Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps

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Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps

Romulus Hillsborough

(При сканировании и распознавании потерялись диакритические знаки, которые Хиллсборо использыет для обозначения долгих гласных, поэтому Kondo, Todo, Choshu вместо Kondō, Tōdō, Chōshū и т.д.)

Author's Note

For the sake of authenticity I have placed Japanese family names before given names (except for the names of twentieth-century writers quoted in the text) and have used the Chinese calendar rather than the Gregorian one to preserve the actual feeling of mid-nineteenth-century Japan. For clarity's sake, Japanese dates and era names are generally accompanied by the corresponding years in the Western calendar. For easy reference, I have included a short Table of Era Names and Their Corresponding Years in Western Chron­ology after the appendixes. I have romanized Japanese terms when I felt that translation would be syntactically awkward or semanti-cally inaccurate. These romani/ed terms, other than names, are italicized the first time they appear, except for words such as samu­rai and geisha, which are included in the lexicon of modern American English. I have translated terms, including proper nouns, that I thought would lend themselves favorably to English. I have not necessarily adhered to translations of terms that have been used by other writers. I have not pluralized Japanese terms, but a plural or singular meaning should be clear from the context in which a term is used. For example, a samurai is singular, whereas many samurai is plural.

I have written a brief Historical Background, preceding the first chapter ("Loyal and Patriotic Corps"), to give readers a basic foundation by which to better comprehend this intricate history. Unlike in my previous books, I have included a bibliography and source notes, although most of my sources are in the Japanese lan­guage. All English renderings of historical Japanese documents— including poems, letters, diaries, memoirs, and recollections—are my own translations. For the benefit of readers who have trouble keeping track of Japanese names and terminology, I have included a Glossary of Japanese Terms after the Table of Era Names.

I express my sincerest appreciation to Mr. George L. Cohen for his invaluable and painstaking work in editing the original man­uscript; to Mr. Masataka Kojima, direct descendant of Kojima Shikanosuke and curator of the Kojima Museum, for his kind permission to use the photograph of Kondo Jsami's training robe and for providing me with an insight into this history that cannot be had from written materials alone; to Ms. Chie Kirnura, direct descendant of Hijikata Toshizos elder brother, for her permission to use the photo of the original miniature Shinsengumi banner and for her special effort in photographing a replica of the Shinsengumi banner for use herein; to Ms. Fukuko Sato, direct descendant of Sato Hikogoro, for sharing with me an anecdote of Hijikata Toshizos last days and for her kind permission to use the photos of Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo; to Ms. Mariko Nozaki for her assistance in the translation of archaic Japanese. Finally, I would like to extend special thanks to Mrs. Tae Moriyama, my Japanese teacher, without whose dedicated instruction nearly a quarter cen­tury past I might never have gained sufficient knowledge of the Japanese language to comprehend this complicated history; and to Mr. Tsutomu Ohshima, chief instructor of Shotokan Karate of America, whose invaluable teachings over these past three decades have provided me with an occasional and sudden bright flash of insight into the hearts and minds of the samurai depicted herein.


This book is about bloodshed and death and atrocity. It is also about courage and honor and fidelity. It explores some of the darkest regions of the human soul, and some of its most noble parts. The underlying themes in this historical narrative of the Shinsengumi are the extraordinary will to power and sense of self-importance of the leaders of that most lethal samurai corps, and the unsurpassed propensity to kill instilled by them into the rank and file.

The leaders of the Shinsengumi—Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo—are among the most celebrated men in Japanese history. Much has been written about the Shinsengumi, by acclaimed writ­ers of Japanese history and by former Shinsengumi corpsmen. They have also been widely depicted—and romanticized—in numerous novels, period films, and, more recently, comic books and anima­tion. In writing this first English-language narrative of the Shinsengumi, I have given precedence to capturing their essence and the main events of their history, rather than merely rewriting the tedious facts of their history. I have concentrated on the spirit of the Shinsengumi and their place in history, rather than on trivial details, particularly for situations in which my numerous sources contradict one another—with disconcerting frequency.

