The Real Last Samurai
Few people know that the last samurai was none other than a Frenchman, Jules Brunet, whose story notably inspired the film "The Last Samurai" released in 2003 with Tom Cruise as main actor. Jules Brunet was an ex-student of the polytechnique school specialized in artillery, and mainly he will serve in the French expedition to Mexico (1861-1867). He then received the Legion of Honor in recognition of his military abilities, and was quickly promoted in the Imperial Guard. In November 1866, he was chosen to be part of a mission sent to Japan under the orders of Jules Chanoine, to train the army of Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa.
At the time, Yoshinobu Tokugawa wishes to modernize Japan considering that the backwardness of the nation is important. But he has to face rebellions, the Japanese people thinking that the agreements made in general with the Western powers are unequal and favor the West. France supports the Shogun facing these revolts, helps Japan to industrialize, and confronts the international community in favor of Japan. In fact, after the attack on certain Western counters, Japan is setting in a bad diplomatic position.
In this context Jules Brunet participates in the training of the Shogun's army from January 1866 and quickly acquires the respect of the Japanese. He is quick-witted, very respectful and appreciative of Japanese culture, and has a great interest in art and writing (he is reputed to be a very good designer and writer). On november 1867, Yoshinobu Tokugawa abdicates deliberately to favorise the modernization of Japan, and young emperor Meiji (known in the West as Mutsuhito) takes over after more than 600 years of Shogunate (military government). Yoshinobu Tokugawa's opponents want the establishment of a council made of the various daimyos (local lords) and eventually chaired by Yoshinobu (an idea of moderated daimyo of Tosa).
But on January 3rd, 1868, the forces favorable to the Emperor seize power and re-establish the monarchical functioning. Happy with the return of the Emperor, not wishing that this one to be influenced, and not wanting Yoshinobu as chairman of the council, these forces carry out a false imperial decree authorizing them to use force against Yoshinobu Tokugawa. They remove him from his lands and possessions, taking good care that no sympathizer can intervene. On January 27th, 1868, Yoshinobo Tokugawa's forces are attacked near Kyoto, it is the beginning of the Boshin war. Despite the numerical superiority of the Shogun's armies, the imperial army disperses the forces of Tokugawa Yoshinobu thanks to their important advances in modern armament. Léon Roches, French ambassador, wishes a revenge of Yoshinobu whose soldiers are still trained by the French mission. But this one refuses and capitulates when he notices that the opposing forces are, all of them, fighting with the Emperor's banners, and he takes refuge at Edo. France then has a duty of neutrality when facing these events, the Chanoine mission is over and the French are asked to leave the territory.
But Brunet refuses, his honor dictates to him to remain faithful to the samurais he trained, to the Shogun and to their wishes for the future of Japan. France does not officially support this decision, and decides to give Brunet unpaid leave for one year, during which he is no more than a simple foreigner. However, he is supported by Roches who continues to defend Yoshinobu's goodwill with the emperor, and by eight French officers who will join Brunet in Japan. Thanks to artillery, the empire now controls the whole of the main island of Japan (Honshu) and the Shogun withdraws and takes control of the island of Hokkaido with Brunet, creating the republic of Ezo under the leadership of Takeaki Enamoto, Tokugawa Yoshinobu having retired. Brunet continues the training of the Shogun's army, and organizes with Roches the defense of the island which is taken by storm on June 30th, 1868. But the Shogun's army is now made up of three times less soldiers. The resistance is heroic, but Brunet and the Shogun's soldiers were defeated in May 1869, with 800 men in the last fight against 10,000 imperial soldiers. French officers are repatriated.
Brunet is then suspended for interference in the affairs of a foreign country, but torture being common in Japan at the time, France nevertheless refuses to return him to the Japanese authorities. Some will think that Brunet has been permanently dismissed, in reality France will ask him to be discreet and his actions will not really be condemned beyond the apparent sanction validated by Napoleon III. While Japan feels satisfied with the sanction, Brunet is discreetly placed as assistant director of a weapons factory. After a few years, Brunet will continue his military actions as captain of the 8th artillery regiment during the Franco-German war, will become an officer of the Legion of Honor, and will pursue a most honorable military course by becoming commander of the Legion of Honor and finishing his career as a general.
In 1895, Japan will honor Brunet by remembering him as a samurai who will have faced the modernization of the new Imperial army, and will give him the rank of Grand Officer of the Mikado sacred treasure. French mission in Japan.
Captain Chanoine standing in the center, Jules Brunet is seated just at left of the captain.