I almost sold this print because it seemed insignificant. Thankfully, a book by Dutch historian Herman J. Moeshart helped me realize it is an extremely rare and important historical document.
This is one of those rare prints that seem totally insignificant, but which are in effect extremely important and valuable. What you see here in front of this magnificent temple gate, is a dramatic episode in the early stages of international relations between Japan and the United States.
These are the ruins of the American Legation at the Zenpukuji temple (善福寺) in Azabu, Edo (present-day Tokyo). In 1859 (Ansei 6), this Buddhist temple became the home of the first American legation in Edo—actually the first one in Japan.
On May 24, 1863 (Bunkyū 3), the legation and several other temple buildings burned down, now generally described as arson by samurai of the Mito Domain. The U.S. Minister to Japan at the time was Robert Hewson Pruyn (1815–1882), successor of Consul Townsend Harris (1804–1878), who negotiated the first trade treaty between the two nations.
Like Harris, Pruyn was determined to maintain the legation in Edo. Echoing his predecessor, he argued that if he left, foreign envoys would never be able to return. Undeterred, he moved into smaller rooms at the complex.
However, only a week later, on May 31, Pruyn was suddenly warned by a Japanese government official that a conspiracy had been discovered. An attack on the legation was expected that very night. Pruyn immediately moved to Yokohama.1
The other foreign legations had already moved to Yokohama after the Dutch-American interpreter of the American Legation, Henry Heusken, had been assassinated by samurai of the Satsuma Domain in January 1861, followed by violent attacks on the British Legation in July of that year, and 1862.
Pruyn’s departure marked the temporary end of the foreign diplomatic presence in Edo, and the start of even greater upheaval.
The fire was said to have been accidental, but in his letters to Secretary of State William Henry Seward (1801–1872), Pruyn expressed his suspicions that it had been arson.2 He could however not provide any proof.
Soon after the fire, the foreign envoys were told that the Shogun had been ordered by the emperor to expel all foreigners from Japan. An extremely tense and trying period ensued. There were expectations of war between Japan and the foreign powers. Many Japanese inhabitants fled Yokohama.
In a way, this photo of an imposing Japanese gate affording entry to the desolate empty space where the American legation used to be, perfectly symbolizes this difficult period during Japan’s fledgling foreign relations with the outside world.
Pruyn described the fire in two letters to his wife. Here is an excerpt from the second, more organized, letter:3
Times of Danger
After Japan opened up to the outside world in the 1850s, it slowly turned into a very dangerous place for both foreigners and Japanese. Assassinations and battles between government troops and those of daimyō (feudal lords) gradually became the order of the day. Three domains were at the center of this struggle: Satsuma, Chōshū, and Mito.
Mito Domain played an especially influential role. Over the centuries, Mito had developed a reputation as a center for intellectual thought, which gave great legitimacy to the ideas promoted by Mito School (水戸学, Mito-gaku) scholars. Their ideas of isolationism, nativism, and reverence of the emperor therefore profoundly influenced thought in Japan.
So, when these scholars started emphasizing anti-Western sentiment, and embracing the political slogan “Revere the emperor and expel the barbarians” (尊皇攘夷, sonnō jōi), while arguing that the Tokugawa Shogunate was responsible for Japan’s weak economy and defense, it spread widely.
Many histories of this period describe a clear cut fight between the forces of Satsuma and Chōshū, who supported the emperor in Kyoto, with the ruling Shogunate, based in Edo. But in reality the situation was far more complex. Satsuma and Chōshū were actually at each other’s throats before the diplomacy of activist samurai Sakamoto Ryōma (坂本龍馬, 1836–1867), who advocated an independent and democratic Japan without feudalism, brought these two domains together.
There was fierce rivalry between other domains as well. It was not just Japanese samurai attacking foreigners, but samurai killing each other. Especially in Kyoto, where Sakamoto Ryōma himself was assassinated on December 10, 1867 (Keiō 3).
In his autobiography, Japanese educator and visionary Yukichi Fukuzawa (福澤 諭吉, 1835–1901) wrote a whole chapter about his many years of fear of assassination.4 Here is an excerpt:
Below are a few individual assassinations that especially frightened the foreign community during the years after the opening of Japanese ports to foreign trade.5
August 25: Russian naval officer Roman Samoilovich Mofet and sailors Sokolov and Korol'kov are attacked while shopping in Yokohama. Mofet and Sokolov are killed, Korol'kov is wounded.
November: A Chinese servant of consul for France José Loureiro is killed while running an errant in Yokohama.
January: Denkichi Kobayashi, the Japanese interpreter of British diplomat Rutherford Alcock, is stabbed to death at the English legation in Edo.
February 26: Dutch merchant captains Wessel de Vos and Jasper Nanning Dekker are slaughtered on the main street of Yokohama while on their way to do some shopping.
March 24: Tairō Ii Naosuke is cut down by rōnin samurai of the Mito and Satsuma domains near the Sakuradamon gate of Edo Castle.
January 15: The Dutch-American interpreter for American Consul Townsend Harris, Henry Heusken, is ambushed in Edo.
September 14: British merchant Charles Lennox Richardson is killed at the village of Namamugi, near Kawasaki, after failing to dismount when the regent of Satsuma Domain passes by. Two companions are severely wounded. Known as the Namamugi Incident it leads to the Bombardment of Kagoshima in August 1863.
October 13: French Lieutenant Henri Camus, an officer attached to the French Legation, is pulled of his horse and murdered by three samurai at the village of Idogaya near Yokohama.
November 21: British officers Major George Walter Baldwin and Lieutenant Robert Nichols Bird are murdered while on a visit to Kamakura.
About the Photograph
Celebrated Italian–British photographer Felice Beato photographed the scene of the burned down legation in August of 1863, some three months after the fire had taken place. As far as I know this is the only existing photograph of the burned down legation. It is not the only print, but I don’t believe there are many.
The print is amazingly well-preserved, as you can see when you compare it with the prints of the legation which the Albany Institute of History & Art Library kindly made available to me (shown above). When the print of the burned down legation first came into my hands I did not imagine that it had been photographed as early as 1863, only a few years after commercial photography was first introduced to Japan.
As you can imagine, I am deeply grateful to Dutch historian Herman J. Moeshart.
3 Albany Institute of History & Art Library, CH532 Box 2 F 15.
4 Kiyooka, Aichi (1972). The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. New York: Schocken Books, 225–228.
5 Sources for data in table:
Russian sailors: Lensen, George Alexander (June 1954). Russians in Japan, 1858-1859, The University of Chicago Press, The Journal of Modern History Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 162-173.
Chinese servant: The London and China Telegraph, VOLVII, No. 192, Tuesday, November 28, 1865, pp. 609.
Dutch captains: Moeshart, H.J. (2018). Dirk de Graeff and the Opening of Japan 1857-1869. Amsterdam/Berlin: Batavian Lion International, 95.
Henri Camus: Polak, Christian (2012).Quelques souvenirs d’il y a 50 ans (1861-1871). France Japon Éco 131 Été 2012, pp. 57. Retrieved on 2022-04-08. | Bennett, Terry (1996). Early Japanese Images. Vermont, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 142.
Duits, Kjeld (). 1863 Tokyo: Ruins of the American Legation, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on August 12, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/894/ruins-of-the-american-legation-zenpukuji-edo-vintage-photo
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