Saitō Hajime (斎藤 一, February 18, 1844 – September 28, 1915) was a Japanese samurai of the late Edo period, who most famously served as the captain of the third unit of the Shinsengumi. He was one of the few core members who survived the numerous wars of the Bakumatsu period.
Saitō was born in Edo, Musashi Province (now Tokyo).Very little is known about his early life. He was born Yamaguchi Hajime (山口 一) to Yamaguchi Yūsuke (山口 祐助), an ashigaru of the Akashi Domain, who had bought the rank of gokenin (a low-ranking retainer directly serving the Tokugawa shogun). He had an older brother named Hiroaki and an older sister named Katsu. According to the published records of his family, Saitō left Edo in 1862, after accidentally killing a hatamoto. He went to Kyoto and taught in the dōjō of a man named Yoshida, who had relied on Saitō’s father Yūsuke in the past. His style of swordsmanship is not clear. According to a tradition of His descendants, His style comes from Ittō-ryū. His style is considered to be Mugai Ryū that originates from Yamaguchi Ittō-ryū. He is also considered to have learned Tsuda Ichi-den-ryū and Sekiguchi-ryū.
The same age as Okita Sōji and another member named Tōdō Heisuke, the three shared the distinction of being one of the youngest in Kondō Isami’s group and being among its most gifted swordsmen. As a member of the Shinsengumi, Saitō was said to be an introvert and a mysterious person; a common description of his personality says he “was not a man predisposed to small talk.” Saitō was an unusually tall man at 5′ 11″. He was also noted to be very dignified, especially in his later years. He always made sure that his obi was tied properly and when he walked he was careful not to drag his feet. At rest he always sat in the formal position, called seiza, and he would remain very alert so that he could react instantly to any situations that might occur.
He was, however, known to be very intimidating when he wanted to be. Along with his duties as Captain of the Third Squad in the Shinsengumi, he was also responsible for weeding out any potential spies within the Shinsengumi ranks. Members had to constantly be mindful of what they said around him.
His original position within the Shinsengumi was assistant to the vice commander (副長助勤 fukuchō jokin). His duties included being a kenjutsu instructor. Despite prior connections to Aizu, his descendants dispute that he served as a spy. His role as an internal spy for the Shinsengumi is also questionable; one common example being that he is said to have been instructed to join Itō Kashitarō’s splinter group in 1867, to spy on them. However, this is disputed by Abe Jūrō, who did not believe he was a spy. It is probable that he also monitored other intelligence and enemy activity. His controversial reputation comes from accounts that he executed several corrupt members of the Shinsengumi; however, rumors vary as to his role in the deaths of Takeda Kanryūsai and Tani Sanjūrō.
In the reorganization of the ranks in late 1864, he was first assigned as the fourth unit’s captain. At Nishi Hongan-ji in April 1865 he was assigned as the third unit’s captain. Saitō was considered to be on the same level of swordsmanship as the first troop captain Okita Sōji and the second troop captain Nagakura Shinpachi. In fact, it is rumoured that Okita feared his swordskill. Together with the rest of the Shinsengumi, he became a hatamoto in 1867. After the outbreak of the Boshin War (1868–1869), Saitō took part in Shinsengumi’s fight during the Battle of Toba-Fushimi and the Battle of Kōshū-Katsunuma, before withdrawing with the Shinsengumi’s survivors to the Aizu domain.
Due to Hijikata Toshizō being incapacitated as a result of the injuries sustained at the Battle of Utsunomiya Castle, Saitō became the commander of the Aizu Shinsengumi around May 26, 1868 under the name Yamaguchi Jirō (山口 次郎) (which he had used since late 1867). After the Battle of Bonari Pass, when Hijikata decided to retreat from Aizu, Saitō parted with Hijikata and continued to fight with the Aizu army until the very end of the Battle of Aizu. This parting account was recorded in Kuwana retainer Taniguchi Shirōbei’s diary, where it was recorded as an occurrence also involving Ōtori Keisuke, whom Hijikata requested to take command of the Shinsengumi; thus the said confrontation was not with Hijikata. However, questions regarding this parting remain, especially considering the conflicting dates.
