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(Friday Night History) Emperor Tobu, Part 2

Last time on Friday Night History, we talked about Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa. He was an imperial prince who in 1868 was abbot of Kan'ei-ji Temple, a major Buddhist complex in Edo's Ueno district. Forced to act as a mediator for the ex-shogun during the opening stages of the Boshin War, he became alienated by the nascent imperial government's heavy-handed hawkishness, and was abused by its unruly, undisciplined troops filtering east along the Tokaido Road. After the disastrous Battle of Ueno, the prince escaped north and declared himself the northern emperor, Emperor Tobu, though some historians dispute this. That dispute notwithstanding, there are period documents that corroborate this claim, including western diplomatic and journalistic records. Simply put, I do not believe that these sources say what they say out of nowhere. So in this episode, we're going to focus on the American response to Emperor Tobu's enthronement.

So, let's pick up with the story with the chief American diplomat in Japan at the time.

RB Van Valkenburgh

Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh, a New Yorker and veteran of the Battle of Antietam, was the US Minister-Resident in Japan in 1868. His correspondence to Secretary of State Seward, in Washington, and Seward's replies, are extensive. There were a number of new treaty ports either opening or about to open, and the US Naval organization in East Asian waters was in the midst of reorganization, so he had his hands quite full at the outbreak of war in late January. This has appeared in prior episodes of the podcast, especially those dealing with the ex-Rebel ironclad Stonewall and its disposition. An especially sad duty for Van Valkenburgh was the aftermath of the 11 January 1868 incident that resulted in US Navy Admiral Henry Haywood Bell's sudden death. Bell, a loyal Southerner during the Civil War, was one of the navy's first admirals. He had been aboard a barge heading for another ship anchored at the Osaka roads when rough seas made it capsize. While some sailors were rescued, Bell and an aide were not. As he had been in command of the American naval squadron assigned to east Asian waters, his death was of significant concern even to a diplomat like Van Valkenburgh.

While he saw to this busy schedule, Van Valkenburgh reported his activities to Secretary of State William H. Seward, in Washington. Messages took weeks to go between Yokohama and DC, so while there wasn't immediate pressure that Seward could apply, there was still a clear and spirited dialogue between those two points. And rather unambiguously, Van Valkenburgh talks about the enthronement of a northern emperor. I think that quoting one of his dispatches to Seward in full is worth our time here. In this dispatch, Van Valkenburgh uses the term "Mikado" to refer to the office of emperor and "Tycoon" to refer to the office of Shogun.

