Gateway to the Classics: A Boy of Old Japan by Robert van Bergen
A Boy of Old Japan by  Robert van Bergen

Underground Rumbling

The Choshiu Clan was by no means alone in taking the alarm at the admittance of foreigners. The Japanese, as a nation, possess a dual character, which was typified in their government. Just as the Gosho at Kyoto presented the highest degree of refinement attained by the nation, as well as the amiability, natural kindness, and light-heartedness of the people, so did the Camp at Yedo picture the sterner side of their character inculcated and developed to the utmost in the samurai. But the samurai shared with the people the curiosity which is a national characteristic, and many had visited Yokohama for the sole purpose of examining and taking the measure of these strangers. The early history of that open port, is one of bloodshed. Numerous are the names of foreigners in the graveyard upon the bluff, with the inscription: Murdered. Yet in not one single instance was the perpetrator brought to justice. Not one of these murders was for the purpose of robbery; in every instance the sharp sword had been used to avenge some real or fancied insult.

Except the missionaries who arrived as soon as Japan was opened, there were few, very few foreigners who made any effort to propitiate this people. Most of them had lived for some time in China, where they had met a submissive people. They treated the Japanese in the same manner, with very unexpected results. The resentment turned from the foreigners upon the government which had admitted them, and the Tokugawa dynasty was doomed.

But of the Genrô, the statesmen of revolutionary time, no one had any thought of uniting Japan into an Empire under the direct rule of Tenshi Sama. They knew of no history save that of their own country, and that demonstrated the Son of Heaven as too sacred a person to be troubled with mundane affairs. All desired a strong country under a strong Shogun. There is not the least doubt that Satsuma, Choshiu, and Tosa, to whom Japan chiefly owes its present greatness, worked with that end in view. Nor does it detract from their credit that probably each worked with the ultimate hope to see his own clan take Tokugawa's place. There was not an atom of selfishness in this. The chief impulses constituting our motives in life, the acquisition of wealth and honor or fame, were unintelligible to the Japanese at that time.

Kano returned to the temple, where he had left his chair and hearers, for he was stopping at the Choshiu yashiki, and entered the room where Inouye was waiting for him. Having satisfied himself that there were no listeners, he briefly summed up the result of his interview with the kugé. "There will be no opening of Hyogo," he said. "The Court will move heaven and earth, before it concedes that demand. But Karassu Maru is right. The ground must be pulled from under them, before they will abate one jot of their dignity, such as they understand it. By the way. Go back to Nagato as soon as you can. The attention of the spies will be drawn toward this temple, because one of the bearers of Honami's chair disappeared here. I shall follow you in a few days."

The two devoted samurai reached their own province in safety, and the affairs of the clan continued peaceably, except that a considerable number of young samurai resigned as members of the clan, and disappeared. It was not generally known that their names were not stricken off the rolls, but that the letters of resignation were held in a safe place, in case of emergency. Nobody heard from Ito; at least not directly. Indirectly the cry of Sonno-Joï! growing more and more common, showed that he was still gathering recruits in the ranks against the Tokugawa.

Kano smiled grimly when he received from Yedo a copy of a letter sent by the Court to the Daimiyo of Mito. "The Bakufu" (Camp or Yedo Government) it ran "has shown great disrespect of public opinion in concluding treaties without waiting for the opinion of the Court, and in disgracing princes so closely allied by blood to the Shogun. Tenshi Sama's rest is disturbed by the spectacle of such misgovernment when the fierce barbarian is at our very door. Do you, therefore assist the Bakufu with your advice, expel the barbarians, content the mind of the samurai, and restore tranquillity to his Majesty's bosom."

The wedge had entered, but time was required before it could be driven deeper. Kano had gradually prepared his friend Hattori to share his hopes and fears, and effective improvements had been made in the fortifications on the coast of Nagato. Cannon, not of very modern make, but decidedly better than the rusty fire pieces of old, had been purchased at Nagasaki and smuggled in at Shimonoseki; a supply of powder was also procured, and several companies of young samurai practiced daily with the guns. Ekichi had attached himself to Inouye and was rapidly growing into an expert swordsman.

One evening, in the beginning of April, Kano was sitting in his room, talking to his son. The rain doors were up, for it had been blowing hard all day, and it looked like rain. Kano began to think that it was time to retire, when Ekichi told him that there was a knock at the rain doors. Kano took up a lantern, and went on the verandah, when he heard a muffled voice calling him. He opened a door and asked who was there, when he recognized the voice of Ito. He gladly invited him to enter, and reclosing the door, led the way to his room. After the customary salutations, seeing that Ito was cold and wet, he ordered dry garments to he brought, and then inquired when he had arrived. Ito replied that he had come straight to Kano's yashiki, and then asked him if he had heard the news. He received a negative answer and said:—"Before I tell you what it is. I must warn you that you have a spy in the house."

"O! I know that, but he is harmless."

"Yes; he is harmless now: but he must have found out something because the Go rojiu dogs were hot on my trail."

"Ekichi," said Kano, "watch around the rooms; and if you see any one trying to listen, silence him."

The boy bowed and slipped out.

Ito sipped a cup of tea, and, seeing that Kano expected him to speak, said:

"Ii Naosuke is dead."

"Is that so? When did he die?"

"He was assassinated in Yedo on the 23rd of last month."

Kano knocked the ashes out of his pipe, put it up, and looked for further particulars. Ito continued:—

"It was blowing a severe storm in Yedo that day. There was rain and sleet, and sometimes it snowed very heavily. The streets within the moats of the castle are almost always deserted, but this time they were wholly so on account of the weather. It appears that there was some meeting at the castle. At all events the Daimiyo of Kii and Owari with their respective retinues were marching across the bridge into the inner walls, when the retinue of the Lord Regent also approached. The last of the Kii samurai had just left the bridge when the head of Ii's retinue reached it. Several men in rain coats had been loitering; they flung off their coats and as samurai in full armor, attacked the regent's escort. These men were taken unawares, and before they could drop their rain coats a number of them had been killed and Ii was dragged out of his nosimono, and decapitated. Several of the assailants lost their lives, but the leader escaped with the head. It is said that they were Mito rônin."

Kano was silent for some time. At last he said: "This is a death blow for the Tokugawa, for Ii Naosuke was the only man, so far as I know, who could have propped up that falling house. For that reason I am glad. But I am sorry: too, for Ii was a patriot. I disagreed with him, but he may have been right when he said, in defense of the treaty which he had made: 'Let us have intercourse with foreign countries, learn their drill and tactics, and let us make the nation united as one family.' I do not think that he could have succeeded, but—"

There was a stifled cry and a blow. A moment later a sho ji opened, and Ekichi came in holding in one hand the bleeding head of the spy, and in the other his drawn sword. The boy said simply: "I have silenced him."

Kano and Ito both looked at the boy. He stood there, waiting patiently until his father should address him. Ito, however, took some paper from his sleeve, and placed it upon the woodwork of the grooves, motioning Ekichi to put the head on it. The boy did so, and Kano told him to come near and tell him what had happened.

"I have watched him several times, as you told me to, when he was trying to listen, and once when he was looking over some of your papers. Every time he made some excuse, but I did not answer him. A few moments ago, I passed into that room, and saw his form crouching before the sho ji. You had ordered me to silence him, and I did so."

Kano said a few words in praise, and bade him go to sleep. Ekichi bowed and withdrew.

Kano went out of the room and in a few moments returned with Fujii. The old man looked grimly at the head as he took it up. The body was removed, and the bloodspots cleaned. It was merely an incident in the life of old Japan.

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