedition (November 1865)

    As the Bakufu proved incapable to pay the $3,000,000 indemnity demanded by foreign nations for the intervention at Shimonoseki, foreign nations agreed to reduce the amount in exchange for a ratification of the Harris Treaty by the Emperor, a lowering of customs tariffs to a uniform 5%, and the opening of the harbours of Hyōgo (modern Kōbe) and Osaka to foreign trade. In order to press their demands more forcefully, a squadron of four British, one Dutch and three French warships were sent to the harbour of Hyōgo in November 1865. Various incursions were made by foreign forces, until the Emperor finally agreed to change his total opposition to the Treaties, by formally allowing the Shogun to handle negotiations with foreign powers.

    These conflicts led to the realization that head-on conflict with Western nations was not a solution for Japan. As the Bakufu continued its modernization efforts, Western daimyōs (especially from Satsuma and Chōshū) also continued to modernize intensively in order to build a stronger Japan and to establish a more legitimate government under Imperial power.

    Second Chōshū expedition (June 1866)

    The Shogunate led a second punitive expedition against Chōshū from June 1866, but the Shogunate was actually defeated by the more modern and better organized troops of Chōshū. The new Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu managed to negotiate a ceasefire due to the death of the previous Shogun, but the prestige of the Shogunate was nevertheless seriously affected.

    This reversal encouraged the Bakufu to take drastic steps towards modernization.

    Renewal and modernization

    During the last years of the bakufu, or bakumatsu, the bakufu took strong measures to try to reassert its dominance, although its involvement with modernization and foreign powers was to make it a target of anti-Western sentiment throughout the country.

    Naval students were sent to study in Western naval schools for several years, starting a tradition of foreign-educated future leaders, such as Admiral Enomoto. The French naval engineer Léonce Verny was hired to build naval arsenals, such as Yokosuka and Nagasaki. By the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, the Japanese navy of the shogun already possessed eight western-style steam warships around the flagship Kaiyō Maru, which were used against pro-imperial forces during the Boshin war, under the command of Admiral Enomoto. A French Military Mission to Japan (1867) was established to help modernize the armies of the Bakufu. Japan sent a delegation to and participated in the 1867 World Fair in Paris.

    Tokugawa Yoshinobu (informally known as Keiki) reluctantly became head of the Tokugawa house and shogun following the unexpected death of Tokugawa Iemochi in mid-1866. In 1867, Emperor Kōmei died and was succeeded by his second son, Mutsuhito, as Emperor Meiji. Tokugawa Yoshinobu tried to reorganize the government under the Emperor while preserving the shogun's leadership role, a system known as kōbu gattai. Fearing the growing power of the Satsuma and Chōshū daimyōs, other daimyōs called for returning the shogun's political power to the emperor and a council of daimyōs chaired by the former Tokugawa shogun. With the threat of an imminent Satsuma-Chōshū led military action, Yoshinobu moved pre-emptively by surrendering some of his previous authority.

    Boshin War

    After Keiki had temporarily avoided the growing conflict, anti-shogunal forces instigated widespread turmoil in the streets of Edo using groups of rōnin. Satsuma and Chōshū forces then moved on Kyoto in force, pressuring the Imperial Court for a conclusive edict demolishing the shogunate. Following a conference of daimyōs, the Imperial Court issued such an edict, removing the power of the shogunate in the dying days of 1867. The Satsuma, Chōshū, and other han leaders and radical courtiers, however, rebelled, seized the imperial palace, and announced their own restoration on January 3, 1868. Keiki nominally accepted the plan, retiring from the Imperial Court to Osaka at the same time as resigning as shogun. Fearing a feigned concession of the shogunal power to consolidate power, the dispute continued until culminating in a military confrontation between Tokugawa and allied domains with Satsuma, Tosa and Chōshū forces, in Fushimi and Toba. With the turning of the battle toward anti-shogunal forces, Keiki then quit Osaka for Edo, essentially ending both the power of the Tokugawa, and the shogunate that had ruled Japan for over 250 years.

    Following the Boshin war (1868–1869), the bakufu was abolished, and Keiki was reduced to the ranks of the common daimyōs. Resistance continued in the North throughout 1868, and the bakufu naval forces under Admiral Enomoto Takeaki continued to hold out for another six months in Hokkaidō, where they founded the short-lived Republic of Ezo. This defiance ended in May 1869 at the Battle of Hakodate, after one month of fighting.


    Bakumatsu Wikipedia

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