The Fall of Ezo, Japan’s “Samurai Democracy”

The Fall of Ezo, Japan’s “Samurai Democracy”

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Samurai on horses
How Japan's samurai resistance fell to the pressure of history - and how its leader went from hatred traitor to respected leader.

Earlier, I told the story of the Republic of Ezo – how a group of samurai, led by naval genius Enomoto Takeaki, had headed northward after their defeat in the Boshin War. Their intent was to settle on the remote island of Hokkaido and found a new samurai republic – a government, it turned out, that had some of the hallmarks of a fledgling democracy.

The story of Enomoto’s Republic of Ezo is not a happy one – at least not for Enomoto and those still loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Cut off from supplies from the mainland and buffeted by foes at every turn, Enomoto’s resistance was truly a lost cause. But it was one he remained loyal to until the bitter end.

Consolidating a Republic

With the assignment of a number of other posts, Enomoto’s government was now in place. Soon they had been recognized by Britain and France as the rightful ruler of Ezo. Troops from France, led by Jules Brunet, assisted his fledgling military in modern tactics and training. Jules insisted to the American council in Hakodate, Elisha Rice, that Ezo could repel any mainland Japanese forces that might attack the young country he was helping to build.

Still, Enomoto wished to maintain peace and even a connection to the mainland if possible. He requested that the Meiji send a Tokugawa family member to Ezo to be their new leader, but the Meiji refused, just as they had refused the former shogun himself when he had made a similar request.

All the while Enomoto was in talks with foreign governments, hoping to receive assistance for his new nation against the Meiji. He even ceded some Ezo land to Germany as a 99-year concession.

The situation on the ground remained perilous. The Japanese in Ezo had previously received all their rice from domains further south, and with shipments from the Honshu mainland cut off, Enomoto struggled to find food for his people. To alleviate this, he went about trying to develop Ezo agriculture and began attempting to make connection with the local Ainu.


Enomoto’s government made an impression on the foreign dignitaries who lived through its reign. Consul Rice later said that, compared to the Matsumae/Tokugawa government that proceeded it or indeed the Meiji government that followed it, Enomoto’s Republic of Ezo was more “liberal and enlightened.” British Journalist Richard Hughes later praised Enomoto’s project as “the first experiment in republican government in the Far East.”

The rejection by the imperial forces of any recognition or settlement with Enomoto’s government caused unease – an attack from the south seemed imminent. As the foreigners of Hakodate grew more nervous regarding the situation, they sent word to their fellow countrymen in Tokyo, and were soon joined by various foreign ships around Hakodate. Most of the foreigners, include Rice and his family, fled to these ships to wait out the situation. Meanwhile Enomoto’s government continued to reinforce his holdings.

The New Navy of Imperial Japan

The Kaiyo Maru
A photo of the Kaiyo Maru (開陽丸), the great ship that the Ezo rebels lost in the Boshin War. (Picture: Wikipedia)

The Ezo rebels had lost their powerful flagship, the Kaiyo Maru. The Meiji forces may have regretted losing such a powerful ship to Enomoto’s ragtag band of rebels in the first place. But soon they had managed to get ahold of a powerful ship of their own: the formidable ironclad Kotetsu.

Purchased from the Americans, who had decided to recognize the Meiji government in newly-renamed Tokyo over the Ezo loyalist government farther north, the Kotetsu had originally gone by another name – the Stonewall Jackson. Indeed, she had been a ship of another rebel navy, belonging first to the Confederacy, though she arrived to North America too late to be of real assistance to the CSA. Falling into the hands of the United States at war’s end, she was offered up to the Tokugawa government, who happily bought her.

The Stonewall Jackson might have been an important ship in Enomoto’s arsenal if not for another trick of historical timing, as the warship arrived in Japan just as the Boshin War broke out. The US refused to hand over the Stonewall Jackson nor any other military material to either Japanese force, until they could perceive which side of the civil war deserved US support.

Finally, the US decided to back the Meiji imperialists on February 1869, and the ironclad entered service with the Meiji imperial navy. Taking her new name of Kotetsu (甲鉄, “Ironclad”), the ship was finally in the hands of a military with the means to use her. With Kaiyo Maru sitting at the bottom of the seas off Esashi, the Ezo navy had lost their greatest ship – and now the Meiji had gained their own.

