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  • Writer's pictureEd & Phil

S03 E06 Samurai Republic of Ezo transcript

Here's the transcript to our podcast episode on the Samurai Republic of Ezo.

Ed: This time on Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore, we’re heading to nineteenth century Japan to cover the Samurai Republic of Ezo. Japan’s first ever democracy...

Phil: In nineteenth century Japan? That’s amazingly progressive.

Ed: Yes, anyone could vote for their preferred candidate.

Phil: Wow!

Ed: Just as long as they were a samurai voting for a samurai to uphold samurai ideals.

Phil: Less progressive. What were these samurai ideals?

Ed: Warfare, sword ownership, committing suicide rather than being very slightly embarrassed. It’s a mixed bag. Seriously though, in this episode, I’d really like to get under the skin of the real history and not focus too much on lazy Japanese samurai stereotypes.

Phil: Edward, I think you know me well enough by now to trust things to my excellent editorial judgement. In fact, I’ve prepared a special show ident.

Ed: Let’s hear it.

Phil plays a clip of clashing swords, Japanese flutes and a voice saying “Samurai Republic of Ezo.” It’s every tired cliche in the book.

Ed: Yeah, that’s fine.


Where was the Republic of Ezo?

On the island of Hokkaido, Japan. Back in 1869, it was known as Ezo - and not technically part of Japan yet. So it was a handy place for the remnants of the Tokugawa military to flee after losing the Boshin War.

The Tokugawa what now?

The Tokugawa. They were the supporters of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had run Japan for over 250 years. The Shogun was like the head of the army. Under the Shogunate, this military figure had ruled Japan, first as a dictator and then as a quasi-emperor.

But why did Japan need a Shogun when it already had an emperor?

It’s a curious thing. The figure of the Shogun was said to be ruling on the emperor’s behalf but was still supposedly loyal to the emperor and recognised the emperor, at least outwardly, as his superior. But that didn’t mean the emperor could come in and tell the shogun what to do. In fact no emperor was foolish enought to try and do that.

I guess it’s a bit like how the British parliament today goes to the monarch to assent to the laws they’re passing. But we all know that the monarch can’t actually go round vetoing things or actually try to get involved with the business of running things. It’s just pageantry.

Phil: Exactly. The monarch is there to be our figurehead and to prmote national unity and to hush up Prince Andrew’s latest sex scandals.

Anyway, that’s the way Japan had been for hundreds of years. This was until sides supporting the Shogun and sides supporting the Emperor fought each other in a civil war called the Boshun War. And in that war two things happened.

  1. The forces of the Shogun ultimately lost

  2. The last remaining Shogunate forces create a last stand on the island of Ezo, briefly forming the Republic of Ezo.

Right, so one side supported the Emperor and the others supported the Shogun and the Shogun side lost, right?

Not quite.


As we’ve said, the Shogun was technically on the side of the Emperor and often Shogunate forces flew the banner of the emperor during battles - which sometimes brought battles to a stalemate - since no one wanted to be attacking the Emperor’s standard.

So what were these two sides fighting?

Good question. Japanese history is huge and complex, and to explain this war we could probably go back hundreds or thousands of years.


Ed, I hope I speak for all of our listeners when I say that I think we don’t need a degree level understanding of this. Just enough to hold our own in a pub quiz.

Ok. To get a decent enough grasp of why this war happened, you only need to know two things:

  1. Japan was wary of foreign interference in japan, but the modern world wouldn’t take no for an answer.

  2. Japan was formed of lots of competing clans and factions.

Point 2 becomes important during the war and sort of explains why it’s so difficult to just say this was a pro Emperor vs a pro Shogun thing. Or this was a samurai vs everyone else thing. Because it was a lot of different things at different times.

Point 1 is important to understand where Japan was at and why European powers knocking at their door was perceived to be so threatening. Although, and let’s be fair, European powers knocking at anyone's door has never had a great track record historically.

What was Japan’s relationship with foreign powers?

It generally ranged from distrustful to non-existent. When the Japanese weren’t fretting about a Chinese invasion, they were being bothered by foreigners trying to convert them.

In 1549, Portuguese Catholics had started to arrive and bang on about Jesus. This was initially tolerated because, not being well versed on global affairs, they were initially reported as Indian mystics peddling the latest herbal remedy.

But when the Portuguese started insisting that the Japanese should start adopting Christian names and living Christian lifestyles…


You mean 1st century Hebrew?


Nah, 19th century Portuguese of course.


