The Shinsengumi (新選組 or 新撰組, meaning "the new squad") was a special police force organized by the Bakufu (military government) during Japan's Bakumatsu period (late shogun) in 1864. It was active until 1869. It was founded to protect the Shogunate representatives in Kyoto at a time when a controversial imperial edict to exclude foreign trade from Japan had been made and the Choshu clan had been forced from the imperial court. The men were drawn from the sword schools of Edo. Although the Shinsengumi are lauded as brave and determined heroes in popular culture, they have been described by historians as a "ruthless murdering death squad".
Japan's forced opening to the west in 1854 (the choice to open her shores for trade or enter military conflict), exacerbated internal political instability. One long-standing line of political opinion was sonnō jōi (meaning, "revere the emperor, expel the barbarians"). Loyalists (particularly the Choshu clan) in Kyoto began to rebel. In response, the Tokugawa shogunate formed the Rōshigumi (浪士組?, meaning "the rōnin squad") on October 19, 1863. The Roshigumi was a squad of 234 rōnin (Samurai without master) drawn from the sword schools of Edo.(p168)
The squad's nominal commander was the hatamoto Matsudaira Tadatoshi, and their leader was Kiyokawa Hachirō (a rōnin from Shonai Domain). The Roshigumi's mission was to protect Tokugawa Iemochi, the 14th shogun, during an important trip to Kyoto to meet with the Emperor Kōmei.(p65) There had not been such a meeting since the third shogun of the Tokugawa Bakufu, Tokugawa Iemitsu, had visited Kyoto in the 17th century. Tokugawa Iemochi, the head of the military government, the Bakufu, had been invited to discuss how Japan should enact the recent imperial edict calling for the expulsion of foreigners.(p186)
Although the Rōshigumi was funded by the Tokugawa government, the leader, Kiyokawa Hachirō and others had strong loyalties to the emperor and planned to gather other rōnin in Kyoto to police the city from insurgents. When Kiyokawa's scheme was revealed in Kyoto, they were forced to go back to Edo (Tokyo). But thirteen Rōshigumi members mainly from Mito clan remained and formed the Shinsengumi. The remaining members disbanded and then returned to Edo to form the Shinchōgumi (新徴組?) under the patronage of the Shōnai domain.
Initially, the Shinsengumi were called Miburō (壬生浪?), meaning "rōnin of Mibu". At the time, Mibu was a village south west of Kyoto, and was the place where the Shinsengumi were stationed. The Shinsengumi were led by Serizawa Kamo (b. 1830, Mino province), Kondō Isami (b. 1834, Musashi province – he came from a small dojo in Edo called Shieikan) and Niimi Nishiki and initially formed three factions under Serizawa (the Mito group), Kondō (the Shieikan group) and Tonouchi. There were disagreements and tensions in the group: Kondo and Tonouchi killed Serizawa and then Kondo killed Tonouchi on Yojou bridge. Serizawa had also ordered another member, Iesato Tsuguo, to commit seppuku for deserting. All this infighting left Kondo as leader.
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