"Legation of the United States, Yokohama, August 20, 1868.
Sir: In continuation of my dispatch No. 80, of the 13th instant, I have the honor to inform you that the intelligence reported in my dispatches No. 61 and 68 of this series, in regard to the Miya Sama, has again come in this day from sources which have hitherto proved reliable. This high dignitary is now said to have formally entered upon the duties of Mikado, taking the Haguro Mountain temples for the residence of himself and court.
The functions of a Mikado have always been to intercede with the gods on behalf of the people and their wants; and the government of this country, the chief executive authority, was hereditarily vested in the Tokugawa dynasty, with the title of Shogoon or Tycoon. No supreme legislative authority existed, it being supposed that the law of Gongen Sama was quite sufficient for all time to come, and it was only on extraordinary occasions that the Mikado was consulted.
The Mikado at Kioto, by abolishing the Tycoonate and assuming the government of this country, appears to have acted in defiance of ancient customs, and from the point of view of many Japanese of rank and of even a majority of the officers of his own court to have usurped supreme authority both legislative and executive. It may be taken for granted that the Miya Sama or new Mikado would not have assumed this exalted dignity unless such an important step could be justified on legal ground, though expediency will probably prove to have been his principal motive.
The humbler classes in the country and on the seaboard are very superstitious, and a spiritual chief was undoubtedly required in the north, so as to insure the general belief that they are not forsaken by their gods, which they would deem a great calamity, and certainly render them less fit to act the part required from them by their chiefs in the great struggle that is evidently approaching.
When the crop of silk-worm eggs is good it is held to be a fair indication of a large crop, not only of mulberry leaves and silk but also of rice.
The crop of silk-worm eggs in the north has been unusually good this year; the prospects of the rice crop therefore are excellent, and the Miya Sama or new Mikado, who probably bided his time, has now entered upon his functions with an immense prestige for power and benevolence.
His removal to the north would appear to have been a master stroke on the part of the Tokugawa chief, as his presence consolidated the great northern coalition, and by allaying superstitious fears among the people more than doubled its power.
The history of Japan offers two precedents of the coexistence of two Mikados—on the latter occasion, for a period of nearly ninety years. With the establishment of a hereditary Skogoonate some two hundred and sixty years ago, this division in the supreme spiritual authority was supposed to have been rendered impossible forever. It may safely be assumed, therefore, that nothing but absolute necessity and the good of his country could have induced the Miya Sama to take the important step above mentioned. Ever since the commencement of the present civil strife, he took an active part in favor of the late Tycoon, with whom he has always been on the most friendly terms.
Instead of one Tycoon Japan now has two Mikados. While the one at Kioto declared to assume the reins of government, the new Mikado of the north, I am informed, is not likely to follow that example; and if he adheres to that resolution there is every reason to believe that this self-denial will insure him many followers, thus greatly increase his influence and enhance his importance.
In the eleven provinces, the Tokugawa domains, many Daimios and noblemen of this great clan declared in favor of the (Kioto) Mikado's government. As soon as a chief made such a declaration he was at once ordered to furnish proof of his loyalty by joining the forces engaged against the northern Daimios, and immediately on his reporting himself in camp he was ordered to the front. As my informant observes: "Only one-half of those chiefs remained faithful to Tokugawa or the late Tycoon, and those are by far the most respectable portion, though not the most powerful perhaps. Those who, in these trying times, could betray their master, are quite likely to betray their new friends, with whom they have in fact no affinity, and not even a language in common"—the dialect in the several parts of Japan differing to such an extent.
The wisdom of the late Tycoon in not taking up arms himself for the defense of his undoubted rights is now well proven. The enemies of the Shogoonate are held together by the cohesive power of plunder, and the majority of its retainers, of high and low degree, are actuated by no better motives.
Since the fight at the temple of Wuyeno, in Yedo, about eighty of the Tokugawa Shogitai, or volunteers, have been successively captured and beheaded. Several of these men had family relations arrested at the same time, and the criminal code of Japan was mercilessly applied in all cases. I regret to have to write it, but no allowance was made for age or sex; the relations had to share the fate of these men; the family tablet showing the pedigree was first destroyed, and then those unfortunates, men and women, old and young, even children, were executed or murdered.
Incredible as it may appear, I am positively assured of the truth of this information, and I feel no longer at liberty to doubt it. I can only add, that no prisoners are made on either side; it is war à outrance.
The consciousness that the contempt of foreign nations is sure to follow such horrible practices will probably be the means of eventually substituting a milder criminal code for the barbarous ancient laws now in force. Fortunately the despotism of the laws is losing strength, owing to the absence of those two-sworded men who used to carry them out, and who are now either fighting each other or remain passive in abject neutrality. Never, I trust, can these laws regain their lost prestige, and the present convulsion, instead of being fraught with danger to the independence of the people, as they imagine, will undoubtedly secure for them, in the creation of a middle class, the first gleam of real liberty, without which their independence, so called, is a sham, and no more.
Whoever may be the next ruler of a united Japan, I feel confident, will profit by experience, and base the policy of this country upon the support of the people instead of the two-sworded class. He will have to choose between producers and consumers, and the choice cannot be difficult. And when such a policy shall have been adopted, it may be expected that a healthier foreign intercourse will be one of the results.
The horrible practices described appropriately illustrate under what immense difficulties those often labor whose duty it is to cultivate friendly relations with the governing classes of Japan.
I look forward, however, with confidence to the future, and wish I could only look with some degree of certainty to the time when this country shall have returned to peace; that time I apprehend is quite remote; the feelings of the combatants are overwrought and intensely bitter, and compromise is apparently unattainable.
I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C."

There is a remarkable amount of clarity here from Van Valkenburgh, regarding the situation in the north, even if it is tinged with his undeniable sense of his own nation's superiority. He names relevant sites of recent fighting, most notably Ueno, and indicates that the prince escaped north, though I find it surprising that he says the prince set up at Mount Haguro. Mount Haguro has a temple complex known to this day as a site of ascetic practice, so I guess it isn't too surprising, given that the prince had also been an abbot. He also correctly references the Nanbokucho period, the 14th century span where there were two rival claimants to the imperial throne, and he correctly observes the heavy-handedness of the nascent imperial army, which would go on to even deadlier reputation as the war pushed north from Edo.

This wasn't the only time, either, that Van Valkenburgh mentions the northern emperor in his dispatches. In his next dispatch, he goes even further. This one I'll only quote in part:

"Legation of the United States, Yokohama, August 24, 1868.
Sir: Several reports have reached me since writing my dispatch, No. 85, of the 20th instant, all confirming the establishment of a Mikado-ship in the north. Reports have also been received during the last three days of a battle having been fought between the contending parties, in which the victory was claimed for the northern coalition. There is no doubt that numbers of wounded have arrived in Yedo, and that all the men that can possibly be spared are being sent from there to reinforce the troops fighting against the northern Daimios.
The intelligence this morning received by me, and in which I am inclined to place confidence, is to the effect that no battle but a series of engagements occurred, that numbers were killed and wounded on both sides, but that no decisive result has been attained. In the province of Etshingo, on the west coast, fighting takes place daily; occasionally some castle is taken and then retaken; but that the largest portion of that province has been reconquered by the northern Daimios and appears to remain in their possession.
The northern Mikado is reported to have conferred court appointments on the principal northern Daimios, and to have sent envoys to the Daimios of Kaga and Etchizen inviting them to remain neutral during the present struggle."