Oh yeah.

When these foreign barbarians started insisting that Japan, the pinnacle of all things, should change the way they were living, this ruffled many a paper fan.

And Japanese fears seemed to be confirmed when Christians in Japan went into full blown rebellion in 1637, leading the Shogun to say: “What the hell? Right. No more of that now.”

Not taking to the banter that is a full-blown rebellion, Christians were either persecuted or actually straightforwardly crucified - which I guess is the risk of basing a religion symbol on a method of gruesome torture. And Japan collectively decided that foreigners brought nothing but trouble, so the door was firmly slammed and Japan even put up keep out signs. And I’m not even joking. Some were written in French.

“Voulez vouz bugger oeuf.”

The only exception were the Dutch. Since they were useful merchants and they took the line, “Catholics are gonna Catholic” they were given special dispensation to set up a trading base on the Island of Ezo, out of the way of the Japanese mainland.

It was very much a “you lot go over there and keep out of the way” (or Richie quote from the party) although there are actually today 100s of words in Japanese which are Dutch in origin - so maybe the attempt to keep them at arm’s length wasn’t 100% successful.

In fact, when Japan was forced to play catch up and learn about the outside world, they called it “Dutch studies.”

But wait. Why did the Japanese have to learn about the outside world then?

Well, by the nineteenth century, Japan found it increasingly difficult to keep their doors closed because there’s only so many times you can say “not today, thank you” or “sorry, I don’t believe in Jesus” before nineteenth century industrial European powers start turning up in gunboats saying,

“Now, I really must insist. We want your yens and your golden Ryu coins. We simply won’t take no for an answer. Have you even tried opium? You might like it...”

But credit where credit’s due, the most important and threatening gunboat to roll up wasn’t European, but commanded by an American, one Commodore Matthew Perry.

“Could I BE any more hostile?”

Perry’s massive “black ships” were quite the terrifying site to the Japanese on shore, which they described as “veritable castles that moved freely on the water.” It was like the Japanese were being visited by aliens that were technologically hundreds of years ahead. And I don’t mean benign aliens like E.T. We’re talking about the Independence Day kind. And that fear of the foreigners was not totally unfounded.

When Matthew Perry rolled up into town, he carried with him a simple order: “Put an end to Japanese isolation.”

So no one said Japan was gonna be this way

Your nation’s industrial

And they keep feudal ways

It's like they're still stuck in another era

When it hasn't been their day, their week, their month

Or Chinese New Year, but

I'll be there for Ryus

(When the Shogun won’t trade)

I'll be there for Ryus

(And we’ll threaten a raid)

I'll be there for Ryus

('Cause our canons beat their blades.)

Perry demanded an audience with the Shogun himself and, while he waited, was quite amused when the Japanese erected a fake fortress made of black canvas to try and scare him off - not realising that the Americans had access to binoculars.

It’s funny because for the last few decades at least, we think of the Japanese as technologically ahead of the West, but back then, the sandal was on the other foot.

Oh, and just because the western powers seemed more advanced, this doesn’t mean that the Japanese saw them as anything more than barbarians. Just particularly dangerous barbarians to defend against.

And while some leading Japanese voices suggested schemes like sending suicidal samurai to sink their ships with handheld explosives or planting bamboo forests to defend their coastlines against naval bombardment, the Shogun felt he had no choice but to open ports and special trading rights to the western warships hoving into view from the likes of Britain, America and Russia.

But this did him no favours in many parts of the country where any capitulation to the West was seen as unforgivable. And the behaviour of westerners strutting about Japan, openly practising outlawed Christianity and looking down their noses at what they saw as a backward society didn’t help matters much.

Something was bound to light the powder keg. And in 1862, it did.

What did?

...I was coming to that.

When British trader Charles Lennox Richardson’s horse was blocked in the road by a procession of Satsuma clan samurai retainers, rather than waiting at the lights, Richardson famously said “I know how to deal with these people” and tried to force his way through the samurai.

Big mistake. Affronted by this foreign devil in a country where Samurai were always used to getting their own way, Richardson was killed, two of his party were wounded and a lady of the party had her hair cut off.

And the samurai saw themselves as totally justified in their actions - at a time where they had free rein to kill anyone who didn’t seem respectful enough or served them room temperature sushi. So Richardson’s high handedness was met with katanas.

But the problem for the Satsuma samurai was that Richardson was a British subject and, under the terms of various treaties, not subject to Japanese law. In summary, the Satsuma clan had done a boo boo.

