Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps

Of Insult and Retrubution

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Of Insult and Retrubution
Under Tokugawa law, it was an inalienable right of the men of the warrior class to inflict capital and swift retribution for an insult per­petrated by a commoner. "The samurai held strength and courage as the ultimate forms of male virtue, while cowardice and meanness rep­resented the basest immorality," wrote an acclaimed chronicler of samurai history and lore. "In the face of disrespect or contempt, the only way for a man to preserve his dignity as a samurai was to strike down the perpetrator immediately.”
As the tension mounted in Kyoto between Choshuon one side, and Satsuma and Aizu on the other, Loyalist ronin from various clans rushed to the scene of the impending war. To avoid trouble with the Tokugawa forces in Kyoto, including the Shinsengumi, most of the rebels stayed in nearby Osaka to await the outbreak of fighting. So great were their numbers, however, that the Tokugawa magistrates in Osaka were compelled to request aid from the protector of Kyoto, who dispatched a contingent of men, led by Kondo Isami and Serizawa Kamo, to arrest or kill the rebels.

The fifteenth of July was scorching. Serizawa, Yamanami, Okita, Nagakura, Saito, Hirayama, and two others left the Kyo'ya inn to cool off aboard a pleasure boat on the Yodogawa River. (The Kyo'ya, located in the southeast section of the city, on the western bank of the Yodogawa, just south of Tenmanbashi Bridge, served as temporary headquarters for the Shinsengumi in Osaka.) On the riverboat they drank sake and, after disembarking, decided to spend the evening at a nearby pleasure quarter. Due to the intense heat, most of them were dressed simply in robes and trousers of the kind usually worn in the kenjutsu training hall. They carried only their short swords because their long swords would have been cumbersome on a riverboat.

Near a small bridge by the riverside they encountered a heavyset man steadily approaching from the opposite direction. By his great bulk, thin cotton robe, and topknot, they readily recog­nized him as a sumo wrestler. Unfortunately for the wrestler, however, he did not recognize the crudely attired men swaggering toward him. And to make matters worse, this particular sumo man belonged to a stable of wrestlers who tended to look down upon men of the samurai class. "Of this Serizawa was aware," Nagakura recalled. And Serizawa was not one to tolerate any form of insult, least of all from a commoner.

"Move to the side of the road," Serizawa demanded. The wrestler glared. Serizawa drew his short sword. In the same motion, he sliced open the wrestler's chest, killing him instantly. Without further ado, the Shinsengumi men proceeded on their way.

The trouble came later that night as the eight swordsmen cavorted with as many young harlots in a banquet room at a pleas­ure house known as the Sumiyoshi. Suddenly a ruckus was heard from the street. Serizawa looked out the second-story window. In the light of the full moon he saw a group of some twenty wrestlers wielding heavy wooden clubs. Serizawa jumped down to the ground below, drawing his short sword. His seven comrades fol­lowed, and in the moonlight outside the house of pleasure pandemonium ensued. One of the wrestlers knocked Nagakura's sword out of his hands. As Nagakura retrieved his sword, he noticed that the blade was damaged. Meanwhile, another man charged him. Nagakura dropped this assailant with a deep cut to the shoulder. "Hirayama received a blow to the chest, but after a desperate fight killed his opponent. Okita was struck on the side of the head. But ignoring the gushing blood, he brandished his sword like a windmill. . . . Yamanami chased down a fleeing man and sliced open his back, killing him instantly." The sumo wrestlers had no idea that they had challenged the notorious Mibu Wolves. The survivors who fled the scene were nevertheless aware that these were particularly tough opponents, and that five of their stable-mates lay dead in as many pools of blood, while several others had been badly wounded.

The Shinsengumi reported the incident to the Osaka magis­trate. They denied any knowledge of who had attacked them, or their motive. They claimed to have fought back in self-defense, killing a number of their assailants. "Be informed in advance," the Shinsengumi warned, "that if they should attack us again, we will kill every last one of them."