Here we get an even greater sense of Van Valkenburgh's understanding of the situation lining up pretty well with sources on the Northern Alliance itself. Documents from the Alliance confirm that the prince declared himself emperor and involved himself directly in its deliberations. The Alliance itself, functioning more as a regional coalition and less as a would-be national government, also did indeed reach out to Kaga and Echizen inviting their neutrality.

Foreign newspapers too, reported on the would-be emperor's claim. The New York Times-- yes, that New York Times- claimed the prince had only temporarily become emperor and would relinquish power upon the northern alliance's success, and loyally serve the young Meiji from then on.

As noted in our last episode, historian Donald Keene discounts American diplomatic records entirely. I question whether that's entirely wise, given how these diplomatic documents resonate with local sources from the Northern Alliance. 

Of course, the Northern Alliance did not prevail, nor did this erstwhile prince turned northern emperor become the sovereign of a new empire. 

After a brief time in confinement shortly after the Boshin War's end, the court reinstated him as imperial prince Fushimi-Mitsunomiya Yoshihisa, and allowed him to join the imperial army. He was trained as an officer in Prussia, and on his way there, passed through Washington DC, having an informal dinner with President Ulysses Grant. The record of both men's quasi-official statements on the occasion can be found in Grant's papers.

In the early 1870s, he succeeded to the imperial cadet house of Kitashirakawa-no-miya, becoming Prince Kitashirakawa-no-miya Yoshihisa. His career, beginning in 1874 when he was commissioned as an imperial army major, and he saw service in a number of the Empire's early wars. By then a lieutenant general, he was in nominal command of the imperial forces that invaded and annexed Taiwan in 1895, when while still in command of the imperial forces there, he contracted malaria and died. He was the first imperial family member to die outside of Japan, and almost immediately, his memory was used as a tool in the empire's efforts to annex and assimilate Taiwan. For the entirety of the Japanese rule over Taiwan, he was enshrined in the Shinto shrines constructed there, and there was a significant amount of writing and mythmaking about him that emerged from colonial Taiwan. Curiously, Professor Wu Pei-Chen of Taiwan's National Chengchi University argues that the discourse on Prince Kitashirakawa "in colonial Taiwan, as the periphery of the Japanese empire, challenged the core of Japan through questioning the legitimacy of Japan's emperor"-- which links us back to those days in 1868 when he was making waves as the would-be northern claimant. Wu even notes, correctly, that the Northern Alliance reported to the foreign diplomatic delegations that the prince had become northern emperor.

Prince Kitashirakawa-no-miya Yoshihisa during his Army career

Today, Prince Kitashirakawa is best known for his career as a soldier and his role in command of the imperial forces that annexed Taiwan at gunpoint. He remains enshrined at a certain well known Tokyo shrine, and there is a famous equestrian statue of him at Kitanomaru Park, immediately north of the imperial palace grounds. And yet, that early chapter of his life, where he made common cause with the Boshin War's vanquished, and made waves that reached even Washington, DC, remains relegated to obscurity. Which is why we're here talking about it, because it needs to be discussed.

And that, friends, is the end of Friday Night History Season One. My thanks to Jared Samuelson, Claude Berube, Angry Staff Officer, Joe Kassabian, and so many others who helped me learn the ropes and encouraged me to take the leap into podcasting for what had already been a well-loved series on the history side of Twitter. Please subscribe at patreon.com/riversidewings to support this podcast and keep me working for you.

Meanwhile, I hope you'll join me for Season Two, debuting soon.

I'm Nyri, and this has been, Friday Night History!

Now-- questions?


  • Han Cheung. "Taiwan in Time: The prince who became a god" Taipei Times May 26, 2019 http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2019/05/26/2003715796 Accessed 12 August 2021.
  • John Dower, Embracing Defeat (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), p. 306.
  • "History" Toeizan Kan'ei-ji http://kaneiji.jp/about4 Accessed 12 August 2021.
  • "JAPAN." New York Times, Oct 18, 1868, p. 3.
  • Donald Keene, Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002),  pp. 148-155.
  • RHP Mason and JG Caiger. A History of Japan: Revised Edition (Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1997), p. 139, 141-142.
  • Mori Ōgai, Yoshihisa-shinnō Jiseki. ed. Tōinkai. (Tōkyō: Shun’yōdō, 1908), p. 1.
  • Ōishi Manabu, Saka no Machi: Edo Tōkyō wo Aruku (Tokyo: PHP Kenkyūjo, 2007), p. 46
  • Wu Pei-Chen, "The Prince Kitashirakawa and Colonial Taiwan: From the Historical Views of Defeated Figures in the Meiji Period" (Mingchi paiche'shih kuan yu chihminti Taiwan 明治「敗者」史觀與殖民地台灣) 台灣文學研究學報二十期 https://db.nmtl.gov.tw/site6/download?atype=1&id=101&type=F
  • Robert B. Van Valkenburgh, "No. 85." Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs, Accompanying the Annual Message of the President to the Third Session of the Fortieth Congresshttps://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1868p1/d363 Accessed 25 August 2021

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