The Shogun, dripping with sweat by this point, demanded that the Satsuma should pay the British reparations. But the Satsuma’s response was very much along the lines of the “rice balls to that” school of thought. And unfortunately for the Shogun, the Japanese Emperor Komei didn’t help matters by announcing:

“The subjugation of the hated foreigner is the greatest of the national tasks facing us.”

He then followed this with a decree of 1863, the Order to Expel Barbarians, announcing that all foreigners had 60 days to get off Japanese soil.

And when the artillery of Choshu started firing on foreign shipping, and foreign shipping started firing back, it looked like the shit had already made contact with the fan.

And later that year, the British did what the British did best at this time - shelled some stuff. They sent a flotilla to Kagoshima, the Satsuma capital, to metre out the kind of punishment that the Shogun couldn’t seem to muster. And since Kagoshima was made out of wood, it burst into flames.

Fortunately, the city had been evacuated, so loss of life was minimal, but as they steamed away, the British noted that a large number of samurai were wading out to meet them, angrily waving their swords in the air - calling upon them to come back and fight man to man.

After the smoke had cleared, all sides declared victory. The British thought that levelling the other fellow’s capital was definitely a win. But the Satsuma clan saw things differently. They had managed to kill some British sailors with some potshots from their coastal batteries and claimed that since no real sword fighting had taken place, they had won.

And while I can’t help smiling at the stubbornness of this, the Satsuma clan were in no way blind to what had happened. They knew that samurai were no match for battleships. If they were going to rid themselves of these pesky foreigners, they’d need comparable military hardware.

Jaws quote:

“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

In fact one of these knee-deep sword waving samurai grew up to be Admiral Togo, who was the first Japanese naval commander to defeat a European navy - when he whalloped a Russian fleet in 1905.

Incidentally Admiral Kuper, the British officer who had ordered the shelling of Kagoshima, was widely criticised by the international community but was declared a hero and knighted back in Britain.


Britain’s gonna Britain.

All this made things worse for the Shogun who was made to pay reparations and accede to further foreign demands.

Meanwhile at Kyoto, the Emperor’s home, troops and samurai were gathering - determined that the Shogun should be removed for his display of weakness.


Right, I’m up to speed now. The set up is supporters of the foreigner-tolerant Shogun vs supporters of the anti-foreigner emperor.




Woohoo. Top of the world ma!



I swear Ed. If you weren’t an old man, I’d punch you square in the giblets.


I feel your frustration, which is why that’s why we need to talk about…

Clans and factions

Because Japan had lots of family clans controlling different areas, it meant lots of ongoing rivalries. And while some clans immediately sided with the Shogun and others with the Emperor, even within those sides, there wasn’t two clear camps.

For example, among those who sided with the Emperor, some wanted Japan’s total isolation and a strict adherence to traditional ways. Still others wanted to modernise to take on outside forces. Some wanted the emperor in charge. Others just wanted the Shogun replaced with a better Shogun.

But things really kicked off when the Shogun turned up to Kyoto to ask the Emperor to tone down the decrees. And all that led to was predictable street fighting and killing among the factions.


For a nation that specialised in philosophy, discipline and artistry, they sure liked hacking each other to bits.


And those were the exact ingredients that led to the invention of sushi.

Anyway, during this fighting, some Choshu samurai were killed - leading the Choshu clan to pretty much march wholesale down to Kyoto. And it was when the Shogun gave them an ultimatum to go home that things really kicked off.

So the Choshu invaded Kyoto swords waving but were beaten back by superior numbers and declared public enemy number one. This led to an imperial army marching on Choshu to get revenge, joined by Satsuma clan samurai who wanted to settle old scores with their rivals.

And amongst this ruckus, samurai were being samurai. As Choshu loyalists were fleeing Kyoto in a boat, they were spotted by a Shogun supporter standing on the river bank. The Choshu samurai came ashore and asked who he was. The Shogun’s man, assuming he was about to be killed, was surprised when the choshu samurai turn and killed each other with the third man slitting his own throat. This as all because they were ashamed to have been spotted running away.


Would you guys stop killing yourself?

But even on their way to punish the Choshu, the Shogun’s faction were dismayed when the Satsuma clan instead struck an alliance with the Choshu.

See what I mean about confusing factions?

Buoyed by this, the Choshu clan declared they would restore the emperor to power and started buying modern weapons from the British - who were supposed to be neutral.

