Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps

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1. Katsu Kaishu

Katsu Kaishu's ideas were based on sound facts and gleaned from hard-earned experience. During the latter half of the 1850s, Kaishu had been educated in the naval arts and sciences by Dutch naval officers in Nagasaki. In 1860 he captained the warship Kanrin Mam on the first authorized overseas journey in the history of the Tokugawa. The tiny schooner sailed to San Francisco, where Captain Katsu and company remained for nearly two months, observing American society, culture, and technology.

2. The Three Great Fencing Academies in Edo

The three great fencing academies during the turbulent final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate were the Chiba Dojo, the Momonoi Dqjo, and the Saito Dojo. These schools served as training halls for young samurai to develop and polish their swordsmanship. They also became venues of political discourse, and from them emerged some of the greatest political leaders of the time. Sakamoto Ryoma, the ronin from Tosa, served as head of a branch school of the Chiba Dojo. Takechi Hanpeita, the Tosa Loyalist leader who master­minded terror on the streets of Kyoto in the early 1860s, served as head of the Momonoi Dojo. Katsura Kogoro, a leader of the Choshu Loyalists during the revolution and of the Meiji government after­ward, was head of the Saito Dojo.

3. Tosa Han

The lower samurai of Tosa Han were completely shut out from par­ticipating in government. Like their counterparts in numerous other han, most of them were patriots, self-styled "men of high pur­pose" who embraced a specific political agenda—namely, Imperial Reverence and Expel the Barbarians. They eventually advocated the more radical Down with the Bakufu and banded together to form the revolutionary Tosa Loyalist Party. Their leading members included some of the most remarkable heroes of the revolution, including Takechi Hanpeita, Sakamoto Ryoma, and Nakaoka Shintaro. With the notable exception of Takechi, the party leader, nearly all of these men fled the confines of Tosa to play out their revolutionary roles on the national stage.102

4. Ryo

The ryo was a gold coin that, according to Ernest Satow, interpreter to the British minister in Japan, was equivalent to about l'/a Mexican silver dollars. In Edo in 1860, one ryo had the approximate value of $200 in U.S. currency in 2004. This calculation is based on rice prices at the turn of the twenty-first century and in 1860. However, the markets for rice differed in Edo and Kyoto, and prices fluctuated from year to year.

5. Seppuku (literally, cutting the belly; also called hara-kiri)

To the samurai, seppuku epitomized a courageous life through a stoic and noble death. Self-disembowelment was not only an ago­nizing form of suicide, but an opportunity for the samurai to display his inner purity by exposing his bowels, the seat of his courage. It was often a legal form of punishment through which the con­demned man could avoid the ignominy of execution. It was a vehicle of apology and a means of absolution for the miscreant to prove his sincerity and redeem honor for himself, his family, his clan, and his liege lord.

Traditionally, the function of the samurai was to accomplish deeds of valor at the risk of his own life. Accordingly, to be well versed in the formal practice of seppuku was part of the samurai's basic education. As far as circumstances allowed, seppuku was per­formed with the ceremony of a highly developed art form.103 Even with a razor-sharp blade, however, it can be difficult to cut through the human abdomen; the tissue is resilient and tends to have a springing effect against the tip of a sword. Accordingly, seppuku demanded of its practitioner absolute composure in the face of excruciating pain, an unfathomable resolve to plunge in the blade, and the willpower to cut properly.

The practitioner was most often assisted by a second, in the person of a trusted friend, disciple, or relative. The role of the sec­ond was every bit as important as that of the practitioner, and probably more technically difficult. The second had to be an accom­plished swordsman who, ideally, would only brandish his sword after the practitioner had duly sliced open his abdomen. His task of decapitation demanded unflinching accuracy, impeccable timing, and undaunted strength of mind. He had to be certain to strike exactly with the cutting edge, at which instant he would pull hard on the blade to cut through tough sinew and bone, and sever the head of a person he cherished. The purpose of the second was twofold—to minimize the misery of the practitioner and to assist him in accomplishing a beautiful death. Unless performed with per­fect precision, self-disembowelment without a second could be a long, harrowing ordeal, accompanied by a shameful and sickening scene of protruding intestines. And just as the second assisted the practitioner, the favor was reciprocated. After cutting open his abdomen, the practitioner was obligated to fall forward, his arms extended before him, to facilitate his second's task. Falling back­ward or to either side would make decapitation difficult, if not impossible. It might cause the second the humiliation of missing his target altogether or striking the practitioner on the head or, in more extreme cases, shoulder, back, or elsewhere. And the torrent of blood had to be aimed in the proper direction or, as the case may be, into a blood vat in front of the headless corpse, so as not to cause an unsightly mess or cover the second or witnesses with the gore.104

