Kondo Isami and the Battle at Katsunuma

The cover of my book Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps depicts corps commander, Kondo Isami, at the desperate Battle of Katsunuma against Imperial forces the month before the shogun’s castle at Edo would be surrendered to the Imperial government.  Below is an excerpt from my book without footnotes. (Just prior to this the Shinsengumi had been renamed Koyochinbutai (“Pacification Corps”)).

On March 4, [1868] . . . they marched through a heavy snowstorm. On the following day, as they reached the summit of Sasago Pass, the most forbidding point along the road, word arrived that Kofu Castle had fallen to some three thousand imperial forces led by Itagaki Taisuké of Tosa. Had Kondo’s corps arrived one day earlier, the castle might have been theirs for the taking.

Kondo attempted to boost his troops’ morale by lying to them that six hundred reinforcements from Aizu would arrive the next morning. Hijikata rushed back to Edo to get reinforcements from among the hatamoto [samurai in service of the shogun]. Meanwhile, Kondo led his corps westward across the snowy mountainous terrain. Numerous corpsmen, despairing of victory, deserted. They reached the town of Katsunuma, five miles east of Kofu, on the same day, March 5. Only 121 corpsmen remained. In the mountains they erected a makeshift fortification, where they positioned their two cannon. In the town they constructed a barrier. In the mountains and the roadway they lit fires to intimidate the enemy, and waited for Hijikata’s return.

Far from being intimidated, some 1,200 enemy troops attacked at noon the following day.

Having been trained in modern warfare, they had the clear advantage over Kondo’s corps – both in sheer number and superiority in arms. Kondo’s men, meanwhile, particularly those who had been in Kyoto, enjoyed the advantage of experience in battle, but not in the use of artillery. Amid the smoke from the nearby fires, the Pacification Corps attempted to defend with their two cannon. There was not a man among them, however, with expertise in firing these large guns. In their inexperience, they misfired. As the enemy pounded them with heavy artillery fire, they had to resort to their rifles. The enemy closed in and charged with drawn swords. Sato Hikogoro’s peasant militia, consisting of twenty-one men, fought fiercely against the charge, as did the warriors of the Pacification Corps. Kondo’s men could not see for the smoke in their eyes. After two hours of fighting they had no alternative but to scatter into the surrounding mountains, and eventually retreat to Edo in defeat. In the Battle at Katsunuma, the Pacification Corps suffered eight dead and more than thirty wounded. Only one of the enemy was killed, and twelve wounded. [end excerpt]

Some readers have wondered about the original artwork on the book cover. Below are some details, from the websites of the National Diet Library and 西南戦争錦絵美術館 (Seinansenso Nishikie Bijutsukan), an art museum themed on the Satsuma Rebellion. (The painting is used on the book cover courtesy of Masataka Kojima, curator of the Kojima Museum.)

Title: 勝沼駅近藤勇驍勇之図 (Katsunuma-eki Kondo Isami Gyoyu no Zu)

Artist: 月岡芳年 (Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1839-1892; photo below)


Arimura Jizaemon and the Assassination of Ii Naosuke

On an unseasonably snowy spring morning in 1860 the most powerful man in Japan was cut down in broad daylight as he was about to enter Edo Castle, the seat of government of the Tokugawa Shogun, whose military regime, the Tokugawa Bakufu, had ruled for two and a half centuries.

The shogun at the time was a fifteen-year-old boy, and his regent, Ii Naosuke, who ruled with an iron fist, was widely reviled for wresting power from his political enemies, perceived lèse–majesté against a powerless yet sanctified Emperor in unilaterally concluding foreign trade treaties against the Imperial will, and his notorious purge of his political enemies from the highest echelons of the government. Ii’s assassination, which marked the beginning of the end of the shogun’s rule, was followed by eight years of chaos and turmoil and violence, which would not subside until the collapse of the shogun’s government and the restoration of Imperial power—the series of events collectively called the Meiji Restoration.

