If you’ve watched enough anime (or pretty much any historical anime), you’ve most likely encountered the name Shinsengumi. They were a pivotal group in Japanese history and as such remain a popular subject of fiction and cultural fascination. But do you actually know who the Shinsengumi were?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t. I looked the name up years ago when I was playing a Visual Novel where you actually played as a member of the Shinsengumi. Found it fascinating, then forgot all about it. I looked it up yet again when I was watching Drifters, was happy for the refresher and….forgot all about it! Then I watched Touken Rambu and realized I had to yet again look up the details. I’m hoping that writing a post on the subject will help cement the information in my brain but no promises.
What I do tend to remember is that the Shinsengumi were a type of military police in Japan during the Edo period. That’s not much but it is not entirely untrue so yay me? Ok, it’s pretty inaccurate. I’m not going to go into the actual historical details, the names and dates and all that. It does read like an action novel though, so if you’re interested in a more in-depth look, I do recommend you do your own research. You can start HERE if you like. Yes, there’s a samurai specific wiki!
So, let’s try to clear it up a bit. That way next time I watch GinTama or Kenshin, I’ll have a better appreciation of the context. Indeed, the Shinsengumi were active during the Edo period and were also from the Edo region, which means they were from Tokyo. More specifically though, their rise (and fall) more or less coincides with the end of the Edo period. The group was formed in August 1863 and disbanded a bit under six years later in June 1869. I’m always amazed that such an apparently significant order was around for such a short period. The fact that they are still so relevant speaks volumes about the impact they had on Japan.
Of course, they are symbols of the great political unrest and subsequent changes of the era. As such, they represent much more than themselves. But for the context of anime, I think what’s important to know (at least what I found useful) are the more casual details that aren’t always spelled out for the viewers. I assume that most Japanese nationals are way more familiar with the history than I am, which is why these details don’t need to be spelled out for them.
The broad strokes are that in 1854 Japan opened its shores for trade with the west. As you can imagine this was a major social, economical and political change. It also brought a lot of fear and unrest in people as it carried with it the threat of military action coming from the west as well. Japan having been a fairly isolated society up to that point, the uncertainty brought by the prospect of foreigners to the land stoked a lot of political insecurity and destabilized the nation.
Oh and just to be clear, this opening of the shores, i.e the Kanagawa treaty between the U.S. and Japan was very reluctantly signed by Japan under threat of force…. So yeah, folks were a smidge wary. Enough to start rebelling in fact. Ronin (samurais without masters – or as I call them freelancers) who called themselves loyal to the Emperor before all else, actively started causing an uproar around Kyoto.
As such, in 1862 when the government of the time, the Tokugawa shogunate had to meet with the Emperor, they created a task force called the Roshigumi to keep the peace and police those rebels. Apparently “gumi” means squad or corp. This meeting was historic in many ways. Shoguns and Emperors almost never met and the difficult circumstances in Japan at the time, made it even more important.
This Roshigumi force was also made up of Ronin but from the Edo region. It was a sort of fight fire with fire plan. Who best to take care of out of control masterless samurai than other masterless samurai. Flawless.
This is were things get fun, and by fun I mean treason upon treason upon treason!
So the original plan is to have the Roshigumi protect the Shogun in Kyoto from the pro Emperor Ronin rebelling. A man called Kyokawa Hachirō is more or less put in charge of recruiting and coordinating the operation but Kyokawa is a loyalist himself and he starts to recruit other pro Emperor ronin for the Roshigumi with the idea to switch sides and join the rebels once they arrive in Kyoto.
He’s not super subtle about it though, more or less announcing his plans so the Shogunate, who weren’t all that surprised to begin with, figured they would squelch any future problems before they started by sending the Roshigumi back to Edo with the mission of expelling foreigners which should make them super happy. This worked out pretty well except for 13 ronin who refused to go, asking to complete their original mission of guarding the Shogun.
Of course, this sounded a bit suspicious but the higher ups figured, why not? And added another 5 new local recruits to the 13. This new blood would be more likely to break up old allegiances. The mission was changed a bit from directly protecting the Shogun to patrolling Kyoto and keeping the peace, and to mark this change, the unit was renamed Shisengumi: “New Selected Corp”.
Great, 5 paragraphs in and we finally got to the Shinsengumi. So basically they are a handful ronin who were policing Kyoto, the Emperor’s stronghold, under the Shogunate. They were also split into 2 factions under three leaders, Kondo Isami, Serizawa Kamo and Niimi Nishiki. And they almost immediately started to plot against each other.
Niimi more or less took himself out, having been caught extorting money to spend of geishas, he was forced to commit seppuku. Serizawa for his part was known to be violent and difficult to control (he was a ronin) so Kondo used that as an excuse to convince the Shogunate he was more trouble than he was worth and had him assassinated, taking complete control over the remaining Shinsengumi.
But they weren’t all in fighting and geishas. In 1864, the group manage to stop a rebel plan to burn Kyoto and Kidnap the Emperor. This incident earned them, quite a bit of renown and reward money which they used to recruit over 200 new members, suddenly growing huge by comparison.
There were a slew of assassinations in the following years but essentially, the group remaining active as a paramilitary “peacekeeping” unit in Kyoto. This is the era that is most commonly seen in anime and the height of the Shinsengumi’s influence.
By 1867 though, a new Emperor (Meiji) ascends to power and for the first time in centuries the shogunate lose governmental leadership, effectively ending military government control. At this point the Shinsengumi leave Kyoto of their own accord. However, civil war also breaks out in Japan between the Shogunate and the Imperialists who were still keen on expelling all foreigners. Naturally, the Shinsengumi are enlisted on the Shogunate side and join the fighting in January 1868.
The fighting went on for over a year, the main force of the Shinsengumi being exterminated by imperialist forces during the first 6 months or so but a smaller contingent did manage to remain active and in the fight until the very end of the Boshin War, which the imperialists won. After the victory, the imperial faction abandoned its objective to expel foreigners from Japan and instead adopted a policy of continued modernization, in line with the Shogunate view.
I can understand why we hear so much about the Shinsengumi, their history reads a bit like a soap opera. And I’ve just given you the outline, none of the juicy details or personifications. There was a whole lot of assassinating going on. Now if I can just remember all this next time they are mentioned in a show, I might actually have a better idea of what’s going on. It did help put Touken Ranbu in some context, that’s already a plus!