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Top>Research>Sagara Festival and the Sekihōtai Army of the Meiji Restoration


Masashi Iwatate

Masashi Iwatate [Profile]

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Sagara Festival and the Sekihōtai Army of the Meiji Restoration

Masashi Iwatate
Professor of Modern Japanese History, Part-Time Instructor, Chuo University High School

In December of 2009, the word reki-jo was selected for the top ten popular Japanese words/phrases of the year. According to Wikipedia, reki-jo is a new term that refers to young women who are interested in or well-versed in Japanese history. Moreover, it seems that reki-jo women prefer historical figures with unfortunate endings over figures that were successful. At the memorial ceremony for the Sekihōtai Army which is the subject of my research, there is attendance from reki-jo women and other fans of the Sekihōtai Army at the memorial. Currently, it seems that attracting large numbers of such history fans is the key to invigorating towns. At Shimosuwa Town in Nagano Prefecture, the Sagara Festival to memorialize the Sekihōtai Army is one such invigorating event.

Sekihōtai Army of the Meiji Restoration

The Sekihōtai Army was on the side of the new government and was one of the advance military units to participate in the Boshin War that began from January 3rd, 1868. After winning a victory at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, the new government army dispatched its Tōsei Army along the highways in Sanin, Tokai, Tosan and Hokuriku. This movement was intended to subjugate the former shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa and his forces which had fled retreated to Edo in defeat. At the order of Satsuma Clan member Takamori Saigo, the Sekihōtai Army was formed on January 10th at Mt. Matsuo in Aichi County of the Omi-no-Kuni region. Imperial court officials Toshizane Ayanokoji and Kinhisa Shigenoi were appointed as leaders of the army. The main duties of the Sekihōtai Army were to prepare for the advance of the Tōsei Army, scouting ahead for information on each region and recruiting other loyalists. At the time, the Sekihōtai Army was composed of 3 units. The leader of the 1st unit was Sagara Sozo, who was born in Akasaka, Edo and revered the Emperor. This 1st unit consisted mainly of loyalists from Kanto. The 2nd unit was led by Mikisaburo Suzuki, a former member of the Shinsengumi (a special police force of the late shogunate period). This 2nd unit was composed of former followers of Kashitaro Itou who had left the Shinsengumi. After the assassination of Itou by the Shinsengumi occurred 2 months earlier at Abura-no-Koji in Kyoto, these followers received patronage from the Satsuma Clan and began to proclaim reverence for the Emperor. The 3rd unit was led by Rensaburo Yukawa of the Minakuchi Clan and was composed mainly of Minakuchi Clan warriors. Sagara devised a reduction in land taxes which would allow the Tōsei Army to advance smoothly. He submitted a petition to the new government on the 12th and had his idea adopted. Acting as a vanguard of the Tōsei Army, the Sekihōtai Army departed from Mt. Matsuo on the 15th. The Sekihōtai Army traveled to various regions including former shogunate territories and declared that land rent would be reduced by 50%. After a short while, the Sekihōtai Army acted without authorization and changed its route to the Tosan Highway (Nakasen Highway), route where Sagara had many comrades. The actions of the Sekihōtai Army gradually became a burden to the new government, which repealed the 50% reduction in land rent on the 27th. On the same day, Toshizane Ayanokoji was ordered to return to Kyoto by his father Shigetomi Ohara. As a result, the 2nd and 3rd units returned to Kyoto, leaving only the 1st unit led by Sagara. The 1st unit changed its name to the Kyodo Army (I will continue to refer to this army as the "Sekihōtai Army" below) and continued its attack along the Tosan Highway. This kind of conspicuous action by the Sekihōtai Army began the subject of a purge by the new government. On March 3rd of 1868, Sagara and 7 other officers of the Sekihōtai Army were executed in Shimosuwa Town of the Shinano-no-Kuni region. Other members of the army were sentenced to banishment.

The Sagara Festival of Shimosuwa Town

The movement to memorialize Sagara and his officers began from December of the same year, 1868. The movement was headed by Naoaki Ochiai, a former comrade of Sagara, and Hisanari Maruyama, a former member of the Sekihōtai Army. Ochiai published a collection of posthumous writings by Sagara in May of 1869. He later erected Sakigakezuka, a grave for Sagara and his officers in Shimosuwa Town. In June of 1870, he held a ceremony to unveil the grave and to memorialize the dead. Furthermore, on March 3rd of 1880, it seems that a 13th Buddhist memorial service was held at Raikoji Temple in Shimosuwa Town by Yukiyasu Kanai, a former comrade of Sagara who later became Cabinet Senior Secretary. However, following this last service, further memorial services were not held in Shimosuwa Town for several dozen years. In 1918, Kametaro Kimura, the grandson of Sagara, received cooperation from volunteers in Shimosuwa Town and revived the memorial festival for Sagara and his officers (hereafter referred to as the "Sagara Festival"). At that time, the Sagara Festival was held on April 3rd, which was the date when Sagara and his officers were executed according to the traditional Japanese calendar. Afterwards, the Sagara Festival has been held on April 3rd each year and has currently become a traditional event of Shimosuwa Town.

