By the year 1880, there were, technically speaking, no more samurai. The shogunate was twelve years gone; in 1877, the last gasp of samurai resistance to the sweeping societal changes of the early Meiji state and piecemeal reduction of samurai class privileges ended with Saigo Takamori‘s legendary last stand during the Satsuma Rebellion.
By this time, the wearing of swords, the traditional class marker of the samurai, had been banned. Government bonds replaced samurai stipends; former members of the class were registered as shizoku (士族, warrior families) on the national register, a bureaucratic distinction that bore no privileges.
And yet, old ways die hard.
The government might have said that the samurai were a relic. But over a million former samurai still lived. Out of those million, one was about to engage in a startling act that would remind the entire country that they existed.
Usui Rokuro was about to carry out the final samurai vendetta.
Kataki-Uchi: Legally Sanctioned Blood-Revenge
As in many cultures worldwide, the act of revenge had for untold centuries been an assumed reaction to the murder of a close relative or of one’s master. Justification for vengeance is found in textual form from as early as the year 486; in a passage of the Nihon Shoki, the Emperor paraphrases Confucius when he relates that “no man should live under the same Heaven as his father’s enemy.” By the Edo era (1603-1867), revenge killings had been codified into law as kataki-uchi (敵討, also know as adauchi). Honor demanded that one’s parents, elder brother, or lord be avenged if murdered. Only blood could pay for blood. Revenge was a focus of popular cultural stories, like the oft-retold tale of the 47 loyal ronin’s avenging of their lord and subsequent group suicide.
The popular imagination of revenge coexisted with the legal reality of kataki-uchi, wherein one could apply to the central government for permission to carry out violent retribution. Such samurai vendettas could be long-gestating; for example, when the young Kume siblings’ father was murdered by an associate in 1817, they waited until 1828, when they both came of age, to officially apply for the right to commit kataki-uchi. The Shogunate was so impressed with their meritorious quest for revenge that it supplied their uncle, who was assisting in their blood quest, with fifteen ryo of gold – a prince’s ransom. Their hereditary stipends would also continue in their absence, assuring the avengers could focus entirely on their mission without worrying about finances back home. A properly enacted kataki-uchi could take years, but could result in promotions within one’s home domain upon completion.
(In the case of the Kume brother, vengeance would not be theirs until 1857, nearly three decades after permission for their kataki-uchi was granted.)
No Place for Samurai Vendettas in Meiji Japan
So, the need for vengeance was a readily-accepted fact throughout Japanese history. Yet by the mid 19th century, this matter-of-fact practice now ran counter to the westernizing policies of the newly-minted Meiji government. Never mind the increasingly classless nature of kataki-uchi; towards the end of the Edo era, more members of the lower classes were applying for the right to a “samurai vendetta” than samurai themselves. The legalized murder of enemies, however, was a poor match for a Japan rushing away from outdated feudal trappings.
Japan was then chafing at the “unequal treaties” foisted on it by countries like Britain, Russia, and the USA. It was felt that the way to escape from under unfair trade laws and extraterritoriality was to become as westernized as possible; once seen as a member of the Western club of nations, it was thought, the unequal treaties would be rescinded. Japanese gentlemen, only years earlier seen wearing topknots and hakama, were now bedecked in top hats, ties, and European “cropped” hairstyles. In 1883, the first national banquet hall and ballroom for foreign dignitaries, the Rokumeikan, went up in Tokyo. The age of the “high collar” westernized gentleman had begun.
An Official Decree
So it was that towards the beginning of 1873, only five years on from the Meiji restoration, the government made the following decree:
“The taking of human life is strictly prohibited by the law of the land, and the right to punish a murderer lies with the Government. However, since ancient times it has been customarily regarded as the duty of a son or younger brother to avenge the murder of his father or elder brother. While this is a natural expression of the deepest human feelings, it is ultimately a serious breach of the law on account of private enmity, a usurpation for private purposes of public authority, and cannot be treated as other than the crime of wilful slaughter.
Furthermore, in extreme cases the undesirable situation often arises that one person wantonly and deliberately kills another in the name of revenge without regard for the rights and wrongs of the case or the justification for his act. This is to be deplored, and it is therefore decreed that vengeance shall be strictly prohibited. In future, should some close relative unfortunately be killed, the facts should be set out clearly an a complaint be laid before the authorities. Let it be plainly understood that anyone who ignores this injunction and adheres to the old customs, taking the law into his own hands to kill for revenge, will be subject to a penalty appropriate to his offence.”Translation from Mills (1976).
And yet, seven years later, young Usui Rokuro would burst onto the headlines of early Meiji by carrying out his own kataki-uchi. The public, and the government itself, would hardly know how to respond.
