Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps

Of Outrage, Fury and Inexorable Fate

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Of Outrage, Fury and Inexorable Fate
The end of the old order was upon them, and the leaders of the shogun's most lethal fighting corps were, as men on both sides of the revolution, consumed by an outrage and fury begotten by inexorable fate. Fate, whether inseparably intertwined with that relentless god­dess or an overwhelming force by which their world was changing at breakneck speed, was, despite their steely will to power, beyond their mortal control. After fifteen years of unprecedented turmoil, neither the winners nor the losers—nor, it seemed, that brilliant divinity of their ancient ancestors—would countenance peace in their sacred nation without a final and bloody struggle.
The sweet taste of revenge afforded the Shinsengumi by the blood of Ito and his Guard of the Imperial Tomb was lost neither to the relentless Sun Goddess nor to the architects of the most momen­tous event in Tokugawa history. On October 14 of the third year of the era of Keio—November 8, 1867, in Western reckoning—one rnonth before Ito's assassination, the last shogun, Tokugawa Joshinobu, announced his abdication and restoration of rule to the emperor. The announcement was made in the Grand Hall of Nijg Castle before representatives of forty feudal domains. This event, which begot the Meiji Restoration, was the brainchild of Sakamoto Ryoma. In the previous June, while Ryoma's allies in Satsuma and Choshu promoted their agenda to crush the Tokugawa by military force, the visionary from Tosa had devised a plan to avert civil war. Ryoma's plan, a bold attempt to lay the cornerstone of democracy in Japan, urged the shogun to restore the emperor to his ancient seat of power. It called for the establishment of two legislative houses of government—an upper and lower—to be filled by men of ability among the feudal lords, court nobles, and representatives of the Japanese people at large. It stated that governmental measures should be decided by the councilors based on public opinion. Ryoma submitted the plan to Goto Shojiro, the chief minister of Yamanouchi Yodo, the powerful Lord of Tosa. Goto, in turn, pre­sented Ryoma's plan to his daimyo, who endorsed it in October in a memorial to the shogun.

As Lord Yodo's chief minister, Goto wielded significant influence on the political scene in Kyoto. This was why, as he prepared to submit Yodo's memorial to the shogun's prime minister, Itakura Katsukiyo, Goto arranged to be introduced to another influential player in Kyoto. On the night of September 20, he visited the residence of Bakufu Chief Inspector Nagai Naomune, a close advisor of the shogun. As they sat in the drawing room, Nagai announced that there was someone he would like Goto to meet. Goto, of course, had come to Nagai's house fully expecting to make the acquaintance of Kondd Isami. As Nagai spoke, Goto saw a man in the next room wearing a long sword at his side. The man very politely and with full decorum introduced himself. Although Goto had never met the Shinsengumi commander, he knew well of his reputation. After cor­dially introducing himself, Goto abruptly told Kondo, "I hate that long sword at your side," then asked him if he wouldn't remove it. Kondo laughed, removed his sword and placed it on the floor next to himself. The two men spent the following few hours discussing the pressing political situation in Japan. They became friends, or so Kondo liked to believe. Kondo had heard that Goto, who was or course from Tosa, had many allies on the Loyalist side. Among Goto's allies was Sakamoto Ryoma, an anathema to the Bakufu. But the peasant's son was nevertheless flattered to make the acquaintance of the illustrious samurai. He instructed his men not to harm Goto. He was aware that Goto was arranging for a memorial to be presented to the shogun but did not know the contents of that doc­ument. Needless to say, he was more than eager to see it. He requested that Goto provide him with a copy. Three days after their first meeting, Kondo visited Goto at the letter's residence. He tried on at least two subsequent occasions to meet Goto again, who cun­ningly, though tactfully, rebuffed Kondo's overtures. Goto did not show the memorial to Kondo.

