We have to start from the theoretical, this week, and then work our way to the personal. Bear with me.
So let’s talk about caste (mibun seido 身分制度) in Edo period Japan. Generally speaking, caste in the Edo period is divided into 4 statuses: warrior, farmer, artisan, merchant, in descending order of standing. The warrior caste ruled, but in time the economic power shifted increasingly to the other castes. But they weren’t the only castes in Japan. This is where the untouchables come in.
There are different terms of them throughout history. By the 1860s, in the late Edo era, the two major terms are hinin and eta. They were deemed untouchable for a variety of reasons, not just limited to working with leather, which was especially considered a ritually polluting act.
The eta of eastern Japan– in the Kanto region, the Tokai, and up into the Tohoku region– were under the authority of a man named Danzaemon, who was the etagashira, or head eta. Danzaemon was a hereditary name passed down in this family line among its heads; by 1868, this was Danzaemon XIII, who was also known as Dan Naoki– I’ll call him “Danzaemon” for the purpose of consistency.
His official residence was in the Asakusa district of Edo– Asakusa district in modern day Taito, Tokyo– so he’s also known as Asakusa Danzaemon. Despite the low status of eta vis a vis the Japanese caste structure, the holder of the name Danzaemon lived well, held an estate, derived income from some of the economic activities of eta under his jurisdiction, and enjoyed considerable autonomy in matters pertaining to eta, including the right to try and punish eta in the areas under his jurisdiction. For his meritorious service in the Chōshū War, the Shogunate awarded him the status of commoner, though he retained authority over the eta. But his authority wasn’t just over eta– indeed, even some performers of sacred and auspicious arts in eastern Japan were under Danzaemon’s authority.
But it was more than this, that was under Danzaemon’s authority– and that brings us to the Boshin War.
At the outbreak of the Boshin War in early 1868, Danzaemon was in Edo when the remnants of the Tokugawa government and military leadership arrived from their headlong retreat from the Kyoto-Osaka area. The ex-shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, had allowed the nascent Kyoto government led by Satsuma and Chōshū domains to outmaneuver and provoke him into action, then did not press home his numerical advantage, which led to his rout from Kyoto. Thus, the necessary course of action before his administration in those early days of the war in February 1868 was to buy time for friendly forces to regroup and secure the Kanto plain and its approaches, around Edo.
Shinsengumi is one of the Shogunate’s more famous units. It, too, took part in the fighting outside Kyoto, and its survivors returned to Edo, with the first of them arriving aboard the Shogunate Navy warship Fujiyama-maru on 8 February 1868. Shinsengumi’s troopers sought medical treatment, rearmed, re-equipped with western-style uniforms, and awaited further orders; these came on 21 March, when the ex-Shogunate leadership ordered them to attack and hold Kai Province to the west, which was a key piece of land normally under direct Tokugawa control. Shinsengumi troop strength had dwindled somewhat– the unit was still reassembling itself after getting routed and split outside of Kyoto and prior to moving out on its mission, numbered around 70– so recruitment was also an important priority.
Shinsengumi is famous for having recruited regardless of caste since its formation in 1863. Mind you, at this point in the late Edo into early Meiji period, caste had less and less real meaning– quite often, a person could become a warrior simply by buying the status! So with that in mind, it should come as no surprise that they did not oppose the inclusion of about 100 people from under Danzaemon’s jurisdiction as reinforcements. And these weren’t simply untrained draftees– they were trained in western-style infantry drill.
Danzaemon may have been elevated to ordinary commoner, but his jurisdiction was still over eta. So, yes. The reinforced Shinsengumi went out to Kai numbering closer to 200, thanks to the chief eta.
Sadly, Shinsengumi commander Kondo Isami lost what initiative he’d possessed, and the unit was routed at the Battle of Kashio by the Kyoto government’s troops in that sector, a force of 1200 commanded by Itagaki Taisuke.
Danzaemon survived the war and went on to serve the imperial army, hiring an American tanner named Charles Henninger and building a factory for producing western-style military footwear. While the official designation of eta and hinin was abolished once the Meiji government took power, discrimination against their descendants continues to this day.
But I do think we need to pause and think about what it meant, that the person with jurisdiction over *all* the eta of eastern Japan had but to command it, and 100 people would answer.
Even people downtrodden by unequal political systems have power.
I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory!Now– questions?
- “Dan Naoki.” On Kotobank.jp https://kotobank.jp/word/%E5%BC%BE%E7%9B%B4%E6%A8%B9-1091072 Accessed 24 September 2020.
- De Vos, George A. , and Hiroshi Wagatsuma. Japan’s Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 29
- Ishii Takashi, Ishin no Nairan, (Tokyo: Shiseido, 1977), p. 285.
- Kikuchi Akira, “Toba-Fushimi no tatakai kara Nagareyama made,” pp. 96-109, in Shinsengumi Saitō Hajime no subete. (Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Ōraisha, 2003) pp. 101-102.
- ___, Shinsengumi 101 no Nazo. (Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Oraisha, 2000), pp. 201-203.
- Mason, RHP & JG Caiger, A History of Japan (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1997), p. 220-222.
- Nishiyama Matsunosuke, Edo Culture. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997) p. 116.
- Ōishi Manabu, Shinsengumi: Saigo no bushi no jitsuzō. (Tokyo: Chūōkōron-shinsha, 2001), p. 189.
- Onodera Eikō, Boshin nanboku sensō to Tohoku seiken (Sendai: Kita no mori, 2005), p. 190.
- Sasama Yoshihiko. Edo Machibugyō Jiten. (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobō, 1995), p. 132.
- Shiomi Sen’ichirō. Danzaemon Seido to Senmin Bunka. (Tokyo: Hihyōsha, 1992), p. 149.
- Tezuka Tatsumaro, Twenty-five Tales in Memory of Tokyo’s Foreigners. (Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 1989), p. 23.