Loyal And Patriotic Corps The situation in the Imperial Capital continued to deteriorate. Unruly ronin flocked to Kyoto. Most were Imperial Loyalists with a vendetta against the Bakufu. All were men of high purpose. They wore two lethal swords at their left hip. They were raring to use their swords to expel the barbarians and punish the shogun's government for allowing them entrance. In the spring of 1863, as blood flowed and chaos reigned in the Imperial Capital, the shogun was compelled to visit there—to report to the emperor his promise to expel the barbarians. The Bakufu instituted a new post—the protector of Kyoto. It was the official function of the protector of Kyoto to safeguard the Imperial Capital in preparation for the shogun's visit; but it was his true purpose to crush the enemies of the Tokugawa. Under the slogan "Loyalty and Patriotism," the Bakufu enlisted ronin in the east to subdue ronin in the west. In vain, the government provided each man of the "loyal and patriotic" corps with a pittance of gold—an ill-conceived attempt to gain their loyalty. When the corpsmen proved no less possessed of anti-Tokugawa fervor them those they were commissioned to subdue, the protector of Kyoto and his bewildered allies in Edo balked
Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi could not expel the foreigners—his regime, and indeed Japan as a whole, lacked the military means to do so. The bitter truth of Japan's weakness vis-a-vis foreign nations had long been expressed by no less an authority on Western military power than Katsu Kaishu.11 A decade earlier, in the face of Perry's gunboat diplomacy and while most men in Japan blindly opposed Open the Country, Kaisho, then an obscure Tokugawa retainer, had submitted a letter to the Bakufu. In this famous document he expressed the urgent and unavoidable necessity for Edo to lift its centuries-old ban on the construction of large oceangoing vessels and to develop a modern navy. To this end, international trade would be imperative to raise capital for building warships and manufacturing Western-style guns. Although these and other of Kaishu's proposals were adopted by the Bakufu during the 1850s, in the spring of 1863—and for years to follow—Japan was still a technologically backward nation. While most of his countrymen ranted and raved about expelling the foreigners through virtue of their "samurai spirit," Katsu Kaishu, always ahead of his time, continued to profess that without foreign assistance—i.e., modern military technology—Japan could not hope to stand up to Great Britain, France, Russia, or the United States. Unless Japan prepared itself for the future, it would share the fate of China and India, under the yoke of foreign subjugation. Kaishu knew, as did a small handful of other farsighted men both within and outside the Tokugawa camp, that Edo's proposed promise to expel the foreigners was at best appeasement, at worst deception, of the Imperial Court.
Lord Matsudaira Katamori was less concerned with the bitter truth of Japan's weakness than with protecting the shogun. The Matsudaira family of Aizu Han were among the Tokugawa Bakufu's staunchest allies. As one of the Related Houses, their crest displayed the three hollyhock leaves of the Tokugawa. At age twenty-seven, the Edo-born Lord Katamori, head of the House of Matsudaira and daimyo of Aizu, was appointed protector of Kyoto. His first task upon assuming his new post was to safeguard the streets of Kyoto in preparation for lemochi's visit. At the end of 1862, the second year of the era of Bunkyu, the Bakufu authorities had devised a plan to assist him. In former days they would have deployed samurai of the Edo camp to suppress the renegades in Kyoto. But now the authorities came up with a novel idea. For the first time in its history, the Tokugawa Bakufu officially recruited ronin, whom the authorities generally referred to by the preferred term roshi, to suppress the renegades.12 .To this end, the Bakufu proclaimed a general amnesty, whereby even incarcerated criminals deemed worthy were set free to enlist. By February hundreds of men, whose majority hailed from the east, had been recruited into the Roshi Corps to serve the shogun in the troubled west.
In April of the previous year, Shimazu Hisamitsu, the father of the Satsuma daimyo and de facto ruler of that powerful clan, had led an army of one thousand men into Kyoto in an unprecedented display of military might by an outside lord. Hisamitsu, a sometimes ally of the Tokugawa, urged the Imperial Court to accept Edo's much vaunted call for a Union of Court and Camp. By uniting with Kyoto to shore up national strength against the foreign threat, Edo hoped to regain its unchallenged authority of the past. The reasoning: once the union had been completed, the Imperial Loyalists could no longer oppose the Bakufu, for so doing would be tantamount to siding against the Imperial Court. Lord Hisamitsu, meanwhile, had ulterior motives. In his role as great mediator, he would strengthen his influence at Edo and gain prestige at Kyoto, at the expense of his Choshu rivals.
Upon his arrival in the Imperial Capital, Lord Hisamitsu, as he fully expected, was commanded by the court to reestablish order there—which, of course, was the paramount desire of Emperor Komei. Lord Hisamitsu was therefore vexed to learn of a planned uprising by radical samurai, including twenty of his own vassals. These radicals would invade the Imperial Palace and assassinate supporters of the Tokugawa, whom they claimed had "infested" the court. They had been waiting for the Satsuma host to arrive, counting on the support of Hisamitsu, whom they assumed had come to declare war on the Bakufu. When the rebels learned that they had misjudged Hisamitsu's intent, they gathered at the Terada'ya inn, in the town of Fushimi just south of Kyoto, to finalize their war plans.
Hisamitsu appointed a squad of nine Satsuma samurai, all expert swordsmen, to proceed to the Terada'ya and bring their twenty errant brethren back to Satsuma's Kyoto headquarters. The result was the notorious fratricidal sword battle at the Terada'ya inn, the first, though unsuccessful, attempt at a military uprising aimed directly at the Tokugawa Bakufu.13
Among the planners of the failed uprising was a ronin named Kiyokawa Hachiro. Kiyokawa was the eldest son of a family of wealthy sake brewers of Shonai Han in northern Japan. He disliked his family business, pursuing instead his passion for the martial and literary arts. He studied at the celebrated Chiba Dojo, one of the three great fencing academies in Edo,14 and became a renowned swordsman licensed to teach the Hokushin Itto style. Kiyokawa was also a noted Confucian scholar who taught his subject at his private academy in Edo. He was a charismatic speaker, with flashing eyes and a tall, slender frame. He was a man of political ambition who, like many of his peers, censured the Edo regime for its weakness in dealing with foreigners. Kiyokawa was particularly outspoken in his anti-Tokugawa views. He was a man of strong conviction, and it seems that he also had a short temper. One evening at dusk, as he walked through the center of Edo after an afternoon of heavy drinking, he nearly collided with a man coming from the opposite direction. The man carried a walking stick, with which he attempted to strike the samurai. The samurai lost his temper. The next instant he drew his sword, and with one clean stroke beheaded the man with the walking stick.
The local Tokugawa magistrate in Edo had kept a close watch on Kiyokawa. He was aware of Kiyokawa's openly anti-Tokugawa views. The magistrate used the incident of the slaying as an excuse to order Kiyokawa's arrest. But Kiyokawa would not be arrested. Instead, he traveled through western Japan to recruit shishi into the Loyalist fold and wielded significant influence among the radicals of Choshu, Satsuma, and Tosa. Although the uprising in Fushimi had indeed been crushed, Kiyokawa would not abandon his ultimate objective of Imperial Loyalism and Down with the Bakufu.