Even as Yoshinobu accepted Ryoma's plan, the Sun Goddess con­tinued to torment. She now employed the genius of her darling among the nobles, the shogun's greatest nemesis at the Imperial Court. Iwakura Tomomi, that master of political intrigue, had been plotting with Satsuma to crush the Bakufu.77 Had Yoshinobu delayed his decision any longer, he would have found himself con­fronted by a secret weapon, against which his forces would have been powerless. The secret weapon was an imperial decree, drawn up by Iwakura, instructing the combined forces of Satsuma, Choshu, and other powerful feudal domains to attack the Tokugawa. The decree was essentially a Tokugawa death warrant, which called for the destruction of the Edo regime, the punishment of the "traitor" Yoshinobu, and the deaths of the Lords of Aizu and Kuwana. Iwakura entrusted the document to Nakayama Tadayasu, the emperor's maternal grandfather.

Meanwhile, the Tokugawa authorities in Kyoto caught word that Satsuma and Choshu planned to attack the residence of the Lord of Aizu. The Shinsengumi and the Mimawarigumi were imme­diately placed on high alert, patrolling the city day and night. The Shinsengumi stationed men at the front gate of Nakayama's resi­dence to keep a close watch on anyone entering or leaving the premises. The day before Yoshinobu's announcement, Lord Iwakura had received an imperial rescript from Nakayama, which exonerated the Lord of Choshu and his heir of their "Imperial Enemy" stigma. Iwakura hid the document inside the clothes of his young son, who carried it through the front gate unnoticed by Kondo's men.

On the very day of Yoshinobu's announcement at Nijo Castle, which was also the day that the imperial seal was affixed to the Tokugawa death warrant, the Shinsengumi spotted samurai of Satsuma and Choshu entering Nakayama's house. Although Kondo could not know the specific purpose of their visit, he ordered his men to arrest or kill them as they left. The Satsuma and Choshu men, however, managed to sneak out through the rear exit, bearing the imperial decree. But history shows that even the well-laid plans of an ancient divinity can be foiled by the foibles inherent in human events. Before Satsuma and Choshu had time to strike, Yoshinobu's decision was sanctioned by the Imperial Court and the theretofore all-powerful secret decree was rendered useless.

Kondo Isami et al., who just four months earlier had been officially received into the Tokugawa hierarchy, were outraged over the shogun's abdication. Casting a grim pallor over the entire affair, on October 26, just twelve days after Yoshinobu's announcement, Kondo received word from Edo that his adoptive father's end was near. Two days later Kondo Shusuke died. He was sixty-seven. Kondo was too occupied with the uproar in Kyoto to attend the funeral in Edo.

The Lords of Aizu and Kuwana, for their part, were infuriated with Yoshinobu. Kondo, meanwhile, assailed the Lords of Owari and Fukui, two of the shogun's closest retainers, as "unfaithful" for pressuring Yoshinobu to abdicate. In the following month the genius visionary who orchestrated the abdication was assassinated. Although it was not the Shinsengumi who assassinated Sakamoto Ryoma, Kondo Isami would certainly not have hesitated to kill him had the opportunity availed itself. "The day Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro were cut down, Kondo was sick in bed at my sis­ter's house," Miyuki recalled. "Two or three days after they were killed, he came to my house. He said, 'Since Sasaki Tadasaburo and some others killed Sakamoto, I can enjoy drinking some sake.' He sent for Sasaki, and they had a big party. 78

On November 13, five days before the Aburakoji incidents, Ito Kashitaro and Todo Heisuke had paid a visit to Sakamoto Ryoma at his hideout in Kyoto. They had gone to warn Ryoma and his comrade-in-arms, Nakaoka Shintaro, of the danger to their lives. The two Tosa men were among the most wanted on a long list of political enemies of the Tokugawa. They had brokered the military alliance between Satsuma and Choshu, which hastened Edo's demise. And though Ryoma had been the mastermind behind the plan for Yoshinobu's peaceful abdication, both he and Nakaoka were ready, with their comrades in Satsuma and Choshu, to crush the Tokugawa by military force should the shogun refuse to abdi­cate. It was no wonder, then, that diehards within the Tokugawa camp blamed Ryoma and Nakaoka for the overthrow of the govern­ment. "Nakaoka listened to my warning," Ito said afterward. "Rut Sakamoto seemed indifferent and gave no heed to what I told them." Several of Ryoma's friends had been killed by the Shinsengumi, whom he considered nothing more than a band of brutal thugs. Under no circumstances would he listen to the advice of men who had been part and parcel to that band. Two days later Ryoma and Nakaoka were killed at the former's hideout—a second-story room in the house of a soy merchant in Kyoto.

