Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps



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Endings and Transformations
The end was Imminent, yet so far off. As the supreme lord weakened in the face of his enemies, his most lethal fighting force achieved its greatest moment. As war and death shook the very foundations of the military regime of his ancestors, a sincerity supported hy bloodletting, a terrible propensity for the same, and a will to power that knew no bounds catapulted his fighting force into the highest order of things.
The Tokugawa Bakufu proceeded with its plan for a military expe­dition against Choshu. By mid-November 1864, 150,000 troops had been amassed at the Choshu borders—although it was becom-lng apparent that these troops lacked both the morale and the will to right. Furthermore, Satsuma had recently undergone a change of heart vis-a-vis Choshu. These two leaders in the mounting revolu­tion were still enemies. Satsuma's military alliance with Aizu in the previous year had resulted in Choshu's banishment from Kyoto, its fall from imperial grace, and its eventual "Imperial Enemy" stigma. But Satsuma and Choshu shared one very significant and deep sen­timent—two and a half centuries of festering resentment toward the Tokugawa.

Now that the Bakufu had lost its undisputed authority of the past, Saigo Kichinosuke,69 de facto leader of the Satsuma military and staff officer of the Tokugawa's expeditionary forces against Choshu, concluded that it was no longer in the best interest of Satsuma to fight against Choshu. On the contrary, it now occurred to Saigo that the mere presence of this most overt enemy of the Tokugawa served as a constant menace to Edo, further diminishing the shogun's authority. Saigo was also aware of internal discord in Choshu, which had recently weakened that clan in the face of the impending attack. The Choshu domain, in fact, was on the verge of civil war. The conservatives in Choshu, still fearful of the wrath of the Tokugawa Bakufu, reverted to their pre-Ikeda'ya espousal of allegiance to Edo. The Choshu Loyalists, radical as ever, called for military preparation to fight the Tokugawa. But now that Imperial Reverence and Expel the Barbarians was a thing of the past, Choshu was temporarily under the control of the conservatives.

Taking advantage of Choshu's internal discord, Saigo pre­sented that government with a set of conditions by which war could be avoided. The three Choshu ministers officially responsible for the attack on the Imperial Capital would be ordered to commit sep-puku and their four staff commanders executed; the Choshu daimyo and his heir would send a letter of apology to the Bakufu for initiating the attack, and both would be placed under house arrest; Yamaguchi Castle, the secondary castle of Choshu Han, would be demolished. Choshu accepted the conditions, and, for the time being, war was avoided.

But the Bakufu did not benefit from Choshu's capitulation. A vivid example of Edo's inability to regain undisputed authority was its attempt in the previous September to reinstate the centuries-old system of alternate attendance, which it had abolished two years earlier. Having crushed the Loyalists in Kyoto, the shogunate was under the false impression that it had indeed recouped its lost authority. However, its order for the wives and heirs of all the feu­dal lords in Japan to return to their residences in Edo, as stipulated by alternate attendance, was simply ignored.

What's more, Choshu remained a very real threat to the Tokugawa. Although the Choshu government had capitulated to Edo's demands, the rebels in Choshu had not. Far from giving up the fight, the Choshu Loyalists were as determined as ever to over­throw the Bakufu. Their determination was indicated by their new battle cry—Imperial Loyalism and Down with the Bakufu.70 They were led by a particularly fiery young samurai by the name of Takasugi Shinsaku. In June 1863, only days after Choshu had been bombarded by foreign ships at Shimonoseki, Takasugi formed Japan's first modern militia. He named this army Kiheitai— Extraordinary Corps. Kiheitai was extraordinary not only for its superior fighting ability but also as Japan's first fighting force in which men of the merchant and peasant classes fought alongside samurai. Until that time the military of Choshu, like that of all feu­dal clans in Japan, consisted entirely of samurai, whose sole purpose for hundreds of years had been to defend their ban. But after two and a half centuries of Pax Tokugawa, these samurai had forgotten how to fight. Takasugi challenged the social structure of Tokugawa feudalism by arming the commoners. And though he had ostensibly formed his corps to defend Choshu from foreign inva­sion, his ultimate goal was the overthrow of the Bakufu.

In April 1865, the first year of the era of Keio, the Bakufu issued orders for the great feudal lords to dispatch armies to west­ern Japan in preparation for a so-called second expedition against Choshu. Edo, of course, was unaware that at this very time Sakamoto Ryoma was arranging with Saigo for Satsuma's aid in procuring modern rifles and warships from foreign merchants in Nagasaki to arm Choshu. In contrast, most Tokugawa troops car­ried old-fashioned guns. Furthermore, the Bakufu lacked the capital to wage a war and the moral support among the feudal domains, most notably Satsuma, to sustain one. Of this last point, and of Choshu's resolve to fight, Kondo Isami was painfully aware.

