We start with a description of Tokugawa Japan as it was when Commodore Perry's fleet forced the Shogun to agree to allow limited foreign access to Japan (originally just agreeing that American sailors could buy supplies in Japan and that shipwrecked sailors would be treated in a civilised way). This was an ordered family, dominated by a series of great families, led by the great lords of Japan (the Diamyo). Real power was held by the various branches of the Tokugawa family. Below the great lords was a mass of Samurai, the warriors of earlier ages, but effectively obsolete and superfluous during the two centuries of peace under the Tokugawa. Many of the Samurai were aware of this, and this played a part in the rise of the various movements that combined to overthrow the Shogunate - defending Japan against the barbarian was a valid cause for the previously pointless Samurai. A series of slogans ('Imperial Loyalty', 'Expel the Barbarian') provided a focus for those who opposed the Shogunate, and the assassination of their political opponents became one of their key tactics.
We then move on to the first of the assassinations - the murder of Ii Naosuke, a key member of the Tokugawa government. We move on to the rise and fall of Takechi Hanpeita and the Tosa Loyalist Party, one of the more influential of the rebel groups. This section differs in that Takechi Hanpeita was arrested, tried and executed, so we can also follow his imprisonment. Finally we look at the assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the leading opponents of the Shogunate, who want from supplying weapons to the rebels to almost managing to arrange a peaceful end of Tokugawa rule.
The assassins themselves generally come across very badly, as bigoted, self righteous and cowardly. For all of their talk of Samurai values, the skills of Bushido, brilliant swordsmanship or other boasting, they almost always made sure that they wouldn't have to put those skills to the test, instead relying on treachery and the stab in the back, generally attempting to attack their foes when they were outnumbered, unarmed and defenceless.
There is of course a massive irony at the heart of this story. This period of crisis was triggered by an increasing awareness of the threat from the outside world. India had been conquered by the British, China was proving unable to defend herself against Western attacks, and had to allow European merchants into the country. There was a real fear that Japan would be the next target. Unfortunately many of the rebels decided that a combination of wilful isolation and atrocities would be the best way to protect Japan against the foreigner, potentially combining a series of actions that might have provoked foreign intervention with an unwillingness to do anything to modernise Japan's defences. Their target was the Tokugawa Bakufu, the Shogunate that had originally imposed isolation on Japan. They generally rebelled in the name of Imperial Loyalism, even though the Emperor wanted nothing to do with them, and generally supported the Shogun. When the rebels did finally success and overthrow the Shogunate, the new Imperial government didn't live up to their expectations. Instead it was dominated by more clear sighted men, who realised that if Japan was to survive, then she needed Western help to modernise. The Meiji restoration also swept away the whole structure of Japanese feudalism, from the great Daimyo to the Samurai, so the rebel's success effectively destroyed the very society they had been fighting for. Of course not all of the assassinations were carried out by rebels against the Shogunate, but it was them who opened Pandora's box, ending some two centuries of peace within Japan.
This is a fascinating story. The fall of the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration feels like a clash between two different historical eras, and Hillsborough has an impressive feel for the period, producing a book that takes us inside the world of the key figures in this dark element of the period.
I - The Assassination of Ii Naosuke and the Beginning of the End of the Tokugawa Bakufu
1 - The Background of the Assassination of Ii Naosuke
2 - The Conspiracy to Assassinate Ii Naosuke
3 - The Assassinate of Ii Naosuke
II: The Rise and Fall of Takechi Hanpeita and the Tosa Loyalist Party
4 - The Gap
5 - Takechi Hanpeita and His Tosa Loyalist Party
6 - The Assassination of Yoshida Toyo
7 - 'Divine Punishment'
8 - Lord Yodo's Comeback
9 - The Assassination of Anegakoji Kintomo
10 - Lord Yodo's Crackdown
11 - In Prison (1)
12 - The Failed Rebellions of Choshu and Mito
13 - In Prison (2)
14 - The Stoicism of a Samurai: Takechi Hanpeita's Death
III: The Assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma
15 - Ryoma's Greatest Achievements
16 - The Motives
17 - Unsolved Mystery - To a Certain Extent
18 - The Assassins
19 - The Attack
20 - The Aftermath
21 - Civil War
22 - 'The Man Who Killed Sakamoto Ryoma'
Epilogue: The Second Existential Crisis of the Samurai Class
Author: Romulus Hillsborough
Publisher: McFarland & Company