In these two decades the economy, the social stratification and education underwent disruption and rapid change. Religions and language were remade. Even the calendar was changed. What may have made the period appear particularly disruptive is that prior to the 1860’s Japan had enjoyed peace and stability for two-and-a-half centuries. No country in Europe had enjoyed such a long period of peace and comparative prosperity. In 1603 a dictatorial system imposed by the shoguns had succeeded in bringing to an end the feudal wars that had plagued earlier centuries.
The shoguns – ‘commanding generals’ – had assumed powers which, in earlier centuries, had been wielded by the emperors. The emperors had been relegated to a largely ceremonial and religious role and to patronage of the arts.
The shoguns consolidated their power. They expelled Christian missionaries. Their ‘evil religion’ was regarded as divisive and likely to trigger civil strife. Native converts to Christianity were persecuted. Foreign traders were driven out. Ports were closed to foreign vessels. Japanese citizens were banned – on pain of death - from travelling abroad. Only a handful of Dutch and Chinese traders – all confined to one single port, Nagasaki – were permitted to remain.
The system imposed by the shoguns – though dictatorial – was decentralised. Local daimyo or feudal lords enjoyed a wide measure of autonomy. However, a close watch was kept on their activities and members of their families were compelled to reside at the shogun’s court, virtually as hostages.
Over the centuries the role of the shoguns, like that of the emperors before them, became largely ceremonial. Real power came to be wielded by a council of five or six feudal lords – the roju or bafuku. However they wielded power in the name of the shogun.
There were drawbacks to this imposed stability. Japan – despite an ancient and sophisticated culture – had fallen behind the West technically and therefore militarily. This was dangerous in the 19th century – the periods of aggressive European and American imperialism. The roju could see the approaching danger to their independence. Though in self-imposed isolation, they did keep themselves informed – largely through the small Dutch community tolerated at Nagasaki and through Chinese and Korean traders. Nervously they watched the advances of the British in India and the progression of the Russians through Siberia to the Pacific coast. But most worrying for them was the increasing threat from Europeans and Americans to the independence of China – the regional ‘superpower’. In two ‘Opium Wars’ a comparative small British expeditionary force had easily defeated China and forced the Chinese to legalise the pernicious opium trade. Many among the Japanese military caste realised they were ill equipped to resist any similar onslaught. There was discontent with current policies.
In the 1850’s Japan’s isolation was challenged from abroad. The ‘black ships’ of the U.S. navy commanded by Commodore Perry and equipped with powerful weapons unfamiliar to the Japanese forced the roju to sign treaties. These were to open Japan to international trade. No weapons were fired in anger but many samurai saw their rulers’ acquiescence as an intolerable humiliation. At much the same time Russian naval ships demanded and obtained similar concessions. Other European powers soon followed and they, too, were granted trading rights – at least on paper.
The resentment engendered by Perry’s expedition persisted for at least a century. We shall find Haber’s assassin referring to it. One incident especially rankled. A threatening message by the Commodore had been accompanied by two white flags. Their meaning was unknown to the Japanese so an explanation was provided:
“Perry advised that if it came to combat – which Japanese units would have no chance of winning – they should hoist the flags when they were ready to surrender, whereupon American fire would cease immediately …
One Japanese scholar is convinced that knowledge of the white flags increased the resentment of Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku who devised and led the Pearl Harbor attack….
“I want to return Commodore Perry’s visit” he replied to a question why he had originally enlisted in the navy…… He looked forward to visiting the White House ‘in order to dictate peace.’
In the early years the victims of this enforced opening up strove to frustrate it. Trade was subverted and obstructed by a combination of deceit and delay by the Japanese authorities. In addition attacks on foreigners by ‘freelancing’ samurai interfered with trade. Only by gunboat diplomacy – that is by threatening and bullying – did the ‘barbarians’ eventually manage to enforce the privileges they had been granted by these treaties.
Foreign penetration brought about tensions and conflicts within Japan’s own ruling class. Different factions accused each other of spinelessness in allowing the sacred soil of Japan to be polluted by the presence of foreigners. There were disputes on how best to deal with the barbarians. Should one keep them at arms-length? Or should one learn from them as fast as possible so as to be able to fight them when the time was ripe? There were plots and counterplots. A leading Western historian describes the situation vividly:
From the highest sources issue proclamations which do not say what they mean or mean what they say. The Throne rebukes great officers for doing what it has already approved, enjoins them not to do what it knows they have already done. Weighty memorials are submitted to the government by powerful nobles who on the basis of information which they have not understood recommend measures which are incompatible with one another. A fantastic ethos prevails through the land. Patriots assassinate other patriots for views which they have never held or professed and statesmen declare intentions which everybody knows to be contrary to their real purpose….The whole nation is in a state of uncertainty and doubt…..
