Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps



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The Peasant as Feudal Lord
Their troops had been badly defeated. Their armies had retreated-from the field. Their supreme commander and liege lord had surrendered and pledged allegiance to the enemy. He had admonished them to do the same, as had his councilor—who committed suicide in the castle to holster this admonishment. But still the oppositionists would not give up the fight. Leading the opposition were personages of noble hirth and lofty rank within the fallen regimeand, perhaps most notably, the peasants' sons whose claim to historic immortality lay in their lethal swords and a steadfast propensity to use them.

At the end of January, the Shinsengumi set up headquarters at the Edo estate of a former elite Tokugawa official recently relieved of his post. Kondo Isami had recovered from his wound by February 12. It was on this day that Imperial Enemy Tokugawa Yoshinobu moved from Edo Castle to Daiji'in, a subtemple of Kan'eiji, the Tokugawa family temple at Ueno—a hilly region in the northeast­ern part of the city. At Daiji'in, Yoshinobu confined himself to two modest-size adjacent rooms to demonstrate his "allegiance and pen­itence" to the imperial government. He set out for the temple before dawn under the vigilant guard of the Shinsengumi, com­manded by Kondo Isami. Rather than marching as a unit, which would have drawn attention to their invaluable charge, the corps-men concealed themselves along the roadway traveled by the former shogun.

These warriors of the east, returned in defeat from the west, nevertheless held themselves in the utmost importance. They would guard the former shogun with their lives. They would fight to restore the rule of the Edo regime. They did not know, however, how long they would remain in the capital; meanwhile, they would indulge in the pleasures of their native land, which they had not enjoyed in five years. Among these pleasures were the houses in the Fukagawa quarter of Edo. At one of these houses Nagakura Shinpachi quarreled with three samurai, two of whom he killed with his sword. Soon after the incident Hijikata summoned Nagakura. "Such behavior will not be condoned," the vice com­mander admonished his officer, "because you now occupy too important a position."

Before retreating to Ueno, Yoshinobu had purged the oppositionists from the Tokugawa hierarchy. He placed the control of all political and military affairs into the hands of three of his vassals, who sup­ported the imperial government. Two of them were Katsu Kaishu and Okubo Ichio. Okubo was Kaishu's mentor, his closest ally in the Tokugawa camp, and future governor of Tokyo. He was in charge of the administration of the defunct Bakufu. Kaishu, meanwhile, was in control of the military—both army and navy. The two men were the most prominent among a small number of Tokugawa samurai who enjoyed the ear and respect of the leaders of the new govern­ment, most notably Saigo Kichinosuke. As the leaders of the reconciliation faction at Edo who had advised Yoshinobu to "pledge allegiance to the imperial government," Kaishu and Okubo were despised, however erroneously, as traitors by the majority of oppo­sitionists within the Tokugawa camp, including Kondo and Hijikata. After their decisive victory at Toba-Fushimi, the imperial gov­ernment, with an army of fifty thousand marching steadily toward Edo, planned to launch an attack on Edo Castle, and in so doing subject the entire city to the flames of war. Kaishu and Okubo were determined to avoid further civil war. They feared that bringing the war to the east would not only endanger the lives and property of Edo's one million inhabitants but also invite foreign aggression. Now that Yoshinobu was out of the way, they struggled simultane­ously to pacify both the oppositionists and the bellicose leaders of the new regime, while planning the evacuation of people from the capital.

Meanwhile, Kondo and Hijikata reported to Kaishu and Okubo at Edo Castle, carrying false promises. They planned to cap­ture Kofu Castle, strategically located in the mountains some ninety miles west of Edo. Throughout the 265 years of Tokugawa rule, Kofu Castle had been one of three major positions for the defense of Edo. From this mountain fortress, Kondo and Hijikata would engage the imperial troops on their eastward march to the capital. But they lied to Okubo and Kaishu. They promised that their intentions were peaceful and that by no means would they fight the imperial forces. Rather, they would meet the advance guard at Kofu to explain to them the shogun's pledge of allegiance to the imperial government.

This was precisely what Kaishu and Okubo wanted. The two Shinsengumi leaders were now promoted to exalted positions within the old regime. Kondo was appointed wakadoshiyorimem­ber of the shogun's junior council—which placed him among the ranks of the feudal lords. Hijikata was promoted to yoriaiseki—a high-ranking Tokugawa retainer. Kondo would soon let it be known that he considered his corpsmen as his vassals, just as a daimyo considered the samurai of his feudal domain. But these exalted positions and these high honors were, of course, things of the past. Under the new imperial regime, ranking within the Tokugawa hier­archy was moot. The fact that Kondo and Hijikata even now refused to acknowledge this basic and bitter truth was laden with the tragic fundamentals of their personalities—their conviction of self-importance and their unyielding will to power. Of this Kaishu and Okubo were probably aware. But Kondo and Hijikata offered them a sudden flash of hope. Kaishu and Okubo provided Kondo's corps with the sizeable sum of 7,500 ryo, two cannon, three hun­dred breech-loading rifles, and ammunition, and sent them off to Kofu.84

On the evening before leaving Edo, the Shinsengumi held a banquet with all present. Kondo Isami announced to his men that Yoshinobu had indicated they could do as they would with Kofu Castle and the one million koku yield of the Kofu domain—if they could capture it. Kondo would take 100,000 koku, which would place him among the wealthiest of feudal lords. Hijikata would take 50,000 koku, their senior officers 30,000 each. The junior officers would take 10,000, and each of the rank and file would receive 1,000, which matched the income of high government offi­cials. But the rout at Toba-Fushimi was a reality. If Kondo was not lying again, surely he was indulging himself in hopeless self-deception, misleading those of his men who would be misled. Surely he knew that the end of the Edo regime and that of his own illustrious and violent career had arrived. Even if the Tokugawa Bakufu should somehow miraculously survive, Kondo and Hijikata were the sons of peasants, their officers and men mere roshi. For the past two and a half centuries the great domain of Kofu had been ruled by a hereditary lord. Perhaps Kondo saw himself as a warlord of four centuries past, when a man's worth and wealth were determined by his sword.