The assassination of Ii Naosuke is the subject of Part I of my three-part Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” and the Meiji Restoration, 1853-1868. I tell the story of this most important event of the era from the perspective of Ii’s enemies, including the band of eighteen samurai who colluded to assassinate him.

One of the eighteen, Arimura Jizaemon, who beheaded Ii, is depicted on the cover of the book. The image is part of a series entitled Kinseigiyuden (“Biographies of Loyal and Courageous Men”) by Ichieisai Yoshitsuya (1822 – 1866), originally published in a magazine called “Nishikie.”


Katsu Kaishū: The Shōgun’s Last Samurai


Katsu Kaishū is the focus of Samurai Revolution. I introduce him in the Prologue as follows:

[In early 1868, in the wake of the collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu], Katsu Kaishū, who had risen through the ranks by force of character and a keen and creative mind, was in command of the Tokugawa military. He had at his disposal a fleet of ships and thousands of troops raring to attack the enemy. But just who was this multifaceted, enigmatic man upon whom the deposed shōgun rested his life and the fate of his family and indeed the entire country? Unlike [last shogun Tokugawa] Yoshinobu’s other advisors, he hailed neither from a noble house of feudal lords charged for generations with the Bakufu’s highest offices, nor from the privileged families of Tokugawa samurai whose sons traditionally filled the most important magistracies and commissionerships. Born to the humblest of samurai families in service of the shōgun, he was at once the consummate samurai and streetwise denizen of downtown Edo; an expert swordsman who refused to draw his sword even in self-defense; a statesman who commanded the respect of allies and foes alike; an inviolable outsider within the shōgun’s regime; an iconoclast, historian, prolific writer, and creator of the Japanese navy. And though his loyalty to the Tokugawa was unsurpassed, he was nevertheless a friend and ally of men who had overthrown the government.

This statue of Katsu Kaishū and his most famous student, Sakamoto Ryōma, was unveiled in the fall of 2016, where Kaishū’s house once stood in Tokyo’s Akasaka district.

Samurai Revolution is the only full-length biography of Katsu Kaishū in English.



Giri: Is It Alive in Japanese Society Today?


In Samurai Revolution (Chapter 5) I wrote the following: “Giri was integral to bushidō, the code of the samurai, a basic tenet of which was “strictness with superiors, and leniency with subordinates.” Based on loyalty to one’s feudal lord (i.e., obligation for favor received from one’s lord) and integrity founded on shame, giri, to a great extent, accounted for the harmony in samurai society, and it was an inherent element of both the aesthetics and the moral courage of the samurai caste.


Takechi Hanpeita (武市半平太), leader of the Tosa Loyalist Party in the 1860s, wrote: “to be born a human being and not to have a sense of giri and gratitude is to be less than a beast.” (人と生まれて義理と恩とをしらざれハちくしょふにもおとり申し候)

In Samurai Revolution (Chapter 5) I reported that Katsu Kaishū, in his history of the Japanese navy (海軍歴史), compared the Japanese navy to the navies of other countries. He implied that in the Japanese system severe punishment of sailors by commanding officers was probably unnecessary because, “We sustain the hearts and minds of our people only through obligation and justice, and integrity and shame.” (「皇国は属殊にして外国の風に似ず、ただ恩義と廉恥を以て衆心を維持」する)
Sakamoto Ryoma
When Sakamoto Ryoma famously led a Chōshū warship against the Tokugawa Navy at Shimonoseki, more than the danger of battle he feared that he might encounter his former mentor, Katsu Kaishū, in command of the enemy fleet. “I could never fight against him,” he later told Tosa’s minister of justice, Sasaki Sanshirō (later Sasaki Takayuki) (僕は房州[海舟]には非常に恩顧を受けて居るから,之を敵にすることは出来ぬ).
Clearly from the above, giri was alive in Japan during the Bakumatsu era. But I wonder if it survives in the 21st century.

Takechi Hanpeita is the focus of Part II of my forthcoming Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” and the Meiji Restoration, 1853-1868, to be published by McFarland this spring.