Okita Soji (沖田総司)

Soji OKITA (summer, 1842 or 1844 - July 19, 1868) was a member of the Shinsengumi, a special police force in Kyoto, at the end of Edo period (there are two theories about the year of his birth, but no decisive historical materials against either of them have been found. Also, no historical materials confirming his birth date have ever been identified, and all that is known is that he was born in summer). He was the Assistant Vice Commander, captain of the First Corps and a master of kenjutsu sword fighting. His real family name was Fujiwara. His Imina (original name) was Harumasa and later, Kaneyoshi. His childhood name was Sojiro.

He was the eldest son of Katsujiro OKITA, a clansman of Shirakawa Domain in Mutsu Province. He had two older sisters, one of whom, Mitsu OKITA, married Rintaro OKITA, making him the head of the family. Mitsu's great grand son Tetsuya OKITA (1930-) is a scholar of public administration and an emeritus professor of the department of politics and economics at Meiji University.


He was born in Shirakawa Domain's Edo residence (Minato Ward, Tokyo). His father Katsujiro died when he was four years old, and it is thought that his mother also died when he was young. At the age of about nine, he was apprenticed to Shuzo KONDO, who taught the Tennen Rishin-ryu style of martial arts at a dojo in Ichigaya, Edo, and it was here at the Shieikan dojo that he met fellow students Isami KONDO and Toshizo HIJIKATA, who would later be central in the formation of the Shinsengumi. Even though he was young, he served as the school manager of Tennenrishinryu. Okita's genius with the sword is said to have been unequalled although his teaching style was rather rough. Later in his life, he softened his teaching style.

He joined the Roshigumi (an organization of masterless samurai) upon its formation in 1863 and left for Kyoto, remaining there with Kondo and forming the Shinsengumi after the group split. Okita's First Corps was constantly tasked with important missions and, although the Shinsengumi was filled with expert swordsmen, often had the most number of kills, and was involved in the assassinations of Kamo SERIZAWA and Hikojiro UCHIYAMA in October, 1863.

Okita's first recorded kill was on the evening of May 11, 1863. His opponent was Yoshio TONOUCHI, a member of the Roshigumi's First Unit, who had come at Hachiro KIYOKAWA's request.

After the Ikedaya Incident of July 8, 1864, where he was involved in the killings of several members of the anti-Shogunate faction, he collapsed after coughing up blood from tuberculosis (according to many theories) but based on his subsequent involvement in the Shinsengumi, it is unreasonable to think that he developed lung tuberculosis on that day. Instead, there is a theory that he collapsed from heat stroke.

In February 1865, he was sent after Shinsengumi Vice Commander Keisuke YAMANAMI, who had attempted to desert, and arrested him in Kusatsu City, Omi Province. Yamanami committed suicide assisted by Okita. Although Okita seemed to regard Yamanami as an older brother, he barely touched upon Yamanami's death in a letter he sent home.

He was active on the front lines until 1867, after which, unable to take part in the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, he was escorted to Osaka.
(The most widely-accepted theory at present is that he was injured on his way to the Battle of Toba-Fushimi and developed tuberculosis on the boat he was being escorted to Osaka on.)
After defeat at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, he sailed back to Edo with other members and although according to several theories he joined the Koyo Chinbutai (the successor to the Shinsengumi), he was forced to drop out halfway. After that, it is thought that Ryojun MATSUMOTO, a retainer of the Shogun, made arrangements for him to hide in a plant shop in Sendagaya, where he died in 1868. Since his date of birth is uncertain, there are several opinions about how old he was when he died, but he is believed to have been between twenty-five and twenty-seven.

The purpose of their attack was to avenge the murder of their leader, Kashitaro ITO, by the Shinsengumi the previous month, but Okita had left for the Fushimi Magistrate's office and therefore escaped the attempt. In the evening of the same day, Isami KONDO was shot and injured by Abe and the others on his way back from Nijo Castle. In the evening on the same day, Isami KONDO was shot and got injured by Abe and other members when he was back from Nijo-jo Castle.

