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The British in Bakumatsu Japan: A Violent Murder Attempt on the Britsh Ambassador

In 1868, during the turbulent Bakumatsu era, two assailants attempted to murder Sir Harry Parkes by hacking their way through the procession with their swords.



Image from the Monde de Illustre, showing the attack on Harry Parks and the legation.

The era of Bakumatsu Japan and the subsequent Meiji Restoration were a turbulent time in Japan. It is a bittersweet, complicated period in Japanese history filled with feats of great valor mixed with the sadness of needless ritual suicides and assassinations of passionate young men of opposing forces who all, at the end of the day, only wanted the same thing: to protect the country that they loved.

There are various storylines that interlink and overlap the many different complicated aspects of this period. This series of articles focuses on events involving British civilians and legation or embassy staff in Japan during the turbulent Bakumatsu era. It features images, eyewitness accounts, and reports from the time about the Tozenji, Namamugi, Bizen, and Joi incidents, as well as the Anglo-Satsuma War.

This is Part 5 and the final part of the series, which has been published in chronological order. 

First part: The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Tozenji Incident
Second part: The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Namamugi Incident
Third part: The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Anglo-Satsuma War
Fourth Part: The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Bizen Incident

Monde de Illustre, reporting the attack on Harry Parks and the legation.

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and images.

Sonno-Joi (尊王攘夷)

During Japan's Bakumatsu era (the very last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the Edo period), there was a movement known as Sonno-joi (Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians). Reverence and loyalty to the emperor have a long history in Japan. The philosophy's origin can be traced back to Chinese classical literature. 

A four-character phrase, Sonno-joi (尊王攘夷) was later used by the Tokugawa Shogunate to express deference to the imperial throne while condemning Christianity. It took a new meaning and became the rallying cry for disgruntled samurai following the end of 200 years of Japan's isolation policy. The policy was brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of Commodore Perry's Black Ships and the unequal treaties that followed.


The Assassination Attempt

At the close of the turbulent Bakumatsu era, power was eventually restored to the Emperor. This sealed the closure of the Edo period. Foreign dignitaries from the various legations were invited for an audience with Emperor Meiji in March 1868. The British Ambassador, Sir Harry Parkes, and the rest of the British delegation were due to meet with the Emperor on March 23rd (Gregorian calendar).

However, on their way to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, they were set upon by two assailants with swords drawn, hacking their way along the procession. This unprovoked attack became known as the "Sonno-Joi Incident." It is also known in Japanese as the Nawate Jiken (縄手事件). That is because the incident took place on Nawate Street or the Parkes Shugeki Jiken (パークス襲撃事件, the attack on Parkes).

Sir Harry Parkes

Sir Harry Parkes's Account

The incident is well documented by several members of the British legations. In Sir Harry Parkes's letter to his wife, he described the incident in detail.

My procession was attacked by several Japanese swordsmen who sprang out on us as we passed, and commenced their deadly work in a demoniacal way [...] Our procession was formed of — first, escort; secondly, myself, [Ernest] Satow, Bradshaw, and Goto Shojiro, a high Japanese officer; thirdly, infantry guard.

As the escort were turning out of the street […] and were therefore passing out of my sight, I saw some confusion among the last horses, which backed upon my party, and immediately a Japanese rushed past us cutting frantically at everybody as he ran. His blows cleared me, but cut my belt and took off the end of the nose of Satow's pony, which was close to me. I called out to our men to cut him down, and he was bayoneted before he got to the end of the guard, one of whom he severely wounded.

At the same time that this occurred Goto Shojiro jumped from his horse and made his way into the street. [As] I observed him draw his sword and rush round the corner I followed immediately and saw him cut a Japanese down [...] It is not impossible that the actual assailants were more than the two men I have accounted for, though we now have knowledge that more were lying hid a little further on.

Portrait of Japanese politician Goto Shojiro around the time he was involved in the Sonno-Joi Incident.

