The Last Samurai

(Posted on January 10, 2024)


Have you seen the movie, “The Last Samurai”? It was released in 2003 featuring Tom Cruise as an ex-US cavalry officer who fought alongside rebel soldiers against the emperor’s army during the early days of the Meiji Restoration. Did you know that there was a model for the role played by Tom Cruise? It was the French army officer named Jules Brunet (1838-1911). Let’s take a closer look at Brunet in Japan.

As is well known, Japan opened its doors to the great powers in 1854 after nearly three centuries of national isolation. In order to strengthen the relationship with the Tokugawa shogunate, Napoleon III dispatched a French military mission to Japan in 1867. This mission was headed by Charles Chanoine and Brunet as No.2 and consisted of six army officers and thirteen NCOs in all. 

                                           Charles Chanoine in the center


However, a civil war started only a year on in 1868 between powerful clans in western Japan and the Shogunate. The great powers immediately declared their neutrality in the civil war and the French government ordered its army mission to return to France. But Brunet and some other French comrades decided to join the ex-shogunate’s defiant soldiers who kept on fighting against the emperor’s army. 

                                                                  (by keihin nike)


So, they went to Hakodate in Hokkaido (the northern-most island), which happened to be the last stronghold. There, about 3,000 soldiers amassed at Goryo-kaku, (above photo) a star fort built in 1866 initially intended for the venue of the Shogunate’s Hakodate office. They managed to take 8 naval ships with them. The leader was Enomoto Takeaki (1836-1908), a naval commander, who had studied ship operations, gunnery, international law among others in Holland (1862-1866). 


Enomoto proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of Ezo (old name for Hokkaido), which was however short-lived as the emperor’s army launched an all-out attack in Hakodate. Enomoto and his remaining soldiers finally surrendered in June 1869. Brunet and his men managed to evacuate from Hakodate just before the all-out attack. 


How did Brunet fare after returning to France? He was put on reserve until the start of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 when he was recalled to active service. Brunet also served as military attaché to several European countries. Brunet became a general in due course. Lastly, let me mention briefly about Enomoto thereafter. After being imprisoned for two and a half years in Tokyo, he served in the emperors’ government: a special envoy to China and Russia, a naval lord, various ministerial positions for foreign affairs, education and more. He was made a viscount. In his later years, he promoted the emigration of Japanese to south and central America.   








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