6. "Just as if you had been wounded from behind"

Being cut from behind was a blatant violation of Bushido. Depending on the circumstances, if a man survived such an attack, he might have been placed under house confinement or, in worse cases, stripped of his samurai status, or as in the case of the Shinsengumi, ordered to commit seppuku. If a samurai was killed in an attack from behind, his family line might have been abolished until such time that someone—perhaps a son, brother or other close relative—could avenge his death by slaying his assailant.

7. Satsuma's Sea Battle against the British

In August 1862 a British subject, Charles Lenox Richardson, was brutally murdered by Satsuma samurai. The government of Great Britain demanded that the murderers be tried and executed in the presence of British officers, and that an indemnity of 25,000 pounds be paid to the deceased man's family and three other British subjects who had been hurt in the incident. Satsuma refused. In the following summer, a squadron of seven British warships steamed into the bay off Kagoshima, the capital of the Satsuma domain, to present an ultimatum. The British were met by steely-eyed samurai who manned the batteries and lookout posts in the hills above the bay, and who, like their brethren who had murdered Richardson, were eager to slaughter as many foreigners as possible. They nearly succeeded on the following afternoon, as described in an eyewitness account written a quarter of a century later by Sir Ernest Satow, then-interpreter to the British minister in Japan.

[A] retinue of forty men came on board, after having exchanged a parting cup of sake with their prince, with the full design of making a sudden onslaught upon the British officers, and killing at any rate the principal ones among them; they intended in this way to make themselves masters of the flagship. It was a bold conception, and might have been suc­cessful but for the precautions taken on our side. Only two or three were admitted into the Admiral's cabin, while the marines kept a vigilant eye upon the retinue who remained on the quarter deck.

For all the bellicosity of the Satsuma samurai, their muzzle-loading cannon were no match for the breech-loading Armstrong guns of the British, which had a firing range four times greater than the Satsuma guns. Five days after their arrival, the British seized three Satsuma steamers. Satsuma retaliated with cannon fire at noon, amid a raging typhoon, immediately decapitating the flag cap­tain and the commander. The British, in turn, looted and burned the captured Satsuma ships and, out of range of the Satsuma guns, pounded the coastline. Satow described the scene: "Rockets were also fired with the object of burning the town, in which we were only too successful. The gale had increased to such a height that all efforts on the part of the townspeople to extinguish the flames must have been unavailing. It was an awful and magnificent sight, the sky all filled with a cloud of smoke lit up from below by the pointed masses of pale fire."

When the fighting finally ended that afternoon, the batteries along the coast had been completely destroyed, many samurai and townspeople killed, and much of the town destroyed by fire. The British casualties totaled eleven dead, including the two officers, and dozens wounded. It might be said that the British suffered a tenuous victory, as indicated by Satow: "The Japanese guns still continued firing at us as we left, though all their shot fell short, and they might fairly claim that though we had dismounted some of their batteries and laid the town to ruins, they had forced us to retreat."

Their obvious technological disadvantage notwithstanding, the Satsuma men gave the British a run for their money. As a con­dition for peace, Satsuma did pay the demanded indemnity, but stopped short of surrendering Richardson's killers. This final humil­iation at the hands of foreigners was an unexpected boon to the Satsuma samurai. They threw off their xenophobia, in name if not in spirit. With the assistance of the British, they modernized their military, and, to the dismay of Edo, embraced Great Britain as their most powerful ally.