Diplomat Ernest Satow's Account

Satow described the altercation between the first assailant (Hayashida Eitaro Sadakata), Nakai Hiromu, and Goto in more detail in his book, A Diplomat in Japan (1921):

Nakai observing what was passing jumped down from his pony and engaged the fellow on the right, with whom he had a pretty tough fight. In the struggle his feet got entangled in his long loose [formal] trousers, and he fell on his back. His enemy tried to cut off his head, but Nakai parried the blow, receiving only a scalp wound, and pierced the man's breast with the point of his sword at the same time. This sickened him, and as he was turning his back on Nakai he received a blow on the shoulder from Goto's sword, which prostrated him on the ground, and Nakai jumping up hacked off his head.

Photograph of Japanese diplomat Nakai Hiromu around the time he was involved in the Sonno-Joi Incident.

Diplomat Algernon Mitford's Account

From here, Algernon Mitford's account continues the story in his book, Memories (1915). Mitford, due to his horse becoming lame, had to ride in a palanquin.

The other man [Saegusa] rushed at Sir Harry, cutting and slashing as he went, but fortunately missing the Minister. Satow had a narrow escape, for his horse was wounded close to his rider's knee, and part of the poor beast's nose was sliced off.


On the villain went, now cutting at the men of the 9th. I heard pistol shots and the clatter of swords and cries of, "We are attacked!" "Kill him!" "Shoot him!" and the like [and] I jumped out of my palanquin more quickly than I ever in my life jumped out of anything, and rushed forward. There were pools of blood in the street, and I saw the murderer coming at me, by this time himself wounded, but not seriously, and full of fight. His sword was dripping and his face bleeding.

Capture of Second Assailant 

This second assailant, Saegusa Shigeru, had attacked the British Infantry cutting one man deeply in the head. He was tripped by another soldier and immediately bayoneted by several others. Somehow, he made it to the end of the procession before being blocked by Mitford's palanquin (recollections vary on this point).

He dropped his sword and fled into the courtyard of a nearby house. A lieutenant of the guard of the 9th Regiment, Bradshaw, followed in hot pursuit with revolver drawn. On discovery, Bradshaw let off a round that hit Saegusa in the lower jaw only producing a flesh wound. However, it almost knocked him unconscious at which point he was seized. Mitford continued,

The street was like a shambles; nine of the escort and one man of the 9th and four horses had been wounded, some of them lying in pools of their own blood. Sir Harry's groom was also bleeding. Our gallant little friend Nakai [Kozo] was badly hurt, but quite gay, as usual.


Mitford also gave an account to The Times, published on May 20, 1868. It included details of capturing Saegusa.

Finding him still alive, I stayed with him in order, if possible, to protect him and to revive him sufficiently to subject him to an examination. Never shall I forget that little yard with the Japanese murderer lying in a pool of his own blood: for, besides being shot in the head, he had received several wounds from sword, bayonet, and lance.

Covered in mud and clotted with gore, so that his features were hardly human, he glared at me with the horror stricken eyes of a man who sees his slayer before him. But my object was not to kill him, although, had he attempted to escape, I should have done so.

Despite the small number of assailants, the attack was very effective. Nine of the eleven guards were wounded. There were twelve casualties in all, including a Japanese officer and Parkes's Japanese attendant. The more serious casualties were the guard who had been cut to the head, another with a deep cut to his leg, and one with his wrist almost severed. Thereafter, the British were forced to call off their audience with the Emperor. Meanwhile, the wounded were taken to Chion-in Temple (close to Maruyama Park, Kyoto) for treatment.


An Injured Saegusa

Mitford continues in his book, Memories.

As soon as the prisoner's wounds were dressed, Satow and I with a retainer of Sanjo Dainagon examined the prisoner [Saegusa]. He was a beetle-browed, truculent-looking fellow with rolling black eyes, and his appearance was not improved by bloodstained rags, and a large head with a shock crop of wiry hair which, having abandoned the priesthood, he had just begun to let grow. [Also,] he gave a false name and an account of himself:

"My name is Ishikawa Samuro. I am a priest from a temple called Jorenji, near Osaka. [And] I left the Castle this morning determined to kill all the foreigners that I might meet. I came to Kyoto on the second day of this month to join the Mikado's bodyguard, and I lodged at the temple called Hommanji in Temple Street, I left it the day before yesterday and went to the Castle.