The causes for such contradictions are inevitable. Much of the information available about the Shinsengumi is fragmentary. Many of the facts regarding the corps have been lost to history. For example, depending on the source, it might or might not have been raining on the night that Serizawa Kamo was assassinated. While the sound of pouring rain adds a certain melodramatic element to the scene, exceedingly more important than the weather are the reasons that Serizawa was assassinated, the circumstances of the bloody incident, and its historical consequences. As another exam­ple, the cause of Okita Soji's collapse during the furious and bloody battle at the Ikeda'ya inn is uncertain. Whether the cause was a sudden attack of tuberculosis or the intense heat inside the house on that hot summer night in 1864 is of far less importance than the fact that the genius swordsman killed numerous men with his sword before collapsing, and the far-reaching effect of his sword on Japanese history.

In this regard I must mention that this narrative is based entirely on historical documents and records, historical narrative-and biographies (including definitive histories of the Shinsengumi and biographies of their men and other contemporaries), letters, diaries, memoirs and recollections (including firsthand and second­hand oral accounts and interviews), and other widely accepted sources. However, to the question of whether this narrative is entirely nonfiction, my answer must be a carefully considered yet resounding no. No, because I do not believe that any of my source materials are entirely foolproof—although to the best of my knowl­edge they are the truest and best available sources on this history. All historical documents and written histories, in that they are recorded after the fact and are not simultaneous depictions of men and events, must be, to a certain extent, flawed. Even eyewitness accounts of events are naturally flawed by biases, preconceptions, and myriad viewpoints, accented by the countless, or perhaps uncountable, perceptions inherent in the individual human mind. Thomas Carlyle, the master historical essayist, summed up this inevitable condition simply but truly: "The old story of Sir Walter Raleigh's looking from his prison window, on some street tumult, which afterwards three witnesses reported in three different ways, himself differing from them all, is still a true lesson for us."1

In this light, I pose a question: Even in this day and age of ad­vanced technology, is there a newspaper account of current events absolutely and undoubtedly free of misinterpretation of human intention or just plain factual error? How could the answer be but no at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when deception and lies are rampant at the highest levels of government, as they were in Japan during the 1860s and have been among organizations com­posed of human beings since the beginning of recorded history? Let it suffice to say, then, that this historical narrative is nonfiction in that my intent throughout has been, to the best of my ability, to present a coherent and accurate picture of the men and events of the Shinsengumi.

"Stern Accuracy in inquiring, bold Imagination in expounding . . . are the two pinions on which History soars," Carlyle wrote.2

The gist of this message by the visionary historian is that while we cannot know the certain truth of human events and actions which we ourselves have not witnessed, we can, by force of careful scrutiny, depict a clearer template from an otherwise muddled parade of uncorrelated facts of history and embellish this clarified image with fleeting and boundless leaps of "bold Imagination," to paint a picture that reflects the soul and essence of great human events and actions. This is what I have attempted in these pages. Whether I have succeeded, I leave to the reader to judge.

Romulus Hillsborough January 2005

By the end of 1862 the situation had gotten out of hand. Hordes of renegade samurai had abandoned their clans to fight under the banner of Imperial Loyalism. These warriors, derogatorily called ronin by the powers that were, had transformed the formerly tranquil streets of the Imperial Capital into a sea of blood. The ronin were determined to overthrow the shogun's regime, which had ruled japan these past two and a half centuries. Screaming "Heaven's Revenge," they wielded their swords with a vengeance upon their enemies. Terror reigned. Assassination was a nightly occurrence. The assas­sins skewered the heads of their victims onto bamboo stakes. They stuck the stakes into the soft mud along the riverbank. The spectacle by dawn was ghastly.

The authorities were deter­mined to rein in the chaos and terror. A band of swordsmen was formed. They were given the name Shinsengumi—Newly Selected Corps—and commissioned to restore law and order to the Imperial Capital. At once reviled and revered, they were known alternately as ronin hunters, wolves, murderers, thugs, hand of assassins, and eventually the most dreaded security force in Japanese history. Their official mission was to protect the shogun; hut their assigned purpose was single and clear—to eliminate the ronin who would overthrow the shogun's government. Endowed ivith an official sanction and unsurpassed propensity to kill, the men of the Shinsengumi swaggered through the ancient city streets. Under their trademark banner of "sincerity," their presence and even their very name evoked terror among the terrorists, as an entire nation reeled around them.

