The attempted assassination of the Japanese Foreign Minister
Tokyo, October 21, 1889
On the afternoon of the 18th, as no doubt the telegraph wires have already proclaimed to the world, a desperate but happily abortive attempt was made in this capital upon the life of Count Okuma Shigenobu, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and one of the most earnest, sagacious, and truly patriotic statesmen that the present era has produced.
As the Count was coming back from a Cabinet meeting in an open carriage, and just as the vehicle, with slackened speed, was being turned to enter the gateway leading to his official residence, a decently-dressed Japanese, in foreign clothes, ran suddenly towards the carriage, and before the police escort following immeadiaely behind had the time to interfere, aimed a hand bomb at the Minister's body, and instantly drew a short Japanese sword and put an end to his own life by cutting a deep gash in his throat.
Fortunately the coachman, seeing the ruffians' advance, had promptly whipped up his horses, with the result that the bomb struck and exploded on the edge of the hood; and though Count Okuma received such severe injuries from splinters in his right leg, which happened to be crossed over the other at the time, that the limb had to be amputated at once, his life since the occurence can hardly be said to have been at any time in danger, and there are now the best reasons for belief that his full recovery is only a question of a few weeks.
The escape, nevertheless, was a wonderful one.
Dynamite was the explosive used.
It is a curious example of the way in which the old and the new are so often juxtaposed in Japan that from the hands of a murderous youth, fired by the ancient feudal instincts of this far-off corner (as some would call it) of the round world, should have been hurled one of the most civilized, if at the same time savage, instruments of death known to Western science.
This dasterdly attack has, of course, created a profound sensation throughout the country, and it suggests some grave and interesting reflections which reach far beyond the mere details of the deed itself.
Of the would-be assassin it has been ascertained that he was an obscure member of the so-called soshi class, a tribe of moderen growth, which at this time constitutes one of the most unpleasant and deplorable features of the Japanese body politic.
These soshi, it may be broadly said, are young men belonging to the lower class of disestablished samurai-the class to whose share have fallen none of the good things of the age, and with whom, in their own opinion at least, their failure in life, and often destitute circumstances, are due to the patriotic sacrifices that were made by the samurai of Japan a couple decades ago.
Idle, out-at-elbows waifs and strays, they have just enough smattering of foreign education to fill them with violent opinions on the rights of the subject and other political maxims, without enabling them to engage successfully in the battle of life under the new order of things.
Count Okuma's assailant, for example, Kurushima by name, had been in turns, with various degrees of failure, a night costermonger and a petty dealer in salt, coals and other materials.
Further, the soshi not only have not yet eradicated, but still ardently cherish, the old spirit of patriotism or loyalty-Yamato-Damashii, as the Japanese call it - which for ages was the samurai's idol, and at whose shrine it was his highest glory to lay down his life whenever the canons of feudal practice required it, and to thereby write down his name for ever and ever in the pages of Japanese history.
But Yamato-Damashii, for all its lustre in the past, is at this day entirely out of joint with the times.
Of old it found its chief expression in fealty of every kind - above all else in loyalty to the lord of the clan and in rigorous observance of the vendetta.
Patriotism in its wide and true sense was hardly understood, because, as things were then, the opportunities for its exercise were so rare.
Whenever, then, at the present day the old spirit survives - as it undoubtedly does among no in - considerable section of the people of this empire - there can be little wonder that many of its more ignorant possessors are for ever groping about in sheer perplexity as to the line that their patriotism should take.
The ancient shibboleths and precepts, about which there could be neither doubt nor mistake, have been swept into the limbo of the past; and in place of them what standard has been set up?
Simply, in their poor minds, a hazy, shapeless idea that they must never forget to be patriotic.
Of the rightful aim, and scope of true patriotism, in their country's present circumstances, they know no more than the babes in the wood.
For nine out of every ten of such folks this forlorn state of mind is, fortunately, neither painful nor ruinous; but in the breasts of morbid, brooding lads like the soshi, filled to bursting, as not a few of them unhappily are, with the wild notion that it behoves them to sacrifice themselves in some way, even unto death, for their country, such a blind, unformulated, and rudderless spirit of patriotism cannot but be fraught with elements of disturbance of the public peace.
And politics, of course, are at this epoch alike the decoy and the goad of the misguided and turbulent fraternity.
There are today dozens upon dozens of youths in the empire whose crazy dreams of patriotism are ever impelling them, not, happily, to such brutal deeds as that of last Friday, but at least to acts and agiatations of a kind which brand them, as in truth they are, the worst possible foes of their country.
Unfortunately, too, as there is a soshi class, so there is also what may be called a soshi press.
