The samurai were some of the most awe-inspiring warriors the world has ever known. Fiercely loyal to their lords, they would rather kill themselves than face dishonor. These men were highly trained, battle-hardened career soldiers who would fight to the death in an instant.
Or at least they were during the Sengoku Period (1467-1603). By the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), a lot of them had become less militaristic and more bureaucratic. But they were still a powerful and formidable social class, so what force could take down these aristocratic warriors who had ruled Japan for over 700 years?
The decline and fall of the samurai came slowly, and as the result of many smaller moves that transitioned feudal Japan into a more modern country. Gradual modernization, and major events like the Satsuma Rebellion and the establishment of Meiji Japan, ultimately signaled the last days of warrior culture and the end of the samurai way of life.
Discontent Spread Through The Samurai
During the 19th century, many samurai in the middle and lower class grew increasingly unhappy with the structure of Japanese society. At this point, the samurai were the ruling class in Japan. The defining characteristic of the class was that they were career military men, though in function they performed many ordinary tasks from bureaucratic jobs to even farming at times.
The Tokugawa clan was in charge, and they ruled from Edo (modern Tokyo) as the Tokugawa Shogunate. Having ruled since 1603, the Shogun was the head of the Tokugawa family who held the position of supreme military ruler. Edicts were passed from the Shogun to the local daimyō (clan heads) who ruled over their territories like governors. Individual samurai were paid via stipends, determined by the military hierarchy.
Status was determined by heredity and rank, and there was a massive difference in both wealth and status between the highest class samurai and the lowest ones. Middle-class samurai increasingly lacked upward mobility. While lower class samurai did have some upward mobility, they were unable to maintain it from generation to generation.
The End Of Isolationism Split Japan
When Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1853, it set off a series of events that would forever change Japan. Perry was sent by President Millard Fillmore to open up trade between Japan and the United States. While Perry's mission was a peaceful one, the show of naval force was not taken lightly.
A split grew in Japan between those who wanted to maintain isolationism and those who wanted to welcome the foreigners. At the time, the Tokugawa Shogunate was in power and had been since 1603. The emperor still existed, but largely just as a figurehead.
The Shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi, ultimately decided in favor of opening up the ports, but Emperor Kōmei objected to the treaty. The Shogunate ignored the emperor's wishes and opened up the ports anyway. Then in 1863, Emperor Kōmei broke with the tradition of deferring to the Shogun, issuing an order to "expel the barbarians."
The Chōshū Clan Rebelled
Ignoring the emperor's wishes regarding isolationism was not enough in itself to end the Tokugawa Shogunate, but it did raise the ire of many samurai, particularly in the Chōshū clan. The clan was located at the southwestern end of Honshu, relatively far from the power of the Shogun in Edo. In the Chōshū clan, power had fallen to samurai who were dissatisfied with the Shogunate and sought its end. They were anti-foreigner, and thus pro-emperor.
Military units formed in the Chōshū clan with the intent of driving off foreign invaders. The soldiers were recruited from the fringes of the samurai class, and this weakened the traditional samurai hierarchy within the clan.
The clan's dissatisfaction came to a head in 1864. In addition to fighting against foreigners as an effort to "expel the barbarians," the Chōshū raised the Hamaguri Gate Rebellion. Samurai from the clan tried to take over Kyoto (the seat of the emperor) and restore the emperor's political authority, but were repelled by Shogunate forces. In retaliation for the attack, the Shogunate launched an expedition against the Chōshū.
The Satsuma Clan Defected
The Satsuma clan ultimately allied with the Chōshū against the Shogunate. The clan ruled Kyushu, across the sea from the Chōshū and equally far from the Shogun's power in Edo. Widespread support for the emperor did exist, but unlike in the Chōshū there were less radical elements in the Satsuma clan.
As a result, the loyalist movement in the Satsuma clan became more of an effort to restore the Emperor's authority via political means. By 1866, the loyalist elements had gained control of the Satsuma clan, and they joined the Chōshū in an anti-Shogunate alliance.
That year, the two clans united to defeat a second Shogun expedition against the Chōshū. This resulted in significant loss of authority for the Shogunate. Shortly thereafter, however, both Emperor Kōmei and Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi died. They were replaced by Emperor Meiji and Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu.
The Meiji Restoration Ended The Shogunate
In 1867, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu officially resigned, in effect abdicating power to the emperor. This action was part of an effort to keep the Tokugawa clan in a position of importance in the new government.
Then on January 3, 1868, a coup d’état occurred in Kyoto and the emperor was restored as the supreme authority in Japan in an event called the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji government continued to work with the Tokugawa government during this transition. This upset hard-liners in the Chōshū and Satsuma clans, who convinced the Meiji assembly to abolish the title of Shogun and confiscate Yoshinobu's lands.
The Five Articles Oath Signaled A New Era For Japan
The Five Articles Oath was the charter document of the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The short document marked a drastic pivot in imperial politics, most notably indicating an openness to the international community. This is important, considering one of the initial points of division between the emperor and the Shogunate was the emperor's resistance to foreign influence.
The document also stressed that "the common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall each be allowed to pursue his own calling so that there may be no discontent." In other words, the walls between the social classes were crumbling.
Samurai Fought Samurai In The Boshin War
The Boshin War was fought between two samurai factions. Former Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu was incensed that he and his clan were being cut out of the new Meiji government, and essentially decided to renege on his abdication. This set up a confrontation between the Meiji Imperial forces - including the Satsuma and Chōshū - and the forces loyal to the Shogunate.
The war began January 3, 1868, with the coup d’état in Kyoto. Yoshinobu withdrew south to Osaka. Then on January 27, the Shogun's forces rode out to meet the Satsuma-Chōshū imperial alliance at the southern entrance to Kyoto. The Shogunate forces were partially trained by French military advisers and outnumbered the imperial troops three to one. Despite this, the imperial troops were well equipped with modern weaponry including Armstrong howitzers, Minié rifles, and a few Gatling guns.
After a day of inconclusive fighting, the Satsuma-Chōshū forces were given an imperial flag, officially being recognized by the emperor as the imperial army. This caused other prominent clans to defect. Demoralized, Yoshinobu fled from Osaka to Edo, and the Shogunate forces retreated.
Now that the imperial forces had gained the advantage, they were able to capture Edo. At that point, Yoshinobu was placed under house arrest. A northern alliance continued to fight on in the name of the Shogunate but was eventually defeated at the final battle of Battle of Hakodate in Hokkaido.
The End Of Feudalism Stripped Samurai Of Power
The end of the Shogunate also marked the end of feudalism in Japan and a massive restructuring of government. During the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor adopted a number of Western concepts, such as a constitutional government. By the end of the Boshin War, efforts were underway to completely eliminate the caste system that had been in place since the 12th century and replace it with a centralized imperial government.
By the end of the Boshin War, the imperial council primarily consisted of samurai from the Satsuma and Chōshū clans, with some representation from other prominent clans. By 1869, the daimyō had been removed from power, and by 1871, the former domains had been turned into prefectures.
The abolition of the domains was no small matter, and the plan required the backing of many prominent samurai. Still, this move generated some friction between the new imperial government and some in the samurai class. Tensions escalated as the emperor declared all classes equal (an idea imported from the newly arrived Westerners), and as the samurai class was systematically stripped of privilege and status.