Category: History

Samurai, Swords, and Suicide

 It was not uncommon for samurai to commit ritual suicide called seppuku “belly slitting” or, harakiri  as a way to show their sincere regret for having failed in their obligations.  Slitting one’s own throat was another method they sometimes employed.

One of the most compelling accounts in my novel, The Shogun’s Gold describes the true story of a horrific mass suicide of nineteen teenage samurai. It happened in northern Japan.


The incident is relatively unknown outside of the country, but it plays an important part in my yet-to-be published novel, The Shogun’s Gold.   It occurred at the end of a short civil war between those who supported the Shogun and the Imperial Army which sought to“restore”  the Japanese emperor.

In October,1868, the northern province of Aizu was besieged by the Imperial Army which surrounded and bombarded Tsuruga Castle which was located in the center of the Aizu’s capital. It was thought to be impregnable, but it was no match for the modern English cannonry employed by the Imperial Army.  While the castle was being bombarded, another battle was taking place miles away.

A memorial depicting one of the boys as he gazes at Tsuruga Castle thinking that it had fallen.

A contingent of teenage samurai, part of the Byakkotai, or “White Tiger Force”  was sent to take part in the battle, but they became lost. The leader decided to return to the castle to aid in its defense, and the small group of teenagers stopped on a hillside clearing where, in the distance, they saw the castle town enveloped in smoke and flame. They assumed that they were too late to come to the capital’s defense and they all decided to commit suicide to atone for their perceived failure and Aizu’s defeat.

This tragedy is graphically described in The Shogun’s Gold  when the hero of my novel stumbles upon the bodies of nineteen boys whose ages ranged from 16 to 17.  Here is a modern woodblock print depicting the incident.203r59d



The simple grave stones of the teenage warriors.

In present day Japan, suicides average 70 per day and teenage suicides are notably high.  Failing important exams is  one of the main reasons why Japanese youth take their own lives.

Another, more famous case of mass suicide has been immortalized in the play, the Story of the Forty-seven Samurai.  However, from my point of view, the tragedy of the Byakkotai is more compelling because those who died by their own hands were so young.

Tsuruga Castle after Aizu’s defeat

In 1984, NHK, the national TV network broadcast a serial depicting the end of the civil war in Japan.  Here is part of one of the last episodes. It is in Japanese, but it needs no translation.

When Japan joined Nazi Germany  and Italy before the outbreak of WWII, Mussolini sent his foreign minister (his son-in-law) to Japan to donate part of an ancient Roman column to memorialize the Byakkotai sacrifice.  Hitler sent a large, stone tablet featuring a large swastika that was chiseled off after the war.

This is a photo I took of the Roman column.  A Japanese couple is seen standing below it having their picture taken.
Tsurga Castle as is is today

Courage and Human Kindness: The story of John Manjiro

“…I need your help. An American retired army officer by the name of Butler arrived in Edo a few days ago to advise our army. He comes well recommended by Nakahama Manjiro. You know of him, don’t you?
“Of course I know of him.  He’s that commoner…the one who the Shogun saw fit to elevate to samurai status. He lived in America as a boy, as I recall,” Tokunari  sniffed.
“That’s him, but you needn’t be so dismissive. It’s true he is, or should I say was merely a commoner, but he knows America more than any Japanese…” –An excerpt from the draft of my novel “Quest for the Shogun’s Gold”

Just who was the man named Manjiro? He was a historical figure born in Japan in 1827. (At that time, commoners did not have family names.) At the age of 14 and desperately poor, he set out with this uncle and friends to fish off the coast of Shikoku Island.  A violent storm swept them away and they ended up shipwrecked  on the deserted island of Torishima, about  700 miles from their home.

They were stranded there for several months and in desperate straits and on the point of starvation when an American whaling ship stopped and rescued them.  The kindly captain, William Whi08d968bc9ba3d145179c6a3912df85e3tfield, clothed and fed the ragged shipwrecked fishermen and took a shine to Manjiro, offering him the chance to return to the U.S. with him.  To this, John Manjiro (as he was now called) readily agreed. When he landed in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in 1843, Captain Whitfield saw to it that John went to school where he learned English.

He eventually entered the Bartlett School in Fairhaven where he learned navigation and advanced mathematics.  He signed on to a whaling ship and was promoted to harpooner.  After a lengthy voyage, he returned to Fairhaven… but not for long.  With the $350 he had earned, he sailed to San Francisco and then travelled to the Sierras where he panned for gold and came back with $600, about $30,000 in today’s money.

Homesick, he made up his mind to return to Japan but doing so was a dangerous proposition.  The Shogun’s government  had established  a policy of national isolation  and made it a capital offense to have contact with foreigners.  Nevertheless, John Manjiro booked passage on a ship that took him and several of his former shipwrecked mates to Okinawa where he was for all intents and purposes, put under hous89532715cec6eb8f634cb1defa9b3e94e arrest.

After months of interrogation, he was allowed to return to his home where he met his widowed mother after almost 12 years. In 1853,  the Shogun’s government summoned him to Edo (modern day Tokyo) where he advised the government on matters concerning  the treaty demands being made by Commodore Mathew Calbraith Perry who had arrived with a flotilla of warships.  For his services, John was made a samurai and was allowed to take a family name.  He chose “Nakahama” aft
er the town where he had been born.

In the ensuing years Nakahama Manjiro helped establish the whaling industry in Japan, translated a book on navigation, and acted as an official interpreter when the first Japanese delegation visited the U.S.  But, he never forgot the kindness of Captain William Whitfield and in

1870, when he landed in New York with a government delegation, he travelled to New Bedford, Massachusetts to visit his old friend and benefactor.  A photograph of the two men was recently discovered at the New Bedford library and is pictured here.

Returning to Japan, he became English professor at the institution which would eventually become Tokyo University.  He died in 1898 after a long illness.

This spring and summer I made two trips to imanaga and meJapan during which time I conducted research from my novel “Quest for the Shogun’s Gold”.  Both times I had the pleasure to meet and interview Dr. Issei Imanaga, Manjiro’s direct descendent. He and his wife Yuko provided me with much valuable information for my novel.

In 2009, a Japanese philanthropist bought Captain Whitfield’s home in Fairhaven and turned it into a museum which is now operated by The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society.   Every other year in October, a festival honoring Whitfield and Manjiro is held in Fairhaven.  The next festival will be held in 2017. Read more detailed account of  John Manjiro and the festival by clicking:

Donations to renovate the Whitfield house are now being solicited. You can contribute to this noble cause by purchasing the delightful children’s book “Courage & Effort of John Manjiro”. (It can easily be read by enlarging it.)  It is richly illustrated and written in both English and Japanese.  The cost of the book is $19.00 which includes shipping and handling within the U.S. To order the book, send an e-mail to:



manjiro page #3

Note: The photos of Manjiro and Whitfield are courtesy of the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. The photo of Manjiro and Whitfiield together recently appeared in the Japan Times. Two pages from  “Courage & Effort of John Manjiro” are printed here with permission from the author.