Since returning to Edo, the Shinsengumi had increased their ranks to two hundred. The new recruits consisted mostly of untrained men. The corps was officially renamed KoyochinbutaiPacification Corps—and placed in charge of suppressing uprisings among the people of the Kofu region. Hijikata cropped his hair and wore Western-style trousers and cloak. He encouraged his men to do the same. Both Hijikata and Kondo assumed aliases to protect their identity, Hijikata called himself Naito Hayato.85 Kondo went by the name Okubo Yamato.86 And certainly Kondo took solace from the fact that his wife had recently received three hundred ryo from the Tokugawa coffers.

The new corps was prepared to march by the end of February. But Kondo and Hijikata delayed their departure by several days because they expected to be joined by any number of the thousands of Tokugawa retainers in Edo who, like them, viewed the pacifism of Yoshinobu and Kaishu as nothing less than cowardice. Their expectations proved as false as their views. The two hundred men of the Pacification Corps finally departed Edo on March 1, without the expected reinforcements. Under the commander and vice com­mander, the officers included Nagakura Shinpachi, Harada Sanosuke, Saito Hajime, Okita Soji, and Oishi Kuwajiro. They moved westward along Koshu-kaido Road, through the Tama region in the province of Musashi. They must have been a grand sight— Kondo Isami, the peasant's son, leading the way on horseback through his native village of Kami'ishihara, his soldier's helmet adorned with the three hollyhock leaves of the Tokugawa. Hijikata Toshizo rode immediately behind Kondo. Following the vice com­mander were the officers of the corps, and behind them the rank and file, each wearing two swords and carrying a gun.87 Kondo, overcome with nostalgia and certainly bursting with pride, briefly dismounted at Kami'ishihara to pray at the village shrine.

Much ado was made over these native sons. Celebrations welcomed them along the way. On their second day out, they vis­ited the Hino estate of Sato Hikogoro, on the Koshu-kaido. During these past five years, Sato had watched over Kondo's family. Now he formed a small militia, the Kasuga Corps, consisting of local peas­ants to fight alongside KondS's men. A banquet was held at Sato's home in honor of Kondo and Hijikata. Sake was served in large quantities. It is said that because of the pain from the gunshot wound on his right shoulder, Kondo was unable to raise his sake cup above his chest with his right hand. Not to be left out of the festivities, he violated protocol and used his left. Sato's eighteen-year-old son, Toshinori, would recall the gathering decades later:

Although they didn't spend the night at Hino, sake was served right away and they told stories of brav­ery in Kyoto. The blade of the Kotetsu sword, which Kondo had used at the Ikeda'ya, was badly nicked so that it could no longer be used. But it nevertheless fit easily into the scabbard. He spoke highly of it, saying what a truly good sword it was.

The young men who studied kenjutsu in the local area [the Tama region], all of whom were peas­ants, came over. Fifty or sixty of them crammed onto the dirt floor of the kitchen, saying, "We would like to see the master's face." When we told Kondo about this he was very pleased. . . . He talked to them in the same manner he had when he used to live in Edo, saying, "It is very good that all of you seem so robust. Please take good care of your health." This made the students very happy, so that they wept out loud.

At five different places on Kondo's coat were small images of the three hollyhock leaves [of the Tokugawa].... The students said that they wanted to go with him, but Kondo would not consent. "There are still many other things for you to do," he said. "Your intentions make me very happy, but I can't allow you to come with us."

But the young men, nevertheless hell-bent on fighting along- ? side their hero, had already joined Sato's peasant militia. Sato's son was later arrested by the imperial forces for his part in the opposi- : tion. He was taken back to enemy headquarters and questioned. "On the third day I was released, with my head still on my shoul­ders. But they did take away my swords." When Hijikata heard about the incident, he sent new swords to his nephew. "Hijikata was quite a good-looking man," Toshinori recalled. "But he never smiled very much, perhaps because he tended to be a little high-flown and careful. This was why he did not make as good an impression on the fencing students as Kondo did when they stopped by on the way to Kofu."

Kondo and Hijikata were pleased with their heroes' welcome. They indulged themselves in the festivities, meeting old friends and rel­atives along the way. Their dalliance proved costly. On March 4, their third day on the Koshu-kaido, they marched through a heavy snowstorm. On the following day, as they reached the summit of Sasago Pass, the most forbidding point along the road, word arrived that Kofu Castle had fallen to some three thousand imperial forces led by Itagaki Taisuke of Tosa. Had Kondo's corps arrived one day earlier, the castle might have been theirs for the taking.

Kondo attempted to boost his troops' morale by lying to them that six hundred reinforcements from Aizu would arrive the next morning. Hijikata rushed back to Edo to get reinforcements from among the hatamoto. Meanwhile, Kondo led his corps westward across the snowy mountainous terrain. Numerous corpsmen, despairing of victory, deserted. They reached the town of Katsunuma, five miles east of Kofu, on the same day, March 5. Only 121 corpsmen remained. In the mountains they erected a makeshift fortification, where they positioned their two cannon. In the town they constructed a barrier. In the mountains and the road­way they lit fires to intimidate the enemy, and waited for Hijikata's return.

Far from being intimidated, some twelve hundred enemy troops attacked at noon the following day.88

Having been trained in modern warfare, they had the clear advantage over Kondo's corps, both in sheer number and superior­ity of arms. Meanwhile, Kondo's men, particularly those who had been in Kyoto, enjoyed the advantage of experience in battle, but not in the use of artillery. Amid the smoke from the nearby fires, the Pacification Corps attempted to defend with their two cannon. There was not a man among them, however, with expertise in firing these large guns. In their inexperience, they misfired. As the enemy pounded them with heavy artillery fire, they had to resort to their rifles. The enemy closed in and charged with drawn swords. Sato Hikogoro's peasant militia, consisting of twenty-one men, fought fiercely against the charge, as did the warriors of the Pacification Corps. Kondo's men could not see for the smoke in their eyes. After two hours of fighting they had no alternative but to scatter into the surrounding mountains, and eventually retreat to Edo in defeat. In the Battle at Katsunuma, the Pacification Corps suffered eight dead and more than thirty wounded. Only one of the enemy was killed, and twelve wounded.



