Samurai Assassins - 'Dark Murder' and the Meiji restoration, 1853-1868, Romulus Hillsborough

Samurai Assassins - 'Dark Murder' and the Meiji restoration, 1853-1868, Romulus Hillsborough

Samurai Assassins - 'Dark Murder' and the Meiji restoration, 1853-1868, Romulus Hillsborough

Samurai Assassins - 'Dark Murder' and the Meiji restoration, 1853-1868, Romulus Hillsborough

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
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 212
Publisher: McFarland & Company
Year: 2017

Diverse Japan

This first-ever account in English of the assassins who drove the revolution details one of the most volatile periods in Japanese history!

Hillsborough refers to this, his latest book, as ‘a study of the ideology and psychology behind the “samurai revolution”’ and that it certainly is. Thankfully for once, it is not a book that focuses on or sensationalises the assassinations of ‘foreign barbarians’ in a period in Japan when political assassinations flourished, not least of which were those of the foreigners residing in Japan. This a fact attested to by the British Legation’s interpreter Thomas McClatchie, himself a student of Kenjutsu under Sakikabara Kenkichi, in his 1879 letter to Morita Kan’ya’s invitation to visit the Kabuki theatre – ‘In Japan people like the so called rōnin with their katana swords have long been in armed factions. Foreigners seen by them are immediately killed’. Though there is a small section on this subject the remainder of the book concentrates on the complicated inter and intra feudal domain dynamics that developed during the Bakumatsu period, a period which led to the emergence of Japan onto the world stage and its subsequent modernisation commemorated in history by the Meiji Era.

Though Hillsborough has been accused of melodramatic writing there seems to be less of this in this rather more academic account than some of his previous books. In truth an assassination by sword can be nothing other than dramatically and sensationally gory yet Hillsborough treats each in a rather more reserved analytical and non-sensational way providing detailed information about the political situation that leads to each assassination he covers as well as the assassination itself and a description of the victim’s wounds in an almost forensically detective way thus leaving readers to make their own interpretations of his accounts. This makes this book possibly one of Hillsborough’s most academic books thus far. However there are still occasions when some comments smack of ‘tabloid’ sensationalism assassinations referred to in transliteration as ‘dark murder’ (ansatsu) or as when Takechi Hanpeita’s seppuku is referred to as ‘sensational’ though in the general run of things this can be ignored, or perhaps relished by the reader to each their own.

Hillsborough begins by laying down the context in which these assassinations take place, and as to be expected this can become bewilderingly labyrinthine and perhaps deserving of more than one read. What follows is a mostly erudite exposition of the pivotal political assassinations that took place during the chaos of this period of Japanese history, beginning of course with the most decisive for the political development of modern Japan, that of the Tairō (Regent) Ii Naosuke, Daimyō of Hikone, as a consequence of his stance on foreign affairs and his Ansei Purge.

Ii Naosuke (daguerreotype), and Hikone Castle © T. Skingle

The two remaining characters on which the book focuses are Takechi Hanpeita and Sakamoto Ryōma each of whom, like Naosuke, has their own section in the book. Some of Hillsborough’s critics may ask derisively where this publication would be without a section on Sakamoto Ryōma, even though Ryōma’s contribution and involvement are absolutely intrinsic to this period, and rightfully deserving of inclusion.

Takechi Hanpeita (left) and Sakamoto Ryōma (right)

Of course there are numerous other key players whose crucial roles are explained, Yamauchi Yōdō Daimyō of Tosa Domain, Matsudaira Shungaku Daimyō of Fukui Domain, and Shimazu Nariakira Daimyō of Satsuma Domain for instance. Alongside these are expositions of the various, usually conflicting, philosophical standpoints of the period’s ‘men of high purpose’ (shishi) such as ‘Union of Court and Camp (kōbu gattai)’ and ‘Revere the Emperor Expel the Barbarians (Sonnō jōi)’ around which the chaos of the period swirled, and which formed the basis of the revolution that took place, some say contrary to some of the Neo Confucian principles of bushido. As explained this revolution against the Shōgunate and Bakufu ended with the restoration of Imperial rule and ironically the adoption of the same approach to foreign affairs which had resulted in the abdication of the last of the Tokugawa Shōguns, Yoshinobu, and the eventual abolition of the samurai who had themselves fought to keep the ‘foreign barbarians’ away from Japanese shores.