Imperial leadership in Tokyo tried convincing the former Tokugawa leaders in Tokyo to implore the rebels who had captured Ezo in their name to surrender. But the new head of the Tokugawa family, still a very young boy, did not hold enough clout to convince Enomoto to halt his operations.

The imperial government had waited long enough. With the mighty Kotetsu now in their hands, they assembled what became the first iteration of what would one day be feared worldwide as the IJN – the Imperial Japanese Navy. On March 9th, 1869, eight imperial ships filled with seven thousand soldiers and with the Kotetsu leading the way steamed out of Yokohama Harbor and headed north. Their intention: to destroy the nascent Republic of Ezo.

A Daring Attempt at Salvation

Hoping to halt the oncoming assault, Enomoto’s navy engaged in a daring, doomed surprise attack. As the Imperial Navy lay in port in Miyako Bay in modern Iwate Prefecture, the rebels saw a risky but potentially game-changing chance to make up for the loss of their flagship, the Kaiyo Maru. If the newfangled ironclad Kotetsu could be boarded and stolen for the Ezo navy, the balance of power could be shifted almost instantaneously towards the rebels.

Three warships were dispatched from Hakodate, but ill weather meant that only new flagship Kaiten managed to arrive at the bay in time. Flying an American flag, the ship managed to approach the Kotetsu, raising the black-and-white banner of the former Shogunate only moments before ramming the imperial ironclad. Their attempt at surprise had been a success.

Samurai began leaping from the deck of the Kaiten onto the Kotetsu, while their warship fired on the other ships at harbor, dealing damage to three other warships. Shinsengumi commander Toshizo Hijikata was among the daring boarding party. They might have even carried the day, but for the Gatling guns equipped on the Kotetsu. The guns made quick work of the attacking warriors on deck, mowing down samurai after samurai. French officer Henri Nicole took two bullets.

Their numbers decimated, the Kaiten extricated itself from the Kotetsu and retreated out of the bay. A slower Ezo ship, delayed by the weather and only arriving to the battle as the Kaiten was fleeing, was unable to escape the pursuing Imperial Navy ships. Grounding their ship on Miyako Bay, the samurai onboard fled into the wilderness, only to be captured and imprisoned by the imperial forces some days later. The Battle of Miyako Bay had been disaster for the young Ezo navy.

The End Draws Near

Matsumae Castle
The Matsumae Castle (松前城) in modern times. (Picture: 合同会社トレビス / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Two weeks later, the Imperial forces arrived to Ezo. The samurai of the republic prepared for a last, desperate defense of their new domain.

On April 9th,1869, imperial forces lead by future Japanese prime minister Kiyotaka Kuroda landed on the island, splitting into three groups to take different overland routes towards Hakodate. Bloody battles erupted throughout the rebel-held areas of the Oshima peninsula. Matsumae Castle, taken only half a year earlier by Hijikata, was the first to fall to the imperial onslaught. Hijikata and his Shinsengumi remnant forces engaged numerically superior enemy encampments in Futamata, fighting for 16 hours before retreated under heavy losses. But the Shinsengumi leader managed to attack another imperial army group, turning them to flight, before himself retreating with his forces back towards Hakodate.

As the imperial troops reached the Ezo capital they were assisted by the imperial navy at sea, which bombarded rebel fortifications. The Ezo navy fared poorly – although they managed to sink one Imperial warship with 70 men onboard, the Kaiten ended up grounded in Aomori, where its crew lit it aflame to prevent it being captured by their enemies. Enomoto, once-proud Tokugawa admiral, had lost his fleet.

The defense of the island was not going well. Back in Hakodate, Hijikata, loyalist to the Tokugawa till the bloody end, saw his death approaching. Before going out on one last defensive sortie, he wrote this death poem:


“Though my body may decay on the island of Ezo, my spirit guards my lord in the East.”

Six days later, on June 16th, 1869, Hijikata, last leader of renown of the famous Tokugawa bodyguard Shinsengumi unit, was killed in action as he rode on horseback to defend Hakodate. A bullet had shattered his back.

