Takéchi Hanpeita and the “shit bug” Samurai

Part II of Samurai Assassins is the first in-depth biographical treatment in English of Takéchi Hanpeita, charismatic leader of the Tosa Loyalist Party and mastermind of “divine punishment,” which wreaked terror on the streets of Kyōtō. Takéchi’s important role in the “samurai revolution” is covered in detail, including his meteoric rise to power and his sudden arrest and imprisonment. I referred to Takéchi’s journals, contained in an early biography published in 1912; and more heavily to his letters from jail to his wife and cohorts on the outside. To the best of my knowledge, Takéchi’s letters have rarely, if ever, been used by Western writers. Following is an excerpt:

At the end of the Second Month, Takéchi wrote home about his new cellmate, a samurai named Itō Reihei, whom he referred to as “shit bug” (kuso mushi). Itō had been arrested for seducing a woman and attempting to run away with her, behavior which Takéchi would not condone. But from Takéchi’s letters home it seems that the two men became unlikely friends during the next few months, which they spent together in the same cell, with Itō, perhaps starstruck by the famous Loyalist Party leader, regularly fixing Takéchi’s hair. And so “I don’t have to get my hands dirty,” which was “the only good” thing about the “shit bug.”


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Saigō’s Magnanimity and Ryōma’s Underwear

Amid the current toxic political climate in the United States, I remember the following anecdote (cited from Samurai Assassins, Chapter 16, without footnotes) involving Saigō Takamori and Sakamoto Ryōma, which provides insight into the magnanimity of the former:

Hirao relays an anecdote that goes a long way to illustrate Saigō’s affection and even reverence for Ryōma. In Keiō 1/5 (1865) Ryōma traveled to Saigō’s native Kagoshima to lay the groundwork for the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance, during which time Ryōma stayed at Saigō’s home. According to the story, which Hirao heard directly from Saigō’s sister-in-law, one day Ryōma asked Saigō’s wife, Itoko, if he could borrow Saigō’s “oldest loincloth,” i.e., underwear. As Hirao interjects, Ryōma, a rōnin without a source of income, probably didn’t have the money to buy such things. So Itoko gave Ryōma exactly what he asked for; and when her husband returned home and she told him about it, he was angered: “Don’t you know that he’s ready to die for the country?” he said, and instructed her to change the “old loincloth for the newest one” he had. Recalling the story years later, Itoko said that it was the only time she had ever seen her husband so angry.


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The Allure of Giri

Giri (義理) has been on my mind recently. To me it is one of the most alluring aspects of Japanese society. In Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, a biography of Katsu Kaishū, I described giri as “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, a focus of my Samurai Assassins, 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)

It is the allure of this philosophy that keeps me writing about this history.


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Hitokiri (“Man-Cutter”) Izō

Okada Izō was one of the three most notorious assassins of the Bakumatsu era. The novelist Shiba Ryōtarō writes of the “overly intense physical strength and stamina” with which Izō was naturally endowed. By age fifteen, Izō had already started training on his own—not with a bamboo practice sword commonly used in the training hall but with a heavier and lethal oaken sword he had carved himself, “wielding it. . . from morning to night,” with such ferocity that his “body would be wasted,” thus developing extraordinarily powerful arms and the ability to handle a sword with great speed. The original purpose of a sword was to kill people. But “in the Tokugawa era it became a philosophy. Izō [however] . . . taught himself fencing as a means of killing.” He was “intrepid by nature and fond of the martial arts,” wrote one local historian in 1928. His sword “attack came swift, like a falcon, as was apparent in his nature—which was why [his sword master Takéchi Hanpeita] was so fond of him,” according to another source.

The above is from my recently published Samurai Assassins.


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Katsu Kaishū Portrait by Kawamura Kiyo’o

The title “returning from the surrender of Edo Castle” is misleading because Katsu Kaishū did not attend the official (formal) surrender ceremony. But he did negotiate the peaceful surrender of the castle with Saigō, which of course resulted in the actual surrender. For that he was considered a traitor by many in the Tokugawa camp. As stated in the museum’s description of the painting (below), behind Kaishū is supposed to be a stonewall of the castle, to the left side of which is a fellow Bakufu samurai, sword drawn, as if ready to attack him.

This portrait is based on a photograph at the British Legation in Yokohama taken by Ernest Satow, secretary to Sir Harry Parkes, the British minister to Japan, around the time the castle was surrendered. “I was so very sleepy at the time,” Kaishū recalled years later. “But they dragged me over there. Satow took it, because, as he said, ‘You’re going to be killed.’”

Kawamura Kiyo’o’s grandfather, Kawamura Tajima-no-Kami, was a high official in the Bakufu, who had served in magisterial posts in Niigata, Sakai, Ōsaka, and Nagasaki. Kiyo’o, who grew up in Nagasaki, developed a keen interest in oil painting, a Western art form. He was sent to study in the United States in Meiji 4 (1871), after which he traveled to Europe to study oil painting in France and Italy. Kaishū built a studio for Kawamura within the compound of his estate at Hikawa in Tokyo. (from Samurai Revolution)

[This reproduction of the original painting is at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I took these photos about two years ago. There was no avoiding the glare from the flash.]


Katsu Kaishū of course is “the shogun’s last samurai” of my Samurai Revolution.

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