8.Sakuma Shozan's Assassination

As the tension mounted between the Loyalists and the Tokugawa side, still another victim of Heaven's Revenge was felled on the bloody streets of Kyoto. On July 11 Sakuma Shozan, an advisor to the Bakufu, was cut down on horseback as he rode through the city in broad daylight. Sakuma's knowledge of Western technology was unsurpassed in Japan. He was an expert in the casting and opera­tion of Western-style guns. He was a firm believer in the aphorism "know the enemy," and his cherished slogan was "control the bar­barians through barbarian technology." Sakuma was a great admirer of Russia's Peter the Great. In the previous century, after touring Western Europe, Peter the Great had introduced Western technol­ogy and culture into Russia and completely overhauled his government and military system. Sakuma was poignantly aware of the dire necessity for Japan to learn from the Russian czar's exam­ple. A decade before Perry, around the time of the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the first Opium War in 1842 and through which the British acquired Hong Kong, Sakuma had professed that if Japan expected to survive as a sovereign state in the modern world, it must develop a modern navy, abolish the feudal system, become a unified modern nation, and take its rightful place among the great Western powers. These ideas he imparted to his greatest student, just as he had bequeathed upon him his pseudonym, Kaishu—"Ocean Ship"—which Katsu Kaishu immortalized. His extraordinary foresight notwithstanding, Sakuma was an elitist who believed that the Japanese race was superior to all others, and that he, Sakuma Shozan, was superior among Japanese. His assassin, a ronin from the Higo domain, was incensed by Sakuma's progressive ideas (his espousal of Open the Country) and by the Tokugawa advisor's plan (with Aizu) to remove the emperor to nearby Hikone and eventually to Edo—to safeguard against a suspected Choshu plot to kidnap him and as a means for finally securing a Union of Court and Camp. As if to exacerbate the anger of the antiforeign side, the great innovator had been riding through the Imperial Capital dressed in Western clothes and mounted on a Western saddle. He had been attacked from behind, which violated Bushido. According to the law of Sakuma's native Matsushiro Han, his family line was discontinued. In order to reinstate the Sakuma line, his murder had to be avenged. For this purpose his only son, Sakuma Ikujiro, enlisted in the Shinsengumi.

9. Assassinations of Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro

It has been conjectured that Ryoma's murder was orchestrated by certain of his allies in the revolution who, convinced that the Tokugawa must be crushed militarily, had opposed Ryoma's peace plan. Iwakura Tomomi and Okubo Ichizo—the Machiavellian leader of Satsuma who plotted with Iwakura to obtain the emperor's decree to attack the Bakufu—have been named as suspects in this scenario.

Numerous men claimed to have murdered Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro. In February 1870 Imai Noburo, formerly of the Mimawarigumi, was accused of the murders by a captured for­mer Shinsengumi corpsman. Imai testified at the Japanese Ministry of Penal Affairs that he and six others of the Mimawarigumi, including Sasaki Tadasaburo, had committed the murders. But since it was known that Ryoma had shot at least one Tokugawa samurai, albeit in self-defense, at the Terada'ya inn during the pre­vious year, it was determined that the Mimawarigumi had acted legally, according to orders from the Tokugawa authorities in Kyoto. Imai was therefore found innocent and released. The question of Imai's innocence or guilt notwithstanding, neither his testimony nor the subsequent investigation and research have yielded conclusive evidence as to the true identity of Ryoma's assassins. The incident must therefore be classified among the most tragic unsolved crimes in Japanese history.

Imai was stigmatized for the rest of his long life. After the Meiji Restoration, many former Tokugawa samurai followed the deposed shogun into settlement in pastoral Shizuoka, an ancestral home of the Tokugawa. Among them was the man who claimed to have killed Sakamoto Ryoma. Imai lived under constant fear of revenge. He dug a deep tunnel near his house—a means of escape to the nearby riverside in case of sudden attack. Whenever a visitor came, he would hide until he could identify the person. When leav­ing home, he would carry a club concealed in his trousers.

