Samurai. Swordsmen of ancient Japan clad in kimono with their long hair usually tied up. With katana (Japanese sword) swinging from their left waist, they look majestic. I had always held fascination for these yesteryear valiant warriors who disappeared in modern Japan.
Apart from literature and museums, there is no samurai in sight either in spirit or in person. So recently I was looking for a manga about samurai and Rorouni Kenshin caught my eye.
The manga was riddled with so much historical facts about Meiji restoration and what brought about that it was difficult for me to keep up with it. It was more or less like an encyclopedia of different types of kenjutsu, an umbrella term for schools that teach Japanese swordsmanship in particular to those before Meiji restoration. It is only expected given that the entire manga is about swordsmen. (I do wonder how many are true though.)
Some of the old style include hiten mitsurugi ryu, which was formed by Seujiro Hiko to protect the weak from oppression. This was the style adopted by the hero of the story Himura Kenshin, as he often states that ‘the sword is to protect the weak’. Kenshin is a vagabond in post Meiji restoration era. It was the time Japan was embracing technology under the imperial rule of Emperor Meiji.
With the advent of technology and modernisation, sword wielding samurai became obsolete. So while some of the samurais became government officials and entered bureaucracy, most retired and few like Kenshin became a vagabond. They were prohibited from displaying their swords and police were deployed to maintain law and order. These police officers were vested with power to arrest anyone displaying swords and can confiscate them.
Yet, Kenshin wore a sword, a sakabatou or the reverse-edged sword. In sakabatou, the blade is on the blunt edge rather than on the curved edge. So that was one of the reasons why, he was still allowed to keep them on display. But there is another more important reason. He was hitokiri, the strongest warrior of bakumatsu.
Yes, I know. There must be way too many Japanese jargon and historical information I have mentioned. This is probably one of the few manga that was set in Meiji era and give a clear picture of Japan post the Meiji restoration with palpable tension, confusion and constant uprising the police had to suppress. Though not all the historic details were accurate, for me it was more like reading a memoir than a history book filled with facts that put most of us to sleep. Little romance and action did not hurt either.
So as I was saying, it was a decade after Meiji restoration, that brought back the practical imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji. The events consolidated the political system under the Emperor of Japan. It was preceded by bakumatsu, which refers to last years of Edo period, that gave rise to powerful swordsmen in Japan like Kenshin. Kenshin becomes a hitokiri belonging to the pro-imperial group Ishin Shishi and tries to wipe out the Tokugawa Shogunate faction that were against the unification of Japan under imperial.
So obviously he makes enemies along the way like shinsengumi, elite swordsmen the protectors of Tokugawa faction and oniwaban spies. Saitou Hajime, the leader of shinsengumi third unit, was in fact based on real shinsengumi of the same name. It was not just Hajime but other shinsengumi leaders make an appearance as well. There was also references to Ikedaya incident. Before Tokyo, Kyoto was the power centre of Japan. So Ishin Shishi faction had gathered in Ikedaya inn in Kyoto. They were planning to set Kyoto on fire and escape with Emperor Meiji. But shinsengumi raided the inn and arrested one of the samurai. It was one of the notable success of shinsengumi’s raid during bakumatsu.
If you ask me what was the need for Meiji restoration, there could be multiple reasons that could have brought about the restoration. But from the manga you could infer that the restoration had its ground in bringing an end to feudal society, where western influence was becoming more prominent and also spread equality and peace. Another could be connected to the ‘Arrival of black ship’, in 1854 that triggered the events the resulted in Meiji restoration. These ships refer to Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships that carried arms from the US between 16 and 19 century. So the revolution was in part to protect Japan by bringing the entire country under imperial rule and remove western influence. At the same time, it made them realise that they are far behind their western counterparts in terms of development. They wanted embrace modern technology and be on par with their western counterparts like the US and Europe. As we all know Japan, for a small country that is, is known now for its cutting edge technology in the world.
The sequence of events that led to Meiji restoration could be in part comparable to entry of British East India company in India for trade. They took advantage of the country’s differences and abundant wealth. No one realised the British intent to rule until it was too late. They colonised the country, took our possession and ruled us for over a century before India got independence on August 15, 1947. Even now the imprints of British colonisation is apparent in education and political system.
Even if the comparison to Meiji restoration might not be just, I find the spirit of Japanese samurai to protect their country and make it invincible by retaining its eastern roots, admirable.