The writers in these vehement sheets are forever dinning into the ears of their clients attacks on the Administration, complaints that the national honour, resources and dignity are being sacrificed or the Constitution set at naught, fervid exhortations to every thinking Japanese to bestir himself in his country's cause - everything, in short, best calculated to work upon the feelings and passions of youthful, discontented, and desparate readers.
To politics, then, and to the spurious sentiment which such poor creatures as Kurushima and his instigators - educated and lashed into frenzy by a section of the Press - mistake for patriotism, are to be traced the causes that led up to the attack on Count Okuma.
By self-nominated soothsayers, unable to see below the surface of things, much will be, and indeed already has been, said about the recent outrage in a spirit depreciatory of the Japanese people at large, and sceptical as to the reality of Japanese civilization and progress.
A broader survey, however, would hardly seem to warrant any such adverse criticism.
Few of even the most advanced countries of the West could show a record at all comparable with that of modern Japan in respect of the greater crimes.
Last Friday's attempt is the first of its kind in Japan since 1878: for Viscount Mori's murder in February last was the outcome solely of religious, not political, bigotry, and had nothing to do with the station of its victim.
And thinking men will be apt to recognize that in view of the marvellous and sweping changes which have followed one another in this country, with such unexampled rapidity, during the last 20 years, the wonder is, not that a Kurushima should once in a decade lift up his poisoned head, but that political and other crimes have not been of vastly greater frequency among an excitable people so lately emancipated from a state of things in which, during a long roll of ages, it may be almost said that might had been right and ther sword the law.
The soshi, in fact, and all that belongs and springs from them, are the natural, if unhealthy, scum and outcome of social and political conditions in Japan at the present epoch.
They are just what we might expect to find created out of such a queer compound as the ancient samurai and the half fledged modern student, whose pocket is as empty as his brain, and whose gospel is a fiery section of the Press.
But for all their noise and desperate folly, the soshi are a mere handful at best-no more truly reflecting the real sentiments, attributes and capacities of the bulk of the Japanese people than do the Nihilists, Socialists, and Communists of Europe afford standards by which to gauge the greatest natiions of the world.
The present occasion, nevertheless, is not without its moral and warnng.
It shows that, notwithstanding all that has taken place since 1868, there still survives in certain Japanese social strata a leaven of the old temper, spirit, and instincts of the feudal time-mistaken, doubtless, and ill-directed, yet not be altogether disregarded, heavily though its recognition may handicap the Government in their laudable path of progress.
It shows that proclivities established by ages of nourishment in the very grain of a people's character cannot be wholly eradicated in the course of two or three decades, howver sincere, intelligent, and resolute may be the aims and actions of the country's leaders.
It shows that when, as in this most singular era of Japan's history, an entirely new civilization has been imported wholesale and with giant strides from abroad, there may be times at which the ambition of the superior classes finds itself clogged by the lower intelligence and stubborn prejudices of those who are, after all, of the people.
Lastly, it shows that the day has not yet come at which perfect freedom of the Press can be safely permitted in Japan.
Journalism, it so happens, is of all callings in this country one of the easiest of access for that very class of inferior literali from whose worst members the soshi are recruited.
Dangerous licence, it necessarily follows, may be expected from newspapers whose writers and editors are in sympathy, if not in league, with the soshi; and until the spirit of those gentry, as sketched in this letter, ceases to be something more than a name, it would be madness to allow imprudent scribblers and agitators to heat and keep it alive by their incendiary nostrums.
Complaints have often been made against the Japanese Executive for not having long ago relaxed the present somewhat rigorous Press laws.
Not only, however, do current events show that, as might be expected, they are the best judges of the way of dealing with their own people, but it will be surprising if henceforward, after a tragedy which has so nearly robbed the country of one of its most brilliant and devoted statesmen, they are not seen to come down with an iron hand on every journalistic effort to disturb the public peace.
Of course, in the above remarks, I refer solely to a small and unworthy section of the vernacular press - not to the main body, which is as respectable and order-loving as could be desired.
Where there is smoke there must be some fire, and it will be observed that I have not touched directly on the political grievance, real or fancied, of the soshi and their allies, or explained how it happens that Count Okuma was singled out as the victim of their malice.
I shall consider that part of the subject in a future letter, merely premising, what your readers will have conjectured for themselves, that inasmuch as the Minister of Foreign Affairs was the object of attack, foreign affairs, to wit, the familiar but oppressive nightmare of treaty revision - are at the root of an agitation that has been going on for the last three or four months; an agitation by no means confined to the soshi, yet happily of a nature and extent from which no apprehensions of evil or even insurmountable difficulty need be entertained.
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