May 1, 2011

Shinsengumi Headquarters

Shinsengumi – Peace Keepers or Assassins?
(by Mike Roberts 8-20-12)
The late Edo Period and early Meiji Period (approximately 1855 to 1875) was a very chaotic time in Japan and Kyoto. In 1854, the Tokugawa Shogunate was accused by fuedal lords around Japan of caving in to demands from Commodore Perry to open the harbors to American whaling ships. This was seen as an act of weakness, and many people began to call for the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the reinstatement of the emperor of Japan as the supreme power of the land.

In 1863, the last Tokugawa Shogun visited Kyoto. Numerous men were drafted to help guard the Shogun while he was in Kyoto. Thirteen of these guards stayed behind in Kyoto after the Shogun left, and were the beginning of the organization that eventually became known as the Shinsengumi (The literal translation of Shinsengumi is “newly selected corps.). Bankrolled by the Aizu clan in Wakamatsu (today’s Fukushima prefecture), their numbers swelled to several hundred at one point. But the Shinsengumi were finished, when in 1868, Kondo Isami, the leader of the Shinsengumi was beheaded in a public display. (Since he was from a farm family, he was not allowed to commit ritual suicide as a Samurai would have been allowed to even though he had held a prominent position.)

The Shinsengumi was sponsored by the Aizu clan. The original leader of the Aizu clan was a son of the second Tokugawa Shogun and was given a large and wealthy land assignment a result. Because of this, the Aizu clan was very loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate for several hundred years. Because of the political climate in Japan at that time, Kyoto had become unstable. Matsudaira Tadatoshi, the feudal lord of the Aizu clan, was given the assignment to keep the peace and to stabilize Kyoto.

The Shinsengumi has been romanticized in numerous manga, anime and movies. Some historians believe them to be the stabilizing force they were originally designed to be during an unstable period. But most historians think of them as cold-blooded assassins who killed anyone who called for an end to the Tokugawa Shogunate. They wore hakama with a distinctive design that gave them instant recognition. The Shinsengumi adopted a set of rules, all of which could be identified under one word: loyalty. Anyone in the Shinsengumi who was found guilty of an infraction of these rules was usually put to death. Most of the members of the Shinsengumi were from the farmer, merchant and tradesman classes, rather than from the Samurai class.

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