The Shinsengumi (新選組 or 新撰組?, 'newly selected corps') was a special police force organized by bakufu during Japan's late shogunate period, or the bakumatsu period. It was first created to protect the shogun empire. Later on it became more active in social policing and fighting organized revolution attempts. The Shinsengumi has been extensively portrayed and dramatized in popular cultures such as TV and film in the modern days.
After Japan opened up to the West following U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's visits and attacks in 1853, its political situation gradually became more and more chaotic. The country was divided along various lines of political opinion; one of these schools of thought (which had existed prior to Perry's arrival) was sonnō jōi ("Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians"). Loyalists to the Emperor of Japan began to commit acts of murder and violence in Kyoto, the imperial capital. On October 19, 1863, responding to this trend, the Tokugawa Shogunate formed the Rōshigumi (浪士組?), a group of 234 masterless samurai (rōnin), under the nominal command of the hatamoto Matsudaira Tadatoshi and the actual leadership of Kiyokawa Hachirō (a dynamic rōnin from Shonai Domain). The group's formal mission was to act as the protectors of Tokugawa Iemochi, the 14th shogun, who was preparing to embark on a trip to Kyoto to meet with the Emperor Komei. This visit was a precedent breaking event: not since the third shogun of the Tokugawa Bakufu, Tokugawa Iemitsu in the 17th century, had a reigning shogun gone to Kyoto. This was a difficult time for Japan as the country was violently struggling to find consensus on how to deal with the threat sparked by the arrival of American and then European naval squadrons demanding that Japan open up or face military action. Tokugawa Iemochi, as head of the military government, was being summoned to confer on how to enact the recent imperial edict calling for the expulsion of foreigners to be backed up by the use of force.
The Rōshigumi was funded by the Tokugawa regime. However, Kiyokawa Hachirō's goal, which he revealed following the group's arrival in Kyoto, was to gather rōnin to work with the supporters of the emperor. In response, thirteen members of the Rōshigumi became the thirteen founding members of the Shinsengumi. Other members loyal to the Tokugawa government returned to Edo and formed the Shinchōgumi (新徴組?), which came under the patronage of the Shōnai domain.
The Shinsengumi members were originally also known as the Miburō (壬生浪?), meaning "ronin of Mibu", Mibu being the then-suburb of central Kyoto where they were stationed. However, the reputation of the Shinsengumi became tarnished quite early on, and their nickname soon changed to "Wolves of Mibu" (壬生狼 Miburō?). Shinsengumi could be translated as "Newly Selected Corps" (Shinsen means "new chosen (ones)", while "gumi" translates as "group", "team", or "squad".)
The original Commanders of the Shinsengumi were Serizawa Kamo, Kondō Isami, and Niimi Nishiki. At the beginning, the group was composed of three major factions: Serizawa's group, Kondō's group, and Tonouchi's group (members below). However, shortly after its foundation, Tonouchi was assassinated by Kondo Isami on Yojou Bridge and Iesato was ordered by Serizawa Kamo to commit seppuku after he deserted to Osaka.
|Serizawa's faction:||Kondō's faction:||Tonouchi faction:|
After the elimination of Tonouchi Yoshio and his third faction, the group was composed of just two factions: Serizawa's Mito group and Kondō Isami's Shieikan members, both based in the Mibu neighborhood of Kyoto. The group submitted a letter to the Aizu clan requesting permission to police Kyoto, and to counteract revolutionaries who supported the emperor against the Tokugawa shogunate. Their request was granted.
On September 30 (lunar calendar August 18), the Chōshū clan were forced out of the imperial court by the Tokugawa regime, the Aizu clan and the Satsuma clan. All members of the Mibu Rōshigumi were sent to aid Aizu and help keep Chōshū out of the imperial court by guarding its gates. This caused a power shift in the political arena in Kyoto, from the extreme anti-Tokugawa Chōshū forces to the pro-Tokugawa Aizu forces. The new name "Shinsengumi" was said to have been given to the group by either the imperial court or Matsudaira Katamori (the daimyo of the Aizu clan) for their job in guarding the gates.
Ironically, the reckless actions of Serizawa and Niimi, done in the name of the Shinsengumi, caused the group to be feared in Kyoto when their job was to keep the peace. However, the Ikedaya Affair of 1864, in which they prevented the burning of Kyoto, made the Shinsengumi famous overnight; they had a surge of recruits.
