The Namamugi Incident: The Murder that Sparked a War

 

Forthcoming

 

By William de Lange

On 14 September 1862, four Brits encountered the procession of the nobleman Shimazu Hisamitsu at a village called Namamugi along the ancient Tōkaidō highroad. One of them, the Shanhai trader Charles Lenox Richardson, would not survive to tell the tale. Richardson’s death would eventually lead to the Anglo-Satsuma War.

The Namamugi Incident, as it has come to be known in Japan and the West, seems to sum up perfectly the clash of cultures that attended Japan’s involuntary opening up to the West. Even today, one and a half centuries after it happened, the incident holds a particular spell among the Japanese. Not a year goes by without some film or TV documentary delving into this particular episode from the closing days of Japan’s feudal era. Japan’s struggle to adjust to its new place in the world, its wounded sense of pride; the West’s ill-conceived notions of the Orient, its imperialistic sense of superiority—all seemed to come together on that fateful sultry summer day when a Britt named Charles Lenox Richardson came face to face with a samurai named Narahara Kizaemon.

Up till now the reading of this pivotal incident in Japan’s late-feudal history has been skewed either to a Western or a Japanese view of what took place, partly because of cultural and political reasons, partly because of linguistic barriers. This book is the first account in the English language to present all versions of what happened on that fateful day: that  of the foreign settlers in Yokohama, that of the Bakufu officials, and that of the Shimazu retainers. Reading De Lange’s careful reconstruction of events reads like a latter-day version of Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant Rashomon: our view of the story changes with each party’s account—except that, in this case, it all really happened.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things

that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.

So throw off the bowlines.

Sail away from the safe harbor.

Catch the trade winds in your sails.

Explore. Dream. Discover.”

 — Mark Twain

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