Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

A Visit to the Regent

The travelers at last approached Yedo forty-eight days after leaving Deshima—a journey which is now made by steamer in two and a half days. As the party came near the gates of the city, they were met by a detachment of samurai who were to act as escort. The Hollanders crossed the city and entered the precincts of the castle, where they were lodged in a house especially prepared for them. Here, in the capital, they were held in even more rigid seclusion than in Nagasaki; but here, also, they were visited by many prominent Japanese, among whom was the daimio of Mito (mee-toh), the brother of the regent. Uniform kindness was shown to them. A great fire procured for them more than usual liberty. As these fires are very common in Japan, even to-day, I shall give the description in the words of one of the travelers:—

"At ten o'clock in the morning of the twenty-second of April, we heard that a fire had broken out in the town, at the distance of about two leagues from our quarters. We took no heed of the news, so common are fires at Yedo—a fine night never passing without one. As they are less frequent during rain, a lowering evening is a subject for mutual congratulation to the people in Yedo. The flames came nearer and nearer; and at about three o'clock in the afternoon, a high wind driving the sparks toward our neighborhood, four different houses around were soon in flames. Two hours before this occurred, we had been sufficiently alarmed to begin packing; so that now, when the danger had become imminent, we were prepared to make our escape.

Daimio at home


"On coming into the street, we saw everything blazing about us. To run with the flames before the wind appeared very dangerous; so, taking an oblique direction, we ran through a street that was already burning, and thus reached an open field beyond the conflagration. The place was set thick with the flags of princes (daimio), whose palaces were already consumed, and who had escaped thither with their wives and children. We followed their example, and appropriated a spot to ourselves by setting up a small Dutch flag used in crossing rivers. We had now a full view of the fire, and never did I see anything so terrible. The horrors of this sea of flame were enhanced by the heartrending cries and lamentations of fleeing women and children.

"Here we were for the moment safe, but had no home. The governor of Nagasaki, then resident at Yedo, had been dismissed; and the house of his successor, appointed that very day, was already in ashes. We had quarters assigned to us in the house of the other governor,—then resident at Nagasaki,—which stands quite at the other side of the town. Thither we were led at half past ten in the evening, and were received and all our wants supplied in the most friendly manner."

The next day the travelers received a visit from their former host. "He told us that thirty-seven palaces of princes (daimio) had been destroyed, and that about twelve hundred persons (including a little daughter of the daimio of Awa (ah-wah) ) were either burned to death or drowned. This last misfortune was caused by the breaking down of the celebrated bridge Nihon bashi (nee-hon bash-ee), under the weight of the flying multitude. Those in the rear, unconscious of the accident, and wild to escape the flames, drove those in front forward into the water."

And now I shall give you an account of the visit paid by the Hollanders to the regent. As the same ceremonies were always observed, I shall give the account of one of the general agents. He says:—

"A sort of full dress is ordered for the occasion. That of the general agent is composed of velvet; the doctor's and the secretary's are of cloth trimmed with gold or silver lace, or embroidered with gold or silver. All three wear cloaks, that of the general agent being of velvet, the others of black satin; but these are not put on till the men reach the interior of the palace. The general agent alone enjoys the privilege of having his sword borne behind him in a black velvet bag, no other foreigner in Japan being suffered even to retain his side arms.

"On the appointed day, the 28th of the third Japanese month (which then corresponded to the third of May), we repaired in state to the palace, at six o'clock in the morning, that we might be there before the arrival of the state councilors. We were carried in our norimonos into the castle, and to the gate of the palace, where even princes are obliged to alight, except three, who, being princes of the blood, are brought as far as the gate, opposite to the guard of a hundred men. To this guard we proceeded on foot, and there awaited the coming of the councilors of state. We were desired to sit on benches covered with red hangings, and were offered tea and the materials for smoking. Here we saw the governor of Nagasaki, and one of the chief spies or general commissioners for strangers, who, after congratulating us upon our prospect of immediate happiness in approaching the emperor (regent), left for the palace.

"Then came the commandant of the guard to visit the general agent—and here it is necessary to stand rigidly upon one's rank. The commandant required that I should come down from the inner room, which is held the most honorable, into the first or outer room, because his inferior rank did not authorize him to enter the inner room. I, on my side, asserted the impossibility of leaving the upper place assigned me. The commandant then advanced; but he paused at the distance of two mats (about twelve feet), and thence saluted me. By thus resolutely maintaining my place (which must always be done in Japan when one is right), I insured the observance of old customs, the restoration of which—if through good nature one ever gives way—is exceedingly difficult.

"When all the state councilors had arrived, we were invited to cross the other courts and enter the palace, where we were received by persons who, but for their shaven heads, might be compared to European pages. They conducted us to a waiting room, where we sat down on the floor, in a reclining posture, and covered our feet with our cloaks—to show one's feet being considered in Japan an act of gross rudeness. After remaining here some time, the governor of Nagasaki and the commissioner for foreigners led me into the anteroom, where I was desired to perfect myself in the part I had to act, as the governor would pay the penalty of any imperfection. I was then led back to the waiting hall. Not long afterwards I accompanied the governor to the reception hall, from which we saw several grandees returning.

"I was led along a wooden corridor to the hall of a hundred mats, so named from its being carpeted with a hundred mats, each six feet by three. They are made of straw, are about two inches thick, and over them are laid others of finer texture, ornamentally bordered; such mats are used in Japan to cover every handsome sitting room. There we left the chief interpreter, and, with the governor of Nagasaki, I was now ushered into the audience hall, where I saw the presents arranged on my left hand. Here we found the emperor (so the Dutch considered the regent), whose dress differed in no respect from that of his subjects. I paid my compliments in the precise form in which the princes of the realm pay theirs, while one of the state councilors announced me by the shout of Capitan Horanda!  (Holland Chief). Hereupon the governor of Nagasaki, who stood a step or two behind me, pulled me by the cloak in token that the audience was over. The whole ceremony does not occupy one minute."

It is entirely true that the general agents paid their respects in the same manner as the daimio paid theirs, and as every Japanese salutes his equal or his superior in rank. Still it was somewhat humiliating to men of their race. Here is a more detailed description of the ceremony, given by a most trustworthy eyewitness:—

"As soon," he says, "as the general agent entered the hall of audience, they cried out 'Horanda Capitan,' which was the signal for him to draw near and make his obeisances. Accordingly, he crawled on his hands and knees to a place shown him, between the presents ranged in due order on one side, and the place where the emperor (regent) sat on the other; and there, kneeling, he bowed his forehead quite down to the ground, and so crawled backward like a crab, without uttering a single word. So mean and short a thing is the audience we have of this mighty monarch."