Yamauchi Yōdō, Daimyō of Tosa Domain (left) and Matsudaira Shungaku, Daimyō of Fukui Domain (right)

The academic development in Hillsborough’s writing is, as with his previous book ‘Samurai Revolution’, enhanced by the inclusion of extensive references and bibliography which when compared to some of his earlier more adventuresome narratives makes this book seem positively scholarly. A tad niche, and at around £30 quite expensive for a paperback, it’s probably one for those with a particular interest in this period in Japanese history, and is a welcome addition to the English language resources on the period and Hillsborough’s growing compendium of books on the subject.

The grave of Yamauchi Yōdō in Shinagawa at the rear of Oi park © T Skingle

This is the first of Hillsborough’s books to be published by McFarland, his others having been published by Tuttle, and also Ridgeback. It has gone straight to paperback and is also available as an e-book at and

Published April 4th 2017 by McFarland & Company

1476668809 (ISBN13: 9781476668802)

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Samurai Assassins - -Dark Murder - and the Meiji Restoration - 1853-186

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Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 224
Bibliographic Info: 12 photos, 2 maps, glossary, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2017
pISBN: 978-1-4766-6880-2
eISBN: 978-1-4766-2800-4
Imprint: McFarland

Note on Dates, Names, Romanization and Pronunciation ix
Map of Japan xi
Map of Kyōto xii
Preface 1
Introduction 3

Part I: The Assassination of Ii Naosuké and the Beginning of the End of the Tokugawa Bakufu
1. The Background of the Assassination of Ii Naosuké 16
2. The Conspiracy to Assassinate Ii Naosuké 20
3. The Assassination of Ii Naosuké 31

Part II: The Rise and Fall of Takéchi Hanpeita and the Tosa Loyalist Party
4. The Gap 36
5. Takéchi Hanpeita and His Tosa Loyalist Party 42
6. The Assassination of Yoshida Tōyō 48
7. “Divine Punishment” 60
8. Lord Yōdō’s Comeback 78
9. The Assassination of Anégakōji Kintomo 87
10. Lord Yōdō’s Crackdown 91
11. In Prison (1) 97
12. The Failed Rebellions of Chōshū and Mito 105
13. In Prison (2) 111
14. The Stoicism of a Samurai: Takéchi Hanpeita’s Death 122

Part III: The Assassination of Sakamoto Ryōma
15. Ryōma’s Greatest Achievements 128
16. The Motives 135
17. Unsolved Mystery—To a Certain Extent 141
18. The Assassins 146
19. The Attack 154
20. The Aftermath 160
21. Civil War 163
22. “The Man Who Killed Sakamoto Ryōma” 169

Epilogue: The Second Existential Crisis of the Samurai Class 173
Glossary 177
Era Names and Dates 183
Chapter Notes 185
Bibliography 205
Index 207

Samurai Assassins - 'Dark Murder' and the Meiji restoration, 1853-1868, Romulus Hillsborough - History

Romulus Hillsborough. Samurai Assassins: "Dark Murder" and the Meiji Restoration, 1853-1868. Jefferson: McFarland, 2017. 224 pp. $19.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4766-2800-4 $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6880-2.

Reviewed by John E. Van Sant (University of Alabama-Birmingham)
Published on H-Japan (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Martha Chaiklin

The Japanese word for assassination is ansatsu, and in kanji ideograph characters ansatsu literally means “dark murder.” In his latest work on the late Tokugawa era, Romulus Hillsborough (pen name of Jeff Cohen) asserts that “dark murder” was “the catalyst for the [Meiji] revolution” (p. 3). Examining the assassination of Ii Naosuke, the “divine punishment” assassinations ordered by Tosa Loyalist Party leader Takechi Hanpeita, and the assassinations of Nakaoka Shintarō and Sakamoto Ryōma, Hillsborough emphasizes the key role assassination played in influencing the political actions and ideals of the conflict between supporters of imperial rule and supporters of the Tokugawa bakufu in the midst of economic, political, and military pressure from Western powers. While Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” and the Meiji Restoration includes the ideals and roles of Mito, Satsuma, and Choshu domain samurai, Hillsborough devotes more space to the role of Tosa domain and especially to Takechi and the Tosa Loyalist Party in the chaotic clash of ideas and swords leading to the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Nearly all scholars agree that Ii’s assassination at the Sakurada-mon gate of Edo castle in March 1860 was an extraordinary and influential event during the final decade of Tokugawa rule. Daimyō of Hikone and Tairō of the Tokugawa shogunate, Ii made plenty of enemies among the growing number of samurai supporting imperial rule, primarily for having the Tokugawa shogunate approve treaties with Western countries without the emperor’s sanction for selecting Tokugawa Iemochi as shogun instead of Tokugawa Yoshinobu and for arresting, exiling, and executing those who he believed were enemies of the Tokugawa shogunate. Hillsborough calls Ii a “reactionary” who steadfastly upheld the increasingly antiquated rule of the shogunate while also a “realist” who had the “political courage” to approve trade treaties with Western powers he knew were necessary for the country’s survival. Hillsborough’s claim that Ii’s assassination—carried out by low-ranking samurai from Mito domain—“was the most important event of the Meiji Restoration” may be exaggerated within the context of numerous significant and influential events of the bakumatsu (end of the Tokugawa bakufu) era (p. 34). Nevertheless, Ii’s assassination significantly divided samurai who supported a restoration of imperial rule from those who continued to support Tokugawa hegemony.