Seeing impending defeat, Jules Brunet boarded a French cruiser in Hakodate Bay and escaped back to France, finally abandoning the Japanese troops he had helped train and for whom he had even left his military post. Other of his French compatriots were captured by the advancing imperial army and put into Japanese prisons, their futures uncertain.

The city completely surrounded and their forces routed at every turn, the samurai rebels fled to the few zones of defense remaining them. Perhaps a thousand of the remaining rebel troops took refuge in the Goryokaku fort along with the heads of the Ezo government. The powerful ramparts of the massive star-shaped fort managed to hold out, and for some time Enomoto may have considered acting as so many losing samurai before him, fighting to the last man or committing ritual suicide before being captured.

But perhaps the surprising degree of clemency that the Imperial forces had shown the defeated lords farther south changed his mind. Perhaps it was his modern way of thinking; perhaps Enomoto saw a future beyond his lost experimental government in Ezo. After a week of siege, Enomoto surrendered Goryokaku to the imperial forces.

At the end of the battle, as much as one-third of the city of Hakodate lay in ruins. Many regular citizens of the city had had their homes destroyed or belongings pillaged, and some had even lost their lives in the crossfire. Over a thousand samurai defenders lay slain, their bodies littering the streets where they had fallen. The Republic of Ezo’s brief, half-year existence had come to an end, and with it, the last Tokugawa-loyalist resistance had been snuffed out. The Boshin War was over, and soon the very class-system of the samurai would be abolished. The imperial Meiji Era of Japan had begun.

Ezo No More

Hijikata Toshizo
A statue of Hijikata Toshizo. (Picture: skipinof / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

As the dust settled amongst the shattered houses and buildings of Hakodate, the imperial forces began to remove their dead who lay strewn across the battlefield. These honored fallen of the Meiji Restoration, the last to die fighting against those supporting the Shogun, would receive proper Buddhist burials. The many dead among Enomoto’s troops, however, were to be left as they lay; the imperialist victors had ordered that no ceremonies were to be performed over the dead loyalists. But flouting these orders, a local Hakodate labor contractor and a Buddhist priest arranged for the movement of the bodies to a Hakodate temple. In time, their bodies were moved again, interred near Mt. Hakodate, and a memorial to the doomed samurai was raised there.

For those like Toshizō Hijikata who perished in this last death rattle of the Tokugawa age, this was the end. Hijikata serves as a good example of those for whom an “era without swords” would not be one worth living. For many of those who survived, however, it proved to be something a new beginning, the brief time they spent creating, defending, and losing the Republic of Ezo just a small chapter in their lives.

Keisuke Otori, Ezo’s failed minister of the army, spent some time in prison in Tokyo as punishment for his involvement in the rebel government, but was released within four years. A reformer whom the new government valued for his knowledge of foreign culture, he had been welcomed back into a seat of power, serving as dual ambassador to Qing-era China and Joseon-era Korea. Despite military failure at Ezo, he ended up playing a major role in the First Sino-Japanese War.

Jules Brunet returned to France, where he was punished for leaving his post with a six-month suspension. He was soon reinstated into his post in the army, however, and went on to fight in the Franco-Prussian War and other European conflicts. He continued to rise in the ranks, and went on to have what has been described as a brilliant military career. The Japanese government had initially called for the French to punish him for his involvement in the civil war, but in the coming years a friend among the new Meiji elite saw that Jules’ image was rehabilitated. He was even invited to the Japanese embassy in Paris and awarded the Order of the Rising Sun. Well over a hundred years later, Jules’ story would be adapted, though not without significant artistic liberties, into that of Nathan Algren, protagonist of the successful American film The Last Samurai.

