The Tokugawa Shogunate was a military government of many checks and balances. For example, there were two governments for the district of Edo that ruled the city in alternating months. This was apparently to prevent corruption. The two governments kept watch over each other to make sure the other party was not collecting bribes. There was a lot of redundancies in the government agencies and the samurai got two days off for every three working days.
Most of the so called samurai were on a salary, either from the shogun himself or from the regional lords. But there were people classified as farmers who were allowed to carry swords and have surnames like the samurai. These people owned their own land and kept their own serfs. The shogunite restricted their rights vigilantly but never quite suppressed them. Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the shogunate, famously said “never let them die, never let them live”. In the event that the regional lords rebelled against the shogun, there was an option that these independents might ally with the shogun and fight against the lord that ruled over them. (It was never to be. By the time the shogunite waned, the rich farmers often had a stake in their governing lords.)
Another built-in mechanism to divide power and prevent rebellion was called Sankin Koutai. The lords, who kept residences in both Edo and the regions they governed, were required to live in Edo every other year. (They negotiated for less frequent relocations later because of fiscal problems.) Their wives and children were required to remain in Edo all their lives. In effect, the wives and children were the hostages of the shogun. Sons were allowed to travel to the land they will one day rule once they became adult, but daughters were born in Edo and died in Edo. They would marry and travel to another mansion only a few blocks away. They usually never saw the land their husbands ruled.
The lords were required to travel to their respective territory in parades. The idea was to make sure the lords would not amass large stockpiles of money that they may use to finance a war against the shogun. The size of a parade was determined by the lord’s nominal income. The largest fiefdoms were required to have upwards of 20 horsemen, 130 infantrymen and 300 retainers. Lord Maeda of Kaga was the greatest of all lords and the procession counted 2500 people who marched all the way from Edo (which is now Tokyo) to what is now Ishikawa prefecture.
Any attempt to disturb this parade was considered a grave insult and was punishable by death. In fact, commoners were supposed to get on all fours and kowtow until the parade passed. It must have been a major pain if you happened to be travelling and you came across Lord Maeda’s parade. There were people leading each parade who warned nearby residents that a parade was coming. People on horses needed to dismount and people with weapons were required to put their weapons on the ground. If you refused, you were deemed an attacker and were promptly killed. There were plenty of guards available to do so.
In August 1862, just 10 years after Perry’s first visit, three Englishmen and one woman were traveling on horseback in collision course with the parade of Lord Shimazu of Satsuma. These were middle class merchants out on a joy ride. The runners in front of the parade tried to redirect them in a different path, to no avail. A samurai tried to tell them that they could not keep riding, but they paid him no attention. Several warnings later, they were still on horseback with pistols in their belts when they collided with the first guards of the parade. When the procession stopped, Lord Satsuma demanded to know why his honorable parade was not moving. His retainers answered that some armed barbarians had blocked their path. The warlord issued a single word command: “Slice.” The Englishmen were attacked by the Lord’s bodyguards and one of them died. This became known as the Namamugi Incident.
Up to this point, a lot of drunken sailors had got what was coming to them by wielding their pistols in a place where nobody was supposed to draw their weapons. The foreigners were pretty tolerant about the loss of a few trouble makers, but shit really hit the fan at the loss of a “gentleman”.
The Englishmen wanted immediate retaliation, but the moderate Consulate Neal decided to settle for a reparation and the handover of the “criminal”. The shogunate, eager to settle, paid the reparation but Lord Shimazu bulked at the handover.
In June 1863, the British sent seven warships to Kagoshima, capitol of Satsuma and home of Lord Shimazu. By the standards of the era, this was much larger a force than any dispute with an “uncivilized” nation should have called for. Much less a single clan. It was utter overkill, but the samurais of Kagoshima were not intimidated. Negotiations went nowhere. While they were still talking, the British tried to capture a Japanese ship which lead to firing of cannons from the Kagoshima side. The British, armed with superior modern weapons, were highly advantaged. They burned up with their bombardment 5-10 percent of what was Kagoshima city resulting in much material damage. But their landing operation that followed ended in a dismal failure. The samurai of Satsuma, armed with swords and outdated matchlock guns, offered greater resistance than anticipated. The British suffered 63 casualties (13 dead in battle and 7 more to die later from complications of their wounds) before they could make it back to their ships as opposed to 17 (5 of them dead) for Satsuma. Meanwhile, the old fashioned cannons hit the English flagship H.M.S. Euryalus which caught fire, lost the captain and had to cut loose the anchor to escape the bay.
Inspite of everything, the British declared victory and managed to get further reparations from the shogunate. The Japanese call this incident “The Satsuma-Anglo War” while the British call it “The British bombardment of Kagoshima“.
The British never got their “criminal”. The Satsuma people hauled out the anchor the British left behind, but gave it back to the British upon request not realizing what an important booty it was. Few people in the world ever managed to take booty from the Royal Navy in those days.
But it may have been for the best. After this war, Satsuma, which was in the process of forging an alliance with the Emperor to fight the shogun, realized it was unrealistic to keep Japan isolated. They dropped its policy of ousting the “barbarians” and forged an alliance with Britain that lasted until just before WWII. The British found an important market for weaponry and supplied Satsuma with weapons necessary to fight the shogun and continued to provide Japan with modern weapons from this day to the Russo-Japanese war and beyond.
Funny how history turns out.