In November, Kondo and eight of his corpsmen, including Ito, Takeda, and Yamazaki, accompanied Bakufu Chief Inspector Nagai Naomune on a trip to Hiroshima Han, on Choshu's eastern border. Nagai was dispatched to question Ch5shu representatives regarding their clan's intention to abide by the conditions of the Peace agreement of the previous year. If they would not abide by the conditions, the Bakufu would launch an expedition against them—which, of course, was exactly what Choshu wanted. Kondo, for his part, intended to travel undercover to Hagi Castle Town, the nerve center of the Choshu Loyalists, to glean information. He was fully aware of the great danger to his life. Before leaving, he had entrusted the command of his corps to Hijikata, and had quietly appointed Okita as his successor as chief instructor of the Tennen Rishin style. As it turned out, Kondo's precautions, while becoming of a samurai, proved unnecessary. He was unable to gain entrance into Choshu.

After returning to Kyoto, Kondo reported to the Lord of Aizu that Choshu was preparing for war. He also expressed some dis­turbing impressions of Bakufu troops in Hiroshima: "Although the hatamoto have gradually reached Geishu province,71 they display no fighting spirit whatsoever." Both Kondo and the Lord of Aizu felt that the Bakufu's long delay in initiating the fighting had dimin­ished the will to fight among the frontline troops. Kondo was disgusted with these so-called Knights of the Tokugawa, who spent their time "getting souvenirs together" and "grew weary just waiting to return to the east." He advised that "since we cannot expect vic­tory if war should break out," any sign of submission by Choshu should be accepted "with leniency."

Far from showing any sign of submission, the Choshu daimyo refused a summons to Edo. Instead, he ordered the people through­out his realm, commoners and samurai alike, to prepare for all-out war. Sakamoto Ryoma described the situation in Choshu as he had witnessed it: "Choshu is putting everything into the training of its troops. Since April they have been drilling from around six to ten every morning. Its the same all over Choshu. Each of their battal­ions is made up of between three and four hundred men, with a general staff officer in command. The battalions in every district and every village drill each morning. There is nothing like it any­where else in Japan. No matter where you go in Choshu—the mountains, the rivers, the valleys—you are bound to come across fortifications; and there are land mines planted on most of the main roads. Choshu is certainly at the forefront of Western artillery."

In a final effort to avoid war, the Bakufu dispatched Senior Councilor Ogasawara Nagamichi (Lord of Karatsu) to Choshu in January 1866. Ogasawara was escorted by Nagai, who was again accompanied by the Shinsengumi commander and several of his men. Included among the Shinsengumi men were Ito and his close friend and confidant Shinohara Yasunoshin. The senior councilor carried demands from Edo that the Lord of Choshu and his heir submit to confinement at their residence, and that their domain be reduced by the enormous amount of 100,000 koku. Both demands were ignored.


In May, as Shogun Tokugawa lemochi led his army westward from Edo to launch the expedition against Choshu, a group of samurai of Zeze Han planned to assassinate him. The group was led by one Kawase Dazai, the son of a hereditary councilor to the Lord of Zeze. While the Zeze daimyo was a direct retainer of the shogun, Kawase's group were ardent Imperial Loyalists who supported Choshu. By assassinating lemochi, they would dissuade the Bakufu from launching the expedition. Their plan was foiled when it came to the attention of a certain Zeze man who arranged for the infor­mation to be relayed to the protector of Kyoto. The Shinsengumi were immediately dispatched to Kawase's house in Otsu, just east of Kyoto. But Kawase had been warned, and by the time the Shinsengumi arrived, he was gone. The only one at home was Kawase's wife. When the Shinsengumi informed her that they would take her to their headquarters for questioning, she begged for time to prepare herself. She went to a room at the rear of the house, where she quickly burned letters and other documents that impli­cated her husband in the assassination plot. After destroying the evidence, and without further ado, she took up a dagger and stabbed herself in the throat. She died of her wound eleven days later. Thirty samurai involved in the plot, including Kawase, were subsequently arrested. In November, four of them were forced to commit seppuku; seven were executed. Kawase was beheaded the following year. A samurai of the Yonezawa clan was arrested by the Shinsengumi for harboring Kagawa Keizo of Mito, one of the assas­sination plotters. The prisoner refused to talk under interrogation by Kondo and Hijikata. Staff Officer Ito Kashitaro was so impressed by the Yonezawa man's courage that he convinced Kondo and Hijikata to release him, citing his apparent innocence. Ito did not need mention his own Loyalist sympathies, which were growing more and more prevalent.
Nishihonganji Temple, a center of the Jodo Shinshu Honganji sect, was situated on a large tract of land along Horikawa-dori Road in the southwest of Kyoto. The priests of Nishihonganji sympathized with the Loyalists. They harbored men who fought on Choshu's side in the Battle at the Forbidden Gates. After the battle, the priests hid several Choshu samurai at their temple. These Choshu samurai later fled the city, disguised as clerics. When this came to the atten­tion of the Shinsengumi, they arrested a number of Nishihonganji priests.