Takeaki Enomoto, who had so brazenly fled Imperial-held Edo with his eight navy warships, had set up a rival government, and who had singlehanded elongated the Boshin War for months, was jailed for high treason. In times previous, someone like Enomoto might have reasonably expected to receive the death penalty by hanging or firing squad, and yet this did not happen. Rather, Enomoto was granted clemency – Kiyotaka Kuroda, who had lead the invasion of the Republic of Ezo, had pushed for Enomoto’s release. Throughout all he had done, Enomoto had continued to espouse loyalty to his country. He had stayed true to his liege, the Tokugawa Shogun, but had continually insisted upon his duty to the emperor in Kyoto. Even the founding of his so-called “Republic” had been couched in language regarding the development of what would become a northern bulwark to defend the Emperor’s land. In times such as those, did not such a man deserve mercy? And did the young Meiji emperor and his country not need such a man, a worldly modernizer of conviction and vision, especially in such heady days?

A Way Forward

In 1872, Enomoto was pardoned of his crimes and released from prison. Soon he was employed by his former enemy, Kuroda, in the latter’s Kaitakushi, the development agency that was overseeing the settlement and expansion of Hokkaido – the new name the imperial government had given to the very island of Ezo that Enomoto had so briefly ruled three years earlier. In this way, he had a hand in the future of that land even after his defeat. And two years later, Enomoto was made a vice-admiral of the very Imperial Navy that had destroyed his warships in Hakodate Bay.

Enomoto managed to do what proved impossible for most former Tokugawa loyalists: he became one of the leading men of the new Meiji world. In 1875 he was sent to Russia to negotiate the signing of the breakthrough Treaty of St. Petersburg, which finalized Hokkaido’s borders vis-à-vis Russia. Five years later, and Enomoto had become Navy Minister, remarkably meaning he had managed to become the central figure of the navies of both the late Tokugawa regime and the early Meiji. He held multiple other posts at the highest level of government throughout his life, and was made a viscount under the new peerage system and even a member of the emperor’s privy council.

Enomoto’s view towards the world outside the sea borders of Japan and his eye towards modernization saw him becoming a leading figure in the push towards sending impoverished Japanese immigrate to South and Central America and towards expanding Japanese territory by gaining colonies in the south seas. It was his ideas that would eventually blossom into the Southern Strategy, which only years after his death would result in Japan taking multiple Micronesian islands from Germany during WWI as colonies. For good or ill, Admiral Enomoto’s ideas continued to have an outsized impact on Japan and its neighbors well into the 20th century.

Takeaki Enomoto passed away at the age of 72 in 1908, nearly four decades after he had surrendered Gyokroraku Fort to the forces to his imperial adversaries. His so-called “samurai democracy,” the Republic of Ezo for which so many fought and died, has since become an historical footnote, a lost cause “what-if” story that fascinates those who chance upon it. Though Enomoto’s legacy extends far beyond the realm of his erstwhile northern domain, the remnants of his Republic remain in Hakodate, if one knows where to look; in the recently re-built governmental headquarters inside the Gyokroraku Fort, at the statue of Toshizō Hijikata that sits on the very spot where the great samurai was felled and where modern devotees continue to place flowers, and at the various other memorials that remain. Even the Kaiyo Maru, lost flagship of the Republic, has been salvaged and raised from the seafloor. A replica of great wooden steamship now sits off Esashi, near where the original was sunk, serving as a floating museum.

As for Takeaki Enomoto, a statue of him stands in a Shinto shrine in the nearby port city of Otaru, a city Enomoto himself helped develop during the course of his tenure in the Kaitakushi. Bedecked in his naval uniform, in one hand he bears a compass, and in the other a Dutch copy of a tome of naval laws he had brought back to Japan from his time abroad. His eyes are upturned, gazing into the distance. He is not peering, we can presume, into the past, towards his failed separatist government or the lost cause of his liege lords, the Tokugawa. Rather, he appears to be starting into the future – one that he helped create.


Irish, Ann B. Hokkaido: A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan’s Northern Island. McFarland, 2009. Print.

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Harvard University Press, 15 Oct 2002

De Hubner, M. Le Baron. A Ramble Round the World, 1871, vol. 2. London: Macmillan, 1874.

Peattie, Mark R. Nan’yo: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese in Micronesia, 1885-1945. University of Hawaii Press, 1992

Drye, Paul. The Republic of Ezo. Passing Strangeness, January 28, 2009, . Accessed Febuary 15th, 2019.

榎本武揚. フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. Accessed Febuary 15th, 2019.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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