In 1868 a group of samurai used these tensions to challenge and eventually to dislodge the shogun in a palace coup. They succeeded in bringing back to power the long sidelined emperor. This is known as the Meiji restoration after the name assumed by the newly reinstated emperor. Nevertheless the emperors did not manage to resume the political powers their ancestors had once held. Real power came to be wielded by members of the samurai caste.
The Meiji restoration brought with it a restoration of the archaic but indigenous Shinto religion.
The Sacred Throne was established at the time when the heaven and the earth became separated. The Emperor is Heaven descended, divine and sacred. He is pre-eminent above all his subjects. He must be reverenced ….
For centuries Japanese religious practise had been predominantly Buddhist with accretions from Confucianism and Shinto. Buddhism had its origins in India, Confucianism in China. Shinto, however, was an indigenous Japanese growth which was now …
…resuscitated from medieval lethargy… The opening years of the Meiji era are marked by an organised persecution of …. [Buddhism]. Temples all over the land were attacked and destroyed…Buddhist writings, fine sculptures, bronzes, wood carvings and paintings [were committed] to the flames. Buddhist priests were subjected to beatings… 
In times of disruption people often find support in prayer - in the security of an unchanging religion. In Japan at the time of the Meji restoration this security was destroyed.
The campaign against Buddhism only lasted a few years (1867-73). The new rulers realised they had gone too far and had antagonised too many believers. The policies went into reverse. As we shall see, the agitation against Buddhism caused dissension within the family of Hidechika Tazaki, the assassin. No doubt, it will have done the same in many other families.
A handful of supporters of the old shogunal order took up arms. There were armed clashes between them and supporters of the Meji emperor. As civil wars go, it was only a minor one. There were a few armed confrontations on land and sea. The last of these skirmishes took place in the vicinity of Hakodate in 1869 – only a few years before Haber took up residence there.
Hakodate was one of three ports that U.S. and European pressure had forced the Japanese to open to foreign vessels. The Japanese negotiators had managed to restrict foreigners to harbours away from the real centre of power. Hakodate was the remotest of these. It was not on Japan’s main island but on the northern island of Hokkaido which, at that time, was sparsely populated and under-developed.
The new ruling group realised that speedy and painful reforms were needed if Japan was to become a modern nation equipped educationally, industrially and militarily to defend itself against Western imperialism. For centuries, the carrying of arms had been confined to a hereditary and privileged warrior class, the samurai, who normally owed allegiance to feudal lords, the daimyo. They often lived in their lords’ castle-towns. Once upon a time it had been their duty to defend their lords against rivals. But long centuries of domestic peace had made them superfluous. The retention of such a class was incompatible with the needs of a modern society.
The samurais’ position had certain similarities to that of the knights in Europe in feudal times. There was, however, one fundamental difference. The samurai were not sub-seigneurs owning land. They lived off annual stipends awarded to them by their lords and they continued to receive these stipends long after their military duties were no longer required. For two-and-a-half centuries they had been warriors with no wars to fight - a parasitic class. A few of them had managed to take up other status-worthy occupations such as government administration or teaching, but most had remained idle. Since the samurai made up some 7 to 10% of the population, their stipends were a heavy burden on the economy.
Feudal lords taxed their peasants in rice. In a normal year some 40% of a peasant’s crop was paid in taxes but from time to time special levies could raise this as high as 80%. The new rulers – though themselves of samurai origin – realised that this drain on the economy was hindering the modernisation of the country. They braced themselves for painful reforms. Step by step they abolished the special rights of the samurai. Stipends were reduced drastically.
These stipends had never been generous. The average was roughly what a farmer earned. So the warrior caste had always lived frugally and had made a virtue out of necessity. They laid great stress on the virtue of frugality and their indifference to wealth. Nothing could be more galling to them than prestige dependent on wealth and display. But conventions – and sumptuary laws – demanded that on ceremonial occasions they wore fine silken garments. Now that foreign merchants exported Japanese silk, thus raising the cost of such garments, this impoverished the samurai still further. They had long kept their families small by birth control, but now many became too poor to support even their small families. Many were forced to sell valued heirlooms – swords, armour, silk garments.
A samurai of good standing whose annual rice allowance was nominally 1,000 bushels in pre-Restoration days found himself reduced to 400 after 1868 and … in 1876 was obliged to accept payment in bonds and cash which would give him an annual income equal to the value of 150 bushels. Samurai on low allowances were cut down to a pittance on which a single man could scarcely subsist.
