Kondo Isami

Commander of the Shinsengumi

Born – October 9, 1834 in Kamiishihara village, Tama, Musashi.

           [November 9, 1834 in Kamiishihara, Chofu, Tokyo.]

Died – April 25, 1868 in Itabashi, Musashi at age 35.

           [May 17, 1868 in Itabashi, Tokyo at age 34.]

Names –

Imina – Masanobu (Masayoshi)

Childhood Name – Miyagawa Katsugoro

Alternate Name – Okubo Yamato

Kondo briefly took the name “Okubo Yamato” on March 1, 1868 [March 24, 1868] when he was made a Junior Councilor. It was the name he was using at the time the imperial army arrested him.

Matsudaira Katamori created a “kaimyo” or “Buddhist death name” for him at the time Hijikata built a grave for him in Aizu. The name (currently unavailable) contained the elements “inden” and “daikoji”, which are usually reserved for the social elite. Because he was originally a farmer, Kondo normally would not have qualified for such a name and so it was a huge honor. It can be considered a small example of Matsudaira’s thankfulness to the Shinsengumi for their long years of support.

Physical Description –

It is said that Kondo had a “rustic” face, but was still attractive enough that women surrounded him. He is also noted to have dimples when he would smile. His mouth was very wide and his entire fist could be fit inside. He had a very powerful build and a sharp gaze. Although there is not an exact estimate of his height, he was not an extremely tall man. Rumor has it that his topknot only came even with Hijikata’s chin if they stood next to each other.

Personality Quirks and Traits –

Kondo seems to have enjoyed entertaining others by showing them how he could put his fist in his mouth. He was also said to have pulled the same trick with his favorite food, manju (steamed dumpling).

 In personality he was a simple, honest man of traditional values. Many noted his kindness and generosity. No one ever saw Kondo drunk. He often borrowed books from Kojima Shikanosuke while he was still in Tama and he spent much of his spare time reading in the final days before his arrest. As a leader he was a capable man who had a sense of authority about him and a rather martial attitude. He was always very serious when on duty, though he could be very friendly at other times.

Although he was a good person overall, Kondo sometimes took too much pride in the Shinsengumi’s success. Even Hijikata warned him about this on occasion. There were some who accused him of being arrogant and things got so bad at one point that Nagakura Shinpachi led others in filing a petition to Aizu against him.

Whatever tensions may have existed between himself and the rest of the Shinsengumi however, Kondo was always well respected by them and they honored his memory after his death.

Family History –

Kondo was the third son of a powerful farmer named Miyagawa Kyujiro. His mother, Miyo, passed away when he was only about four or five. She seems to have been only around 38 at the time. He had two older brothers and the eldest was named Otogoro. He also appears to have had both an older and younger sister, but both of them died very young.

Incidently, the Miyagawa house is no longer standing. It was demolished during World War II (1943) so that a nearby military airbase could extend their runways.

On October 19, 1849 [December 8, 1849], he was adopted by Kondo Shusuke at the age of 16 [15]. Shusuke’s wife was named Fude.

According to some stories, Kondo met several women before he took a wife. He supposedly choose the first woman with an appearance that was not very good. His reason was said to have been that a beautiful woman would be a nuisance around the dojo because she would be a distraction to the men. Of course another story has it that he was forced to marry.

He married Matsui Tsune on March 29, 1860 [April 19, 1860] at age 27 [26]. She was the eldest daughter of Matsui Yasogora, a vassal of a Hitotsubashi house who served a man named Shimizu. Their only child was a daughter named Tamako (or Tama according to some), who was born in 1862.

Kondo was good friends with another Tama resident named Kojima Shikanosuke. Just before he left for Kyoto, the two became sworn brothers.

His nephew, Miyagawa Yugoro, later followed him into the Shinsengumi. Yugoro was his elder brother’s son. After Kondo was executed, Yugoro is thought to have retrieved his body for proper burial. Later on he married Tamako, taking on the Kondo name and inheriting his uncle’s dojo. Unfortunately the couple had no children and Tamako died of illness while still very young. Yugoro later remarried.

Another nephew, Miyagawa Shinkichi, joined the Shinsengumi in 1865 when they came to recruit in the Edo area. He died in action at Tenma-ya and is buried at the same temple as Kondo.

Kondo’s brother-in-law, Matsui Tokutaro, may have also been in the group.

