Picture of Biyakkotai painted by Watabe Kikuji (photo was taken before send to Mussolini) and their graves on Iimori Hill
Japan was closed except to the Netherlands and China, started in 1639. The U.S.A. demanded Japan to open the country in 1853. Japan concluded a peace treaty in 1854 and a treaty of commerce in 1858 with the USA. But the internal affairs in Japan lacked stability. Stray samurai, especially from the Choshu clan (Choshu is nowadays Yamaguchi Prefecture), came to Kyoto. The Meiji restoration was started by them. And the Clans, that exported a lot of goods, imported weapons and became stronger.
Matsudaira Katamori (1835-1893), the last prince of the Aizu clan, was sent by Tokugawa Ieshige, the Shogun, with his warriors to Kyoto to protect the Emperor in 1862 (Emperors resided in Kyoto until the end of the Edo-era). As the Choshu-clan opened fire upon the Imperial palace, Aizu, Satsuma (Satsuma is nowadays Kagoshima Prefecture) and Kuwana (Kuwna is nowadays Mie Prefecture) struck the Choshu clan. The Emperor, Komei (1831-1866), placed trust in Matsudaira and sent a letter with Tankas (Tanka is a Japanese short poem of thirty-one syllables).
But the situation turned. The Satsuma and the Choshu clans formed an alliance. Then, the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieshige and the Emperor, Komei died suddenly in 1866. Matsudaira lost hope.
Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1839-1913) became the last shogun just before the Emperor, Komei died. And the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912) ascended the throne. The Satsuma and the Choshu clans became stronger. The Edo shogunate gave back the reins of goverment to the Imperial Court on October 14, 1867. But the shogunate remained. The Satsuma and the Choshu clans wanted a pretext to take down the shogunate.
The Satsuma-clan did acts of terrorism everywhere and founded unrest to arouse the Shogunate. The Shogun, Yoshinobu, was very angry and went to Kyoto with his soldiers under provocation. They fought with the Aizu clan and Shinsengumi against the Satsuma and Choshu clans. But they had a lot of weapons. The shogunate unit was defeated on January 3, 1868. The battle was called "The Battle of Toba and Fushimi", and was the first battle of the Boshin War.
Even though Satzuma and Choshu were victorious they remained dissatisfied. During the war they took advantage of the emperor, calling themselves 'the imperial unit'. In Aizu they were named 'the western unit', because the Aizu-clan were not opponents of the emperor. Many clans capitulated, so the new government unit was unparalleled in Japan. Thus, incorporating their enemies forces, they marched north and reached Aizu on August 22, 1868. Aizu capitulated on September 22, 1869. Despite being outnumbered, it was important for the Aizu clan to prove their loyalty to the Emperor, the Shogun and the Prince.
The Meiji Emperor arrived in Edo castle on October 13, 1868. He changed the name of Edo to Tokyo and punished the clans that were against the unit of the new government. The samurai of the Aizu can had to go into exile to Shimokita Peninsula as Tonami clan. Matsudaira's life was spared and he lived as a Shinto priest with the last Shogunm, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, of 'Nikko Toshogu . The new government ordered Matsudaira's Karo (Karo means Count), Kanno Gonbei, who had to perform harakiri (ritual suicide). All bodies of the Aizu clan were left as a warning to other clans.
Some survivors of the unit of the shogunate (Aizu clan and the Shinsengumi) went to Hakodate in Hokkaido and fought against the unit of the new government. Some French fought with them, too, from beginning of the war. The Shogunate had asked the French government to help. First, the French supported the shogunate and England supported the unit of the new government. But French turned seeing the progress of the battle. The other countries, for example US, Italy and Prussia stood first neutral and then supported the unit of the new government. So the French who fought in Hakodate with the unit of the shogunate were the deserters. They supported until the end of the war with the same unit.
The War ended in Goryokaku 1869. The new government named Aizu clan 'rebels' and didn't permit a person from there to go into politics for about a half century.
The governer of Aizu reformed the military management and introduced a French method in March, 1868, at the end of the Edo-era (Tokugawa shogunate, 1603-1868). The government formed four units according to the ages of the samurai.
1. Seiryutai (The unit of blue dragon) They were 36 - 49 years old. Seiryu is the god of east.
2. Byakkotai (The unit of white tiger) They were 16 - 17 years old. Byakko is the god of west.
3. Suzakutai (The unit of red sparrow.) They were 18 - 35 years old. Suzaku is the god of south.
4. Genbutai (The unit of black turtle. It is half snake and half turtle.) They were over 50 years old. Genbu is the god of north.
Every Unit was divided according to the class system. The Byakkotai had three units.
The Byakko-Taishi (samurai of the unit.) commited themselves to their prince, Matsudaira Katamori. 20 of the Shichutai-Taishi of the Byakkotai went to Iimori hill, because they had lost in Tonokuchihara, and wanted to prepare for the next war. But they saw on August 23, that the castle was wrapped in smoke. They thought that the castle had burned. All young Taishi had thought the same. A Taishi, Shinoda Gisaburo recited his favorite lyric by Bun Ten Sho aus So (China). Ishida Wasuke, who was seriously injured, recited the last verse together. And then, Ishida said "Forgive me, Iíd like to kill myself first, because Iím injured." He began seppuku (harakiri) according to the method he'd studied, then his comrade executed him, this final blow being the coup de gr‚ce' (The young samurai studied the art of seppukui at the school, Nisshinkan, and it was an honour, to execute him). Following this, Shinoda Gisaburo cut his own windpipe. Nagase Yuji and Hayashi Yasoji stabbed each other (Nagase was too injured to do it himself.) Hayahi asked Nomura Komashiro to execuse him. Then, all the young samurai committed seppuku on Iimori Hill. The exact spot where they did this was on a narrow slope. It is important to note that since there was no one else to aid them in their seppuku.They all died a slow, agonizing death. Thus, the Aizu clan was defeated. However, the very irony of their mass suicide was that the very castle which they thought had burned, and for which they killed themselves, in fact had not burned. Later, a woman came to the Iimori Hill, and found 19 bodies, and one survivor, Iinuma Sadakichi.
There were many young people, women and children in Aizu, who killed themselves or fell in battle. But the occurrence of the Byakkotai was told not only in Japan, but also in foreign countries, although Iinuma, the survivor, hadnít related his own experiences so much. Lieutenant-general in the British Army, Robert Baden-Powell told about the Byakkotai at the first Jamboree in Olympia, London, 1920. This was the beginning, the Byakkotai had earned its place in history. Iinuma changed his first name Sadakichi to Sadao and moved to Sendai. He didn't come back to Aizu-Wakamatsu until his death (died in 1931 at age of 79). As he requested in his will, his grave lies on the Iimori Hill with a memorial. There are some books written about his experiences. One of those authors was a German, Richard Heise (1869-1940) who was his acquaintance. He was a professor at the Hitotsubashi University. Richard Heise was impressed by the story of the Byakkotai, and he too requested to be buried on the Iimori Hill. There are two graves of two German families, his grave with Yoshi, his Japanese wife, and the other grave of his son, Erich (1913-1983) and his wife, Nina. There are two stone monuments opposite the graves of the Byakkotai Hanshi on the Iimori Hill, a German ambassador, Hasso von Etzdorf (1900-1989) and the other big comumn that was dug up in Pompeii by the Roman Senate and was sent to Aizu on December 1, 1928. The Byakkotai was used then for militarism.