Travels: Kawakami Gensai – The Real “Rurouni Kenshin”
By Skywing Knights // July 7, 2023
Well, that time is upon us! That time for a new Rurouni Kenshin adaptation. And let’s all be honest, we’re all kind of psyched about it. The original manga “Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story” (るろうに剣心 -明治剣客浪漫譚), tells the story of Himura Kenshin (緋村 剣心), a wanderer during the post Meiji Restoration (明治維新) era of Japan who, during the Boshin War (戊辰戦争), fought on the side of the Emperor as a ‘hitokiri’ (人斬り), often translated to meaning “an assassin” in English.
The character of Himura Kenshin is an endearing one as the story follows him in his search for atonement post the events of the Boshin War and Meiji Restoration. However, being a tale of historical fiction, it is not uncommon for readers to wonder how much of Kenshin’s story was fabricated and how much of it was fantasy. And if you buy the large editions of the manga, you’ll find many a note detailing the references and inspirations that the manga-ka Nobuhiro Watsuki (西脇 伸宏) used to help him create the tale of “Rurouni Kenshin”.
And you know what? Indeed, one of them happens to confirm that he used a real “Hitokiri” as one of his inspirations. That historical figure? Kawakami Gensai.
Whose grave I happened to have visited last December. >> So yes, this topic has been on my mind. And yes, I want to talk about the man who acted as inspiration for “Samurai X”. So let’s get right into it and learn Kawakami Gensai and how his fictional counterpart and him compare to one another.
Oh, and because I know it will be needed – yes, there WILL be spoilers. You have been warned.
Who was Kawakami Gensai?
Kawakami Gensai (河上彦斎) was one of 4 “Hitokiri”, or elite swordsman who acted as warrior assassins, who operated during the end of the Edo Period (江戸時代) to bring about a return of Imperial rule to Japan. He was born in what is now Kumamoto City (熊本市) and was part of the Higo Hosokawa clan (肥後細川藩熊). This placed Gensai squarely in a region of Japan that was highly disillusioned with the reigning Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府). (At the time, the shogunate had begun to succumb to foreign pressures forcing Japan to open for trade.)
As he grew into adulthood, Kawakami Gensai polished his skills in martial arts. He also began to adopt the mentality of his contemporary samurai, the Ishin Shishi (維新志士). (Sometimes called simply “the Shishi”). The Shishi wanted the Emperor to return to power within Japan and had adopted the mentality of Sonno Joi (尊王攘夷). This roughly translates to “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians” and was an effort to preserve the sanctity of Japan. As a result, he would fight on behalf of the Sonno Joi faction to end the Tokugawa Shogunate. His prowess with the sword made him one of the most famous and renowned of the four Hitokiri of the era.
How do we know Kawakami Gensai was the inspiration for Himura Kenshin?
Well, to answer that, there is an explicit answer in that Nobuhiro Watsuki does literally tell us that Gensai was the inspiration. Among a number of locations, in the first volume of the manga, specifically in the VIZBIG English edition, Watsuki names Gensai as the source of inspiration on page 578:
There is also an entire full page about Gensai as the source for inspiration within “Rurouni Kenshin: Profiles”. However, Watsuki doesn’t particularly elaborate on why he picked Gensai out of the 4 main “Hitokiri” of the era. Rather, you have to look at the details of the story of Himura Kenshin to really begin to identify ‘signature’ attributes that the two shared. (And we’ll get those, promise.) 😉
Did Kawakami Gensai look like Himura Kenshin?
In terms of appearance, interestingly enough, the most common description of Gensai was that he was said to be sometimes mistaken for a woman, being around 150 cm tall (or about 5 ft), thin and pale. And while it was not uncommon during the era in which he lived, he also was said to have longer hair later in his life.
Similarly, Kenshin is portrayed as shorter than nearly all of the fully grown men in the series and has much longer hair than most of them as well. The character’s design is also rather effeminate, with larger eyes (when not in serious combat) and sometimes longer eyelashes.
