The Tokugawa Shogunate ruled over Japan for over two hundred years, the already tense situation between the powerless Emperor & the Shogun worsened with the arrival of the Americans in 1853, and the foreign threat came with the questioning of the legitimacy of the Bakufuto; The Shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi decided to create a policemen corps of master swordsmen to patrol the imperial capital forming the newly selected corps- Shinsengumi. This group has been gaining massive popularity in contemporary Japan leading to the questioning of the extent to which the public image of the group has been romanticized, looking at the accomplishment, myths, and rumors surrounding the group and how this has shaped the general idea of the group from brutal renegades to noble heroes.
The fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate marked the end of one of the most important periods in Asian History. Two centuries earlier Tokugawa Ieyasu had created the shogunate, starting the most crucial era in Japanese History.
To commend harmony and success for the country the Tokugawa supported the idea of Japan remaining Isolated from the rest of the world starting at the beginning of the 17th century, but while Japan remained isolated from the outside world North American and European countries were rapidly advancing and expanding, so Japan became the target of the foreign threat in 1853 when Commodore Perry arrived at the coast of the Island in an event which would mark the end of Japan’s Isolationist policy and start a period of chaos, led by the renegade ronin under Imperial Loyalism, a time of violence that would last for fifteen years.
While the extent to which industrialism had led to the country becoming outdated in comparison with the American & the European powers, the Tokugawa were well aware that considering the circumstances of the global sphere during the 19th century, the likelihood of foreigners setting foot in Japan was extremely likely the Bakufu simply ignored dismissed the idea, it was likely that this negligence came due to the belief that the Shogun could only maintain, its power if Japan stayed Isolated from the rest of the world as it had been during the 200 years of Tokugawa reign.
The Bakufu’s negligence towards the danger’s posed by foreign threats & the unsustainability of their Isolationist policy became evident after the arrival of the Americans, who displayed their industrial might through large & modern vessels and intimidated technological outdated Japan, the tense situation further heightened with the Treaty of Peace and Amity of 1854 which was later followed by various others with the European Powers. The “anti-barbarian” sentiment held by a large number of warriors led to general disapproval of Japan opening its borders to foreign countries, and numerous ronin defected to the Imperial Loyalist movement, who believed that the era of the Shogun must end to bring back the power to the emperor and spell the Barbarian’s out of the country, this movement would later prove successful in leading the abolishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate and modernizing Japan in a period known as the Meiji Restoration. During the period leading to the fall of the Shogun to secure his safety, he requested the Roshigumi a group tasked with protecting the Imperial capital Kyoto, to secure his safety in the Imperial Capital, instead of deploying samurai for this task likely due to the general dissatisfaction amongst the warrior class the shogun authorities decided to utilize ronin for this task. Unfortunately for the Shogun, their loyalty was with the Emperor and the corps was swiftly ordered to return to Edo,13 members of the group decided to stay in Kyoto where they formed the group known as the feared Shinsengumi.
The Shinsengumi were originally divided into two factions, one under the commander Kondo Isami and the other under Serizawa Kamo-The later being disbanded due to his abuse of power-while both men shared the goal of exterminating whoever opposed the Shogun through any means necessary. The group was originally formed by thirteen Roshi Corps members who requested to remain in Kyoto to serve their role as the great protectors of the Shogun, they were then granted the permission to patrol beginning their six-year history of death, violence, bloodshed following a group of young men determined to protect their homeland & achieve their goal as swordsmen.
Certainly, the most popular of the two due to its longevity and sympathetic background-both leaders’ being sons of peasants- Commander Kondo Isami and his second in command the Demon Vice Commander Hijikata Toshizō became a target to be romanticized by modern culture as patriotic anti-heroes of noble origin. While their exploits didn’t have a major impact on the scope of Japanese history their popularity as symbols of patriotism, sincerity, and loyalty are certainly deeply ingrained in more modern Japanese interpretations.
While not possessing the same level of popularity as his second in cthatommand or his prodigious swordsman Kondo Isami was a greatly skilled master and patriotic ronin, It is interesting to note that due to Kondo possessing a similar background to Hijikata his lack of fame is likely because not he cannot be romanticized but because what can be viewed as heroic relating to Kondo also applies to Toshizō, while the heroism surrounding the later only applies to himself. Born from a peasant family his father hired a fencing instructor named Kondō Shūsuké a master swordsman of the Tennen Rishin style, he was adopted by his master has his heir becoming the successor to the Tennen Rishin he was compelled to test out his skill when the opportunity arrived.
Kondo’s closest friend was the Vice-Commander Hijikata Toshizō, one of the founding members of the corps he is above Kondo as the face of the Shinsengumi. Hijikata is described as a tall, masculine, and handsome man, he became exceedingly famous and the loyal samurai that led the group in its final crusade against the Meiji government, he continued to fight even with full knowledge that the battle had already been lost and the Tokugawa were doomed to fall, this display of loyalty towards the Tokugawa, the Corps, and the country served his popularity greatly due to him being one of the few main Shinsengumi members that survived till that fight, Kondo having been executed for the death of Sakamoto Ryoma and Okita dying from sickness.
Certain parallels can be drawn between Serizawa and Hijikata, both important members of the Shinsengumi known for their tall and imposing figures associated with patriotism and cruelty. While both men share the same epithet is it important to note that Hijikata being the son of a peasant didn’t take part in pointless violence against the lower class, even though he had the right to do so if he ever so desire according to the laws of the Tokugawa he could abuse this power, on the other hand, the second commander of the Shinsengumi, coming from an entirely different background from Hijikata as a warrior class by birth enjoyed tormenting the peasants. In contrast to the other faction’s immoral actions, Kondo and Hijikata planned to strictly limit the corps to prevent incidents like the ones Serizawa caused, as believers of the Code of the Samurai they were against disgracing the organization, so they created a code of conduct heavily based on thisto. As such while the “Demon” Commander Serizawa is often forgotten by historical fiction the “Demon” Vice-Commander Hijikata is one of the most heavily romanticized figures in Japanese history is due to the difference in moral codes, Toshizō’s cruelty only extends tohonorable his profession as a patrol officer and while he is perfectly conformable with slaughter or torture it is only employed if it’s, necessary for the good of the corps, truly his firm belief in the Code of the Samurai and his immense loyalty serve to elevate him from being a “Demon” to a honorabl antihero
The Shinsengumi was not short of incredibly skilled swordsmenothers right, yet one of them excelled above all othersright-hand of the Kondo faction, indeed none other was more notable for his combat skills alone than the prodigy Okita Sōji, The right-hand man of Hijikata and a young apprentice of the same school as Kondo Isami he possessed such a talent for swordsmanship that at the age of twelve he defeated his fencing instructor-Kondo’s father and adoptive parent- in a match, due to his immense talent he later became head of the dojo under Kondo at the Shieikan. Okita’s incredible skills were short-live, a sickness which is assumed to be tuberculosis took his life on May 30 , even before being bedridden he had started to show signs of sickness during the Ikedaya Inn Incident, leading to the public perception of Okita coughing up blood as he cut down men after men, whether or not what led to him collapsing in the middle of the bloodbath was caused by an early symptom of tuberculosis or for an entirely different reason is left out for the reader to determine, what is entirely true is that a weakened Okita was still able to cut down the average ronin without much issue just show how incrediblyhonorable incredibly honorableskilled the swordsmen of the Tennen Rishin style were.