Otsu Incident (大津事件)

The Otsu Incident was a failed assassination attempt occurred on May 11, 1891, that the Crown Prince of the Russian Empire, Nicholas (later Tsar Nicholas II) was attacked in Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture, by a patrol officer, Sanzo TSUDA, who guarded Nicholas during his visit to Japan. This incident was so significant in the modern history of Japan because it triggered independence of judiciary from government's interference and raised people's awareness of separation of powers. After a big argument, Sanzo TSUDA was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the minister of justice, Akiyoshi YAMADA resigned his post.

Details of the Incident

To attend the groundbreaking ceremony of the Trans-Siberian Railroad for Far Eastern countries, Nicholas and his Russian fleet made a visit to Japan on the way to Vladivostok. Nicholas's fleet first called in Kagoshima, then Nagasaki, and then Kobe. Japan was still a lesser nation at that time, so Japanese government made all-out efforts to entertain Nicholas. The government appointed Imperial Prince Arisugawanomiya Tsunahito (a navy colonel) as a host because he had studied in England and was the only person in the Imperial family who was well-versed in foreign affairs. Furthermore, the government held Gozan Okuribi (Mountain Bon Fire) in Kyoto, even though it was not time for it.

In the afternoon on May 11, on the way back to Kyoto after a day trip to Lake Biwa, Nicholas, Prince George of Greece (the third son of George I of Greece), and Imperial Prince Takehito rode on a rickshaw one by one in this order, and they were going through Otsu City. Then, Nicholas was attacked by Sanzo TSUDA, a patrol officer of Shiga Prefecture and one of his escort policemen, who swung at Nicholas with a saber and injured him. Nicholas jumped off the rickshaw and escaped to an alley, but TSUDA still ran after him and tried to attack him again. But, Prince George struck TSUDA's back with his bamboo cane, and then a rickshaw driver in Nicholas's entourage, Jisaburo MUKOUHATA grabbed TSUDA's legs and pulled him to the ground, and furthermore, a rickshaw driver in George's entourage, Ichitaro KITAGAICHI picked up TSUDA's saber and injured TSUDA's neck with it, and finally TSUDA was arrested by a patrol officer. Nicholas was left with a 9 cm long scar on the right side of his forehead, but his wound was not life-threatening. Imperial Prince Takehito was there at that time, but he was stopped by onlookers, and it was after TSUDA was arrested when he finally came close to Nicolas.

Imperial Prince Takehito, who was well-versed in foreign affairs because of his experiences of studying abroad and military inspections, judged that this incident was such a serious diplomatic issue that he could not handle by himself. He ordered his escort person to make a report on this incident and sent it to Emperor Meiji by telegraph, and also requested that the emperor should visit Kyoto as soon as possible in order to show sincerity toward Russia. Emperor Meiji accepted the request of Imperial Prince Takehito immediately, and ordered him to guard Nicholas until the Emperor arrived in Kyoto, and hastened to send Imperial Prince Kitashirakawanomiya Yoshihisa to Kyoto on behalf of him.

In the early morning of May 12, Emperor Meiji boarded a train at Shinbashi Station, and arrived in Kyoto late in the day. The Emperor planned to visit Nicholas that night, but it was postponed to the next day on the request of Nicholas's doctor, and the Emperor stayed in the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Imperial Prince Arisugawanomiya Taruhito, an older brother of Imperial Prince Takehito also arrived in Kyoto after the Emperor. On May 13, the Emperor visited Kyoto Hotel where Nicholas stayed, and then escorted Nicholas to Kobe together with 3 Imperial Princes, Taruhito, Takehito and Yoshihisa.

Later, when Emperor Meiji visited a Russian warship in Kobe harbor, he paid a visit to Nicholas again, ignoring protests from some senior statesmen that he might be taken hostage.

Due to the fact that the Russian Prince was injured in a lesser nation, Japan, Japanese people thought that 'Russia would attack Japan in revenge for the incident' and 'Fear for Russia' spread in Japan. Schools were closed as a suspension, and prayer services were held at Shinto shrines, temples and churches to pray for Nicholas's recovery. More than 10,000 telegrams wishing his speedy recovery were sent to Nicholas, and in Kanayama Village, Yamagata Prefecture, its local government enforced a regulation of forbidding the use of the family name 'Tsuda' and the given name 'Sanzo'. After Nicholas went back to Russia in spite of Emperor Meiji's apology, on May 20, a woman named Yuko HATAKEYAMA slit her throat with a razor in front of the Kyoto Prefectural Office to express contrition by her death, and after she died she was called 'retsujo (valiant woman) in Bosyu'.

Background of the Incident

The reason why TSUDA attacked Nicholas, according to his statements, was that he had been opposed to hard-line attitudes of Russia such as their policy of the northern territories. He also heard a rumor that Takamori SAIGO, who had died during Seinan War, was still alive in Russia and he would come back to Japan with Nicholas, so he feared that he would be deprived the medal which had been given to him during Seinan War. But, TSUDA did not intend to kill Nicholas, and after the attack, he answered to police questions as 'I did not intend to kill him, I just wanted to give him one slash'. At that time, it was rumored that an actual reason for Nicholas's visit to Japan was a military inspection, and also many Japanese people regarded the Trans-Siberian Railway as a symbol of Russian invasion of Far Eastern countries, and they had a sense of aversion against Russia.