The Shinsengumi were strongly suspected of the murders. In a letter dated November 19, four days after the incident, Okubo Ichizo,79 the political leader of Satsuma, wrote to Iwakura Tomomi, "I have heard that without a doubt it was the Shinsengumi who killed Sakamoto. . . . Kondo Isami is the prime suspect." The assas­sins had left behind two items—a wax-colored scabbard and a pair of wooden clogs—that seemed to incriminate the Shinsengumi. Shinohara Yasunoshin and others of the Kodaiji Faction, hiding in the Satsuma estate in Kyoto, identified the scabbard as that belong­ing to Harada Sanosuke. Harada hailed from Matsuyama Han, which bordered Tosa Han on the island of Shikoku. Refore suc­cumbing to his wounds two days after the attack, Nakaoka reported that one of his assailants had screamed a profanity in a Shikoku dialect. Equally damning was a pair of wooden clogs engraved with the mark of a nearby inn. When it was discovered the next day that the inn was frequented by men of the Shinsengumi, Ryoma's followers arranged for Kondo Isami to be questioned by Tokugawa authorities. Kondo, of course, testified that his corps had not been involved in the assassination.
Harada was apparently framed by men of the Kodaiji Faction out of revenge for Ito's murder. But Harada could not have been the murderer. He was an officer of the Shinsengumi. He was an expert with both the sword and spear who had fought in most of the major battles involving the Shinsengumi, including the Ikeda'ya Aburakoji, and the battle over the defaced bulletin boards at Sanjo Large Bridge. A seasoned warrior such as Harada would not have forgotten the scabbard of his sword after a skirmish of just two or three minutes. And no matter the urgency by which he vacated the scene of the crime, he would not have left behind a pair of incrim­inating wooden clogs. Both indiscretions would have been in violation of the Code of the Samurai and so, according to Shinsengumi regulations, punishable by seppuku. Further exoner­ating Harada and the Shinsengumi were the future recollections of a former corpsman: "We were at Kondo's place that night. Harada Sanosuke was with us. When we heard about the assassinations the next day, we said to one another that whoever did it must have been a very skilled swordsman. When we heard that it was Imai who had done it, it made sense. Imai was well known in Edo at that time for his great skill with a short sword. When he was set to attack, it was said that all you could see was his sword. Imai was the only person who could have done such work in such a cramped room in so short a time. 80

Ryoma's men were outraged and possessed by a burning desire for revenge. When Kondo Isami denied involvement in the assassina­tions, they took matters into their own hands. There could be no doubt that men of the Tokugawa camp had killed their leader. There were three plausible motives for Ryoma's assassination, and all three were interrelated. Ryoma was the mastermind behind the plan for Yoshinobu's peaceful abdication and restoration of power to the emperor. Ryoma had shot at least one man of the Bakufu, and possibly two, during the previous year, when he was attacked and nearly killed at the Terada'ya inn in Fushimi shortly after securing the military alliance between Satsuma and Choshu. The third motive had to do with the sinking of a ship that Ryoma's men had chartered to run guns for the revolutionaries. The ship, laden with contraband of four hundred rifles, had been run down and sunk by a ship owned by Kii Han. Ryoma was the leader of a band of outlaws, and Kii was one of the Three Branch Houses of the Tokugawa. When Kii refused the outlaw's demand for compensa­tion, the outlaw threatened to sue in a court of international law. Aware of the power of public opinion, Ryoma composed a short jin­gle to ridicule Kii.81 He introduced the jingle at the pleasure houses in the international port city of Nagasaki, where his headquarters were located and where influential men from throughout Japan were gathered.

Ryoma's intuition worked, and soon Kii was the laughingstock of the city. In May 1867, six months before Ryoma's assassination, Kii agreed to pay an indemnity for the enormous sum of 83,000 ryo if Ryoma would drop the suit. Ryoma did drop the suit, and it was assumed that Kii harbored murderous resentment. When Ryoma's men heard rumors that a high-ranking Kii official, Miura Kyutaro, had instigated the assassination of their leader by the Shinsengumi, they acted accordingly.