The following spring Kondo and Hijikata moved their head­quarters from Mibu to Nishihonganji. The expansive precincts of Nishihonganji better accommodated their increasing ranks. Furthermore, Nishihonganji was located in closer proximity to trouble spots in the city than was Mibu.72 And perhaps even more significantly, the Shinsengumi suspected that the Nishihonganji priests still sided with the enemy. By moving to Nishihonganji Temple, they could keep a closer watch on the people coming and going from the compound and the doings of the priests. The good priests were perplexed when the Shinsengumi informed them of their intention. They feared the violence that would certainly accompany the corps but dared not refuse the request outright. In hopes of dissuading them, the priests presented the Shinsengumi with cash gifts. They wined and dined them at exquisite restaurants in the city. But Kondo and Hijikata would not be dissuaded, and the priests finally acquiesced.

On one of the temple gates the corps hung a wooden placard, boldly announcing in black Chinese ink that the great temple was now home to the Shinsengumi. They occupied three buildings at Nishihonganji, including a large meeting hall and the double-tiered drum tower. So spacious was the meeting hall that it required five hundred tatami mats to cover its floor. The Shinsengumi partitioned the building into barracks for the rank and file. Between the main temple hall and the new headquarters, they constructed a bath­house, a jail, and execution grounds. They used the spacious precincts as training grounds. Each day the men drilled with their swords and spears and practiced firing two cannon they had acquired from the Lord of Aizu. The explosions startled worshippers and the local townspeople. Eventually the temple priests implored them to refrain from firing their guns within the precincts. At first the Shinsengumi refused, on the grounds that they were training "for the sake of the country." Kondo finally ordered his men to cease the cannon practice at the insistence of the Lord of Aizu. Even rnore perplexing than cannon fire to the Buddhist priests was the unholy smell of pork, which the corpsmen purchased from local vendors at the temple gates and stewed in large iron pots in their barracks.

At the end of May, soon after moving to Nishihonganji, the Shinsengumi reorganized. Ten squads were formed under Commander Kondo, Vice Commander Hijikata, and Staff Officer Ito. Each squad consisted of ten rank and filers overseen by one captain (assistant vice commander) and two corporals. The captains included Okita, Nagakura, Saito, Takeda, Inoue, Todo, and Harada. Among the corporals were Shimada Kai and Hashimoto Kaisuke. Seven observers and nineteen instructors were appointed from among the officers. The observers, including Yamazaki Susumu and Shinohara Yasunoshin, monitored the rank and file. The instructors taught kenjutsu, jujutsu, yarijutsu, horsemanship, artillery, and lit­erature. Among the kenjutsu instructors were Okita, Nagakura, and Saito. Tani Sanjuro taught yarijutsu. Shinohara taught jujutsu. Ito and Takeda taught literature. At the apex of their reorganization to control the rank and file, Kondo and Hijikata now declared the theretofore unofficial regulations, which had been the foundation of the corps' unprecedented strength, as the official code of conduct of the Shinsengumi.

Sakamoto Ryoma despised everything that the Shinsengumi repre­sented, especially the Tokugawa Bakufu. In January 1866, the second year of the era of Keio, Ryoma sealed the fate of the Edo regime when he brokered a military alliance between Satsuma and Choshu. Satsuma now refused to fight against Choshu. Aizu cried treason and threatened to attack Satsuma. Wary as ever of Satsuma's military clout and fearing that a confrontation between Aizu and Satsuma might induce the latter to enter the war on the side of Choshu, the Bakufu commissioned Katsu Kaishu to mediate between the two adversaries. A year and a half earlier, in the fall of 1864, Kaishu had been dismissed from his post as Tokugawa navy commissioner and placed under house arrest in Edo for aiding ene­mies of the Bakufu—i.e., Sakamoto Ryoma and his unruly band of ronin. At the end of May 1866, Kaisho was summoned to Edo Castle and reinstated to his former post because the shogun himself recognized that he was the only man in Edo who commanded enough respect among Satsuma and Aizu to settle the matter. As the.j end of Tokugawa rule approached, Kaishu repeatedly risked his life for the sake of the Tokugawa. He was despised by men on both sides of the revolution and had nearly been assassinated on several occa­sions. For all his loyalty to the shogun, however, Kaishu was a realist. He was also a visionary who several years before had already per­ceived the inevitability of the Bakufu's collapse. It was for this reason that, when his house arrest was imminent, he met with Saigo Kichinosuke of Satsuma. He told Saigo that the Bakufu was no longer capable of ruling, that the future of Japan no longer rested with the Tokugawa but rather with a unified representative Japanese government, that a federation of the feudal domains was vital to strengthen the nation and convince the foreign powers to revise the humiliating treaties Japan had been forced to sign in the previous decade, and that Satsuma and Choshu must not fight against each other but rather unite for the sake of a stronger Japan. In short, the loyal Tokugawa retainer hinted to the leader of one of Edo's two most dangerous adversaries that because the end of two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule was fast approaching, Satsuma and Choshu must join forces with each other to topple the Bakufu.

