Captain of the First Unit
Born – 1842 or 1844 in the Shimo-yashiki (lower mansion) of the Shirakawa clan in Edo.
[The Shirakawa clan mansion was located in the Roppongi area of Tokyo.]
Died – May 30, 1868 in Sentagaya, Edo at either age 27 or 25.
[July 19, 1868 in Sentagaya, Tokyo at either age 26 or 24.]
Imina – Kaneyoshi (Fusanaga)
Childhood Name – Okita Sojiro
It is generally considered that he shortened his name from “Sojiro” to “Soji” around the time he joined the others in the Roshitai. It has also been suggested that Kondo may have called him this for short. There are some who refer to him as “Soushi”, but this name is not correct.
Physical Description –
Okita had a dark complexion, broad shoulders which may have had a bit of a stoop, and he was lean even before his illness. He was also in reality not very handsome, having what is described as a “flatfish face”. In height he was much taller than is generally depicted, perhaps either 166cm or 170cm (5’6″ or 5’7″). Considering that he was supposed to be taller than Hijikata, probably the 170cm estimate is more correct. His voice is described as having been high-pitched and thin.
This is far from the image of the “cute young boy” created by Shiba Ryotaro in “Moeyo Ken”. However it does not seem to have bothered the young ladies of Okita’s time one bit.
Personality Quirks and Traits –
It is said that Okita tended to eat very lightly and would even leave banquets early. There’s a possibility he had an unbalanced diet because of this. He was also known to have liked to drink, though perhaps not quite as much as some of his fellow Shinsengumi.
It was rare for Okita to become serious. When he did it was usually because he was involved in a fight. At such times he could be ruthless.
He was also known to have been short-tempered when training. Once inside a dojo his students feared him more than Kondo because of his strict and rough manner. He was very particular about swordsmanship and that made it hard for his students to please him. It is speculated that since he was so skilled, he may have had trouble understanding human clumsiness and weakness without ability.
For the most part however he was someone who was always smiling. In Kyoto he would always joke around and try to make everyone else laugh. Generally he was successful.
It has become legendary how Okita kept his sense of humor to the very end. Even in the final stages of TB Okita never lost his ability to smile, something for which he is still admired. The way in which he lived – and died – perhaps shows that the most powerful forms of courage are not to be found on any battlefield after all.
Family History –
Okita’s father was Okita Katsujiro, an ashigaru kogashira (foot soldier captain) for the Shirakawa clan at their lower mansion in Edo. He passed away when his son was only about four. About his mother, nothing is known.
He had two older sisters. The eldest was Mitsu, who seems to have raised Okita. She married Inoue Rintaro, who changed his name to Okita Rintaro. He was somehow related to Inoue Genzaburo and that probably explains how Okita later ended up at the Shieikan.
The second sister was Kin. She married a samurai from Edo. His name may have been Yoshihide Nagano and he may have been from the Mineyama province.
Before the Shinsengumi –
It is not known for certain in what year Okita was born. For a long time the year 1844 was accepted because this is what the family said. However a public document that recorded his entry into the Roshitai gives his birthyear as 1842. Because it was an officially recorded record, many now believe this was the correct year of his birth.
Family legend has it that Okita was born during either a terrible thunderstorm or during a solar eclipse. And it appears that there was indeed a solar eclipse in June of 1842, the year now most commonly given as his birthyear.
He was very close to Kondo from the time that he first joined the Shieikan, but his real relationship with Hijikata is not as certain. Probably the story that they were “like brothers” is exaggerated, but there is evidence that they were at least friendly with each other. At any rate Hijikata used to accompany him as his assistant when he would give lessons at the Sato house or in Onoji so that he could visit his relatives. This meant that the two had to be able to work together and spent a great deal of time in each other’s company at any rate.
Okita would often help the Sato family by cleaning the dojo for them, working in the garden, or running errands. He may have even been given “pocket money” by Hijikata’s sister, Nobu.
In the middle of July, 1862 and less than a year before joining the Roshitai, Okita became seriously sick with measles while teaching at the home of a student. This may have possibly weakened his immune system, making him more susceptible to the TB which would eventually claim his life.
Ryu – Tennen Rishin Ryu
Rank – Menkyo Kaiden
Teacher – Kondo Shusuke and Kondo Isami, Shieikan dojo
Okita is supposed to have joined the Shieikan when he was around the age of 9 , due to his family’s poor status. Considering which birthyear is used, this means he either joined in the spring of 1850 or that he joined in 1852.
He had a natural ability when it came to swordsmanship and it was said he could use a katana (Japanese sword), bokken (wooden training sword), or a shinai (bamboo training sword) equally well. There is a story that when he was around the age of 12, he defeated the fencing instructor of the Shirakawa clan. By the time the group went to Kyoto, Okita had reached full mastership of Tennen Rishin Ryu.
Like Kondo, Okita traveled all around the Tama area to give lessons for the Shieikan. One can speculate that many of his students did not look forward to these at all because of his strict nature as a teacher.
His famous personally developed technique was the “sandanzuki” or “three-part thrust”. This move involved a strike to the neck, then the left shoulder followed by the right shoulder. It is said that he could deliver these thrusts in very quick succession.
Another technique he favored was the “seigan” stance. In Tennen Rishin Ryu it started out with him holding the grip in front of his belly and the tip pointed at the opponent’s throat. He would then pull back his left shoulder slightly and move his left foot out so that he took a slanted stance. The apparent aim of this stance was to draw out an opponent by making him think he saw an opening, then delivering a quick thrust.