The plan for the Roshi Corps was nominally proposed by one Matsudaira Chikaranosuke,15 chief fencing instructor at the Bakufu's Military Academy in Edo and close relative of the shogun. Matsudaira's intentions included reining in the radical elements in and around Edo who threatened the Bakufu. Once these ronin were in the Tokugawa fold, the Bakufu could more readily effect a Union of Court and Camp. The actual planners of the corps, however, had different ideas. One of them was Kiyokawa. The other was Yamaoka Tetsutaro16, a low-ranking Tokugawa samurai. Kiyokawa and Yamaoka were close friends. The two had studied kenjutsu (literally, sword techniques) at the Chiba Dojo. Shortly after the commercial treaties had been concluded, they formed a subversive political party that advocated Imperial Reverence and Expel the Barbarians. Yamaoka served as assistant kenjutsu instructor at the Bakufu's Military Academy. His loyalty to the Tokugawa was unquestioned; but he was nevertheless Kiyokawa's equal in his reverence for the emperor and resentment of the foreign intruders. Around the same time that Yamaoka received orders from the Bakufu to oversee the Roshi Corps, Kiyokawa was selected by Matsudaira as the ideal man to attract other ronin to enlist. Kiyokawa was pardoned of his crime under the general amnesty. With Kiyokawa as the leading member of the corps, its slogan, "Loyalty and Patriotism," became its byname and synonymous with Imperial Reverence and Expel the Barbarians. Kiyokawa recruited other "loyal and patriotic" men. Soon the ranks swelled to 250, as large as the armies of many of the feudal domains.
The first visit to Kyoto by a shogun in over two centuries demonstrated Edo's diminishing ability to dominate Japan. It served to further empower the radical elements at the Imperial Court and to embolden the Eoyalists. On February 8, 1863, the third year of Bunkyu, the Roshi Corps left Edo for Kyoto as an advance guard to the shogun's entourage.
For the time being, Kiyokawa's corps outwardly obeyed the Bakufu's original purpose of protecting the shogun. They gathered at Denzuin Temple in Edo, the starting point of their three-hundred-mile overland trek. Two weeks later, nine days ahead of the shogun, they crossed the wooden Sanjo Bridge over the Kamogawa River, which flowed through the eastern side of Kyoto. Few of these warriors from the east had ever laid eyes on the ancient Imperial Capital in the west. It was the height of spring.17 The cherries were in full bloom in the green hills in the east of the city. The fallen blossoms covered the lowlands of the town like so much pink and white gossamer. In the distance, on the opposite side of the city, the corpsmen saw the five-tiered pagoda of Toji Temple, a black monolith rising above the land in the southwest.
Telltale of these troubled times, on the night before the corps reached Kyoto, the heads of three wooden statues at a local Buddhist temple had been severed and displayed along the river-bank. These were images of three shogun of the Ashikaga regime,18 whose tenuous rule of Japan spanned fifteen generations. This symbolic act of Heaven's Revenge was committed only days before lemochi's arrival at Kyoto, as a direct threat to the Tokugawa Bakufu.
The Roshi Corps stopped in the western outskirts of the city, north of Toji and two miles west of the Kamogawa. They set up headquarters at Shintokuji Temple in the village of Mibu, a rural area surrounded by farmland. They lodged at Shintokuji and other nearby temples and private homes. Most of the roshi were destitute and shabbily dressed. Some did not display their family crests on their clothes, but instead wore striped cotton peasant jackets. But for the two swords at their left hip, they would not have been recognizable as samurai. The local townspeople, wary of the motley corps, assigned to them the unflattering epithet "Mibu Roshi." When some among the corps extorted money from wealthy merchants and otherwise intimidated or violated the local people, the more derogatory "Mibu Wolves" was applied.
No sooner had they arrived at Mibu than Kiyokawa assembled all 250 men into the cramped confines of the main building at their temple headquarters. The men seated themselves on the tatami-covered floor before the Buddhist altar, swords placed at their sides. Kiyokawa stood at the altar facing the assembly. Suddenly and in no uncertain terms he declared, eyes flashing, that men of high purpose must place their true loyalty with the emperor and not with the Tokugawa. The corps had been recruited for their loyalty and patriotism, he reminded them. Their actual purpose for coming to Kyoto had not been to protect the shogun, but rather to help lemochi fulfill his promise to expel the foreigners. Kiyokawa now presented his men with a letter addressed to the Imperial Court, expressing these views and offering up the "loyal and patriotic" corps as an army of Sonno-Joi. Every man signed the letter, because they did not have the will to oppose their self-imposed leader.
On the following day Kiyokawa submitted the letter to the court. It was well received by the radicals surrounding the emperor. The Tokugawa authorities were disturbed, to say the least. There were some among them who proposed assassinating Kiyokawa. But the possibility of repercussions among the court, renegade Loyalists, and even the Roshi Corps persuaded the authorities to consider a less dangerous solution to the problem.
A less dangerous solution availed itself in connection with recent developments in Edo. During the previous August, a British subject had been cut down in cold blood by samurai of the Satsuma clan. The murdered man and three of his countrymen had unintentionally interrupted the entourage of the Eord of Satsuma as it passed through the small village of Namamugi near Edo.19
The British demanded reparations from Edo. The British fleet was now at Yokohama to await the outcome of talks between the two governments. Should the talks collapse, the British threatened to attack.
Kiyokawa proposed that his Roshi Corps be allowed to return immediately to Edo to help expel the foreigners. The Tokugawa authorities accepted the proposal, but with an ulterior motive. The shogun had been intentionally vague in his promise of Joi. He would not be bound by an imperial edict that he knew he could not obey. But the Edo regime was no stranger to deceit. The Bakufu arranged for an order to be issued by an imperial advisor for the corps to return to Edo under the pretext that, in case of war, they would finally have their chance to fight the foreigners. But the true motive of the Tokugawa authorities was, of course, to rein in Kiyokawa and his followers before they could do any serious damage.
The imperial order notwithstanding, a small number of the corps defected and remained in Kyoto. Thirteen of these defectors, most of whom hailed from either Mito Han or the province of Musashi near Edo, bore a special loyalty to the shogun. They had come to Kyoto under orders from the Bakufu, for the dual purpose of guarding the shogun and expelling the foreigners. They would not obey an order to retreat issued by an imperial advisor who was swayed by a self-professed enemy of the Tokugawa. Rather, they resolved to quit the Roshi Corps in order to achieve their "loyal and patriotic" objective under the authority of the shogun. The thirteen defectors petitioned the protector of Kyoto for official permission to remain in the Imperial Capital to "guard the shogun until he returns to Edo." Their petition was readily accepted. These thirteen comprised the original membership of the dreaded Shinsengumi.
Kiyokawa Hachiro did not abandon his dissentious designs. Soon after returning to Edo he devised a plot to attack the foreign settlement at Yokohama. He recruited five hundred men to participate in the uprising, including Yamaoka Tetsutaro, who had returned with him. They intended to burn the town, and in the ensuing chaos slaughter as many foreigners as possible. They would set fire to the foreign ships that lay in port, plunder the coffers at the foreign government offices, march some ninety miles west of Edo to the domain of Kofu, and capture that castle as a military base from which to finally wage war against the foreigners. When the Bakufu received word of the plot, the order for Kiyokawa's assassination was issued.
One morning in mid-April, two days before the planned uprising, Kiyokawa brushed off admonishments by friends that his life was in danger. He had an important appointment to keep at the home of a friend whom he intended to recruit for the Yokohama attack. But this friend turned out to be a traitor who had informed the Bakufu of the plan. The traitor made sure that Kiyokawa was treated to a generous amount of sake. When his intoxicated guest stood up to leave in the late afternoon, the host insisted on accompanying him along the way, citing the danger to his life.
Kiyokawa was ambushed shortly afterward by six swordsmen of the Tokugawa camp. He screamed, perhaps the name of one of his assailants, Sasaki Tadasaburo, whom he recognized as a fencing instructor at the Bakufu's Military Academy 20. Before Kiyokawa could draw his sword, he was cut from behind. Blood sprayed from his body as he collapsed on the street.
