Confederates and the Shinsengumi?

I keep my confederates in the attic, and my shinsengumi in the cellar.

Ok, so that was a really lame opening line. Bite me.

Now, in my previous post I commented on the charges of revisionism being leveled against Senkou no Night Raid; after all, in many cases what was shown in the first episode was a mindset in the characters that did exist at the time as a result of virulent racism. So, ironically, the revisionism, if it was there, hadn’t hit yet.

However, there is at least one example of revisionism rolling about this season in the form of Samurai Reverse-Harem Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan. And it isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of revisionism in anime; far from it. In fact, creating tales of the Shinsengumi of the old Tokugawa regime is pretty much an old hat as far as the Japanese are concerned – little wonder that manga and anime began to tackle it given the plethora of literature and movies that already had. Hakuouki is just the latest entry in this very full field.

The non-Japanese viewer could be forgiven for mistakenly believing that the Shinsegumi were the inheritors of Japan during the Meiji Restoration, as they are painted in such glowing light by the creators of such works as Hakuouki, Kaze Hikaru, and Peacemaker Kurogane, amongst others. In many of these works, too, the bad guys are very clear – those blasted Choshu! Always around killing off innocent people, and making their kids then go seek revenge by joining the Shinsengumi! They’re just awful!

What is so amusing about this narrative is the fact that the Choshu supported the restoration of the emperor and the dissolution of the shogunate… aaaaand they were successful. In fact, members of the Choshu domain retained a high degree of power up until the end of World War II, when the emperor became, essentially, a figurehead as opposed to an actual political actor. The Choshu, given their support of the Meiji, also were, then, part of the effort which brought about the modernization of Japan. One could argue that without the Choshu, Japan would’ve found itself subject to the colonizing powers of Europe, as the bakufu had been seriously lagging in the arena of progress (which is also part of why they ended up losing the Boshin War; it particularly hurt them at Toba-Fushimi).

So the guys that get demonized in iterations of Japanese pop-culture are also the guys that are partially responsible for the foundation of modern Japan. Interesting.

At the same time, though, this really isn’t terribly shocking given the Japanese romantic notions of the samurai and their honor. The Shinsengumi were defenders of this old system, as they were defenders of the shogunate. The imperialist supporters (others included the Tosa and Satsuma domains) wanted to get rid of the feudal structure, which included the samurai. While the abolishment of the feudal system was of benefit to the underclasses of Japanese society, of which most Japanese nowadays are descendants, the whole notion of the samurai is extremely idealized in current Japanese society, admittedly for a litany of reasons.

What I find perhaps most intriguing about the entire thing, though, is my realization that this is actually fairly reminiscent of the idealization of the antebellum South in the U.S. The Confederate soldier is lionized, as is the leadership, for being willing to go toe-to-toe with their own countrymen to defend their way of life and traditions. Now, generally when one commits sedition and treason, they are not then held up as an example of nobility by members of the triumphant nation-state. No – they’re called out for being traitors and no one likes them; just ask Benedict Arnold. But in both the cases of the Confederacy and the Shinsengumi, we see this happening.

Admittedly, the Shinsengumi do differ in that the shogunate at the time was the legitimate government of Japan, whereas the Confederacy was the rebellious power in the American Civil War. However, the outcome is the same – they both were the losers, and they both had stood in the way of the establishment (or re-establishment) of their modern nation-states.  And yet now both are frequently depicted as latter-day knights in shining armor.

I have to admit, though, that I find the tendency to render the Choshu as villains especially bizarre given the follow-up history in Japan and its rise as a world power following the Meiji Restoration. It just strikes me as so strange, perhaps because in the “mainstream” defenses of the Confederacy and its troops there isn’t an accompanying demonization of Union troops of the time. I will note that more radical members of the Choshu did plot to burn down Kyoto, which could understandably piss anyone off… although Americans generally agree that the Union burned Atlanta to the ground (not true! they burnt some, but citizens of Atlanta sort of took opportunity of the moment to burn a lot of stuff down themselves so that they could then re-build a modernized city to replace the previous version) and didn’t just plot to… Ah well. Its just that delicious spice of romanticism, hmm?

EDIT: Suggested readings – The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1862-1868 (Conrad Totman) for background on the Boshin War and the Shinsengumi, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Tony Horwitz) for a really interesting look at both the Civil War itself and the lingering effects it still has in the American South.

