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The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Bizen Incident 

This installment in the series focuses on turbulent Bakumatsu Japan and an incident near Kobe between British civilians and the Bizen clan of daimyo in 1868.

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Bakumatsu Japan
Wakizashi by Kanefusa, 16th C. British Museum Collection. The wakizashi that was used for the ritual seppuku is currently owned by Taki's Zenzaburo's great grandson, Taki Akira.

The era of Bakumatsu Japan and 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 and 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 4 of a series which is published in chronological order. Read the previous parts:

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

Bakumatsu Japan
The Bizen clan samurai Taki Zenzaburo is preparing to take responsibility for the Bizen incident by committing seppuku.

The Bizen Incident (Also known as the Kobe Incident)

On February 4th, 1868, various legations of different countries were assembled in the newly opened port of Kobe. At the time, the civil war was in full flight. The Shogun had fled Osaka and was waiting in Kobe for a storm to pass so that he and his entourage could sail back to Edo. 

A procession of soldiers from the Bizen clan were moving toward their destination along the main road when two French sailors crossed in front of their procession. (In another report, it was a solitary American sailor according to Satow.) An altercation then took place that resulted in the head of the procession, Taki Zenzaburo, making the order to fire. Shots were fired into the plain, which was to become foreign settlements, sending the foreign community scurrying for cover. 

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Musket balls whizzed over the heads of Sir Harry Parks and other dignitaries. In response, orders were given to return fire. Soldiers of the various legations sprang into action and launched a combined overwhelming attack on the poorly trained procession. 

The result was that the procession promptly turned on their heels and ran, leaving all sorts of equipment in the road. So fast was their retreat that they left one elderly porter behind who was captured and arrested.  

A British Manifesto

It would seem that neither side were of the greatest aim as between fifteen to seventeen shots were fired at the porter, and none hit. And there were no evident casualties among the Bizen procession. 

The only casualty in the whole affair, was that of an old lady bystander who took a British bullet to the ankles. However, this too was not without incident as the British legation took her in for treatment of her wounds by their doctor. They soon discovered to the dismay of their Japanese staff that she was a member of the Eta class, and protests ensued. The protests were, however, ignored by the British legation staff. 

A manifesto was issued by the legation after the incident. It stated that if the Bizen clan did not explain their actions, Japan as a whole would be held responsible. 

Eventually, on the orders of the new Meiji government, the Bizen clan agreed to take responsibility. (This was the first diplomatic incident of the new government.)  Their solution was to resolve the incident by allowing the ritual suicide of the officer who had issued the orders to fire on the foreign settlement, along with an apology. However, once granted by the legation, Sir Harry Parkes voted for clemency for Taki. He was outvoted by other ministers, however. 

Bakumatsu Japan
An Illustration of Taki Zenzaburo's seppuku from the publication, L'Illustration Journal Universal.

Seven Foreigners

Ernest Satow and Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford (Lord Redesdale) bore witness to the seppuku ritual suicide of Taki Zenzaburo. Both recorded it in their respective books. 

However, Mitford's description in Tales of Old Japan, along with an explanation of the various rules of seppuku conduct at that time, is the most poignant. 

Excerpts follow, edited for brevity and modern spellings.

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Bakumatsu Japan
An illustration from the written story of the Bizen Incident between the British legation and the Meiji era Bizen clan in Bakumatsu Japan.

Sacrifice on the Orders of the Emperor

I may here describe an instance of such an execution which I was sent to officially witness. The condemned man was Taki Zenzaburo, an officer of the Prince of Bizen, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hyogo in the month of February 1868.

Up to that time, no foreigner had witnessed such an execution, which was rather looked upon as a traveler's fable. 

The ceremony, which was ordered by the emperor himself, took place at 10:30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji, the headquarters of the Satsuma troops at Hyogo. A witness was sent from each of the foreign legations. We were seven foreigners in all.[…]

Bakumatsu Japan
Eifukuji Temple from the Meiji Period when the Bizen incident occurred.

Scene of the Ceremony

Although the ceremony was to be conducted in the most private manner, the casual remarks which we overheard in the streets, and a crowd lining the principal entrance to the temple, showed that it was a matter of no little interest to the public. The courtyard to the temple presented a most picturesque sight; it was crowded with soldiers standing about in knots round large fires, which threw a dim flickering light over the heavy eaves and quaint gable-ends of the sacred buildings. (…) 

A further delay then ensued, after which we were invited to follow the Japanese witnesses into the Hondo, or main hall of the temple, where the ceremony was to be performed. It was an imposing scene. 

