Among the most feared warriors in Japanese history were those of the Shinsengumi secret police, professional swordsmen who served as a special forces unit for the Tokugawa shogun from 1863 to 1869. This close-knit troop of men terrorized political dissidents on the streets of Kyoto with precision and ruthlessness, and eventually became known as the “Wolves of Mibu.”

The Shinsengumi, whose name literally means the “Newly Selected Corps,” reached the peak of their notoriety during the final years of Japan’s feudal era, the Bakumatsu period.

During that time, a fierce power struggle developed between the rulers of the Tokugawa shogunate—a coalition of warlords favoring trade with Western countries—and imperial Japanese forces desiring centralized rule under the Meiji emperor.

“When Commodore [Matthew] Perry came with his big guns (1853-4) he found a government already tottering to its fall…The Shogun yielded to the demands of Perry and of the representatives of the other foreign powers—England, France, Russia—who followed in Perry’s train, and consented to open Yokohama, Hakodate and certain other ports to foreign trade and residence,” according to an 1895 history by Josephus Nelson Larned.

Other forces in Japan resented the foreign presence and wished to abolish the feudal shogun system for the sake of reformation. Life for underprivileged castes was hard to bear under the dictatorial Tokugawa regime; for example, farmers faced laws regulating the exact sizes of their houses and materials and colors they were allowed wear as clothing. Popular support during the 1860s swung to Emperor Meiji, also known as Mutsuhito. Violence reached a boiling point in 1868, when a civil conflict known as the Boshin War erupted.

“Adventurous samurai and ronin [masterless samurai or professional martial artists] of different clans swarmed in the western capital (of Kyoto), devising various plots and counterplots to pull down the Tokugawa government,” according to a Jan. 11, 1890, article in the Japan Daily Mail. The article described the Shinsengumi secret police as “a strong body of fierce and unscrupulous ronin [used] to suppress the agitation.”

The term “ronin” correctly describes the majority of Shinsengumi members. Social status was irrelevant to the squad—membership was largely determined by fighting skills. Consequently, most of the Shinsengumi were veteran warriors or men of low birth who had reached a high-level mastery of swordsmanship or other martial arts.

The Shinsengumi at the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma in 1880 / Smithsonian Institution
The Shinsengumi at the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma in 1880 / Smithsonian Institution

Originally garrisoned in Mibu, the troop performed a variety of duties as an elite special forces unit for the shogun. The Shinsengumi were used as investigators and assassins, and were deployed as shock troops in battle. The men were distinguished by their colorful uniforms—especially their bright blue haori jackets with jagged patterns on the sleeves. The Shinsengumi were also equipped with light helmets and chain mail. At the height of its power the force consisted of several hundred members.

After visiting Japan in 1853, Commodore Perry noted there were “spies everywhere, even on the Emperor; a universal secret police, endurable because it presses equally on all.”

Due to its shadowy activities, the Shinsengumi earned a controversial reputation. According to Stephen Turnbull’s book “Katana: The Samurai Sword,” the group engaged in torture. Shinsengumi troopers are widely believed to have been responsible for perpetrating the Ikedaya Incident, a notorious massacre of political dissenters at a Kyoto inn in July 1864.

One man who narrowly escaped the massacre was anti-shogun activist Kido Takayoshi. He was staying in a nearby building when he heard “some unusual sounds of confusion” outside on the street. According to his eyewitness account published in the Japan Daily Mail on Jan. 11, 1890, Kido “stealthily opened one of the shoji facing the street, and peeping out, saw the points of several spears and the heard of a number of warriors before the house…on joining the crowds in the street they ascertained that their friends assembled at the Ikedaya had been surprised by a body of spearmen and mercilessly butchered without exception…they found the mutilated bodies of their friends lying here and there, the mats being crimson with blood.”

One of the best known Shinsengumi commanders was Hijikata Toshizo of Hino. Born a peasant, Hijikata mastered the swordsmanship style of Tennen Rishin Ryu and attained a relatively high rank as vice commander of the Shinsengumi in the shogun’s service—a remarkable feat given his low social status.

An enigmatic personality, Hijikata became famous for his handsome appearance and coldblooded efficiency. Respected for his battle achievements during his lifetime, Hijikata has become idolized by women centuries after his death—today, a museum run by his family in his hometown attracts a steady 16,000 visitors per year, of whom 60 to 70 percent are female. Most of Hijikata’s female fans are in their teens, 20s and 30s. The museum credits his popularity to video games, movies and pop culture.

Hijikata established strict codes for the Shinsengumi and is alleged to have upheld them mercilessly by forcing rule-breakers to commit ritual suicide. However, according to his family, he “had a sense of humanity and was kind to the people around him.”

The force of Hijikata’s personality became evident following the outbreak of the Boshin War, when the Shinsengumi were deployed as the vanguard in various battles. During this time, Hijikata became popular with troops he commanded.

“During the war…when he was in the position of leader, he understood that people had followed him because of his charisma and so he revealed his human side,” according to his relative, Hijikata Megumi. “The soldiers adored Toshizo, like a baby adores its mother.”

The Boshin War represented a clash of cultures, technology and ideas. Battles were fought with medieval samurai weapons and Western-made guns and artillery. The end result was the defeat of the shogun’s regime and the dramatic rise to power of the Japanese emperor—a centralized imperial system that lasted into the 1940s. The Shinsengumi police force—warriors for a losing side—were exterminated.

Hijikata himself resolved to die for his lost cause. After surviving several fierce battles and being wounded, he was killed by gunfire in May 1869 during the Battle of Hakodate—a bloody naval engagement which featured Gatling guns and steam warships. Before his death, Hijikata wrote a haunting poem: “Though my body may decay on the Island of Ezo, my spirit guards my lords in the East.”

True to his prediction, the remains of the famed Shinsengumi commander were never recovered. His sword, however, was returned to his family. The hallowed sword—which is named Izumi no Kami Kanesada after its maker—is displayed and venerated during an annual ceremony in Hino.