But Miura was innocent. He was also aware that his life was in danger. Through the good offices of the Lord of Aizu, he arranged for men of the Shinsengumi to protect him. Having failed in their first attempt on Miura's life, Ryoma's men learned that he would attend a gathering at the Tenman'ya inn, near the scene of the recent Aburakoji bloodbath, on the snowy night of December 7. At ten o'clock that night, sixteen men wearing white headbands, all armed with two swords, some packing pistols, entered the inn. One of them, Nakai Shogoro, was particularly eager for revenge.82 An expert in iai, the art of sword drawing, Nakai's weapon was engraved with his name and given him by Ryoma. He dashed up the wooden staircase, the others following him.

Miura's room was on the second floor. Accompanying Miura were more than a dozen men, including Saito Hajime, Oishi Kuwajiro, Miyagawa Nobukichi, and four others of the Shinsen­gumi. They were drinking sake when they heard someone in the hallway outside the room. As one of Miura's men slid open the screen door, Nakai burst into the room. "Miura!" he screamed. He drew his sword, and in the same lightning motion cut Miura about the forehead. Nakai's fifteen comrades now rushed into the room. Jhe lanterns were extinguished amid the ensuing pandemonium, so that the men could not easily distinguish ally from foe. Sword clashed against sword. Blood sprayed in the darkness. Gunfire and guttural screams filled the cramped room. In the chaos, Miura, slightly wounded, managed to escape through a window onto the roof. One of the Shinsengumi, crossing swords with an assailant, fell through the window into a pond in the garden below. "There were now numerous of the enemy around the pond," wrote Nagakura. The corpsman emerged from the pond in pursuit of the enemy, who "scattered in all directions."

Two of the Shinsengumi were killed, including Miyagawa. Three corpsmen, including Saito, were wounded. Among the assailants, only Nakai was killed. Another man's hand was severed at the wrist; most of the others received minor wounds.

Before fleeing the scene, one of Ryoma's men beheaded Nakai's corpse. But certainly the head was heavy; and certainly its base oozed blood; and certainly this blood befouled the pure water of the well in which it was cast in an attempt to avoid identification of the headless corpse left upstairs. The head, however, was dis­covered a few days later, and identified by the name engraved on Nakai's sword.

Civil War
The shogun had indeed announced his decision to abdicate and restore the emperor to power. But a peaceful transition of government was not in the grand plan of that unrelenting goddess. An emperor had not ruled Japan in a thousand years. The Imperial Court was, to say the least, politically inept. To make matters worse, the new emperor was a fifteen-year-old hoy. The shogun's shocking announcement at Nijo Castle, so physically close yet so symbolically far from the Imperial Palace, had reverberated through the inner confines of that ancient and holy estate with so much eye-opening force that the emperor's chief advisors cowered in the face of their colossal responsibilities. While the imperial advisors hegrudgingly and finally accepted their fate, the shogun's closest allies, most notably the Lords of Aizu and Kuivana, and the Newly Selected Corps, did not.
Even after Yoshinobu's momentous decision, the Bakufu still con­trolled the government. The oppositionists in the Tokugawa camp, including Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo, were determined to preserve that control. They planned to persuade the Imperial Court to leave the administration of government in the experienced hands of the Edo regime. Meanwhile, their enemies planned to destroy them. Troops of Satsuma, Tosa, Hiroshima, Fukui, and Owari seized the gates of the Imperial Palace. By an imperial proclamation arranged by Saigo, Okubo, and Iwakura, and backed by the com­bined forces of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa, the Tokugawa Bakufu was officially abolished and the Imperial Court now ruled Japan. Important Tokugawa posts were eliminated—most notably the Tokugawa magistrates in Kyoto, the protector of Kyoto, and the inspector of the Imperial Court and nobles. The oppositionists, including court nobles and feudal lords who had supported the Tokugawa, were barred from the palace. The Lords of Aizu and Kuwana were ordered to leave Kyoto.