With Kiyokawa's death, the planned attack on Yokohama was foiled. When word of the assassination reached a fellow conspirator, he became worried. Kiyokawa had been carrying a list of the five hundred men involved in the plot. If this list were to fall into the hands of the Edo authorities, all five hundred would be implicated, including the fellow conspirator. He rushed to the scene of the assassination. He found the body of his friend sprawled on the cruel ground. The swords were still in their scabbards. The body was dressed in wide trousers of gray stripes, and a black coat lined with silk. On the right side of the corpse was the severed head, the black hair still tied in a topknot. Nearby was a military helmet made of black lacquered cypress. The backside of the body was sliced open horizontally. A deep gash on the left shoulder was visible, and the right side was cut open cleanly to the nape of the neck. The right arm extended outward. Next to the right hand was an iron-ribbed fan, as if Kiyokawa had been holding it when attacked.
The fellow conspirator immediately searched through the pockets. To his great relief, he found the list. Wary of being discovered, he was eager to vacate the scene. But he felt obligated to at least give the head a proper burial. He removed the black coat. He wrapped the head in the coat, and carried the grim package to Yamaoka's house. Yamaoka preserved the head in sugar. He hid it in the closet, but after a few days the stench became unbearable. Soon a local police officer cast a suspicious eye. To avoid detection, Yamaoka hid the head in a garbage bin, but the stench remained. When he attempted to grasp the head by the hair to remove it from the bin, the strands came out and he lost his grip. But he managed to bring the head to the adjacent training hall, where he removed one of the wooden planks and buried it under the floor. Now the smell permeated the training hall, so that he was compelled to bury it beneath a large silverberry tree behind his house. Yamaoka eventually secured a gravesite at nearby Denzuin Temple, from where Kiyokawa Hachiro and his "loyal and patriotic" corps had set out for Kyoto two months earlier.
Newly Slected Corps Shinsengumi—literally Newly Selected Corps. Certainly the thirteen men who comprised the original membership were select. Under the supervision of the protector of Kyoto, the men of the Shinsengumi were commissioned to patrol the city day and night. They were not yet officially empowered with the authority to kill. But they shared a tacit understanding with their master that, added to their original purposes of expelling the barbarians and protecting the shdgun, was their more immediate task of restoring law and order by destroying the enemies of the Tokugawa.
The Shinsengumi were led by two extraordinarily strong-willed men. Kondo Isami and Serizawa Kamo were bitter rivals. Both had been chief instructors of their respective fencing schools, and both had brought with them into the corps their top swordsmen. Kondo Isami, born October 9, 1834, was the third and youngest son of a wealthy peasant family from the village of Kami'ishihara in the Tama region of the province of Musashi, a partial day's journey westward from Edo along the Koshu-kaido Road. Cutting wide and deep through this fertile farm region of gentle hills flowed the Tamagawa River, a constantsource of inner strength to the young men whose martial spirit flourished along its banks. Rising high above the mountains to the southwest of Tama was the ever-looming, sometimes snow-covered, always enigmatic conical symbol of Japan, Fujisan, chameleonic with the changing seasons.
Shinsengumi Commander Kondo Isami was a peasant by birth, a warrior by nature. He was a man of traditional values and a martial mind-set, whose black training robe was embroidered in white on the back with the image of a large human skull—a symbol of his resolve to die in battle whenever he entered the dojo. He had enlisted in the Roshi Corps with aspirations of becoming a samurai in the service of the shogun. As leader of the shogun's most dreaded samurai corps, he secured a vehicle into the top strata of the Tokugawa hierarchy and indeed historic immortality.
While the entire face radiates raw power, the stern, penetrating eyes, complemented by the firm mouth and square, heavy jaw, are most striking. In his photograph, probably taken in February 1868, the then sole-surviving commander of the Shinsengumi is seated in the formal position, hands placed lightly on his thighs, prepared for battle at a moment's warning. Behind him, within arm's reach, is his long, lethal sword; and one wonders how many men he had cut down with its razor-sharp blade.
Kondo Isami's name at birth was Miyagawa Katsugoro. He was a child of Tenpo—the era of Heaven's Protection (1830-43)— certainly a misnomer, at least for the rural villages of eastern Japan, which were terrorized by marauding swordsmen during those years. The Tama region was a domain of the Tokugawa. The local people prided themselves as farmers of the shogun. While peasants were generally forbidden by law to bear arms, the people of Tama were inclined toward the martial and literary arts. Their martial traditions dated back to the twelfth century, from the samurai who had served the military regime at Kamakura.21 After the arrival of the foreigners in 1853, the martial arts again flourished in Tama.
Tama was an expansive region. The Tokugawa magistrates in charge of policing Tama did not have the resources to patrol the entire area, or to protect it against the marauding swordsmen. Village leaders were appointed by the magistrates to police their respective villages. The peasants working under the village leaders were required to study martial arts—partly to protect themselves against the marauders. Some of the wealthy peasants built training halls at their homes and hired local fencing masters to instruct them. Among these wealthy peasants was Katsugoro's father, Miyagawa Hisajiro.
Katsugoro's mother died while he was a young boy. His father was an avid reader of history. On rainy days Katsugoro's father would call his three sons to the family hearth, where he would read to them chronicles of heroic deeds. From an early age the future Shinsengumi commander was taught an appreciation of literature and martial arts and participated in the training sessions at his family's home dojo. When Katsugoro was fourteen, his father hired a local fencing instructor to teach his three sons. The instructor's name was Kondo Shusuke. He was the master of the Shieikan, a minor fencing school in Edo. Master Shusuke taught the Tennen Rishin style. Katsugoro proved himself naturally inclined toward rigorous kenjutsu training. In the following year he was awarded mokuroku, the second of five ranks in the Tennen Rishin style.22 Master Shusuke was impressed with the boy's ferocity, both on and off the practice floor. One night when their father was away on business, Katsugoro and his two brothers were awoken by the sound of robbers breaking into their house. Far from being frightened, the brothers saw this as a perfect chance to test the fencing techniques they had studied. The robbers were armed with knives. The brothers pursued them with drawn swords. The robbers attempted to flee with stolen property in their arms. Katsugoro yelled the word "stop!" with an ear-piercing guttural wail such as he had learned from his master. The robbers threw down their booty and fled for their lives.
Kondo Shusuke was getting along in years. Perhaps it was Katsugoro's innate courage that now convinced the master to petition Miyagawa Hisajiro for permission to adopt his fifteen-year-old son as his heir. Permission was presently granted, and soon it was determined that Katsugoro would become the fourth generational head of the Tennen Rishin style. The peasant's son now became a samurai. He left his native village to live in Edo at the home of his fencing master, where he continued to devote himself to the study of kenjutsu.
Kondo was married in his twenty-sixth year. Otsune was three years younger than he was. Unlike her husband, she had been born into the warrior class. Her father was a retainer of the Shimizu family, a Tokugawa Branch House. Otsune was homely and apparently had a harelip. But she was wellborn, well-bred, well-educated, and, perhaps most important, endowed with measures of propriety and pluck more prevalent in the daughter of a samurai than in a woman of the common classes. The sword master's heir had encountered many other prospective brides, each more physically attractive than Otsune. When asked why he had chosen Otsune for his wife, he is said to have replied, "I had interviews with beautiful women. They were conceited about their good looks. But Otsune was much more humble in her manner and very polite." Perhaps this is indicative of a certain humanity in the future Shinsengumi commander, and certainly it had something to do with his immovable determination to adhere to the stoic mores of his adopted social class. They were married at the end of March 1860, as the capital reeled from the shock of Regent li Naosuke's assassination. Soon after their mar riage, Otsune embroi dered the likeness of a skull on the back of Kondo's training robe— a token of her appre ciation for her warrior-husband's resolve to die. In the following year the sword master’s heir was awarded shinan menkyo, the highest rank in the Tennen Rishin style. Kondo Shusuke now retired, and his adopted son became the fourth master of that style. The Shieikan flourished under the young master. The names on the student roster exceeded three hundred, mostly men of peasant households in Tama. The young master traveled around the region to teach at local training halls. He was a large, muscular man. His feet were so big that the maid employed at the home of a friend was "stunned by the unusually large size of his wooden clogs," which he removed before entering the house. So large was his mouth that he could fit his entire fist inside—an antic that drew hysterical laughter at drinking bouts during the bloody and tumultuous years he ruled the dangerous streets of the Imperial Capital. It was also around his twenty-seventh year that the peasant-turned-swordmaster changed his name to Kondo Isami23—an appellation that would arouse feelings of derision, fear, and hate among his enemies; pride and love among the good people of his native Tama; gratitude and hope among the embattled powers that were in Edo; and awed respect among them all.