Saitō, along with the few remaining men of the Shinsengumi who went with him, fought against the imperial army at Nyorai-dō (a small temple near Aizuwakamatsu Castle), where they were severely outnumbered. It was at the Battle of Nyorai-dō that Saitō was thought to have been killed in action; however, he managed to get back to Aizu lines and joined the Aizu domain’s military as a member of the Suzakutai. After Aizuwakamatsu Castle fell, Saitō joined a group of former Aizu retainers who traveled southwest to the Takada Domain in Echigo Province, where they were held as prisoners of war. In the records listing the Aizu men detained in Takada, Saitō is on record as Ichinose Denpachi.
The picture show Saitō seated with his second son Tsuyoshi, his eldest son Tsutomu, and his wife Tokiwo in 1897.
After the Meiji Restoration
Saitō, now known as Fujita Gorō (藤田 五郎), traveled to Tonami, the new domain of the Matsudaira clan of Aizu. He took up residence with Kurasawa Heijiemon, the Aizu karō who was an old friend of his from Kyoto. Kurasawa was involved in the migration of Aizu samurai to Tonami and the building up of the settlements in Tonami (now Aomori Prefecture), particularly in Gonohe village. In Tonami, Saitō met Shinoda Yaso, the daughter of an Aizu retainer. The two met through Kurasawa, who was then living with Ueda Shichirō, another Aizu retainer. Kurasawa sponsored Saitō and Yaso’s marriage on August 25, 1871; the couple lived in Kurasawa’s house. It was also around this time that Saitō may have become associated with the Police Bureau. Saitō and Yaso moved out of the Kurasawa house on February 10, 1873 and started living in the Ueda household. When on June 10, 1874 he left Tonami for Tokyo, Yaso moved in with Kurasawa and the Kurasawa family records last entry of her is in 1876. It is unknown what happened afterwards. It was around this time Saitō (Fujita Gorō) began to work as a police officer in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
In 1874, Saitō married Takagi Tokio. Tokio was the daughter of Takagi Kojūrō, a retainer of the Aizu domain. Her original name was Sada; she served for a time as lady-in-waiting to Matsudaira Teru. The marriage is believed to have been sponsored by the former Aizu karō Yamakawa Hiroshi and Sagawa Kanbei as well as the former lord of Aizu Matsudaira Katamori. Saitō and Tokio had three children: Tsutomu (1876–1956); Tsuyoshi (1879–1946); and Tatsuo (1886–1945). Tsutomu and his wife Nishino Midori had seven children; the Fujita (Saitō) family continues to the present day through Tarō and Naoko Fujita, the children of Tsutomu’s second son Makoto. Saitō’s third son Tatsuo was adopted by the Numazawa family, Tokio’s maternal relatives (another family of Aizu karō) whose family had nearly been wiped out in the Boshin War.
He fought on the Meiji government’s side during Saigō Takamori’s Satsuma rebellion, as a member of the police forces sent to support the Imperial Japanese Army.
During his lifetime, Saitō shared some of his Shinsengumi experiences with a select few, these included Aizu natives Yamakawa Kenjirō and Takamine Hideo, whose houses he frequented. He would drink sake with Yamakawa and Takamine and tell stories of his past. However, he did not write anything about his activity in the Shinsengumi as Nagakura Shinpachi did. During his life in the Meiji period, Saitō was the only one who was authorised by the government to carry a Katana despite the collapse of the Tokugawa rule. Saitō assisted Nagakura and Matsumoto Ryōjun in setting up a memorial monument in honor of Kondō Isami and Hijikata Toshizō.
Saitō worked for Ochanomizu University in later years, as well as for the Tokyo Higher Normal School and Tokyo Education Museum, jobs he secured thanks to his friendship with Takamine Hideo. Takamine also relied upon Saitō’s skill as an appraiser of swords, and gave Saitō permission to freely enter his art warehouse.
Saitō’s heavy drinking is believed to have contributed to his death from a stomach ulcer. He died in 1915 at age 72, sitting in seiza in his living room.