Historical Background
The fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868 was one of the great events in Asian and, indeed, world history. The creation of the shogunate over two and a half centuries earlier was the pivotal event in the history of Japan. In 1600 Tokugawa leyasu, head of the House of Tokugawa, defeated his enemies in the decisive battle at Sekigahara, the historical and geographical center of Japan. leyasu emerged from Sekigahara as the mightiest feudal lord in the empire. In 1603 he was conferred by the emperor with the title sei'i'taishoguncommander in chief of the expeditionary forces against the barbarians, or simply, shogun. The new shogun estab­lished his military government in the east, at Edo (modern-day Tokyo). He and his descendants ruled from Edo Castle, which by the time of the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty3 was the largest fortress in Japan. The emperor, meanwhile, remained a pow­erless figurehead at his palace in Kyoto, the ancient Imperial Capital in the west.

During the Tokugawa Period (1603—1868), Japan was com­prised of hundreds of feudal domains. These domains were called han. Their number fluctuated slightly, but by the end of the Tokugawa Period there were approximately 260 han. Each han was ruled by a feudal lord, or daimyo. The samurai retainers of each daimyo administered the government of their lord's han. In turn, the samurai received annual stipends which were calculated in koku—bushels of rice.4 The rice was produced by the peasants, who ranked just below the samurai in the social hierarchy. Beneath the peasants were the artisans and merchants.

The Tokugawa regime, known as the Tokugawa Bakufu, Edo Bakufu, or simply Bakufu, subjugated the han throughout Japan. Shogun Tokugawa leyasu bequeathed upon his favorite sons the great domains of Owari, Kii, and Mito. These became the Three Branch Houses of the Tokugawa. The heads of the Three Branch Houses were the highest-ranking feudal lords under the shogun. By leyasu's provisions, in the event that a shogun failed to produce an heir, his successor was to be chosen from among the branch houses.5 Following in the hierarchy were the twenty Related Houses, descended from leyasu's younger sons. Below them were the hereditary lords, whose descendants had aided leyasu at Sekigahara. The hereditary lords were direct retainers of the Tokugawa and, generally speaking, occupied the most important governmental posts, including those of regent and senior councilor. During the final years of Tokugawa rule, there were 145 hereditary lords. The progeny of those who either had been defeated by leyasu or had not sided with him were the so-called outside lords, of whom there were ninety-eight at the end of the Tokugawa Period. The Yamanouchi of Tosa, the Shimazu of Satsuma, and the Mori of Choshu were among the most powerful families of outside lords. From these three han would emerge the leaders in the revolution to overthrow the Bakufu and restore the emperor to his ancient seat of power. This revolution was the Meiji Restoration.

In 1635 the Bakufu initiated the system of alternate atten­dance, by which all daimyo were required to maintain official residences at Edo and live in them in alternate years. Through this system the Bakufu ensured that half of the feudal lords would always be present in Edo, while the other half were in their respec­tive domains. The vast expense of maintaining Edo residences and traveling back and forth to the shogun's capital necessarily reduced the amount of money left the feudal lords for military expenditures. Further safeguarding against insurrection in the provinces was the requirement that each daimyo keep his wife and heir at his Edo res­idence as virtual hostages during his absence from the capital.

The Tokugawa ruled more or less peacefully for the next two and a half centuries. To maintain this peace, the Bakufu had strictly enforced a policy of national isolation since 1635. But the end of this halcyon era approached as the social, political, and economic structures of the outside world underwent major changes. The British colonies in North America declared independence in 1776. The remnants of feudalism in Europe were obliterated by the French Revolution in 1789 and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars. The nineteenth century heralded the age of European and North American capitalism and, with it, rapid advances in science, indus­try, and technology. The development of the steamship in the early part of the nineteenth century served the expansionist purposes of Western nations. Colonization of Asian countries by European pow­ers surged. In 1818 Great Britain subjugated much of India. Through the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the first Opium War in 1842, the British acquired Hong Kong.