I was in the first regiment at the Castle, but could not agree with my mates, so determined to regulate my conduct according to my own ideas [...] I set out to kill foreigners; I had no accomplice, I pray to be examined, and, if found guilty, to be executed and my crime made known throughout the Empire."


At a second question, he said: "I had an accomplice, one Hayashida, I forget his other name. He is the son of a village doctor, not belonging to the Samurai class, from Katsura Mura, a village near Kyoto. He is a Ronin; he belonged to the first regiment of Guards. I heard last night from the servants that foreigners were going to Court [and] I waited to see them pass. [But] I did not know to what nation they belonged. It was the first time that I had seen foreigners. I repent of my crime. It was a sudden thought on the part of both of us. I had no previous hatred to foreigners."

Saegusa's Execution

Until this point, Saegusa had been unaware of Hayashida's death. He was shown the grisly remains of Hayashida's head, which included a large triangular wound that had exposed part of the brain. There was also a slash from a sword on the right side of the jaw. Saegusa confirmed:

"This is the head of Hayashida. Since he is dead I wish to live no longer. Please cut off my head as soon as possible [...]"

Hayashida Eitaro Sadakata's Head

A few days later, on March 27th (Gregorian Calendar), Saegusa's wish was granted. He was executed like a common criminal by beheading. Samurai were no longer permitted to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in repentance for committing crimes against foreign visitors. This was at the request of the foreign nations and in an effort to show unity between the new Meiji Government and their new allies. The chance to become a martyr for a cause while maintaining their honor was removed. They would be recast as common criminals.

Saegusa Shigeru two hours before his execution, March 27, 1868 (via JCCI Tokyo).

Nakai Hiromu (Nakai Kozo)

Nakai Kozo was a former retainer of the Satsuma clan. Like many of his contemporaries in the Bakumatsu era, he changed his name several times but is commonly known as Nakai Hiromu. He was born as the eldest son of Yokoyama Kyuzaemon (Eisuke), a clan retainer, under the Kagoshima castle. The family held an important position in the clan until his grandfather's generation. However, by his father's generation, his family had fallen and was financially impoverished. He ran away to Kyoto and became a ronin. But he was discovered by Goto Shojiro, Sakamoto Ryoma, and other members of the Tosu clan who loved him for his hard character.

In 1866, they managed to raise funds to secretly send Nakai to England with another Tosa samurai, Yukiyasu, to study. He returned in the spring of 1867 and began working in Kyoto as a liaison officer for the Uwajima clan. It was around this time that he changed his name to Nakai Kozo (the name he was known by the British legation). In January 1868, he became a minister's receptionist for foreign affairs. Then in March of the same year, he was involved in the Sonno-Joi Incident protecting the British legation.

Fear of Retaliation

After the Sonno-Joi Incident, Nakai lived in fear for his life. He expected to be attacked by Sonno-joi adherents for defending foreigners and killing a fellow Japanese in the process. There is a story that to rectify the situation, he ordered several hundred fans dedicated to the memory of Sonno-Joi member, Takayama Hikokuro. However, once completed, Nakai refused to pay for the fans, so the shop sold them around the city. This was despite Nakai's public declaration that he had commissioned the fans as a loyal subject to the Emperor.

An Active Diplomat

In 1871, Nakai returned to government service. Then in 1873, he traveled to China, Russia, Turkey, Greece, India, Egypt, France, England, and the United States and returned to Japan in 1876. He also served as secretary of the Japanese legation in England. After returning to Japan, he became the secretary-general of the Ministry of Industry.

Afterward, Nakai played an active role in diplomatic affairs. He also served as governor of Shiga prefecture and a member of the House of Peers in 1897. In 1893, he was appointed governor of Kyoto Prefecture. During his tenure, he devoted his efforts to the 4th National Industrial Exhibition and the construction of the Kyoto-Maizuru Railway. However, before it was completed, Nakai died from a brain hemorrhage in 1894 when he was 55 years old.

There was a statue dedicated to him in Maruyama Park, Kyoto, which was taken down during World War II and smelted for ammunition. It was later replaced with a smaller one by his descendants in 1964 and remains there today.

Nakai Hiromu (Kozo)'s statue in Maruyama Park, Kyoto.