Before the Shinsengumi –

Kondo is described as having been a good kid who did not need to be scolded very often. His father was a lover of war tales and often told him heroic stories that would later have a profound influence on how he conducted the Shinsengumi.

He apparently had trouble with some of the older kids every once in a while. One story has it that he took revenge on someone who was harassing him by climbing a tree, then peeing on the person when he passed underneath. On another occasion two youths tried to bully him, but they gave up in disgust when they could not force him to cry. Kondo himself was never cruel to younger children and when he would steal persimmons he would divide any leftovers up among them.

Sometime after joining the Shieikan, an intruder broke into the Miyagawa home and tried to take some valuable item. Kondo took the lead even though he was the youngest. The brothers ambushed the thief when he was on his way out and caused him to drop the object he was trying to steal. When his brother would have gone in pursuit of the man, Kondo stopped him by pointing out that they had the item back and pursuit would be dangerous.

Martial Skills –

Ryu – Tennen Rishin Ryu

Rank – Tennen Rishin Ryu Shihan (Teacher)

Teacher – Kondo Shusuke, Shieikan dojo [Ichigaya, Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo]

Along with his two brothers, Kondo became a disciple of Tennen Rishin Ryu on November 11, 1848 [December 6, 1848] at age 15 [14]. He was very enthusiastic about practicing and learned quickly. Kondo Shusuke soon noted both his skill and temperament. After hearing about the incident with the thief from their father, Shusuke was sufficiently impressed to make the boy his successor.

Miyagawa Katsugoro was adopted into the Kondo family on October 19, 1849 and took the name Kondo Isami. By August 27, 1861 [October 1, 1861] a field match was held at Yasaka Shrine to celebrate his succession to the head of the Shieikan dojo, making him the fourth generation master of the school.

Teaching had never been limited to just the dojo. Kondo traveled throughout the countryside to give lessons. Both Kojima Shikanosuke and Sato Hikogoro had dojo in their homes for this purpose and it was on one of these visits that he first met Hijikata Toshizo. The two soon formed a friendship that would last for the rest of their lives.

Swordsmanship was not the only thing taught at the Shieikan. Kojima Shikanosuke was known to come there to teach calligraphy to the students. There also seems to be mention of spear and jujutsu being taught as well.

Kondo had a black training robe with a human skull embroidered in white on the back. It was said he wore this to show his determination as a swordsman. The jacket is now on display at the Kojima house.

His favorite technique was called “Ryubi no Ken”. (“A dragon attacks with his tail when his head is attacked and attacks with his head when his tail is attacked.”) When an opponent raised his sword in the “jodan” stance (an offensive position), Kondo would lower the tip of his in the “gedan” stance (a defensive position with the sword point toward the other person’s knees) and turn his body to stay in “hanmi” (a position where the body is turned sideways in relation to the foe’s). When his opponent attacked, he would quickly raise his own sword to either break the other person’s blade or deflect the slash, then use the same momentum to immediately inflict a downwards stroke while they were unprotected.

His Sword(s)-

Long Sword – Nagasone Kotetsu – 2’3″5

Legend has it that Kondo owned a blade made by Kotetsu, one of the thirty-one greatest swordsmiths, who lived during the 17th century. The story goes that he stopped a robber at the famous Konoike shop in Osaka. In gratitude, the owner gave the sword to Kondo as a gift.

However Kotetsu’s blades were sought after because they were known to perform well in “tameshigiri” tests. This was a process where cutting ability was tested on a human corpse, usually a criminal’s. The results would be inscribed onto the blade, but these could easily be forged. And even during Kotetsu’s lifetime people were making swords that they then attributed to him in order to charge a higher price.

According to Saito Hajime, Kondo’s sword was just such a forgery. As he told others years later, he himself had bought the blade at a secondhand shop called the Yotsuya because Kondo thought it resembled a Kotetsu. Saito gave it to him in order to thank him for lessons that he had received at the Shieikan, which incidently confirms that he was associated with the group long before they went to Kyoto. Even though he was well aware from the start that it was a fake, Kondo was very happy with the sword. As Saito described it, the blade had some sort of sculpture on the guard. There was also some sort of inscription (possibly a forged tameshigiri result) which had long before worn away.

There are a few who say that Kondo owned another sword called the Kiyomaru. This swordsmith was making blades around the time of the Bakumatsu.