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21 Responses to Confederates and the Shinsengumi?

  1. Aorii says:

    The Union-Confederacy case seem to be more of a policy of acceptance: you’re still part of the nation, thus those troops that died are still our own, denying that honor would leave bitterness neither side wants. Shinsengumi’s case however, spawns off romanticization rather than acceptance, henceforth the bad portrayal of the other side.

    The only example that popped off top of my head was Napoleon’s case. Overambitious dictator, lost, but so heavily romanticized that stories often antagonize the Duke of Wellington (although not quite villainize) in the ill-fated Waterloo campaign.

    Nevertheless, that’s an interesting connect to make ;D

    • adaywithoutme says:

      And I would argue that in the case of the Union and Confederacy, the failure to truly enforce Reconstruction is why there are still problems today of relation to the Civil War.

      Napoleon is an interesting case because it wasn’t an internal struggle that resulted in his losing power/clashing with others; it was much larger than that and had everything to do with power on the continent as a whole. So it might be an even stranger case.

  2. Cathy says:

    “It just strikes me as so strange, perhaps because in the “mainstream” defenses of the Confederacy and its troops there isn’t an accompanying demonization of Union troops of the time.”

    I wonder if maybe it’s because of the whole issue of slavery re: the Civil War? I think it is just a harder sell to portray the Union as evil when slavery is (rightfully) the first issue that comes up when you talk about the Civil War in the United States, and thus when it comes down to freedom of slaves (Union) vs slave-owners (Confederates), you can’t really demonize the Union side.

    Other possible reasons are, if you look at the way “the lost cause of the Confederacy” is portrayed, that those who paint the Confederates as brave warriors often tend to treat the Union not as villains but as this faceless massive borg that was bent on destruction and force. And modern writers, as Wikipedia (ha!) point out, do paint the Union out to be evil:

    The Kennedys describe “the terrorist methods” and “heinous crimes” committed by the Union during the war and then in a chapter titled “The Yankee Campaign of Cultural Genocide” state that they will show “from the United States government’s own official records that the primary motivating factor was a desire of those in power to punish and to exterminate the Southern nation and in many cases to procure the extermination of the Southern people.” … Historian David Goldfield characterizes books “such as ‘The South Was Right'” as:

    …explaining that “the War of Northern Aggression was not fought to preserve any union of historic creation, formation, and understanding, but to achieve a new union by conquest and plunder.” As for the abolitionists, they were a collection of socialists, atheists, and “reprehensible agitators.”

    So! Even closer to the mystic of the Shinsengumi. 😀

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I think the key, though, is “mainstream” – for example, when you consider the establishment of ‘Confederate History Month’ in several Southern states, the emphasis is on the Confederate soldier as opposed to taking note of the sins of the Union.

      • jpmeyer says:

        From what I’ve read, the emphasis on the soldiers in CHM is to try to divorce things from slavery, by focusing on people in the Confederacy who did not (and never did) own slaves, which can then let people feel pride in their ancestors (maybe like how too many Japanese swear that their ancestors were samurai, therefore Shinsengumi is awesome). Although, from what I’ve also seen, then everyone else goes “Aw geez, not this shit again” and makes the obvious reminder that the war was still entirely about slavery, by fighting to defend your culture/way of life you’re fighting to defend one that revolves in every way around slavery, yadda yadda, which then often triggers those YEAH WELL YOU GUYS WERE WORSE remarks.

      • Cathy says:

        Oh, I agree that most of the “lost cause of the Confederacy” stuff is less mainstream and also with your later comment when you talk about the romantic notion of the Antebellum being a factor. (In my personal experience with talking to southerners who for one reason or another champion the Confederacy, they do often mention it in the same breath as those “damn Yankees” and how the South never had the chance because the North came down like an iron fist, blah blah blah outmanned, blah blah blah oppression, blah blah blah stripping away the culture of the South. But yes, they don’t necessarily paint the North to be evil, per se.)

        But yeah, my main point was what JP said, that I think slavery is the key reason why rewriting the Civil War to be more sympathetic to the Confederates usually doesn’t go hand-in-hand with vilifying the Union.

  3. I present an interesting contrast: Tom Cruise’s Dances with SamuraiThe Last Samurai.

    If you’ve seen this, there’s a lot of revisionist as well as colonial subtext going on. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this movie, but I’m not going to argue that it may be a horrible mess. What do you think?

