The Byakkotai (白虎隊, “White Tiger Brigade”) was one of four units, consisting of a few hundred youths, the sons of samurai, organised after the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in March 1868 by the Aizu Domain (会津藩 Aizu-han). The Aizu clan of the Matsudaira (松平, part of the Hoshina clan 保科氏) was closely related to the Tokugawa and resisted the pro-imperial forces led by the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance in the Boshin War. Aizu did not so much oppose the imperial restoration, but rather what it perceived to be a coup d’état by the domains of Satsuma and Chōshū.

The Aizu units

In the course of its military modernisation, the Aizu Domain set up four units, each named after a god of the four compass directions:
  • Byakkotai (白虎隊, “White Tiger Brigade”, “West”); formerly a reserve unit consisting of over 300 sons of the domain’s samurai, divided into upper (士中 shichū), middle (寄合 yoriai), and lower (足軽 ashigaru) ranks.
  • Genbutai (玄武隊, “Black Tortoise Brigade”, “North”); another reserve unit consisting of some 400 troops aged over 50.
  • Seiryūtai (青龍隊, “Blue Dragon Brigade”, “East”); consisting of some 900 samurai aged 36 to 49.
  • Suzakutai (朱雀隊, “Vermilion Bird or Phoenix Brigade”, “South”); consisting of some 1,200 elite troops, mostly samurai aged 18 to 35.
Despite Aizu’s drive to modernise its military, these and the other units remaining in Aizu to defend the domain were inferior to the forces of Satsuma and Chōshū in numbers as well as in weaponry. As most of Aizu’s troops were fighting along with the Northern Alliance (奥羽越列藩同盟 Ōuetsu Reppan Dōmei) to the south and the northwest of the domain, only some 3,000 troops were ready to defend the town and the castle. In October 1868, Aizu had been abandoned by the other northern domains, and the pro-imperial forces laid siege to Tsuruga Castle. Aizu’s forces surrendered after four weeks.

During the days of the siege, a small unit of the Byakkotai was separated from the Aizu forces after the Battle of Tonoguchihara, a small village to the northeast of Aizuwakamatsu, between the town and Lake Inawashiro. This unit consisted of twenty members of the second shichū squad, most of them hailing from families of high-ranking samurai, aged sixteen to seventeen who had escaped to Mount Iimori through a small tunnel. When they noticed smoke and flames coming from the castle, they thought that Tsuruga-jō had fallen and decided to commit suicide. In fact, the castle, about 2.8 kilometres from where the boys were positioned, had not fallen but was shrouded in plumes of smoke from other burning buildings.

One of the twenty young Byakkotai, Iinuma Sadakichi (飯沼貞吉), survived the suicide attempt when he was found by a samurai‘s wife and saved. He was only fourteen years old and had lied about his age when he enlisted. It is thanks to him that the story of the sacrifice of the young boys became known to the public. According to his account, there had been considerable disaccord among the members on whether to resume the fight against the enemy or to commit suicide. He was contrite over being the sole survivor of his unit throughout his life (see below).

Byakkotai Members

Below a list of the nineteen Byakkotai members, who committed suicide at Mount Iimori:
  • Adachi Tōzaburō (安達籐三郎)
  • Aruga Orinosuke (有賀織之助)
  • Hayashi Yasoji (林八十冶)
  • Ibuka Shigetarō (井深茂太郎)
  • Ikegami Shintarō (池上新太郎)
  • Ishida Wasuke (石田和助)
  • Ishiyama Toranosuke (石山虎之助)
  • Itō Teijirō (伊東悌次郎)
  • Itō Toshihiko (伊藤俊彦)
  • Mase Genshichirō (間瀬源七郎)
  • Nagase Yūji (永瀬雄治)
  • Nishikawa Katsutarō (西川勝太郎)
  • Nomura Komashirō (野村駒四郎)
  • Shinoda Gisaburō (篠田儀三郎, acting commander)
  • Suzuki Genkichi (鈴木源吉)
  • Tsuda Sutezō (津田捨蔵)
  • Tsugawa Kiyomi (津川喜代美)
  • Yanase Katsuzaburō (簗瀬勝三郎)
  • Yanase Takeji (簗瀬武治)
Iinuma Sadakichi (飯沼貞吉, 1854-1931) survived the suicide attempt. It was thanks to him that the tragedy of the young Byakkotai members came to light. He later worked as a telegraph engineer, fought in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 as captain in the Imperial Japanese Army, and then served in the Ministry of Communications. Some of his remains are buried at Iimoriyama with the other members of his Byakkotai unit.

Even more tragic is the fate of the Aizu family members, mostly women and children of samurai fighting the invading Satsuma-Chōshū troops, as well as elderly, who – not intending to become a burden to their husbands and fathers in the field – ended their lives in ritual disembowelment rather than fall into enemy hands.

Fascist allure

The story of self-sacrifice and loyalty seems to have appealed to some proponents of fascism, too. In 1928, Mussolini had a monument erected at Mount Iimori in the name of the citizens of Rome, consisting of an ancient pillar found in the ashes of Pompeii. The German diplomat Hasso von Etzdorf was so impressed by the spirit of “the young knights of Aizu” in 1935 that he devoted a memorial plate to the grave site. American soldiers of the Occupation Force discovered the swastika-adorned plaque after WWII and had it replaced with an Iron Cross. Both monuments can still be seen today.

Media adaptations

The Byakkotai have been a popular topic in books, magazines, TV series and movies. One of the most famous movie adaptations was the two-part series by the same title produced in 1986 by TV Asahi. It was remade in 2007, with pop singer Yamashita Tomohisa playing two roles.