In June, Kaishu wrote a short letter to the Aizu daimyo, cen­suring him for his reactionary antiforeignism, and for his "inability to observe the world situation" and "cope with present changes. Kaishu admonished Lord Katamori that in "suspecting Satsuma, it seems as if you hate them" and that he feared "this might cause great trouble for the nation." He ended the letter by expressing his hope that "the Bakufu will now do its utmost to sincerely and impar­tially perform its duties properly, irrespective of other matters." By thus admonishing the shogun's cousin, Kaishu pressed the Bakufu to administer the government for the welfare of the entire nation, not simply for the sole benefit of the House of Tokugawa. Certainly a man of Kaisho's moral courage had little to fear from the Lord of Aizu. It seemed, in fact, that the protector of Kyoto, as if to belie the aura of dread surrounding his Mibu Wolves and the fighting spirit of his own samurai, was a weak man. Kaishu recalled his mediation between Satsuma and Aizu thirty years later: "I went immediately to Kyoto. The first person I visited was [the Lord of] Aizu. [He] was drinking sake . . . with two of his women. He was in bed as if ill. It was just horrible! He told me he understood [the situation] and that he would not do such a terrible thing.'3 But his retainers wouldn't listen to him, so he said to me, 'Now that you're here, things will be all right. Do something to convince my retainers.'"

Kaishu successfully settled the matter between Aizu and Satsuma. Earlier in the month, however, on June 7, Edo had already opened hostilities against Choshu. Then, on July 20 of the second year of Keio (1866)—the second-to-last year of Tokugawa rule—as if the Sun Goddess were intent on restoring her imperial descen­dant in Kyoto to his ancient seat of power, Tokugawa lemochi, the twenty-year-old shogun, suddenly died at Osaka Castle.

Needless to say, the death of the supreme leader of the hege­mony in the east dealt a severe blow to his campaign in the west. The war was waged on four fronts surrounding the Chosho domain. By the first week in August, the Tokugawa forces had been beaten on all four fronts. Faced with inevitable defeat, the Bakufu used the shogun's death as an excuse to end hostilities. In December, five months after lemochi's death, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the former inspector-general of the forces protecting the emperor in Kyoto, was conferred by the emperor with the illustrious title "commander in chief of the expeditionary forces against the barbarians," thus becoming the fifteenth and last Tokugawa Shogun.



