AD 1864-65 Kosanji Uprising — Background #1 : The Decline of the Shogunate (Part One)

Jul 2018
Hong Kong
AD 1864-65 Kosanji Uprising — Glossary dictionary <--- For any Japanese term you’re unfamiliar in this thread, just check this dictionary for reference

* the old Japanese calendar was adopted for dates


The Bakumatsu Period was fraught with revolution and conflict. The Tokugawa Regime encountered with the huge crisis. Simultaneously, the traditional ideologies and institutions were profoundly challenged owing to the Western impact. The famous Kiheitai (奇兵隊, “strange army”) founded by Takasugi Shinsaku (高杉晋作) was a trademark reflecting the evolution of the era — the voluntary troops with various grassroots and commoners as its backbone, without the distinguishment of social classes. The rise of Takasugi Shinsaku was also exactly the result of the evolution.

If you don't know what sort of "evolution" it was, you cannot comprehend why the initially mini-scale armed uprising with only 84 men joined in would ultimately engulf the Choshu domain government with great rapidity and momentum, turning the Choshu Domain into the staunch anti-Shogunate vanguard, and leading to the development of the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance (薩長同盟) and the final victory of the anti-Shogunate movement (倒幕). Such triumph generated the huge impact on the modern history of Japan.

Unquestionably, AD 1853 was a turning point in the history of Japan — the Tokugawa Shogunate was forced to abandon Sakoku (鎖國, “blockade of country”) which had lasted for more than 200 years under the threatening display of the "Black Ships" (黒船), and the fedual hierarchy that contributed to the enduring stability was caught in the unprecedented challenge, enabling Japan to step forward and gradually move on to the path of capitalism, maritime trade, national unification and military modernization from the outdated, decayed samurai rule.

Hence, it was the best choice by setting AD 1853 as the major starting point for narration of the background story. So here I go.

The Western Great Powers' impact, the downfall of the shogunate and the crisis of Japan

1. Commodore Perry's landing at Yokohama.jpg
The lithography by William Heine depicting Commodore Perry and his party landing at Yokohama to meet with the Shogun’s delegates, published in AD 1855

On 3rd June 1853, the US East India Navy Squadron Commodore Matthew C. Perry led four steamships to Uraga (浦賀) at the entrance to Edo Bay, threatened appealing to force if the Tokugawa Shogunate failed to answer his demand of "opening the country for trade". The Shogunate was deeply terrified and out of solutions, yet accepted the letter brought by Perry and agreed the joint discussion of the issue the next year. In July, the Russian Admiral Yevfimiy Puytatin led four ships to Nagasaki (長崎) to force the Shogunate opening ports, further complicated the situation. In such critical moment, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi (徳川家慶) suddenly died in illness, and the succeeding Shogun Tokugawa lesada (徳川家定) was sickly weak and incapable of rule, thus leaving the Roju (老中, “Elder”) Abe Masahiro (阿部政弘) for decision-making of whether opening the nation or not.

2. Abe Masahiro's image.jpg
The portrait of Abe Masahiro painted by Yuya Gomesuda the 2nd (五姓田芳柳二代目) in AD 1897

Due to the involvement with the breaching of the ancestral Tokugawa shoguns’ foreign policy in handling of those “states of barbarians” (蠻夷), Abe Masahiro dared not to decide alone arbitrarily, thus canvassed public opinion by inquiring daimyos (大名), hatamoto (旗本) and even commoners’ viewpoint on the issue of country-opening, and reported the matter to the imperial court.

This act initiated the precedence of the “republican institution” (公議政体) in the history of Japan that incurred the loss of dictatorship of the Tokugawa Shogunate since all daimyos (even those tozama daimyo 外様大名 which was being alerted by the Shogunate), court aristocrats (公卿) and the Emperor had a say to the state matter. In consequence, the Shogunate’s authority was severely weakened ; the powerful daimyos, the Emperor, and the court aristocrats began to play the major role in politics and seriously threatened the paramountcy of the Shogunate. Meanwhile, the divisive opinions of kaikoku (開國, “open the country”) and soi (攘夷, “expel the barbarians”) were incompatible each other, intensified the domestic strife that eventually culminated in the political upheaval of the Bakumatsu Period.

Consequently, there was no constructive opinions or useful solutions extracted from the participants proved helpful to the Shogunate.