During the early 1870s it was decided that a small shrine would be built in Imai's village. This shrine would house a wooden image of a Buddhist deity of special favor to the Tokugawa family. Imai was assigned the task of raising the money for construction costs. To this end, he sought the advice of Yamaoka Tesshu (a.k.a. Yamaoka Tetsutaro) in Edo. Yamaoka suggested that Imai enlist the help of two of his friends with connections among business and government circles in Tokyo. These were Katsu Kaishu and Okubo Ichio, two of a small number of former Tokugawa retainers recruited by the new government. Kaishu had served the Meiji gov­ernment in various capacities, including head of foreign affairs, the army, and the navy. Okubo was then serving as the governor of Tokyo. When Imai visited Kaishu and Okubo, he was met with a cold shoulder. Neither of the great men would help the confessed killer of Sakamoto Ryoma.

10. Ryoma's Jingle

It won't he only money we take

for sinking our ship at sea. We won't give up until we've taken the entire domain of Kii.

It won't lye only money we take

for sinking our ship at sea. We won't give up until we've taken

the heads of all the men of Kii.

11. Monument of the Two Heroes

The monument was built twenty years after Kondo Isami's execu­tion, nineteen years after Hijikata Toshizo fell in battle. It was the work of a group of their friends and relatives, including Sato Hikogoro, Kojima Shikanosuke, and Kondo Yugoro. Their purpose was to clear the names of Kondo and Hijikata, who had been branded traitors by the Meiji government. The group asked the former shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, to write the inscription. In response to their request, Yoshinobu is said to have simply shed tears, without giving them an answer. The inscription was finally written by Matsudaira Katamori, the former Lord of Aizu. Matsumoto Ryqjun composed the main text.

Appendix II: The Survivors
Rondo Otsune and Kondo Tamako (Kondo Isami's wife and daughter)

Otsune and Tamako suffered after Kondo's death, under the stigma of his crimes against the imperial government. They lived with the Miyagawa family, at the home of Kondo Isami's birth in Kami'ishihara Village. Otsune, the well-bred daughter of a reputable samurai family, did not adjust to life in a farming village. She felt alienated. She firmly rebuffed suggestions that she remarry, by attempting to cut her own throat with a dagger. At age fourteen, Tamako was wed to Miyagawa Yugoro, her father's nephew who had witnessed his execution. In 1883, fifteen years after Isami's death, Tamako bore a son, Kondo Hisataro. Three years later she died of natural causes at age twenty-four. Otsune died in 1892, six years after her daughter, at age fifty-five. It is not clear whether Otsune died of natural causes or finally succeeded in the sui­cide she had attempted on numerous occasions. Hisataro, Kondo Isami's only descendant, perished in the Russo-Japanese War, thus ending the bloodline of his notorious grandfather.

Nagakura Shinpachi

Of the seven men from Kondo's fencing dojowho enlisted in the Roshi Corps, only Nagakura survived the Meiji Restoration. After breaking with Kondo and Hijikata, Nagakura, Harada Sanosuke, and some oth­ers formed an oppositionist militia consisting of about one hundred men. They called themselves Seikyotai. Nagakura and Harada served as vice commanders, and many of their subordinate officers were for­mer Shinsengumi members. After the surrender of Edo Castle, the Seikyotai fled north to join the other oppositionists. (Harada returned to Edo. In May he joined the Shogitai in the fighting at Ueno, where he was mortally wounded.)

After the Meiji Restoration, Nagakura settled in his ancestral Matsumae on Ezo. He married the daughter of a physician to the for­mer Lord of Matsumae, and took his wife's family name, Sugimura. He served for a number of years as chief kenjutsu instructor at a local prison. In 1876 Nagakura, with the assistance of Matsumoto Ryqjun, erected a shrine in Tokyo's Itabashi district, near the site of Kondo Isami's execution. He dedicated the shrine to the memory of Kondo, Hijikata, and more than one hundred other Shinsengumi men who had died in the years leading up to and immediately following the Meiji Restoration. During his final years Nagakura held requiems for the souls of his dead comrades. He died of natural causes in the city of Hotaru on Hokkaido (formerly Ezo) in 1915. He was seventy-six.

During a two-year period starting some four years before his death, Nagakura provided a newspaper journalist with an oral history of the Shinsengumi. Nagakura's oral memoirs were published in serial form by a local newspaper, Hotaru Shinbun, over a three-month period in 1913. Since they were given nearly a half century in retrospect and embellished by the vivid imagination of the journalist, the oral mem­oirs are more a sensationalized account than a faithful historical record of the Shinsengumi. Nagakura's more historically accurate written memoirs constitute the only firsthand account of the five-year history of the Shinsengumi. Long before his newspaper interview, Nagakura had lent his written memoirs to an acquaintance, who had promised to return them. They were never returned to Nagakura, and, in fact, were lost for decades. They were recently discovered, and published in book form in 1998.

