Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Bakumatsu (Part 4): On the Brink

Namamugi Incident on a Japanese Woodcut Print
Attacks on foreigners and Bakufu officials illustrated the propensity of the unpopularity of opening Japan to the world. Edo attempted to alleviate the situation. But as it progressed, conditions continued to sour. Explore developments in foreign relations that placed Japan on the brink.

Diplomatic Developments

Ports of Yokohama and Nagasaki opened to world trade in 1859 and supposed to be followed by Niigata in the 1860. But domestic violence resulting from recent concessions questioned the practicality of opening ports immediately.

Indeed the opening of Niigata failed materialized in 1860 as a result and the foreign powers did not reacted. By the summer of the same year, Bakufu officials informed the representatives of the Treaty Powers of their intention to postpone the opening of treaty ports. Townsend Harris, American minister to Japan, suggested the move as wise, especially in the midst of long line of brutal and tragic assassinations committed by disgruntled ronins.

But even if the Japanese showed intentions to move the date of opening of ports, they continued to sign additional commercial treaties with other European countries. In 1860, Japan agreed to a commercial treaty with the Portuguese and in January 1861 with the Prussians. The signing of additional treaties caused an uproar, resulting to the assassination of Henry Heuksen, Harris' and the American legation’s secretary, who assisted in the negotiation with the Prussians.

By 1861, Russia, contented with its borders in northern Japan and consolidating power domestically, and the Americans, busy with their Civil War, took the sidelines in Japanese affairs while the British and the French, already well-established in the region, took prominent roles. Bakufu sent Kuze Hirochika in early 1861 to inform and to negotiate with the British Minister to Japan, Rutherford Alcock, in their intention to postpone port openings. In July 1861, after the attacks made on the British legation by angry Mito ronins, Alcock, realizing the dangerous situation brought by the opening, accepted to postponement.

London Protocol
Japanese Embassy in the 1862 International Exhibition
On January 1862, a mission to Europe composing of 40 official delegates with Takenouchi Shimotsuke as chief and their servants left Shinagawa. The mission succeeded in securing an agreement in London on June 6, 1862, known as the London Protocol that moved the opening of the ports for five years from 1863. Secretary of State Lord Russell trusted Alcock’s decision and agreed to the Japanese proposal.

The terms of the London Protocol postponed the opening of Niigata and other ports and cities stated in the 1858 treaty until 1868. In exchange for the postponement came additional concessions. It called for the abolition of many restrictions imposed on foreigners like in terms of quantity and price of goods to be traded, of fees to be paid, and of social classes allowed to conduct commercial transactions with. The Protocol called for the complete and immediate implementation of all the terms of the previous treaty in 1868. It suggested as well the opening of Tsushima Island to trade. Reduction of tariffs on spirits and other alcohols also was secured in the protocol alongside the freedom to use warehouses to store goods without any fees to the Japanese government.

Terms of the London Protocol was extended to other Treaty Power and approved, except the distracted United States due to the Civil War. Hence, Japan and the Bakufu secured a breathing space to re-consolidate its strength and quell domestic unrest.

Meanwhile, the embassy sent to Europe changed the views of men who took part in it. Their travel gave them an opportunity to see and to experience the tremendous advancement of the west compared to the stagnate case of Japan. David Murray wrote, “For the first time they saw the terrible armaments of western powers, and realized the futility of attempting to make armed resistance to their measures.” Moreover, the embassy also experienced the hospitality from the foreign “barbarians” which shifted their perception. Yukichi Fukuzawa, a translator in the mission, wrote, “… I felt as if a load had been lifted from my chest. After all, the foreigners were not all ‘devils’…. I found that there were among them some truly impartial and warm-hearted human beings.”

The Protocol gave the Bakufu a chance to reorganize and reflect over its policies. It also gave them the opportunity to see what the West could offer to Japan. However, On September 1862, an incident worsen conditions at home and their relations with the foreign community.

Richardson/Namamugi Incident

On September 14, 1862, samurais guarding Lord Shimazu Saburo and his caravan attacked a party of foreigners and killed a certain merchant named Charles Richardson due to his disrespect of customs.

Lord Shimazu Saburo went to Edo in July 1862 to secure the appointment of Hitotsubashi Keiki and Matsudaira Keiei to important positions within the Bakufu. By September he had accomplished his task and journeyed back to Kyoto through the Tokaido Road. In Kawasaki near Yokohama, Shimazu’s convoy met up with a party of foreigners consisting of a woman and three men.