Two months after Isami KONDO was beheaded, Okita died, unaware of KONDO's death.
The poem he composed on his deathbed reads 'In the dark, flowers and water cannot be discerned unless they move'
His grave is in Sensho-ji Temple in Motoazabu 3 cho-me, Minato Ward, Tokyo. His Kaimyo (posthumous Buddhist name) given by Sensho-ji Temple is Kenkoinjinyomeido-koji. The inscription on the Okita family grave stone states that he held menkyo-kaiden (a document handed down by a teacher to the student he believes is most capable of carrying on his art) for the Hokushin Itto-ryu school as well as Tennen Rishin-ryuu.

There are three theories about his age when he died: twenty-four according to the Okita family grave stone; twenty-five according to documents held by the Okita family; and twenty-seven, if, as described in Shikanosuke KOJIMA's "Ryoyushiden", he was twenty-two when he left for Kyoto. There are also two opinions about the place where he died, one being Sendagaya and the other Imado (Taito Ward), but at present, it is widely accepted that after staying in Imado to recuperate for a while, he moved to Sendagaya and died there.


Shozan SAKUMA's son, Keinosuke MIURA, had been made fun of by a fellow Shinsengumi officer. There is a story that a few days later, Hijikata and Okita were playing a game of Go when Miura attacked the officer who had made fun of him from behind and Okita, infuriated by the cowardly attack, grabbed Miura by the collar and, calling him a 'bloody idiot', pushed his face into the floor until his nose was raw.

Belying his appearance as an able leader of the Ichiban-gumi, he was apparently a cheerful person who was always telling jokes and laughing. It seems he often played with children in his neighborhood. When novelist Ryotaro SHIBA was writing a book featuring the Shinsengumi, he interviewed an old woman who used to play with Okita when she was small.
(Taking into account that the interview took place around 1960 and that the Meiji Restoration was in 1868, the woman must have been quite old, but it means that people who actually met Soji OKITA were still alive.)

Although Kanefumi NISHIMURA was known for severely criticizing Kondo, Hijikata and other members of the Shinsengumi, he left no comments on Okita or Keisuke YAMANAMI. This seems to show that Nishimura had no bad feelings towards Yamanami and Okita, and Okita is believed to have been easy-going towards people who were not hostile to the Shinsengumi.

It is believed that just before his death, he tried several times to kill a black cat which often sneaked into the plant shop's yard but always missed and, realizing his own weakness, he said as follows.
Alas, I cannot kill it!'
See! (he said to the old woman who was attending him), I cannot kill it' (this story is said to have been created by Kan SHIMOZAWA.)

There is also a story that he was worried about Kondo and, up until his death, he repeatedly asked, 'I am wondering how the master (Kondo) has been. Didn't we receive a letter from him?'
Because people close to him were prohibited from telling him about Kondo's death, he passed away without learning of it. There is another anecdote that when Kondo was still alive and visiting Okita in bed before setting out with the Koyo Chinbutai, the usually cheerful Okita on this occasion sobbed loudly.

It is generally thought that Kondo, Hijikata and Okita were very close to each other, with Hijikata and Okita in particular being like brothers, but this is largely the result of novels by Ryotaro SHIBA and Kan SHIMOZAWA. There are no materials to show that Hijikata and Okita were extremely close, although there is a record of Okita writing a letter on behalf of Hijikata.

Juro ABE, who was opposed to the Shinsengumi, said, 'Kondo's high-caliber disciples, Soji OKITA and Kuwajiro OISHI, are very cruelhearted men and, from the beginning, appear not to have realized even the existence of the state or the Imperial Court' ("Shidankaisokkiroku") and attacked them and Izo OKADA for having no ideological background and for being used as "tools to kill people".

In addition, according to Okita's students, he was 'extremely harsh and quick-tempered' and they feared him more than the master, Kondo. The image of Okita gained from anecdotes such as his telling his trainees, 'Don't kill people with your sword! Kill them with your body!' and other records differs greatly from the gentle and calm image that is widely known in public.

Sword Technique

Okita's most famous sword technique is the 'Sandantsuki' (Three Stage Thrust). Starting from the Tennenrishin-ryu stance of 'hiraseigan', he delivered three thrusts in the time he was heard to take one step forward. It is often presented in novels as his opponent thinking he has been stabbed once when actually, in the blink of an eye, he has been stabbed three times. However, the exact details are unknown.

According to Sen SATO in "Shinsengumi Ibun", Okita's sword style was identical to his master, Kondo's and even his thin, high-pitched yells were very alike.
However, it is thought that he had a habit of leaning his body forward and holding his sword with the point slightly lowered, a slightly different posture to Kondo, who pushed his abdomen a little forward in the hiraseigan stance.)