Kondo practiced the Tennen Rishin style for more than fourteen years. When the opportunity was presented him at age twenty-nine to put his sword to practical use, it was with his great courage, a burning desire to "vent [his] long-held indignation" toward the foreign intruders, and a determination to make a name for himself as a samurai in the service of the shogun that he closed the doors of the Shieikan and, with seven of his top swordsmen, enlisted in the Roshi Corps.
The Shinsengumi originally had three commanders. Ranking beside Kondo and Serizawa was a close ally of the latter named Shinmi Nishiki. But Shinmi was a nominal rather than actual commander. Exceedingly more important to this historical narrative, and to the history of Japan, was Hijikata Toshizo, one of two vice commanders of the Shinsengumi, whose warrior's nature earned him the epithet "Demon Commander." Hijikata was Kondo's closest friend and confidant. Eike Kondo, he was also the youngest son of a wealthy Tama peasant. He was a handsome man just over five feet seven inches tall.24 He had a light complexion and almost classical features, which made him stand out among his countrymen. His photograph, taken after the fall of the Bakufu, at the end of 1868, shows Vice Commander of the Army Hijikata Toshizo seated on a wooden chair in Western-style clothing with knee-high military boots and a sword at his left side. The cropped black hair, no longer in a topknot, is combed straight back. Most striking are the eyes, betraying an unyielding yet calm resolve to die—almost a longing for death— which he would bring with him to his last battle.
Hijikata was one year younger than Kondo. Having lost both parents by the time he was five years old, Hijikata was raised by his elder brother and sister-in-law at his family's home in Ishida Village, beneath the shadow of the ancient and solemn Takahata Fudo Temple. At eleven he was briefly apprenticed at the giant mercantile enterprise Matsuzaka'ya in Edo. Upon returning to his native countryside, the boy divided his time between his family's home and the nearby residence of his elder sister and her husband at Hino, a post town along the Koshu-kaido. When Hijikata was sixteen, he planted arrow bamboo behind his house and vowed to himself, as preposterously as prophetically, "to become a samurai." Arrow bamboo consists of short, straight shafts no thicker than a person's finger—ideal for making arrows. Planting arrow bamboo was considered an act of discretion—preparation for war becoming of a samurai. Similarly samurai-like were the manly arts of calligraphy and poetry (both Chinese and Japanese), which Hijikata pursued with a passion. He was particularly fond of haiku. Under the pen name Hogyoku, he left behind in Hino a collection of haiku before setting out for Kyoto.
Hijikata's brother-in-law, Sato Hikogoro, earned menkyo rank under Kondo Shusuke, entitling him to teach the Tennen Rishin style. Before that, Sato had inherited from his father an expansive and gated country estate and a lofty position as official leader of Hino Village. Although he belonged to the peasant class, Sato would be more aptly called a country squire than a farmer. Shortly before Hijikata's prophetic vow, Sato had built a kenjutsu dojo at his home, where Master Shusuke and his heir occasionally taught. In addition to Sato, Kondo and Hijikata also maintained close relations with another member of the local squirearchy who shared their passion for kenjutsu. This was Kojima Shikanosuke, the leader of Onoji Village. Sato was six years older than Kondo; Kojima was three years Kondo's senior. The two older men tutored their fencing master in literature, while Kondo taught kenjutsu at the private dojo of Sato and in the front garden of the Kojima estate.
Master Shusuke and son were beholden to their wealthy students. Kojima and Sato provided an important source of financial support to the humble Kondo household. The two village leaders continued this support after Kondo and Hijikata enlisted in the R5shi Corps. In their fencing master's absence, Sat5 taught the Tennen Rishin style at Hino, while Kojima performed this duty at Onoji. Both men sent provisions, including much-needed armor, to Kondo and Hijikata during the bloody years in Kyoto, and during the New Year holidays Kojima collected money from local kenjutsu students to send to their master in the west.
Sato's private training hall proved a propitious venue to this history. It was at the Hino Dojo that the future vice commander of the Shinsengumi honed his genius with an unsheathed sword in hand and where he befriended Kondo Isami. "He [Hijikata] was graceful in appearance and contemplative by nature, which compensated for the straightforwardness of Kondo," wrote Michio Hirao,25 to explain why the two men were "as close to one another as brothers." To support himself while practicing kenjutsu, Hijikata traveled through the local countryside peddling a special herbal medicine produced by his family. This medicine healed a variety of ailments, including contusions such as those left by a hard wooden practice sword. So great was Hijikata's passion for fencing that, along with his black wicker medicine chest, he always carried his fencing equipment, "stopping along the way," wrote Kan Shimosawa, "at any dojo of merit to politely request instruction. But back then he had a gentle face like a woman's. Although in the future his attitude would become self-important, since he was still cleverly charming, everyone treated him with kindness."26
"He had the slight air of a merchant," recalled a fellow swordsman who occasionally practiced at the Shieikan. "He had drooping shoulders but was tall and slender, and one of the best-looking men of the bunch [at the Shieikan]. He was shrewd in his dealings with people, and what's more he was a clever man. He tended to be a little disagreeable, and . . . there were quite a few people whom he disliked. When sitting opposite someone, he would first of all look that person over slowly, from his knees up to his face. Then he would quietly begin speaking."
Hijikata Toshizo did not officially enroll at Kondo's dojo until the spring of 1859, a number of years after the two had met. At the Shieikan, Hijikata wore his face guard tied with a pretty red cord, earning the quiet ridicule of certain of his fellow swordsmen—and the coveted menkyo rank. Several years later, people in Hijikata's native village could hardly believe reports of the bloodletting in Kyoto at the hands of the vice commander of the Shinsengumi, because "he was such a gentle person." But as Shimosawa aptly points out, "Toshizo was a different man with a drawn sword in hand." Once when Hijikata returned home on a brief interlude from his duties in Kyoto, he reportedly told a gathering of family and friends that the steel blade of one of his swords had rotted from overexposure to human blood.
Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo left their homes in the east driven by an unyielding will to power. They saw the great turmoil in the west as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put their formidable fencing skills to the fight, to rise through the ranks of the Tokugawa hierarchy. That these sons of peasants could even dream of such accomplishments, unprecedented during Tokugawa history, was certainly due to their extraordinary sense of self-importance.
Accompanying them were six particularly skilled swordsmen, each of whom would be among the original Shinsengumi members. Child prodigy Okita Soji was the eldest son of a samurai of Shirakawa Han, whose daimyo was a direct retainer of the shogun. According to Okita family records, Okita was born at the Shirakawa residence in Edo in 1844. Having lost both parents as a young boy, at nine he was apprenticed at the Shieikan, where he grew up looking to Kondo Isami as an elder brother. At twelve, Okita was matched against the fencing instructor of the Lord of Shirakawa, and was victorious. By age fifteen, he was serving asassistant instructor of the Shieikan, teaching at the main dojo in Edo and at villages around the local countryside. There were some who claimed that not even Kondo could beat Okita in a match. Naturally Okita received menkyo rank. When Kondo Isami became master of the Shieikan, Okita was appointed as head of the dojo.