Of Defeat, Disgrace and Apotheosis
The cherry blossoms were in full bloom when the warriors of the east returned once again in defeat to the ever-dangerous capital. As if to belie the hope inherent in this most promising of seasons, the end was upon them and they knew it. But even now, as if to challenge the will of that relentless goddess, they refused to give up the fight. Power to them meant everything—power founded on courage, which begot honor. And it was by this courage and for this honor that they would fight their enemies to the death.

In the dark eyes of Katsu Kaishu, this honor was false. All-out war in Edo was imminent. Fifty thousand imperial troops were closing in fast. An attack on Edo Castle was planned for March 15. As head of the Tokugawa military, Kaishu was the most powerful man in Edo. This loyal warrior of the House of Tokugawa, who had a fleet of twelve warships at his disposal, wanted nothing more than peace. He was nevertheless determined to burn Edo Castle rather than relinquish it in battle and to wage a bloody civil war against the imperial forces if they should attack. In a final effort to avoid war and to save the House of Tokugawa, on March 5, the day Kondo's corps reached Katsunuma, Kaishu dispatched Yamaoka Tetsutaro on an urgent and dangerous journey to Saigo Kichinosuke's military headquarters in Sunpu, a hundred miles west of Edo. Yamaoka car­ried a letter from Kaishu addressed to Saigo. In this letter Kaishu wrote that the retainers of the Tokugawa were an inseparable part of the new Japanese nation, and that Tokugawa Yoshinobu and his retainers had pledged allegiance to the empeor and the new impe­rial government. Instead of fighting with each other, those of the new government and the old must cooperate in order to deal with the very real threat of the foreign powers, whose legations in Japan anxiously watched the great revolution that had consumed the Japanese nation for these past fifteen years.

When Kaishu learned of the deception of the two Shinsen-gumi leaders, he was furious. When Kondo and Hijikata reported to him at Edo Castle of their intention to continue the fight, he was disgusted. "It is no more than a personal battle," he told them. "If you must fight again, do it on your own."

Despite the hostilities of the oppositionists, including the Shinsengumi, Saigo trusted Kaishu. He readily replied to Kaishu's letter with a set of conditions. Among them: the shogun's castle, along with all of his weapons and warships, must be surrendered to the imperial government, and all of the shogun's troops must be removed from the capital. These conditions, Saigo wrote, must be met if the House of Tokugawa was to be allowed to survive, Yoshinobu's life spared, and war avoided. On the thirteenth and fourteenth of March, with the imperial troops at Shinjuku and Itabashi, the western and northwestern outskirts of the city, Kaishu and Saigo—who after all were allies in the truest sense—met at two different locations, at Takanawa and Tamachi, in the south of Edo. Kaishu accepted Saigo's conditions. On March 15 the attack was called off.

Hijikata Toshizo was the only man left whom Kondo Isami could truly trust. Okita Soji, afflicted with tuberculosis, was on his deathbed in Edo. Many of the rank and file had fled. Other Shinsengumi veterans had abandoned Kondo, including two of his oldest and most trusted comrades—Harada Sanosuke and Nagakura Shinpachi.

In mid-March, Nagakura, Harada, and several others decided to join their allies in Aizu. They obtained five hundred ryo from Matsumoto Ryojun for military expenditures, then visited Kondo and Hijikata at a hospital in Edo, where the former was again undergoing treatment for his shoulder wound. They invited Kondd and Hijikata to join them. According to Nagakura, Kondo reacted angrily that his subordinates had made war plans without his knowledge. He replied that he would join them under the condition that they serve as his vassals. "All of us took offense," Nagakura recalled. They told Kondo that they would fight alongside him as comrades but would not serve him. They never saw their former commander again.


While the imperial government prepared to occupy Edo Castle, it set itself to the task of eliminating the significant number of Tokugawa retainers and sympathizers in and around the capital who even now refused to surrender. By the end of March the imperial forces had completely surrounded Edo. Meanwhile, one thousand oppositionists who called themselves ShogitaiCorps of Clear Loyalty—were entrenched at Kan'eiji Temple to "protect" Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Others fled to the countryside in the north­west, north, and northeast to plan a concerted uprising with their comrades in the capital.

Prominent among these die-hard oppositionists were Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo. Fewer than fifty men remained in Edo under their command. (Kondo had sent more than twenty men to Aizu to recover from their battle wounds.) Rather than going to Aizu with Nagakura and the others as their equals, Kondo and Hijikata, their will to power now the stuff of tragedy, went to work revising the Shinsengumi. They recruited new men to join forces with the oppositionists in Ueno and the adjacent countryside, from where they would march to Aizu to rally one great army for a final showdown against the new government.

On March 13, unaware that Kaishu and Saigo were on that same day negotiating a solution to impending disaster, Kondo Isami, alias Okubo Yamato, and Hijikata Toshizo, alias Naito Hayato, slipped out of Edo hell-bent on war, just three days after returning from Katsunuma. With their revised corps of more than one hundred men, they were given temporary quarters and provi­sions at the private estate of the Kaneko family, a wealthy peasant household with vast landholdings in the countryside just northeast of the capital. Shortly after Kondo's corps had arrived at the Kaneko estate, two messengers appeared on two different occasions. The messengers had been sent by Katsu Kaishu to persuade the Shinsengumi to relinquish their war plans.

But Kondo would not relinquish his war plans. The ranks of the Shinsengumi had been growing with each passing day. Kondo was raring to join his allies in Aizu for the impending great show­down he envisioned. To this end, he now wanted to move to a location more suitable for preparing his new recruits for battle. Through the good offices of Matsumoto Ryojun, Kondo petitioned the Tokugawa authorities for permission to move. Permission was not granted—a result of direct interference by Katsu Kaishu. By the end of March the Shinsengumi ranks had swelled to 227, greater than their number at the Battle at Katsunuma. Kondo would wait no longer. On April 1 the Newly Selected Corps left the Kaneko estate for a location more appropriate for training the new recruits. Kondo Isami, whom the Kaneko family knew only as Okubo Yamato, left behind a photograph of himself, probably taken the previous February at Yokohama, as a token of appreciation for their hospitality.

