The forcible opening of Japan by U.S. Commodore Perry in 1853 had immediate and severe repercussions in Japanese politics. The Tokugawa shogunate, whose power was already on the wane, came under extreme and fierce criticism for being unable to defend Japan against the foreigners, who had imposed such unfavorable treaty terms on the country. A movement sprang up to return power to the Emperor, who had largely been symbolic and had not held real power in Japan for over 1,000 years.The forcible opening of Japan by U.S. Commodore Perry in 1853 had immediate and severe repercussions in Japanese politics. The Tokugawa shogunate, whose power was already on the wane, came under extreme and fierce criticism for being unable to defend Japan against the foreigners, who had imposed such unfavorable treaty terms on the country. A movement sprang up to return power to the Emperor, who had largely been symbolic and had not held real power in Japan for over 1,000 years.
The turmoil in the country became intense, with assassinations commonplace. Even the regent for the young Tokugawa was killed by a group of ronin, demonstrating how dangerous the country had become. Kyoto, the official residence of the Emperor, had become an especially chaotic city, with samurai favoring the Emperor’s return to power increasing in numbers and power. In response, the shogunate created a group in Kyoto to restore order. This group was eventually to become known as the Shinsengumi, or “Newly Created Corps.”
Essentially a special police force recruited from among the finest swordsmen in Edo, the Shinsengumi became feared as ruthless, implacable, and terrifying in the abilities. Most of the members of the group were relatively young (in their 20s or 30s). They wore a distinctive haori (vest) over their hakama, which gave them a flashy look and made them stand out compared to their more conservatively dressed samurai of the era.
One of the original captains of the Shinsengumi, Kamo Serizawa, was a feared fighter but also arbitrary in his sense of justice. He was eventually killed by his own men, leaving Isami Kondo the sole captain of the group. Kondo was assisted by vice-captain Toshizo Hijikata, who wrote the five articles that governed the Shinsengumi:
- Deviating from the path of a proper man
- Leaving the Shinsengumi
- Raising money privately
- Taking part in other’s litigation
- Engaging in private fights
Failure to follow any of the rules meant the offender had to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide. Over the course of Shinsengumi’s existence, many members committed seppuku, or were killed for being spies. But the idealistic standards of behavior and the high level of skill of its members also attracted many samurai to its ranks.
The most famous incident involving the Shinsengumi or the Ikedaya Affair in 1864. It began with the arrest of a member of an anti-shogunal group Ishin-Shishi. After interrogation, the Shinsengumi found that Ishin-Shishi was planning to burn down Kyoto, and to begin staging their attack at the Ikedaya Inn. The Shinsengumi promptly left, caught Ishin-Shishi at Ikedaya, and killed or arrested its members. Their victory here is said to have stalled the Meiji restoration by a couple of years.
Events came to a head when the Imperial forces met the Shogunal forces in the Boshin War in 1868. Shinsengumi was there, but only 44 of its members survived the first battle at Toba-Fushimi in Kyoto. Many of the remaining members fled, leaving only 20 members to fight in the second battle. After losing this battle, internal discord split the group apart. Shinsengumi relocated to Edo, where Kondo was captured and killed. Okita, one of the most famous swordsmen of the group, succumbed to tuberculosis that year. Hijikata fought on and was killed soon thereafter. From that point forward, few notable members of Shinsengumi can be said to have survived.
History is still mixed in its reports on the group. Some see them as a throwback to nobler ideals, when samurai lived and fought by a strict code of ethics and held high ideals of martial and personal virtue. Others see them as official thugs who terrorized Kyoto in the name of the Shogun. In either case, the story of the Shinsengumi continues to be popular today in Japan, where an early death in the face of insurmountable odds is a perennial favorite.
(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 3/10/06. Author retains all copyrights.)
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