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The Samurai Takasugi Shinsaku and his Kiheitai

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

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As of the time of this writing, I was planning to get a Japanese sword of my own, a wakizashi to be exact due to my one-handed weapons training. Being a martial arts practitioner, I always wanted to get a Nihonto, though as what was mentioned, I favored shorter blades. Maybe I was influenced by Samurai movies and Japanese animations, though as I grow older the overly mystified image of an invincible Samurai warrior gradually faded. In its place is a deeper understanding of the Samurai culture and its impact on modern Japanese society. In my work as an engineer working for corporate industries, I got a chance to interact with Japanese expats, and by then I realized how much they adopted the Samurai ways in their line of work.

I’m not an expert on Japanese culture, but on observation alone I could say that traditions still run high even in modern Japan. It’s a nation zooming into the future, while holding on with the gems of the past, as the values of the past helped them progressed into the future. And that reminds of a certain Samurai going by the name Takasugi Shinsaku.

He lived in the end of the Tokugawa era, and though he was an extreme advocate of seclusion and expulsion of foreigners from Japan, his radical idea soon evolved and contributed to the modernization of his nation. And if there is one word to sum up his legacy, it will be the Kiheitai, his militia of Samurais and commoners trained in modern warfare.

The Samurai Takasugi Shinsaku

Takasugi training in Kendo.

Takasugi training in Kendo.

Before we dig deeper into the mechanics of the Kiheitai, let’s first explore what pushed the Samurai Takasugi Shinsaku to form his militia, and how it evolved into a disciplined western style fighting force.

Takasugi started his life in the castle town of Hagi, the Choshu Domain capital. In his young age, he was an extreme advocate of Japan’s seclusion, and in 1862, he was sent by the Domain to Shanghai China sort of to investigate how things were going there, and to see the strengths of the Western Powers. Do note that Japan was still in its state of seclusion, and he was sent abroad in secret. Nevertheless, by ill luck, his visit coincided with the Taiping Rebellion, a massive civil war in China between the Qing Dynasty and a theocratic group Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. After the Opium War, the Western Powers gained political and economic foothold in China, weakening the leadership of the Qing Dynasty, and crisis after crises emerged. This set the stage for the bloody Taiping Rebellion as the people searched for a leader that will guide them out of this crisis.

Shocked on the effects of the Western Powers on the Chinese Empire, Takasugi returned to Japan with the purpose of strengthening his nation to avoid a similar fate, and a possible western colonization. And Takasugi found support in Choshu and other parts of Japan as the movement Sonno Joi (literally meant Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians) grew.

The Birth of the Kiheitai

Convention of Kanagawa.

Convention of Kanagawa.

We are already aware of how the Samurai class functioned, and one of which was they were the only ones armed. But Takasugi formed a militia of not only Samurais, but people of mixed social backgrounds, from commoners, working men, priests, and merchants. This auxiliary force was the shotai, which literally meant “military” or “platoon.” And from the shotai, Takasugi organized a special unit called the Kihetai (irregular regiment), consisting of 300 highly disciplined. Half of the unit were Samurais.

Now, the formation of military units based on ability rather than social status was a growing trend back then. After the Convention of Kanagawa, when Japan ended its seclusion and opened its ports to America, domains began to rearm itself. In fact, on the same year the Kihetai was founded, another more well-known brigade was organized, this time by the Bakufu.

The Shinsengumi was meant as special police, tasked to protect the shogunates of Kyoto. Like Takasugi’s Kiheitai, they came from a broad variety of social classes, but they were more inclined to the Samurai code. But a certain incident where the Kiheitai took part of exposed the weakness of the traditional Samurai forces.

The Shimonoseki incident

Captured battery of the Choshu.

Captured battery of the Choshu.

And the Kiheitai got their first major engagement, when the joint naval forces of the United States, Great Britain, France, and The Netherland fought against the Choshu domain to gain control of the Shimonoseki Straits.

Initially, the Tokugawa Shogunate tried to establish a more peaceful open-door policy towards the foreign nations. But the Emperor Komei intervened and issued an order to “Expel the Barbarian” in 1863 to resist the Westernization of Japan. Soon, it erupted in an open conflict with the Choshu clan taking actions against the foreign powers. The Choshu Damyo Mori Takachika ordered his forces to fire at all western ships traversing the Shimonoseki Strait without warning, resulting in damaged ships and dead seamen in the side of the French and the Dutch. In response, the Battle of the Shimonoseki Straits broke between the US Navy and the Takachika (July 16, 1863), followed by the Shimonoseki Campaign between the years 1863 and 1864.

Takasugi was initially imprisoned during those times due to his propagation of the Sonno Joi ideology, only to be called upon again by the Choshu domain. During the Shimonoseki Campaign, they realized that the traditional Japanese forces was inferior compared to the more modern western army. This resulted to the humiliating defeat of the Choshu against the foreign allied forces in the Shimonoseki Campaign, and Takasugi was assigned not only to carry out reforms, but to negotiate peace.

The conflict made Takasugi realized that direct confrontation was never the solution when dealing with the western powers. And what followed was the radical evolution of both his beliefs, and the Kiheitai itself.

Transformation of the Kiheitai

Takasugi among his Kiheitai.

Takasugi among his Kiheitai.

Takasugi’s Sonno Joi beliefs slowly began to evolve into something else. His drive to strengthen Japan against foreigners made him realized that something must go for this vision to become a reality.

Overthrow the Tokugawa Bakufu.

Ironically, his views began to be more conciliatory to the west, and the transformation of his Kiheitai reflected this.

From a tradition army, Takasugi reformed his militia into a more modern fighting unit. He adopted modern weaponries, with his men using the latest firearms of that time. He also employed training in Western strategy and tactics. Eventually the Kiheitai was reorganized into a disciplined rifle unit.

Victories over the Bakufu

The weapons of the Boshin War.

The weapons of the Boshin War.

The remodeled Kiheitai then engaged the forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Second Choshu expedition. The shogunate army fought with their feudal forces, with only small modernized units against the more modern Choshu forces.

And the result was complete disaster for the shogunate.

The more organized Choshu army, with the Kiheitai militia armed with modern weapons prevailed over the Samurai forces. The defeat proved devastating for the shogunate’s prestige, and many suggested that it sealed the fate of the Tokugawa regime. The victory of the Choshu with the Kiheitai among their ranks prompted the shogunate to adopt a modernized army of their own. Eventually the Boshin war broke from 1868 to 1869, where the Kiheitai played an important role. The victories by the Kiheitai and other imperialist forces helped to end the power of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which led to the Meiji Restoration.

But Takasugi never lived to see his victories.

He died of tuberculosis on May 17, 1867, and his Kiheitai was taken over by Yamagata Aritomo. Though the Kiheitai was disbanded in 1868, its influences were apparent on creation of the Imperial Japanese Army that succeeded it.

References:

1. Huber, Thomas M. (1981). "The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan." Stanford: Stanford University Press.

2.Craig, Albret M. (2000). Chôshû in the Meiji Restoration. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

3. Shangai Experience (n.d.). Retrieved from https://samurairevolution.omeka.net/exhibits/show/zl/item1

4. Medzini, Meron (1971), French Policy in Japan during the Closing Years of the Tokugawa Regime. Harvard University Press.

5. Totman, Conrad. (1980). The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1862–1868. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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