Osprey Publishing has become synonymous (in my mind at least) for quality research into military history of all time periods, throughout the world. It should come as no surprise that I immediately picked up Osprey’s latest title Japanese Armies 1868 – 1877 by Gabriele Esposito and illustrated by Giuseppe Rave, which covers the Boshin War and Satsuma Rebellion.
Osprey has several titles – Elite, Warrior, Campaign, Essential Histories – but this volume is part of their Men at Arms series, which is the most numerous. Each volume spotlights a different military unit from a specific era, covering all aspects from its training, uniforms, and weaponry. They also provide a general overview of the historical context, and this particular volume is a great springboard into the beginning of the turbulent Meiji Era, which kicked off with the Boshin War of 1868.
Literally “War in the Year of the Dragon,” the Boshin War was relatively short and decisive. On one side were the Imperialists supporting a complete restoration of the Emperor to power, and the Shogunate forces, loyal to the Tokugawa Family. This volume covers the main factions within these two sides, such as the Choshu and Satsuma samurai clans which formed the bulk of the Imperialist forces. On the opposing side, it covers the Denshutai, the Shisengumi, and the Aizu samurai clan, which provided the manpower of the Shogunate forces. This is very simplified, but it provides a concise overview of the Boshin War.
The volume also details the birth of the Imperial Japanese Army from its beginning as the Imperial Guard in 1871 to the introduction of universal conscription in 1873. Modernization and disagreements with the Meiji government frustrated the samurai general Takamori Saigo, and bred discontent within his home domain of Satsuma. The second part of this volume covers the so-called Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. The term “rebellion” diminishes its scale, since in Japanese it’s known as Seinan Senso – literally Southwestern War – and was in fact a full-blown civil war, albeit brief. Both sides are covered, the Satsuma samurai and the Imperial Army, along with Meiji police forces employed as ‘shock troops.’
The most tantalizing draw for any Osprey book are the gorgeously illustrated plates of various military personnel, showing off their uniforms and equipment in great detail. One particularly eye-catching image shows Imperial Guardsmen in their dress uniforms standing on a picturesque bridge, with blooming cherry blossoms in the background. However, here is where I have my biggest complaint. I would like to have seen more emphasis on Japanese Army uniforms of the 1870s, especially those worn by officers. There are precious little photos of Imperial Army uniforms, and many images shown throughout the pages are public domain photos of samurai taken from Wikipedia. One of the plates dramatizing the Southwestern War (and also shown on the cover) displays a rebel in full samurai armor, which I felt was unnecessary. I’d much rather have seen the intricate details on General Takamori Saigo and General Aritomo Yamagata’s dress and service uniforms.
Hopefully, Osprey will make a part two of this series which covers the Imperial Japanese Army up to the end of the Meiji Era and early part of the Taisho Era, which could cover World War I and the Siberian Expedition. Until then, anyone interested in modern Japanese history, especially Japanese military history, should check out Osprey’s Japanese Armies 1868 – 1877.