Shimada Kai

Shimada Kai was wounded in the fighting at Aizu. When Goryokaku citadel fell to the imperial forces, Shimada stood alone, his sword at his side, the Tosho Daigongen insignia wrapped around his waist, ^6 m tne face of certain defeat, inciting the startled admiration of the enemy. After his capture, he was imprisoned at a Buddhist temple in Hakodate. He was subsequently incarcerated at Nagoya Castle, during which time it is believed that he wrote his famous so-called Shimada Kai Diary, which is actually a chronicle of the five-year history of the Shinsengumi and the following one-year period of civil war ending at Hakodate. After his release in 1873, Shimada returned to Kyoto, where he married a local woman whom he had met during his years in the Shinsengumi. He ignored the urging of his friends to enter service in the Meiji government, instead making a living by working at local shops and teaching kenjutsu. In his old age he served as a security guard at Nishihonganji Temple, the former headquarters of the Shinsengumi. Shimada died of natural causes in 1900, at age seventy-two.

Saito Hajime

Saito Hajime, alias Yamaguchi Jiro, remained in Aizu to fight to the bit­ter end—as commander of thirteen of the Shinsengumi who had chosen to stay with him. After the fall of Aizu Castle, Saito traveled southwest to Takada Han, where he lived quietly for a time. He even­tually returned to Tokyo, changed his name to Fujita Goro, and married the daughter of a ranking retainer of the former Lord of Aizu. In 1872 he became a career police officer. He died of a stomach ail­ment in 1915 at age seventy-one. In defiance of death, he expired sitting upright in the alcove of his living room.

Shinohara Yasunoshin

Shinohara Yasunoshin fought on the Satsuma side in the Battle at Toba-Fushimi. After the Meiji Restoration, he became a businessman and, in later life, a devout Christian. His memoirs describe important events regarding the Shinsengumi, including his assassination attempt on Kondo Isami, the assassination of Ito Kashitaro, and the fighting at Aburakoji. Shinohara died of natural causes in 1911 at the age of eighty-three.

Table of Era Names and Their Corresponding Years in Western Chronology

Era Name Years in Western Chronology

Tenpo 1-14 1830-43

Koka 1-6 1844-47

Ka'ei 1-6 1848-53

Ansei 1-6 1854-59

Man'en 1 1860

Bunkyu 1-3 1861-63

Genji 1 1864

Keio 1-4 1865-68

Meiji 1-45 1868-1912

Glossary of Japanese Terms
Aburakoji: a street in Kyoto, scene of Ito Kashitaro's assassination and the subsequent battle

Aizu: a Tokugawa-related clan in northern Honshu, feudal domain of Matsudaira Katamori

Aizu-Wakamatsu: the castle town of Aizu Han Akebono-tei: a restaurant in eastern Kyoto Ansei: an era name (see Table of Era Names)

Ansei Purge: infamous purge of the enemies of Tokugawa Regent li Naosuke

Arima Tota: Satsuma samurai, vice staff officer of imperial forces, arrested Kondo Isami

Asada Tokitar5: Tosa samurai, committed seppuku for violating Bushido

Bakufu: see Tokugawa Bakufu

Banryu: A warship of the oppositionists in northern Japan

Bunkyu: an era name (see Table of Era Names)

Bushido: Code of the Samurai

Chiba Dojo: a prestigious fencing school in Edo

Choshu: a leading anti-Bakufu feudal domain, ruled by an outside lord, located on the western end of Honshu

chugokui mokuroku: the third (and middle) rank in the Tennen Bishin style of fencing

daimyo: a feudal lord

Denzuin: a Buddhist temple in Edo

dojo a martial arts training hall

Edo: capital of the Tokugawa Bakufu

Edogawa: a river flowing southward through the province of Shimo'usa

Enomoto Takeaki: former commissioner of the Tokugawa Navy, leader of the oppositionists on Ezo

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