Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Clash of Cultures

The Namamugi Incident Revisited

Namamugi ca. 1862
Recently my ten-year-old expressed an interest in learning how to ride a bicycle. He never showed much enthusiasm for bike riding before and the guilt I had about not guiding him through this near-rite-of-passage was always outweighed by thoughts of him riding around the busy city streets, jumping off curbs, racing down hills and over dales as well as other dangerous antics. It was just one less thing I would have to worry about.

Since he wanted to give bike riding a whirl, I got him a really cool collapsible bicycle, weighing only 11 kilograms that you can take anywhere. Plus the wheels are extra small and it only has one speed so it’s impossible to go very fast unless you’re Lance Armstrong. It was perfect for both of us.

He has picked up the knack of riding pretty quickly and he’s got plenty of bruises from falling to show for his efforts. He’s still a little wobbly though and it’s kind of nerve racking watching him pedal around and into walls and more. Still he is super proud of his accomplishment and enjoys riding by other kids he knows. He gives them a wave then goes careening into the nearest bush or whatever (he hasn’t grasped the technique of steering one-handed yet).

The other day we were pedaling near our home in Craneview Ward, Yokohama. Over one hundred years ago this particular place was the scene of a brutal samurai attack on a group of British nationals traveling across what was then the Japanese countryside. The event occurred in the sleepy fishing village of Namamugi located a stones-throw away from the burgeoning cosmopolitan trade port of Yokohama. Known as the Namamugi Incident, the series of events that befell the four unwitting British subjects, Charles Lennox Richardson, Woodthorpe Charles Clark, William Marshall, and Mrs. Margaret Watson Borradaile,on that fateful day in 1862 would be forever etched in the collective consciousness of the foreign community that made Japan its home. 

The foursome were traveling along the famed Tokaido road that served as the main conduit between the emperor’s palace in Kyoto and the real seat of power, the shogun’s castle in Edo (now Tokyo). It was supposed to have been a leisurely excursion to the renowned Kawasaki Daishi temple located in present-day Kawasaki, about a two-hour ride at most from the foreign nationals’ settlement in Yokohama. As the group made their way through the village on that splendid, sun-drenched afternoon they came upon the retinue of Shimazu Hisamitsu, regent and father of Shimazu Tadayoshi, the feudal lord (daimyo) of the powerful southern fiefdom of Satsuma.

The procession included countless courtiers and samurais armed to the teeth who crowded the road. As the local villagers prostrated themselves before the approaching procession, Richardson led his party of riders along side the path of the parade until they were neck and neck with the regent himself. That distance proved to be a little too close for comfort in the eyes of the Satsuma bodyguards who dealt the Briton a deadly blow and left the other two men seriously wounded. The incident culminated in the devastating bombardment of Kagoshima lying at the heart of the Satsuma region over a year later by a British warship in what has been dubbed the Anglo-Satsuma War.

It was at this exact infamous historical intersection that my son accidentally rammed into a gaggle of giggling junior high school girls. Since he wasn’t going very fast (he can’t), nobody got seriously wounded except maybe for a certain ten-year-old’s pride in his ability to ride a bicycle. The worst thing that probably happened was some kid got rubber tire tread marks across her white knee socks, but I’m not exactly sure since the minute it happened I followed my first instinct and rode away like lightning, following in the hoof prints of Clark, Marshall and Borradaille.

Fleeing as fast as I could in order to avoid another possible international incident (if not all out war), I observed the whole affair from a safe distance away. In retrospect I think my actions provided the perfect laboratory conditions for learning how to maintain harmonious human relationships under stressful circumstances. I hadn’t exactly abandoned my son, I was there the whole time, cruising off the shores like  Augustus Leopold Kuper, the vice admiral who stood at the helm of the ironsides that wrecked Kagoshima, ready to save the day if needed. 

Luckily the experiment was a huge success and no intervention was needed. My son figured out how to successfully disentangle himself from a really awkward situation in which nobody resorted to swordplay. When he finished semi-prostrating himself (the kid can really bow) while uttering his apologies to the offended retinue of junior high princesses, we met up again down the road. His pride severely wounded, he was all but ready to give up riding.

Then I reminded him that nobody got hurt and that he also discovered one way, maybe not the best way, to meet girls and to think about running into the nearest florist and buying a bouquet of flowers for the next girl he runs into to seal the apology. Upon which he rolled his eyes and then rolled off on his own as fast as he could in order to get as far away from me as he could.

All in all, in light of what had transpired here over a century ago, I would say it was an excellent afternoon's jaunt.


  1. An excellent article. Didn't Clavell write of this?

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