The True Story of Jules Brunet, ‘The Last Samurai’

Last updated on January 31st, 2023 at 07:49 pm

When most people think of the movie “The Last Samurai,” they think of the Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Cruise. However, the true story behind this film is quite fascinating. Jules Brunet was a French military officer who fought in Japan during the Meiji Restoration.

He became fascinated with Japanese culture and eventually became a samurai warrior himself. This is a fantastic story of courage and determination, and it’s no wonder that Hollywood turned it into a movie.

Learn more about the true story of Jules Brunet – the man who inspired the character of Nathan Algren in the film.

The Boshin War

In the 19th century, Japan was an isolated nation, set in its traditional ways. The Shogunate suppressed contact with the outside world fearing its influence on Japanese society.

In 1853, American Naval Commander Matthew Perry docked on the shores of Tokyo, bringing a fleet of modern ships and forcing Tokyo to open its borders.

Japan established a treaty with the U.S. Perry Expedition giving the United States access to two of their harbors and establishing a consul in Shimoda.

The event shocked the nation and split society into two halves. One half believed that modernization was necessary, while the other half believed Japan should retain its traditions. This disagreement fundamentally altered the course of Japan’s history and started the Boshin War of 1868-1869. This was also known as the Japanese Revolution.

On one side, you had the Meiji Emperor, backed by influential Western figures interested in reviving the emperor’s power. The opposing side was the Tokugawa Shogunate, a military dictatorship of elite samurai who had ruled Japan since 1603.

Jules Brunet, A Decorated Military Man

Jules Brunet was born in Belfort, Alsace, in Eastern France near the German border. He followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a military man. Jules was regarded as an intelligent man and graduated from the École Polytechnique, specializing in artillery.

Once he had graduated, fought during the French Invasion of Mexico, which earned him the nation’s highest honor. As a Legion d’Honneur, it was no surprise then that when he arrived with the French mission to Japan in 1868, Yoshinobu Tokugawa requested that Brunet join the ranks.

The Samurai Were Losing Their Grip

In 1868, the Shogunate’s grip on power was beginning to unravel. The emperor had been in a ceremonial position for centuries while the real power rested in the hands of the Tokugawa shoguns.

The Shogunate was a military government that had been in place for centuries. The shoguns were the armed branch of the empire’s government and served the emperor; however, the Shogunate held political power and complete government control. This system worked well for Japan until Matthew Perry’s fateful expedition.

The arrival of foreigners sparked a change in Japanese society, which led to many samurai becoming restless. They were the country’s elite warriors and had a stringent code of honor known as bushido or “the warrior’s way.”

The samurai were losing their grip on power, making them very dangerous. While the rest of the world advanced and used technological advances, the citizens of the Shogunate cried out for change and advancement. 

The Shogunate had no choice but to acknowledge this way forward and pursue modernity to keep their position. So, in January 1867, Yoshinobu wanted French military instructors to train the army. Because the samurai had good relations with Napoleon III, the French ruler sent a team of experts, with Brunet among them.

Brunet’s Arrival in Japan

Brunet arrived in Yokohama, Japan, in 1867. He was one of seven French military officers who came to serve as advisers to the Shogunate army. When Brunet arrived, he was taken aback at how obsolete the samurai army was. Their weapons were old and flawed, as was their organization.

They were skilled in using swords and other melee weapons, but they lacked experience with modern firearms. The Shogunate also had a small number of Western-trained soldiers, but they were not enough to make a difference. So, using his artillery experience, Brunet established an arsenal with a gunpowder factory and a foundry, hoping to improve their chances against the Imperial army.

Brunet was able to gain the trust of the Shogunate’s army and become one of their most trusted advisers. He helped modernize their weapons and tactics, but it was not enough. He found himself caught in the middle of the Boshin War after the Meiji Emperor’s supporters seized the palace in Kyoto on January 3, 1868.

Later that month he was present at The Battle of Toba-Fushimi where 15,000 of the shogun’s forces fought against 5,000 members of the imperial army. Despite their numbers, the Shogunate was no match for the rifles, howitzers, and Gatling guns.

The battle was a victory for the Imperial army. Many of the Shogun’s defeated followers rejoined the emperor. However, Brunet and the Shogunate’s Admiral Enomoto Takeaki fled to the north on a warship escaping the battle.

Brunet’s Fate

As the Emperor reestablished his rule, foreign nations like France claimed their neutrality in the conflict. The French government ordered the mission to leave and return home to avoid getting involved in the conflict. Many of his French comrades agreed with this sentiment, but Brunet did not and refused to leave.

It’s unclear what made him decide to stay. To not seem like a deserter, Brunet wrote a letter to Napoleon III stating that he was staying with the rebel group because they were 50,000 strong and were loyal to France.

After a series of skirmishes and failed attempts to slow the return of Imperial power, Yoshinobu surrendered and submitted to the emperor’s rule.

Still, Brunet and Enomoto fled to Hokkaido’s island, where they worked to establish the Ezo Republic. Eventually, the war would come to Hokkaido at the port city of Hakodate. Brunet and the Tokugawa rebels fought valiantly against Imperial rule during a six-month battle, but it was not enough.

Though Brunet had chosen the losing side, he could not surrender, so he made a ferry to Saigon. Afterward, he returned to France.

Although the Japanese government demanded Brunet’s punishment, France did not comply because of his popularity in France. Instead, Brunet was eventually reinstated in the French army, where he was promoted many times.

There’s no concrete answer to why Brunet decided to stay in Japan. Some say he was motivated by money, others by adventure. However, the decorated veteran was likely impressed by the dedication of the samurai to their cause. Brunet was a skilled and experienced military man but also an idealist.

In the end, Brunet’s story is one about a man who was out of his element but found a cause worth fighting for. He was able to help the Shogunate army in their final battle against the Imperial army and preserve the samurai way of life, if only for a bit longer.

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