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!
13 thoughts on “A Little Bit About The Shinsengumi”
Bravo, excellent primer on the Shinsengumi! As mentioned by Artemis, they are a controversial topic—people either love them or hate them. Over time, they have become larger-than-life figures and it is very difficult to separate legend from history. I liken it to the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Or the disappearance and presumed murder of U.S. labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa. The closest Canadian equivalent I could come up with was, uh… Tim Horton? Sorry, bad joke.
At any rate, kudos for linking to the Samurai Archives SamuraiWiki. Their standards are very high and most of their contributors are at least graduate-student level scholars of Japanese history. I love this resource! This is in contrast to most of the English content (and sadly some Japanese sources) you’ll find floating about the Web. I have done some research on the Boshin War for a flash fiction I had published and one of the suprises I learned was the Shinsengumi had close ties to the Aizu domain. And I fell in love with Aizu and its rich samurai history.
Here are a few more things I learned…
Although it is popularly posted as a conflict between the Shogun Tokugawa and Emperor Meiji, the Boshin War was a result of political conflicts among the Imperial Court officials. These court officials were all daiymō, i.e., lords of their domains, which meant they all had their own stakes back home from the consequences of opening Japan to international trade. Many also had long-running (as in centuries) grudges with the Shogun and/or each other.
The nastiest of these conflicts rose between the Aizu, Chōshū, Satsuma, and Tosa domains. If the name Tosa sounds familiar, that is because it is the home of Sakamoto Ryōma, characterizations of whom appear in both Tōken Rambu and Gintama. The Aizu daiymō stationed in Kyōto was the court-appointed Military Commissioner, Matsudaira Katamori, who was officially charged with overseeing the Shinsengumi. Those of you Gintama fans (one of my favorite anime) will recognize him as Matsudaira Katakuriko, the chain-smoking, gun-wielding old man whose motto is, “Real men only need to count to one.” BTW, the historical Matsudaira was two years YOUNGER than Kondō Isami. Kondō was only 29 when he became the sole commander of the Shinsengumi by way of Serizawa Kamo’s assassination.
The historical enemies Satsuma and Chōshū formed a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” alliance to challenge the shogunate and by extension the Aizu. This Satchō Alliance (Get it? Sat-suma and Chō-shū) sought the counsel of an exiled court noble named Iwamura Michitoshi, and along with Tosa fought under the banner of the imperial court, i.e, for Emperor Meiji. To give you an idea of the emperor’s involvement, Meiji was enthroned in 1867, not even a year before the first battle of the Boshin War, when he was 15 years old. So, he was a figurehead.
Even after Matsudaira was removed from office and sent back to Aizu and the Shinsengumi disbanded, many of the original members continued to fight beside the Aizu during the war. One Shinsengumi captain became so closely allied with the Aizu, he wound up marrying into the domain following the war. Rōruni Kenshin fans will recognize his name, Saitô Hajime. Saitô was one of the few “Wolves of Mibu” to survive the Boshin War. Saito worked as a policeman in Tokyo and also served in the Meiji army. Kondō Isami, Hijikata Toshizō, Okita Sōji, Todo Heisuke, Ito Kashitarō, and Harada Sanosuke did not live to see the end of the war. Intelligence officer Yamazaki Susumu may have died during the war. Or maybe not. 😉 For a terrific feature film on the Shinsengumi, I recommend “When the Last Sword is Drawn (2002).”
The Boshin War was short, but exceedingly bloody. Following the victory of the Imperial faction, the former military government (the shogunate) was replaced with a parliament. The new Meiji government promptly eliminated the social class system, including the samurai. Wearing topknots (chonmage) and Japanese swords became illegal. Everyone was allowed to take on a family name (surname) and house crest.
The Aizu domain was brutally crushed during the war and systematically dismantled following it, in large part because of tribalistic hard feelings by the Chōshū officials who were in charge of the new government. For decades afterwards, the Aizu people’s horrendous fate was kept from public knowledge. Their punishment as officially labeled “traitors to the Emperor” was to be forcibly emigrated from their domain to a far-northern territory so barren and inhospitable that many did not survive the first winter. Sorry I can’t find my notes that give rough counts; however, the numbers were so high that the following spring the survivors petitioned the government for financial assistance so they could properly bury their dead. And many people simply fled and secretly moved elsewhere—one paper estimates it to have been 25%-33% of the population.
Adding to the personal tragedies, Aizu had a long and rich history of traditional samurai culture, nearly all of which was destroyed during or after the war. They had a cadre of bona fide woman warriors—Yamamoto Yae (Niijima Yae/Yae no Sakura), Nakano Takeko, and Jimbō Yukiko being the most notable of dozens. Their samurai academy was one of the most sophisticated educational systems in the country, and it included an overseas study program that sent elite students to France and Prussia. (So much for the closed country, eh?)
Several Aizu samurai provided exemplary military service or helped build the educational system under the Meiji government, and one former Aizu samurai, Yamakawa Hiroshi, was noted for doing both. His younger brother Kenjiō became the first Japanese to graduate (in Physics) from an American university, Yale, no less. He returned to Japan to become the country’s first native-born professor of physics. Matsudaira’s page, Takamine Hideo, studied at Cornell and was instrumental in bringing western style teaching methods to Japan.
Oops, guess I got a bit carried away with the Aizu history. Mea culpa! Someday I am going include this info in a Viewer’s Guide for Katsugeki/Touken Rambu. And Gintama. Of course, that’s after I get through the guide for We Rent Tsukumogami. When I finally have some time. Haha! Someday…
woa! That was amazing! This history reads like a soap opera but in the best of ways!
It’s a fascinating period of history that gets so little attention in English. I wish my language skills were better so I could get more out of the Japanese sources. 🙂
“Gumi” comes from “kumi” (組), which means things like “class” (school class) as well as
“group”. That’s why you see the kanji outside classroom doors all the time.
Also, I get the feeling the second-last image is an official Hakuoki image, although I don’t know enough about Hakuoki to know who to cite.
I remember laughing a bit to myself when I once talked to a Japanese colleague about the shinsengumi. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said “Most townsfolk considered them gangsters – they had their uses, but well-to-do people were best to steer clear of them.” Quite different from how they’re most often portrayed in anime! 😉
I do occasionally see them as antagonists/villains. Bakumatsu Rock and Francesca:Girls Be Ambitious come to mind. (Interestingly both are comedies. Hm…)
It’s the gist I got form the little reading I did. Basically officialized thugs.
Touken Ranbu has a classy old man version of Hijikata?? Wow maybe I need to watch it.
Actually, that’s Golden Kamuy’s Hijikata. (Then again, I’m biased towards the old coot because they showed what he looked like when he was younger in season 2…I am too predictable…) Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu’s Hijikata is similar to how he’s normally portrayed.
It has some ups….looks would be those ups.
Really informative post! I may need to read it a couple of dozen times before the information sinks into my skull. I have a bad memory for details, even when I find the subject interesting.
reread the shinsengumi history regularly – it just won’t stick for me and I usually have a decent memory