CHAPTER ONE – THE PRETTYBOY WHO WANTED MORE
“I want to lead an important life. I want to do it because I was born a human being.”
― Eiji Yoshikawa, "Musashi"
When Toshizo was born in the spring of 1835, his father had already been dead for several months, having succumbed to tuberculosis, a fashionable disease back in the 19th century. Toshizo was a late child: his mother, Etsu, was 43 years old when she gave birth to him. The Hijikatas were a farming family living in Hino – a village at the time, now a suburb of Tokyo. They were well-off, yet constrained by the social rules of Edo Japan, according to which farmers, merchants and other non-samurai ilk were treated as second class citizens.
Tuberculosis struck the Hijikata family again - Etsu passed away in 1841. Traumatized after the death of his mother and brought up by a large group of much elder siblings who weren’t entirely sure what to do with him, young Toshizo grew up to be – to quote his biographers – an entitled, spoiled brat prone to frequent temper tantrums, with unruly nature and a head full of dreams.
Young Toshizo was a pretty, pretty thing. In fact, it’s almost comical how far the contemporary historians went in describing his lush, exotic beauty: it was written in chronicles that he was “as handsome as an actor”, with “ivory skin” and “hair so black that it was almost blue”. Heads turned when he walked the streets, and women were known to faint upon seeing him, overwhelmed by his splendor. When his second-eldest brother Kiroku sent him off to become an apprentice in a kimono shop, the shop owner hoped that the boy’s good looks would help him attract more female customers. Yet Toshizo brought nothing but trouble – turned out he was way more interested in scissors as a weapon than as tools of the trade, and after one incident too many, the boy was returned home in shame. Hence Kiroku gave up on him and sent him to live with a man named Hikogoro Sato – husband of their sister Nobu – who was an apothecary and needed a helping hand in selling his concoctions.
So there he was, our Toshizo, in his early twenties, as pretty as a picture, sort of a failure in life, trudging the countryside to peddle bruise ointments, burn balms, pills for sore bones and all sorts of miraculous cures for baldness and erectile dysfunction. Strangely enough, he liked his job of a medicine seller. It allowed him to go places that a young man from Hino would never otherwise reach – larger towns, samurai estates, swordsmanship dojos. It allowed him to dream.
And young Toshizo had one single dream, so strong that it ate away at him like an obsession. Namely, Toshizo Hijikata wanted to become a samurai.
Now, normally that could never happen. Farmer boys did not become samurai just like that – not in Edo Japan. It was a fantasy, a castle in the air, a delusion that made his family shake their heads with sad disappointment – the boy’s so pretty, too bad he’s a bit on the cray-cray side.
But when in late 1850s Toshizo met Isami Kondo and a group of like-minded underdogs, this dream suddenly became a goal that maybe, just maybe, was not so crazy after all.
~to be continued~