Also, (again, when not in combat) his face is typically a bit rounder. This indicates a more youthful appearance, even though he is about 28 at the start of the series, making him older than at least two of the other male leads. As youth is often associated with beauty, this could also be an indication of Nobuhiro’s aim to possibly portray Kenshin as appearing a bit more effeminate, particularly as this contrasts greatly with other men in the series with narrower, more “war-torn” faces.
Additionally, Kenshin is not a particularly bulky individual. In fact, most of his muscle is typically hidden by his haori and hakama. Thus he would share the thin appearance of Kawakami Gensai. The exception comes in depictions of Kenshin’s immense strength displayed when he performs powerful attacks. Even then though, this only occurs in rarer or climatic circumstances.
But I know, I know – the big question is…
Did Kawakami Gensai have a famous cross or “X” shaped scar to make him “Samurai X”?
Well… Not that I could find. But it would be cool if he did, wouldn’t it? But given all the hunting I’ve done, I do not think so and I highly doubt it.
Are there any photos of Kawakami Gensai? Were they used as references for casting Takeru Satoh in the live action movies?
There are NO confirmed images of Kawakami Gensai. While you can (and maybe likely have) searched google images for photos of “Kawakami Gensai”, the main two photographs that appear in most English searches and the handful of those that appear in Japanese searches are not confirmed images of Gensai. You can see two of the most popular ones you may find below, but again, these are not confirmed, as stated in Japanese sources.
There are however, depictions of Kawakami Gensai in various pieces of Japanese art such as the ones here:
Not exactly what you think of when you think of “Himura Kenshin”, right? That’s just one way you could say that the art style of Japan has changed quite a bit! 😉
Given this information though, it is highly unlikely that Takeru Satoh (佐藤 健) was cast at all based on any likeness he had to Kawakami Gensai. (He was likely cast due to his ability to bring the endearing Kenshin to life through and through). 😉
Did Kawakami Gensai practice “Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryu”?
In the series, Kenshin is said to be the “failed” inheritor of the legendary “Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu” (飛天御剣流) style of sword fighting (not that I think any of the readers would consider him a failure). This style would allow Kenshin to take out large numbers of opponents swiftly and single-handedly.
Nothing in my research has shown Gensai practiced anything like this. Rather, most sources indicate that he was a pupil of Teizo Miyabe (宮部鼎蔵), an activist of the Sonno Joi faction. There is a theory that he trained particularly in Hoki-ryu Iai (伯耆流居合), which was the most popular iai in the Kumamoto domain (熊本藩) at the time. Additionally, there is testimony that he learned Unko-ryu (雲弘流) from the Kawakami family.
There are writing of Gensai stating that he used “his own style” of sword fighting, or rather a signature move of his own. This signature move specialized in a “one-handed drawing” of the sword in a “reverse” or “inverse” slashing manner (逆袈裟斬り). I couldn’t find anything about this being used to take out multiple enemies at once. However, the description is strikingly similar to Kenshin’s signature move in the series, the “Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki” (天翔龍の閃).
For comparison, in Kawakami Gensai’s signature move, Gensai was said to bend his right knee forward and place his left leg back and down so far that his left knee was said to just barely be touching the ground. From this point, he would quickly draw his sword with one hand to create a wide slash (a reverse kesa-slashing). Sounds a lot like Kenshin’s signature move, doesn’t it?
Did Kawakami Gensai use a Sakabato?
Again, I could not find anything to confirm that Kawakami Gensai used a “Sakabato” (逆刃刀), or a ‘reverse-blade’ katana. The idea of Kenshin’s Sakabato could however be a nod to Gensai’s signature ‘reverse kesa slashing’, as described above, further cementing an additional similarity between Kenshin and Gensai if nothing else. (The Kanji meaning ‘reverse’ is also the same in both words). It is said that the Saya (鞘), or Scabbard, of Kawakami Gensai’s sword was red. This could have been the inspiration for the color of Kenshin’s saya in the live action movies.
