The well known exciting and romantic adventure anime, Rurouni Kenshin, recites the about a retired assassin in Meiji-era Japan who has promised never to kill again. When Himura Kenshin meets and saves Kaoru from mortal danger; Kaoru,who runs a school teaching young students the art of the sword, Kenshin is compelled to break his oath in order to protect the ones he loves.
But many are unaware of fhe fact that Kenshin was based on a real-life samurai assassin — a man called Kawakami Gensai, who lived during a very tumultuous time of Japanese history. Like Kenshin, Gensai was an honorable and peaceful man, and his skill with the sword was equally legendary. But unlike the character on which he was based, Gensai’s life ended much more tragically.
Born in 1832 as Komori Genjiro, he was adopted at age 11 by the Kawakami family. He studied and worked hard during his childhood and later years, mastering academics and swordsmanship simultaneously. In adulthood, he studied under a priest and scholar named Hayashi Oen. Gensai married Misawa Teiko in 1861, who also was an expert fighter, and the two had later had a lovely son named Gentaro.
Gensai lived during the close of Japan’s Edo era, a difficult period where the country’s policies of shogunate dictatorship and isolation from foreign interference was at its end. He served as a soldier and also a bodyguard, with his most famous feat being the assassination of Sakuma Shozan, a politician who sought to open Japan to foreign countries for trade.
Gensai was captured after joining volunteer soldiers against the shogunate, but was later released. Gensai then changed his name to Kouda Genbei and returned to his home of Kumamoto and became a teacher. After harboring fugitive members of the Kiheitai, Gensai was arrested in 1870 and then received an execution by decapitation in 1872.
Like Kenshin, Gensai was a humble man who preferred a quiet word to a fight, although he wouldn’t hesitate to stand up against injustice and protect the downtrodden. Though there are some undeniable parallels between Kenshin and Gensai, the real-life samurai sadly did not live out the rest of his days in bliss with his wife and child like his fictional counterpart.