The Sakai Incident: Casualties of Transition 堺市事件
Some of Japan's historical artifacts may cause the faint of heart to shudder, while the reasons behind their preservation bemuse us all.
A few can be found at the temple, Miyokokuji, in the city of Sakai. A thatch of hair, a death poem, and two small podiums spattered with unmistakable drops of age-old blood are on display.
A scroll hangs above them portraying the eleven men who took their own lives in the temple garden with foreign representatives looking on.
Much of the circumstances that lead up to that ritual sacrifice remain a mystery. On the other hand, it was a clear reflection of social and political forces from both within and without the archipelago that had reached a crucial turning point.
Here is what happened on the eighth of May, 1868 near Sakai Harbor. The French ship, Dupliex, was on a survey mission of the area and anchored in the harbor. Sailors from the Dupliex left the ship in a skiff and came ashore. A force of Japanese men from an area on Shikoku Island, then called Tosa, who were assigned to guard the city, attacked the sailors and killed eleven of them.
Questions about why the sailors came ashore, what they did there that may have provoked the attack, and why the guards chose to use deadly force remain unanswered. There is even some doubt as to why the Dupliex was in Sakai Harbor, which was closed to foreign vessels at the time.
In response to the incident came a series of demands from the French Minister to Japan, countersigned by other foreign ministers: the execution of the guards responsible for his countrymen's deaths; 150,000 Mexican silver dollars to be paid to the French government; formal apologies from two ranking, Japanese officials; and the exclusion of Tosa troops from open ports. The Japanese were given four days to accept the demands.
There has been some debate over the severity of these demands, and in order to judge them properly they, like the actions that provoked them, must be put into context. Under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan had enjoyed two and a half centuries of internal peace and isolation from the outside world. In 1853 a visit to Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula from the United States government, represented by William Perry, to demand that Japan open itself to foreign trade, brought that period to an end.
Divisions in Japan
Japan became divided between those who favored the idea of joining the world community, and those who supported continuing isolation. They began to fight among themselves, and the foreign ships and representatives that appeared in and around Japan were welcomed by some, but deeply resented by others.
Although the Sakai Incident involved the greatest loss of life, it was not the first of its kind. Foreigners in Japan had become targets for assassination, such as the American diplomat, Henry Heusken, who was killed in Edo in 1860. In 1862 a British merchant, Charles Richardson was killed by the samurai of a Japanese lord from the island of Kyushu, because the merchant did not pay proper respect.
This ended in the bombardment of Kagoshima City by British warships to obtain satisfaction of their demands for retribution. In January of 1868 the Bizen Affair, where foreign troops were attacked for showing disrespect to Japanese soldiers passing through Kobe, resulted in the Japanese officer responsible committing ritual suicide before foreign witnesses.
Despite their mixed welcome, foreigners remained in Japan. They understood that the nation was in transition. One Japanese faction had enlisted the aid of the French in drawing up a new structure for Japanese government based on that of France. Other foreign governments had signed treaties with officials of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and wanted to be sure these agreements would remain intact even if the shogunate should fall.
Fall of the Tokugawa Regime
And fall it did. On the twenty-seventh of January, 1868, a decisive battle at Fushimi-Toba was lost by Tokugawa forces outside the gates of Fushimi Castle. Tokugawa Yoshinobu fled from Osaka and the government officials in that area disbursed. Sakai became a city without government or law. Two infantry divisions from Tosa were assigned to guard the city and keep the peace, and the stage was set for the Sakai Incident.
The men from Tosa did not speak a foreign language, thus could not communicate with the sailors from the Dupliex. Under the circumstances it is unsurprising that there are no decisive records of the incident.
Some say that the sailors were concerned over their captain, who having been refused permission to pass through Sakai on his way to Osaka, was delayed in returning to his ship by having to go around the city.
Others, that the sailors stepped on the flags of the Tosa troops, or made other manifestations of gross disrespect, or that the townspeople joined the guards in their attack on the sailors. Beyond the bare facts, exactly what happened and why remains unknown.
In the dawn of the Meiji Era, which would be marked by Japan's adoption of Western ideas and customs, the demands of the French were accepted with little negotiation. Twenty of the men from Tosa were sentenced to death.
It was granted, however that, rather than being executed, the men would take their own lives by the custom of seppuku. This was significant in that it would allow them to die as samurai, with honor, and would ensure the well being of their families in the future, although it is doubtful that the French representatives understood this.
The final mystery is why nearly half of those twenty slated to give their lives for honor were spared. On the appointed day the relevant parties gathered on the grounds of Miyokokuji Temple.
One by one, men from Tosa composed their death poems, sliced off their topknots, and opened their bellies. Only then were they beheaded. After the eleventh man had performed this duty, Captain Bergasse du Petit Thouars of the Dupliex rose from his chair and departed the scene, thus bringing to an end the proceedings.
In one report it is said that he confided he could not bear to watch any longer, but a letter in his own hand says, simply, that it was getting dark and he feared for the safety of his men on their return to the ship and saw no practical way to extend the ceremony to the next day. Whether there was any significance to the number of Japanese and French lives lost being equal, none can now say.
Hindsight makes the story that surrounds the exhibits in Miyokokuji even more dramatic. It is a stark contrast to the present, in which anyone from around the globe is welcome to visit the temple and appreciate these macabre tokens of a bygone age.
Access - Getting to Sakai
Text + images Alan Wiren