Mystery Solved: Toyama Temple Helmet and Armor Determined to Belong to Shinsengumi Leader Kondō Isami

The famed swordsman Kondō Isami, a key player in the Tokugawa shogunate’s struggle against pro-imperial forces in the late Edo period, remains a popular figure for his bravery and sense of duty. The recent discovery of his helmet and armor in a temple in Toyama Prefecture has shed new light on Kondō’s life and his relationship with the influential samurai Yamaoka Tesshū.

Kokutaiji Buddhist Temple in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, where I live, is recognized as one of the 15 branches of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Although nestled deep in the mountains, the modest temple shares the same status as sprawling Zen centers such as Myōshinji and Tenryūji in Kyoto. It has attracted a long list of notable figures over its history, including philosopher Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) and scholar Suzuki Daisetz (1870–1966), known to many in the West as DT Suzuki, who in his youth spent time studying Zen. at the temple.

The Sanmon Gate of Zen Rinzai Kokutaiji Temple. (© Pixta)

More recently, Kokutaiji has drawn attention for the surprising discovery of the helmet and armor of Kondō Isami (1834-1868), who commanded the famous Shinsengumi force in the late Edo period (1603-1868). The clothes were donated to the temple by Yamaoka Tesshū (1836-1888), an influential servant of the Tokugawa shogunate. The armor raises questions about the relationship Kondō and Yamaoka shared and how such important relics were housed in a remote temple in the remote Hokuriku region.

Kondō and the Shinsengumi

Faced with growing resistance from forces loyal to the emperor, the Tokugawa regime formed a guard in 1863 to protect the fourteenth shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi (r. 1859-1866), during his stay in Kyoto. The Rōshigumi consisted of approximately 230 ronin (leaderless samurai), with the only registration requirement being that members be able to defend themselves with a blade. Kondō, an accomplished swordsman, joined the group. The shogunate gave Yamaoka, who was also skilled with a sword, the responsibility of overseeing the band of warriors, and it is believed that he and Kondō first met through their involvement with the Rōshigumi.

Shortly after its formation, the group disbanded and its members were sent back to the capital Edo (now Tokyo). Kondō was one of a handful of dissidents who chose to remain in Kyoto. He then made a name for himself as commander of the Shinsengumi, a shogunal police force formed by the remnants of the Rōshigumi who fought against Imperial loyalists seeking to overthrow the feudal government. Letters attributed to Kondō show that he corresponded with Yamaoka even after leaving the Rōshigumi.

Kondō will eventually pay with his life for his allegiance to the shogunate. At the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in January 1868 on the outskirts of Kyoto, which marked the beginning of the decisive Boshin Civil War, the forces of the new Meiji government led by the domains of Chōshū and Satsuma routed those of the shogunate Tokugawa. As the conflict raged, the Shinsengumi’s casualties increased and the members scattered. Kondō was eventually captured near Edo and beheaded as a traitor at age 35.

A life of service

Yamaoka served the shogunate until the end, including helping negotiate the peaceful surrender of Edo Castle in 1868 to forces led by Saigō Takamori (1828-1877). He then became an aide to Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) at the behest of his former enemy Saigō, serving the young monarch for a decade and assisting in his moral and scholarly education. In fact, many credit Yamaoka, who sometimes blamed his royal office for his habit of indulging in late-night drinking, with helping set Emperor Meiji on the ethical path that defined his long tenure on the Chrysanthemum Throne. .

After leaving office, Yamaoka founded Zenshōan Zen Temple in Tokyo’s Yanaka district to commemorate those killed in service to the feudal government. The temple would later receive patronage from political notables such as Prime Ministers Nakasone Yasuhiro and Abe Shinzō, who would come to practice zazen meditation.

Yamaoka’s decision to gift Kondō’s armor to a distant temple in Toyama probably stemmed from his desire to honor the slain warrior without drawing the wrath of the Meiji government, which viewed Kondō as a renegade and would have opposed the idea of ​​him. be publicly commemorated. According to Matsuyama Mitsuhiro, the chief curator of the Shinminato Museum in Izumi who researched the history of the armor, Yamaoka kept the artifacts until the events of the Boshin War began to fade. public and political consciousness. He then chose Kokutaiji for his connection to the Tokugawa family, whom Kondō had served.

An unexpected discovery

The existence of the helmet and armor itself was no mystery. However, all records of who the items belonged to or how they got to Kokutaiji had been lost. They had been locked up in the temple in sealed wooden boxes for years and had supposedly only seen the light of day once or twice. Then in 2020, the discovery of a register listing the artifacts provided a long-awaited answer to the riddle. Among the many entries in the old document was one describing Yamaoka’s contribution of a helmet and armor belonging to Kondō.

A register listing Kokutaiji artifacts (cover right).  The entry in the second column from the left identifies armor and helmet belonging to the
A register listing Kokutaiji artifacts (cover right). The entry in the second column from the left identifies an armor and helmet belonging to “Commander Shinsengumi Kondō Isami” and lists Yamaoka as the donor.

When an investigation revealed no other sets of armor at the temple, the pieces were determined to be the same as mentioned in the ledger. Kokutaiji then partnered with the Shinminato Museum to study the artifacts. An expertise by an expert revealed that the set had been fashioned in the Edo period from older pieces dating from the Muromachi period (1333-1568).

The helmet bears a round
The helmet bears a round “snake’s eye” emblem.

The helmet and armor were therefore determined to belong to Kondō. However, he was known to avoid such armaments and it is likely that he only wore the set once in his life.

A chance to see the treasures

Kokutaiji maintained a close relationship with the Tokugawa clan during the Edo period, including installing mortuary tablets for each of the shōguns beginning with Iemitsu (r. 1623-1651), the third head of the shogunate. However, when visiting Yamaoka as part of Emperor Meiji’s visit to the Hokuriku region, he was shocked to find that the temple had fallen into disrepair, partly due to the anti-Buddhist movement that had erupted at the beginning of the new era.

Determined to restore the temple to its former prestige, Yamaoka used his prowess with brush and ink to raise funds, creating over 10,000 works of calligraphy for sale. It was around this time that he gifted Kondō’s helmet and armor to Kokutaiji.

Yamaoka’s role in preventing war from engulfing Edo is often overshadowed by meeting the more famous characters of Saigō Takamori and Katsu Kaishū. However, Yamaoka preferred not to seek the limelight. Saigō said of Yamaoka that history can only be truly described by a person who has nothing, not life, fame or fortune, dear. The story of artifacts belonging to Kondō Isami is just one of countless examples of Yamaoka’s adherence to this philosophy.

The helmet and armor will be on display at the Imizu City Shinminato Museum until June 26, 2022.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The front and back pieces of Kondō Isami’s armor preserved at Kokutaiji in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture. All photos © Demachi Yuzuru, unless otherwise noted.)

Comments are closed.