Murder Most Foul
A fierce wind blew through the alleyways of the castle town of Akizuki on the early morning of May 23rd, 1868. Usui Rokuro, the 11-year-old son of a chief retainer to the local daimyo, lay asleep in his family home. His sleep was a fitful one; strange noises emanating from his parents’ sleeping quarters woke him with a fearful start, but he convinced himself it was merely a dream. Then he heard his little sister, Tsuyu, crying from a nearby room. Rokuro got up from his futon, opened the doors, and stepped out onto a scene not from a dream – but from a nightmare.
Blood splattered the hallways. Strands of long black hair were stuck to the walls of the veranda. Rokuro ventured to his parents’ quarters, usually off-limits. There, a grisly spectacle awaited him, the likes of which he would never forget – his father, Watari’s, headless body. Beside the corpse lay Rokuro’s mother, Kiyo, equally lifeless. Only hours earlier, the family has been celebrating Watari’s safe return from the imperial capital in Kyoto. Now, the family was forever broken.
A Time of Chaos
The violent murders had occurred amongst the backdrop of the culmination of the Sonnō jōi (Respect the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians) movement. Across the country, restless samurai had taken to assassination and arson in an attempt to shake the foundation of the old bureaucratic order. By the date of the murder of Rokuro’s parents, the movement had already brought to fruition at least the first half of the slogan; the shogunate had fallen to the rebellious southwestern armies, who had placed the young emperor Meiji at the front of their new government.
In those heady days, assassination was in vogue, and political violence prevailed both in the feudal metropolises of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, as well as in the provinces. Watari and his wife had been murdered in part of a late-coming fit of this violent era; he was associated with the old guard of the Akizuki domain, and the murderers had sought him out to purge the domain of Shogunate loyalists. Watari was renowned for his martial skills, so the assasins waited until they knew Watari would be in a deep, drunken sleep following the night’s revelries. Then, they snuck into his home and carried out the deed while Watari still slept. His wife, Rokuro’s mother, had tried to save her husband, biting at the arm of the man whose sword was plunging into Watari’s flesh; for this, the second assassin had hacked her to pieces.
The House of Usui, reeling from the murders, petitioned the domain for justice. None would be forthcoming. Yoshida, The man who held the power to adjudicate on the murder case, was, in fact, one of the major forces behind the very revolutionary clique, the Kanjotai (干城隊, “the Defending Soldiers Corps”), which had carried out the murder itself. He pronounced that Watari had “brought this calamity upon himself via his inflated sense of worth and attitude reflecting only minimal care towards his country.” The assassins, by contrast, were “loyal samurai” who had “acted out of a sincere desire to eliminate wickedness from land.”
The Usui family were made out to be the villains in their own tragedy, and the house’s fortunes faltered. Meanwhile, Watari’s stolen head was on display at the headquarters of the Kanjotai. When the Usui requested its return, the presiding judge replied that they should soon be reclaiming it. The head was then flung into the garden of the Usui residence.
A Youth Consumed by Hatred
Shellshocked by what had become of his family, Rokuro spent his days filled with rage. Despite his youth, he vowed revenge, writing:
“I gnash my teeth, my soul filled with an unquenchable resentment. I must partake of my vengeance.”
A chance to fulfill his vow appeared to Rokuro within the same month in which his parents had been murdered. While attending the Akizuki domain school for samurai, Rokuro happened to overhear one Yamamoto Michinosuke bragging to classmates of how his older brother had used the Yamamoto clan sword to slay the traitor Usui Watari. The sword’s blade had even been chipped during the action. Now Rokuro knew one of the names of the assailants! He rushed home, eager to stir his uncle – now head of the Usui clan – towards taking vengeance for their family. He was shocked when his uncle rebuffed him.
“[Unsanctioned] revenge has been strictly prohibited in this land since time immemorial. If you wish to partake of your vengeance, then first learn the ways of pen and sword, and find the permission you seek. Once you have done this, the choice of how to act will be yours to make. One must not be imprudent and lash out with rude violence.”
The message remained the same, even after Rokuro learned the name of his mother’s killer as well. Yamamoto Katsumi and Hagitani Dennoshin – these were his parents’ killers. Yet still his relatives refused to allow him to take revenge. The Yamamoto family were adherents of the Tanseki-ryu school of swordsmanship and would be no easy marks. And with the Kanjotai ascendant in Fukuoka, any attempt on the lives of members of the clique could spell the end for the Usui family’s now tenuous existence. Rokuro decided he must take on the sole burden of quieting the angry souls of his departed parents – but as his uncle said, this would only be something achievable through study and training.
So that’s what Rokuro devoted himself to.
Akizuki Domain No More
1871, the Meiji government announced the dissolution of the feudal domains which had made up the territory of Japan. The lands formerly controlled by the daimyo and the shogun would now become prefectures of the centralized Japanese state. Akizuki Domain briefly became Akizuki Prefecture and was then folded into the larger Fukuoka Prefecture. The lord of the domain no longer held any de jure power; the entire system the Usui family and their enemies, samurai all, had belonged to was upended.