Meanwhile, the Sun Goddess continued to torment the Bakufu, even at the expense of one of her own. On December 25, twenty days after Yoshinobu's accession, Emperor Komei, whose pro-Tokugawa stance had bolstered the Bakufu, suddenly died at his palace in Kyoto. Although the cause of death was attributed to smallpox, rumor had it that the emperor had been poisoned. The rumor was not far-fetched. Alive, the emperor posed a major obsta­cle to the anti-Tokugawa faction at court, whose return to power had been reinforced by the recent Choshu victory. Komei's heir, who would be known to history as Emperor Meiji, was just fourteen Years old. His maternal grandfather and official guardian, Nakayama Tadayasu, was a confidant of Iwakura Tomomi, the leader of the anti-Tokugawa faction at court. Nakayama was now in a position to aid Iwakura. At the end of 1866, as Katsu Kaishu had long foreseen, the collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu was imminent.
As the Bakufu crumbled, so did the Shinsengumi. Before the final fall, however, Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo were in command of a corps of about one hundred men. In June 1867, four and a half years after the formation of the Roshi Corps, all members of the Shinsengumi were finally granted hatamoto status, ranking them among the Eighty Thousand Knights of the Tokugawa Shogun. But only Commander Kondo was given the high honor of direct access to the shogun. Awarded generous stipends, the Shinsengumi were no longer stigmatized as roshi. This sudden rise to power, even for men of the samurai class, was unprecedented in Tokugawa history. Just four days after his ascent into the upper echelons of the Tokugawa hierarchy, Kondo Isami attended an important political meeting of elite feudal lords of the Tokugawa camp. The meeting had been called in response to a memorial that was dangerously crit­ical of the Bakufu. The memorial had been recently submitted to the Imperial Court by four influential feudal lords—Fukui, Tosa, Satsuma, and Uwajima—the latter three of whom were outside the Tokugawa camp. The lords censured the Bakufu for its "unreason­able actions" in the second expedition against Choshu, which had been launched for "unwarranted reasons" and "caused a great national disturbance." Kondo vehemently denounced the memorial, defended the Bakufu, and strongly criticized the shogun's most important retainers for "incomprehensibly and blindly following outside lords, when, as relatives of the shogun, they should be defending the Bakufu, regardless of its faults." Kondo composed a letter expressing these ideas, which he intended to submit to the Imperial Court. That Kondo was in a position to even consider peti­tioning the court was indicative of his weighty influence in Kyoto politics, rivaling the most powerful feudal lords. The Shinsengumi were no longer simply a security force on the bloody streets of the Imperial Capital but had transformed into a political force to be reckoned with on the perilous national stage. That reckoning was soon to come.

Blood at the Crossroads
The corps commander was set in his ways. He would lay down his life for the shogun. He would not hesitate to condemn a man to death who opposed his supreme lord, and would rush to kill anyone who threat­ened him. In contrast, the staff officer, whom the commander had brought into the corps, was analytical and flexible. He asserted his independence and his openly radical views. He attracted an inde­pendent following among the corpsmen, including, of course, those who shared his radical views. The commander felt responsible for cre­ating this dangerous situation. The commander would no longer tolerate the errant staff officer and his independent following.

Dissent divided the Shinsengumi. As had been the case under Commander Serizawa Kamo, the corps split into two factions under the influence of Staff Officer Ito Kashitaro. Since joining the jhinsengumi in December 1864, Ito had openly espoused Imperial Loyalism. He was in cahoots with Choshu and Satsuma and overtly critical of the Tokugawa regime and its expedition against Choshu. When Ito accompanied Kondo during the latter's second trip to Hiroshima, the staff officer remained in the west for more than fifty days, cultivating good relations with anti-Tokugawa samurai of the Choshu camp.

Emboldened by Choshu's victory in August 1866, Ito and his men became so fervent in their Imperial Loyalism that they could no longer rationalize their membership in the Shinsengumi. Near the end of September, Ito and Observer Shinohara Yasunoshin met with the two Shinsengumi leaders at the home of Kondo's mistress, Miyuki. Ito and Shinohara informed Kondo and Hijikata of their decision not to quit but ''to secede" from the corps. "We discussed the national situation," Shinohara wrote in his memoirs. "All that either of them [Kondo and Hijikata] would do was to talk about the authority of the Tokugawa." And while Ito and Shinohara expressed their devotion to Imperial Loyalism, the two Shinsengumi leaders refused to question the "success or failures of the Tokugawa, or to understand the purport of Imperial Loyalism, but rather insisted on controlling people through military means." Ito and Shinohara lied that they had nurtured close relations with Satsuma and Choshu only to glean secret information from them. To gain the complete trust of the enemy, they said, they must officially leave the Shinsengumi. Perhaps they wondered whether Commander Kondo was actually deceived or merely pretended to be and, giving up hope in the men of Ito's faction, accepted their plans.

But Commander Kondo was not deceived. After being informed of Ito's decision to leave the corps, Kondo ordered Number Three Squad Captain Saito Hajime to spy on the errant staff officer.

Saito and Number Two Squad Captain Nagakura Shinpachi celebrated New Year's Day 1867 with Ito and six of his men at the Sumi'ya pleasure palace. The men drank heavily and relished the company of several young women. The festivities continued after nightfall, when all the men were required by Shinsengumi curfew to return to headquarters. According to Nagakura, "in order to dis­courage debauchery among the men, the Shinsengumi punished anyone who returned late." Wary of trouble, the rank and filers returned to headquarters before curfew that evening, while the three officers remained. They drank well into the night. When they awoke the next morning, they continued their revel, because, as Ito said, however tongue in cheek, "since we are going to have to commit seppuku anyway, we might as well drink." They finally returned to headquarters after four straight days of celebration. Nagakura mistakenly thought that "Kondo's face was filled with rage when he saw the three of us." Nagakura was apparently still unaware that Saito had been spying on Ito and believed that Kondo was indeed angry for the violation of Shinsengumi regulations. But Kondo was not angry. The matter was settled with Ito and Saito's being confined to headquarters for three days, and Nagakura for six. But the incident further widened the gap between Kondo and Nagakura, which had recently reemerged over the commander's "reckless . . . and egotistic behavior." The relationship between the two men would continue to deteriorate during their tragic final year together.