Shinsengumi Years –

Was one of three Commanders of the “Mibu Roshi” when the group first formed in Mibu. Later he became the sole Commander of the group when Serizawa Kamo and others were eliminated.

He had originally joined the “Roshitai” in hopes of becoming a samurai in the service of the Shogun. This wish came true in June of 1867 when the Shinsengumi became direct retainers of the Tokugawa. Kondo himself had the right to directly meet with the Shogun. On March 1, 1868 [March 24, 1868] he was appointed to the “Wakatoshiyori” or “Junior Council”, which administered the Tokugawa’s personal domains. It was on this occasion that he was given the name “Okubo Yamato”. Unfortunately his success came only when the shogunate was already crumbling.

Kondo had been injured in December of 1867 when the remaining followers of Ito Kashitaro made an attempt on his life. The wound was in his right shoulder and continued to plague him for the few remaining months of his life. After Toba-Fushimi, he visited Matsumoto Ryojun in Edo and the doctor removed bone fragments which were still in the wound a month later. When he went to Kofu he had to travel in a palanquin and could not raise his arm above chest level. Following the battle, Hijikata had to rush him back to Edo for medical treatment because the injury had taken a turn for the worse. This proved to be a contributing factor in the falling out he had with Nagakura and Harada, since many of the group were angry they could not find their leader in a time of crisis and the two men had been forced to take steps to calm everyone down.

He was captured on April 3, 1868 [April 25, 1868] and taken to Itabashi. A short time later, on April 25, 1868 [May 17, 1868], he was beheaded as a common criminal rather than being allowed to commit seppuku. He faced his death with great dignity and courage. His head was placed on public display in Edo. On April 8, 1868 [May 29, 1868] his head was taken to Kyoto and displayed at the Sanjo bridge. (No that is not a mistype. The lunar calendar sometimes required that a month be repeated in order to keep it in synch with the solar year.)

Today the exact location of Kondo’s remains are unknown and only a rough guess can be made. His body is most likely buried at Ryugen-ji temple in Mitaka, Tokyo by Miyagawa Yugoro, who was said to have bribed someone into letting him claim the body. His head was probably removed to Hozo-ji temple in Kyoto. However the truth is not known for certain.

Love Life –

Aside from his wife, Kondo is known to have kept at least four mistresses. The most famous of these was Miyuki, who had previously been a courtesan in Kyoto. His relationship with her seems to have begun sometime before Ikeda-ya and to have continued throughout the years the Shinsengumi were in the capitol.

There’s a story which claims that Kondo was interested in a geisha who turned out to be a supporter of the Shishi. This woman apparently made an offer to be his if he would support their cause, but he refused her and broke off the relationship.

Early influences –

As previously mentioned, Kondo’s father frequently told him stories which had a great influence on him later in life. One of the people that he told him about was Kato Kiyomasa, who had played a prominent role in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea. After Toyotomi’s death, he seems to have given his support to Tokugawa Ieyasu in the political disputes which led up to Sekigahara. Kato wrote down a great many of his insights and viewpoints, but very little of this has ever been translated into English.

Kondo also heard two of the four great Chinese classics from his father. One of these was called “Water Margin” or “Outlaws of the Marsh”. It seems to have been written by two men, Luo Guanzhong and Shi Nai’an. The novel is the story of Sung Chiang and his 36 companions, though the book increases the number to 108. Sung Chiang was a real bandit and his men had their base at Mount Liang around 1119. He is now a folk hero similar to Robin Hood. In an eerie parallel to what would become of the Shinsengumi, he and all of his followers were either killed by the government or chose to kill themselves. Brotherhood and defiance of authority are major themes in the book. Also interesting is that the bandits drew members from all walks of life.

The other work was also by Luo Guanzhong and is called “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Apparently Kondo’s favorite character was from this story and was someone that his father would insist was still alive. Unfortunately the part which spoke about this person was not very clear, but it could have possibly been referring to Guan Yu, who was a general in the army of Liu Bei and a very popular warrior. Legend claims he was nine feet tall with a red face and he owned a great steed named Red Hare. He was noted for his loyalty and righteousness, but was also accused of being arrogant. In yet another eerie parallel, he was eventually captured by the enemy and executed. Soon after his death, Guan Yu was deified and has been said to manifest himself from time to time in order to help with certain tasks, which could explain why Kondo’s father would insist that the person was “still alive”.