In 1873 the reduced stipends were taxed for the first time. Hidechika Tazaki, Haber’s assassin, had a stipend of 149 koku, . One koku was, theoretically, considered sufficient rice to feed one person for a year. By the late 19th century, however, 149 koku appear to have been barely adequate to feed a family.
Traditionally Japanese society had four main strata– the nobility (kazoku), the warrior caste (shizoku) which included the samurai, the plebeians (heimin) and the outcasts (eta). Among plebeians there were further stratifications: peasants, artisans and merchants. The merchants ranked lowest – only just above the outcasts who served as scavengers, buriers of the executed and skinners of dead animals.
Following the social and economic changes of the Meiji restoration Japanese merchants – long regarded with contempt by the samurai – benefited from foreign trade and became far wealthier than their social ‘superiors’. This increased tensions.
The arrival of many foreigners [most of them merchants] affronted the feelings of haughty samurai by their independent demeanour, so different from the cringing demeanour to which the rules of Japanese etiquette condemned the native merchants. 
Of course foreign businessmen like Ludwig Haber would not have evaluated their own status as little better than that of outcasts. In fact – knowing the racist attitudes common at the time - most imagined themselves superior to the Asian people they encountered. This did not make for relaxed relations.
The samurai, though poor, had long had privileges which they valued. The clothes they could wear, the food they could buy and the kind of house they could live in had all been regulated by inherited rank. Only the samurai – often described as ‘two-sword men’ – could carry weapons: one long sword and one short one, the second little longer than a dagger.
In 1870 there came a new blow to their special status – probably the most damaging and humiliating of all. Universal conscription was introduced. The law came into effect in 1873. Now members of the plebeian class were called up and armed. Moreover they were not armed with archaic swords but with modern weapons imported from abroad. The government made some attempts to ease the position of the samurai. They were encouraged to migrate to the emptier northern island of Hokkaido. Grants were offered to encourage them to take up commerce and agriculture – but these occupations were new to them. In the past they had actually been prohibited from practising them. Only a minority managed to adapt quickly and find new and better livelihoods.
No government decrees could, however, altogether extinguish the long ingrained warrior spirit of the samurai – their ideals of duty, loyalty and bravery.
If we are to believe the chronicles of the 11th century, the true warrior of that age held his life to be of ‘no more value than a feather’. Not only was he prepared at all times to die unflinchingly in battle but he rejected any chance for survival that necessitated turning his back on the enemy. Odds, we are told, meant nothing to him; he was ready to rush into the hottest conflict or to charge the greatest concentration of the enemy if honour and the circumstances of battle so dictated.
By the 19th century, however, samurai writers complained that the old spirit was in decline and many had become decadent. One complained –
Seven or eight out of ten are like women. Their spirit is mean, like that of merchants. They cannot stay in the saddle even if their mount is more like a cat than a horse. 
Seven or eight? That left two or three out of ten even more determined to uphold the traditional warrior spirit. They initiated rearguard actions by attacking foreigners – diplomats, traders and naval personnel. A slogan current at the time was ‘Revere the Emperor, expel foreigners.’
Not only foreigners were in danger. Native Japanese who associated with foreigners were attacked. Servants working for foreigners were murdered. So were merchants and artisans who traded with them. At Yokohama carpenters who built houses for foreigners were murdered. Even Japanese grandees whose policies were regarded as too favourable to foreigners were cut down. One of the first of these murderous attacks occurred on 26th August 1859 after a Russian naval squadron anchored in Edo Bay.
A Russian officer and two seamen went ashore at Yokohama buying fresh vegetables for their ship’s mess. Burdened with their purchases….. they were attacked from behind. The officer and one seaman went down immediately under a flurry of chopping swords. The other seaman escaped, wounded…. The wounded officer lived for several hours, dying at midnight while calling for his mother…..
A whole series of similar attacks followed between 1862 and 1863. Six foreigners were murdered in short succession but the normally efficient police claimed not to be able to find a single killer. There were arson attacks on foreign trading houses. One British firm found it advisable to import a fire engine!
Rutherford Alcock, an early British representative, reported to the Foreign Office:
I cannot say the post of diplomatic agent in Edo is to be recommended for nervous people.
The German ambassador describes the atmosphere. In passing he also illustrates the racist attitude widespread among expatriate Whites.
“If, for years on end, one has not been able to leave one’s house without one’s servant handing one – along with hat and coat – a revolver…. this feeling of threatening danger soon becomes dulled [though] from time to time its presence is demonstrated ad oculus by the corpse of a friend or a compatriot. The large majority of foreigners in Japan do not let these threats disturb them in their business or pleasure any more than do crowned heads by [the threat from]anarchists…. It is true that the excitement of combat which stimulates a soldier in battle was absent but it was replaced by a perhaps unconscious feeling of superiority which the Caucasian feels when faced by the Asian.