    • glothelegend says:

      Wow, it wasn’t until you said Dances With Samurai that I realized those two movies are almost exactly the same. I have no idea why it took me so long to realize this….I feel stupid.

      Personally, they can take that general plot and re-use it in over 9000 different ways and I’ll love it every time.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I never actually have seen that movie, although I have read criticisms of it. I suppose simply because its Tom Cruise as a “samurai” my primary reaction to it, revisionism and all, is “lulz”. I just find it very difficult to take the man seriously; I kept laughing during Valkyrie and it made all my friends mad since that’s supposed to be serious business.

  4. Pingback: Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan Episode 3 | Anime Crazy

  5. jpmeyer says:

    You know, I’m not really sure how often we see specific portrayals of soldiers during the Civil War compared with either general perspectives of the Union/Confederacy or the leaders.

    With the leaders, there is a pretty common negative portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant. He’s commonly portrayed as an incompetent, drunken butcher. He also pretty frequently gets negative portrayals of him as president due to the fact that his cabinet was fabulously corrupt, although he himself was not.

    (And this annoys me, because Grant was a pretty good general when it came to things like trapping armies and forcing pitched battles that the Union could win but the Confederacy couldn’t. And the portrayals of him as a bad president annoys me because he was one of the very few presidents that really gave a fuck about the treatment of blacks in the South.)

    What’s kind of bizarre to me is that I can’t figure out why exactly there’s a reason to show the Choshu as the bad guys (outside of lolololol every Japanese swearing that their ancestors were samurai), compared to how it’s pretty obvious why the former Confederacy would want to portray the Union as the bad guys.

    Also, the tendency to show people like Lee and Jackson as being anti-slavery but serving the South anyway.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Ok, so I returned to this after class to answer this comment and realized you’d posted about eight-thousand more…

      I think its fairly easy to say that General Sherman is probably the most frequently castigated of any Civil War-era leaders – and all because he allegedly burned Atlanta, which, as I mentioned in my post, they didn’t really burn all that much of.

      I suppose for the Choushu it is simply a matter of needing a villain – I mean, who else are the Shinsegumi gonna fight against if they don’t have the Choushu as the bad guys? It seems like they might be tossing some demon-zombie-vampire-things in Hakuouki, but generally these historical dramas don’t dispense with the real historic events entirely – and even with demon creatures, Hakuouki isn’t ignoring historical events anyway. In fact, the monsters haven’t even shown up since the first episode, although they are present in the subtitle (something about cherryblossom demons? I forget and am too lazy to inspect further).

      Grant was in an impossible situation as president, really – he didn’t get into office in an exactly legitimate manner, for one, which didn’t help at all. And Reconstruction was massively unpopular, even amongst Northerners. So, as usual, the oppressed get screwed further, and no one cares! Well, except for Grant a fistful of others.

  6. mh says:

    I’ve always thought the Choshu and Satsuma were so often villified because of the role those clans played in the government of post-restoration Japan…the rise of nationalism and transformation into a fascist military state (leading ultimately to defeat in WWII) seemed to occur under their watch.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I think that one could perhaps read that from it, but I would argue that Japan’s increasing overall tilt toward revisionism regarding World War II mitigates against that. There is also the fact that, fascistic leaning or no, the rise of Japan to the world-stage represents an advance to the Japanese people, even if it did culminate in the defeat during the war.

      I’m also just frankly more inclined to believe that it just simply has more to do with the idealization of bushido and samurai in general. I don’t mean this necessarily, either, as being directly tied to a vilification of the Choushu… which is to say I don’t think it went “Choushu are bad” –> “Shinsengumi must be good”, rather, I think that the samurai past got idealized first which meant that the Choushu had to necessarily be consigned to the role of the bad guys.

      It is possible that there is some truth in what you say… but I’m a bit too cynical to believe that is the primary reason.

      • jpmeyer says:

        That explanation also doesn’t really work because you had Taisho Democracy in between the nationalist Meiji and militarist Showa periods.

      • adaywithoutme says:

        Haha; even better refutation than mine. Kind of like how Germany had the Weimar Republic between WWI and Hitler.

  7. jpmeyer says:

    Now that I think about it, isn’t it kind of common to lionize the other side’s soldiers? Even the Nazis frequently get this portrayal.

    (Although interestingly, rarely does Japan!)

