You may remember the movie “The Last Samurai”, where Tom Cruise was playing a US captain who joins to fight alongside the last samurais in Japan. What you may not know, is that the movie was loosely based on a true story, and that in the real story the last samurai was… a Frenchman!
Let me introduce you Jules Brunet, a French army officer, who was sent to Japan in 1867 by Napoleon III with a group of military advisors to help Shogun (the Chief of the Samurai government at the time) modernize his army. However, one year later, in 1868 the Shogun was overthrown in what is known as Boshin War and the Emperor Meiji was restored to power. At that point, the French military mission was over, however, Jules Brunet decided to stay in Japan and moved to the North with the remains of the Shogun’s army. They moved all the way up to Hokkaido (known as Ezo at the time) and have established the Ezo Republic.
Jules brunet helped to organize the Ezo army. While he was not the only French supporting the cause, he remains the best known and the one considered as the “real” last samurai. The Ezo Republic was short-lived, and was the first and only attempt to institute democracy and elections. Ezo government was based inside the five-pointed-star-shaped fortress of Goryōkaku, which was designed by Takeda Ayusaburo based the work of the French architect Vauban.
Goryōkaku is famous as the place of the battle of Hakodate, or the last battle of the Boshin War, where Ezo forces were defeated by the Imperial troops. While Jules Brunet and other French military advisers were wanted by the Imperial government, they could escape and return to France. Back in France, Brunet was quite quickly rehabilitated thanks to popular support for his actions while in Japan, and, having re-joined the French army, continued his military career.
Through the influence of Admiral Enomoto,who was the president of the Ezo Republic, then surrendered in the Battle of Hakodate, but after rehabilitation joined the Imperial Government as the Minister of Imperial Japaneses Navy, the Imperial government not only forgave Jules Brunet, but even awarded him several medals, including the Order of the Rising Sun.
If you ever happen to visit Hakodate, remember that this is the place where the real Last Samurai story took place. While my purpose of visiting Hakodate was to see the Goryōkaku fortress (and to tell you this story), I enjoyed wandering around the city, up and down the slopes that reminded me of San Francisco. Maybe not that steep and not that many, but a good exercise and nice views are guaranteed!