Are there any other similarities between Kawakami Gensai and Himura Kenshin?
Indeed there are! There are at least five more similarities between the two that I could find, so let’s go through them!
1. Their (Many) Names
Both Gensai and Kenshin had at least three names that they went by throughout different times in their lives with some of the reasons for the changes involving similar circumstances or reasonings. Kawakami Gensai was born as Komori Genjiro (小森 彦次郎) and was renamed Kawakami Gensai upon his adoption to Kawakami Genbei (河上 彦兵衛). Later in life, he would take on the name Kouda Genbei (高田 源兵衛), which many speculate as being a way for him to avoid those who would wish him harm.
Himura Kenshin was originally named Himura Shinta (緋村 心太). He then was renamed Himura Kenshin by his teacher Hiko Seijuro XIII (比古 清拾郎 拾参代 ), who in a way also acted as an adoptive father. During the Boshin War, it seems that he went by the code name Himura Battosai (緋村 抜刀斎) or simply “Hitokiri Battosai” (人斬り抜刀斎) , the latter of which seems to have been used primarily by his enemies.After the war ended, he went back to using the name Himura Kenshin also to avoid the weight carried by the moniker of Himura Battosai.
A final similarity comes from the kanji in two of their names. The second kanji character in Gensai, 斎 (the “sai” part), is also used for the “sai” of “Battosai”. During Gensai’s time as an active hitokiri, he would sometimes be called “Hitokiri Gensai”, similar to Kenshin’s “Hitokiri Battosai”.
2. Their families and post-war activities
Kenshin and Gensai’s similarities also extend into their personal lives as well. Both would go on to marry and have children, with both having a son. (Gensai’s son would be named Gentaro (彦太郎).) Additionally, their respective spouses both practiced martial arts. The main difference between the two in this sense was that Gensai’s wife, Teiko*, practiced the martial art of Naginata (薙刀), while Kenshin’s second spouse practiced a form of kendo, dubbed Kamiya Kasshin Ryu (神谷活心流).
Finally, during the Meiji era, at one point, Gensai would train others in martial arts. Similarly Kenshin to some degree was also involved with the education of martial arts, though perhaps not as directly as Gensai was. Most notably, neither of the two became members of the Meiji government either.
*Please forgive me if this is an inaccurate translation of her name. I have seen her called “Misawa Teiko” in many English sources, though none had the original kanji for her name. In Japanese, I could only find her name written as seen her name as “天為子”. My translation dictionaries have told me this would be read as “Amaiko”… which I’m not sure I trust. Knowing the various readings of the Kanji, I could certainly see it being read as “Teiko”. So….. that’s what I went with. However, I apologize if it’s inaccurate – I had to make my best guess!
3. Similar Duel Hitokiri and Non-Hitokiri Mannerisms
Kawakami Gensai was said to be a very polite and gentle person, but with the capacity to kill people without mercy or hesitation. This is reminiscent of Himura’s natural persona, which is extremely humble and gentle, versus his “Hitokiri” persona, which is more calculating, cruel, violent, and methodically cold. Many would also attest to the rapid change in Gensai’s nature when he drew his sword, which is once again, similar to Kenshin.
4. Wanted Dead
At different points in both Gensai’s and Kenshin’s lives it was said they “could not sleep on a pillow”. Essentially this was because others wanted them dead. For Kenshin, this occurred during the Boshin War. Meanwhile, the phrase was used to describe Gensai reportedly by Sanetomi Sanjo (三条 実美), an imperial court noble, post the Meiji Restoration who likely knew of Gensai’s unpopularity within the new Meiji government.
5. Sentenced to be executed
A final… uh “similarity” (if you can call it that) can be made in the 3rd live action movie as well. In the 3rd movie, the government calls for Kenshin’s execution by beheading on trumped up, unfair charges. Though this does not happen, Gensai’s life did come to an end by beheading on the order of the government. He was executed on January 13, 1872 at the age of 37. Not really a ‘happy’ similarity, but one that can be made regardless.
