Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps by Romulus Hillsborough
A few years ago, Japan’s national TV network, NHK, aired a Sunday night drama about the Shinsengumi, a band of samurai who operated in Kyoto at the end of the Edo period. While I didn’t watch it, mainly because I was working and even if I had, I wouldn’t have understood, my students kept me updated and it sounds like NHK did a nice job of romanticizing the group. Indeed, if the sudden upswing in traffic around Mibu temple is any indication, NHK made them look positively heroic.
Romulus Hillsborough (which, for the record, is an awesome name) takes a different approach to the Shinsengumi story, proving once again that, in history as with so many other things, how you see things depends on where you stand.
The 1860s were a bad decade. Every American schoolchild can tell you that. But it was bad in Japan as well, on a similar level. You see, for the previous 250 years, Japan had pretty much shut itself off from the Western world. There was limited contact with China and Korea, but as for Europe and the Americas? Damn near nothing. Japan wanted nothing to do with the white devils, and did a fantastic job keeping us out.
But the march of progress is inescapable, and by the mid-1800s, word got round to the Shogun that Great Britain had been working its way across Asia, taking out India and China through treaty, deception and conquest. This, naturally, worried the Shogun, who although being the military head of the country, had not fought a significant military battle since Sekigahara in 1600 (well, not the same shogun, but you get what I mean). The Tokugawa family ruled over a peaceful land, the Emperors stayed out of the way in Kyoto, and everything was copacetic.
In other words, ripe for some rampaging foreign power to take over.
Lucky for Japan, the first rampaging foreign power to show up on their doorstep was the United States. Admiral Perry and his Black Ships arrived in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853 with trade agreements and heavy cannon and announced that they would be happy to start trading with the Land of the Rising Sun. And if the Land of the Rising Sun wasn’t too keen on that, well, maybe a few well-placed shells would change their minds.
The shogun at the time, Tokugawa Iesada, was no idiot. In 1854, a “Treaty of Peace and Amity” was signed in Kanagawa, opening Japanese ports to western ships for the first time, and basically ending the era of seclusion.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Most of the people living in Japan at the time had never seen a foreign person, and could rely only on rumor and misinformation to know what Westerners were like – pale-skinned, long-nosed blondes, as it turned out. No one knew what to expect from their new neighbors, and frankly, no one wanted to find out. Despite the “Amity” of the treaty, everyone knew that the only reason the American and British and Dutch had been let in was because they had better guns. Everyone, from the Shogun to the Emperor all the way down to the lowest burakumin wanted the foreigners kicked as far out of the country as they could get. With the possible exception of Sakamoto Ryoma, but we’ll get to him later.
Two factions opened up. There were the Imperial loyalists, who wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa bakufu and restore the Emperor to power, while kicking out the foreigners. And there were the Tokugawa loyalists, who stood behind their lord and master, and who would fight to the death to keep him in power. While kicking out the foreigners. The famed Samurai, who had really nothing to do for two and a half centuries but collect their stipends and harass commoners, finally had their chance to see some action. Many of them left their homes and became ronin, ready to fight for whomever would give them a chance.
The city of Kyoto was the Imperial city, and if Tokugawa Wosshisname (there were four Tokugawa shoguns between 1853 and 1868) were to keep the imperial loyalists in line, he would have to do it there. So, a man named Matsudaira Katamori – a close personal friend of the shogun’s, head of the Matsudaira clan and Lord of Aizu, and came up with an idea for keeping order in Kyoto. With the help of longtime friend and violence enthusiast Kiyokawa Hachiro, they got together the best of the wandering ronin and brought them to the village of Mibu, in Kyoto (where I used to live). They made quite an impact on the community, and were soon given the cute nickname of “Mibu Wolves.”
The Mibu Wolves were soon shaped and molded into the Shinsengumi, “The Newly Selected Group.” by three iron-willed men: Kondo Isami, Hijikata Toshizo, and Serizawa Kamo. Each of these men left lasting impressions on the Shinsengumi and on Japanese history.
So… what was the impression? Well, the Shinsengumi were a kind of police force for Kyoto, keeping the locals in line and watching for any threats against the shogunate. Unlike a regular police force, however, they had almost limitless power within the city. Their word was enough to arrest, convict and execute someone. There was no slight too small to provoke violence and murder, and no length they would not go to to destroy the enemies of Tokugawa. They fought to the end to keep the Shogun in power, even after Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the fifteenth and final Tokugawa shogun, abdicated control of the country to Emperor Meiji.
You could take the NHK view, that the Shinsengumi were on the wrong side of history, trying to uphold the virtues of their fathers and grandfathers, and that they were trying to keep the nation they loved from falling apart or changing irreparably.
Hillsborough takes the point of view that the Shinsengumi were deluded with the “germ of self-importance.” That they couldn’t see the broader picture of history unfolding around them and reacted to change the only way they knew how – with their swords. That they were thugs and bullies, relics of an age that should have ended long before it did. Perhaps the Shinsengumi were inevitable, perhaps they were even necessary for the Meiji Restoration to take place. But if even half the stories about them were true, they are not a group of men that I would really want to hang out with.
It’s a very informative book, if a little too short. Hillsborough says in the beginning that you’re reading a “historical narrative,” which should be taken carefully. Given the lack of primary sources, knowing exactly what happened when is difficult. Many texts on the Shinsengumi contradict each other, and for a long time, they were not a polite subject of research. Think about it – from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 through the surrender to the United States in 1945, the Emperor was a living god and a subject of reverence among the people of Japan. Who, then, would have the balls to do research into the group that actively opposed imperial rule?
Still, it’s a good read. It’s even better when you actually live in Kyoto. I used to be able to see Mibu temple from my balcony. I’ve walked past the site of the old Ikeda-ya (where the Shinsengumi foiled a plot to burn down Kyoto and kidnap a high-ranking Tokugawa ally) hundreds of times. I could walk to the site where Ito Kashitarou was assassinated for splitting from the group. History becomes much more fun when you’re right where it happened….
“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.”
– Romulus Hillsborough, Shinsengumi