columns

This is part of a series

Jan 5, 2017

Beyond Tosa: The Charter Oath and the Boshin War

Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.

Beyond Tosa, the major hotbeds of anti-Tokugawa discontent came from the Satsuma domain, located on the southern island of Kyushu, and the Choshu domain, located at the far southern tip of the main island, Honshu.  Choshu had already had a previous ronin-led rebellion put down by the bakufu.  Satsuma and Choshu began acquiring Western (mostly British) military and naval technology not long after the initial uprising, and increased the size of their own militaries.  The bakufu, knowing it could not be technologically inferior to its vassals, initiated programs to modernize its own military, but the process was slow and didn’t amount to much.  When samurai in Choshu again revolted in 1867, the Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, ordered his army to put down the rebellion.  This time, however, forces from Satsuma arrived in Choshu to aid the uprising, and the two domains together successfully repelled the Tokugawa assault. 

Unlike with the liberals in Tosa, anti-Shogun sentiment in Satsuma and Choshu was fueled by a movement known as sonnojoi, loosely translated as “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians.” “Barbarians,” of course, referred to anyone who was not Japanese.  As one might expect, sonnojoi came out of a widespread resentment of foreigners common in Japan during the Bakumatsu.  European merchants were frequent targets of political violence, with the French, due to their alliance with the bakufu, especially targeted.  Even Japanese students of rangaku,1 the traditional study of Western sciences that existed since the 16th century, could be subject to violence.  Yukichi Fukuzawa, a major liberal figure who emerged in the aftermath of the Boshin War, was nearly mugged and killed while studying rangaku in Nagasaki.2

Not long after the Tokugawa army was repelled from Choshu, Tosa entered the fight.  Tosa too was frustrated with the bakufu, but unlike Satsuma and Choshu, the liberals of Tosa saw a chance to establish a representative government.  They didn’t reject the idea of returning the Emperor to power or suggest that Japan shouldn’t have a monarch.  Such an assertion would have been too radical even for them and would make an alliance with Satsuma and Choshu impossible.  Instead, many in Tosa sought to establish a constitutional monarchy, where the Emperor held power, but had his power checked by a democratically-elected legislature.

On January 3, 1868, forces from Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa captured Kyoto, the seat of the Emperor.  A day later, Emperor Meiji, who had risen to throne less than a year prior following the death of his father, Emperor Komei, was named the ruler of Japan.  In addition, a bicameral legislature would be set up, consisting of an upper house, to be occupied by aristocrats, and a lower house.  News of representative government elated Tosa’s liberals.  Ryoma Sakamoto even wrote to his friend Shojiro Goto the day of the announcement, apparently more excited by the establishment of a bicameral legislature than he was about the Emperor’s ascent.3 The question remained, however, as to what form this lower house might take.  Many from Satsuma and Choshu sought to establish a peerage system that lacked any substantial democratic elements.  Tosa, however, pushed for elected officials, and were even open to the idea of allowing mere commoners to run for and be elected to office. 

The catharsis over the “restoration” of the Meiji Emperor didn’t last long.  Towards the end of January, the bakufu sent its army to invade Kyoto and seize the imperial palace.  Forces led by Takamori Saigo of Satsuma and Taisuke Itagaki of Tosa managed a staggering defeat of the Tokugawa army at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi.  Yoshinobu Tokugawa, who had made his field headquarters in nearby Osaka, was forced to flee the city, and the Shogun suffered yet another crushing defeat during a naval clash at the Battle of Awa.  With the bakufu soundly beaten and its legitimacy eroding, more domains rose up in revolt against the Tokugawa.  The domains of Hizen, Yodo, and Tsu all joined the fight.

In the aftermath of their victory, the newly established Imperialist forces began working out the kinks of their new Emperor-centric government.  Takayoshi Kido and Takachika Fukuoka authored the Charter Oath, a sort of proto-constitution laying out the structure of the new government and the respective powers of the Emperor and the legislature.  Some of the language in the Charter Oath was clearly inspired by classical liberal philosophy, and was likely due to the influence of Fukuoka,4 who had himself been one of Manjiro’s pupils. 

  1. Deliberative councils shall be widely established and all matters decided by public discussion.
  2. All classes, high and low, shall unite vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.
  3. 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.
  4. Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.
  5. Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.5

There is a lot to unpack within the Charter Oath.  The document was a remarkable departure from the sort of government that existed under the Tokugawa bakufu, and, at least on the surface, appears to be at odds with the conservative and anti-foreign ideologies that drove the original rebellions in Choshu.  There are two main reasons for the classical liberal wording of the Charter Oath: the beliefs of the authors themselves and some clever writing.