Furthermore, Gensai’s execution was ordered on the suspicion that he housed and hid a fugitive. The fugitive in question was Gentaro Dairaku (大楽 源太郎) who was involved in the assassination of Masujiro Omura (大村 益次郎). Notably though, the likelihood that Gensai was heavily involved with this was low. Rather, it is more likely that government officials used this as an excuse to eliminate him. The possibly unfair circumstances of his execution as well as the circumstances of Kenshin’s ordered execution further stand as evidence of their similarities.
What are the primary differences between Kawakami Gensai and Himura Kenshin?
There are many similarities between Kawakami Gensai and Himura Kenshin (trust me, I could go on and on). However, there are a number of differences. As such, I do want to highlight a few of the most notable ones. These delineate some of the more ‘fantastical elements’ of Kenshin’s story from Gensai’s life. As a result, they create a more full and clearer picture of who Gensai was as an actual person.
1. Confirmed Kill Count
Perhaps the most interesting distinction between the two that I could find was the fact that Gensai actually only has one confirmed kill, that of Sakuma Shozan (佐久間 象山), even though he is said to be quite the prolific assassin.
In contrast, Kenshin is seen killing numerous people on multiple occasions throughout the series, which is very different from ‘rumors’. That said, the mark of an assassin that is good at their job is one who doesn’t get caught though. Thus we can guess that just because Gensai’s confirmed kills don’t match Kenshin’s, whatever his grand total was is likely nothing to scoff at either.
Additionally, if your only confirmed kill is Shozan Sakuma, well, that’s still incredibly notable. Shozan was an incredible Japanese scholar, the first to create a seismometer in Japan, and the man who coined the phrase “Wakon Yousai” (和魂洋才) or “Japanese Spirit with Western Learning/Technology”. This was an incredibly revolutionary way of thinking during the time. For that reason, his assassination sent a very loud message. And it was done in broad daylight. Talk about ruthless.
2. The Battle of Toba Fushimi and the Ikedaya Incident
Another difference can be seen in the first live action Rurouni Kenshin film in the first scene (sourced from the manga). In this scene, Kenshin fights during the Battle of Toba Fushimi (鳥羽・伏見の戦い) in Kyoto (京都), the turning point of the Boshin War. Ironically, Gensai didn’t only not fight in this battle, he was actually imprisoned at the time.
Kenshin can also be seen in the live action films as being present during the Ikedaya Incident (池田屋事件), along with Saito Hajime (斎藤 一), a member of the Shinsengumi (新選組). However, there is no record of Gensai being present for this event. However, one of his mentors, Teizo Miyabe, was and he committed suicide during the attack.
As a side note, the real Saito Hajime was confirmed to be present at the Ikedaya Incident. But he was not there at the onset. He arrived later than most of his fellow Shinsengumi members. This marks another difference between what was portrayed in the films and what happened in real life.
3. Differing Motivations
Perhaps the most stark difference between the two is that Gensai seems to have been very politically charged throughout his life, unlike Kenshin. Kenshin’s motivations to fight on behalf of the emperor were more so the result of his altruism and the idealism of his youth. After the war, Kenshin pursued a more pacifistic lifestyle. In a sense, he would often prefer to only get involved to “preserve the new era” or prevent the lives lost during the war from being wasted.
Meanwhile, Gensai’s motivations to fight on behalf of the Emperor were much more politically charged. While he was a fierce proponent of putting the Emperor back in power, this was likely a result of having seen less favorable treatment of those in his region by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The promise of fighting alongside the Shishi and later members of the Satsuma Choshu Alliance (the pro-imperialist faction) (薩摩長州同盟) and thus putting the Emperor back in power was the better treatment of those in his home domain as well as more power being granted to those in his circle.
