The Shinsengumi were a special police force in Japan, well-known for their very strict respect of the Warrior Code, aka “Bushidô” (literally translated as: the way of the warrior). They saw the end of the Edo era.
As they were fighting for the losing side, I tend to call them “the Big Losers in Japanese History”. (Yes, I’m very fond of them, why do you feel like you have to ask?)
– Historical background
Be aware of the fact that I am synthesizing, and, by doing so, using a lot of shortcuts.
The Shogunate (aka “Bakufu” in Japanese) reigns peacefully over Japan for some 160 years. The Emperor has nothing but a symbolic power and his military advisor, the Shogun, -one of the Damyos, aka landlords- exercises a military dictatorship. I’ll use a shameful shortcut, but let’s say that the Shogunate is in fact not a very stable power -every shogun is struggling for leadership and causing inner dissensions. Of course –and I am using another shortcut here- the Emperor would gladly have his power back. Guess what all the fighting which ensues will be about?
Another thing to know is the Japanese policy concerning foreigners, which is called “Sakoku” (literally: chained country). This policy was quite clear: no foreigners could come to Japan (or would be punished by death), and no Japanese could leave Japan (or would be punished by death). There were some exceptions, as for example the Dutch people could come to Dejima in Nagasaki and were asked to write once a year an explanation about all the main events in the world… This policy started around 1633-39 and ended –officiously- in 1853, with Commodore’s Perry arrival. Officially, it ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1863. (For those who wanted to know, that strict policy was all because of religions and more particularly because of the rejection of the Christians missionaries in 1587).
Last but not least, let’s talk about the samourai, or “bushi”, the Japanese warriors. They pledged alliance to the Shogun or to daimyos, but were no land owners, contrary to European knights. During the Edo period, there were 400.000 bushi, and when the government forced daimyos to cut down their armies, unemployed warriors (“Rônin”) became a real social problem.
They were influenced by Buddhist and Zen philosophies and followed a doctrine called “Bushidô”, the Way of the Warrior, which mostly said that “the path of the warrior was one of honor, emphasizing duty to one’s master, and loyalty unto death« .
– Constitution of the Shinsengumi
After Perry’s arrival in 1853, Japan was separated in two: those following the Shogunate and the opening of Japan to Western countries and those following a motto, the “sonnô jôi” (literally: Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians) who wanted to close the frontiers and put back the Emperor as the only leader of the country. Those followers started to commit violence in the capital Kyoto. As an answer, the Shogunate created the Rôshigumi, a group of former rônin which was ordered to protect the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi. Later on, its name will be changed to Shinsengumi (April 18, 1863 to be precise. It means Newly Selected Corps).
– Specificity of the group
They followed a code very strict (main penalty being death by seppuku, aka by opening your own belly with your blade), which is the following:
- Deviating from Bushido.
- Leaving the Shinsengumi.
- Raising money privately.
- Taking part in litigations.
- Engaging in private fights.
There were famous annexes to those rules:
– “Kumigashira ga moshi toushi shita baaiwa, kumishuu wa sono ba de toushi subeshi.”: If the leader of an unit is deadly wounded during a fight, all members have to fight and die on the spot.
– “Hageshiki kokou ni oite shishou zokushutsusutomo kumigashira no shitai no hoka wa hikishirizokukotomakarinarazu.”: Even if there are heavy losses during the fight, it is forbidden to bring back the corpses, the one of the leader excepted.
– “Moshi taishiga koumuni yorazushite machi de taigai no mono to arasoi, teki to yaiba wo kawashi, jibunga kizu wo oite aite wo shitomekirazuni nigashita baai, ushirokizu no baai no gotokimo seppuku wo meizuru.”: If a member of the Shinsengumi fight against somebody foreigner to the group and is wounded, cannot kill his opponent and let him flee, it does not matter if the member was on duty or not, it does not matter if the injury was caused by treachery or not, the member has to commit seppuku.
Those rules were the most severe Japan has ever known, and some of the death sentences were not applied.
They are often represented wearing a pale blue haori (coat) over their kimonos, but in fact wore it only for a year.
The symbol on their flag and banners was the kanji (Japanese alphabet adapted from the Chinese) meaning Sincerity.