On the morning of the following day, Kondo and Hijikata set up headquarters at a miso factory in the village of Nagareyama, near the east bank of the Edogawa in the province of Shimo'usa, about nine miles as the crow flies northeast of the Kaneko estate. The troops were housed at a nearby temple.

At nearly the same time as the Shinsengumi set out for Nagareyama, three hundred imperial troops, under the command of Staff Officer Kagawa Keizo of Mito,89 departed their headquar­ters at Itabashi with orders to suppress oppositionists in Utsu-nomiya Han, north of Edo. On the day the Shinsengumi reached Nagareyama, Kagawa received information from officers on patrol, including Vice Staff Officer Arima Tota of Satsuma, that an armed unit had set up camp at that village. When some two hundred imperial troops suddenly appeared at Nagareyama on the following morning, the Shinsengumi recruits were practicing artillery drills in an open field a couple of miles from headquarters. The recruits were taken completely off guard. No sooner did they see the enemy than they threw down their rifles and fled. Kagawa's men now sur­rounded the nearby Shinsengumi headquarters.

Inside the miso factory Arima and Kagawa found three or four men. One of them, who identified himself as Okubo Yamato, had particularly intense eyes, an unusually large mouth, heavy jaw, and full head of thick black hair tied in a topknot. "His demeanor, appearance, and perfect composure were magnificent," Arima recalled more than five decades later in 1923. Although they had never actually seen Kondo Isami in the flesh, they knew his description. Nevertheless, they lacked firm evidence that this man was the hated Shinsengumi commander who had killed so many of their comrades in Kyoto over the past several years. The man who called himself Okubo Yamato claimed loyalty to the imperial gov­ernment. He told the imperial officers that it was not the intention of his corps to oppose them; rather, they had been on a mission to suppress the oppositionists in the north and northeast. The impe­rial officers would not be so easily deceived. They ordered Kondo to turn over his weapons, disband his corps, and accompany them to their camp at nearby Koshigaya for the night. They informed him that in the morning he would be brought to the imperial military headquarters at Itabashi for questioning. Kondo outwardly acqui­esced but inwardly resolved to commit seppuku.

Shimada Kai wrote that Arima also spoke with Hijikata, but neither the vice commander nor any of the other corpsmen were arrested at that time. That evening Kondo met with the enemy offi­cers to surrender three cannon and 118 rifles. Present at that meeting was a samurai of Hikone Han named Watanabe Kurosae-mon. Watanabe had seen Kondo in Kyoto. He thought that he recognized the man who called himself Okubo Yamato as Kondo Isami, commander of the Shinsengumi. Watanabe couldn't believe his eyes. Nor were his superiors, including Kagawa and Arima, inclined to trust his memory when misjudgment might cause trouble later on. The matter was dropped for the time being with­out mentioning it to Kondo, but the imperial officers nevertheless believed that they had indeed captured the notorious Shinsengumi commander.

Kondo requested time to prepare himself, telling the enemy officers that he would report to their camp that evening. His request granted, he met with Hijikata and informed him of his resolve to die. According to the recollections of Shinsengumi corpsman Kondo Yoshisuke (not related to Kondo Isami) four decades later, Hijikata implored Kondo not to kill himself but rather to report to Itabashi under his alias and stand by his claim of loy­alty to the imperial government. "To commit seppuku here would be to die like a dog," Hijikata told him, advising him to "leave the matter to fate." Kojima Shikanosuke, however, recorded a slightly different version of the story. According to Kojima, Hijikata told Kondo that he would accompany him to enemy headquarters. Kondo objected, telling Hijikata that one of them must survive to continue the fight. Either way, Kondo Isami allowed himself to be taken alive, not because he was afraid to die but because dying now would mean certain and utter defeat—defeat not only for himself but also for the Shinsengumi, which had been his reason for living for these past five years.

Arima described the ensuing scene as a prologue to high tragedy:

Night came but Kondo had still not shown up. Considering the situation, I left on horseback [to get him], accompanied by five soldiers and one footman named Sakamoto. There was one sentry without a gun, standing alone beside the gate. I left the soldiers outside the gate and proceeded, accompanied only by Sakamoto. "I've come to see Okubo," I said. One of the men who had been with Kondo that morning [now] told me that he was busy and that I should wait for a while inside.

But I felt a bit uneasy going into the house. ... I sat down on the edge of the veranda near the study. I lit a lantern adorned with the Chrysanthe­mum Crest and waited for a while. Soon Kondo came and said, "I am very sorry, but I would like to request a little more time. Won't you please come inside? Since this is a military headquarters, you need not remove your sandals." I couldn't very well refuse, so I went inside with my sandals on and waited there for a while, sitting with my legs crossed. Tea was served. However, since I had heard that men in the Bakufu would kill people by poisoning their tea, I didn't drink any. But I was thirsty, maybe from the sake I had drank a little earlier. I took a drink of water, partly to conceal my embarrassment for not drinking any tea.

After a short while Kondo appeared dressed in splendid pleated trousers that made a chaffing sound as he walked. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting so long," he said. "With so many people here, I've had much to do. It took me longer than I realized." Then he called two young men. "They have been serving under me," he said, then turned to them and explained repeatedly something to the following effect: "Lord Yoshinobu is now in con­finement. The Son of Heaven is in Kyoto. In the future you must devote yourselves exclusively to the Imperial Court." He gave one of them some documents and a short sword. To the other he gave some documents and a pistol.

I simply watched the tragic scene, all the while wondering if this is what happens when one loses a war. I was overcome by sympathy; tears flowed down my cheeks. Kondo wore an intensely griev­ous face as he looked at me. He, too, seemed overcome by deep emotion. After that the two young men came back. "Please allow us to accom­pany you," they said.

Arima granted their request. "Kondo and I rode on horseback, he in front, I in the rear. Fifteen soldiers split up into two groups [to accompany us]—one in back, one in front—and we left." Kondo's two attendants ran along either side of their master's horse as they traveled.90 The party reached the imperial encampment at Koshigaya at around twelve o'clock the same night.

