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The Last Samurai Leading the Way toward the Northern Island

Posted: Jul. 1, 2014
Today’s Goryokaku fortress with Mt. Hakodate in the distance
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Toshizo Hijikata, Vice-Commander of the Shinsengumi

Toshizo Hijikata

Toshizo Hijikata
(photo courtesy of the National Diet Library)

Japanese people often think of members of the nation’s 19th-century Shinsengumi police force as the last samurai, having been tasked with cracking down on renegade masterless samurai warriors (akin to terrorists in those days) under the Office of the Kyoto Protector – part of the Tokugawa shogunate – in the latter half of the century.

At Japan’s historical crossroads between shogun rule and the dawn of the modern state, the nation was divided into two factions: one seeking to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate under an emperor, and the other striving to implement innovative reform while maintaining shogunate power and order.

As a police force, the Shinsengumi were a band of swordsmen for those who wanted to protect the Edo shogunate in the confrontation. They were even referred to as spies or a backlash of the regime. For modern-day spectators who know their fate in history, they were losers.

However, the Shinsengumi occupy a special place in Japanese hearts due to their manifestation of the Bushido samurai spirit – the concept of remaining devoted to one’s master even at the risk of oblivion and calmly throwing oneself into the jaws of death.

The Shinsengumi were forced to withdraw from Kyoto by the combined anti-shogunate forces of the Satsuma and Choshu feudal domains, which later formed the base of the new Meiji Government. The group came to an end when its Commander, Isami Kondo, was killed, and many other leading members scattered. However, remnants of the Shinsengumi continued to fight on successive fronts, headed northward and waged a final battle in Hokkaido before their demise.

The last civil war in the closing days of the shogunate was fought in Hokkaido.

Toshizo Hijikata, Vice-Commander of the Shinsengumi, became a symbol of this war.

Hijikata was born to a farming family in 1835 in what is now the Tokyo suburb of Hino. He learned Tennen Rishin-ryu, a Japanese martial art, and an encounter with its leader, Isami Kondo, determined his fate. Hijikata went to Kyoto (a center of political upheaval in those days) along with Kondo and others and helped to establish the Shinsengumi. As evidenced by the Demon Vice-Commander reputation he later earned, Hijikata strictly disciplined the corps and achieved great results, including success in the Ikedaya Affair (a raid launched by the Shinsengumi against anti-shogunate rebels gathered at Ikedaya Inn in Kyoto). This was the last period of warfare in which swords and spears were used.

When the shogunate forces were defeated by the modern equipment of the Satsuma and Choshu forces, the Shinsengumi also took flight to Edo.

Hijikata engaged in battles in Koshu-Katsunuma, Nagareyama, Utsunomiya and Aizu before joining up with Takeaki Enomoto, who led the shogunate navy, and heading for the northern island of Ezo, known today as Hokkaido.

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