In addition to related officials, a large number of Sekihōtai Army fans participate in the Sagara Festival. One particular reason for the increase in Sekihōtai Army fans is the influence of the Japanese comic Ruro-ni-Kenshin, or The Wandering Samurai (28 volumes, Shueisha Publishing, 1994-1999). In the comic, the character Sanosuke Sagara is a warrior in a fictional Sekihōtai Army. The Sekihōtai Army enjoyed high popularity while Ruro-ni-Kenshin was being serialized. During that period, the Sagara Festival drew several hundred participants including official and fans. However, concurring with the end of serialization for Ruro-ni-Kenshin, the popularity of the Sekihōtai Army has declined in recent years. The number of the participants in the Sagara Festival is declining every year and only several dozen people currently participate. Among such adverse conditions, the Sagara Association which conducts the Sagara Festival and maintains the gravesite is searching for ways to recall Sekihōtai Army fans including reki-jo women. One proposal calls for changing the date of the Sagara Festival, which has been held annually on April 3rd. The proposal calls for the festival to be held on the Saturday or Sunday closest to April 3rd (the 1st Saturday/Sunday or the 2nd Saturday/Sunday) starting from next year. By holding the Sagara Festival on nonworking days, the association plans to promote participation in the festival and to increase the number of tourists who visit Shimosuwa Town.

I believe that it is important to support such regional plans and to promote revitalization of towns through an industrial-academic partnership. Although most people imagine scientific research and development when they hear the term industrial-academic partnership, history is also a viable option. On April 3rd of 2008, a lecture to commemorate the 140th Sagara Festival was held in Shimosuwa Town. The event was headed by the Sagara Association. I gave a research presentation at the lecture, which also provided me with new historical information in the form of questions and insights from regional citizens. I am currently conducting new research activities based on this information. By actively participating in regional events, it is possible to obtain new regional historical information which cannot be acquired within the university. This leads to further expansion of research activities. New historical facts are constructed through partnerships between towns and historical researchers. If these new facts become material for booms in movies, television dramas or comics, then towns will experience even further revitalization. There are many good examples of towns which conduct revitalization and town-building based on history. One example is Kochi Prefecture, the birthplace of Ryoma Sakamoto, a historical figure who became famous due to his portrayal in the NHK Taiga Drama. Other examples include Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture, which was the scene for author Ryotaro Shiba's novel Saka no Ue no Kumo (Clouds Over the Hills), as well as Hino City, the birthplace of Toshizo Hijikata, who was an executive officer in the Shinsengumi.

I am currently affiliated with the Chuo University Graduate School of Letters. Within the graduate school, Professor Masahito Matsuo conducts special research (seminar) on political history. As part of this special research, a research conference regarding private writings remaining in regional areas is being conducted this academic year. In order to support the revitalization of towns, I also intend to perform thorough research using private writings from regional areas.

Masashi Iwatate
Professor of Modern Japanese History, Part-Time Instructor, Chuo University High School
Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1983. In 2006, graduated with a major in Japanese history from the Department of History at the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University. In 2009, completed the Master's Program in Japanese history at the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University. Currently studying at the Doctoral Program in Japanese History at the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University. In 2010, assumed the position of Part-Time Instructor at Chuo University High School.
His current research topic is the creation process for images of private activists (images of loyalists during the last days of the shogunate) in modern times. Specifically, his research focuses on how private loyalists who were active during the Meiji Restoration are praised and evaluated since entering modern times, as well as how images of such loyalists are formed. Regarding this theme, he gave a research presentation entitled "Modern activities to praise the Sekihōtai Army" at a lecture to commemorate the 140th Sagara Festival (memorial festival for the Sekihōtai Army). His book reviews include "Introduction of New Publications: Historical Annals of Sozo Sagara & the Sekihōtai Army; edited by Akemi Nishizawa" (Meiji Restoration Historical Research Vol. 6, 2009).