Gensai also maintained his Sonno Joi views throughout his life. This would lead to him being very unpopular in later years with those in the Meiji government. (Let me know if you want me to ever go down THAT rabbit hole). However, whenever meeting foreigners, Kenshin is mostly ambivalent and sometimes even impressed with the technology they introduce to Japan.
Kawakami Gensai was born on December 25, 1834. Kenshin’s birthday in comparison was dated by Nobuhiro Watsuki as June 20, 1849. This would have made Gensai Kenshin’s senior by 15 years. To provide a bit more context, when Commodore Perry arrived in 1853, Gensai would have been 18. Meanwhile Kenshin would have just turned 4. Additionally, Gensai would have been around 34-35 during the Boshin War. In contrast, Kenshin would have been around the age of 19, give or take a year or two. This might seem like a rather petty difference. However, it does go to show their level of experience in the world and how what they would have gone through would have likely impacted them differently. Just something to consider. 😉
The Life of Kawakami Gensai
While there are many fascinating elements of Gensai’s personality and life that clearly shaped the character of Himura Kenshin, their differences are just as important as they show the complexities that come from a real individual who lived during a time of civil unrest and war. The fascinating window that Gensai’s life provided me into the world of the end of the Edo period, the Boshin war, and the Meiji Restoration of Japan was actually quite instrumental in helping me understand the multiple forces at work during that time.
As a result of learning about his life, I ultimately became curious about the places Gensai lived and walked as well as what happened to Gensai after his death. I haven’t been able to yet make it to Kumamoto where he was born and raised and I haven’t been able to visit the memorial to Sakuma Shozan, his one confirmed assassination victim either (you can find this in Kyoto by the Takese River (高瀬川)). But this past December did afford me with the opportunity to visit the final resting place of a man who inadvertently taught me a LOT about the Meiji Restoration. So… I took that opportunity and went.
The Final Resting Place of Kawakami Gensai
The final resting place of Kawakami Gensai is located in Ikegami Honmon-Ji (池上本門寺), a Buddhist Temple in Tokyo, Japan. I will write more in detail about my trip to his grave at a future date. However, suffice to say, it was REALLY hard to find. It took about an hour and I ultimately had to ask one of the temple workers for assistance. (Don’t trust the photos of what his grave looks like… they’re NOT what you’re looking for OTL ). Ultimately, it turned out that I had passed it almost 3 times. (Cut me some slack though? Japanese graveyards are incredibly packed).
Uniquely, Kawakami Gensai’s grave is a solo one, unlike many in Japan where graves actually encompass and serve as the resting place for entire families. Aside from that however, there’s not much particularly notable about it. Like I said, I missed it 3 times. In that way though, it sort of made Gensai even more fascinating.
In many ways, his life and actions could be seen as just a footnote in history, one barely worth attention. However, it gained the attention of at least one man. And in April of 1994 he would use Gensai as the motif to create the main character of an internationally beloved hit series about a wandering samurai. As a result, his life’s story would impact millions around the world. Pretty sure he didn’t plan on any of that, but that’s kind of incredible, right?
The Reach of One Man’s Life
If you visit Japan, unless you’re Kenshin’s absolute die hard #1 fan, you can probably feel safe in skipping visiting Gensai’s grave. It is in no way a tourist destination. (I’m just a history nut and like going to rather random historical spots). However, I’m glad I went since I got to see the grave of a man who in a very round about way, taught me so much about the Meiji Restoration in an easy to understand way. That was probably not his intent, but the world’s strange like that sometimes. And at the very least, I was able to appreciate the experience for that reason. (Not to mention, it was kind of cool to visit the grave of a man who inspired one of my favorite characters. That’s not something you get to do every day.)
Hopefully this has helped you understand a bit more though about the man who served as inspiration for the famous “Rurouni Kenshin”. I know it did for me. And again, if you want to learn more about Kawakami Gensai, be sure to subscribe and let me know. I definitely want to put more “Kenshin” in the pipeline. 😉
Till next time then,