Known to the Japanese as Namamugi jiken - the Namamugi Incident.
In 1853, the United States Navy had interrupted Japan's 300 years of self-imposed isolation. Commodore Matthew Perry brought an insistent letter for the shogun from President Fillmore. He promised to return the following year for a reply, bringing with him a larger squadron of ships. In 1854, he negotiated a treaty giving American access to the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate. The British and Russian governments were hot on Perry’s heels and negotiated similar treaties. This was traumatic for Japanese society, used to its hundreds of years of isolation, or sakoku (“closed nation”), consoling itself with the idea that its unique values gave it a superior way of life.
Roving bands of samurai assassinated Dutch and British merchants, rallying under the cry: “Sonno joi!” (Honour the Emperor, expel the barbarians!). The daimyo (feudal baron) of Choshu opened fire with his shore battery on foreign ships in the Shimonoseki Straits. At this time, Japan only had small sailing vessels for its merchant fleet, and the Japanese saw the larger powered vessels as a great threat to their economic well-being. As a response to the shelling of the merchant ships, the American, British, Dutch and French navies combined forces and smashed the Choshu emplacements.
As a result of the foreign bombardment of Kagoshima and Choshu, the Sonno Joi movement died out. It was replaced by a new rallying cry: Fukoku Kyohei! (Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military).
The Emperor confined Westerners largely to Yokohama, but they only felt confident doing business with their revolvers close at hand. The Japanese governing elite saw the incursion of western traders as inevitable but not entirely welcome. There was at best an uneasy acceptance of the need to do business.
This coincided with the dying years of Shogunate rule. Some seven hundred years of rule under shoguns (generals from ruling dynasties) was coming to an end. The figurehead Emperor, part-man, part-god, would return to power in the 1868 coup d’etat, and appoint powerful administrators to set about modernising every aspect of Japanese government and economy.
As an exercise in authority and control, the Emperor required each daimyo to spend as much as six months each year cooling his heels in Edo (shortly to be renamed as Tokyo), under his watchful eye. It was dressed up as being needed at Court for their wisdom, etc., but in reality it was simply to keep them from making mischief and fomenting rebellion. Whenever the daimyo returned to his fiefdom to see to its governance, he had to leave, as hostages, his wife and family, together with appropriate servants.
On Sept 4, 1862, Shimazu Hisamitsu, daimyo of Satsuma, was on his way to Edo. He was one of the most powerful daimyo, and was the first to embrace western technology and manufacturing methods. He built Japan’s first industrial-sized iron foundry and glassworks. He manufactured heavy artillery weapons, and became even more powerful as a result. Because of his high status, it was not permissible for anyone to overtake a daimyo’s procession. Unaware, or heedless, of this, were Charles Richardson, a British merchant and his three companions. At Namamugi, a small town near Yokohama, they rode past Hisamitsu's procession without even making obeisance to the daimyo. Richardson was instantly killed and his two companions were injured. In response to British protests by government representatives, the Shogunate paid a hundred thousand pounds indemnity, but Satsuma refused to pay indemnity, execute the killers or even make an apology. As a result the British bombarded the city of Kagoshima on August 15, 1863.
The Kagoshima bombardment
During 15-16 August 1863, seven British warships under Vice-Admiral Kuper entered Kagoshima Bay in the Satsuma domain to negotiate settlement for the Richardson Affair. Over a 3-day period, the talks proved abortive, perhaps because Hisamitsu did not want to negotiate. Hisamitsu sent a troop of his Samurai out to the squadron disguised as fruitsellers, hoping to take out the British officers as a prelude to the forts opening fire, but the Samurai found themselves too closely watched by Royal Marines with fixed bayonets to carry out their plan. Frustrated by the intransigence of the daimyo’s representatives, the British seized three of the daimyo’s steamships. The daimyo was enraged.
Hisamitsu had equipped his town with European-style gun batteries, with over eighty guns ranging from 10-inch to 18-pounders pointed towards the flotilla. At noon on 15th August 1860, the daimyo ordered his guns to open fire, just as the British sat down for dinner. The daimyo chose his moment carefully, for a typhoon hit the flotilla at the same time as his guns fired. A hail of shot and shell was directed against his principal target, the flagship HMS Euryalus. The British ships weighed anchor and steamed past the batteries at point blank range, giving and receiving heavy fire. The ships were unable to keep formation owing to the storm, and the Japanese continued to concentrate their fire on HMS Euryalus. One shell killed the Captain and Commander Wilmot. A 10-inch shell exploded at the muzzle of Euralyus’s Armstrong breech-loading No. 3 gun on the main deck, killing seven men. This calamity put back the further introduction of breech-loaders by the British Admiralty by nearly 20 years. A shot from the shore came through the starboard waist bulwark and burst under the starboard launch. British return fire was hampered by the weather but they silenced many of the defending guns. Large parts of the wood-and-paper city of Kagoshima were destroyed by fires started by the bombardment.
There were thirteen dead and fifteen wounded on the British ships, half of them on Euryalus. The Japanese recorded one killed and six wounded. Each side recorded the result as a victory.
There is an interesting side issue arising from the naval engagement. Well, not very interesting. It’s about the Japanese flag.
As a result of the hostilities, daimyo Hisamitsu was convinced of the superiority of Western military technology. An agreement was realised by which he agreed to punish the murderers of Charles Richardson and recompense his family, and that of the other wounded merchants. Hisamitsu also negotiated to purchase metal-clad steam-powered warships from the British, which formed the foundation for the formidable Japanese Navy of later years. An alliance was thus forged between the British government, daimyo Hisamitsu of Satsuma, and the daimyo of Choshu.
In December that year, eight whole companies of Royal Marines sailed from Plymouth for Japan, aboard HMS Conqueror. They marched up to Yokohama led by the regimental band. This was, after all, the era of gunboat diplomacy. This show of strength led many of the shogun’s supporters to realise that the days of the shogunate were drawing to a close. Thus was the scene set for the Meiji restoration.