    • jpmeyer says:

      Damn, double comment but oh well. I wonder if it’s in order to elevate one’s own self? Like, “Damn, those guys were incredibly tough” but in the end, we were the ones that managed to beat them, making us well, incredibly tough-er. Perhaps also the demonizing can work in a similar way, like “we were picking on some small fries”, which is not becoming of a group as totally awesome as us. We should be picking on someone our own size, which by the way is like, XBOX HUEG.

      Which might explain the whole Japan in WW2 thing, like with the whole “sleeping giant” mindset where it’s kind of like a foregone conclusion that they’ll lose. (And you know, racism.)

      • adaywithoutme says:

        I’m not sure I quite agree with you on Nazi soldiers – I’d say what is done instead is the whole idea of people swept up unwillingly into a war machine they weren’t really interested in being a part of, but they had noble reasons because they didn’t want their mother getting tortured/their children starving to death/their dog eaten.

        I think there is a tendency to boost the abilities of one’s defeated opponents, although I really don’t think that’s what is at work here given how thoroughly dehumanized the Choushu frequently are in these kinds of works. They’re always hacking people apart at the drop of a hat, especially people’s family members. And then they light everything on fire. (Fun fact: I just discovered that the Choushu actually probably did not plan to burn down Kyoto, as only one captured person at Ikedaya confessed under torture to such a thing; there is no other corroborating evidence for such a plot.)

        I think the same applies to Confederate soldiers – the entire thing is about the romanticized Antebellum South, and rewrites pretty heavily in various ways a. who fought, and b. why. There seems to be a desire to remove the fact that most Confederate soldiers were poor as dirt whereas the slave-holders (excuse me – “landowners”) just farted around their plantations and bitched about not being able to get fine tea and lace through the blockade (doubly ironic since the stuff getting through the blockade for the most part harmed the war effort, as they were luxury goods and not military supplies!).

        Well, and, quite frankly in the case of the Confederacy, the people talking it up after the fact are themselves Southerners, not Northerners. So the parallel isn’t exactly perfect between Shinsengumi and Confederates to begin with, honestly – its just striking how loudly both elements exist in both societies.

  8. Crusader says:

    In the case of the Confederacy there are plenty of military history fanboys that gush at the military prowess of the South because the painful fact was that Lee was better than most of his opponents, Union victory may have been a forgone conclusion in hindsight but during the early days Lincoln did not have Grant, Sherman, Farragut, Sheridan, and all the other can do Generals that finally brought down the Confederate war machine. It is also important to note that early on the Confederates had more rifled muskets than the Union and that their commanders were aggressive to a fault while their Union opposites in the Army of the Potomac were painfully cautious.

    The what ifs are quite interesting, in the most pondered “what if” had Stonewall Jackson lived would he have dissuaded Lee from ordering Pickett to charge.

    In the case of the Germans they had some very brilliant men on their team, guys whose theories greatly influenced post war doctrine and even if the Germans did some terrible things, from a strictly military point of view there was much to be admired. Even the IDF took a page or two from Wehrmacht doctrine when they were formed. It is easy to see their brilliance since the Wehrmacht was able to fight off three major powers for so long, because their generals were brilliant, and their troops of, at least initially, high quality. Japan however had few military commanders who offered up much to influence post-war doctrine. Unlike the Rommel, Guderian, or Manstein, Yamamoto had one big disaster that he was in control of and while a guy like Genda was talented, he could not overcome the IJA and IJN command structure that was based on strict seniority which led Nagumo to command the Kido Butai and not an admiral more suited for the role. Also the baffling thing about the IJN and IJA was that people who failed were not sacked as often as one would think, so long as you could write a good report you could save your bacon.

    To a degree is it can be easy in strict military terms to admire the opposition. Also there is a certain romanticism about the losers in history the world the victors created isn’t perfect and since the losers had no say in the narrative it’s easy to imagine them as the scrappy underdog that rose up against the established order. That is unless you understand how horrible the losers were as well. As much as the South can complain about a Carthaginian Peace they got off pretty light all things considered Sherman once said that entire peoples have been wiped out of existence for less and thankfully for them Sherman wasn’t the guy doling out all the “curses and maledictions a people can pour out” for starting the war.

    Lastly given Sherman’s attitudes, he is less likable in the modern age since War is Hell gave way to Let’s be Butthurt…

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