December 19, 2013
By Junya Kitagawa and Miki Suzuki
In 1603, the Edo Period began in Japan with Ieyasu Tokugawa, who made a system called the Tokugawa government, which had a strong centralization of power. At that time, relationships with foreign countries were thought to be dangerous. So the government carried out a policy, which was later called National Isolation. It prevented foreigners from coming to Japan.
However, in Japan, there were a lot of rebellions throughout Japan because of this isolation policy. Around the same time in 1852, Matthew Calbraith Perry, a Commodore of the U.S. Navy, came to Japan. Since then, many foreigners voyaged to Japan and what is worse, many citizens from different parts of Japan made up groups and tried to defeat the Tokugawa government.
In that period, Kyoto still had been the center of politics, and there were a lot of people belonging to anti-government groups. So this area was no safe, and only government offices which had maintained the order of Kyoto as in the past could not suppress the riot any more. Then at that time, a special group was formed. It was called Shinsengumi (新撰組). Shinsengumi was a kind of special police force, consisting of only 24 samurai at first. But, after their successes in the Ikedaya Incident and also in the Kinmon Incident, the Shinsengumi was given a letter of thanks and lots monetary support by Tokugawa government. From that point on, they become very famous all over Japan. In the end, many others took part in the Shinsengumi, becoming a large group consisting of more than 200 samurai.
Shinsengumi is written as 新撰組 in Japanese characters. 新 means ‘new’, 撰 means ‘election’ and 組 means ‘group’. So 新撰組 means “the people who are newly elected”. The group consisted of 10 units, and its leader was Isamu Kondou, who is very famous in Japan now. He was very good at fencing and a member of Shieikan(試衛館), which is a famous training gym for fencing. On the Shinsengumi flag is painted the following character: 誠. It looks almost like the character 試 in Shieikan (試衛館), doesn’t it? Yes, that is right Kondou was a student of Shieikan and also its leader. When he became the leader of Shinsengumi, he had to choose one character for the flag. At that time, he wanted to paint it as 試 from 試衛館. However he thought it was too simple. So, he painted as 誠 instead, which looks like 試, in the flag. This was an interesting happening indeed.
The Ikedaya Incident was an armed encounter that took place in Kyoto, in 1864 at the Ikedaya Inn on Sanjo Street. When the Tyoshu clan and the Tosa clan were meeting there, they were attacked by Shinsengumi. Both clans were anti-government so they intervened in the hotel and killed people both of the clans. Before the accident, both of the clans had decided to set fire to the Imperial Palace. However, the Shinsengumi foiled their plot. The Shinsengumi did a great job in stopping them from their destructive plans.
The Kinmon Incident happened in 1864, right after the incident in the Ikedaya Inn. It also involved the Tyoshu clan. The Shinsengumgumi also did a great job in this incident. Having fought with Tyoshu clan, Shinsengumi defeated them and saved Kyoto.
The Boshin War, in 1868 was one of the most important civil wars in Japanese history. In this war, the new government group and the old government group fought each other. Of course, the Shisengumi was on the side of the old government group. On the other hand, the new government group included the Tyoshu clan and the Satsuma clam, both of whoom had been defeated by the Shinsengumi previously. However, this time the two clans were more powerful than before. The Shinsengumi did their best to defeat them again, but in 1868, their sub-leader, Toshizo Hizikata, was killed. Since then, the power of the Shinsengumi began to decline. What was worse, the old government group lost the civil war. The Shinsengui had been working as a police force in Kyoto since 1863, but only 5 years later, they began to disband.
Nevertheless, the Shinsengumi is still famous and popular in Japan, and a lot of Japanese know and love them. This is because the group appears in many animes and comics in Japan, for example, Hakuouki, Rurouni-Kenshin and Gintama. If you have a chance, please read them.
For those who come to Kyoto and want to learn more about Shisengumi, you can actually visit the places written about above.
Ikedaya: From Kyoto Station, take Kyoto City Bus No.17 to Kawaramachi Sanjo. From there it is a 3-minute walk.
Maegawa residence: From Kyoto Station, take Kyoto City Bus No.28, to Mibuderamichi. From there it is a 2-minute walk.
Yagi residence: This is near the Maegawa residence; only a one-minute walk.
If you visit these places, you can read about the histories of the Shinsengumi.
Those not fortunate enough to come to Kyoto, shouldn’t worry. They can learn about the Shisengumi through DVDs, movies or comics. Some of the most famous anime and comics about the Shisengumi are Rurouni-Kenshin and Hakuouki. For example, the DVD boxes of Hakuouki are sold on the Internet. They cost about $65 to buy.
As for the comics, there are a lot of comic cafes in the world, so please visit them and read the comics of Rurouni-Kenshin and Hakuouki.