HIJIKATA Megumi has been selected as one of the torchbearers for next year's Olympic Torch Relay to represent Tokyo's Hino City.
Ms Hijikata is the sixth-generation grandchild of HIJIKATA Toshizo, the vice-commander of the Shinsengumi, a special police force formed to guard the family of the Tokugawa shogun during the mid-19th century.
Hino City was the birthplace of Toshizo, and the place where he first met KONDO Isami, the commander of the Shinsengumi.
Born and raised in Hino, and a keen marathon fan, Ms Hijikata applied to be an Olympic torchbearer hoping to create publicity for Hino City, being a descendant of HIJIKATA Toshizo.
Ms Hijikata currently serves as the director of the HIJIKATA Toshizo Museum, which is located next to the house where he was born. She welcomes visitors from all over the world.
"Even before opening the museum, a lot of people came from all over Japan wanting to see the house where Toshizo was born."
"I began to think that it would be a good idea if we could make a place where visitors would be able to see various artifacts and mementos related to Toshizo that were kept at the house he was born in. It’s only a small, individually-operated museum, but it’s very popular.”
The HIJIKATA Toshizo Museum was opened 11 May 1994, which was also the same day of Toshizo’s death in 1869. At first, it drew only 10 or so visitors a day.
In the museum, visitors would often chat with Ms Hijikata about the life and times of her famous ancestor over a cup of tea. Speaking to all those who visited the museum, Ms Hijikata began to realise just how much affection there was for her ancestor whom she prayed to each day. It was for this reason that she decided to study his life more in depth.
“I began to learn about Toshizo’s life. I am proud of the way he lived; overcoming indecisiveness and freely aiming for what he believed in."
"I started to realise that I would like to get this message across and share who Toshizo really was, without overreaching myself,” says Ms Hijikata.
Subsequently, the Shinsengumi became the subject of a peak-time television series. As a result, Toshizo became widely known overseas which led to many foreign visitors visiting the museum.
Inspired from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Russia and the Americas - despite the language barrier - all Toshizo fans are united in their common affection for the Shinsengumi.
"What amazed me most was that a French couple from Paris chose to visit the museum as part of their honeymoon. They looked around for two hours and had an amazing experience," she said.
"What makes me happy above all is how much everybody knows about the Shinsengumi.”
Running in Hino with the changing seasons
Ms Hijikata first took up running some 13 years ago whilst juggling her role as museum director and bringing up her children. She felt she wanted to do some exercise in her spare time.
“I started running with a wonderful sense of having the lovely view of the sun rising over the embankment all to myself in the morning. Even when I was having a bad time, I was able to forget such things while I ran, and that’s why I started to enjoy it so much,” she said.
Hino City is surrounded by the natural beauty of the Asakawa and Tama rivers, with landscapes that change colour over the course of the seasons. Ms Hijikata currently runs about 10 kilometres two to three times a week, and has a special attachment to this town whilst listening to sound of birds.
“Hino City is like the hometown of the Shinsengumi. Toshizo ran around it during his early youth. We live here today with a sense that the spirit of the Shinsengumi remains here in Hino."
Promoting the home of the Shinsengumi
Upon being selected as an Olympic torchbearer, Ms Hijikata felt both a sense of surprise and deep responsibility.
“I feel proud to be participating in something that links together the sentiments of so many people. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in which everyone will be able to see and feel how marvellous sport is, and I hope that I will be able to continue transmitting this message about what I have gained from other people for decades to come.”
The torch relay route through Hino is also scheduled to pass by the training hall that served as the headquarters of the Shinsengumi and the place where Toshizo first met KONDO Isami. This is why so many of the local people are encouraging Ms Hijikata, saying things like: “we’re supporting you,” and “do your best!”
Ms Hijikata hopes that as a descendent of Toshizo that she will be able promote Hino and the Shinsengumi - which she cares deeply about, thereby handing down history, and attracting more visitors to the city.
As Ms Hijikata says, “Hino City is rich with the history of the Shinsengumi, and I think it is a very scenic place in which my ancestor Hijikata Toshizo spent his youth. So, I will run with those thoughts in my heart and promote Hino with the spirit of the Shinsengumi.”