- Japanese: 浪士組 (Roushigumi)
In 1863, the Bakufu recruited ronin to guard Shogun Iemochi on the occasion of a visit to Kyoto to meet with the Emperor Kômei. This visit was a precedent breaking event—not since the third Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, had the reigning shogun gone to Kyoto to confer with a Son of Heaven. Iemitsu's visit in 1626 was designed to impress the Imperial court with the power and wealth of the Tokugawa, forcing the Emperor Go-Mizunoo to come to him at Nijô castle-a far cry from Iemochi's visit, which was seen as the Shogun bowing to the Emperor. But these were difficult times for Japan, a country deep in a crisis in regards to how to respond to the perceived threat that the arrival of the Americans and the Europeans had sparked. Many Japanese, including Emperor Kômei, were vehement xenophobes and wanted the “staining” foreign presence cleansed from Japan. Iemochi, as head of the military government, was being summoned to confer on how to enact the recent imperial edict calling for the expulsion of foreigners to be backed up by the use of force.
Many samurai were outraged that the Bakufu had opened Japanese ports to the foreigners and under the slogan of sonnô jôi (Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians) harbored open and violent contempt for the Shogunate. Numerous assassinations, in the name of heaven’s revenge, were carried out, culminating in the March 3, 1860 killing of Bakufu Regent Ii Naosuke, the architect of the kaikoku (open country) policy that led to the opening of Japan to the hated American and European powers. Kômei, however, was appalled at the anti-Bakufu violence instigated by the pro-imperial extremists. He believed that it was the Bakufu alone that could save Japan from the foreign peril.
As Japan teetered towards a political crisis of unprecedented magnitude, the imperial capital of Kyoto became a magnet for the groups of pro-imperial extremist whose ranks grew with the addition of ronin who left the service of the their han without permission. These ronin were predominantly from the domains of Chôshû, Satsuma and Tosa. As the ranks of anti-foreigner, anti-Bakufu ronin swelled in Kyoto, so did the level of assassinations and unruliness. If the Shogun Iemochi was indeed going to proceed with his plans to meet Emperor Kômei in Kyoto, a safer environment would have to be guaranteed. To this end, the Bakufu appointed Lord Matsudaira Katamori of Aizu han to the newly created post of Protector of Kyoto. As the Matsudaira clan was a sub-branch of the house of Tokugawa, Matsudaira Katamori was as emphatically pro-Bakufu as his radical opponents were against it.
One of Katamori’s first priorities in his new post was to stabilize Kyoto and safeguard Iemochi during his visit. In 1862, rather than send squads of Tokugawa troops from Edo to Kyoto, the Bakufu decided to recruit ronin for the job of suppressing the anti-Bakufu/pro-imperial ronin subverting the rule of law in Kyoto. In other words, ronin would be used to hunt down other ronin. To this end, the Roshigumi was formed.
The Short Life of the Roshigumi Corps
In a strange twist of fate befit of the times, an anti-Tokugawa, imperial loyalist named Kiyokawa Hachiro was chosen to recruit ronin for the newly created Roshigumi. Kiyokawa proceeded to recruit members from the large pool of available sonno joi proponents. Although aware that the ranks of the Roshigumi was filling up with dangerous anti-Tokugawa subversives, some naive officials within the Bakufu hoped that bringing these ronin into the fold would help cement a union between Court and Camp (union of the Imperial Court with the Bakufu) to help maintain the harmony of the national polity during this time of crisis. Thus with a force of 250 men behind him, on February 8, 1863, Kiyokawa led the Roshigumi out of Edo as the vanguard of Shogun Iemochi’s procession to Kyoto.
- Hillsborough, Romulus. Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps, Tuttle Publishing, 2005