In the following March, Kondo Isami's cousin Miyagawa Nobukichi came from Tama to enlist in the Shinsengumi. Nine years younger than Kondo, Miyagawa had studied kenjutsu at the Shieikan. During the same month that Miyagawa joined the Shinsengumi, Ito Kashitaro "seceded." Miyagawa and Ito would meet in adverse cir­cumstances later that year.

The staff officer met with little opposition from the two Shinsengumi leaders. Ito took twelve men with him.74 Among them were Number Nine Squad Captain Suzuki Mikisaburo (Ito's younger brother), Observer Shinohara Yasunoshin, Number Eight Squad Captain Todo Heisuke, Corpsman Hashimoto Kaisuke, and Saito. (Saito infiltrated Ito's group as Kondo's spy.) The defection of Todo, formerly of the Shieikan and one of the thirteen original Shinsengumi members, was a thorn in Kondo's side. Through the good offices of a temple elder, Ito's group received imperial orders to join the special Guard of the Imperial Tomb for Emperor Komei. In June they set up headquarters at Gesshin'in, a subtemple of Kodaiji, in the Higashiyama district on the eastern side of the city. Completely independent from the Shinsengumi, they now became the Kodaiji Faction. In the face of the high moral ground connoted by the title Guard of the Imperial Tomb, Kondo and Hijikata, were, tor all their outrage, unable to prevent the blatant violation of corps regulations.

Ito had left behind ten of his allies in the Shinsengumi to gather vital information and, upon occasion, stir up trouble among the rank and file. When the men of the Shinsengumi were awarded hatamoto status in June, these ten decided to quit the corps on the grounds that they had joined for the express purposes of expelling the barbarians and practicing Imperial Loyalism, and not to serve as retainers of the Tokugawa. But Ito had a previous agreement with Kondo that neither side would accept would-be defectors from the other side. Well aware of the danger in inciting the wrath of Kondo and Hijikata, Ito was not about to renege on the agreement. When the ten men came to join his Guard of the Imperial Tomb, Ito advised them to first obtain official permission from the Lord of Aizu.

The ten men proceeded to Aizu headquarters. They were told that the official in charge was out at the time. Four of them, the leaders of the group, were shown to a drawing room and cordially invited to await his return. According to Shimosawa, while the four men waited, they were treated to a noon meal and generous serv­ings of sake. Evening came, and the official had still not returned. They grew restless. But soon the evening meal was served, accom­panied by plenty of sake. After ample food and drink, they grew drowsy. Meanwhile, the Shinsengumi had been summoned to the Aizu estate. Among them were Number Six Squad Captain Inoue Genzaburo and Observer Oishi Kuwajiro, who, Shimosawa wrote, "liked assassination more than anything." Around midnight, as the four would-be defectors sat in the gloomy drawing room, their assassins were upon them with drawn spears. Three of them were killed instantly. The fourth one, Sano Shimenosuke, was stabbed through the abdomen by Oishi. But he managed to draw his sword and cut Oishi before finally succumbing to his wounds. The six oth­ers were brought back to headquarters at Nishihonganji and summarily expelled from the corps.

The Shinsengumi denied that they had murdered the four men. According to their official report, the four committed seppuku at Aizu headquarters. This was a reasonable claim—they had com­mitted a capital offense and simply chose to end their lives of their own accord rather than be ordered to plunge in the blade. As ir to bolster the veracity of their report, on the following day the Shinsengumi buried the four with high honors at a nearby Buddhist temple.

Kondo and Hijikata became unsatisfied with their headquarters at Nishihonganji. A partitioned temple hall no longer served as adequate living quarters for their men. They required new accom­modations more suitable for direct Tokugawa retainers. Although thev lacked the funds for construction, they soon came upon a solu­tion. They knew that the priests at Nishihonganji had ample money at their disposal. They also knew that the good priests would not long endure spectacles of bloodshed and violence. The two leaders put to use their martial ingenuity and their propensity to kill to con­vince the priests to pay. According to Shimosawa, in plain view of the main temple building, corpsmen who had violated the code were made to commit seppuku, while captured enemies were exe­cuted amid shrieks of agony. "The Shinsengumi conducted military drills daily," Nagakura wrote. "One day the head priest was so star­tled by the roar of cannon fire that he fell down backward." On another occasion the poor priest was so frightened that he "con­fined himself to a room [in the rear of the main temple building] and hid his head under the bedding."