Perhaps in reaction to this, French military advisers joined the Shogun’s forces to try to upgrade their army. The Boshun War just got an extra layer of complexity by adding a European proxy war to the Ramen.

So when the Shogun’s forces had another go at the Choshu in 1866, they were a bit peeved to find a totally changed army. Yes, officers ran around with swords and the old tradition of hand to hand combat was hard to shake, but Shogun forces found themselves charging at gun barrels and cannon - which were being manufactured at an industrial plant by the Satsuma, the Choshu’s new best buds.

Meanwhile, both the Shogun and Emperor were replaced - not by factions, but by ageing. The new Shogun was Yoshinubu, the 15th and last Tokugawa Shogun. The new emperor was Meiji, the 116th emeror of Japan and counting. Spoilers.

But neither really helped bring peace. The new Shogun resigned and then unresigned and then basically declared all out war on the Satsuma and Choshu. And Meiji was all for modernisation and ok with whatever was required to secure it. And all was confusion - since both sides claimed they were acting out of loyalty to the emperor.

The most decisive battle of the Boshun War happened outside of Kyoto. The Shogun’s forces had a 2 to 1 numerical advantage. And the pro-Shogun side actually dominated the field - despite the fact that their suicidal samurai were charging at rife-firing infantry men and taking major losses. But it wasn’t as straightforward as paper beats rock or rifle beats swords.

Unfortunately for the Tokugawa, those that backed the Shogun were also riddled with factions and often not 100% onboard with the new Shogun. And this proved fatal when artillery men from the domain of Tsu.


Wait, I zoned out. Did someone called Sue owned a domain. Like Household tips?

No. Tsu. T-S-U. Anyway, these artillery switched sides and started firing on the Shogunate forces. At this, the Shogun fled the battlefield which caused his forces to also flee. Leaving the confused imperial forces to win by default.


The two sweetest words in the English language. Default, default!

And with that, the war was basically done. Leaving Emperor Meij to claim victory, take control and reward the Choshu and Satsuma clans for their confusingly loyal service.

The Boshun War, also known as the War of the Earth Dragon…


Great name. So much better than World War I! Who came up with that?

...was over, having only really lasted for a few months in 1868.

But it wasn’t over for the Tokugawa samurai who fled north, determined to hold out. These samurai tried to control the north but they had their work cut out - since local lords were apparently dissuaded from supporting them with just a wave of the imperial banner.

And some samurai didn't help the cause by being a bit tooo samurai. A Shogunate group called the White Tiger Corps were fighting to defend a castle crucial to their cause. However, taking smoke in the distance to mean that their castle had fallen, which it hadn’t, they all committed group suicide on the battle field. Thus ensuring the castle would definitely be taken.


They really should have talked to someone.


You mean like a helpline for hopeless samurai?


No, I mean to get some basic facts before gutting themselves. You’re not going to win a war if you keep killing yourselves.

Imperial forces had fought back and beaten the Tokugawa to a last stand on the island of Ezo. And that's where, in a last ditch attempt to remain free of imperial control, they had set up a Republic.

A Republic? I thought they were all military or something?

And that's what surprising. In its last incarnation, the Tokugawa formed Japan's first democratic republic.

Oh wow. So everybody had the vote?

Everybody who was a samurai, yes. And that's why we've called it the Republic of Samurai.

Really, or is it because it's a clickbait title?

It can be both.

When was that then?

In 1869. But it only lasted for 5 months.

And the last of these samurai hold outs installed themselves at the southern end of the island of Ezo and formed a samurai nation - The Republic of Ezo - still proclaiming loyalty to the Emperor, despite regarding themsleves as independent of the Emperor.

The Republic of Ezo still had those French military advisers - who actually resigned from the French army to continue the fight.Their leader was one Jules Brunet, who was the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character in the Last Samurai.

In fact, in the Ezo Republic, Jules Brunet was second in command, under Otori Keisuke, the commander in chief. The French in fact mounted an operation to steal an ironclad ship, the Kotetsu, recently delivered from America. They flew foreign flags so that they could get close to the Kotetsu before some brave samurai jumped onto the deck of the ironclad swords drawn - right into the path of mounted machine gun fire.

What was the Republic of Ezo’s foreigh policy?

Despite all the fighting, the Republic Ezo’s aim was peaceful coexistence, so it went into diplomacy with France, Britain nand the Meiji government of Japan. This was partially successful, in that France and Britain gave Ezo conditional recognition, but the imperial government were having none of it,

So was the Republic of Ezo doomed from the start or what?