The importance of controlling the emperor, even at the risk of treating his holy personage as a king on the national chessboard, was no more apparent than now. Saigo Kichinosuke, for all means and purposes commander of the forces of the new imperial govern­ment, was not convinced at this juncture that he could defeat the Tokugawa in the event of civil war. He composed a letter urging the emperor's removal from Kyoto to a "safe location" before the out­break of actual fighting. To Saigo, a "safe location" was a place that would afford the new government direct access to the emperor.

When the oppositionists gathered at Nijo Castle to meet with the deposed shogun, they seethed with anger at Satsuma and Choshu. They expressed to Yoshinobu their desire to attack the Satsuma estate in Kyoto. To be sure, this was precisely what Satsuma wanted. An unprovoked attack on Satsuma by troops of the fallen regime would provide the imperial forces with the moral high ground from which to attack the Tokugawa—as long as they controlled the emperor. But the crafty Yoshinobu would not fall into the Loyalists' trap. Although he certainly shared his vassals' resent­ment, he also realized that the battle had been lost before the fight. On the night of December 12, Yoshinobu quietly removed himselr to Osaka Castle to avoid civil war. He was accompanied by the Lords of Aizu and Kuwana.

While Yoshinobu attempted to preserve the peace in the west, his vassals in the east handed Saigo the excuse he needed to start a war—by attacking and burning Satsuma's estate in Edo. Actually, Saigo and Okubo provoked the attack by orchestrating a series of incidents of arson and looting against Bakufu supporters, including an estate of Shonai Han. The perpetrators of these crimes were Satsuma men. Pro-Tokugawa troops surrounded Satsumas estate in the Mita district of Edo in late December. They demanded that the perpetrators be handed over. Satsuma, of course, refused. The Tokugawa side opened fire, knowing well that this would trig­ger a war in Kyoto.

Meanwhile, the Shinsengumi had been ordered by Tokugawa Prime Minister Itakura Katsukiyo to guard Nijo Castle. No sooner had Kondo and his men received this high honor, than it was pulled out from under them. Mito Han had also been assigned to guard the castle. A dispute ensued over which of the two should assume the guard duty. Commander Kondo is said to have barged in on a meeting among Mito men with the gravity of the situation radiating from his steely eyes. "I understand that your ban has been assigned to guard Nijo Castle," he said. "Now that the House of Tokugawa faces such a serious crisis, we are resolved to share the duty with you. If the Aizu and Kuwana men decide to stay here and work with us, I am sure we can do this together." But the Mito men would hear nothing of it. They had received direct orders from Yoshinobu to guard the castle and would not share the duty with anyone. Yoshinobu was the son of the late Lord of Mito. Mito was one of the Three Branch Houses of the Tokugawa. Kondo's eyes flashed with murderous intent. He placed his right hand upon the hilt of his sword and refrained from drawing the blade only by his extraor­dinary willpower. But Commander Kondo had lost the dispute.

With the protector of Kyoto post abolished, the Shinsengumi were informed that their name would be changed to Shinyugekitai OyatoiNew Mercenary Guerrilla Corps. They apparently pre­ferred their old name, which was synonymous with their five-year iron rule over the streets of the Imperial Capital. "We refused the name of 'New Guerrilla Corps,' and continued to refer to ourselves as 'Shinsengumi,'" Shimada Kai recorded in his memoirs. While they kept their name, they relinquished their rule and now joined Aizu and Kuwana in Osaka. Kondo Isami's murderous corps would never return to Kyoto.

Kondo Isami had attained historical immortality in Kyoto. During his five years in the Imperial Capital, he had become a ruthless killer and a tyrant whose will to power knew no bounds. His mind, however, was not completely preoccupied with war. At around this time he sent a sash of purple satin to his daughter in Edo, cele­brating the seventh anniversary of her birth. Indeed, the Shinsengumi commander was endowed with a much revered qual­ity in samurai society. That quality was humanity, pure and simple. When in the following January the Shinsengumi would finally return to the east after the Tokugawa's defeat in the west, Kondo could not but feel happy at the prospect of a reunion with his wife and daughter. He told a high-ranking Tokugawa official with whom he was traveling, "I did not expect to ever see them again." But his happiness was overshadowed by a tinge of shame because, as he admitted to the official, happiness was "unbecoming of a warrior in such difficult times as these." The official replied that it was only natural for a man to want to see his family. "That's humanity," the official said. "No matter how strong the warrior, unless he is endowed with humanity, he is no more than a beast."