When Arima awoke the next morning, he discovered that Kondo had been placed in a prisoner's palanquin, covered by a large net. "How could you put the leader of an army of men in a palan­quin for a common criminal?" he angrily asked those who had placed him there. "You re truly a disgraceful bunch. Do you actually consider yourselves to be compassionate samurai? Remove the net immediately." According to Arima, he provided Kondo with tobacco, tea, and other accessories for a comfortable journey.

Kondo was transported to enemy headquarters for question­ing. At Itabashi he continued to refer to himself by his alias, until the Sun Goddess, now intent on damning him, interfered. At the headquarters happened to be a samurai of Izu Han named Kano Michinosuke. Kano was formerly of the Shinsengumi, but lately of Ito Kashitaro's Kodaiji Faction. Kano, who had survived the battle at Aburakoji, hated Kondo Isami. When he saw the prisoner, he didn't hesitate to uncover Kondo's identity. ''I can still see the look on his face," Kano reminisced more than three decades later. "He was so very horrified."

Kondo could not have been anything but horrified for still being alive. Bitter and deep must have been his regret for not com­mitting seppuku at Nagareyama. Arima considered him "a kind of hero." The hero, who cherished honor above all and whose will to power had been unchallenged these past several years, now realized that his end would not be by the dignity of his own sword, but rather by the disgrace of the executioner's. Presently he composed his death song:



Submitting to the will of another, I have nothing to say on this day. I value honor above life.

Ah, the long flashing sword to which I readily surrender, and re-pay my lord's kindness with my life

On the night of Kondo's arrest at Nagareyama, Hijikata rushed to Edo to visit the home of Katsu Kaishu, whom he still con­sidered a traitor. Hijikata knew that any chance of Kondo's being pardoned rested in Kaishu's hands. "Hijikata Toshizo came [today]," reads the April 4 entry of Kaishu's journal. "He told me the full details of Nagareyama." Certainly Kaishu was less than pleased. But on the next day a messenger arrived at imperial headquarters in Itabashi. He carried a letter, purportedly written by Kaishu, requesting that Kondo's life be spared. The Shinsengumi were still suspected of Sakamoto Ryoma's assassination. Kondo and Hijikata had lied to Kaishu regarding their intentions for marching to Kofu. Their subsequent adventurism at Katsunuma jeopardized his peace plans at the eleventh hour. No firm evidence exists to prove that Kaishu actually wrote the letter. Whether or not he did, that the request to spare Kondo Isami's life was flatly rejected is apparent from the fact that the messenger was promptly arrested at Itabashi. The trial of Kondo Isami began on April 8 at Itabashi head­quarters, in the presence of representatives from several of the leading han, including Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, Hikone, and Mito. Most of the representatives, particularly those from Choshu and Tosa, hated Kondo. To them he was nothing but a brutal thug—the leader of a group of murderers who had killed scores of their com­rades in Kyoto. (Staff Officer Kagawa Keizo, who represented Mito, had been hunted by the Shinsengumi.) The Tosa men bore the strongest vendetta against Kondo, whom they held responsible for the assassinations of Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro. One of the Tosa men, Tani Tateki, described Kondo as follows:

He was a crafty scoundrel who committed evil for many years and killed a countless number of our men. But now he's been arrested and will die. . . . The old fox has deceived people. But it's one of the funniest stories ever that the old fox came out dur­ing the daytime to be caught so easily. The notorious Kondo Isami arrested without a fight— now all the other foxes will certainly perish.92

According to Tani's account of the trial, Satsuma argued for leniency while Tosa insisted that Kondo be executed. When asked why he had brought his corps to Nagareyama, Kondo stuck by his original claim of loyalty to the imperial government, testifying that his intention was only to suppress the oppositionist forces in the north and northeast.

After heated argument back and forth between the Satsuma and Tosa sides, the latter prevailed. Kondo Isami was sentenced to die.
After Kondo's arrest, most of the Shinsengumi fled north to Aizu. At dawn on April 11, while Kondo awaited death at Itabashi, Tokugawa Yoshinobu quietly vacated his rooms at Kan'eiji Temple to return to the house of his birth in Mito. Yoshinobu's departure from his former capital was aptly timed—later that day Edo Castle was officially handed over to the imperial government. On the same day, amid the ensuing chaos, Hijikata Toshizo joined more than three thousand oppositionist troops in their flight from Edo. He was accompanied by only six of his men, including Shimada Kai. All but one of the six had been with the Shinsengumi since Kyoto.

The oppositionist army was divided into three units. Hijikata was selected as staff officer to lead one of these units north to Utsunomiya. Shimada, marching with Hijikata, carried with three others a great white banner emblazoned with five large Chinese characters—Toshd Daigongen—an alternate name for the Toshogu Shrine of Tokugawa Ieyasu.93 The oppositionists temporarily occu­pied Utsunomiya Castle before being driven from that strategic fortress in a major offensive by imperial forces on April 24. During the fighting at Utsunomiya, one of Hijikata's men attempted to flee. When Hijikata confronted him, the man insisted that the enemy were too many to defeat. The Demon Commander saw red. He drew his long sword and killed the man on the spot. Raising his bloodied sword in the air, he screamed to his troops, "I'll kill anyone who tries to flee." Their morale suddenly boosted, Hijikata's men now drew their swords. They charged the enemy, who fled in great numbers.

During the fighting, Hijikata received a bullet wound to the foot. Unable to walk, he had to be carried on Shimada's back on their subsequent march to Aizu to continue the fight. On the way to Aizu, near Nikko, he arranged a meeting with a childhood friend who was stationed there. When Hijikata told his friend about the fighting at Utsunomiya, tears welled up in the warrior's eyes. "It was pitiful what I did to that soldier," he said. He handed his friend a packet of gold and asked him to erect a gravestone for the man who had tried to flee. Had the warrior lost his propensity to kill? The answer must be a resounding noas he would clearly demonstrate during the ensuing final year of his short, volatile life.
On April 25, 1868, the day after Hijikata Toshizo had fled Utsu-nomiya, Kondo Isami was placed in a palanquin and brought to the scaffold near imperial headquarters in Itabashi. The former com­mander of the Shinsengumi was dressed formally in a lined kimono of black twill and a black coat adorned with his family crest. He wore a sash around his waist, probably white. He was barefoot. A slight beard covered his heavy jaw, a dark but tranquil expression his pallid face. His arms were bound with heavy rope, tied around his chest like so much netting. It had rained the pre­vious night, so that on this sunny spring day the sky was a brilliant blue; the clean scent of the grasses and wildflowers of the Musashi Plain filled the air.