His Sword(s) –
Long Sword – Kiyomitsu Kaga – 74cm in length
Long Sword – Kikuichi Norimune – 2’4″2
The Kiyomitsu Kaga was described as being a very practical sword and was a blade that Okita very definitely owned. He was using this particular sword during the fight at Ikeda-ya, but the point broke off during the battle. He was probably never able to use it again afterwards.
The Kikuichi Norimune that legend says he owned is far more questionable. This was an extremely sought after and expensive sword that even many daimyo could not have afforded. If Okita did have such a blade, then it would have been a gift from someone very wealthy.
Some claim that the sword he actually owned was a Yamato no Kami Yasusada, made by a 17th century swordsmith in Musashi. Though it was a good deal less expensive than a Norimune, it was still a fairly famous blade and highly doubtful that he could have really owned one.
One of the reasons that no one can determine what sort of blade he really had was because it has been lost. There are several stories about what happened to Okita’s sword. One version has it that after his death, his sister Mitsu was going somewhere with it while riding in a rickshaw. She accidently forgot the sword when she got out and was never able to recover it again.
Shinsengumi Years –
Okita started in the Mibu Roshi as a captain and held this position until the start of the Boshin War, when his illness forced him to stop fighting. At the height of the Shinsengumi he was the Captain of the First Unit and a teacher of kenjutsu.
Aside from being a major joker, Okita is most remembered for playing with the local children at Mibudera. He was also one of the three strongest swordsman in the group, along with Nagakura and Saito. There is much debate on whether he or Saito deserves the title of the “The Strongest”.
During the raid at Ikeda-ya, it is said that Okita fainted from lung trouble. It is not clear whether this was the first sign of his having tuberculosis or if this was a different ailment. Once it was discovered that he was sick with the disease, it was kept a secret for as long as possible. However by the time of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi is had progressed to the point to where he was no longer able to fight. He had to wait with Kondo for them to return to Osaka and just before they left by boat for Edo, he was so sick that he was bedridden. He went to see Matsumoto with Kondo as soon as they arrived in the city.
There are at least two different locations where Okita was supposed to have been taken while trying to recover from his tuberculosis. One may have been the often referred to “tuberculosis hospital”.
A more definite location is the house of one Uekiya Heigoro in Sentagaya, Edo, near the Ikejiri bridge. Looking out from the gate of the house, one could see the bridge. There were a lot of huge old trees at the time, one of them being a large cedar. On the far side of the stream, on the right-hand side was a watermill. This was considered to be a rather scary place after dark that was frequented by supernatural animals such as fox and tanuki (raccoon dogs). Okita was given a detached room looking out onto the garden.
When Kondo and Hijikata marched to Kofu, Okita was feeling well enough to go with them as far as Tama. He visited the Sato family and entertained everyone by doing an impression of a sumo wrestler’s stamp. However he took a turn for the worse soon after and had to be sent back to Edo.
During his final days Okita asked repeatedly about Kondo, but no one would tell him that the Commander had been captured and executed. Matsumoto is said to have tended him during this time, but it is very likely that the doctor was actually in Aizu by this time.
It is the story that says he was at the Uekiya house that mentions the episode with the black cat. Every day at the same time this creature would come into the garden and stare at Okita. On the day that he died, May 30, 1868 [July 19, 1868], Okita had made up his mind to kill the animal and dragged himself out onto the engawa (veranda) in the attempt. It was here that they found his body.
One reason why he may have wanted to kill it was because black cats were supposed to be omens of impending death for those with tuberculosis. There are many other superstitions though that might also account for his actions.
Okita’s grave is in the Roppongi area of Tokyo at the Senshouji Temple. This is very close to where the Shirakawa clan mansion he was born in once stood.
Love Life –
Matsumoto Ryojun was of the opinion that Okita was a “seidouji” or “the clean child”, meaning that he was a virgin. He was not alone in this thought and there are many who claim Okita never had any relations with women or that at least he did not associate with them very much. There are other accounts however, which would suggest otherwise.
The first woman problem Okita ever had is said to have took place while he was still at the Shieikan. There was a young woman who was somehow connected to the dojo at the time and she did the cleaning and washing there. Her name and age are unknown, but she was said to have been a “spunky” woman. She took a liking to Okita and eventually told him she wanted to be his wife. His response was to decline, saying that he was still training himself. The poor girl was so shocked that she tried to kill herself by stabbing herself in the neck. However she missed hitting a vital point and did not die. She later married into another family with the help of the Kondo family.
Then there is the mysterious grave at Kouenji Temple in Kyoto which has a grave carved with the words “Okita’s relation”. The “kaimyo” belongs to a woman and she passed away ahead of him. (She may have been buried on April 26, 1867 [May 29, 1867].)
As far as can be known, Okita had no relatives at all in Kyoto. For this reason it is thought that she may have been his lover, but that she could not marry him for some reason. One rumor has it that she was the daughter of a doctor. (A separate story mentioned that Okita was dating such a woman, but that Kondo made him break off the relationship. Whether it has any connection to this woman was not clear.) Another legend about the mystery woman is that she bore Okita a daughter. Unfortunately there is no record of a child or what might have become of her if she did exist.
Perhaps she really was the daughter of a doctor and Okita was forced to break off their relationship by Kondo, which would explain why they could not marry. Perhaps by then she was already pregnant and died in childbirth, a common occurrence back in those days. One can speculate endlessly, but the woman at Kouenji Temple has carried her secrets with her to the grave and is unlikely to give them up now.