For nearly 700 years, Japan was ruled by a military dictator known as the shogun, and the role of the emperor was largely ceremonial. But in 1868 a group of disgruntled nobles and court officials convinced Emperor Meiji to take back power. The sitting shogun abdicated, but when he later decided to fight back, a civil war began.
The emperor's forces eventually defeated the shogun's, and in January 1869, a remnant of the shogun's fleet retreated to Ezo, Japan's northernmost island. There, with the help of a French military adviser, the admiral of the fleet, Enomoto Takeaki, established the Ezo Republic. The constitution of Ezo was based on that of the U.S. and recognized universal suffrage for all members of the samurai (military) caste. For this reason, the Republic of Ezo is sometimes regarded as the first example of democratic governance in Japan.
But in the spring of 1869, imperial forces arrived. By the end of June, just 151 days into the newborn republic's existence, those forces overwhelmed it. The Japanese islands were consolidated under the Meiji Restoration, and Ezo was renamed Hokkaido [source: Hübler and Herbert].