Meanwhile, representatives of the sumo stable demanded that the Osaka magistrate "find and kill whoever those roshi were who cut down [our wrestlers]." The magistrate's reply was as curt as it was severe: "The roshi whom the wrestlers attacked were men of the Shinsengumi. There can be no greater insult than starting a fight with samurai. It was perfectly reasonable for those samurai to seek retribution for such an insult." The matter was finally settled when the sumo men, to avoid further trouble, apologized to Kondo and Serizawa and presented them with a cask of sake and fifty ryo.

For all his murderous intolerance, Serizawa Kamo, upon occasion, presented a leniency that at once amused and bemused his fellow corpsmen.

In August the Shinsengumi were again dispatched to patrol Osaka. One evening Serizawa and Nagakura kept watch at the Kyo'ya, drinking sake while the others were out on patrol. To brighten the atmosphere, Serizawa sent for two young girls whom he had previously seen at a local pleasure house called the Yoshida'ya. Soon the girls arrived. They poured sake and probably sang and danced. Serizawa joked and flirted, and after a while both he and Nagakura were quite drunk. When Nagakura suggested they call it a night, Serizawa glibly asked one of the girls to spend the night with him. When the girl refused, Serizawa flew into a rage and ordered both to leave.

The following day Serizawa was still angry with the women for the slight of the previous night. Bent on retribution, he pressed Nagakura to accompany him to the Yoshida'ya. "There was a dog sleeping near the front gate of the Yoshida'ya," Nagakura recalled. "When Serizawa saw this, he unfolded his big iron-ribbed fan, and with it struck the dog dead." When the two samurai entered the house, Serizawa was seething with anger. In the front hallway, they were respectfully greeted by ten women kneeling in two straight lines. "Without saying a word, Serizawa looked around at everyone. Suddenly, he struck one of the women with his iron-ribbed fan, ren­dering her unconscious," before ascending the wooden staircase to the second story.

They were joined in an upstairs room by Hijikata, Saito and Hirayama, whom Nagakura had previously asked to "just kind of show up" in order to help humor Serizawa. But Serizawa would not be humored just yet. "I was worried that the two women might be killed over such a trifling thing, and that [as a result] the Shinsen-gumi's reputation would be tainted." Nagakura had ample cause to worry. Serizawa ordered the steward of the house to bring the two women, insisting that "their insult to a samurai was inexcusable," and that he would now settle the matter. The steward was per­plexed, but dared not refuse. He went downstairs to retrieve the women. "The way he's acting now, he might cut off your heads," he warned them. The women began crying hysterically, because they apparently knew of Serizawa's reputation. "You must come," the steward told them. He suggested that they sit on either side of him, "docilely, with your hands on your laps." If Serizawa should appear hostile, "as if he is going to cut you, then I will put my arms around your necks and tell him that if he is going to kill you, he should kill me first. But I don't think he'd kill me. So don't worry about it, and come with me to the room."

Soon they joined Serizawa and the four other corpsmen. "I should kill both of them for their insult," Serizawa told the steward, who listened passively, the girls on either side of him. "But since they're women, I'm going to pardon them."

Serizawa must certainly have been enjoying the mental tor­ture he was inflicting upon the two women, because no sooner had he spoken than he placed his hand on the hilt of his short sword and said, "Instead, I'll cut off their hair." He looked hard at the woman who had refused him the night before, and Hijikata now insisted that he should be the one to do the cutting—a precaution so that Serizawa would not get carried away with a drawn sword in hand. As Hijikata spoke both women gasped, the steward winced, and the vice commander drew his short sword. With one clean slice, he severed the woman's long black hair. Taking Hijikata's lead, Hirayama made short work of the other woman's hair, and Serizawa's rage was abated.

The Purge
When men of overbearing -personalities clash, the result is often vio­lent. If these -men are infected with the germ of self-importance, grave danger may loom. If the clash is intensified by unyielding will to power, the situation may turn deadly. But if even one among them is possessed of an unflinching propensity to kill, the inevitable outcome must lie cold-blooded murder.

