堺事件 Sakai jiken—the Sakai incident

In 1868, a French corvette, Dupleix, anchored off the coast at Sakai and put a boat ashore. It was a time of great turbulence in Japan, with the country divided between the forces of the deposed shogun and the supporters of the emperor.

The 11 sailors were killed by the Tosa samurai guarding the city. Some tellings of the story state that their deaths were due to some kind of misunderstanding; a failure of communication or protocol. But it’s also true that the French and the samurai were on opposing sides in the conflict;  the French military expedition, sent by Napoleon III, was training the shogunate forces, while the domain of Tosa was among those fighting for the Meiji emperor.

A monument commemorating the event stands at the river mouth in Sakai.

The French government demanded reparations, and 29 samurai who had fired their weapons in the incident, as well as their leaders, were sentenced to death by seppuku (ritual suicide).

Rather than kill so many, a lottery was held to identify 20 to be killed. The ritual killings took place at nearby Myoukokuji temple.

It is said that the condemned men threw their own intestines at the horrified French observer as an expression of contempt for his role, and that after 11 men had died he called for a pardon for the rest. It was felt that honour had been satisfied, 11 Japanese having died in return for the 11 dead Frenchmen.

[Except that the number of Frenchmen killed was actually 12: 11 “sailors” and one “midshipman”. I’m not sure what a midshipman is; is he not a sailor? Did the French government consider his death less important, so that, unlike those of the sailors, he did not need to be avenged?] =Thanks to europemeetsasia for providing clarification on this point – see comments below.

Anyway, to our modern sensibilities, it is a horrific tale. The temple has a monument at the location where the 11 samurai died:

Inside the temple’s treasure room, where we were not allowed to take pictures, we were shown various relics of the incident, including the tantou knife that the samurai used in turn to take their lives, and the table on which the knife was placed, which was still stained with the blood shed over 140 years ago.

Other treasures are items that were rescued from the temple on the two occasions it was destroyed by fire: during the Age of the Warring States, and in the air raids of July 1945. The temple courtyard contains a cycad tree that is supposedly 1100 years old, having survived both fires, and is a national monument.

We were told many interesting things on our guided tour of the temple and its treasures. Unfortunately, we were told these things in Japanese, and I understood little enough of what was said, so I had to wait for Yuko to give me a summary in English after we went back outside.

It seems that in centuries past, the head monk, Nichijou, had a dream in which a dragon came to him, revealed himself as the guardian deity of the temple, and offered three wishes. Nichijou created a shrine in the temple grounds to house the deity.

Does it seem extraordinary that a Buddhist monk, in charge of a Buddhist temple, should inaugurate a Shinto shrine inside the temple grounds, to honour a dragon-god? In Japan it doesn’t seem to be considered contradictory or surprising, and people freely draw from both religious traditions in their beliefs and practices.

The purification font has this wonderfully modern dragon-head water-pipe.

More surprising, perhaps, is to find these characters in the temple grounds:

Does Minnie Mouse have Buddha-nature?

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5 thoughts on “堺事件 Sakai jiken—the Sakai incident

  1. Interesting post ! 🙂

    Actually a midshipman is of higher rank than a simple sailor, it’s a junior officer. And he was included in the 11 sailors that died during the Sakai incident. So it was 11 lives for 11 lives. What i also read is that the French representants felt extremely uneasy while observing the ritual suicides and they asked for the pardon of the other 9 for several reasons : they feared that these samurai would become martyrs rather than be treated as criminals, they were a bit sickened by the violence of the execution and they wanted to show some mercy in order to be better perceived by the population.

    1. Thank you for the very interesting comment, and for helping to clear up my misunderstanding. My ignorance of naval matters is woeful. In this case, however, I was misled by Wikipedia, which states, “11 sailors and Midshipman Guillou were killed”. Later it clarifies that there were 11 French lives lost.

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