Romulus Hillsborough. Samurai Assassins: "Dark Murder" and the Meiji Restoration, 1853-1868. Jefferson: McFarland, 2017. 224 pp. $19.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4766-2800-4; $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6880-2.
Reviewed by John E. Van Sant (University of Alabama-Birmingham)
Published on H-Japan (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Martha Chaiklin
The Japanese word for assassination is ansatsu, and in kanji ideograph characters ansatsu literally means “dark murder.” In his latest work on the late Tokugawa era, Romulus Hillsborough (pen name of Jeff Cohen) asserts that “dark murder” was “the catalyst for the [Meiji] revolution” (p. 3). Examining the assassination of Ii Naosuke, the “divine punishment” assassinations ordered by Tosa Loyalist Party leader Takechi Hanpeita, and the assassinations of Nakaoka Shintarō and Sakamoto Ryōma, Hillsborough emphasizes the key role assassination played in influencing the political actions and ideals of the conflict between supporters of imperial rule and supporters of the Tokugawa bakufu in the midst of economic, political, and military pressure from Western powers. While Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” and the Meiji Restoration includes the ideals and roles of Mito, Satsuma, and Choshu domain samurai, Hillsborough devotes more space to the role of Tosa domain and especially to Takechi and the Tosa Loyalist Party in the chaotic clash of ideas and swords leading to the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Nearly all scholars agree that Ii’s assassination at the Sakurada-mon gate of Edo castle in March 1860 was an extraordinary and influential event during the final decade of Tokugawa rule. Daimyō of Hikone and Tairō of the Tokugawa shogunate, Ii made plenty of enemies among the growing number of samurai supporting imperial rule, primarily for having the Tokugawa shogunate approve treaties with Western countries without the emperor’s sanction; for selecting Tokugawa Iemochi as shogun instead of Tokugawa Yoshinobu; and for arresting, exiling, and executing those who he believed were enemies of the Tokugawa shogunate. Hillsborough calls Ii a “reactionary” who steadfastly upheld the increasingly antiquated rule of the shogunate while also a “realist” who had the “political courage” to approve trade treaties with Western powers he knew were necessary for the country’s survival. Hillsborough’s claim that Ii’s assassination—carried out by low-ranking samurai from Mito domain—“was the most important event of the Meiji Restoration” may be exaggerated within the context of numerous significant and influential events of the bakumatsu (end of the Tokugawa bakufu) era (p. 34). Nevertheless, Ii’s assassination significantly divided samurai who supported a restoration of imperial rule from those who continued to support Tokugawa hegemony.
The middle sections of Samurai Assassins are devoted to Takechi and the ideals and political actions of the Tosa Loyalist Party, a secret group of samurai who used assassination to support imperial rule. To scholars already familiar with the final decades and years of the Tokugawa bakufu, these are the most original sections of this work. Hillsborough writes that Takechi was “a planner of assassinations and stoic adherent of Imperial Loyalism and bushido” who emerged from the lower ranks of Tosa samurai (p. 36). Influenced by the “National Learning” philosophy of Hirata Atsutane and its advocacy of emperor worship, Takechi arranged and probably participated in a number of assassinations of those viewed by his Tosa Loyalist Party as either supporters of the Union of Court and Camp (i.e., the Tokugawa bakufu and imperial court working together) or insufficiently pro-imperialist, starting with Yoshida Tōyō, the chief minister of Tosa domain. Moving to Kyoto, Takechi arranged and probably participated in a handful of tenchū or “divine punishment” assassinations in 1862-63. These sections of Samurai Assassins discuss the simultaneous assassinations involving Choshu and Satsuma domain loyalist samurai, including the assassination of Anegakōji Kintomo, a noble who controlled most policy of the imperial court. The daimyō of Tosa eventually cracked down and had Takechi and several members of the Tosa Loyalist Party arrested, jailed, and executed. Although he constantly denied his involvement in assassinations, evidence and confessions from others demonstrated otherwise and Takechi was ordered to commit seppuku after nearly two years in jail.
Sakamoto Ryōma’s assassination on December 10, 1867, has long fascinated scholars and history buffs alike. A member of the Tosa Loyalist Party, he departed Tosa domain in the early 1860s and worked to unite loyalists from the larger and more powerful domains of Satsuma and Choshu. He also formed a trading company that shipped, among other items, guns and other weapons to Satsuma and Choshu loyalists. Influenced by Katsu Kaishu, Yokai Shonan, and others, Ryōma advocated a peaceful transfer of power from the Tokugawa bakufu to the emperor, with a new government composed of two chambers of deputies of feudal lords, court nobles, and responsible people at large. Immediately after the assassination of Ryōma and his fellow Tosa loyalist Nakaoka, it was widely believed the Shinsengumi special police force carried out the double assassination. However, Hillsborough clarifies it was members of the Mimawarigumi special police force that carried out the assassination. Nevertheless, both were under the nominal control of Matsudaira Katamori, daimyō of Aizu appointed by the Tokugawa bakufu as police commander of Kyoto.
The assassinations that took place during the bakumatsu era were extraordinary and influential events. One could wonder, however, how influential these assassinations were during the chaotic final decade of Tokugawa rule. No shogun or emperor was assassinated. Assassinations removed some, such as Ryōma, who would have been leaders in a new government. But did assassinations really cause Japan to make the political transformation from the Tokugawa bakufu to the emperor-centered Meiji government? Imperialism and industrialization driven by Western powers was surely going to change Japan’s political structure in major ways and most of Japan’s leaders knew this by the mid-1860s no matter what side they supported.
Samurai Assassins is a well-researched work by a scholar who spent many years in Japan and has written previous (and overlapping) works on the Meiji Restoration era, such as Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai (2014) and Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps (2011). In addition to his own sleuthing through Japanese-language diaries, letters, and other primary documents, Hillsborough utilizes the works of Japanese scholars such as Matsuura Rei, Matsuoka Mamoru, and Hirao Michio, along with relevant English-language sources. Whether one agrees with Hillsborough’s view of the central role of assassinations in bringing down the Tokugawa bakufu or not, Samurai Assassins is an engaging and useful work for anyone interested in the chaos and complexity of the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-japan.
John E. Van Sant. Review of Hillsborough, Romulus, Samurai Assassins: "Dark Murder" and the Meiji Restoration, 1853-1868.
H-Japan, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|