Invested as they were with an official sanction to kill, the Shinsengumi swaggered through the streets of Kyoto and Osaka. As the authority of the corps grew, Commander Serizawa Kamo took advantage of his waxing power. Easily provoked, he terrified those who dared arouse his anger and, according to Nagakura Shinpachi, his extreme violence perplexed even the corpsmen." Once when Serizawa and some of his men were on an outing at the Katsuragawa River in the west of Kyoto, a hapless boatman acci­dentally brushed his boat line against Serizawa. Had the line touched any of the others, the trivial incident would have probably gone unnoticed, and certainly unrecorded in the annals of Japanese history. But Serizawa flew into a rage, cut the line, tied up the ter­rified boatman, and was pacified only by the profuse apologies of a samurai who happened to be riding on the boat.

It wasn't long before the Tokugawa magistrates in charge of keeping the peace in Kyoto and Osaka became vexed at the unruly behavior of Commander Serizawa. At the end of June 1863, a cer­tain official of Minakuchi Han, whose daimyo was a direct retainer of the shogun, issued an official complaint about Serizawa to Aizu Han. When Serizawa heard about it, he immediately sent four of his top swordsmen, including Nagakura, Harada and Inoue, to the Minakuchi estate in Kyoto to apprehend the official. "But," as Nagakura recalled, "the official suspected that if he came to [our] headquarters, his head would roll." The official apologized pro­fusely. At Nagakura's suggestion, he composed a letter of apology addressed to the Shinsengumi. The letter was soon delivered to Serizawa, who, placated by the apology, showed it to the other corpsmen, "roaring with laughter." It seemed as if the problem had been settled without further incident, until the next day when a friend of the Minakuchi official showed up at Mibu headquarters. He had come to retrieve the letter because "if the Lord of Minakuchi should hear about this, my friend will be ordered to commit seppuku." Since the letter was addressed to the Shinsen­gumi as a whole, a decision to return it required the assent of all the corpsmen. On the next day a gathering of more than one hundred men of the Shinsengumi was held in a spacious banquet room at the Sumi'ya, a veritable pleasure palace in the Shimabara quarter of western Kyoto, to decide on the Minakuchi man's fate. "Nobody objected to returning the letter of apology," recalled Nagakura, and the matter was finally settled.

Presently some of the men removed themselves to a smaller room more conducive to the planned festivities. On the tatami-matted floor were low wooden tables set with fine porcelain and lacquerware, on which were served delicacies to complement superb Kyoto sake. In a wooden alcove built into one of the walls was a splendid ceramic vase. Adorning the sliding screen doors were ornate landscape paintings, including, perhaps, a masterpiece of the Kano style. "We've been invited here today by the Lord of Minakuchi," Serizawa addressed the gathering, certainly pleased with himself and his own importance. Young women of the pleas­ure quarter had been called in to entertain the men—to dance, sing, play on the three-stringed shamisen, and keep sake cups full. After a short time Serizawa became drunk and, as usual, easily pro­voked. He drained his sake cup and suddenly slammed it on the table. "With his eyes fixed," Nagakura recalled, "he glared at every­one with that sullen look of his," apparently slighted that his cup had not been immediately refilled. Now he took up his heavy iron-ribbed fan and smashed the table, shattering the porcelain and lacquerware. The women were frightened. When they attempted to leave the room, Serizawa stood up and knocked down several of them; others wept hysterically. After similarly clearing the other tables, he went to the alcove and smashed the ceramic vase. He staggered into an adjacent corridor. He went to the staircase and, with a loud roar, ripped out the heavy wooden handrail. He carried the handrail downstairs, where casks of sake were stored. These he smashed with the handrail, so that a liquid of a slightly golden hue gushed out onto the polished wooden floor. Next he went to the kitchen and smashed every dish in sight. By now the proprietor of the Sumi'ya, his staff, and the young women had fled the house. Most of the corpsmen, probably disgusted with and certainly ashamed of their commander's behavior, had also left. Only Nagakura, Hijikata, and an old man employed by the Sumi'ya remained with Serizawa. "Tell the proprietor," Serizawa slurred, looking hard at the old man, "that Serizawa Kamo of the Shinsengumi hereby orders him to spend seven days under house confinement for his insolent behavior." When Hijikata reported the tirade to Kondo at Mibu headquarters, the commander, Nagakura reported, "just folded his arms and released a heavy sigh."

