Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

How a Samurai Committed Hara–Kiri

On the 4th of February, 1868, the newly opened port of Hiogo, where the foreign settlement Kobe (koh-bay)  is located, presented an animated appearance; for the first settlers were unloading their goods, houses were in the course of erection, coolies were shouting, strangers were crowding the streets, and the foreign ministers with their staffs were actively engaged in giving directions or chatting with the less busy members of the young community.

The harbor, too, presented a gay appearance with the many war vessels flying their national flags, and boats passing to and fro. A bright sun showed the glorious blue sky, and there was a general feeling of security, owing to the presence of the fleet and the number of well-armed sailors and marines. Had these been absent, the foreigners would have been very much alarmed. For civil war was raging; troops of armed samurai were constantly moving upon Kyoto, the regent had fled, and no one knew what the morrow might bring forth.

A band of samurai belonging to the Hizen clan were on the march to Kyoto. When they had arrived within the foreign settlement, they were seen to halt; a word of command was given, and then came a whizzing of bullets, fired as fast as repeating rifles could send them forth. Happily these Hizen samurai had not had time to practice sharp-shooting, for most of the bullets went wide of the mark; but had they been good shots, few of the foreigners ashore would have lived to tell the story. The officers of the men-of-war in port heard the firing and suspected the cause. A few orders rang out, boats were manned, and before the Hizen men were quite out of the place, the guards of the different legations, and the soldiers and marines of the war vessels, were after them. But the Hizen samurai, having heard of Shimonoseki and Kagoshima, did not wait for them, so the foreign troops had their trouble for nothing.



The whole affair seemed a farce. Two or three men in the foreign settlement had been slightly wounded, and one old woman was shot in the leg. She belonged to the lowest caste of the Japanese, and by the natives was looked upon with contempt. But the foreign doctor examined her, and had her taken in and made comfortable, notwithstanding the protests of the native servants.

Although the consequences had been slight, the foreign ministers resolved to make an example of the case and insist upon the punishment of the offending officer; and the Tennô's government recognized the justice of the demand. There was no difficulty now about discovering the culprit. Upon receiving the assurance that he would be permitted to commit hara-kiri, the clan delivered him up without raising the slightest disturbance, and the order came under the Tennô seal that delegates from the foreign legations should be allowed to be present to be convinced that the real culprit was brought to justice.

Ito Shunske (ee-to shoons-kay), now Marquis Ito Hirobumi (hee-roh-boo-mee), ex-prime minister of state, the same Choshiu man who had been a house servant in England, was governor of Hiogo. He and another officer were to represent the Tennô at the execution, which was to take place in a temple, the headquarters of the Satsuma men, at half past ten at night. Officers of Satsuma and Choshiu conducted the foreign delegates to the temple, where, after passing through crowds of soldiers standing around camp fires in the temple grounds, they were shown into an inner room.

After they had waited some time, Governor Ito came in, wrote down the names of the foreigners, and told them that seven Japanese officers would witness the execution on behalf of the government. After a short time, the foreigners were invited to enter the hall prepared for the execution. They followed the Japanese witnesses into the main hall, which was lighted by a number of lamps peculiar to Buddhist temples. Before the high altar a cloth of scarlet wool was placed over the mats covering the floor. The Japanese witnesses took their places on the left, the foreigners on the right.

A few minutes passed, and a fine-looking, strongly built man about thirty-two years old, dressed in the state dress of a samurai, walked in quietly, evincing not a sign of emotion. With him came his second, a friend who had undertaken the last service for the condemned man, that of cutting off the head after the deadly incision was made. Three officers wearing the war dress followed. The condemned man first approached the Japanese witnesses, whom he saluted with a stately bow showing no servility,—a salute returned in the same dignified manner. Then, turning to the foreigners, he repeated the salutation. Every one of these foreigners was forced to admire the high-bred demeanor and dauntless courage of this samurai, and all would have been glad to see him pardoned. There was no sign of emotion on the impenetrable countenances of the Japanese spectators.

The man approached the high altar and twice prostrated himself before it. Turning round, he sat down on the scarlet rug, with his second close beside him. One of the three attendants then came forward and brought, upon a tray, the dagger, nine and a half inches long, pointed, and sharp as a razor. Kneeling respectfully before the condemned samurai, the attendant handed him the dagger, and he received it as the Japanese do a valued gift, by raising it to his forehead with both hands; and then he placed it in front of himself.

Again bowing deeply, he prepared to speak. It was expected that he would boast of his deed; for the Japanese samurai, about to die by his own hand, had the right to address the witnesses, and it was customary for him to defend the act that cost him his life by placing it in the best light. But it was evident that this man understood that the unprovoked attack instigated by him might have cost his country dear. It was said afterwards that, before going to his death, he had called his fellow-clansmen, and assured them that the judgment was just, and that no ill will must be shown to those who had brought it upon him. So little does a samurai consider his own welfare when the good of his country is at stake. On this occasion, in a calm and dignified manner he said, with as much hesitation as would be natural in a man making a humiliating confession: "I, and I alone, without cause, gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I commit hara-kiri, and I beg you who are present to do me the honor of witnessing the act."

After bowing once more, he let his clothes drop to his belt, and took care to tuck the ends of his long sleeves under his knees, so that he should fall forward. Then he took up the dagger, looked at it for a moment almost with affection, and slowly but deeply cut himself. His second jumped up, there was a flash, and the head rolled upon the floor. The two witnesses for the Tennô now crossed over to the foreigners, and called them to witness that justice had been done. They made a suitable answer and departed, deeply moved by the spectacle.

But an example was necessary. The roving samurai had made altogether too free with their swords, and promising lives had been cut short without any provocation. And even this example was not sufficient. It was only when the foreign ministers insisted that all samurai who made an unprovoked attack upon foreigners should be handed over to the executioner and die the death of a common felon, that the attacks ceased. It was the assault on the British minister at Kyoto that led to the enactment of this law.