A large hall with a high roof supported by dark pillars of wood. From the ceiling hung a profusion of those huge gilt lamps and ornaments peculiar to Buddhist temples. In front of the high altar, where the floor, covered with beautiful white mats, is raised some three or four inches from the ground, was laid a rug of scarlet felt. Tall candles placed at regular intervals gave out a mysterious light, just sufficient to let all of the proceedings be seen. 

The seven Japanese witnesses took their places on the left of the raised floor, the seven foreigners on the right. No other person was present.

Bakumatsu Japan
The temple continues to maintain the memorial to the historic Bizen incident between the British legation and Meiji Japan.

Entrance of the Victim and a Gentleman

After an interval of a few minutes of anxious suspense, Taki Zenzaburo, a stalwart man, thirty-two years of age, with a noble air, walked into the hall attired in his dress of ceremony. With the peculiar hempen-cloth wings, which are worn on great occasions. He was accompanied by a kaishaku,and three officers, who wore jimbaori, or war surcoat with gold-tissue facings. 

The word kaishaku, it should be observed, is one to which our word, executioner, is no equivalent term. The office is that of a gentleman: in many cases it is performed by a kinsman or friend of the condemned, and the relation between them is rather that of principal and second than that of victim and executioner. In this instance, the kaishaku was a pupil of Taki Zenzaburo, and was selected by the friends of the latter from among their own number for his skill in swordsmanship. 

With the kaishaku on his left hand, Taki Zenzaburo advanced slowly towards the Japanese witnesses, and the two bowed before them. Then drawing near to the foreigners, they saluted us in the same way, perhaps even with more deference. In each case the salutation was ceremoniously returned. 

Slowly, and with great dignity, the condemned man mounted onto the raised floor, prostrated himself before the high-altar twice and seated (in seiza) himself on the felt carpet with his back to the high-altar, the kaishaku crouching on his left side.

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Final Apology

One of the three attendant officers then came forward, bearing a stand of the kind used in temples for offerings, on which, wrapped in paper, lay the wakizashi, the short sword or dirk of the Japanese. Nine inches and a half in length, with a point and an edge as sharp as a razor's. 

This he handed, prostrating himself, to the condemned man, who received it reverently, raising it to his head with both hands, and placing it in front of himself. 

After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburo, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:

”I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honor of witnessing the act.”

Bakumatsu Japan
An image of the memorial plaque about the Bizen incident.

The Final Act

Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards. For a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. 

Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him. He looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately. For a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time. And then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. 

During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment, the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised with his sword for a second in the air. There was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall. With one blow the head had been severed from the body. 

A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible.

Collection of Historical Wakizashi

The British Museum has in its collection a wakizashi made by the 1st Generation Kanefusa that is said to have belonged to Algernon Mitford. According to the records submitted with the sword, it says that Mitford was given the sword by Emperor Meiji for attending the seppuku ritual suicide of the murder of Richardson in the Namamugi Incident, as recorded in his book, Tales of Old Japan.

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However, the culprits for the Namamugi Incident were never caught or proven. And therefore, although the Satsuma clan paid reparations, no one was actually charged with the murder. So no seppuku rituals took place. 

What is recorded in Mitford's book is as described above, the seppuku of Taki Zenzaburo, the man who gave the orders to fire on the foreign settlement at the Bizen Incident, and then took responsibility for his actions. Mitford also records that this was carried out on the orders of Emperor Meiji. Therefore, it is likely that he may have also accepted the wakizashi on behalf of the emperor at that time. 

Additionally, the actual blades used for the ritual suicide and the subsequent beheading (kaishaku) were passed down with the Taki family. Zenzaburo's son was given the wakizashi, while his daughter was given the sword. 

Family members were urged not to talk about it. And despite being allowed to commit seppuku, they felt a sense of shame. 

They also felt let down by the foreign and Japanese governments. That is because Zenzaburo was made a diplomatic scapegoat on behalf of his country to appease the foreign powers. 

Coming in Part Five: The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Joi Incident 

See the British Museum collection

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Author: Paul Martin

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