Nagakura Shinpachi idolized Kondo Isami, who was five years his senior. He was a ronin of Matsumae Han, whose daimyo was an outside lord. Nagakura was born at the Matsumae residence in Edo in 1839, the only son of a well-situated samurai of that clan. The Nagakura family was related by marriage to the Eord of Matsumae. For generations the family patriarch had been permanently stationed in Edo as a liaison officer for the Matsumae domain, located on the island of Ezo in the far north. Nagakura began his kenjutsu career as a young boy. He originally studied under his fathers instructor, an acclaimed master of the Shinto Munen style. As one of the master's top students, he achieved the level of mokuroku at the young age of seventeen. In his early twenties he put his fencing skills to the test, touring schools of other styles in the vicinity of the capital. After returning to Edo, he served as assistant instructor to a master of the prestigious Hokushin Itto style. It was around this time that he began frequenting Kondo Isami's dojo. Although he never became an official member of the Shieikan, according to Nagakura's oral recollections, it was he who urged Kondo and the others to enlist in the Roshi Corps.
Yamanami Keisuke, one year older than Kondo Isami, was born in 1833. He was the second son of the chief fencing instructor of Sendai Han in northern Japan, also ruled by an outside lord. When Yamanami came to the Shieikan, he held menkyo rank in the Hokushin Itto style. He challenged the sword master's heir to a match. After Kondo defeated him, Yamanami joined the Shieikan as one of its most skilled swordsmen. He subsequently served with Hijikata and Okita as assistant instructor.
Inoue Genzaburowas born in Hino in 1829, the fourth son of a Tokugawa samurai. He was the eldest of the eight Shieikan swordsmen who enlisted in the Roshi Corps. Genzaburo's father, who served the shogun as a petty police official, encouraged his sons to practice the martial arts. Genzaburo began practicing at the dojo of Sato Hikogoro at a young age. Both he and his older brother, Matsugoro, received menkyo rank from Kondo Shusuke.
Todo Heisuke was born in 1844. He claimed to be the illegitimate son of the outside Lord of Tsu Han, whose family name was Todo. The obscurity of his background notwithstanding, it is certain that Todo Heisuke was a ronin when he earned mokuroku rank in the Hokushin Itto style at the famed Chiba Dojo. He was subsequently apprenticed at the Shieikan. Todo was the same age as Okita Soji, just nineteen, when he enlisted in the Roshi Corps.
Harada Sanosuke was born in Matsuyama Han in 1840. The Matsuyama daimyo ranked among the twenty Related Houses. His domain was located in the province of lyo on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main Japanese islands. When Harada began frequenting Kondo's dojo, he brought with him his expertise in yarijutsu, the art of the spear. A failed attempt to commit suicide by his own sword left him with a scar on his abdomen—a single horizontal line. He adopted the mark as part of his family crest— a single horizontal line in a circle.
A seventh Shinsengumi corpsman with a particularly close connection to the Shieikan was Saito Hajime. The same age as Okita and Todo, Saito, unusually tall at five feet eleven inches, shared with these two men the distinction of being the youngest of Kondo's group and among its most gifted swordsmen. Saito was born and raised in Edo as the son of a retainer of the Matsudaira of Akashi Han, also a Related House. Saito had neither enlisted in Kiyokawa's Roshi Corps nor traveled to Kyoto with the others. He had reportedly killed a samurai of the shogun's camp in Edo shortly before fleeing to Kyoto and joining his friends.
Serizawa Kamo was born in the first year of Tenpo—1830—four years before his rival Kondolsami. He was the pampered youngest son of a wealthy, low-ranking samurai family of Mito Han. An expert swordsman of the Shinto Munen style, he stood tall and erect—an excessively proud man, well built and endowed with extraordinary physical strength. As if to flaunt his strength, he carried a heavy iron-ribbed fan, with which he threatened to pummel men who got in his way. Engraved on his weapon-fan were eight Chinese characters which read, "Serizawa Kamo, loyal and patriotic samurai."
The "loyal and patriotic samurai" was a handsome man, with a light complexion and small dark eyes that penetrated the defenses of his many adversaries. He was as gallant as he was brutal, as courageous as cruel. He was a reckless man of fine breeding, a pathological drinker who, when in his cups, was known to draw his sword upon the slightest provocation. Before joining the Roshi Corps, he had served as a captain in the rabidly xenophobic and pro-imperial Tengu Party in Mito Han, the birthplace of Sonno-Joi. Serizawa was in command of some three hundred men of the Tengu Party. It was rumored that he had punished several wrongdoers among them by severing their fingers, hands, noses, or ears. He was eventually imprisoned and sentenced to death in Edo for the cold-blooded murder of three subordinates who had aroused his ire over some petty offense. In jail he refused food. The leaden winter sky, barely visible through the small window of his cold, dank cell, recalled to him the snowy landscape outside. He likened his lot to that of the snow-laden plum blossom. He bit open his small finger, and with the blood composed his intended death poem.
Amidst the desolation of snow and frost,
the plum is the first to bloom in brilliant color.
The blossoms keep their fragrance, even after they have scattered.
Before his execution could be carried out, he was released in the general amnesty proclaimed by the Bakufu to recruit men for the Roshi Corps. Now, in the spring of 1863, he was in command of not a rebel group but a legitimate corps of swordsmen in the service of the shogun.
Serizawa's notoriety preceded him to the Imperial Capital. When the Roshi Corps reached Kyoto in February, it is said that the townspeople shook with fear of the "demon Serizawa." A dominating personality with a voracious sexual appetite, the "demon" was reputed to have his way with other men's wives. In his youth he had reportedly raped and impregnated three maids at his family's home. As commander of the Shinsengumi, it was his duty to protect the Imperial Court. But this did not deter him from making advances upon the lover of Anenokoji Kintomo, a court noble and leader of the Sonno-Joi faction surrounding the emperor. When the matter was brought to the attention of the protector of Kyoto, he ordered Serizawa, in no uncertain terms, to cease his transgressions among the court nobles.Serizawa had allegedly raped the wife of a wealthy merchant in his native Mito. The wife was subsequently enraptured and begged Serizawa to keep her with him. It has been suggested that Serizawa's pathological behavior was a result of syphilis, and that he had contracted the dread disease from this woman, a former geisha. Perhaps it was a combination of the disease and his anger at having been infected that incited a fit of violence toward the woman, during which he cut her body in two and hurled it into a nearby river.
"Officer Serizawa Kamo's egoism along the way [to Kyoto from Edo] defied description," wrote Shimosawa. While Rondo and Hijikata had joined the Roshi Corps as mere rank and filers, Serizawa, a samurai by birth, demanded special treatment from the start. He had been recruited as one of twenty-three officers overseeing the corps. Meanwhile, Kondo had been assigned the indecorous duty of traveling just ahead of the others to arrange lodgings for the officers and men at stations along the way. On one occasion he forgot to procure a room for Serizawa, for which he apologized profusely. But Serizawa did not take the offense lightly, nor did he accept the apology. He nevertheless assured his fellow officers, in a tone of irony laden with malcontent, that he would make do without lodgings for the night. He would light a fire to keep himself warm, he told them. "But," he added glibly, "don't be too surprised if the fire is a trifle large." He gathered firewood and stacked it near the center of the town, where he lit a huge bonfire after the sun went down. The flames rose high into the night sky, raining sparks upon the surrounding wooden buildings. People bearing buckets of water climbed to the rooftops to put out the fire, but the burning resentment that engulfed Serizawa's soul would not so easily be extinguished.