Shinpachi NAGAKURA's statement that Okita's technique 'left Toshizo HIJIKATA, Genzaburo INOUE, Heisuke TODO, Keisuke YAMANAMI and the others looking like children playing with bamboo swords. Everyone said that if Okita seriously fought his master, Kondo would lose,' ("Nagakura Shinpachi Idan,") is well-known but there are also comments to the same effect from outside the Shinsengumi's inner circle. Shikanosuke KOJIMA mentioned before the formation of Shinsengumi (in July 1862) that Okita 'is someone who will definitely reach the level of a master of the sword later in his life' ("Kojima Nikki") and Kanefumi NISHIMURA, although critical of the Shinsengumi, called him 'Kondo's most cherished follower and the best swordsman in his unit' and 'a genius with the sword' ("Mibu Roshi Shimatsuki"). Juro ABE, who fought against the Shinsengumi, stated in "Shidankaisokkiroku" that 'As one of Kondo's students, Soji OKITA is an excellent swordsman', ' Soji OKITA and Kamajiro OISHI are young but have shown great skill with the sword on many occasions' and 'Kamajiro OISHI, Soji OKITA and Genzaburo INOUE have killed people without reason', all of which shows it would have been extremely dangerous to make enemies of them.
The only negative opinion was from Yaichiro CHIBA, a member of the Shinchogumi (the Shinsengumi's Edo counterpart) and a colleague of Okita's brother-in-law, who said, 'from our viewpoint, their skills are suitable for mokuroku (a low level)'
Of course, Nagakura's statement that Yamanami, who had attained 'menkyo-kaiden' in the Hokushin Itto-ryu, and Todo, who was almost at the mokuroku level, were like children seems extreme, but may imply how superb and outstanding Okita's skill with the sword was.

Okita's Sword

In novels, the sword owned by Soji OKITA is depicted as being a 'Kikuichimonji Norimune' (swords made at the beginning of the thirteenth century). The story gained popularity following its appearance in the novel "Shinsengumi Keppuroku" by Ryotaro SHIBA, who based it on descriptions in biograraphies such as that by Kan SHIMOZAWA, where the sword is described as being 'a thin Kikuichimonji one'. However, despite being a period when Japanese swords were everyday items, Norimune swords were extremely valuable old swords, and it is believed that, from an economical point of view and from the necessity of having to use it often in actual battles, Okita would hardly have been likely to own one, although the matter has hardly been discussed among researchers. Okita is known to have owned swords made by Kiyomitsu KASHU and Yasusada YAMATO NO KAMI. In addition to the Norimune swords, there were several other thin types of swords with a "Kikuniichi" crest, and it is possible that Okita's sword may have been one of these. In any event, like the other members of the Shinsengumi, he is likely to have exchanged his swords often during his stay in Kyoto.

A Handsome Youth

Since his appearance in Ryotaro SHIBA's novels, he has often been depicted in fiction, including novels and TV series, as a handsome young man. Okita's likeness can be seen in a portrait that was painted in 1929 based on a claim by his older sister, Mitsu, that her grandson, Kaname, 'somehow resembles Soji'.
There are no descriptions of him being 'a handsome youth' from members of the Yagi family or from people connected to the Shinsengumi; instead, he is described as having a 'face like a flatfish, though tanned and not unnattractive when laughing', 'square shoulders', 'a rounded back' and being 'very tall.'
(In "Ryoma ni omakase!" (Leave things to Ryoma) and "Getsumeiseiki - Sayonara Shinsengumi", the depiction of Okita was closer to the above.)
The image that emerges from these descriptions casts doubt on the 'handsome youth' theory. Ryotaro SHIBA, wanting to enhance the drama (a young man killed by tuberculosis just as his skill with the sword is becoming legendary) in Okita's life and so made him a handsome young man in his novel "Moeyo Ken", which was followed by many other works, including the movie "Bakumatsu Junjoden" in which Okita was depicted as beatiful girl. The image of Okita as a handsome young man seems to come from the mistaken notion that the dramatized image of him as "a powerful swordsman and cheerful but, at the same time, sickly and pale" is the generally accepted image. The fact that Okita is always played on the screen by young, good-looking actors is also thought to have had a significant influence on his image.