The middle sections of Samurai Assassins are devoted to Takechi and the ideals and political actions of the Tosa Loyalist Party, a secret group of samurai who used assassination to support imperial rule. To scholars already familiar with the final decades and years of the Tokugawa bakufu, these are the most original sections of this work. Hillsborough writes that Takechi was “a planner of assassinations and stoic adherent of Imperial Loyalism and bushido” who emerged from the lower ranks of Tosa samurai (p. 36). Influenced by the “National Learning” philosophy of Hirata Atsutane and its advocacy of emperor worship, Takechi arranged and probably participated in a number of assassinations of those viewed by his Tosa Loyalist Party as either supporters of the Union of Court and Camp (i.e., the Tokugawa bakufu and imperial court working together) or insufficiently pro-imperialist, starting with Yoshida Tōyō, the chief minister of Tosa domain. Moving to Kyoto, Takechi arranged and probably participated in a handful of tenchū or “divine punishment” assassinations in 1862-63. These sections of Samurai Assassins discuss the simultaneous assassinations involving Choshu and Satsuma domain loyalist samurai, including the assassination of Anegakōji Kintomo, a noble who controlled most policy of the imperial court. The daimyō of Tosa eventually cracked down and had Takechi and several members of the Tosa Loyalist Party arrested, jailed, and executed. Although he constantly denied his involvement in assassinations, evidence and confessions from others demonstrated otherwise and Takechi was ordered to commit seppuku after nearly two years in jail.

Sakamoto Ryōma’s assassination on December 10, 1867, has long fascinated scholars and history buffs alike. A member of the Tosa Loyalist Party, he departed Tosa domain in the early 1860s and worked to unite loyalists from the larger and more powerful domains of Satsuma and Choshu. He also formed a trading company that shipped, among other items, guns and other weapons to Satsuma and Choshu loyalists. Influenced by Katsu Kaishu, Yokai Shonan, and others, Ryōma advocated a peaceful transfer of power from the Tokugawa bakufu to the emperor, with a new government composed of two chambers of deputies of feudal lords, court nobles, and responsible people at large. Immediately after the assassination of Ryōma and his fellow Tosa loyalist Nakaoka, it was widely believed the Shinsengumi special police force carried out the double assassination. However, Hillsborough clarifies it was members of the Mimawarigumi special police force that carried out the assassination. Nevertheless, both were under the nominal control of Matsudaira Katamori, daimyō of Aizu appointed by the Tokugawa bakufu as police commander of Kyoto.

The assassinations that took place during the bakumatsu era were extraordinary and influential events. One could wonder, however, how influential these assassinations were during the chaotic final decade of Tokugawa rule. No shogun or emperor was assassinated. Assassinations removed some, such as Ryōma, who would have been leaders in a new government. But did assassinations really cause Japan to make the political transformation from the Tokugawa bakufu to the emperor-centered Meiji government? Imperialism and industrialization driven by Western powers was surely going to change Japan’s political structure in major ways and most of Japan’s leaders knew this by the mid-1860s no matter what side they supported.