"When Kondo left Kyoto," Miyuki recalled, "he gave my sis­ter [Otaka] a certain amount of money," perhaps because she had borne his child Oyu and certainly because he was not without a degree of humanity. Otaka eventually went to the port town of Kobe in search of work, sending Oyu to a foster home. Oyu grew up with­out any knowledge of her father. Years later Miyuki happened to see Kondo Isami's daughter at a house in the Gion pleasure quarter of Kyoto. Oyu was about fifteen years old at the time. "Out of respect for Kondo's spirit, I wanted to get someone to intervene," Miyuki recalled. "But after her mother had left for Kobe, there was no word from her at all. Rumor had it that she had gone to Shanghai, Hong Kong, or some other foreign country." Miyuki was acquainted with a certain police officer who had been associated with the Shinsengumi "during the old days." The police officer intervened. "Your father was Kondo Isami," he told Oyu. "He was a great man. Your working at an occupation like this taints your father's name. Since this was the first time Oyu had heard of her father, "I thought she might be surprised or even happy," Miyuki recalled. "But sur­prisingly enough, she didn't seem to care much at all." Oyu said she preferred to continue working in the pleasure quarters. But the good police officer would hear nothing of it. He knew people in the Tokugawa family who would surely be willing to help Oyu, "because of her father's distinguished service." He offered to arrange a station for her as a maid for the family, who would certainly treat her "as ir she were their own daughter." But Oyu refused, and Miyuki once again lost touch with her. Several years passed. As ironic fate would have it, the daughter of the Shinsengumi commander became a geisha in Shimonoseki. She was a favorite among former samurai of the Choshu and Satsuma clans—elder statesmen of the Meiji gov­ernment and Kondo Isami's mortal enemies.

As the Shinsengumi and the other oppositionist forces left Kyoto, troops of Satsuma and Choshu marched into the city and the sur­rounding area. War was imminent. Upon reaching Osaka, Kondo Isami had intended to guard Tokugawa Yoshinobu at Osaka Castle. Instead, however, he received orders to join several other Tokugawa units to defend Fushimi, just south of Kyoto, on the way to Osaka.

A breakdown in the old order invited chaos within the ranks of the Shinsengumi. Desertion was rampant and unchecked. When the Shinsengumi set up headquarters at the compound of the Fushimi magistrate on December 18, only about fifty corpsmen remained. They were presently joined, however, by an additional eight hundred pro-Tokugawa troops, including three hundred from Aizu.

As tension mounted between the forces of the old regime and the new, travel on the roads between Kyoto and Osaka was perilous for both sides. The men of the Shinsengumi—their commander and vice commander in particular—were objects of animosity and revenge among the new leaders of Japan, especially Choshu, who had lost many men to the "ronin hunters" over the previous years. Also waiting for the opportunity to strike back at the Shinsengumi were the survivors of Ito's Kodaiji Faction, staying at Satsuma's estate in Fushimi, and the followers of Sakamoto Ryoma, many of whom were at the Tosa estate in Kyoto. "[Men of] Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa came near our headquarters every night," wrote Nagakura, "firing their cannon and thrusting spears through the walls." One morning Nagakura found a sealed letter on the ground at Fushimi headquarters. The letter was written by a young corps-man named Kobayashi Keinosuke. When Nagakura noticed that it was addressed to Shinohara Yasunoshin of the Kodaiji Faction, he opened it immediately. The letter contained secret information about the Shinsengumi. Nagakura brought the letter to Hijikata, who instructed him to fetch Kobayashi. Meanwhile, Hijikata called in the hulking Shimada Kai. When Nagakura returned with the informant, Hijikata and Shimada were waiting. As the vice com­mander questioned Kobayashi, Shimada lunged upon him and strangled him to death.

