Yamanami Keisuke

Vice-commander of the Shinsengumi

Born – 1833 or 1835 in Michinoka, Sendai.

Died – February 23, 1865 in Mibu, Kyoto at either age 33 or 31 [32 or 30].

Names –

Imina – Tomonobu

One of the reasons why there is so little information about Yamanami is that some think this may have been an assumed name. Also, there is a question of how he pronounced his name. According to the way the kanji was read during the Edo period, he may have actually called himself “Sannan”.

Physical Description –

Yamanami was “slightly tall” and had a pale complexion. His face was supposed to be somewhat round.

Personality Quirks and Traits –

He is described as a gentle, amiable man and was very intelligent. He enjoyed reading Chinese poetry. Yamanami was loved by the people of the Mibu neighborhood. Yet despite all of this he could be very severe when he needed to be.

Aside from Kondo, it is said that he got along well with Okita, Todo, and Ito. His exact relationship with Hijikata is the subject of debate.

Family History –

Almost nothing is known of Yamanami’s past. He may have been the second son of a fencing instructor. Another theory is that his father was a lower samurai of the Sendai clan. There was also an opinion that he was the third son of the family.

Martial Skills –

Ryu – Houkushin Itto Ryu

Rank – Menkyo Kaiden

Teacher – Chiba Shusaku, Genbukan dojo

Yamanami is thought to have went to Edo to study in his early teens. He attended one of the three most prestigious fencing schools of era, studying under one of the greatest swordmasters of all time.

According to legend that was not enough to help him defeat Kondo Isami in a match. After losing to Tennen Rishin Ryu, Yamanami decided to retrain under Kondo and entered the Shieikan. This was probably around 1860. Later he was said to have taught classes on Kondo’s behalf.

Shinsengumi Years –

Although he began in the Shinsengumi at the same rank as Hijikata, Yamanami gradually began to fade into the background. Even before Ikeda-ya he was playing no real role in leading the group anymore. The most enduring legend about him is how he met his death.

The most widely known version of the story has it that Yamanami was unhappy with the way Kondo and Hijikata ran the Shinsengumi. He is also said to have felt that they were abandoning their true and original purpose of “Sonno-Joi” or “Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians”. Things began to come to a head after Ikeda-ya, when the other two men began to make plans to move the headquarters from Mibu to the Nishihongan-ji Temple. Although Yamanami complained about it bitterly, saying that it was not an appropriate place for executions and the like, he was ignored. At that point he decided on drastic actions.

Writing a brief note, he left the group without permission on February 22, 1865 [March 19, 1865] and headed to Otsu. As soon they realized that he was gone, Okita took a horse and went after him. An often speculated reason for sending him is that they did not really want for Yamanami to be captured. But at an inn in Otsu, find him Okita did. He was not even trying to really escape. Although the captain is often said to have urged him to flee, Yamanami insisted on being taken back to Mibu to face his punishment.

Some have it that Nagakura and Ito tried to give him a second chance to escape once they returned to headquarters. Again Yamanami declined, saying that he had already made up his mind. At the Maekawa estate the very next day, February 23, 1865 [March 20, 1865], Hijikata ordered Yamanami to commit seppuku. Okita served as his second.

The reasons for his actions are unknown. Some say that he simply wished to die. Others that he wanted his death to serve as a warning to Kondo. However this is only the generally known version of what happened to Yamanami. The truth may have been very different.

First off it is questioned exactly what the nature of Hijikata and Yamanami’s relationship was. Traditionally it has been said that they despised one another. Hijikata would complain that Yamanami was a “fox” and a “pain in the rear” for Kondo. And for his part Yamanami may have been jealous of the close relationship that the other Vice-commander had with the Commander. Yet there is also those who say that the two really respected one another. And there is evidence that this was true, at least before they came to Kyoto. Hijikata is supposed to have dedicated one of his poems to Yamanami while they were at the Shieikan together.

As for the day that Yamanami “escaped”, the samurai of other domains reported seeing many of the Shinsengumi leaving their headquarters. This could mean that Okita was actually not the only one sent to bring him back or it may be that something entirely different may have happened to Yamanami which caused his death.

It is claimed that Yamanami was suffering from some sort of neurosis at the time of his death. This may have been because his physical condition was not so good. There is a story that in 1864, around the time of the New Year’s Holidays, Yamanami went to help Kondo stop a burglar at a shop in Kyoto. It is supposed that he either received a serious wound on his back during this incident or else that he fell seriously ill just afterwards. Which ever one of the two it may have been, something seems to have caused him to no longer be able to participate in the group’s activities afterwards. He was given an “honorary” post at this time because he was forced from the front lines. Unable to do his job, he fell into a gloomy depression.

Apparently his condition was serious enough that he was still unable to fight at Ikeda-ya. Illness is cited as the reason for his absence there. While this raises the possibility that it was a sickness that pushed him to the sidelines after the New Year’s incident, it could have also been due to a deteriorating condition if he had indeed received a physical injury that permanently disabled him. For this reason he felt that he was useless to the group and was no longer able to influence it’s policies. It was this constant brooding over his health and change in circumstances that may have finally led him to take his own life.

The real truth of Yamanami’s death will most likely always remain a mystery.

There were many who regretted his death. He was buried at Kouenji Temple, where he had been on friendly terms with the chief priest. (This was because Yamanami’s family crest and the one the temple used were the same.) Lots of people from Mibu as well as the Shinsengumi members attended his funeral.

Love Life –

Another enduring legend about Yamanami is the love affair he had with a Tenjin of Shimabara named Akesato. (A Tenjin was the second highest ranking class of prostitute at that time in Kyoto.) Although she was not extremely beautiful, she was considered to have been an elegant person. The day that he was to commit seppuku, the ceremony was delayed long enough for Nagakura to run to Shimabara and fetch Akesato. She came to the Maekawa estate and said a final, tearful farewell to him at the lattice window beside the main gate. This is all that is known of Akesato.

The problem is that she may have never existed at all. There is no record of such a person working in Shimabara under that name at the time the Shinsengumi were in Kyoto. It is possible that such records may have been lost over time, but even worse is the fact that the sole source of this story is the work of Shimozawa Kan, who many suspect may have fabricated much of the “history” he recorded about the Shinsengumi. Shimozawa claimed to have seen a record left by Saito Hajime from which he got many of his details about the group, but no one since has been able to find any trace of this book and so his story is suspect. Perhaps just as incriminating is the fact that Nagakura, the person who was supposed to have gone to get Akesato that day, does not mention such an episode at all.

However the issue of whether or not she truly existed will most likely be debated for a long time to come.