The commander and vice commander of this legal terrorist organization reasoned that the priests, in all propriety, should finance the construction of their new headquarters. Didn't the men of the Shinsengumi risk their lives daily to maintain law and order? Weren't they dedicated to destroying the rebel forces who would overthrow the Tokugawa Shogun, under whom Buddhism had flourished these past two and a half centuries? And whether or not the Shinsengumi leaders yet foresaw the imminent collapse of the Bakufu or the ramifications thereof, wouldn't the Buddhist priests suffer as a consequence of the newly revised Shintoism, which would replace Buddhism as the national religion after the fall of the Tokugawa regime?

Five days after their ascension into the Tokugawa hierarchy, the Shinsengumi moved their headquarters to a newly constructed compound at Fudo-do Village just southeast of Nishihonganji. The new, gated headquarters were an elaborate affair, rivaling the Kyoto estates of feudal lords. They occupied ten thousand square meters of fenced land. Kondo, Hijikata, and some of the officers had their own quarters separate from the rank and file. There were guest rooms, servants' quarters, and stables. The giant bathing area accommodated thirty people at a time. Ironically, just months after Kondo had taken up residence at these headquarters, his Shieikan was sold and his wife and daughter moved to a lesser house in Edo.
Soon after moving to their new headquarters, Kondo and Hijikata again demonstrated their propensity to kill anyone who dared cross them. Takeda Kanryusai, a ronin from Matsue Han in Izurno province, served as Number Five Squad captain. He had been with the corps since its early days. He had helped arrest Furudaka Shuntaro, fought at the Ikeda'ya, and accompanied Kondo on his trips to Edo and western Japan. But he was generally disliked by his fellow corpsmen. He had a tendency to boast and constantly flat­tered the commander and vice commander. Furthermore, unlike most of his comrades, Takeda was more of a scholar than a warrior. He had been enlisted less for his martial prowess than for his exten­sive knowledge in the tried-and-true military tactics of the Koshu Naganuma school. He was put in charge of military drills in the enviable position of instructor. But recently the Bakufu had begun westernizing its military under the tutelage of French officers. Takeda's instruction became outdated—a fact that did not escape his fellow corpsmen. What's more, his name did not appear on the roster of men recently granted hatamoto status by the Bakufu. He felt deceived by Commander Kondo and Vice Commander Hijikata. He unsuccessfully tried to gain the favor of Staff Officer Ito. When it came to the attention of the Shinsengumi that Takeda had secretly joined ranks with the Loyalist side and that he had even been frequenting the Satsuma estate in Fushimi, Kondo Isami acted accordingly.

The commander summoned all of his officers, including Takeda, to a certain restaurant for what he sardonically called a "farewell party" for the Number Five Squad Captain. After sake had been served, Kondo said to Takeda with a forced smile, "I hear that you will be leaving the corps to serve Satsuma." He did not need to mention that quitting the corps was a capital offense. Takeda must now have realized that his recent clandestine visits to the Satsuma estate had been discovered. He lied that he had merely considered joining the enemy to gather information. Kondo feigned approval or Takeda's alleged tactic. He clapped his large hands loudly, certainly pleased with himself, and insisted that Takeda visit the Satsuma estate that very night. Citing the danger of traveling alone at night, he ordered Number Three Squad Captain Saito Hajime and another man to accompany Takeda along the way. Takeda did not get along with Saito, who had been drinking that evening and who had a reputation as a bad drunk. Takeda said that he would travel alone, fearing the worst if he accepted Kondo's offer. But the com­mander would hear nothing of it, and insisted that Saito and the other man accompany him.

Soon the three men left the party. They traveled in single file along a narrow road in the darkness. Takeda walked in front, with the other two close behind. They came to a bridge near a particu­larly desolate stretch in the road. Just as they crossed the bridge, Saito drew his long sword and with one swift motion sliced open Takeda's back from left hip to right shoulder. Death was instanta­neous. Saito knelt over the bloody corpse and removed both of Takeda's swords. "For all his boasting to the contrary," he reportedly said, "Takeda was an easy kill."

Ito Kashitaro advocated opening Japan to foreign trade in order to develop a "wealthy country and strong military" through taxes levied on foreigners. He espoused the employment of all classes of peo­ple, not only samurai, in the armed forces. After the shogun would restore the political power to the emperor, the rule of the nation must never again fall into the hands of a military regime. In the future, the entire Japanese nation, including all the feudal lords, must be ruled by the Imperial Court. Since most, if not all, of the court nobles lacked administrative experience, Ito's Kodaiji Faction and other educated men like themselves would assist the court. There was no place for the Tokugawa Bakufu or its supporters in Ito's grand scheme.