The party of foreigners planned to go to a temple in Kawasaki when they unfortunately crossed paths with Lord Shimazu. A member of the party, Charles Richardson, an audacious British wealthy merchant based on Shanghai, broke traditions and customs. Traditionally, Japanese gave way and prostrated to a passing convoy of a feudal lord. Richardson violated this customs by passing along the side of Lord Shimazu’s convoy despite his companion’s cries for him to stop. Instead, Richardson said to have boldly quoted, “Let me alone, I have lived fourteen years in China and know how to manage these people.” Samurais guarding Lord Shimazu acted to punish the disrespectful foreigner by giving him a slash of their sword or two leaving Richardson mortally wounded. The samurais also wounded the two other men in the party as they aid Richardson. Eventually, the samurais allowed the foreign party to escape. As the foreigners reached the village of Namamugi, Richardson finally fell to his wounds.
Body of Charles Richardson
The news of the incident infuriated the foreign community in Yokohama, who felt tired and angry over being targeted by attacks and then by killings. They began to form a punitive expedition against the culprit; but, the British Charge d’affaires (and officer in charge while Alcock left for sick leave since March 1862) Colonel Edward St. John Neale talk down and reasoned with the crowd.

The Bakufu received the angry protest and loud demand for justice from Neale and passed it to the Satsuma Domain. In October, 1862, the Lords of the Domain absolutely refused to hand over the culprits and defended their samurai’s action as it befit Japanese customs and acted only to punish an arrogant foreign barbarian. The Bakufu relayed the rejection by Satsuma to the British and then they washed its hands from the affair by stating its inability to punish or command the Daimiate.

In political view, the Bakufu wanted to remain neutral as they decided to avoid the implication of the Bakufu to any military retaliation from the British but also to avoid alienating Satsuma and Lord Shimazu, who was their close ally in Kyoto.

On December 24, 1862, Edo once again received demands from Colonel Neale. They demanded a full apology from the Bakufu and Satsuma, a payment of an indemnity worth £ 100,000 from Edo in addition to another separate £ 25,000 indemnity from Satsuma, and the execution of the perpetrators in front of British officers. The Bakufu did nothing while Satsuma remained defiant. Britain already dispatched warships to Japan and prepared a naval squad in China to launch a blockade of Japan if it came to worst. They had prepared to exercise another gunboat diplomacy and in worse case, for a major conflict.

On April 6, 1863, Neale renewed demands to Edo and Satsuma. He blatantly warned them either to accept or reject, in which case Britain would launch “direct actions against Satsuma.” Already, 7 British warships had anchored in Yokohama ready for action. The memories of Perry chillingly reverberated again along with fears of an unwanted war among officials.

As the British sought justice and amassed its impressive forces, Edo and Kyoto, meanwhile, planned the expelling of the foreign barbarians either by force or by diplomacy.

Explore also:


Alcock, Rutherford. The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years' Residence in Japan. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1863. 

Beasley, W.G. The Modern History of Japan. New York, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publisher, 1963.

Craig, Albert et. al. East Asia: The Modern Transformation Volume 2. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965. 

Fukuzawa Yukichi. The Autobiography of Yukichi FukuzawaTranslated by Eiichi Kiyooka. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume 12. B. London: Whitrow and Company, 1820.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gubbins, J.H. The Progress of Japan, 1853 - 1871. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911. 

Harris, Townsend. The Complete Journal of Townsend Harris: First American Consul and Minister to Japan. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1959.

Jansen, Marius (ed.). The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 5: The Nineteenth Century. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Marquis de Moges. Recollections of Baron Gros's Embassy to China and Japan in 1857 - 1858. London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, 1861.

Murray, David. Japan. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.

Oliphant, Laurence. Narrative of the Earl of Elgin's Mission to China and Japan in the Years 1867, '58, '59. London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1860. 

Satow, Ernest (Trans.). Japan 1853 - 1864 or Genji Yume Monogatari. Tokyo: n.p., 1905. 

__________________. Kinse Shiriaku: A History of Japan, From the First Visit of Commodore Perry in 1853 to the Capture of Hakodate by the Mikado's Forces in 1869. Tokyo: The Naigwai Shuppan Kyokwai, 1906. 

Ward, A.W. et. al. The Cambridge Modern History Volume XI: The Growth of Nationalities. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1909.

Lord Elgin. Edited by Theodore Walrond. "Letters and Journals of James, Eight Earl of Elgin." In Project Gutenberg. Accessed on June 19, 2016. URL:

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