The Shinsengumi: Patriots or Assassins?

Shinsengumi are one of the most notorious armed forces in Japan. Their characteristic blue and white haori is easily recognizable among all other armies. Countless TV and cinema adaptations have been made of their story, most notably for westerners, in the movies Gohatto (litt.: Taboo) and the more recent When The Last Sword Is Drawn that deals with the end of Shinsengumi. In the manga world, several character of the famous Rurouni Kenshin are members of the Shinsengumi.

I wrote some time ago about the forced opening of Japan by Commodore Matthew C. Perry and the subsequent signing of the Kanagawa Treaty on March 31, 1854, which resulted in the opening the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to allow commerce with the United States. This unprecedented event in Japanese history obviously caused some major changes and disturbances at the political level. In particular, it exacerbated the tensions between Tokugawa Iemochi, the 14th shogun residing in Edo, and the Imperial loyalists residing in Kyoto. These tensions resulted in the organization of an extraordinary meeting in Kyoto in 1863 between the Shogun and Emperor Komei in order to discuss the implementation of a new Imperial edit calling for the expulsion of foreigners. In order to protect the Shogun during the course of this journey, the Roshigumi (litt.: The Kyoto Defenders), a special armed force that consisted of 234 ronin was set up by Kiyokawa Hachiro. The newly formed group left for the Imperial Capital with on March 26 1963. Unfortunately for the Shogun, Kiyokawa's real allegiance turned out to be in favor of the Emperor and all but a few of his men were ordered to return to Edo.

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Establishment and role

Thirteen of the ex-Roshigumi remained in Kyoto and formed a new force called the Shinsengumi (litt.: The New Squad), which was the first fighting group that included non-Samurai warriors (farmers, merchants, craftsmen, etc.). The Shinsengumi then split into three competing factions respectively led by Serizawa Kamo, Kondo Isami, and Tonouchi Yoshio. Conflicts later resulted in the killing of Serizawa by Kondo and Tonouchi, which later resulted in Kondo taking full command of the Shinsengumi. The Shinsengumi was granted the authorization by the powerful - Tokugawa loyalist - Aizu clan to police Kyoto. The popularity of the Shinsengumi culminated in 1864 with the suppression of a cell of revolutionaries that may have resulted in saving Kyoto from being burned. The group counted at some stage more than 300 warriors. During the Boshin civil war that opposed the newly restored Meiji Emperor to the 15th Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the Shinsengumi fought several battles on the side of the Shogun, most notably the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. The war resulted in the fall of Edo and the defeat of Tokugawa, many members of the Shinsengumi were killed, including Kondo, and the few survivors surrendered.

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Shinsengumi in popular culture

The image of Shinsengumi in the popular culture of Japan is a rather positive one, depicting patriotic heroes following a strict code of conduct. Historians however draw a more nuanced picture of the force and some others will go as far as depicting them as deluded, self-aggrandizing thugs.

Festival celebrating the Shinsengumi in Hino (Tokyo)

Win a book and learn more on Shinsengumi!

Tuttle Publishing has been kind enough to allow me to put one of the definitive books on Shinsengumi up for grab for two lucky readers of GuillaumeErard.com! The contest ends on Friday at midnight (GMT). All you need to do to win Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps by Romulus Hillsborough is to answer this simple question: CONTEST CLOSED

If you are not among the lucky winners and still want to learn more about Shinsengumi, you can still buy a copy of the book on Amazon.


Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume Erard
A resident of Japan for nearly a decade, Guillaume Erard trains at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. He also holds a 3rd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the secretive art that Morihei Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda. Erard is the Information Director of the International Aikido Federation and the Deputy Secretary of International Affairs of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shikoku Headquarters. He is also passionate about science and education and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.
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