Probably, in that the republic of Ezo can be seen in hindsight as the last enclave of the losing side in a war. But the Republic did have some things going for it. For one thing it was pretty flush with a treasury of 180,000 Gold Ryu. And since one Gold Ryu was also 180,000 yean - that’s a lot of dosh.

Another point is that the Republic couldn’t really be called a secessionist state since Ezo wasn’t technically part of Japan. It was within the Japanese orbit of influence, but it meant that the Republic of Ezo wasn’t trying to carve out a competitor state to Japan. It was suggesting something very preserve something very old. The samurai way of life.

And it went to the trouble of acting like a new state. The irony is that to maintain its ancient way it modelled itself on the USA, declaring its existence on 27th Jan 1869. And it’s first Prime Minister, Enamoto Takeaki (an admiral in the shogunate fleet) was elected.

And of course no nation can be taken seriously without a flag. [do you have a flag? Eddie izzard] The Republic’s had a blue background, with the red star of a new republic and the chrysanthemum blossom of imperial rule. Just to remind everyone that although they were a republic, they were under the emperor. Right guys?

But the Republic of Ezo didn't start off on a great military footing:

It could muster about 3,000 soldiers with another 36 hardcore guerilla fighters known as the Yugekitai. They also only had a handful of ships: 4 steam-powered warships and 4 steam transports.

And this wasn’t enough to save Ezo. In March 1869, and after pushing back Ezo’s limited navy, the Japanese landed 7,000 men at Hakodate. Ezo’s troops were holed up in the star fort of Ganyokaku, so the imperial army went on a campaign to seize the rest of the island before taking the fort too, after a siege and (what do you know) a doomed charge by the remaining forces of Ezo.

In fact one of the leading warriors of the Republic, Hijikata Toshizo, who had also tried to capture the Kotetsu, died defending a strongpoint - charging at imperial forces and getting a bullet for his trouble. His death poem made it clear that he was pro-Shogun to the end:

"Though my body may decay on the isle of Ezo

My spirit guards my lord in the east."

And with his bullet riddled corpse, the Republic of Ezo fell.


The Japanese had never occupied Ezo, but now they were on it - they annexed it. And that kind of annexation behaviour was just the beginning for the new empire. And although there was no lasting legacy for the brave new democratic republic that existed solely to preserve old ways, the issues that led to its foundation didn’t just disappear with its fall.

There was a conscious attempt to dismantle the importance of samurai in the culture. Old feudal lords were given European style titles - like counts, dukes, princes.

And the fact that Japan was getting a military makeover meant that there was no need for the status of samurai - with their dress, hairstyles and even the name samurai fading from view.

Samurai were no longer allowed to carry swords or to execute any non-samurai that offended them.


Killing people who offend you? The samurai were cancel culture!


Yeah, but people tried to cancel cancel culture!


I’m outraged. I think.

In 1877, samurai lost their right to a rice stipend that they had relied on for hundreds of years. And this didn’t go down well. In fact some felt so betrayed by the dismantling of the samurai that they started to say that they had only fought for the emperor to get a decent Shogun installed. And this led to a new uprising - the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 - a replay of the Boshin War but with loads more blood.

But although the samurai were done as an actual force in Japan, this didn't mean their memory disappeared. In fact quite the contrary.

By battering down the doors, the West had done more than most to irrevocably alter Japan - but all of a sudden medieval Japan came into vogue with the west - with many lamenting the loss of Japan's medieval past. Typical.

Nitobe Inazo helped mythologise the samurai writing Bushido: The soul of Japan in 1900. Inzo created his version of the samurai's way of the warrior and this proved so popular that it was even translated into Japanese - and went on to inform the Japanese self-image.

The funny thing is that this book was full of stereotypes, generalisations and inaccuracies - often painting the samurai as chivalrous, honorable and moral.

And this picture of the samurai went on to influence Puccini's Madame Butterfly. And as the Japanese expansion got under way, the samurai myth was put to expansionist use - whether that was WW2 officers carrying swords or suicide planes flying into the sides of American aircraft carriers.


So mostly bad then.


Yes, but with some kick ass samurai movies which inspired kick ass westerns.


So it all turned out fine in the end.

When you were young and your sword

Used to demand respect

You used to say rice you me give

(You know you did, you know you did)

(You know you did)

But if this modernising world

In which we're living

Makes you think suicide

Say samurai



It should matter to ya

When your army’s in retreat

To avoid disgrace

You gotta slice your guts all over the place

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