Actions of the Japanese Government

At that time, Japan barely avoided being colonized by Western countries, but still did not have enough military power to fight against them and feared that Russia would demand reparations or cession of territory. Therefore, the Japanese government applied pressure to the Court to try Tsuda under Article 116 of the Criminal Code, which demanded death penalty for acts against the Emperor, or members of the Imperial family. Hirobumi ITO insisted that if some people were opposed to the death penalty, the government should declare a state of martial law to enforce the death sentence. The prime minister, Masayoshi MATSUKATA and the justice minister, Akiyoshi YAMADA also worked hard to enforce the death sentence. The foreign minister, Shuzo AOKI and Kaoru INOUE moderately disagreed with the death penalty, but the communications minister, Shojiro GOTO said 'the best way to solve this problem is to abduct TSUDA and shoot him to death'.

Actions of the Court

The court judged that the article 116 could be applied to only the Japanese Imperial family, and it did not state about criminals against foreign imperial families, so they had to apply the law for ordinary people to the Nicholas's case. It meant that they could not sentence the death penalty only for a injury case. But still, some judges thought that Tsuda should be sentenced the death penalty.

The chief justice of Daishin-in (the predecessor of the Supreme Court of Japan), Korekata KOJIMA insisted that Japan was liable for compliance with the law as a law-abiding country, and said 'there was no penal code for criminal cases against foreign imperial families' to resist the pressure of the government. In other words, a difficult problem, 'which Japan should choose, the state or the law?' arose.

On May 27, 16 days after the incident, Kojima applied the article 292 of the former penal code, which stated about premeditated murder attempt against ordinary people, and sentenced Tsuda to life imprisonment.

According to the current penal code enacted in 1907, Tsuda may be accused of attempted murder, but still there is a possibility that he is sentenced death penalty, because commutation for failed criminal cases are decided at discretion of judges except when a criminal gave up completion of crime on his own will.

Actions of Russia

The Russian envoy Schaevitz had always adopted harsh attitudes since before the incident, and in this case, he also strongly required Shuzo AOKI and the Minister of Home Affairs, Tsugumichi SAIGO to execute the death penalty. When Schaevitz knew that Tsuda was sentenced life imprisonment, he said 'he didn't know what would happen in retribution' (Aoki, who heard Schaevitz's remark, said 'he just had followed Hirobumi ITO who ordered him to promise Russia the death penalty,' and was banished from a political world by Ito). Russian Emperor Alexander Ⅲ also demanded the death penalty. However, in terms of results, Russia did not claim compensation or exercised military retaliation. As for the injury of Nicholas, the Russian Emperor had a forgiving attitude following Japan's prompt actions and apology, and there is no doubt that this warm attitude of Russia helped Japan solve this difficult problem.

Aftermath of the incident

Tsuda's trial case became the first example of the independence of the judiciary, and it raised people's awareness of separation of powers stated in the Constitution of the Empire of Japan which used to be ambiguous in meaning. Basically, Tsuda's trial should have been handled by the Otsu District Court, but it was taken over by Daishin-in without taking a formal procedure (Since Tsuda's case could be treated as a high treason, Daishin-in, which handled all crime cases against the Imperial family, was required to judge whether it should be treated as a high treason and if so, rendered a judgment). This incident reflected the times that a power structure and proper ways to exercise powers were still unclear. People started to conduct lively discussions about these issues, how the separation of powers and the judiciary should function. This incident made the headlines in foreign medias, and it increased trust in the Japanese judiciary. At that time, Japan had already tried to reform the unequal treaty as a sovereign nation of modern laws, but this incident accelerated the movement.

According to the constitution, Japanese courts were already independent, but in fact, they were still under the control of the government in respect of judicial administration and trial procedures. The idea of separation of powers was common in Japanese people, but its ambiguity triggered some cases of infringement of judicial power such as the High Treason Incident.

There is another theory that struggle among Genro (elder statesman) was the reason why the government had to give up the death penalty of Tsuda.

Rickshaw drivers

Jisaburo MUKAIHATA (1854 - 1928)

Ichitaro KITAGAICHI (December 26, 1859 - November 3, 1914)

The rickshaw drivers who had got unexpected credit for capturing Tsuda, Jizaburo MUKAIHATA and Ichitaro KITAGAICHI were invited to the Russian fleet in the evening of May 18, and there, they were feted by Russian marines. They were given the Anna medal by Nicholas himself, and also given a reward of 2,500 yen plus an additional 1,000 yen pension, which was a tremendous sum for the time. The Japanese government also gave them Kun hachito (8th rank of the Order of Merit), the White Paulownia Medal and a pension of 36 yen. At that time, Rickshaw drivers were basically people from lower class families, and it was a rare case that they were given the Order of Merit and the medal. Then, they were called 'a rickshaw man with the order', and celebrated as national heroes.

However, their bright life didn't last long, and Mukoubatake who was an ex-convict got addicted to gambling, prostitution and shady speculation, and then during the Russo-Japanese War, he lost his pension and arrested on charges of sexual assault and resulted in spending pitiful later years. Kitagaichi steadily spent his money to buy fields in his hometown of Ishikawa Prefecture and became a landlord, and finally became a member of a district assembly after studying hard, but during the Russo-Japanese War, he was accused of being a spy of Russia, and had to bear a hard life.

DNA Test

In 1993, the Russian government was attempting to verify whether alleged bone fragments really belonged to Tsar Nicholas II, and they ordered the Japanese government to take deoxyribonucleic acid from clothes which used for Nicholas's medical treatment as a sample. However, only a blood type was identified from the sample (later in 1998, the bone fragments were identified to belong to Tsar Nicholas II, and the Russian Orthodox Church canonized him as a victim of revolution).