At Kondo's home not fifteen miles to the west, his wife, Otsune, had heard a rumor that a "ranking Tokugawa samurai" was to be executed on that day. Worried, she sent Kondo's seventeen-year-old nephew, Miyagawa Yugoro, to Itabashi to find out more. Yugoro had been betrothed to Kondo's infant daughter since his uncle had gone to Kyoto with the Roshi Corps. As Kondo Yugoro, he would succeed Isami as the fifth generational head of the Tennen Rishin style.

Yugoro hurried to Itabashi. Around noon he saw a palanquin escorted by some thirty guards carrying rifles, "one of them, who looked like the captain, on horseback. As my heart beat rapidly, I took a close look inside the palanquin." The youth was horrified to see his uncle inside. He followed the palanquin to a field by an oak grove. The palanquin stopped near a freshly dug hole—a blood vat—next to which lay a straw mat.

The condemned criminal, Kondo Isami, slowly alighted the palanquin and stood erect atop the mat. The rope around his chest had been removed. He placed his hands on his sash; and as he gazed a final farewell to the sky above Edo, his thoughts must surely have been with Hijikata Toshizo and the war in the north. He uttered a few words to one of the guards standing by, probably a request for permission to shave his face to mitigate the immeasur­able disgrace that would be his when his severed head would be mounted atop a stake for public display—by which means his ene­mies would ensure his absolute destruction, both in life and death. His request was granted, and presently a man appeared carrying a wooden box. It was probably then that Kondo Isami seated himself in the formal position, facing the blood vat. From inside the box the man produced a razor and shaved Kondo's face, because the pris­oner could not be trusted with a blade in his hand.

A samurai wielding a long sword now approached from the rear. "He was somewhat thin, around forty-one or forty-two years old," Yugoro recalled. Kondo's executioner, Yokokura Kisoji, was chief fencing instructor of the Okada domain in the province of Mino.

"I've been a great trouble," Kondo said in a loud clear voice. With the perfect composure of a samurai trained in the protocol of death, Kondo Isami calmly reached behind his head and held up his topknot to facilitate the job of his executioner. The executioner drew his sword. "There was a flash," Yugoro recalled. A torrent of red gushed from Kondo's neck, and the severed head dropped into the blood vat. The head was retrieved from the hole and washed with a bucket of water, as the youth ran from the scene.

"His countenance was the same as always in the face of death, and he died with composure," Shimada Kai recorded in his memoirs. "Those watching shed tears of sorrow for Kondo. He was truly a great man, unequaled throughout the ages." Whether Kondo Isami was "truly a great man" must necessarily be a matter of sub­jectivity. That he was "unequaled" throughout the two and a half centuries of the Tokugawa era must be accepted as historical fact— if for no other reason than that the peasant's son had risen to the rank of feudal lord by virtue of his unyielding will to power, unwa­vering courage, indomitable sword, and unflinching propensity to use it.

Kondo's young nephew ran the entire way home to Kami'ishihara. "Everyone was grieving," he recalled the scene upon his arrival. Kondo's family would not allow the body of their great­est kinsman to remain among the corpses of common criminals at the execution ground. Three days later, through the good offices of a retainer to the elite and illustrious Tayasu family,94 not to mention three gold ryo for the official in charge, Kondo Isami's headless corpse was exhumed, placed in a casket, and brought home for a hero's burial at Ryugenji Temple.

While Kondo Isami was apotheosized at home, his spiked head was displayed for public view at Itabashi. Near the head was erected a signboard, citing his "crimes that are too numerous to count." After three days the head was placed in either alcohol or salt and transported three hundred miles to Kyoto. According to one official, the head was so well preserved as to be "lifelike" when exposed to public derision on the east bank of the Kamogawa at Sanjo Bridge in the ancient Imperial Capital, where the notorious commander and his lethal samurai corps once reigned supreme.

Epilogue: Hijikata's Last Fight
On April 29, four days after Kondo Isami's execution in Edo, the oppositionist forces reached Aizu-Wakamatsu, the castle town of the Lord of Aizu, where Hijikata Toshizo was treated for a severe foot wound. At Aizu, Hijikata and his six men were reunited with more than one hundred Shinsengumi men who had fled the enemy at Nagareyama. With their leader incapacitated, the new Shinsen­gumi, about 130 of them, were under the temporary command of Saito Hajime, who now went by the alias Yamaguchi Jiro.

In May twenty-five feudal domains of northern Japan, most notably Aizu, Yonezawa, Shonai, and Sendai, formed a confedera­tion to fight the imperial forces. By early July, Hijikata, if not completely recovered, was able to rejoin his troops at the front lines. But he was still not well enough to fight and retreated soon after. On August 22 the imperial forces stormed Aizu-Wakamatsu. After a month of heavy fighting, the castle fell. Meanwhile, Hijikata fled to Shonai, and later to Sendai, to bring the fight farther north. Before leaving Aizu, he placed his men under the command of Otori Keisuke, former commissioner of the Tokugawa infantry.


On May 30, while Hijikata convalesced in Aizu, Okita Soji quietly died of tuberculosis at a private residence in Edo. On his deathbed Okita insisted that he had recovered. "I'll take up my sword to kill the enemy," he said. But Okita had not recovered. Nor was he able to take up his sword with much effect. According to an old woman who nursed him, three days before his death he did feel well enough to get out of bed. He went outside to the garden, where he saw a cat. He tried to kill the cat with his sword, but he was too weak. The next day he tried again, with the same result. "I can't even kill a cat," he screamed in agony, then collapsed. On the following day he uttered his last words: "I'll bet that cat is here." He was twenty-five years old and the Shinsengumi's most gifted swordsman.
At Sendai, Hijikata was reunited with the Shinsengumi, still under Otori's command. Only about forty corpsmen remained. Most of the others had either fled or been killed. Saito Hajime and twelve other corpsmen refused to abandon their comrades in Aizu, choosing to stay behind for the hopeless fight.

