1951: Albert Guay 2005: Nguyen Van Van

1871: Kawakami Gensai

January 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the shadowy but legendary swordsman Kawakami Gensai was beheaded on a pretext — his use to the Meiji government at an end.

The Hitokiri — “mankiller” — Gensai came to manhood during the confusing death throes of the shogunate leading into the Meiji Restoration.

That Japan’s feudal stagnation would give way to the Meiji era’s centralization and modernization may well be accounted an inevitability of history. The particular form of its birth superimposed upon the epochal conflict a bitter internal division over openness to foreigners vis-a-vis the centuries-old isolation.

The Tokugawa Shogunate had been forced to accept trading pacts dictated by better-armed western nations, and the resulting cultural and economic shockwaves carried many to the camp of a long-slumbering imperial house ready to assert its authority. Power in Japan was a prize worth killing for.

Gensai did so. Physically small and even effeminate, he was justly among the most feared warriors of his day. He became an elite imperial assassin renowned for the speed of his blade; he was famous for murdering pro-western shogunate politician Sakuma Shozan in broad daylight in 1864 — only one of scores of Tokugawa retainers assassinated during the period, although the only one that can be definitively attributed to Gensai.

It was not for any of this that Gensai was put to death, for his side won the war.

But the legendary killer was really in it for the immigration policy — “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians” — and the Meiji government sensibly dropped the second plank of that platform as soon as it was in the saddle. That volte-face didn’t push Gensai into anything so drastic as revolt, but with modern police forces elbowing aside old-school samurai and outward-facing engagement still the political order of the day, the true believer had become a liability.

The character Himura Kenshin from the Japanese manga and anime series Samurai X is loosely based on Gensai. He’s the one helpfully marked with an “X” on his cheek:

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers

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7 thoughts on “1871: Kawakami Gensai”

  1. Kenshin's Soon-To-Be Girlfriend says:

    This is really informative thanks. I’ve rrecently started reading the series and I was wondering who Gensai was.

  2. Kurt says:

    Thank you!-I love the way you write,plus,there’s info here that Wiki lacks…which is awesome.

    I don’t know how it’ll sound but,i wish i was living in that era.It was shit,correct.But,at least people had some backbone and some basic repect.I think.

  3. Otaku says:

    Thx for the information :D but one question, does someone know if somewhere in japan his grave or tomb still excists? o.O and so yes where? xD i really want to visit it and if it isn’t there anymore, i want to visit his execution place

  4. Beth says:

    Samurai x is not the name of the anime or manga. Samurai x was a name used by a bad english dub. The real title is Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story

  5. LordDukane says:

    @Otaku I’m with you on wanting to visit his grave. Kind of a personal dream to walk the distance between Kyoto and Tokyo ending at his grave and paying my respects. That aside… I don’t personally know where his grave was, but the location of his execution should be significantly easier to find out. Mainly, the major buildings in Tokyo.

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