Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Prophetic Ezo Republic

The Republic of Ezo was a short-lived state established in 1869 by former Tokugawa retainers in what is now known as Hokkaido, the large but sparsely populated northernmost island in modern Japan. Ezo is notable for being the first government to attempt to institute democracy in Japan.

                                              Ezo  Government Hall

After the defeat of the forces of the Tokugawa shogunate in the Boshin War (1869) of the Meiji Restoration, a part of the former shogun's navy led by Admiral Enomoto Takeaki fled to the northern island of Ezo (now known as Hokkaido), together with several thousand soldiers and a handful of French military advisors and their leader, Jules Brunet. Enomoto made a last effort to petition the Imperial Court to be allowed to develop Hokkaido and maintain the traditions of the samurai unmolested, but his request was denied.

Establishment of the Republic

On January 27, 1869 (New Style), the independent "Republic of Ezo" was proclaimed, with a government organization based on that of the United States, with Enomoto elected as its first president (sosai). Elections were based on universal suffrage among the samurai class. This was the first election ever held in Japan, where a feudal structure under an Emperor with military warlords was the norm. Through Hakodate Magistrate Nagai Naoyuki, attempts were made to reach out to foreign legations present in Hakodate in order to obtain international diplomatic recognition.

                                           Ezo Government Leaders

The treasury included 180,000 gold ryō coins Enomoto retrieved from Osaka Castle following Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu's precipitous departure after the Battle of Toba–Fushimi in early 1868.

During the winter of 1868–1869, the defenses around the southern peninsula of Hakodate were enhanced, with the star fortress of Goryōkaku at the center. The troops were organized under a joint Franco-Japanese command, commander-in-chief Ōtori Keisuke being seconded by the French captain Jules Brunet, and divided into four brigades, each commanded by a French officer (Fortant, Marlin, Cazeneuve and Bouffier). The brigades were themselves divided into two half-brigades each, under Japanese command.

Brunet demanded (and received) a signed personal pledge of loyalty from all officers and insisted they assimilate French ideas. An anonymous French officer wrote that Brunet had taken charge of everything:

... customs, municipality, fortifications, army; everything passed through his hands. The simple Japanese are puppets whom he manipulates with great skill ... he has carried out a veritable 1789 French Revolution in this brave new Japan; the election of leaders and the determination of rank by merit and not birth — these are fabulous things for this country, and he has been able to do things very well, considering the seriousness of the situation …

Defeat by Imperial Forces

Imperial troops soon consolidated their hold on mainland Japan, and in April 1869 dispatched a fleet and an infantry force of 7,000 men to Hokkaido. The Imperial forces progressed swiftly, won the Battle of Hakodate, and surrounded the fortress at Goryōkaku. Enomoto surrendered on June 26, 1869, turning the Goryōkaku over to Satsuma staff officer Kuroda Kiyotaka on June 27, 1869. Kuroda is said to have been deeply impressed by Enomoto's dedication in combat, and is remembered as the one who spared the latter's life from execution. On September 20 of the same year, the island was given its present name, Hokkaido ("Northern Sea District.”)

From [Ezo President] Enomoto's perspective, the efforts to establish a government in Hokkaido were not only for the sake of providing for the Tokugawa clan on the one hand (burdened as it was with an enormous amount of redundant retainers and employees), but also as developing Ezo for the sake of defense for the rest of Japan, something which had been a topic of concern for some time. Recent scholarship has noted that for centuries, Ezo was not considered a part of Japan the same way that the other "main" islands of modern Japan were, so the creation of the Ezo Republic, in a contemporary mindset, was not an act of secession, but rather of "bringing" the politico-social entity of "Japan" formally to Ezo.

Enomoto was sentenced to a brief prison sentence, but was freed in 1872 and accepted a post as a government official in the newly renamed Hokkaido Land Agency. He later became ambassador to Russia, and held several ministerial positions in the Meiji Government.

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