For all his unruliness, Serizawa was a man of breeding and not without a certain sensitivity. He wielded this certain sensitivity to his benefit, particularly with a certain type of woman. He was a stylish dresser and ruggedly handsome. As commander of the Shinsengumi, he believed that he was above the rule of law— extraordinary self-importance! He had no qualms about accepting merchandise on credit from shops in town—without any intention of paying his debts. Was it not true, he reasoned, that he risked his life daily to protect the populace of Kyoto? Were not law and order invaluable commodities that the merchants needed for their very survival? He even rationalized that the merchants, including the proprietor of a certain kimono shop, and his attractive wife, were indebted to him. This was why Serizawa did not pay for the exqui­site kimono he ordered from the shop, although the proprietor attempted to collect the debt on numerous occasions. Finally, the proprietor committed a fatal blunder by sending his wife, O'ume, to collect, naively assuming that Serizawa could be charmed into paying.

Unbeknownst to the proprietor, Serizawa had already been charmed on several occasions at the shop. When O'ume paid him a visit at the Yagi residence, Serizawa was only too happy to invite her into his room. He indulged her entreaty to pay his debt. Then , after she finished speaking, he raped her. But Serizawa's virulence and brute strength, combined with that certain sensitivity, enrap­tured O'ume, who left her husband to become the mistress of the Shinsengumi commander.

In July, while the Shinsengumi were in Osaka, a group of anti-Tokugawa rebels abducted a wealthy merchant from his home in Kyoto. They murdered him and left his severed head skewered on a bamboo stake stuck in the mud along the river near Sanjo Bridge. ^ They claimed Heaven's Revenge for the merchant's "crime of j engaging in commerce with filthy barbarians." Another motive was extortion. The rebels needed to raise money to fund a planned uprising. Near the head, they placed a leaflet naming the wealthy proprietor of a silk wholesaler known as the Yamato'ya. They threat­ened the silk merchant with the same fate, if he should commit a "similar crime." Tacitly implied was that the Yamato'ya's proprietor could redeem himself by contributing money to the Loyalists' cause, which he readily did.

But the problem would not end so easily. The incident soon came to the attention of Serizawa Kamo. Five days before the coup in August he told his men, "If the Yamato'ya is funding renegades who are causing so much trouble in Kyoto, then they had better give us some money also." Serizawa and several others paid a sud­den visit to the Yamato'ya. "Law and order are not free of charge," they threatened. When their demand for money was flatly refused, Serizawa took drastic measures.

The Shinsengumi commander led his men back to Mibu headquarters. They returned to the house of the silk wholesaler that evening armed with guns, including a cannon. They loaded the can­non with gunpowder-laden balls, and aimed it at the Yamato'ya's storehouse. "Burn it to the ground," Serizawa roared, then stood by and watched as his men fired round after round at the storehouse. Sparks and burning cinders flew into the air. Nearby buildings caught fire. The bell sounded in the fire tower, and soon the fire brigade arrived at the scene. Serizawa, wearing a mask to conceal his identity, ordered his men to train their rifles on the brigade and threatened to shoot if the firemen attempted to extinguish the blaze. Serizawa climbed to the rooftop of a nearby building, where he laughed hysterically over the havoc he and his men had caused. They continued the uproar throughout the night and into the fol­lowing day, until the storehouse was completely destroyed. Serizawa did not return to Mibu headquarters until four in the afternoon, drunk with the ecstasy of his power and repeatedly shouting, "How delightful! How delightful!"36

