Thursday, March 25, 2010

Here Lies Dan Kutci, Victim of Sonnō Jōi Terrorism

29th January, 1860

Tucked away in a corner of Kōrin-ji, a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple In Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo, one can find the grave of Dan Kutci, a Japanese linguist who was employed by the British legation. Kutci, like another fellow translator, Henry Heusken, whose tombstone lies within the shadow of Kutci’s, was killed in an act of terror committed by anti-foreigner ‘terrorists’ during the waning days of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

But who was Dan Kutci? Who wanted him dead and why? For starters, Dan Kutci was a native of Japan and was more commonly known among the Japanese by the name, Denkichi—Kumano no Denkichi, to be exact. Denkichi originally hailed from Shiotsumura in the province of Kishū (present day Shiotsu, Wakayama Prefecture). Denkichi served on a merchant ship, the Eirikimaru that was returning back to Setsu from Edo with a full cargo when the ship got caught in a storm on Dec 2, 1850. The ship drifted for 53 days until it was rescued by an American merchant ship, the Aukland, which brought the Japanese to San Francisco on March 5, 1851. With nowhere to go, the 17-man crew of the Eirikimaru was confined to a US Customs ship, the Polk, for nearly a year until they boarded the USS Saint Mary, a warship outbound for Asia where it was hoped that the Japanese could be repatriated with Perry’s upcoming expedition. One of the Japanese died along the way and was buried in Hilo, Hawaii. The others continued on and arrived in China where they soon found employment and were dissuaded from returning to Japan with the Perry Expedition. However, Denkichi was eventually able to rendezvous with Perry’s squadron as it made its way back to America and was able to secure passage on Perry’s flagship, the Mississippi in July 1854 when the ship steamed into Hong Kong.

After five years in America, Denkichi found himself back in China where he was hired as a translator by Rutherford Alcock, England’s minister to Japan and the two arrived in Edo (Tokyo) on May 26, 1859. It had been 9 years since Denkichi had been back in Japan. But after returning home after such a long absence, Denkichi didn’t quite fit in and acted in a manner that was perhaps more Western than Japanese. He told people he was British, wore western clothing and acted very haughtily, which angered many of his countrymen and made him a prime target for the radicals who were advocating expelling the foreigners and restoring imperial rule. And it was on the afternoon of January 29, 1860 that two samurai wearing straw hats to cover their faces, attacked Denkichi, driving either a short sword (wakizashi) or most likely a dagger (tantō) up until the hilt deep into his back, leaving it there. Poor Denkichi, haughty or not, had just become a victim of sonnō jōi terrorism.

Sonnō jōi (revere the emperor; expel the foreigners) was a rousing phrase and political philosophy to which young radicals rallied in the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate. Fueled by a growing pro-imperial sentiment and anger at the shogunate for opening the country to the West, the sonnō jōi movement became a nascent unifying force that challenged and weakened the 250 year-old status quo of Tokugawa rule. As violence was the movement’s primary tool as a means of enforcing ‘heaven’s will’, this helped Japan slip into the chaos and wanton terror that would help define the Bakumatsu period and engulf the lives of many foreigners and Japanese alike.

Denkuchi may have died a victim of sonnō jōi terrorism 150 years ago, but he’s not forgotten.

Source: Miyanaga, Takashi. “The Assassination of Denkichi. Journal of Society and Labour, Hosei University, 40(3/4), 1993.


  1. That's cool you posted this. I was just watching the episode of the 2004 NHK Taiga drama Shinsengumi where assasins tried to murder Henry Hueskin.

  2. Nice find. Good job presenting the info, too. That really is quite a life, and reminds me of all of the 'minor' players that rarely seem to make it into the history books.