The foreign menace reached Japan on June 3 of the sixth year of the era named Ka'ei—July 8, 1853, on the Gregorian calendar.6 It was on that day that Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy led a squadron of heavily armed warships into Edo Bay, off the shogun's capital, eventually forcing an end to Japanese isolation and inciting fifteen years of bloody turmoil across the island nation. Perry carried a letter from President Millard Fillmore demanding a treaty between the United States and Japan. After months of stormy and unprecedented debate among samurai and daimyo both within and outside the Tokugawa camp, and even including mem­bers of the general populace, the authorities eventually yielded to Perry's gunboat diplomacy. In March 1854, the first year of the era of Ansei, Japan relinquished its policy of isolationism and signed the so-called Treaty of Peace and Amity with the Americans." Similar treaties with England, Holland, France, and Russia followed. Two ports were opened—one at Shimoda, not far from Edo; the other at Hakodate, on the far-northern island of Ezo.

Samurai throughout Japan were outraged over the humilia­tion they suffered at the hands of the foreigners. The situation was tersely explained by one who rose above this outrage in order to deal with the unprecedented and pressing dangers facing Japan. "Since the time that the American warships arrived at Uraga8 in 1853, public opinion became divided between the advocates of war and peace, so that a decision could not be made either way," Katsu Kaishu wrote four decades later, in a brief chronicle of the origin and downfall of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Kaishu was an expert swordsman who never drew his sword on an adversary. He was a philosopher-statesman, founder of the Japanese navy, and, during those dangerous times, probably the most valuable personage in the entire Edo regime. "At that time the Bakufu decided to open the country, and gradually did so. There were many people, including feudal lords, who resented this. They said that the Bakufu was forced by the barbarians to open the country because of its cow­ardice and weakness, and that this was why the Bakufu submitted to this humiliation. They no longer believed in the Bakufu. There was heated argument everywhere. People were killing foreigners, and assassinating government officials."

Two schools of thought came to the fore. Kaikoku (Open the Country) was the official policy at Edo. Joi (Expel the Barbarians) was violently advocated by the vast majority of samurai throughout Japan. Four domains stood at the vanguard of the antiforeign move­ment: Mito, Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa. As close relatives of the Tokugawa, the Mito rulers would never oppose the Bakufu. (Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu, a son of the Lord of Mito, would become the last shogun in 1866.) Meanwhile, the antiforeignism embraced by the Imperial Loyalists of Choshu, Satsuma, and Tosa trans­formed into an anti-Tokugawa, nationalistic movement. At first they advocated Sonno-Joi (Imperial Reverence and Expel the Barbarians), which they eventually replaced with the more radical battle cry Kinno-Tobaku (Imperial Loyalism and Down with the Bakufu).

Choshu, Satsuma, and Tosa were among the most powerful ban in Japan. The Mod family of Choshu and the Shimazu family of Satsuma were bitter rivals, but they had borne a common and deep resentment of the Tokugawa for these past two and a half centuries. Both had been subjugated by the Tokugawa since Sekigahara. But the rulers of Choshu had fared much worse at the hands of the victorious shogun than had their counterparts in Satsuma. The Mori's vast landholdings had been reduced by two-thirds, while the Shimazu had been permitted to retain their entire domain. Since the income of the samurai was based on the rice yield of their domain, the Choshu samurai felt the pain of leyasu's punishment for the following two and a half centuries. It was probably for this reason that after the fall of the Bakufu, Satsuma tended to favor more lenient treatment of the Tokugawa than did Choshu. Meanwhile, the Tosa daimyo, Yamanouchi Yodo, found himself in a unique, if not wholly desirable, situation. He owed his very position as Lord of Tosa to the goodwill of the first Tokugawa Shogun. leyasu had awarded Yodo's ancestor fif­teen generations past with the vast Tosa domain, not for aiding him, but rather for not opposing him. Accordingly, while Lord Yodo would never officially oppose Tokugawa rule, many Tosa samurai would.9

The majority of antiforeign samurai in Kyoto hailed from Choshu, Tosa, and Satsuma. These men developed close relation­ships with radical nobles of the Imperial Court. They advocated Imperial Loyalism and Down with the Bakufu. They rallied around the Son of Heaven, a chronic xenophobe. They murdered Toku­gawa representatives and sympathizers with an equal vengeance. Screaming "TencliuHeaven's Revenge—they severed their vic­tims' heads, mounted them atop bamboo stakes, and exposed them to the elements and public derision along the Kamogawa River near Sanjo Bridge.