The Shinsengumi remained loyal to the Tokugawa bakufu, and left Kyoto peacefully under the supervision of the wakadoshiyori Nagai Naoyuki, shortly after the withdrawal of Tokugawa Yoshinobu. However, as they had been posted as security forces in Fushimi, they soon took part in the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. Kondo Isami suffered a gunshot wound, but still continuing to fight, went on to the Battle of Kōshū-Katsunuma against incredible odds, and was subsequently captured in Nagareyama to the east of Edo a few days later. After surrendering to imperial government forces, he was declared guilty of participation in the assassination of Sakamoto Ryouma and beheaded three weeks later in Itabashi. A group of Shinsengumi men under Saitō Hajime fought in defense of the Aizu domain, and many of the others went on northward under Hijikata, joining the forces of the Republic of Ezo. During this interval, the Shinsengumi was able to recover some of its strength, bringing its numbers above 100. Generally, the death of Hijikata Toshizō on June 20 (lunar calendar May 11), 1869 is seen as marking the end of the Shinsengumi, though another group of survivors, under Sōma Kazue, which had been under Nagai Naoyuki's supervision at Benten-daiba, surrendered separately.
A few core members, such as Nagakura Shinpachi, Saitō Hajime, and Shimada Kai, survived the demise of the group. Some members, such as Takagi Teisaku, would even become prominent figures in society.
Members of the group
At its peak, the Shinsengumi had about 300 members. They were the first samurai group of the Tokugawa era to allow those from non-samurai classes like farmers and merchants to join. Previously, Japan had had a strict class hierarchy system. Many joined the group due to the desire to become samurai and be involved in political affairs. However, it is a misconception that most of the Shinsengumi members were from non-samurai classes. Out of 106 Shinsengumi members (among a total of 302 members at the time), there were 87 samurai, eight farmers, three merchants, three medical doctors, three priests, and two craftsmen. Quite a few leaders, such as Yamanami, Okita, Saito, Nagakura, and Harada, were born samurai.
Post-Ikedaya Shinsengumi hierarchy
Troop Captains (組長 Kumichô?):
- Okita Sōji (instructor in Kenjutsu)
- Nagakura Shinpachi (instructor in Kenjutsu)
- Saitō Hajime (instructor in Kenjutsu)
- Matsubara Chūji (instructor in Jujitsu)
- Takeda Kanryūsai (instructor in Military Strategies)
- Inoue Genzaburō
- Tani Sanjūrō (instructor in Spearing Skills)
- Tōdō Heisuke
- Suzuki Mikisaburō
- Harada Sanosuke
The code included five articles, prohibiting the following:
- Deviating from the samurai code (Bushido)
- Leaving the Shinsengumi
- Raising money privately
- Taking part in others' litigation
- Engaging in private fights
The penalty for breaking any rule was seppuku. In addition, the Shinsengumi had these regulations:
- If the leader of a unit is mortally wounded in a fight, all the members of the unit must fight and die on the spot.
- Even in a fight where the death toll is high, it is not allowed to retrieve the bodies of the dead, except the corpse of the leader of the unit.
The members of the Shinsengumi were highly visible in battle due to their distinctive uniforms. Following the orders of Shinsengumi commander Serizawa Kamo, the standard uniform consisted of the haori and hakama over a kimono, with a white cord called a tasuki crossed over the chest and tied in the back. The function of the tasuki is to prevent the sleeves of the kimono from interfering with moving the arms. The uniqueness of the uniform was most evident in the haori, which was colored asagi-iro (浅葱色?, light blue). The haori sleeves were trimmed with "white mountain stripes", resulting in a very flashy outfit, quite unlike the usual browns, blacks, and greys found in warrior clothing. In the midst of a fight, the uniforms of the Shinsengumi provided not only a means of easy identification, but also a highly visible threat towards the enemy.
In popular culture
Shinsengumi are a staple of Japanese popular culture in general and jidaigeki in particular.
Shinsengumi has been adapted in TV drama time and again since "Shinsengumi Shimatsuki" (Shinsengumi and its birth to end) broadcast by TBS on 1961, which was viewed nationwide. Another TV version, highly evaluated still, is "Shinsengumi Keppuroku(narrative of struggles)" broadcast by NTV on 1967. In 1969 a full length film Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honour starring Toshiro Mifune was released. In 2004, Japanese television broadcaster NHK made a year-long television drama series following the history of the Shinsengumi, called 新選組! (Shinsengumi!), which aired on Sunday evenings. Many other series and specials have featured the history and fiction surrounding this group.