3. Edo Castle model.jpg
The Edo Castle model

The Shogun was no longer well-respected hereafter

In January 1854, Commodore Perry led the warships to Japan again and forced the Shogunate into submission to signing the <The US-Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity> (日米和親条約) also known as the Convention of Kanagawa, 神奈川条約), consented for opening the ports of Shimoda (下田) and Hakodate (箱館), offering food, water, fuel to the American ships anchored, rescuing the American fishermen drifted there, carving the residential area for the foreigners in the treaty ports, and allowing the US consul to be placed in Shimoda.

Since this treaty had the clause of the “unilateral most-favored-nation treatment” (片務最恵国待遇), Russia, Britain, France, Dutch subsequently forced Japan to conclude the similar “unequal treaties” (不平等条約) as that one. Therefore, the Sakoku policy maintained by the Tokugawa Shogunate for over 200 years completely collapsed.

Although the Tokugawa Shogunate temporarily protected itself from destruction by conceding to the Western Great Powers that avoided the suicidal military confrontation with them, the price was extraordinarily high : the Shogunate was severely questioned and condemned for its incompetence which ended up betraying the home-country’s benefits to those “barbarians” (foreigners) by yielding to their demands instead of “expelling” them as the “Shogun” (征夷大將軍, for which the full name was “Commander-in-chief of the Expeditionary Force against the Barbarians”) should dutifully carry out. Hence, the Shogunate’s prestige suffered a crushing blow, as its legality of rulership began to crumble under the ferocious attack of public opinions.

4. The statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu.jpg
The statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu erected in the Okazaki Park (岡崎公園)

The escalating domestic conflict

However, the Western Powers wasn’t satisfied of what they had gained. In AD 1856, the US Consul stationed in Japan Townsend Harris had an audience with the Shogun, requested the free trade and the increase of trading ports and towns for expanding the US trading interest in Japan. Hotta Masayoshi (堀田正睦) who succeeded Abe Masahiro as the Roju knew very well that Japan was powerless to resist against the Great Powers as he had acquainted with the terrifying news that how the Chinese Qing Dynasty (清朝) was utterly defeated by the Anglo-French army and forced to sign the unequal treaty humilitatingly. Hoping to avoid such disaster repeated on Japan, Masayoshi actively negotiated with Harris and consented the US terms. Afterward, he requested Emperor Komei (孝明天皇) for issuing a decree (敕許, the gesture of permission).

However, Emperor Komei was a staunch joi supporter and stubbornly refused the ratification, while a great number of court aristocrats berated the Shogunate for bowing to “barbarians” ; the imperial court and the Shogunate were unable to reach the mutual agreement, both sides were in deadlock. As a result, the Emperor and the court aristocrats’ influence were further enhanced, no longer the ornament used for political tools without any real power in their grasp. In addition, the two shinpan daimyos (親藩大名), the Lord of the Owari Domain (尾張藩) Tokugawa Yoshikatsu (徳川慶勝) and the former Lord of the Mito Domain (水戶藩) Tokuagwa Nariaki (徳川斉昭) openly supported the Emperor’s decision for denying a decree, challenged and obstructed the Shogunate’s decision of signing the treaty. Consequently Hotta Masayoshi dared not to sign the treaty with US without the Emperor’s permission. The Shogunate’s embarrassing hesitation in panic once again dealed a crippling blow to its prestige.

5. The portrait of Emperor Komei.jpg
The portrait of Emperor Komei

On the other hand, the very ill Tokugawa Iesada had neither an heir nor the capability to rule, triggered the Shogun Succession Issue (将軍継嗣問題) — the confrontation between the Nanki Faction (南紀派) and the Hitotsubashi Faction (一橋派) ; the former supported the Lord of the Kishu Domain (紀州藩) Tokugawa Yoshitomi (徳川慶福), the latter espoused the leader of the Hitotsubashi-Tokugawa Clan (一橋德川家) Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu (一橋慶喜). Such factional strife was not only embroiled with the opposition between kaikoku and soi, but also the arena of competition for various daimyos to climb higher in the game of throne : in cite, the Lord of the Satsuma Domain (薩摩藩) Shimazu Nariakira (島津斉彬) and Hotta Masayoshi supported Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu who stand for kaikoku, while Tokuagwa Nariaki inclined on Tokugawa Yoshitomi who contended soi.

The Shogunate’s rule was gravely challenged by all the aforementioned ferocious struggle and confrontation as well as the interference and critique from the daimyos and the Emperor.

<--- click here to read the second part of the story
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