Meanwhile, most of the samurai in the Tokugawa camp, and the hereditary lords who occupied the most important posts in the Bakufu, would not step down without a fight. Prominent among them were Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo. They were deter­mined to preserve their control. The Shinsengumi commander and his vice commander were diametrically opposed to their former staff officer, both politically and ideologically.

According to Nagakura, Ito did not believe the Shinsengumi's claim that Sano and the three others had committed seppuku at Aizu headquarters. He was angered. He was indignant. He planned to assassinate Kondo and his officers and assume command of the Shinsengumi. "[Ito] intended to set fire to Shinsengumi [headquaters] . . . and kill [us] as we evacuated [the building]." Having curried favor with Satsuma, Ito would use the Shinsengumi organ­ization to fight for the imperial cause against the Tokugawa. Fortunately for Kondo and his officers, Saito Hajime was a good actor. Ito embraced Saito as one of his chief confidants, never once suspecting him a spy. When Saito informed Kondo and Hijikata of Ito's plot, the two leaders took immediate and drastic action.

Ito had previously requested a large sum of money from Kondo to finance espionage activities against Choshu. Kondo, of course, knew that Ito had no intention of spying on Choshu. On the after­noon of November 18, Kondo sent a messenger to Ito's headquarters at Gesshin'in Temple, inviting him to the home of his mistress. Kondo's invitation was under the pretext of providing Ito with the money he had requested and discussing national affairs with him. Ito accepted the invitation. He had no reason to doubt Kondo's good intentions. He had managed to maintain good rela­tions with the Shinsengumi, if only ostensibly. (The idea that Kondo was privy to his plot must not have occurred to him, or he certainly would not have gone to meet Kondo alone.) When Ito arrived at Miyuki's house the same afternoon, he was greeted warmly by Kondo and Hijikata. Delicacies were served. Sake was poured freely. Kondo assured Ito that the money he had requested would come from Aizu the next morning, when he should return to collect it. Ito readily acquiesced. The men drank and talked until after nightfall. When Ito took his leave at around eight o'clock, he was intoxicated. He thought that the cold winter air would clear his head. He was wrong. Kondo's hit men, including Oishi Kuwajiro, Miyagawa Nobukichi, and probably Saito Hajime, waited in the moonlight along a narrow lane, just beyond which point Shichijo-dori crossed Aburakoji Street in the southwestern part of the city.

The attack came suddenly as Ito approached the crossroads. Ito was cut from his left ear to his chin by an assailant he did not even see. Blood spurted from the wound. A second assailant came. As the expert in the Hokushin Itto style staggered in vain to save himself, he saw several others, drawn swords in hand, approaching fast. Before they could reach him, Ito collapsed. He summoned a final burst of strength to scream his dying word—"Traitors!" The assassins dragged the body to the nearby crossroads. The name of the crossroads, Aburakoji-Shichijo, would become synonymous with the notorious assassination. So cold was the night air that soon after the assassins fled the scene, the blood on Ito's clothes had frozen solid.


Kondo Isami had already laid plans to eliminate the remnants of the Kodaiji Faction on the same night—with the noted exception of Todo Heisuke. Kondo, in fact, had issued instructions to his men to spare Todo's life. He had also arranged for the local authorities to inform the men at Gesshin'in Temple of their leader's death, expecting they would come immediately to retrieve the body.75 The plan worked. At around two o'clock in the morning, just hours after the assassination, seven of the Guard of the Imperial Tomb rushed to the scene. Among them were Shinohara, Suzuki, and Todo. "We were shocked and angry," Shinohara recalled of their reaction to hearing of Ito's murder.

Hiding in a restaurant near the crossroads were Nagakura, Haracla, Oishi, Shimada, Saito, and numerous others of the Shinsengumi.76 They watched silently as Ito's men arrived at the crossroads, carrying a palanquin for their leader's body. As the guardsmen attempted to place the body inside, the Shinsengumi attacked. The Shinsengumi outnumbered the guards­men by about four to one. An intense and bloody fight ensued in the light of the winter moon. Three of the guardsmen were killed, including Todo. The four others escaped to the Satsuma estate in the north of the city. Several of the Shinsengumi were wounded, including Harada and Oishi. The sight at dawn was ghastly. Four corpses lay on the street. Fingers were scattered about, and pieces of hairy flesh were strewn near the bloodied walls of nearby houses. The Shinsengumi left the four corpses, including Ito's, at the cross­roads for two days, in an unsuccessful attempt to lure the survivors back to the scene of the carnage.



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