Home > Books/Magazines, History, Reviews > Book Review: Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” And The Meiji Restoration 1853-1868 By Romulus Hillsborough

Book Review: Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” And The Meiji Restoration 1853-1868 By Romulus Hillsborough

This first-ever account in English of the assassins who drove the revolution details one of the most volatile periods in Japanese history!

Samurai Assassins coverHillsborough refers to this, his latest book, as ‘a study of the ideology and psychology behind the “samurai revolution”’ and that it certainly is. Thankfully for once, it is not a book that focuses on or sensationalises the assassinations of ‘foreign barbarians’ in a period in Japan when political assassinations flourished, not least of which were those of the foreigners residing in Japan. This a fact attested to by the British Legation’s interpreter Thomas McClatchie, himself a student of Kenjutsu under Sakikabara Kenkichi, in his 1879 letter to Morita Kan’ya’s invitation to visit the Kabuki theatre – ‘In Japan people like the so called rōnin with their katana swords have long been in armed factions. Foreigners seen by them are immediately killed’. Though there is a small section on this subject the remainder of the book concentrates on the complicated inter and intra feudal domain dynamics that developed during the Bakumatsu period, a period which led to the emergence of Japan onto the world stage and its subsequent modernisation commemorated in history by the Meiji Era.

Though Hillsborough has been accused of melodramatic writing there seems to be less of this in this rather more academic account than some of his previous books. In truth an assassination by sword can be nothing other than dramatically and sensationally gory yet Hillsborough treats each in a rather more reserved analytical and non-sensational way providing detailed information about the political situation that leads to each assassination he covers as well as the assassination itself and a description of the victim’s wounds in an almost forensically detective way thus leaving readers to make their own interpretations of his accounts. This makes this book possibly one of Hillsborough’s most academic books thus far. However there are still occasions when some comments smack of ‘tabloid’ sensationalism; assassinations referred to in transliteration as ‘dark murder’ (ansatsu) or as when Takechi Hanpeita’s seppuku is referred to as ‘sensational’ though in the general run of things this can be ignored, or perhaps relished by the reader; to each their own.

Hillsborough begins by laying down the context in which these assassinations take place, and as to be expected this can become bewilderingly labyrinthine and perhaps deserving of more than one read. What follows is a mostly erudite exposition of the pivotal political assassinations that took place during the chaos of this period of Japanese history, beginning of course with the most decisive for the political development of modern Japan, that of the Tairō (Regent) Ii Naosuke, Daimyō of Hikone, as a consequence of his stance on foreign affairs and his Ansei Purge.

Capture 1

Ii Naosuke (daguerreotype), and Hikone Castle © T. Skingle

The two remaining characters on which the book focuses are Takechi Hanpeita and Sakamoto Ryōma each of whom, like Naosuke, has their own section in the book. Some of Hillsborough’s critics may ask derisively where this publication would be without a section on Sakamoto Ryōma, even though Ryōma’s contribution and involvement are absolutely intrinsic to this period, and rightfully deserving of inclusion.

Takechi Hanpeita (left) and Sakamoto Ryōma (right)

Takechi Hanpeita (left) and Sakamoto Ryōma (right)

Of course there are numerous other key players whose crucial roles are explained, Yamauchi Yōdō Daimyō of Tosa Domain, Matsudaira Shungaku Daimyō of Fukui Domain, and Shimazu Nariakira Daimyō of Satsuma Domain for instance. Alongside these are expositions of the various, usually conflicting, philosophical standpoints of the period’s ‘men of high purpose’ (shishi) such as ‘Union of Court and Camp (kōbu gattai)’ and ‘Revere the Emperor Expel the Barbarians (Sonnō jōi)’ around which the chaos of the period swirled, and which formed the basis of the revolution that took place, some say contrary to some of the Neo Confucian principles of bushido. As explained this revolution against the Shōgunate and Bakufu ended with the restoration of Imperial rule and ironically the adoption of the same approach to foreign affairs which had resulted in the abdication of the last of the Tokugawa Shōguns, Yoshinobu, and the eventual abolition of the samurai who had themselves fought to keep the ‘foreign barbarians’ away from Japanese shores.

Yamauchi Yōdō, Daimyō of Tosa Domain (left) and Matsudaira Shungaku, Daimyō of Fukui Domain (right)

Yamauchi Yōdō, Daimyō of Tosa Domain (left) and Matsudaira Shungaku, Daimyō of Fukui Domain (right)

The academic development in Hillsborough’s writing is, as with his previous book ‘Samurai Revolution’, enhanced by the inclusion of extensive references and bibliography which when compared to some of his earlier more adventuresome narratives makes this book seem positively scholarly. A tad niche, and at around £30 quite expensive for a paperback, it’s probably one for those with a particular interest in this period in Japanese history, and is a welcome addition to the English language resources on the period and Hillsborough’s growing compendium of books on the subject.

The grave of Yamauchi Yōdō in Shinagawa at the rear of Oi park © T Skingle

The grave of Yamauchi Yōdō in Shinagawa at the rear of Oi park © T Skingle

This is the first of Hillsborough’s books to be published by McFarland, his others having been published by Tuttle, and also Ridgeback. It has gone straight to paperback and is also available as an e-book at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Paperback, 224 pages

Published April 4th 2017 by McFarland & Company


1476668809 (ISBN13: 9781476668802)

Edition Language


Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Related Posts:

Film Review: Mifune – The Last Samurai

Book Review: Samurai Revolution By Romulus Hillsborough 

Book Review: Photography In Japan 1853 – 1912


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