Before Hijikata arrived at Sendai, Enomoto Takeaki, former commissioner of the Tokugawa Navy, had sailed into Sendai Bay, in command of eight Tokugawa warships, including the powerful flag­ship KaiyoMaru. When Edo Castle was handed over to the imperial government in April, Enomoto had refused to relinquish these war­ships, which Katsu Kaishu had promised to Saigo. With this fleet, he set sail from Edo in mid-August.

On September 3, a war council was held at Sendai Castle. Present were men of the former Bakufu, including Enomoto, and men from Sendai and the other confederate domains of the north. Hijikata was not invited to participate but rather stayed in an adja­cent room while the council convened. Some of the confederate domains inclined toward pledging allegiance to the imperial gov­ernment. A consensus could not be reached in their war plans. Enomoto suggested that Hijikata, still in the next room, be appointed general of the confederate troops. Enomoto's suggestion was readily accepted, and Hijikata was presently invited to join the council. "He was pale of complexion, and not large of stature, one of the councilors recalled of his impression of Hijikata. "His long, lacquer-like hair was disheveled. ... I remember him as a hand­some man."

Hijikata agreed to accept the command of the confederate troops—under one condition. "Orders must be strictly obeyed," he said firmly. "If any man defies orders, be he a senior councilor of one of your great domains, I, Toshizo, will have to strike him down with my long sword."95 If Hijikata was to serve as general, he essen­tially demanded the "right to kill or let live." But it was not in the power of any man present to grant that right. It belonged to their respective feudal lords. Until they could receive their lords' permis­sion, they could not accept Hijikata's condition. It is said that "Hijikata firmly stomped out of the room" as the war council adjourned.

Before their lords' permission could be granted or denied, the war council had been rendered moot. The day after the meeting, Yonezawa Han fell to the imperial forces. Six days later Sendai sur­rendered. By late September most of the other confederate domains had pledged allegiance to the imperial government. The oppositionists could no longer remain in Sendai. On October 12, they sailed aboard Enomoto's ships for the far-northern island of Ezo. When the oppositionists reached Ezo about a week later, the harsh winter snows had already begun to fall.96

Before departing Sendai, Hijikata thought of a way to increase the diminished ranks of the Shinsengumi. Present at Sendai were the Lord of Kuwana (Matsudaira Sada'aki), the Lord of Matsuyama (Itakura Katsukiyo), and the Lord of Karatsu (Ogasawara Nagamichi). It was decided that these lords would sail with the oppositionists to Ezo. Accompanying them at Sendai were numerous retainers who did not belong to the actual fighting forces. With the exception of two or three nonfighting retainers per feudal lord, Enomoto would allow only fighting men aboard his warships. If they remained behind, however, they faced certain capture. Hijikata now urged all of those retainers who wished to accompany their lords to join the Shinsengumi. Thirty-eight men enlisted immediately. Soon the Shinsengumi ranks exceeded one hundred.

Hijikata was no longer merely the leader of the Shinsengumi. At Ezo he shared with Otori Keisuke the command of the entire oppositionist army—about 2,300 strong. Upon landing at Washinoki, on the east coast of southern Ezo, they divided into two large divisions. Most of the Shinsengumi were under Otori's com­mand. Shimada Kai and a few other corpsmen stayed with Hijikata. From Washinoki they marched on separate routes toward the port city of Hakodate, on the southern extremity of the island, facing Tsugaru Strait. Their destination was Goryokaku, an imposing pen­tagonal fortress just inland from Hakodate, occupied by troops of the imperial government. Shaped like a five-pointed star, Goryokaku had been constructed by the Bakufu along the design of a seventeenth-century citadel at Lille, France, to protect the region after Hakodate was opened to foreign trade in the previous decade. On October 26, after overcoming slight resistance by imperial forces, the oppositionists captured Goryokaku without a fight. On the next day they set out for Matsumae Han, on the southern tip of Ezo. On November 6, they occupied Matsumae Castle before driv­ing the remaining imperial forces completely off the island. By late November the forces of the former Tokugawa regime ruled Ezo.

Shortly after these men of the Bakufu had established themselves as the masters of Ezo, Enomoto petitioned the Imperial Court for permission to develop the entire northern island, so abundant in natural resources, and to protect that region from possible foreign aggression. Permission was flatly denied. On November 15, the oppositionists suffered a fatal blow when their flagship Kaiyo Maru ran aground and sank in a storm off Esashi, in the Sea of Japan. (Ironically, this day marked the first anniversary of the assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma.) Around the time that the oppositionists lost their flagship, the imperial forces acquired the ironclad Stonewall Jackson, which, before its collapse, the Bakufu had ordered from the United States. The Stonewall was a formidable warship—1,368 tons, 160 feet long, and equipped with nine cannon. With the out­break of war, however, the foreign legations in Japan had adopted a policy of neutrality. They would not hand over the ironclad to either side. The Stonewall therefore remained at anchor off Yokohama until that policy was finally lifted in January. When the imperial forces brought their most powerful warship to the fight in the north, the oppositionists were doomed.

In December 1868 the new masters of the far north declared the independence of their short-lived Ezo Republic—where men of the former Bakufu could live in the traditions they still cher­ished. An election was held. Enomoto was elected president of the republic. Elected to the vice presidency was Matsudaira Taro, a for­mer vice commissioner of the Tokugawa army. Nagai Naomune was elected magistrate of Hakodate. Former Tokugawa naval officer Arai Ikunosuke was chosen as navy commissioner. Otori was elected commissioner of the army, and Hijikata his vice commis­sioner. While the French and British squadrons in Hakodate conditionally recognized the Ezo Republic, the imperial govern­ment at Edo did not. And with the recently acquired Stonewall Jackson, it was determined to crush the oppositionists once and for all.

