Lessons from Japan’s Last Civil War for Taiwan

The Ezo Republic’s Seat of Government in Goryōkaku Fortress as it appears today

While attending the recent Shangri-La Dialogue on Security in Singapore, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio stressed the need to oppose unilateral changes to the status quo by force, no matter where they occur. “I myself have a strong sense that Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” he warned. Needless to say, Kishida was referring to the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

As the world continues to watch the massive death and destruction resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kishida’s sentiments seem both reasonable and eminently desirable. Nevertheless, what Kishida neglected to mention is that had his own country followed his admonition there would today be at least two independent nations on the Japanese islands. Why? Because Japan itself once fought a civil war that in many respects echoes, or foreshadows, the relationship between China and Taiwan.

Readers with a cursory knowledge of Japanese history will recall that medieval Japan went through a series of civil wars from the mid-15th thru early-17th centuries, known as the era of “Warring States” (J. Sengoku). This era came to an end in 1615 when forces loyal to warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu finally vanquished all foes and established the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Tokugawa Shogunate’s rule extended over an area comprising much of today’s modern Japan and remained in control for the next 250 years.

Japan’s next major civil war was fought between samurai seeking to restore the country’s imperial ruler, Emperor Meiji, to power versus those samurai remaining loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Finally, however, the Tokugawa forces were defeated in the Boshin War of 1868 to 1869, the end result of which was the emergence of modern Japan as we know it today.

There is, however, a little known episode at the very end of the Boshin War that cannot help but remind us of the situation Taiwan finds itself at present. That is to say, the remnants of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s defeated military retreated northward to the island of Hokkaido, then known as Ezo. There they created a second independent state, the Republic of Ezo, on January 27, 1869. One of the Ezo Republic’s most notable features was that from the outset it instituted a democratic form of government although only samurai had the right to vote. Nevertheless, this resulted in the first elections ever held in Japan, where, heretofore, a feudal structure under a figurehead emperor with military warlords in charge was still the norm.

Compare this feature with Taiwan where, due to the dictatorial rule of the defeated Chinese Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek, it took 47 years, i.e. from 1949 to 1996, for democratic rule to flourish. That said, if democracy, limited though it was, may be considered a progressive feature of the Ezo Republic, it is also true that, just as in Taiwan, the then inhabitants of the two islands had no voice in the formation of the governments that took over their homelands.

A second common trait shared by the Ezo Republic and Taiwan was the presence of Westerners hoping to maintain, if not enhance, their country’s advantageous position on the islands. In the case of the Ezo Republic it took the form of five French army officers who had been sent to Japan as members of a military training mission in support of the Tokugawa Shogunate. They had, however, refused to leave the country after being recalled to France in late September of 1868, for by that time the French government realized the Tokugawa Shogunate’s days were numbered. Nevertheless, the French officers fought on, and their military prowess was so admired they were given de facto control of the remnants of the Shogunate’s forces.

It is at this point we need to recall the words of Prime Minister Kishida and his recent pledge to “oppose unilateral changes to the status quo by force.” Applied to this situation, it would mean that, like the remnants of the defeated Nationalist forces who retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and established a de facto independent state, the Ezo Republic, created by the remnants of the Shogunate’s defeated forces, would be equally subject to Kishida’s opposition to the use of force to change the status quo. Needless to say, that was not the case.

During the winter of 1868–69, the defences around the southern peninsula of Hakodate in Hokkaido were enhanced, with the star-shaped fortress of Goryōkaku at the center. The land force was organised under a joint Franco-Japanese command with troops divided into four brigades, each commanded by a French officer. Each brigade was, in turn, divided into two battalions, and these into four companies. The overall French commander, Captain Jules Brunet, demanded (and received) a signed personal pledge of loyalty from all officers and required them to assimilate French ideas.

Imperial forces soon consolidated their hold on mainland Japan, and, in April 1869, dispatched a fleet with an infantry force of 7,000 men to Hokkaido, starting the Battle of Hakodate. The Imperial forces progressed swiftly on land and also won a naval engagement in Hakodate Bay, marking Japan’s first large-scale battle between modern navies. This led to the encirclement of the fortress of Goryōkaku. The French advisers realized the situation was hopeless and escaped to a French ship stationed in Hakodate Bay. Finally, on June 26, 1869, the Shogunate’s remaining forces surrendered and accepted Emperor Meiji’s rule. This brought an end to the Ezo Republic. On September 20 of the same year, the island was given its present name, Hokkaido (J. Hokkaidō, literally “Northern Sea Region”).

In bringing an end to the Ezo Republic, the Japanese government of the day did not hesitate to use military force even though Hokkaido had historically never been fully under Japanese control. From then on, however, it would be part of the newly created Japanese empire. Once again, this is analogous to Taiwan’s historical relationship to the Chinese mainland. As for the Ezo Republic’s democratic norms, they were, if anything, a threat to an imperial state whose constitution placed ultimate political and military power in the hands of the emperor.

Japan is, of course, by no means unique in having used force to subdue rebels in a breakaway piece of what it considers to be its territory. In fact, historically speaking, this has been the norm whenever the victor in a civil war has had the power to do so. In the case of Taiwan, there can be no doubt it would be part of China today had it not been for the US decision to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in connection with the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950.

Nevertheless, Kishida’s demand that China not use force to change the status quo is, historically speaking, a case of “Do as I say, not as I/my nation do[es].” The same can be said for the similar US position regarding Taiwan, for in the case of America’s own civil war from 1861 to 1865, it is unthinkable that the Northern States would have allowed the defeated Confederacy to move unobstructed to an offshore island, e.g. Cuba, while threatening to “retake the mainland” by force as the government on Taiwan has long proclaimed even though, at present, it downplays this intention.

Civil wars, like all wars, are bloody, cruel and destructive and therefore must be avoided if at all possible. Yet, if one believes in self-determination as I do, i.e. that the inhabitants of a nation have the right to determine their future free of foreign interference, outsiders should have no role in determining how the people of a nation decide their future, especially when the outsiders’ own histories make it amply clear they are unwilling to “practice what they preach.”

And let it be clear, apart from 2.3% of the Taiwanese people who are indigenous to the island, the ancestors of the remaining 97.7% of the island’s inhabitants all came from differing areas of mainland China whether generations or even centuries ago. They are therefore ethnically Chinese even though they speak such Chinese dialects as Hokkien and Hakka. In addition, thanks to the Nationalist control of the island from 1949 onwards, all Taiwanese today can also speak standard Chinese (aka Mandarin), just as their brethren on the mainland do. Thus, whether living on Taiwan or the mainland, the Chinese people deserve the opportunity to create their own future free of foreign interference.

Brian Victoria, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies


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