Around this time, Kondo was summoned to Nijo Castle to discuss the impending war. He was well aware that the remnants of Ito's faction were after him. He also suspected that although Kobayashi had been eliminated, Ito's men still had informants among the Shinsengumi. He therefore moved about with appropri­ate caution. He brought four men with him to Kyoto, including three corpsmen and a manservant. Among them was Shimada. The party traveled on horseback along Fushimi-kaido Road, reaching Nijo Castle without incident. After the meeting, on December 18, Kondo remounted his horse for the return journey. Lying in wait on both sides of the road near a place called Tanbabashi, guns loaded and at the ready, were a group of Ito's men, including Shinohara Yasunoshin and Ito's brother Suzuki Mikisaburo. "We didn't depend on guns back in those days," one of them recalled years later. "Once we fired, we assumed they would come charging in the direction of the smoke with their swords drawn."

Shinohara shot Kondo as his party rode southward through the cold dim of the late wintry afternoon. Shinohara missed his mark, however, hitting Kondo on the right shoulder. Kondo was badly wounded but survived the ambush. According to Shinohara, "he paid no attention to the profuse bleeding," but rather whipped his horse and made a fast escape. The assailants pursued the oth­ers with their swords and spears, killing one of the corpsmen and Kondo's manservant. When Shinohara reported the incident to the Satsuma men in Kyoto, one of them, Nakamura Hanjiro, a lieu­tenant of Saigo's, begrudgingly asked him why he had not shot the horse first.

When word of the incident reached the Lord of Aizu, he dis­patched a physician to Kondo's sickbed, along with twenty ryo. Tokugawa Yoshinobu reportedly sent Kondo some of his own per­sonal bedding from Osaka Castle. On December 20, two days after the shooting, Kondo went to Osaka to undergo treatment from Yoshinobu's private physician and his own personal friend, Matsumoto Ryojun.

Hijikata wanted revenge. "We decided that if we saw anyone ho looked like a samurai, we would kill him," Nagakura wrote.

They went out on patrol but did not find "anyone who looked like a samurai." Upon returning to Fushimi headquarters, they encoun­tered "ten men lying in wait." When Nagakura demanded that they identify themselves, the ten men fled. As it turned out, they were from Satsuma. "On the next day, each and every one of them com­mitted seppuku for running away from an enemy," a violation of Bushido.

Civil war broke out in the area called Toba-Fushimi, at the south­ern approach to Kyoto, on the evening of January 3, 1868—the fourth and final year of the old era of Keio and the first of the new reign of Emperor Meiji.83 Although the combined forces of the new regime totaled 50,000, only about 3,500 of these, mostly from Satsuma, had been deployed to the Kyoto area. Meanwhile, the Aizu, Kuwana, and Shinsengumi troops stationed at the Fushimi magistrate's compound had been reinforced to more than 10,000 strong. Though the imperial forces were outnumbered threefold, their victory three days later was decisive, although it has been called a "miracle of luck."

The rout of the Tokugawa was in great part due to Yoshinobu's reluctance to fight, despite his clear military advantage. During the two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule, the morals of the edu­cated classes, including samurai, and wealthy farmers and merchants, were based on the relationship between sovereign and subject. The emperor in Kyoto was the true sovereign of Japan. The Japanese people, including the commander in chief of the expedi­tionary forces against the barbarians, were his subjects. Fifteen successive heads of the House of Tokugawa had simply been en­trusted with the reins of government, which Yoshinobu himself had returned to the Imperial Court. Yoshinobu's greatest fear, then, was to be remembered in history as an Imperial Enemy, even if he should perish at the hands of the imperial government. Of this his enemies were well aware. And it was for this reason that in December, when the imperial decree was issued authorizing Satsuma and Choshu to attack the Tokugawa, Okubo Ichizo arranged for his mistress in Kyoto to purchase damask of red and white to be made into imperial banners. The banners were part of a plan by Iwakura Tomomi to render the Tokugawa troops morally incapable of opposing Satsuma and Choshu, which were now per­ceived as the defenders of the emperor.