Hijikata Toshizo, vice commissioner of the army of the Ezo Republic, would never give up the fight. At Hakodate he must have realized that his forces would ultimately lose. He suspected that Enomoto would pursue a peaceful agreement with the imperial government, which by his very nature he opposed. He continuously and intentionally moved into harm's way. He often told people that he should already be dead. He said that the only reason he had not died with Kondo was that he had wanted to clear the false charges laid against the former shogun. But now Hijikata despaired of ever achieving this goal. If he should make peace with the enemy, he said, he would not be able to look Kondo in the face when they would "meet underground."97



In late January 1869, the second year of Emperor Meiji's reign, the imperial forces controlled the entire northern region of Honshu. They amassed 16,500 troops around Aomori, on the northern end of Honshu, facing the Tsugaru Strait. All that separated them from the rebels in the far north were the strait and the forbidding cold of a still-early spring. On March 9, the imperial fleet, consisting of eight warships led by the Stonewall Jackson, left Edo. On March 20, they reached Miyako Bay, on the northeastern coast of the main island, to acquire provisions for an invasion of Ezo. In order to defend against the impending attack, the oppositionist forces had to command the sea around Ezo. In order to command the sea, they had to disarm the enemy of its most formidable warship. From their fortress at Hakodate, they now planned the capture of the mighty Stonewall Jackson.
By March 21 the forbidding cold of the far north had given way to the warmth of late spring. On that day three warships of the oppositionists' navy—the flagship Kaiten leading the Banryu and the Takao—sailed southward from Hakodate. Vice Commissioner of the Army Hijikata Toshizo, who had no experience in naval warfare, sailed aboard the Kaiten as an observer. The oppositionists' grand plan was to launch an early-morning surprise attack on the imperial fleet in Miyako Bay. The Banryu and Takao would draw up along­side the anchored Stonewall Jackson. Their troops would storm the ironclad with their swords drawn and, before the enemy troops had a chance to defend themselves, capture the ship and crew, return­ing with them to Hakodate. That the grand plan failed miserably was on account of rough seas and mechanical failures—cruel fate so inseparably intertwined with that relentless Sun Goddess. Neither the Banryu nor the Takao made it to Miyako Bay. When the Kaiten reached the enemy fleet before dawn on March 25, her crew proceeded with the broken plans on their own. Before entering the harbor, they hoisted an American flag on the mast. But they were unable to position the Kaiten, a paddleboat, alongside the Stonewall. Rather, they had to approach the ironclad bow-first. Confronted by eight enemy warships, they suddenly replaced the Stars and Stripes with the banner of the Rising Sun and commenced firing. They failed in their first attempt to get close enough to board the Stonewall. They succeeded on their second try, bringing their bow to the port side. But the deck of the paddleboat was some ten feet above that of the ironclad, making it difficult for the troops of the Kaiten to board her. Furthermore, the narrow bow approach made them an easy target for the enemy gunners. Although a number of the oppositionists, including Nomura Risaburo of the Shinsengumi, managed to get aboard, they were soon mowed down by the gun­ners.98 Meanwhile, numerous men on the Kaiten, including the captain, were killed by gunfire from other enemy ships. The battle at Miyako was over in just thirty minutes, with the Kaiten retreating to Hakodate in defeat. Sixteen oppositionists were killed. "Blood covered the deck," wrote Shimosawa, "corpses were piled high, and pieces of human flesh were scattered about."
There was no stopping the enemy onslaught. Four imperial war­ships, including the Stonewall Jackson, and two transport vessels, carrying some 1,300 troops in all, landed on the southwestern coast of Ezo on April 9. Reinforcements were on their way. The opposi­tionists, of course, had no reinforcements.

In the face of certain defeat, Hijikata Toshizo fought valiantly. In mid-April he led 230 troops against 600 of the enemy in defense of Hakodate, at Futamata, just north of the stronghold. After six­teen hours of intense fighting, 35,000 rounds of ammunition spent, and only one among them killed, Hijikata's troops forced the enemy to retreat. The enemy attacked again the next day, only to meet with strong resistance by Hijikata's troops. On the following night Hijikata led his men, swords drawn, on a raid of the enemy camp, setting them to flight. During breaks in the fighting, Hijikata report­edly went through camp handing out sake to encourage his troops.

But Hijikata knew that the end was near. He wrote his death poem:

Though my body may decay on the island of Ezo, My spirit guards my lord in the east.99

On May 5 Hijikata called his attendant, a seventeen-year-old youth named Ichimura Tetsunosuke, into a private room at Goryokaku. Ichimura had joined the Shinsengumi in the fall of 1867. Hijikata now entrusted Ichimura with his death poem, a photo of himself, a few strands of his hair, two swords, and a let­ter—and instructed him to bring these mementos to the home of Sato Hikogoro in Hino. At first Ichimura refused. "I asked him to tell someone else to do it, because I had resolved to stay there and die [with him]," Ichimura later reported to Sato. "But he became very angry, saying, 'If you don't follow my orders, I'll cut you down right now.' He had that same menacing look on his face that he always had when angered." Ichimura obeyed Hijikata's orders, leav­ing Hakodate soon after aboard a foreign ship bound for Yokohama. "When I left the fortress, I looked back, and in the distance saw someone watching me through a small opening in the gate. I think it was Commander [Hijikata]."

The General Attack on Hakodate was the oppositionists' last stand, Hijikata's last fight. By May 11 the government forces had driven the rebels back to Hakodate, where they surrounded them by land and sea. Hijikata retreated to defend the city. He was shot in the belly while on horseback, leading his troops in the fight. The warrior was dead at age thirty-four.100 The remnants of the Shin-sengumi surrendered four days later. Goryokaku fell on May 18. The oppositionists were finally defeated.
Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo were glorified as heroes upon their return to Tama in early 1868. In death they were apotheo­sized. On the expansive grounds of Takahata Fudo Temple in Hino, the stone Monument of the Two Heroes was completed in 1888.101 Over a century later a bronze statue of Hijikata was erected near the monument. The right hand grips a sword. The left fist is clenched. The eyes . . . the eyes, battle-ready, are ever prepared for death, "to meet Kondo underground."

Appendix I

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