Visiting Japan in 1867 on a mission to train the local samurai battalions, the Frenchman Jules Brunet ended up embracing their cause, eventually joining the rebellion against the emperor. A century and a half later, Brunet would inspire the character of Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai…
Born in Belfort, Alsace (Eastern France, near the German border), Jules Brunet followed a military career, walking in his father’s footsteps. He graduated in 1861 from Polytechnique – one of the most prestigious French schools – and soon was away to fight in the Mexican War, which earned him the Légion d’Honneur, the nation’s highest honour. His superiors talked of him as a smart, yet disciplined soldier; unsurprisingly, Brunet was added to the 1866 French mission to Japan, as required by the shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa.
Not so quiet on the Eastern Front
Why did the shogun request the French officers’ help? Because the political equilibrium, at home, was about the collapse. The shogunate – a type of military government held by the shogun – had been in place for more than seven centuries in Japan, protected by the sword of the samurais. Officially, that caste worked as the armed wing of the empire, and thus merely served the emperor (mikado); but informally, military force was enough to grant it political power and full control over the government. To remain legitimate, the shogunate had to keep the archipelago free from foreign influence, which it had done successfully since the 17th century, cutting off trade routes with the West and forbidding Christianity.
As predicted, the situation changed dramatically in the late-19th century. US Admiral Perry forced entry into Japanese harbours in 1853, paving the way for free-trade treaties signed between the Empire of the Rising Sun and the Netherlands, the United States, Russia and Great Britain. Why would anyone deprive himself from the promises of technological progress, already ripe in the Western world? Decimated by famine, bled dry by heavy taxation, Japanese peasants cried out against the shogunate, asking for their fair share of modernity and industrialization-related riches… And so, the archipelago started to open up to Western influences and technology. Soon old traditions and samurai rule became obsolete…
A few steps towards war
The shogun did not have any alternative: in order to secure his privileged position, he should choose modernity over backward-looking attitudes, industrially-processed cannons over the samurais’ ancestral sword. The emperor has requested the Brits’ help; the shogun decided to call out to French military instructors to modernise his own battalions. In January 1867, the French mission dropped anchor at the Yokohama harbour, Jules Brunet being one of the first to disembark.
For more than a year, French officers trained the samurais in anticipation of a battle that was bound to happen. The task was enormous: the shogun’s men were equipped with old weapons, their methods were obsolete and their own organization flawed. Jules Brunet oversaw the building of an arsenal featuring a gunpowder factory and a foundry, hoping to give the samurais a decent chance to rival the emperor’s forces…
Early 1868 marked the outbreak of an unavoidable civil war. Ultimately, the mikado did receive supreme power and full control over the government, now divorcing from samurai rule; still, Tokugawa had to be put down so as to crush his ambitions altogether. The shogun fought against empire-controlled militias in January near Toba and Fushimi. Tokugawa’s 15,000 men formed a heterogeneous battalion, featuring lancers, swordfighters, armoured samurais, but also uniform-wearing soldiers carrying guns. On the other side of the battlefield, the emperor’s forces owned Gatling machine guns and English cannons…
Among the shadows
Unsurprisingly, the shogun’s men were easily driven away – or slaughtered. Giving up fighting altogether, Tokugawa surrendered, and France signed a neutrality treaty… But as the war drew to a close, a surprising twist occurred: a few French soldiers decided to remain loyal to their mission and joined underground resistance against the emperor! As he did not want to be perceived as a deserter, Jules Brunet sent a resignation letter to his superiors, arguing that he was “resolute to die or to serve well the French cause in that country.”
Together, French and Japanese rebels took over Hokkaidō Island – their new headquarters – and proclaimed on December 25, 1868 the Republic of Ezo – an independent, separatist and democratic state seceding from the Empire of the Rising Sun. There, Jules Brunet kept on training the last samurais and sowing the seeds of modernity in Japanese hearts. According to a French officer, Brunet’s determination and skill were absolute:
“He has carried out a veritable 1789 French Revolution in this brave new Japan; the election of leaders and the determination of rank by merit and not birth—these are fabulous things for this country, and he has been able to do things very well, considering the seriousness of the situation.”
The Empire strikes back
However, despite its idealistic nature, Ezo’s 3,000-men army was no match for the forces of the emperor. In 1869, the imperial army landed soldiers in Hokkaidō to drive the remaining forces of the rebellion out of their trenches; in June, only 1,000 rebels defended Hakodate, the capital city. Knowing that he could not win, Brunet fled with some of his comrades and was sheltered aboard an allied ship. A few days later, the short-lived Republic of Ezo was dissolved.
What about Brunet? Thanks to the intervention of French authorities, the dissidents were spared and repatriated. Back in Paris, Jules Brunet was not found guilty of any charge, and he headed back to active military service. The last samurai did not stop being talked about: fighting against the Prussians in 1870, he climbed the military ladder and ended up as general of division in the late 19th-century. Rumour has it that he kept close to him, throughout his life, the precious samurai swords that had been given to him by the shogun, as well as radiant watercolours that reminded him of his Eastern adventures fraught with perils.
- François-Xavier Héon, « Le véritable dernier Samouraï : l’épopée japonaise du capitaine Brunet », Stratégique, 2010/1 (N˚ 99), p. 193-223.
- Vincent Jolly, « Jules Brunet, le vrai-faux du dernier samouraï », Le Figaro, 17 juillet 2020.
- Nicolas Skopinski, « Jules Brunet, général français et combattant rebelle japonais », RetroNews, 11 mars 2019.
- Michèle Battesti, « L’histoire vraie du dernier samouraï », Historia n°764, août 2010.
- « La fin des samurai », L’Histoire n°95, décembre 1986.