The fear of things foreign among Emperor Komei and his court was based on ignorance. They had never been away from the Imperial Capital, and the emperor rarely left the idyllic confines of his palace. None of them had ever seen the ocean or, of course, the great ships that carried the "barbarians" to Japan. They had heard rumors of the foreigners, ridiculous as they were gruesome. Foreigners were monsters with long noses, round eyes, and red or yellow hair, who partook of human flesh and who harbored unholy designs on the sacred empire of Yamato.

Their ignorance notwithstanding, the emperor and his court were painfully aware of the Treaty of Nanking. Neither they nor the Loyalist samurai who revered the emperor believed that the encroachment of Western nations would stop with China. If British warships could bring to its knees the great Middle Kingdom, which had stood at the vanguard of civilization and culture since ancient times, certainly Japan faced similar peril.

Many of the Imperial Loyalists were ronin, samurai who had quit the service of their lord. They claimed that Emperor Komei was the true and rightful ruler of Japan, although his ancestors had not held political power for a thousand years. The Loyalists, self-styled shishi—"men of high purpose"10—professed that the Tokugawa Shogun was merely an imperial agent whose ancestor had been commissioned by the emperor to protect Japan from for­eign invasion. But the present shogun and his councilors had upset the emperor by failing to deal firmly with the foreigners. If the Bakufu was unable to keep the foreigners out, the emperor and his court must be restored to power to save the nation. National poli­tics gradually developed into a twofold structure: while the Bakufu continued to rule at Edo, the Imperial Court underwent a political renaissance at Kyoto.

The situation exploded in June 1858—the fifth year of Ansei—when Edo signed a commercial treaty without imperial sanction. The Loyalists cried lese-majeste. They charged treason. They vowed to punish the wicked Tokugawa officials who were responsible. The man they most hated was the Tokugawa regent, Ii Naosuke, Lord of Hikone, who had usurped power two months ear­lier. Just before the subsequent death of the feebleminded Shogun Tokugawa lesada, the regent arranged for a twelve-year-old prince of the Kii domain, Tokugawa lemochi, to succeed him. Under the boy-shogun, the dictatorial regent ruled with an iron fist.

Regent Ii was determined that his enemies would not inter­fere with his plans. He unleashed his infamous Ansei Purge, the extent of which was unprecedented in scope and severity. Nearly one hundred shishi were arrested. A number of them were either executed or perished in prison. But li was not the devil incarnate his enemies believed he was, as indicated by a document handed down by the li family.

Fighting [the foreigners] and being defeated, and [as a result] having our country rent asunder, would bring the worst possible disgrace upon our nation. Which would be the graver—refusing [a treaty] and causing ourselves eternal disgrace, or concluding a treaty without imperial sanction, and so sparing our nation from eternal disgrace? At the present time neither our coastal defenses nor our armaments are sufficient. Our only choice for the time being is to concede [to a treaty], as the lesser of two evils. The aim of the Imperial Court is to avoid national disgrace. The Bakufu has been entrusted with the administration of the country. Those who administer the affairs of state must sometimes act with expediency as occasion demands. However, Naosuke is determined to bear upon himself the responsibilities of the grave crime of not obtaining imperial sanction.

Regent Ii would pay for his "grave crime" the following spring. On the unseasonably snowy morning of March 3, 1860 (the first and only year of the era of Man'en), the regent was assassinated by a band of swordsmen—seventeen from Mito, one from Satsuma— as his palanquin approached Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle. The authority by which the Tokugawa had ruled Japan these past two and a half centuries seemed to evaporate into thin air as the regent's hot blood melted the freshly fallen snow just outside the castle gate and news of the Sakurada Gate Incident shocked the nation. If the most powerful man in Edo could be cut down by a small band of assassins, there was no limit to the havoc that hundreds, or even thousands, of ronin could wreak throughout Japan.

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