Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Last Shogun

I just knocked of another book. The Last Shogun by Ryotaro Shiba. It is about the life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun in Japanese history. I enjoyed it. It really showed that impossible situation that he was in trying to save the Tokugawa Shogunate and why he eventually abdicated.

I have conflicted feelings about Yoshinobu. On one hand I understand why he chose not to fight aggresively against his enemies. His situation was bleak and he wanted to avoid civil war and ultimatelty he did not want to be branded as an imperial enemy.

On the other hand, I also feel that he gave up too easily and the final days of his rule are dominated by what would seem to be cowardice. His loyal followers were desparate to fight back to preserve the shogunate but what did Yoshinobu do? He snuck out the back of Osaka Castle abandoning his loyal samurai who were prepared to fight to the death for him. He fled back to Edo (Tokyo).

Yoshinobu's enemies, mainly the domains of Satsuma and Choshu, knew this about him. They knew that he was terrified of being branded as a traitor to the Emperor. They knew that he did not what to be placed in history alongside the Ashikaga shoguns of the 14th century who overthrew the Emperor Go-Daigo and were forever branded as traitors to the emperor.

Satsuma and Choshu were bitter enemies of the Tokugawa shogunate ever since their defeat in 1600 at the famous battle of Sekigahara. They held that grudge for over 250 years. Finally they had their chance. They took control of the imperial court and therefore the new young emperor Meiji. They moved to have the court declare the Tokugawa and Yoshinobu as enemies of the emperor.

The final deciding battle between the Tokugawa forces and the armies of Satsuma and Choshu occurred at Tobu-Fushimi just south of Kyoto in 1868. The Tokugawa forces suffered a bitter defeat. But Yoshinobu's loyal followers still felt they could counterattack and be victorious. They were seething for battle. And they might have been right. The Tokugawa army still had thousands of soldiers in reserve in Osaka and vastly outnumbered the Satsuma and Choshu forces.

But Yoshinobu tricked his followers. He told them that, "Yes!" "We will fight". However, he snuck out the back of Osaka Castle and fled home to Edo. Without their leader, the Tokugawa forces disintigrated. When Yoshinobu finally arived in Edo, he was met by Katsu Kaishu, the former Tokugawa commissioner of warships. Yoshinobu, with tears in his eyes, said to Katsu "They carried the brocade banner."

The brocade banner. The banner of the Imperial House. It was carried by the armies of Satsuma and Choshu at the battle of Tobu-Fushimi announcing that they were now the Imperial Army. The first time in 800 years that the brocade banner was carried by an Army.

Yoshinobu's biggest fear had happened. He was a traitor to the Emperor. This he could not accept so he fled. He fled to Edo where he eventually agreed to a complete surrender to the Imperial forces. Yoshinobu was eventually pardoned by the new Imperial government. Many give credit to Yoshinobu for not dragging out a bloody civil war which would have weakened Japan and probably led to subjugation by the Western Powers.

Yoshinobu lived out a quiet life from that point. He died in 1913, the last Shogun of Japan.


  1. Anonymous7:28 AM

    Jon, u r so passionate abt the Shogun history ! It would be such a treat to listen to u while having a cuppa. Wished we were living in the same neighbourhood

  2. Thank you Melanie and Dutchie. I like history in general. Japan has one of the most amazing histories of any nation. The samurai, the geisha, the shogun, Edo period, historic temples and shrines, etc. That is one reason why I think so many foreigners living in Japan find it so interesting.

  3. Sounds like a great book. Have you read the book "The Last Samurai" about Saigo Takamori? Yeah, the history here is pretty amazing.

  4. Thomas, funny you say that. I am reading it right now. Almost finished.

  5. Anonymous7:12 AM

    The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise in the leading role is fiction n not to be confused with the book u r reading now right ? I certainly hope it's the case bec the idea of a Caucasian in the class of a Samurai is well, ridiculous !

  6. That is correct Dutchie. The book I am reading now, The Last Samurai, is based on the life of a famouse samurai during the Meiji Restoration named Saigo Takamori. He was one of the leaders in overthrowing the Shogunate. Later, he started his own rebellion to try and preserve the honor and culture of the samurai. His defeat was essentially the last stand of the samurai who disappeared after that.

    The movie is based on this time period however.

  7. Anonymous7:31 PM

    The Last Shogun was a good book...Check out "Remembering Aizu" by Goro Shiba...It's a personal account of the Boshin War and it's aftermath for the Aizu Clan...Aizu was loyal to the Tokugawa Shogun and one of the last holdouts against the new Meiji government, who decided to make an example of them...Shiba was child during the battle and he gives a very interesting view of the losing side that has not been written about much in Japan, let alone English...Personal accounts like this always gives history a more interesting view...Highly recommend it!

  8. Anonymous8:00 PM

    Just wanted to add that "Remembering Aizu" gives a very different look at Saigo Takamori, subject of the book "Last Samurai" and the Meiji forces...I've often read that feelings are still run strong in Aizu against Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa for the many atrocities that they inflicted during the restoration...I read as recent as 2006, the mayor of what would have been he capital of Tosa sent a letter to the governor of Aizu requesting that they put the past aside a try to get along, a heated debate followed and it became clear Aizu would still not forgive...One of the points repeatedly brought up was the fact the Aizu dead were left for months on the battleground, as were townsfolk to rot, not allowed to be buried by the Meiji forces, many refer to the Meiji forces as the "Southwest Army", since they regard them more of Satsuma.Choshu,Tosa army, then an Imperial Army...Love learning about the Meiji Restoration era...It's an interesting time in Japans history.

  9. Thank you annonymous. I will definately add your book recommendation to my book list. I definately know about the Aizu clan from my reading. They were a fierce lyal supporter of the Tokugawa Shoguns. I also visited Aizu Wakamatsu castle in 2006. Of course the castle is a remake as the original was destroyed during or shortly after the Boshin War.