Samurai Assassins is a well-researched work by a scholar who spent many years in Japan and has written previous (and overlapping) works on the Meiji Restoration era, such as Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai (2014) and Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps (2011). In addition to his own sleuthing through Japanese-language diaries, letters, and other primary documents, Hillsborough utilizes the works of Japanese scholars such as Matsuura Rei, Matsuoka Mamoru, and Hirao Michio, along with relevant English-language sources. Whether one agrees with Hillsborough’s view of the central role of assassinations in bringing down the Tokugawa bakufu or not, Samurai Assassins is an engaging and useful work for anyone interested in the chaos and complexity of the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Similar authors to follow

My books tell the story of the samurai revolution that spanned the third quarter of the 19th century (aka Meiji Restoration). The samurai revolution transformed Japan from a country of hundreds of feudal domains under the control of the Tokugawa Shogun, into a modern industrialized world power under the unifying rule of the Emperor. It is the historical era that Japanese writers generally refer to as the "Bakumatsu."

I grew up in Los Angeles but came of age in Tokyo where I lived for sixteen years after graduating from a California State University with a degree in English. Soon after arriving in Japan I immersed myself in the study of the Japanese language, and later, Japanese history and culture. Most of my reading focused on the Bakumatsu.

To get a closer feel for the Bakumatsu, I traveled to historical cities and towns around Japan where my samurai subjects lived and died and where the revolution unfolded. While writing my first book, "Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai," I worked as a writer for a popular weekly magazine in Tokyo and later as a contributing journalist to a number of other Japanese publications.

I published "Ryoma" in 1999, after moving back to California. It is the only biographical novel in English about Sakamoto Ryoma, the most charismatic leader of the samurai revolution. Since then I've written a series of books on the subject. "Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai" (Tuttle, 2014) is a comprehensive history of the Meiji Restoration from the perspective of one of its most important men, Katsu Kaishu. It is based largely on Kaishu's journals, memoirs, histories, and letters. My most recent book, "Samurai Assassins: 'Dark Murder' and the Meiji Restoration, 1853-1868" (McFarland, 2017), focuses on the importance of assassination in the samurai revolution to provide an in-depth overview of the era while focusing on significant men and events, and ideology, not expatiated in "Samurai Revolution." The result of thirty years of research and writing, these two books combine to present a comprehensive history of the Meiji Restoration.

So why do I write about a culture and history completely foreign to my own? Because it is spellbinding. And though it's a lot of hard work, hearing from my readers that they have become engrossed in my writing makes my work worthwhile.

Descripción del producto


"Hillsborough deserves high praise for successfully combining high drama…with meticulous scholarship." ―The Daily Yomiuri

"Hillsborough…has done a masterful job of bringing a chaotic period to life." ―Booklist

"With his easily readable and entertaining style, Hillsborough does a great job of elucidating the complex customs that ruled Edo Period life and politics." ―The Japan Times

"We found it to be not only an excellent biography of Katsu, but an exceedingly well-done, intricate, and clearly written overview of this vital period of Japanese history." ―Samurai Archives blog

"…Samurai Revolution serves as a compelling and timely warning for America today. Hillsborough astutely captures the serious consequences of self-imposed isolation, xenophobia and failure to adapt to the changing world." ―Major Christopher J. Heatherly, Armchair General magazine

"Hillsborough's prose is cinematic and intense." ―The Wargamer blog

"This fine book is one of only a small number of books in the English language that gives a true and authentic account of Japanese history." ―Tsutomu Ohshima, Chief Instructor, Shotokan Karate of America

Paul Martin

Paul Martin, a former curator of Japanese swords at the British Museum in London, is one of the foremost non-Japanese specialists on Japanese swords. A three-time all England Karate champion, Paul began studying the Japanese sword with the renowned Victor Harris, the keeper of the department of Japanese Antiquities at the British Museum. Victor was a direct student of Kanzan Sato, one of Japan&rsquos foremost sword experts, and was the first ever translator of Miyamoto Musashi&rsquos A Book of Five Rings. After his tutelage under Victor Harris, Paul Martin moved permanently to Japan to dedicate himself completely to the study of all aspects of the Japanese sword. He studied swords at Japan&rsquos many museums, shrines, and the workshops of eminent swordsmiths and polishers. He studied the art of oshigata, a method of drawing a sword to record and document it before the advent of photography, from a curator at Atsuta shrine in Nagoya and a sword specialist from the Tokyo National Museum. Paul is acknowledged by the Japanese government as an expert in his field, is a trustee of The Foundation of Japanese Sword Culture for the Purpose of Public Interest (NBSK), and is the first Samurai Spirit Tourism ambassador for the Tohoku region. Paul has provided translations for all of the major sword organizations in Japan. He is also a high-level rank holder in both the martial arts of Iaido (drawing and cutting with a sword), and Kendo (Japanese fencing).

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