The protector of Kyoto was extremely disturbed. His Newly Selected Corps had been established to preserve law and order. He could no longer indulge behavior contrary to that purpose. Kondo and Hijikata shared Lord Katamori's indignation, albeit for different reasons. Unlike Serizawa Kamo, who was the son of a samurai, Kondo and Hijikata hailed from peasant households. The role of a samurai was to wage war, and he was rewarded accordingly with a stipend. He did not engage in moneymaking affairs, which were left to the merchants and peasants. This was certainly how Serizawa thought. But not so Kondo Isami, nor Hijikata Toshizo. As long as they were roshi, they were compelled to work, and had to earn their living by their own hands. They earned their living by killing, and they were not adverse to killing one of their own to protect their livelihood. That these former peasants now headed a Tokugawa police force was nothing short of miraculous, and they were poignantly aware that their rise to power was made possible only by the bloody times it had been theirs to inherit. Serizawa's behavior jeopardized the very existence of their corps, which had become their raison d'etre. Over the past several months the two had been waiting for an opportunity to purge the Serizawa faction from the corps. Lord Katamori would provide them with that opportunity. But they would have to wait for the right time. That time would come during the short period of relative calm immediately follow­ing the August coup.

If Serizawa's fellow corpsmen were perplexed by his tirades, they could not but admire his physical courage. Just before the coup, as tension mounted around the Imperial Palace, the Shinsengumi received orders to report to Hamaguri Gate of the palace to assist the Aizu and Satsuma forces against Choshu. Eighty corpsmen marched in two columns under the command of Kondo and Serizawa. Their distinguishing light blue uniforms and red and white "makoto" banner notwithstanding, the armor-clad Aizu men, preoccupied as they were with the impending battle, did not read­ily recognize them. The guards at the gate were armed with sharp spears. They demanded in no uncertain terms that the Shinsengumi identify themselves, pointing their spears at the oncoming columns. The Shinsengumi procession halted. The men were confused. They had expected to be welcomed as comrades-in­arms, but instead were treated with suspicion. While Kondo paused at the unexpected circumstances, Serizawa defiantly swaggered up to the gate. One of the guards thrust the blade of his spear just six inches from Serizawa's face. "We are the Shinsengumi," Serizawa announced, "under the authority of the Lord of Aizu. We have received orders to protect the palace and will now enter." He laughed derisively at the sudden perplexity of the Aizu men. He drew the heavy iron-ribbed fan from his sash. With a single motion he opened the fan, displaying the patriotic inscription and knocking the guard's blade aside. The Aizu men realized their blunder. "Please excuse our impertinence," they said. Serizawa closed his fan, replaced it in his sash as if it were a small sword, and pro­ceeded with his men through the gate.

Serizawa Kamo's right-hand man, Shinmi Nishiki, shared his leader's disdain for the merchant class and his conviction that the Shinsengumi commanders were above the rule of law. (Shinmi had been demoted from his original position as one of the three com­manders to vice commander. The other two vice commanders were Hijikata and Yamanami.) This disdain, founded on arrogance, and this conviction, founded on distortion, would prove fatal to Shinmi, but only after Kondo and Hijikata had received orders from the pro­tector of Kyoto to eliminate Serizawa.

Like Serizawa, Shinmi held menkyo rank in the Shinto Munen style. His superior swordsmanship notwithstanding, he had repeatedly violated Shinsengumi regulations. Not only did Shinmi spend more time at the pleasure quarters than on his official duties, but on a number of occasions he had extorted large sums of money from private individuals under the false pretense that these funds would be appropriated to the corps. Around the beginning of September Shinmi was confronted with these charges by a group of Rondo's men at a brothel in the Gion district of Kyoto. He was pressed to commit seppuku on the spot. Shinmi knew that if he refused, he would be subject to beheading, according to corps reg­ulations. Left with no alternative, and in the face of his scowling adversaries, Vice Commander Shinmi vindicated his tainted honor by his own sword. "Having lost his right-hand man," Nagakura recalled, "Serizawa became more and more agitated. He now engaged in misconduct day and night according to his whims and without any regard for the corps." With Shinmi's death, only four of the Serizawa faction remained to be eliminated.

