Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Shinsengumi was also called the "Mibu-rō", meaning "Wolves of Mibu", after the town where they were stationed. Originally, it meant the "Rōshi of Mibu", but this changed as the reputation of the Shinsengumi became tarnished in its early years. "Shinsengumi" translates to "the clan of the new chosen ones" ... "Shinsen" means "new chosen ones" while "gumi" translates to "clan."
After Japan opened up to Matthew Perry and the West in the 1860s, sentiment towards the Tokugawa shogunate grew negative while citizens longed for the return to power of the emperor (cf. Sonnō Jōi). So the Aizu clan with the shogunate hired some of the greatest swordsmen of Edo and masterless samurai in Kyoto to protect itself and counteract those who supported the emperor against the Tokugawa shogunate. They originally opposed mainly samurais from Choshu (now Yamaguchi).
The members of the Shinsengumi were highly visible in battle due to their distinctive uniforms. Ordered by Shinsengumi captain Kamo Serizawa, the standard uniform consisted of the haori and hakama over a kimono, with a white cord crossed over the chest and tied in the back. The uniqueness of the uniform was displayed in the haori, which was colored asagiiro (generally shown as light blue, but can also mean light yellow). 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.
The Shinsengumi began as the Rōshigumi. Later, 13 members of the Defenders became the 13 founding members of the Shinsengumi.
The original Captains of the Shinsengumi were Kamo Serizawa, Isami Kondō, and Nishiki Niimi. The group was made of 2 sects with Serizawa's Mito group and Kondou Isami's Shiekan dojo members. They based themselves in the Mibu neighborhood of Kyoto. On March 12, 1863, the group submitted a letter to the Aizu clan requesting permission to police Kyoto to stop the actions of revolutionaries and lawless samurai. Their request was granted, but 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. Their reputation improved after the seppuku of Niimi and the assassination of Serizawa by the Kondo sect within the group.
Popular fiction claims that the Shinsengumi law was written by Kamo Serizawa or Isami Kondō, but it was most probably written by Toshizō Hijikata (since its strictness fits his personality more than the other leaders). The law has five articles, which prohibit the following:
- Deviating from the path proper as a samurai
- Leaving the Shinsengumi
- Raising money privately
- Taking part in other's litigation
- Engaging in private fights
The penalty for breaking any rule was seppuku. In addition, the Shinsengumi had these laws:
- 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 most prominent of which is this: "If a Shinsengumi member engage in a fight with a stranger, be it on duty or not, if he is wounded and can't kill the enemy, allowing him to run away, even in case of a wound in the back, seppuku is ordered."
Hijikata forced them to follow extremely strict rules to make the group operate in bushido (or samurai) ideals and create fear within the group to absolutely obey orders from Hijikata and Kondo. These rules are a major reason why they rose to be such a strong, feared force consisting of hundreds of expert swordsmen, each endowed with the official sanction and an unflinching propensity to kill.
Countless members were forced to commit seppuku for breaking the rules or they were killed for being spies.
It was said that the blood of Shinsengumi members flowed like water in the streets of Kyoto.
The Ikedaya Affair of 1864, in which they prevented the burning of Kyoto, made the Shinsengumi famous overnight and they had a surge of recruits. At its peak, the Shinsengumi had about 300 members. They were the first samurai group ever to allow those from non-samurai classes like farmers and merchants to join because Japan had always had a strict class hierachy system. Many joined the group for the desire to become samurais and be involved in political affairs.
Post-Ikedaya Shinsengumi hierarchy
- Okita Sōji
- Nagakura Shinpachi
- Saitō Hajime
- Matsubara Chūji
- Takeda Kanryūsai
- Inoue Genzaburō
- Tani Sanjūrō
- Tōdō Heisuke
- Suzuki Mikisaburō
- Harada Sanosuke
Spies: Shimada Kai, Yamazaki Susumu
End of the Shinsengumi
The Shinsengumi remained loyal to the Tokugawa bakufu, and as the latter collapsed, they were driven out of Kyoto. They fought to the very end, even until the shogunate collapsed. Isami Kondō was captured and beheaded by the Meiji government. Generally, the death of Toshizō Hijikata on May 11, 1869 marks the end of the Shinsengumi.
In 2004, Japanese television broadcaster NHK began a year-long television drama series following the history of the Shinsengumi, called 新選組! (Shinsengumi!), which aires on Sunday evenings. Actors include Kouji Yamamoto, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Joe Odagiri, and Katori Shingo of the pop idol group SMAP. Many other series and specials have featured the history and fiction surrounding this group.
- 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 Kyoto's Pre-Restoration police troop. Includes database, messageboard, and email lists.
- Shinsengumi War Zone fan site with episode synopsis and reviews of 2004 NHK TV series.
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