In 2003, a Japanese samurai drama, When the Last Sword Is Drawn, depicts the end of Shinsengumi, focusing on various historical figures such as Saito Hajime. The 1999 film Taboo (Gohatto) depicts the Shinsengumi a year after the Ikedaya Affair. The film Shinsengumi, starring Toshiro Mifune, depicts the rise and fall of the Shinsengumi.
Manga artist Nobuhiro Watsuki is a self-acclaimed fan of the Shinsengumi and many of his characters in Rurouni Kenshin are based on its members, including Sagara Sanosuke (inspired by Harada Sanousuke), Shinomori Aoshi (modeled after Hijikata Toshizō), Seta Sōjirō (based on Okita Souji) and, most famously, Saitō Hajime after his real-life counterpart.
The 2003 manga Getsu Mei Sei Ki or Goodbye Shinsengumi by Kenji Morita depicts the life of Hijikata Toshizō. The manga Kaze Hikaru presents a fictional tale of a girl joining the Shinsengumi under disguise and falling in love with Okita Soji. The manga Peacemaker Kurogane by Nanae Chrono is a historical fiction taking place during the end of the Tokugawa period, following a young boy, Ichimura Tetsunosuke, who tries to join the Shinsengumi.
The game series/anime adaptation Hakuouki follows a girl, looking for her lost father (a doctor who also worked with the Shinsengumi), joins the Shinsengumi. Although the show is fictional, adding supernatural elements and fictional enemies, it mixes these elements with real events. The characters within the Shinsengumi she associates with are fictionalized adaptations of actual members of the Shinsengumi and retain their real names throughout the show.
In Hideaki Sorachi's comedy manga Gintama, the Shinsengumi—written 真選組—are also portrayed, and can considered to be main characters, some of them ranking in the top 3 of the most popular characters. Their depiction however, being freely adapted for comedy purposes, was sometimes complained about by various PTA for lacking historical precision.
In March 2012 the stand alone expansion for Total War Shogun 2, Fall of the Samurai features the shinsengumi as a recruitable agent used for assassination and bribery.
References and further reading
- Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps, by Romulus Hillsborough (2005) ISBN 0-8048-3627-2
- Samurai Sketches: From the Bloody Final Years of the Shogun, by Romulus Hillsborough (2001) ISBN 0-9667401-8-1
- Kikuchi Akira 菊地明 and Aikawa Tsukasa 相川司. Shinsengumi Jitsuroku 新選組実錄. Tokyo: Chikuma-shobō 筑摩書房, 1996.
- Ōishi Manabu 大石学. Shinsengumi: Saigo no Bushi no Jitsuzō 新選組： 「最後の武士」の実像. Tokyo: Chūōkōron-shinsha 中央公論新社, 2004.
- Sasaki Suguru 佐々木克. Boshin sensō: Haisha no Meiji ishin 戊辰戦争 : 敗者の明治維新. Tokyo: Chūōkōron-shinsha 中央公論社, 1977.
- Watsuki, Nobuhiro. "Glossary of the Restoration." Rurouni Kenshin Volume 3. Viz Media. 190.
- For more on pre-Perry sonnō jōi theory, see: Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, Anti-foreignism and Western learning in early-modern Japan: The new theses of 1825. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986)
- Ōishi Manabu, Shinsengumi: Saigo no Bushi no Jitsuzō. (Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Oraisha, 2004), p. 65
- Ōishi, p. 65
- 新徴組−もう一つの浪士組−（我が愛すべき幕末） (Shinchōgumi – Mou Hitotsu no Rōshigumi – (Wa ga Ai Subeki Bakumatsu)?)
- Name reading as per Ōishi, p. 76.
- An argument for Matsudaira Katamori bestowing the name can be made by comparing the similarity of the name "Shinsengumi" to one of Aizu's later frontline combat units, the Bessengumi (別選組?, the "Separately Selected Corps"). For more on this unit, see http://jpco.sakura.ne.jp/shishitati1/kakuhan-page1/5/5-7.htm
- Ōishi, pp. 172–174; http://www.bakusin.com/nagai.html
- Ōishi, p. 177
- Ōishi, pp. 217–230.
- Ōishi, p. 246.
- http://www.city.kuwana.lg.jp/culture_sports_and_education_article_262.html Takagi became a professor of economics at Hitotsubashi University.
- Shinsengumi Headquarters Website created to address the needs of those who are interested in the history, related film/TV/anime, fanfiction, fanart and various incarnations of the Shinsengumi.
- Hajimenokizu A site dedicated to Saitou Hajime and the Shinsengumi in various fictional and historical incarnations.
- Samurai Archives - Shinsengumi