However, the origin of the 'Soji's face is like a flatfish' belief seemed to be a light jokey answer made by a great grand son of Hikogoro SATO when Haruo TANI said a lighthearted joke to him in a TV program, and according to Tani, 'Soji's face is like a flatfish' does not mean his face is flat but the two eyes of other family members including his sisters in photos are closely-spaced. However, Tetsuya OKITA completely rejected this idea. According to him, Soji was described within the Okita family as 'a light-skinned and small man'.

For likenesses and pictures, follow the external links.

Soji OKITA's Romance

Following his appearance in Ryotaro SHIBA's books, Okita is generally often depicted in fiction as a pure and innocent young man. Most works describe him as having a platonic relationship with the daughter of a local doctor, and in actual fact, he seems to have steered clear of women from Karyukai (the geisha district), unlike Kondo and Hijikata. However, according to the April 22, 1863 entry of his Matsugoro INOUE's diary, Hijikata, Matsugoro, Genzaburo INOUE and Okita paid for prostitutes at the Yoshidaya in the Kuken-cho area of the Shinmachi courtesan's district, so it cannot be said that he never played around with women, although when talk turned to a woman he was fond of, he became very serious.

The register of deaths at Koen-ji Temple lists as 'Okita's relative' a woman who is thought to have been Okita's lover. According to the researchers, the woman's name was Tsune ISHII and she had a daughter. It is believed, but unproven, that the woman gave birth to Okita's daughter, who was named Kyo. There was another Okita in the Shinsengumi, a man called Jonoshin OKITA, who had been recruited by Hijikata in Edo in 1865, and there is a theory that the 'Okita' in the register of deaths may be Jonoshin.

There is an old anecdote that a woman (who was apparently a strong-willed and spirited person) working in the Shieikan dojo asked Okita to marry her but he turned down her proposal, saying 'I am still an apprentice' (the woman attempted suicide, possibly because of his rejection, and later married another man after being introduced by Kondo). It is believed that this woman was Ko IWATA, who is thought to have been Shuhei KONDO's fiancée.

He is also thought to have been close to a girl called Kin, the daughter of the Satomo Inn on Aburakoji Street.

Onset of Tuberculosis

Works of fiction always have Soji OKITA coughing up blood and collapsing during the fighting in the Ikedaya Incident. However, as mentioned above, this anecdote is not supported by researchers. Reasons include the fact that the description of Okita's coughing up blood only appears in Kan SHIMOZAWA's "Shinsengumi Shimatsuki"; Okita participated in the hunt for the remnants of the Choshu forces (see "Akebonotei Jiken", the Akebonotei Incident); and there is a record ("Koshi sensoki" Kanefumi NISHIMURA) of him joining Isami KONDO, Saizo HIJIKATA, Kanryusai TAKEDA and Shinpachi NAGAKURA in the Kinmon Incident the following month, and if his tuberculosis was advanced enough to cause him to cough up blood, they would not have dared to let him go.

There is another anecdote that after the Shinsengumi's group medical examination in around 1866, the shogunate's doctor, Ryojun MATSUMOTO, left a note that 'one of the members had pulmonary tuberculosis', and it is thought that the man may have been Soji OKITA. In 1867, the disease seems to have progressed enough that people around him noticed it; Shikanosuke KOJIMA in "Ryoyu jitsuroku" said he contracted it in March; according to Kanefumi NISHIMURA's "Mibu Roshi Shimatsuki", he was seriously ill around September when the quarters were moved to Fudodo Village; and in a letter to Kondo dated October 13, Kojima wrote that he was worried about Okita's worsening condition. Given the above, when Okita's health condition worsened so critical that he could not bear fighting was from autumn to winter in 1867. It is also thought that his intense exercise might have been an added burden on his lungs and aggravated his illness.

The scenes of Okita spitting blood and falling unconscious at the Ikedaya in works such as "Shinsengumi Shimatsuki" seem to have originated in Shinpachi NAGAKURA's "Shinsengumi Tenmatsuki", which, while not mentioning spitting blood, does describe Okita falling unconscious. He may have suffered a light and temporary heat stroke following the intense battle, which took place on a humid and extremely hot day in early summer, and it is thought that his condition did not raise any questions about his lungs for those close to him, including Kondo and Nagakura.

[Original Japanese]