Just before noon on the third day of the Battle at Toba-Fushimi, the artillery forces of both sides were holding out well against each other. The imperial banner suddenly appeared from behind the Satsuma and Choshu line. At first neither side recognized the strange banner, fluttering majestically in broad daylight above the battlefield. Nobody had ever actually seen the imperial banner, although they had read about it in the ancient war chroni­cles of Japan. When a message reached both sides that this was indeed the imperial banner, the Satsuma and Choshu men broke out in cheer, their morale bolstered, while their Tokugawa foes seemed suddenly robbed of their fighting spirit. At that moment the Satsuma gunners ceased firing and charged the enemy with drawn swords. The Tokugawa side attempted to counterattack but were forced to retreat by an all-out charge of the entire imperial force. The following night, the sixth of January, Yoshinobu, accompanied by the Lords of Aizu and Kuwana, stole out of Osaka Castle to board the Tokugawa warship Kaiyo Maru. The shogun now fled to Edo, leaving his troops without their supreme commander. His defeat in the west was final.

While Kondo Isami convalesced in Osaka, his corps, under the command of Hijikata Toshizo, had engaged the enemy from the compound of the Fushimi magistrate. Although they were armed with guns, including one cannon, these expert swordsmen lacked training in artillery techniques. Accordingly, they depended mostly on their swords and spears against the Satsuma artillery forces, who pounded them with cannon fire from a height above the compound. This was the first time that this most dreaded band of swordsmen had faced a modern artillery unit. The outcome was disastrous. The Shinsengumi lost more than thirty men in the one-sided fight. Among the dead were veteran members Inoue Genzaburo and Yama-zaki Susumu. Numerous others were wounded. Some deserted.

During the fighting Hijikata ordered Nagakura to lead a charge with drawn swords because "the outcome of battle cannot be decided by gunfire." The Satsuma gunners belied Hijikata's out­moded ideas about war. After several unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the enemy's fortification, Nagakura's swordsmen were forced to retreat. Nagakura wore heavy armor, which impeded his scaling the high fence surrounding the compound of the Fushimi magistrate. Meanwhile, the bullets flew all around him, and Nagakura expected to be killed. Suddenly the giant Shimada Kai appeared at the top of the fence. He extended his rifle down to Nagakura. "Grab on to this," he shouted, and pulled Nagakura up the wall.

The Shinsengumi retreated to Osaka, where they were reunited with their commander. In a poem Kondo Isami had composed in Kyoto, he vowed never to return to Edo without accomplishing his great purpose. His great purpose was nothing less than "loyalty and patriotism." He had "polished the long sword of loyalty and patriot­ism" during his years of kenjutsu training. In Kyoto he had kept this sword "ready at my hip," and used it with great frequency, alacrity, and skill. But when he viewed his badly beaten corps and learned of Yoshinobu's flight to Edo, he finally admitted defeat in the west and asked Hijikata to arrange passage to the east for the 117 remaining corpsmen. Fewer than twenty of them were Shin­sengumi veterans, including seven officers—Kondo, Hijikata, Nagakura, Okita, Harada, Saito, and Oishi.

On January 11, Kondo Isami, not yet recovered from his wound, boarded the Tokugawa warship Fujisan Maru for the return journey to Edo. Accompanying Kondo were Hijikata and those who had been badly wounded in the fighting, including Saito. Okita also required medical attention—not for battle wounds but for the tuberculosis that was slowly killing him. The physically sound sailed aboard the Tokugawa warship Jundo Maru. Three of the wounded men on the Fujisan Maru perished during the return journey.

Upon landing at Edo, the wounded men, including Kondo, were hospitalized. Kondo, still heavily bandaged and pale, was again treated by Matsumoto Ryojun. At this time, a samurai from Sakura Han, whose daimyo was a direct retainer of the Tokugawa, visited Kondo to inquire about his condition. With Kondo was Hijikata. When the Sakura man asked the Shinsengumi commander about the war in Fushimi, Kondo told him to address the question to his vice commander. To this Hijikata is said to have replied with a grim smile, "Swords and spears will no longer be of any use in battle. They are simply no match for guns." Soon after, on February 3, Hijikata procured state-of-the-art breech-loading rifles for the Shinsengumi.

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