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.
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
- 1869: William German, surprising Klan lynch victim
- 1979: Pin Peungyard, Gasem Singhara, and (twice) Ginggaew Lorsoungnern
- 1943: Jarvis Catoe
- 2010: Liu Lieyong and Chen Xiaohui, Hubei gangsters
- 1825: Joaquim do Amor Divino Rabelo, Frei Caneca
- 1759: The Tavora family