The Sakai Incident 1868

When the Americans took Bagdhad in the Second Gulf War, the residents of the city took to looting stores, warehouses and museums in a state of total chaos. In bygone years, such anarchy was enough justification for foreign powers to take over any given city, harbor or even nation on the pretext of restoring law and order. Many cities and ports across Asia were thusly taken and occupied. Some cities in Japan came quite close.

In January 1868, the forces of the last shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunite, Tokugawa Yoshinobu abandoned Osaka as their troops crumbled in the face of the Imperialist Alliance. Police forces disappeared. To restore order and maintain peace, forces of Satsuma were assigned to patrol the city of Osaka, forces of Nagato were assigned to Hyogo (now Kobe) and forces of Tosa were assigned to Sakai.

The city of Sakai is one with a proud history. During the Era of the Warring Lords (Sengoku Era), Sakai was a free city governed by a guild of merchants. The city, unlike most other cities in Japan, was a fortified harbor protected on three sides by moats, the forth side facing the sea. The city eventually fell into the rule of the shogun. Up until the first half of the Tokugawa era, however, it remained one of the most prosperous cities in Japan.

When the troops of Tosa reached the city, the two captains, Sugi and Ikoma, assigned to Sakai dug up seventy three former subjects of the shogun and put them to work in the offices, thus freeing their troops for guarding the streets.

The foreign powers were not unaware of the situation. A total of 16 French, British and American war ships were anchored off Osaka carefully monitoring the situation. The French sent troops to Sakai hoping to find sufficient chaos to justify occupation of the harbor. Unfortunately for them, order had already been restored quite efficiently. But that didn’t stop them from marching into the city.

On February 15th, a small number of French scouts were stopped at Yamato Bridge at the enterance of Sakai. If foreign troops were permitted to travel within the territory, there should have been some communication of this matter from Lord Dateh of Iyo, the Authority of Foreign Affairs. Even if the communication could not be made in time, the troops should be carrying passports issued by relevant authorities. The Tosa soldiers demanded to see the passport through an interpreter. The French didn’t have any and since they were only scouts who faced with a larger force, they were forced to turn back.

Later that same day, twenty boats full of French sailors landed in the harbor. They were at first not particularly unruly. But they intruded upon shrines and temples, went uninvited into private homes, chased and harrassed the women and generally behaved like foreigners usually did. Sakai was not a port open to foreigners and the residents were terriblly frightened. The captains of the Tosa troops tried to talk them into returning to their ships, but there were no interpreters and they ignored their gestures. Then a French sailor took the Tosa regiment banner and ran with it. A chase ensued. The Japanese flag barrer caught up with the Frenchman, hit him hard on the head with a staff and took back the banner. At this, the French troops started shooting at the Japanese. The two captains ordered to fire back. Thirteen Frenchmen died in the skirmish. The French pulled out of Sakai.

On Feburary 18th, the French formally accused Japan of wanton murder of French troops. French consule Leon Roche made the three following demands: 1) An apology from the Lord of Tosa who is to appear personally in front of the French command aboard the French warship Venus 2) the excecution of twenty Japanese soldiers and 3) a reparation of 150 thousand dollars was to be paid by the Lord of Tosa. Faced with the superior military power of the French, the Japanese government caved in to their demands.

Thus with apology made and reparations paid, what needed to be done was to execute the soldiers. When asked which of them fired, twenty nine soldiers answered that they did. They drew straws to decide which ones would be executed. By custom, it was decided to be ritual suicide. These men, being Tosa soldiers, were technically commoners, conscripted to service for the first time in centuries, but since they were to die in samurai fashion, it was arranged that they and their posterity would be elevated to the caste of samurai. The French were soon to face more than they bargained for.

The execution took place on the 23rd. The first man to die sat down at his place and spoke to the French delegation there to witness the execution. “Frenchmen! I do not die for you, but for the Imperial Nation. Behold! The formal death of a true man of Japan!” With this, he stuck his knife into his stomach, his eyes fixed on the Frenchmen, and pulled out his own intestines for them to see. The executioner, who was to chop off the man’s head to give him a quick merciful death, swung down his sword but missed the neck, inflicting only a small wound. The doomed man spoke to the executioner, his eyes still on the Frenchmen “What’s the matter, Mr. Baba. Calm down.” The second swing bit deep into the neck and loudly cracked a vertibre. “I’m not dead yet!” the man screamed, “Cut deeper!” At the third swing the head was finally lopped off. And the next man was called.

One by one, the men came to their deaths. Each time the men glared at the French up to the moment they died. The French consule was soon nervously standing up and sitting down, his honor guards, who were initially standing at attention, were soon whispering to each other. Decipline seem to melt away and all the French soldiers lost their military demeaner and fidgeted unbearablly. When the 12th man was called out, the French consule stood up and left without so much as a bow. The execution was suspended for lack of an official French witness. Unable to find a suitable replacement for the witness, the French pardoned the remaining nine soldiers. The survivors, furious that they missed their opportunity to die heroes and become elevated to samurai, stayed imprisoned for the remainder of their lives waiting for the French to return and resume the execution.

Thus, Japanese sovereignty was preserved in the face of superior military might. The dead soldiers were eventually enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine.

That is a story that might make a good samurai novel. It was published in Japanese as a short story by Mori Ogai in 1914.

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