The Lone Woman of KokuraRoundup
tags: 19th century, Japanese history, Second Choshu War, Tokugawa Shogunate
Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian (Ph.D. UPitt ‘17) is an Armenian-American queer woman by birth and a military historian by training. She is proud to have called the American and Japanese northeasts her home. She has produced nonfiction, fiction, and photography content for more than a dozen publications, including two newspapers and five anthologies, as well as for Eisner Award-nominated author Magdalene Visaggio’s Kim & Kim. What’s her secret, you ask? Garlic and Turkish coffee (but really mostly Turkish coffee). Come say hi to her on Twitter, Facebook, and Patreon at riversidewings.
The Woman and the War
The Second Choshu War (1865–1866) was just one chapter in the political upheaval of the Bakumatsu era (1853–1868). Amidst the instability of a foundering Tokugawa Shogunate following its coerced signing of the Kanagawa Treaty with the United States, Choshu domain in western Japan emerged as a locus of opposition. The house of Mori, rulers of Choshu, had a history of resentment over their defeat by the Tokugawa two centuries before. As the Tokugawa Shogunate weakened, the Choshu domain saw the opportunity to strike while the iron was hot and to claim the Emperor, who was largely a figurehead but nevertheless remained the source of ultimate political legitimacy in Japan.
In its effort to push back against the upstart Choshu domain, the Tokugawa shogunate declared war and raised an army from allied domains across western Japan. But between long supply lines, mismanagement, and lack of initiative, the Tokugawa coalition did not prevail, and the war ended in a negotiated truce. But in the ensuing interlude, in which the Shogunate continued to veer from crisis to crisis, Choshu domain reorganized and rearmed. When hostilities resumed, the Shogunate tried again to rally regional domains to mount a response, but its campaign floundered completely. Choshu troops seized the offensive, which brought them to the Kokura Castle town, where the Lone Woman waited.
Kokura, in northern Kyushu, was not one of Japan’s largest feudal domains in terms of military power or income. Before the war, it held 150,000 koku of yearly agricultural income — just over a third of Choshu’s 369,000.1 It had been part of the shogunate’s coalition since May 1865.2 Faced with the attack of 1500 Choshu soldiers landing on the night of September 4 from across the strait of Shimonoseki, the shogunate’s local commander in Kokura, Ogasawara Nagamichi, tried to rally the allies under his command. A cousin of the Ogasawara of Kokura, Nagamichi was from nearby Karatsu domain, and eager to protect his kinfolk. But he was unable to maintain the cohesion of an increasingly fractious coalition force.
A sudden rainstorm, followed by the arrival of news from Osaka regarding shogun Tokugawa Iemochi’s death, sealed the collapse of the coalition forces based around Kokura.3 On the night of September 11, the allied domain troops abruptly left, followed shortly by Ogasawara and part of the shogunate’s own troops. Almost completely abandoned, the Kokura domain leaders consulted with the shogunate’s remaining officers in the area and agreed that they would set fire to the castle town and regroup their modest fighting forces elsewhere. The evacuation and burning took place the next day.4 On September 12, the Choshu forces entered what was left of the castle town. This was where they found the Lone Woman.
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