At Kyoto, Serizawa gloried in his newfound power. When it was rumored that a tiger at a local circus was actually a man dressed in a tiger skin, Serizawa thought he would expose the imposter. The swordsman proceeded to the building where the tiger was kept. He swaggered directly up to the cage, drew his short sword, and thrust the blade between the bars. As the crowd around him held their breath, the supposed imposter released an earsplitting roar, glaring sharply into the dark eyes of the Shinsengumi commander. Serizawa now resheathed his sword and with a sardonic smile announced, "It's a real tiger."The corps split into two factions, rallying around Serizawa and Kondo, respectively. Of the thirteen original members, eight belonged to Kondo's faction, the others to Serizawa's. They recruited more men. Soon their membership exceeded one hundred. The leaders initiated a system of command to facilitate control over the rank and file. Beneath Commanders Serizawa Kamo and Kondo Isami, nominal Commander Shinmi Nishiki, and Vice Commanders Hijikata Toshizo and Yamanami Keisuke were fourteen assistant vice commanders. These included Okita Soji, Nagakura Shinpachi, Harada Sanosuke, Todo Heisuke, Saito Hajime, and a new recruit named Yamazaki Susumu. (Yamazaki, a ronin from Osaka, was an expert with a hard wooden staff.) These six assistants, with Hijikata and Yamanami, formed a tight-knit group around Commander Kondo. Other assistant vice commanders included Hirayama Goro and Hirama Jusuke, both loyal to Commander Serizawa. Beneath these officers were three ''observers," including the giant Shimada Kai. Shimada was a ronin from the pro-Tokugawa Ogaki Han in the province of Mino. He had practiced the Shinkeito style of kenjutsu at Edo, where he befriended Nagakura. At 330 pounds and nearly six feet tall, Shimada was by far the largest man in the Shinsengumi.
Most of the officers lived at the Yagi residence, one of numerous houses along the narrow roads and byways of Mibu Village. The master of the Yagi residence, Yagi Gennojo, a petty samurai, was the tenth generational patriarch of his family and a leader of Mibu Village. The imposing black-tiled roofs of the dark wooden front gate and two-storied main house, the quaint latticed windows, the sliding doors of the wide entranceway, the interior tatami-matted rooms overlooking the rear garden through a long wooden corridor—this house, and these rooms and this garden, so immaculately and meticulously kept, were now occupied by the leaders of the most notorious band of killers in Japanese history. Across the narrow street was the single-storied house of the Maekawa family, where the corps set up headquarters. Both houses, scenes of bloodshed to come, would serve the Shinsengumi well.
From his Mibu headquarters, Kondo Isami wrote letters to Satoand Kojima in Tama, requesting them to forward training equipment, for himself and the other men from the Shieikan. Both Kondoand Hijikata expected to see bloodshed soon. In separate letters they asked their friends to send along shirts of chain mail, in preparation for battle.
A uniform was adopted—a flashy light blue linen jacket with pointed white stripes at the base of the sleeves. The corps took as their symbol the Chinese character for "sincerity"—for their loyalty to the Tokugawa. Pronounced makoto, the Shinsengumi symbol was emblazoned on the corps' banner, white against a red background. According to Shimosawa, the banner was approximately five feet long, nearly four feet wide. The corpsmen carried their distinguishing banner and wore their distinguishing uniforms on their daily patrols of the city. They questioned or arrested wayward ronin, vagrants, and otherwise suspicious men in and around the Imperial Capital. Their fearsome spectacle on the streets of Kyoto became an everyday phenomenon. According to the reminiscences of a ranking retainer of the Lord of Aizu, "the men of the Shinsengumi tied their topknots into great clumps of hair. When they walked against the wind the bushy ends would flare out wider, evoking an even more imposing spectacle." Before long there were few, if any, in Kyoto, the nearby mercantile center of Osaka, or the surrounding areas who did not readily recognize them as the Tokugawa's select and terrible band of swordsmen.
There had always been ronin throughout the Tokugawa era. Formerly ronin were men of the samurai class who had, for one reason or another, intentionally or not, become separated from liege lord and clan. In short, they were "lordless samurai." But the ronin of the turbulent final years of Tokugawa rule—the biggest turning point in Japanese history—were a different breed altogether. They were far greater in number than their predecessors. And they did not necessarily derive from the samurai class. Many came from peasant households. Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo are two of history's most celebrated examples of peasants-turned-ronin. The great majority of these latter-day ronin, however, hailed from the lowest samurai ranks of their respective clans—most notably Mito in the east, Choshu and Tosa in the west, and Satsuma and Kumamoto in the south. During an age when the entire nation faced unprecedented dangerous straits, most of these lower samurai were prohibited from participating in government or even voicing their opinions in official matters. Depending on their han, they were nominal samurai—permitted to wear the two swords and take family crests and names, but otherwise treated as commoners. Serizawa Kamo is a famous example of a nominal samurai who became a ronin. Another is Sakamoto Ryoma, who came from a wealthy merchant-samurai family in Tosa.27 These ronin, in essence, quit the service of their daimyo, forfeiting the financial security and physical protection provided by their feudal lords for the freedom to participate in the dangerous national movement, often at the cost of their own lives. Like the leaders of the Roshi Corps, most, if not all, of them were ardent xenophobes, raring to fight the foreigners.
The ronin phenomenon of this era has been likened to a movement for social equality in a suppressive society. Many ronin had been motivated more by a desire to wear the two swords and look like samurai than by lofty political aspirations. They fulfilled this desire by becoming ronin under the false pretext of "loyalty."
As swordsmen, Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo were perhaps technically inferior to certain of their subordinates in the corps— most notably the fencing genius Okita Soji. But what they lacked in technical finesse they compensated for with strength of mind, courage, and an unyielding will to power. Their will to power, certainly their most formidable weapon, would time and again prove indomitable on the bloody streets of Kyoto.
For all its worth, however, when the will to power is combined with the germ of self-importance—the conviction that one is of greater worth than his fellow human beings—it tends to transform into the stuff of tragedy, often lethal to the host. Although not a pathogen in the biological sense, self-importance is a germ nonetheless; throughout the history of mankind it has been commonly carried by unscrupulous men, more often than not possessed of an unyielding will to power. Among them have been dictators, despots, conquerors, gang bosses, mass murderers, cult leaders— tyrants, criminals, and thugs, one and all—with a propensity to killunrivaled by the mass majority whose unfortunate lot it has been to share with them the same time and space of their brief existence on this earth. What distinguishes Kondo, Hijikata, and certain other of their countrymen, friends and foes alike, and even including scoundrels such as Serizawa, from the unscrupulous club of murderous villains who have been bound neither by national border, historical era, nor social nor ethical mores is the stringent and unwritten Code of the Samurai, Bushido, which they valued above all, including life itself, and by which they faithfully lived and died—although their interpretation of the code occasionally differed. But these men of the sword in the mid-nineteenth century, both the good and the bad, were heir to a rapidly changing society, when the age of the samurai and their noble code were fast declining, only to be replaced by the modern materialism of the encroaching West.
In the spring of the third year of Bunkyu, 1863, the shogun issued his long-awaited promise to the emperor to expel the foreigners by May 10. In April he traveled from Kyoto to Osaka, to board the Tokugawa warship Jundo Maru, commanded by Katsu Kaishu. It was lemochi's purpose to observe Osaka Bay from shipboard, with an eye to fortifying the coastal defenses in that vital region, so close to the sacred Imperial Capital. The Shinsengumi proceeded to Osaka to guard the shogun. On May 9, the day before the promised deadline, Tokugawa authorities yielded to the demands of Great Britain for reparations to the victims of the Satsuma samurai at Namamugi. This, of course, gave the radicals at court and their samurai allies a perfect excuse to strike out against the Bakufu. The authorities, in turn, called for the shogun to return to his capital in the east, not for their falsely expressed purpose of expelling the foreigners there, which was nothing but a ploy to appease the radicals in Kyoto, including the Son of Heaven himself, but to get lemochi away from the dangerous situation in the west.
