What We Learned from Shiba Ryotaro: Sakamoto Ryoma and Hijikata Toshizo.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of Shinsengumi fandom is this: most of Shiba Ryotaro’s historical novels are untranslated.

So much of the Bakumatsu in Japanese popular culture is filtered through Shiba’s novels. They’re the inspiration for Rurouni Kenshin, Gintama, Peacemaker Kurogane, Hakuouki etc. etc. Shiba not only popularized men like Hijikata Toshizo and Sakamoto Ryoma, but set out the way that almost all fictional works afterwards have portrayed them.

The following is another excerpt from Michael Wert’s book, Meiji Restoration Losers Memory and Tokugawa Supporters in Modern Japan. (pp. 125-126 ) (Previously:  The Executions of Kondo Isami and Sagara Sozo)

While reading this excerpt, I’m sure you can think of how Shiba’s characterizations are present in the stories you know. From my own experience, I’m particularly thinking of Gintama and Hakuouki’s characterizations of Hijikata, Gintama’s characterization of Sakamoto, and some of the themes of Rurouni Kenshin.

Bolding within the text is mine, as the easiest way of pointing out some observations I found particularly relevant..

Ultimately, the most popular postwar Tokugawa-period figures, historical and fictional, were low-ranking samurai or commoners who became strong, average people with whom the audience could identify. Men such as Yoshida Shōin, Oshio Heiha­chirō, Sakamoto Ryōma, and the Shinsengumi members were celebrated in historical works of the 1950s and 1960s as young men who died in wor­thy causes leading up to the Restoration. Sakamoto Ryōma and members of the Shinsengumi—in particular one of its leaders, Hijikata Toshizō­ were resurrected in the works of Shiba Ryōtarō.

Shiba Ryōtarō: The Restoration Hero Maker

It is no exaggeration to say that starting in the 1960s, no novelist has had a greater impact on the public’s imagination of the Meiji Restoration than Shiba Ryōtarō. His historical writings have had tremendous influence on popular views of Restoration historical figures, in particular Sakamoto Ryōma and members of the Shinsengumi.


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Academic Paper on the Appeal of the Shinsengumi

Romanticizing the Shinsengumi in Contemporary Japan -
by Rosa Lee, University of Sydney 

[The author compares the influence of Moeyo Ken by Shiba Ryotaro to the appeal of the Shinsengumi in Gintama.] 

“Their contribution to history is rather limited that at most, less than a page is allocated for them in history dictionaries such as the Great Dictionary of Japanese History…. However the group’s popularity is the inverse of their historical relevance…. 

Universality of their appeal is also suggested from their warm reception in other countries such as Taiwan and South Korea….

These factors suggest fascination with Shinsengumi is neither a trendy fad nor a manifestation of Japanese people’s cultural penchant for tragic samurai.

Since historical accomplishments do not explain why Shinsengumi is romanticised and idolised, this article will discover why this particular group of young men continue to appeal to the Japanese public by looking at popular imaginations.”  

 * For those of you who don’t know Shiba Ryotaro, he is one of Japan’s most celebrated writers, both for his historical books as well as his travel writing. ’Moeyo Ken’ is seen as the definitive fictional story of Hijikata Toshizo and the Shinsengumi. Yes, I’m a fan, but I actually prefer his ‘Shinsengumi Keppuroku’. 

Shiba Ryotaro - Bakumatsu books in English

@blackrainbowblade said:

I really wish I could read these. Do you know what has been translated? (I read French and English).

Of his Bakumatsu stories, only two works have been translated into English. (Nothing more into French either, I looked too.)

First, there’s “The Last Shogun”, his novel-biography of Yoshinobu. It’s very good. It’s as historically accurate as he could make it. Everything in it is based off someone’s account of the events. Of course, there’s a bias towards a certain point of view, drawing from the memories of Yoshinobu’s circle of friends and retainers. (Ii Naosuke definitely deserves a fairer treatment than Shiba gives him, and the reports of Shogun Iesada’s mental retardation might be exaggerated.)

Shiba tries to be as empathetic to Yoshinobu as possible, but in my case I ended the book wanting to slap him. Hard. 

He paints a picture of a man who was dazzled by his own intellect and talents, a man who could out-talk anyone, outsmart anyone, manipulate any situation to his liking. Until he had alienated, doublecrossed, and abandoned everyone who trusted him. I don’t know if Yoshinobu was really like Shiba depicts him, but it’s an amazing psychological portrait.

It’s very easy to get  a cheap paperback copy of this book here in North America. I picked up mine for $13 in a used bookshop.

The other book “Drunk as a Lord” will cost you an arm and a leg (Second hand copies sell for $45 up.) Unless, of course, you’re lucky like me, and have access to a library that has a copy. If you are lucky enough to get hold of it, it’s really good: a collection of four novellas surrounding four Bakumatsu-era daimyo. History doesn’t have spoilers, so I’ll talk about their plots.

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Xiang Yu and Liu Bang (Novel, vol 1, 2/2)

Okay, this novel is so far…. not as good as Sekigahara, although probably much more educational (to me personally, as I know more about Sengoku era Japan than the founding of the Han Dynasty in China.). 

In the second half of the first volume, we learn of Xiang Liang’s personal eccentricities, and then he’s killed by Zhang Han (who is much more awesome and highly praised than he was in the manga, although it’s not that he wasn’t in the manga either). Again, the author emphasizes the importance of supply routes in battle, and the tendency of armies to rebel if not fed. The Xiangs junior and senior are also displeased about how their puppet emperor is acting as if he’s a real ruler; though by birth among the high nobles of the State of Chu, they actually prefer, in a way, the meritocracy of periods of disorder, or perhaps even the meritocratic ideals of the Qin empire, which blasted down existing noble power structures in favor of rule by officials sent by the capital.

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Xiang Yu and Liu Bang (Novel this time)

I was really excited to read Shiba Ryoutarou’s novel on Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, especially well, because I’m really curious about what his take on Han Xin is. Xiang Yu is probably psychologically the best developed character in the Yokoyama manga (and I suspect, in the original historical texts itself), because the extremes to which he is forced reveal him, so I’m less curious, though. I should note that the Yokoyama manga and the novel are not really based on each other IIRC. The novel is much more politically realistic, of course.

Am halfway through volume 1. Nothing much has really happened; although the First Emperor obligingly died within the first thirty pages, much time is spent detailing the early lives of Xiang Yu and Liu Bang.

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