According to Nagakura, Kondo was a "courageous man who did not take delight in brandishing his sword." He would draw his blade only when necessary, and would kill only when the need presented itself. That need, however, presented itself often, one of the most significant occasions being one rainy night in September.^7

For some time Serizawa and his men had been wary of Kondo and Hijikata, suspecting that the two were up to no good. Their sus­picion had been exacerbated several days earlier by the forced seppuku of Shinmi. But when Kondo and Hijikata held a party at the Sumi'ya, the remnants of the Serizawa faction attended. Accompanying Serizawa were Hirayama Goro and Hirama Jusuke, both assistant vice commanders. Hirayama held menkyo rank in the Shinto Munen style. Hirama, who was Serizawa's fencing student, held the rank of mokuroku.

Kondo could not do enough to please his three guests. He saw to it that large quantities of sake were served them by several pretty young women whom he had hired for the occasion. "There was a sumptuous feast and the place shook with song," Nagakura re­called. The hour was late when Serizawa and the two others took their leave. Staggering from too much drink, they hired a palanquin to carry them through the pouring rain to Mibu. O'ume was waiting for Serizawa at the Yagi residence. Hirayama and Hirama each called for girls from the pleasure quarter. The party resumed in Serizawa's room. According to Nagakura, Hijikata joined Serizawa's party to make sure that the three men were completely inebriated. "After they were too drunk to even sit up, they went to bed."

Serizawa's room overlooked the rear garden through the long wooden corridor, which led to adjacent rooms. As the hard rain pelted the tiled roof, four men stole into the room from the garden. Serizawa was sound asleep with O'ume, his short sword within arm's reach. Also asleep in this room were the other two men with their harlots. Sleeping in the next room were the wife and two young sons of Yagi Gennojo, the master of the house. One of the harlots got up to use the latrine. As she opened the sliding screen door of the sleeping quarters, she was confronted in the darkness by two men with drawn swords. "Save yourself and get out of here," one of them whispered.

Serizawa awoke from his stupor. He grabbed his sword. He managed to stand up. He struggled to defend himself. But Hijikata and Okita cut him badly. He tried to escape through the wooden corridor. He ran to the adjacent room where the woman and chil­dren were asleep. As he entered the room, one of his assassins delivered the coup de grace from behind. He collapsed atop the sleeping children, the younger of whom was accidentally cut on the right leg. With Serizawa's bloodied corpse sprawled across the bed, the older brother, Tamesaburo, noticed Hirama, his sword drawn, running frantically through the house. Tamesaburo went to the next room. He saw a woman's naked corpse and a man's dead body, the severed head nearby. Meanwhile, Hirama and the other harlot had managed to escape with their lives, their whereabouts unknown. Out of pure fear, the woman and children who witnessed the murders would never reveal to the authorities the identity of the assassins.

The next day Kondo issued an official report to Lord Matsudaira Katamori, stating that Serizawa and Hirayama had been killed in their sleep by unknown assassins. Their funeral at Mibu Temple, near the Yagi residence, was a solemn occasion befitting their posi­tions in the Shinsengumi. The coffins of the two men were laid side by side. Their wounds were wrapped with white cotton cloth. Their wooden practice swords were placed at their sides. The corpses were formally dressed in wide trousers and jackets adorned with their respective family crests. In attendance were all of the corps-men, including Kondo and the four assassins.

No such pomp was reserved for Serizawa's mistress. O'ume's corpse was never claimed. Her cremation and funeral in a cemetery for the forlorn were arranged by the master of the Maekawa resi­dence. With all but one Mito man eliminated from the corps, the Serizawa faction ceased to exist. Kondo and Hijikata now gained uncontested control of the Shinsengumi.

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