On May 10, to demonstrate their perfect loyalty to the emperor, and in preparation for the coming war against the Tokugawa, the Loyalists in Choshu, that most radical of samurai clans, gathered at Shimonoseki, the southwesternmost point of their domain. The Strait of Shimonoseki separated the island ofKyushu from the main island of Honshu. Foreign ships passed through this vital strait to travel from Yokohama to Nagasaki and on to Shanghai. On the evening of the tenth, two Choshu warships fired upon an unsuspecting American merchant vessel in the strait. On the twenty-third of the same month, the Choshu men shot at a French dispatch boat from their batteries along the Shimonoseki coast. Three days later they opened fire on a Dutch corvette in the same waters. While the Americans and the French had avoided casualties, the Dutch suffered four dead and five severely wounded.
Choshu had taken it upon itself to enforce the shogun's xenophobic, and impossible, promise. By so doing, it usurped influence over the Imperial Court at the expense of Satsuma—and as a result further diminished Tokugawa authority in Kyoto. But retaliation was hard and fast. On June 1, an American warship out of Yokohama sank two Choshu ships at Shimonoseki, damaged a third, and shelled a battery along the coast. Four days later two French warships entered the strait and destroyed several more batteries. To add insult to injury, some 250 French troops landed at Shimonoseki and temporarily occupied two of the remaining batteries. They destroyed more of the Choshu guns, threw stores of gunpowder into the ocean, and looted swords, armor, helmets, and muskets, before reboarding their ships and departing the same day.
The swift and one-sided retaliation had taught the Choshu men a hard lesson. Like samurai throughout Japan, they had always been confident that when it came to actual combat, the foreigners would be no match for their superior fighting spirit. This myth had been shattered in just five days by the superior military force of three foreign warships. These champions of Expel the Barbarians had once and for all realized that until they could eliminate the immense technological gap between themselves and the great foreign powers, their slogan was a pipe dream.
Serizawa and Kondo felt certain that they understood the situation in the Imperial Capital better than the authorities three hundred miles away at Edo Castle. On May 25, they petitioned the Bakufu to keep the shogun in Kyoto. Their purpose was to avoid giving the radicals an excuse to attack the Bakufu as punishment for the shogun's returning to Edo without fulfilling his promise. But Serizawa and Kondo were mere war dogs of the Bakufu. Consequently, their petition was ignored. In mid-June, the shogun sailed for Edo aboard theJundoMaru.It is an irony of history that the Shinsengumi and the Choshu-led Loyalists shared the same great objective: expelling the foreigners for the sake of the emperor. However, the means by which they would achieve this objective made them bitter enemies. The Shinsengumi intended to fight the foreigners under the military authority of the Tokugawa Shogun. The ChoshuTed Loyalists meant to destroy the Tokugawa Bakufu as the most dangerous impediment to their objective. After the Edo authorities agreed to pay reparations to Great Britain, Kondo Isami realized that the Bakufu was not yet ready to implement Joi. Although he intended to eventually return to the east to wage war against the foreigners there, he nevertheless determined that his corps, the avowed protector of the shogun, must for the time being remain in the turbulent west, even in lemochi's absence. His corps must suppress the anti-Tokugawa radicals who would use the shogun's inability to expel the foreigners as an excuse to strike out against him. For Kondo Isami, protecting the Tokugawa Shogun now took precedence over everything.
The Shinsengumi's mortal enemies basked in imperial grace during the sweltering and frenetic summer of the third year of Bunkyu. In Kyoto, the Choshu Loyalists enjoyed the support of the extremists surrounding the emperor, led by court noble Sanjo Sanetomi. But Choshu's glory in Kyoto was as short-lived as its triumph at Shimonoseki had been. In mid-August, Aizu and Satsuma formed a military alliance, tipping the balance of power at the Imperial Court back into the hands of the Tokugawa. On August 18, under the cover of night, heavily armed Satsuma and Aizu troops seized the Nine Forbidden Gates of the palace, barring entrance by the Choshu men. Fourteen hundred armed Loyalists, including one thousand ronin, assembled at Sakaimachi Gate, which thus far had been Choshu's to guard. The tense scene was described by a chief vassal of the outside Lord of Yonezawa, in a letter to his son:
The two sides faced each other, their cannon and rifles ready to fire. . . . Each man wore armor, and I wish you could have seen the imposing spectacle. Choshu Han showed no fear in the face of [the dangerous situation]. Among their samuraiwere youths who looked to be around fifteen or sixteen years old. They wore white crepe jackets and white headbands, carried Western rifles in their hands and thought nothing of the huge army confronting them. Rather, they advanced to the front of the line, eager for the enemy to attack.
Their brave determination notwithstanding, the Choshu warriors were no match for their heavily armed Satsuma and Aizu foes. Betrayed by the Imperial Court, these champions of Imperial Loyalism aimed their guns at the palace. But now they were presented with an imperial order to retreat immediately or be branded an "Imperial Enemy." They had no choice but to obey. Choshu was banished from Kyoto, along with seven radical court nobles led by Sanjo Sanetomi. Satsuma and Aizu were aided in the fight by men of the Shinsengumi, including Hijikata Toshizo. The Demon Commander's valor was evident in the two enemy sword marks left on the iron head guard he wore at his forehead. He sent this head guard to his brother-in-law, Sato Hikogoro, in Hino. Accompanying the package was a letter, in which Hijikata glibly remarked, "In Kyoto, I have not yet been killed."
The so-called Coup of 8/18 exacerbated the turmoil in the city. Choshu samurai and their ronin allies who managed to remain in Kyoto went into hiding. They renewed their vows of Heaven's Revenge, and there were rumors that Choshu was planning a coun-tercoup in Kyoto. Panic spread through the general populace and the court. In the aftermath of the coup, the Shinsengumi received official orders from the protector of Kyoto to "patrol the city day and night."
The Shinsengumi did their job well. The extraordinary sense of self-importance and the unyielding will to power of their leaders interacted with each other, and reacted with the unique historical era they had inherited, to produce in these particularly skilled swordsmen a propensity to kill unsurpassed even in these bloodiest of times. Soon a semblance of order was restored to the city. In the following month the Imperial Court rewarded each corpsmen with one gold ryo.28
The protector of Kyoto was similarly happy with his Newly Selected Corps, which, in fact, were becoming his most powerful security force. The corps' unprecedented strength was bolstered by their severe code of conduct, devised by Kondo and Hijikata. That both leaders hailed from peasant households certainly steeled their resolve to conduct themselves and their corps according to the most stoic traditions of the warrior class. Strictly prohibited were "violating the Code of the Samurai," "quitting the corps," "raising money for selfish purposes," "taking it upon oneself to make accusations," and "fighting for personal reasons." Violation of any of these prohibitions was punishable by seppuku.29Not all violators, however, were given the honor of dying like samurai. The less worthy ones were beheaded. Attached to the prohibitions was a particularly severe regulation that perhaps more than anything else accounted for the lethality of the Shinsengumi: "In case of a fight, if you do not kill your opponent you will be ordered to commit se-puku, just as if you had been wounded from behind." 30
This sanguine code of conduct was, in fact, strictly enforced—although it would not be established as the official code of the Shinsengumi for nearly two years.31 The number of corps-men forced to commit seppuku, or who were beheaded or otherwise murdered, has been lost to history, though several incidents have been recorded. Ta'uchi Tomo of the province of Musashi made an unexpected visit to the home of his mistress in the southern outskirts of Kyoto. The table had been set with sake and some food, which aroused his suspicion. As he questioned the woman, he was suddenly attacked from behind by her secret lover. A fellow corpsman discovered Ta'uchi bleeding from his wounds. He helped him back to headquarters, where Kondo and Hijikata ordered him to commit seppuku—a propensity to kill. Another man was similarly punished for having an affair with a married woman—a propensity to kill. A fencing instructor in the corps who espoused radical Loyalist views was condemned to seppuku for "disrupting order in the corps"—a propensity to kill. One of the earliest members deserted after seeing fellow corpsmen condemned to death and countless of the enemy butchered in the streets of Kyoto. Having been with the corps for a long time, he was privy to confidential information, the divulgence of which was not to be tolerated. He was hunted down, captured, and hacked to death by several of his former comrades—a propensity to kill. Another corpsman was beheaded for attempting to extort money from a wealthy merchant—a propensity to kill. Two others, one of whom had been expelled from the Shinsengumi for cowardice, were murdered on the streets of Kyoto for attempting to use the corps' name for their own profit—a propensity to kill. A man in charge of accounting for the Shinsengumi was ordered by Hijikata to commit seppuku for "the crime of miscalculation"—a propensity to kill.