Great changes were afoot within the old domain. As in much of Kyushu, the very samurai who had pushed for imperial restoration now chafed under the restriction on their former class privileges. Rokuro soon received word that his sworn enemy, Yamamoto, had left the prefecture for the distant newly-minted capital of Tokyo. Filled with bitterness, Rokuro swore to one day follow after his quarry. In the meantime, he continued his studies, soon becoming a teacher himself.
in 1873, the Meiji government made its proclamation announcing the illegalization of kataki-uchi. The old legal methods of revenge were now truly cut off from Rokuro. And yet, he did not falter. In 1876, professing a desire to take up new studies in Tokyo, he convinced his uncle to allow him to take leave of the former Akizuki Domain. As he set off on foot towards the new capital, he secretly bore with him a short sword – a memento from his late father, now eight years deceased.
At Home, a Samurai Rebellion
Only a short time after Rokuro moved in with an uncle in the new capital, shocking news reached them from Kyushu. On October 27th, 1876, a localized rebellion of former samurai had broken out, led by none other than the members of the same Kanjotai who had murdered Rokuro’s parents. Inspired by another major revolt in nearby Kumamoto days earlier, 400 local samurai, angered at the government’s refusal to launch a punitive war against Korea that they believed would restore the former samurai class to predominance, attacked a police station and murdered the officers there. (These victims became the first modern police to die in the line of duty in Japanese history.) A subsequent battle with an Imperial Japanese Army garrison made of conscripts resulted in the death of numerous of the rebellious samurai; survivors fled to the hills, where most of the ringleaders committed seppuku.
The Akizuki Rebellion was ended barely after it began. The Meiji government moved to repress any further ideas of a revitalized feudalism; it tore down Akizuki Castle, former seat of the domain lord. The Kanjotai that had murdered and then sanctioned said murder of Rokuro’s parents were no more; a year later, when Saigo Takamori’s vastly larger Satsuma Rebellion (properly called the War of the Southwest in Japanese) failed, the last of the fight went out of the restless former samurai. Rokuro viewed the demise of the Kanjotai as divine punishment.
Yet although the Kanjotai was dead and buried, the targets of Rokuro’s vengeance still lived. Worse, from his perspective, they prospered in this new samurai-less world.
Searching for Vengeance in Tokyo
Rokuro discovered that his main quarry, Yamamoto, was going by a new name; he was now known as Ichise Naohisa. More than that, Ichise had used his connection to well-off former Sonno Joi conspirators from the Fukuoka Domain to become a judge. He was now operating out of Nagoya, far off from Tokyo. Rokuro wished to abscond from his erstwhile studies in Tokyo and make haste to the lair of his enemy, but his funds were too meager. To lessen some of the burdens on the uncle with whom he was lodging, Rokuro became a live-in disciple at a dojo. There, he achieved the dual objective of honing his martial skills.
Rokuro would wake up early in the morning to wipe down the dojo floors, and performed all other manner of labors to earn his keep. He became friendly with the dojo master, and even on occasion went with him to visit the latter’s friend Katsu Kaishu – the renowned naval officer who’d surrendered Edo to the Meiji army. He continued exchanging letters with his family, who informed him in more detail about his father’s place in Akizuki politics. Rokuro became more certain of his father’s ultimate innocence; even as the world of late Edo and the Meiji Restoration faded, he continued to hold onto his deadly grudge.
In 1878, when Rokuro was 21, he heard word that Judge Ichise had been transferred from Nagoya to Kofu, in Shizuoka. This was markedly closer at hand to Tokyo, and by way of excuse, Rokuro convinced the dojo master that he needed to recuperate from his training at a hot springs in the area. He set off down the Koshu highway to Shizuoka. Arriving in Kofu, he stalked all the places he imagined a judge might frequent, but to no avail. He never encountered Ichise, and hearing rumors that the man was to go to Tokyo, Rokuro decided to return to the capital himself. Revenge would have to wait.
1880, and a Short Sword
Two more years passed. Rokuro was now 23 years old. He’d spent most of his youth and now many years of his young adulthood longing for revenge, to no avail. He whiled away his days visiting the haunts and official residences of other former Akizuki retainers, hoping for a scrap of information or a whisp of rumor that might reveal Judge Ichise’s location. It was at one such visit that he heard that Ichise had again been transferred, and was now serving on the Tokyo Higher Court. Ichise, it seemed, had cemented his ascent; Rokuro had already been enraged when he heard of how the target of his greatest ire was regarded as the most successful of the Kanjotai samurai to leave Kyushu; this only increased the loathing he felt towards Judge Ichise. More tantalizing, however, was the next bit of information provided: Ichise’s home address.