Goto Shojiro

Goto Shojiro (1838-1897) is not so well known outside Japan. Like Sakamoto Ryoma, he was also from Tosa and joined the Sonno-joi movement there. Unlike Sakamoto's departure from the domain, Goto worked within the domain to gain power and apply pressure on the daimyo, Yamauchi Toyoshige. Goto's intention was to arrange diplomatic talks with the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. His aim was to facilitate a peaceful transference of power back to the emperor.

Goto went on to take high positions in the new Meiji Government but eventually began a couple of his own political parties with his friend, Itagaki Taisuke. He had a statue erected in his honor in Shiba Park, Minato ward. It became the subject of picture postcards of famous landmarks. However, like his friend Nakai Kozo, Goto's statue was also taken down and melted down during WWII to provide metal for the war effort. But unlike Nakai, Goto's statue was unfortunately never replaced.

Old postcard of Goto Shojiro’s statue in Shiba Park, Tokyo.

'A Consistent Friend'

In Mitford's book, The Garter Mission to Japan (1906), he recalled the occasion of seeing Goto's statue in Shiba Park, and reflected fondly upon him, stating,

[We] Englishmen are glad that there should be a memorial of this trusty friend. I have already related how when we were attacked at Kyoto on our way to Court in 1868, Goto Shojiro, as he then was, sprang from his horse and killed one of the ruffians who were rushing at Sir Harry Parkes.


There are few men of that day who would have hailed with greater joy the alliance of his country with England for he was one of the first of the leaders of the new political school to hold out his hand to the strangers from the West, and he remained their consistent friend to the end. Now, alas, he sleeps in the great cemetery of the Aoyama.

Sword used by Nakai Hiromu to fend off the attack. (©Sankei by Komaki Shigi)
Close-up of Nakai Hiromu's sword. (©Sankei by Komaki Shigi)

The Swords Used in the Attack

Although the sword used by Saegusa during the attack was kept by his family for a long time, it was lost in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995. The sword used by Hayashida was rediscovered in July 2016 (Heisei 28). It was given to Reimei Shrine in Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, a shrine closely associated with heroes of the final days of the samurai era. Hayashida's katana has a cutting-edge length of 74.3 cm (29.3 in).

Sword used by Hayashida Eitaro Sadakata in the attack. (©Sankei by Komaki Shigi)
A close-up view shows chips in the blade. (©Sankei by Komaki Shigi)

Swords Presented to Nakai and Goto

Queen Victoria presented sabers made by C Smith & Son of 12 Piccadilly, London to both Nakai and Goto with their names engraved in appreciation of their gallantry. Nakai's presentation saber, along with the actual sword he used in the incident, is kept in Kyoto National Museum.

Inscription on Saber presented to Goto Shojiro.

They were gifted to Kyoto National Museum in 1903 by his son-in-law, Hara Takashi (who later became Prime Minister in 1918). Both the swords used by Nakai and Hayashida are severely damaged and beyond repair as functional weapons.

Saber presented to Goto Shojiro.
Mountings of Saber presented to Goto Shojiro.

Goto's presentation saber was recently rediscovered in the collection of the Seikado Bunko Art Museum. However, the whereabouts of his sword used in the incident are currently unknown.

Letters of Gratitude

The sabers were accompanied by letters like the one below from (Sir) Harry Parkes,

British Legation
November 6th, 1868

Goto Shojiro Sama,

Her Majesty's Government are very desirous to mark the high sense which they entertain of the praiseworthy and courageous conduct which you displayed on the occasion of the attack made upon my party when I was proceeding to an audience of the Mikado on the 23rd of March last, and they have accordingly instructed me to present to you a sword which they have caused to be prepared in commemoration of your distinguished behavior. It naturally affords me very great satisfaction to be charged with the duty of delivering to you this testimonial, and in presenting it to you.

I beg to add the expression of my fervent wish for your enjoyment of a long and prosperous career, which I am satisfied will be marked by entire devotion to the service of your Sovereign and country.

I have the honor to be, Sir,
Your obedient humble servant,
Harry Parkes



Author: Paul Martin

Read other columns on Japanese history and Japanese swords on JAPAN Forward.

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