Although quitting the corps was certainly a capital offense, it was by no means easy to apprehend a deserter. Tracking down a deserter could be a drawn-out and complicated process, as was the case for one Shibata Hikosaburo. Shibata enlisted in 1864. About a year and a half later, in June 1866, he deserted after extorting money for personal use. When Hijikata received word of Shibata's whereabouts in Izushi Han, northwest of Kyoto, he sent four men after him. The pursuers carried a detailed description of Shibata, including his features, age, dress, alias, and the fact that he spoke with a Musashi dialect. He was handed over to his pursuers by Izushi officials, brought back to Shinsengumi headquarters in Kyoto, and forced to commit seppuku as an example to would-be deserters—a propensity to kill.
The most infamous instance of harshness by the Shinsengumi to one of their own is the unfortunate, if historically blurred, case of Vice Commander Yamanami Keisuke. According to Nagakura Shinpachi, Yamanami, "vehement in his Imperial Loyalism, was every bit as great as Kiyokawa Hachiro, Serizawa Kamo and Kondo Isami." Even the protector of Kyoto was counted among Yamanami's admirers. When Yamanami's sword was severed in a battle in which he had killed a ronin, the Aizu daimyo rewarded him with a new sword and eight ryo.
The trouble with Yamanami seems to have originated over a disagreement in philosophy, though Shimosawa also cites a bitter rivalry with the other vice commander, Hijikata Toshizo. Yamanami was apparently vexed over the lately inflated self-importance of Kondo and Hijikata. He felt that they had forgotten the original purpose for which the members of the Shieikan had enlisted in the loyal and patriotic" corps. The unyielding will to power that had lately consumed his erstwhile friends had diminished their former patriotic ideals. According to most sources, Yamanami's vexation was exacerbated sometime in early 1865, when Kondo and Hijikata, unhappy with their cramped headquarters at Mibu, decided to move to a more spacious location at Nishihonganji Temple in the southwest of the city. The temple priests were perplexed over the decision. Their attempts to rebuff the Shinsengumi were ignored by Kondo and Hijikata. Yamanami objected to what he considered coercion of Buddhist priests. "Certainly there are many other suitable places," he admonished Kondo, and suggested that his commander reconsider. But his commander would not reconsider, and Yamanami resolved to pay the ultimate price. He composed a farewell letter explaining the reasons he could no longer, in good conscience, risk his life under Rondos command. Then he defected.32
Yamanami fled to the town of Otsu, about seven miles east of Kyoto on Lake Biwa. Although sources differ in the details of subsequent events, according to both Nagakura and Shimosawa, Kondo sent Okita to retrieve Yamanami. This was no easy task. For all of Okita's skill with a sword, Yamanami himself was an expert in the Hokushin Itto style. He was also proficient in jujutsu. That Okita apprehended him without a struggle seems to indicate that Yamanami was resigned to his fate. Upon his return to Mibu, he was summoned to an assembly of Shinsengumi leaders in the Maekawa house.
"Desertion," Kondo said, breaking an austere silence, "is prohibited by Shinsengumi regulations." Kondo spoke solemnly as he ordered Yamanami to commit seppuku—a propensity to kill. Yamanami calmly expressed his appreciation and happiness at being called upon to perform this most honorable task for a samurai. He then excused himself momentarily. When he returned to the room he had changed into formal attire. He placed a mat over the clean tatami floor so as not to soil it with his blood. He sat on the mat, assumed the formal position, and placed his short sword in front of himself. He thanked all present for their long-lasting fellowship. He exchanged ceremonious farewell cups of water with them and courteously delivered his farewell speech. He asked Okita Soji to serve as his second, instructing the genius swordsman not to "lower your sword until I give the word." Then he gently took up his short sword and plunged it into his lower abdomen. After slicing the blade across in one straight line, he fell forward with a final thrust of energy, earning, according to Nagakura, "Kondo's praise for the splendidness" by which he performed this ultimate task.
The number of rank and filers who suffered a similar fate is unknown. The officers were no exception. Of the twenty-two most noted officers, only three survived those bloody times. At least six were assassinated, three committed seppuku, and two were executed. In 1876, eight years after the death of Kondo Isami and the final collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, in the Itabashi district of Tokyo—the new Eastern Capital—at a spot on the earth just a stone's throw from the execution grounds where Kondo had been beheaded, Nagakura erected a stone monument for the repose of the souls of his comrades who did not survive the revolution. Their names are engraved on the stone. Thirty-nine are listed as having died in battle, and seventy-one having met their end by disease, accident, seppuku, or execution.
The most severe treatment fell upon traitors and spies. Immediately following the coup in August, all Choshu men and their ronin allies were officially banned from the Imperial Capital. Some of them, however, managed to remain in the city for reconnaissance purposes, disguised as merchants or beggars. These outlaws were hunted by men of the Tokugawa camp, including Aizu and the Shinsengumi.
"The Shinsengumi became the object of hatred among shishi from Choshu," Nagakura recalled. "They concluded that as long as Kondo and his men dominated the Kyoto scene, it would be difficult for them to effect [another] uprising. And so Katsura Kogoro33 chose four of his comrades ... as assassins" to infiltrate the Shinsengumi. On August 25, one week after the coup, several Choshu men suddenly showed up at Mibu headquarters. They claimed to have left the service of their han due to a falling-out with their clansmen. They requested permission to join the Shinsengumi. Kondo accepted them into the corps, intending to use them as spies to "find and kill the malcontents from Choshu hiding in Kyoto." He ordered his new recruits to stay at the Maekawa residence, and gave them 100 ryo to pay for uniforms and other expenses. Having concluded his meeting with the four Choshu men, "Kondo [had] a strange flicker in his eyes . . . and after some time summoned Nagakura 34 and three others" and told them to "be on guard" regarding the four new recruits.
Near the end of September, Kondo discovered the truth about his four new recruits. "We can't let them get away," Kondo said, and ordered Nagakura, Okita, and others to "kill them immediately." Nagakura and two others found two of the Choshu men sunning themselves on the long wooden veranda at the Maekawa residence. With their swords they swiftly killed both men, stabbing them through from behind. Meanwhile, Okita and his fellow assistant vice commander, Todo Heisuke, burst into another room of the house in pursuit of two more of the enemy, who escaped through a window. An additional two corpsmen, also uncovered as Choshu spies, attempted to flee. One was captured. The other escaped after being cut from behind. "We tried to bring the captured man ... to Commander Kondo [for questioning]," Nagakura recalled. When he refused to cooperate, Harada Sanosuke, known for his short temper, drew his long sword, and with one swift stroke beheaded him. "Not only were we commissioned to round up the vagrants who swaggered through the streets of Kyoto, but [now] we were also invested with the authority to kill them. Shishi hiding in Kyoto and Osaka feared the commander of the Shinsengumi as if he were a demon."