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The Real Saito Hajime

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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For the young kids today, gaining interests in Japanese history is some of the benefits of watching too much anime. Though at times I disagree because learning Japanese culture from anime is like learning American life from Family Guy. My folks even joked that they won’t know that Kondo Izami was a real person if not for some Gintama references. But for me, Rurouni Kenshin is still the best period anime there is, and although it was pure exaggerations and fantasy, I was thankful that it gave me a rough idea who was Yamagata Aritomo. And now that we speak of Rurouni Kenshin, I’m sure fans know Saito Hajime very well.

Saito Hajime, that sarcastic and chain-smoking police officer from that popular anime was a certified fan favorite, and he is actually a composite of some Marvel characters, and a real-life Shinsengumi samurai. We all know that a real and historic Saito Hajime existed, and like most of the historical characters of Rurouni Kenshin, the real person was very different from his anime portrayal, even the way he handles his weapon. The man was also a person wrapped in mystery, and his survival during the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate, and his reemergence with a new assumed identity added mystique to his character, something that no anime could match.

The Anime Portrayal

How fans knew him.

How fans knew him.

Perhaps, the most well-known portrayal of Saito Hajime is a katana wielding police officer in Rurouni Kenshin. I see his character as an “Anti-Kenshin” in many ways. In fact, Watsuki made this Saito Hajime from a composite of various Marvel characters, and the real Saito Hajime himself. He used The Punisher character Frank Castle to form his anti-hero image, while his sarcasm came from Wolverine. The end result is a rather complex, and darker hero that seems to be the incarnation of the darker Kenshin.

Pretty much unlike the atoning, and peace-loving Kenshin Himura, he is violent, dirty, sarcastic, cynic and with little regards to human life. Even the way this character was designed served as a foil to the main protagonist. People describe him as aesthetically simple, darker or villainous. He has sharper features compared to the more feminine Kenshin, complete with piercing eyes, longer face, and “spider legs” fringes. In addition, he is taller (at six foot-tall), which made him one of the most imposing in Kenshin’s allies. This version of Saito was also seen in the live action film of Rurouni Kenshin.

The Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan version.

The Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan version.

Being a more macho character gave this version of Saito a unique appeal to the fandom. But other anime series took a different approach on their own Saito Hajime design. With the older generations of fans so used to the more wicked Saito of Rurouni Kenshin, they might find the “bishounen” Saito as unusual. In Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan, we are seeing a prettier version that beats the character design of Himura Kenshin.

But beyond the anime portrayal, the real Saito is neither a vigilante nor a bishounen.

Real-life

Uniforms of the Shinsengumi.

Uniforms of the Shinsengumi.

Despite being a highly fictionalized character in some anime series, there are some elements that they got it right in the real Saito Hajime’s life. All in all, his early life was wrapped in mystery, though he was born in Musashi Province somewhere in Edo. He was the son of a former ashigaru raised to a rank of a low-ranking retainer of the shogunate, Yamaguchi Yusuki. According to family records, Saito accidentally killed a hatamoto (high ranking samurai) and was forced to leave Edo for Kyoto in 1862. There, he was trained in swordsmanship under a man named Yoshida.

And then, he joined the Shinsengumi.

Together with Okita Soji and Todo Heisuke, he was the youngest and the best swordsman. Now, he was portrayed in Rurouni Kenshin as a tall man, and he was, as the real Saito was 5 feet 11 inches tall (almost six feet). The man was known as an introvert, and was formal and dignified from the way he dressed, to how he walked, or even on how he always sat in an alert seiza position. In the anime, Saito follows a “swift death to evil” philosophy, which Nobuhiro Watsuki (the author of Rurouni Kenshin) derived on the real Saito’s habit of weeding out potential spies and traitors in the Shinsengumi, though his role as an internal spy was disputed. In their group, he was originally a vice commander, and one of the people together with Hijikata Toshizo during the Ikedaya Incident of July 8, 1864. He also took part in the Kinmon incident where he earned an award from the Shogunate.

In 1867, Saito became a Hatamoto together with the other Shinsengumi members. Their other missions include protecting Miura Kyutaro, the major suspect in the assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma. They also participated in the Boshin War until the Shinsengumi was disseminated. He ended up as a prisoner of war in the Takada Domain.

Saito Hajime will later reemerge in the Meiji period as Fujita Goro, an officer working in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Just what was mentioned in the anime, he was allowed to carry a Katana. He saw action in the Satsuma rebellion, where he and the police forces were sent to support the army.

He retires from law enforcement in 1890, and later worked as a guard and a clerk. He died in 1915 at the age of 72, in the seiza position.

The Official Photo

This is really him.

This is really him.

The series of animes also generated a lot of interest on what the man looked like. The problem here is that Saito Hajime almost have no genuine photo, unlike some Shinsengumi members. When Nobuhiro Watsuki made his own version of Saito, he never gives much importance on historical accuracy. Hence the famous villainous Saito of Rurouni Kenshin isn’t what he truly looked like. Watsuki did received backlash from fans who wants to see a more good-looking Saito. And now that we speak of good-looking, we also got bishounen versions from other series.

But as Watsuki pointed out, the man wasn't exactly good looking based on a sketch and presumed photographs. Maybe that was what he had in mind when he made his own version of the Shinsengumi samurai.

Him, with his family.

Him, with his family.

But thankfully, the Fujita family (the descendants from their second son Tsuyoshi) released the photo of their famed patriarch, to dispel what was circulating online (as the sketch was based on his son). This photo of Saito was taken in 1897, when he was 53 years old. In another photo, he was surrounded by his family members; his sons Tsyoshi and Tsutomu, and his wife Tokiwo.

References

  1. Kikuchi Akira (2003). "Saitō Hajime no Aizu-sensō," pp. 110–135 in Shinsengumi Saitō Hajime no Subete.
  2. "Here's What Rurouni Kenshin's Saito Hajime Really Looked Like 2016, viewed 07 July 2021" https://thefanboyseo.com/2016/07/16/heres-rurouni-kenshins-saito-hajime-really-looked-like/


Swordsmanship

And then there is his sword style. It was an undisputed knowledge that Saito was well versed in swordsmanship, being a veteran in several battles and altercations. In fact, it was said that even Okita Soji feared him. And when it comes to his style of fighting, fans might remember his unique left-handed Gatotsu stance in anime.

Again, there is no doubt that the Gatotsu of Rurouni Kenshin is an anime exaggeration. Nevertheless, Watsuki noted that it was based on an actual sword fighting technique. To begin with, it wasn’t clear what style he was using. According to his descendants, it probably came from Itto-Ryu, or the Mugai Ryu. He also learned other styles like Tsuda ichi-den ryu and Sekiguchi-ryu. Though we are certain that his swordsmanship style is different in real life, he actually favored the hirazuki, or “Horizontal thrust.” This technique is for downward slash, stabs and thrusts, and yes, the historical Saito did this with his left hand.

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