Fukuoka’s classical liberal roots, as both a Tosa samurai and student of Manjiro,6 were readily apparent.  Kido, on the other hand, was a samurai from Choshu.  While hardly a liberal himself, Kido did not share the radical anti-foreign vitriol of his fellow countrymen (he was eventually among those selected to go to the United States and Europe as part of the Iwakura Mission) and was a strong supporter of Choshu’s alliance with Tosa, often serving as a peacemaker when squabbles between the two domains would arise.  It is not terribly surprising that Kido would go along with many of Fukuoka’s suggestions for the Charter Oath.

The content of the Charter Oath is as intriguing as its authorship.  It called for little less than a wholesale break from the hierarchical society of the Tokugawa era.  Citizens of every stripe are called upon to take part in the new Japanese government.  Rather than be shoehorned into a class by birth, citizens in the new Japanese state would be free to pursue their own ambitions.  The allusion to “the just laws of Nature” is evocative of social contract theorists such as Locke and Rousseau, who, as we shall see later, became a major inspiration for early Japanese liberals.

Kido and Fukuoka were also clever.  There are several concessions to conservatives and traditionalists within the oath.  The fifth charter, for example, affirms the supremacy of the Emperor in the new Japanese government.  The fourth charter also serves a dual meaning for liberals and conservatives.  For conservatives, the aforementioned “just laws of Nature” refer not to similar concepts in the European Enlightenment, but to the Confucian ideas of natural law.  Unlike the natural law of Locke and Rousseau, Confucianism stressed things such as filial piety, loyalty, and the myriad interactions and relationships between people.  In Confucian thought, a harmonious society would exist when various interlocking relationships and hierarchies were adhered to.  It saw departures from this structure as chaotic.

In April 1868, Emperor Meiji signed the Charter Oath, ushering in a new era in Japanese history.  A month later, Imperial forces captured the Tokugawa capital at Edo, renaming the city Tokyo.  What remained of the bakufu and their supporters fled into northern Honshu to set up a resistance to the new regime, although they too were quickly defeated.  A year later, the Ezo Republic, a group of Tokugawa retainers in Hokkaido who opposed the Meiji regime, were defeated as well.  By the end of 1869, the modern state of Japan had been established.

Around the same time, the fortunes of many of the liberals who had fought against the bakufu began to sour.  With the Tokugawa defeated, the already tenuous alliance between Tosa and the other revolting domains began to fray.  Taisuke Itagaki and Shojiro Goto, the main leaders of the Imperial forces in Tosa, found themselves at odds with their former compatriots in Satsuma and Choshu.  According to their contemporary Takayuki Sasaki, the reason for Itagaki and Goto’s increasing displeasure with the newly established government had to do with the process of strengthening the central government.7  Itagaki, in particular, was incensed by his peers’ push for centralization, insisting instead on “local autonomy” and public participation at the prefectural and even community level. 

The final straw for Itagaki and many of the liberals was the establishment of a new peerage system to replace the previous Tokugawa hierarchy.  The members of the Imperial Court, known as the kuge, were merged with the daimyo to form a new noble class called the kazoku.  Beneath the kazoku were the shizoku, a gentry class consisting mostly of former samurai, and finally heimin, or commoners.  While this new peerage system lacked the strict social rigidity of the Tokugawa system (shizoku and heimin could still participate politically at the local level and in the lower house of the legislature), it reignited many of the angers that fueled the Boshin War in the first place.  The very samurai who had chafed at their subordination to daimyo prior to the war now had a new oppressor in the kazoku.  The politically well-connected amassed large amounts of ministerial power in the new government, forming a new political class that came to be known as the Meiji oligarchy.8 This was all too much for Itagaki.  In protest, he quit his position in the central government and refused to take on a kazoku title despite various efforts to placate him.  Many liberals followed his lead.


  1. Literally means “western studies.”
  2. Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 156.
  3. Ibid, 311.
  4. This is conjecture on my part.
  5. Ibid, 338.
  6. Joe Kent, “Japanese Libertarian Heritage,” International Society for Individual Liberty, March 23, 2016.
  7. Albert Craig, “The Central Government,” in Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji ed. Marius Jansen and Gilbert Rozman, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 56.
  8. Also referred to as the genro.

This is part of a series