Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Remembering Aizu - The Testament of Shiba Goro

I recently finished this book which describes the years following the Meiji Restoration through the eyes of a young Aizu samurai boy, Shiba Goro. Aizu was a domain that was extremely loyal to the Tokugawa Shogun. Aizu was located in present day Fukushima prefecture. You can see the rebuilt replica of the old castle of the Lord of Aizu in the city of Aizuwakamatsu.

I visited this castle in 2004 (see previous post). At the time I did not know the history of the castle or of Aizu. It was after reading about the fall of the Tokugawa Shogun's and the restoration of the Emperor that I realized the importance of the Aizu domain. The domain of Aizu was actually one of the principal players during the turmoil of the 1860s and the Meiji Restoration. Aizu was on the losing side.

Too bad this goofy looking guy got in the picture.

However, Aizu fared much worse than other domains that had sided with the Shogun. After the fall of the Shogun at the hands of the Imperial forces, most domains pledged there allegiance to the Emperor. A few Northern domains resisted longer but they to eventually surrendered. None of these domains were treated harshly however. Except that of Aizu.

Why was Aizu treated so harshly? During the turbulent 1860s, the heart of the conflict between the Loyalist for the Emperor and the supporters of the Shogun was centered in Kyoto. Violence was spiraling out of control. Assassinations were an almost daily occurrence. And most of the violence was directed at the supporters and officials of the Shogun.

Aizu, as a most loyal supporter of the Shogun, was asked by the Shogunate to become the "Protector of Kyoto". It was Aizu's job to bring order to the ancient capital. Aizu decided to fight fire with fire. One of the things they did was create a special police force under the direction of the Lord of Aizu. This force was called the Shinsengumi. The Shinsengumi and other forces under the command of the Lord of Aizu used whatever means were necessary to crush the rebellious ronin that were roaming the streets of Kyoto. Many hundreds were killed at the hands of these police squads during this time.

For this reason, the victorious Imperial forces, and in particular the domains of Choshu and Satsuma, had bitter hatred for Aizu and they punished them severely.

This is a relatively short book but it was enjoyable. Shiba was only 10 when the Imperial armies came to Aizu. He escaped to his aunts home where he later learned that as Aizu was being overrun, his mother and sisters committed seppuku. Shiba's samurai brothers and father were fighting at Aizu castle. He thought they all had been lost. But the castle defenders actually eventually surrendered.

All the Aizu samurai men including ten year-old Shiba and his father and brothers were sent off to prison camps. Later, they were given a new domain in the far North. But it was inhospitable and the Aizu samurai were not prepared to be farmers and endure the harsh winters. According to the book, many died from starvation. No other domain that fought against the Imperial forces had to be subjected to this treatment. Over the years, many of the former Aizu returned to their old domain which had become Fukushima prefecture.

I have read in various places that even into the 20th century, there were those in Aizuwakamatsu that still held bitter feelings toward the Choshu and Satsuma people for how they treated the Aizu.

Shiba later entered military training school. He then had a long career in the Japanese military serving in the Sino-Japanese war and the Russo-Japanese war. And later retiring from the military.

In August 1945 after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, Shiba Goro attempted suicide and died 4 months later from his wounds.


  1. Aizu is so close - I need to get down there. The 6th graders in Sendai public schools take a trip there every year.

  2. The castle is really cool. It is not the original of course. The original was destroyed in the Boshin War (Meiji Restoration). It has the original stone base however. I kick myself for not going to the top of the tower when offered. I don't know why I declined.

  3. Anonymous10:29 PM

    Good to see you had a chance to read "Remembering Aizu"...I was the one who recommened it...It's interesting to hear another version of the events...Another great book I read dealing w/ the same era was"A Diplomat in Japan" by Ernest Satow...He was a British diplomat in Japan during the Meiji Restoration...Very interesting to read a westerners view of all the events surrounding the restoration...Satows met most of the major players (Tokugawa Yoshinobu,Saigo Takamori,etc) and it's cool to read about those meetings and his opinion...One of my favorite, along w/ Shibas book.

  4. Thank you for your recommendations. I will put the Satow book on my list as well.

    I have been watching the NHK show Atsuhime. It would be good if there was a historical show about Aizu as well.

  5. Anonymous11:54 PM

    There have been a few TV movies about the Byakkotai and an old 50's movie...The last TV mini series was a few years ago that I haven't seen yet...The Boshin War is one of my favorite periods of history to study, but info in English is rare...My decendants were samurai from Aizu, so that accounts for interest in Shiba's book,etc...I still need to get over to Japan and check things out.

  6. I have read several books of the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. One of my favorite that I recommend was "The Last Shogun". Also, about the Loyalist, I recommend "Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai".

    That's interesting that your decedents are samurai from Aizu. You have not been to Japan? Do you live in the states?

  7. Anonymous7:47 PM

    Nope, haven't been to Japan...My brother even lived there for close to 20 years,but it was too expensive...I choose to travel to places where I could make my money last longer.
    I just re-read "The Last Shogun" and have "Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration" on my shelf waiting to be tackled..."Mitfords Japan" is another book by a diplomat in Japan w/ Satow, so it's his version of the same events of the Restoration and the same characters...Both are good, but I really enjoyed Satow's book.
    Yep, live in the States, family came over 3 generations ago.

  8. Japan is worth a visit. Save up. And when in Japan, there are a lot of good places to stay and for cheap. Most restaurants outside of Tokyo are really not expensive.

  9. Anonymous10:06 PM

    Thought you would be interested that Bowers Museum in Santa Ana,Ca will be having a Samurai exhibit in April...You can check their website for info.

  10. Anonymous10:26 PM

    Thought I'd add to your list of books...Have you read "Musui's Story: Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai" yet?...It's a about a samurai trying to make it in the last days of the Tokugawa era...He is anything but what you think of when you think of the samurai, he's quite a shady character...Funny book...On a side note he is the father of Katsu Kaishu, one of the major figures of the Meiji Restoration...One other book, along w/ Remembering Aizu, that is one of my favorite books.."A Daughter of the Samurai" by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto...As the title states, she is a daughter of a high ranking samurai from Nagaoka, one of the Northern Clans that lost during the Meiji Restoration...She explains what it was like growing up in that era and eventually marrying and moving to America and her observations of America...You will fall in love w/ Estu...Charming book!!

  11. Anon, thank you for the info on Bowers. I will try and make it down there.

  12. Anon, thank you for the book suggestions. I am very familiar with Katsu Kaishu. He is the person who was the mentor of Sakamoto Ryomo and one of the greatest persons in Japanese history. I have added the books to my reading list.