On this day in 1868, 5,000 Imperial Japanese soldiers engaged over 15,000 Tokugawa Shogunate men during the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. Taking place near modern-day Kyoto, the battle – which lasted for several days – was a clash between old and new worlds. The Shogunate forces were a mix of mercenaries and samurai (feudal landowners and expert fighters); they were armed primarily with pikes and spears and, despite some French military training, they tended to abide by old-fashioned Japanese military doctrine. Their opponents, however – the heavily-outnumbered Chōshū and Satsuma – were intent on returning power to the Imperial throne. They were armed with modern rifles, howitzer artillery and one Gatling machine gun.
The following four days were the opening shots of the Boshin War and saw battles take place at Fushimi, Takasegawa and Tominomori. As the Shogunate forces moved towards Toba, they stumbled upon Satsuma’s force. A one-sided gun battle ensued and a brave medieval-style charge saw hundreds of spear-fighters and samurai on horseback cut down by machine gun and rifle fire. The heavily-outgunned Shogunate forces fled to Osaka castle, where the remaining samurai leaders and French military advisors fled one by one. The castle soon fell to Imperial troops and the remaining neutral factions quickly pledged allegiance to the throne.
The Boshin War – or, the “Bloodless Revolution” because it was so quick and one-sided – brought an end to the Edo Period. Beginning in 1603, the shogunate had pursued isolationist and traditionalist policies, banning foreign trade and the use of modern weapons and equipment. However, as violent encounters with Western powers increased in the 19th century, many saw a need for a stronger, less isolationist (and more modern) government. The success of the Imperialists – aided by the British – brought the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, during which power was consolidated under one Emperor and Japan’s military and economy were modernized. Within a small period of time, Japan was transformed from a feudal society into a modern power capable of taking on any Western military. The consequences of the relatively small Battle of Toba-Fushimi – and the ensuing Meiji Restoration – kicked off a chain of events that led to Japanese challenges to Western power in the 20th century.