In 1868 an attack on Sir Harry Parkes, the British ambassador, took place in Kyoto, the capital, in broad daylight. It was to be a great occasion. He had been invited to present himself to the emperor. This was the very first such audience granted to a foreigner. He rode to the palace with a British cavalry escort augmented by British and Japanese foot soldiers. In the narrow lanes of the imperial capital the party was attacked by two swordsmen. The attack was so swift and so unexpected that ten of the twelve cavalrymen were wounded before a Japanese member of the escort succeeded in killing the first of the assailants while British infantrymen killed the second. The ambassador was unhurt.
Had the two attackers survived and been caught, they might have been condemned to commit seppuku – disembowelment, better known outside Japan as hara-kiri, belly-slitting. By the conventions of the time and country seppuku was a ‘honourable’ death, as an 1868 account shows:
The ceremony which was ordered by the Mikado himself took place at 10.30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji. A witness was sent from each of the foreign delegations. We were seven foreigners in all… The provisional governor of Hiogo.. informed us that seven witnesses would attend on the part of the Japanese.. We were invited to follow .. into the main hall of the temple. It was an imposing scene: a large hall with a high roof supported by dark pillars of wood…In front of the high altar where the floor, covered with beautiful white mats is raised some three or four inches from the ground, was laid a rug of scarlet felt. Tall candles placed at regular intervals gave out a dim mysterious light, just sufficient to let all the proceedings be seen. The seven Japanese took their places on the left of the raised floor, the seven foreigners on the right.
After a few minutes of anxious suspense, Taki Zenzaburo, a stalwart
man, thirty-two years of age, with a noble air, walked into the hall attired in his dress of ceremony, with the peculiar hempen-cloth wings which are worn on great occasions. He was accompanied by a kaishaku and three officers who wore the jimbaori or war surcoat with gold tissue facings. The word kaishaku, it should be observed, is one to which our word ‘executioner’ is no equivalent term. The office is that of a gentleman; in many cases it is performed by a kinsman or friend of the condemned… In this case the kaishaku was a pupil of Taki Zenzaburo, and was selected by the friends of the latter from among their own number for his skill in swordsmanship.
With the kaishaku on his left hand, Taki Zenzaburo advanced slowly towards the Japanese witnesses and the two bowed before them, the drawing near the foreigners they saluted us in the same manner, perhaps even with more deference: in each case the salutation was ceremoniously returned. Slowly and with great dignity, the condemned man mounted on to the raised floor, prostrated himself before the high altar twice, and seated himself on the felt carpet with his back to the high altar, the kaishaku crouching on his left-hand side. One of the three attendant officers then came forward, bearing a stand of the kind used in temples for offerings, on which wrapped in paper, lay the wakizashi, the short sword or dirk of the Japanese, nine inches and a half in length, with a point and an edge as sharp as a razor’s. This he handed, prostrating himself, to the condemned man, who received it reverently, raising it to his head with both hands and placed it in front of himself.
After another profound obeisance … [he] … spoke as follows; “I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act.”
Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garment to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling forward. Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbed himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. Then he drew out the dirk, he leant forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a moment in the air; there was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall ; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.
A dead silence followed 
After the attack on the British party in the narrow lanes of Kyoto, Sir Harry Parkes appealed to the Japanese government to end the practice whereby attackers were condemned to end their lives ‘honourably’. He demanded they should be executed like common criminals. The government agreed. Proclamations were posted throughout the country.
Ludwig Haber’s assassin would thus not expect to be condemned to an ‘honourable’ end by seppuku. Nevertheless he could have avoided a common criminal’s execution, had he wished. He could, for instance, have emulated the example of the samurai who, in 1860, murdered the ‘tairo’ Ii Kamon no Kami, the strongman and near-dictator. Ii was accused of advocating concessions to American demands. He himself justified his policies saying they were meant to buy time to rearm and to prepare for armed confrontation.
On a snowy day in March 1860 Ii’s entourage was on its way to the shogun’s Chiyoda castle. The guards’ swords were covered to protect them against the sticky snow. Suddenly the little group was attacked by Mito samurai. While some took on the guards another managed to pull Ii out of his palanquin and take the tairo’s head, then dashed off with it to the gate of another … mansion where he disembowelled himself. This daring act inaugurated a decade of violence.
In many attacks on foreigners the Japanese authorities said they could not identify or arrest the culprits. Often the foreign representatives did not believe them. In one such case British ships exacted retribution. They shelled and burnt the town of Kagoshima and demanded blood money. In other instances attackers were apprehended and sentenced to death. But they were not normally contrite. On the contrary, they were proud of their action. Since samurai were often highly literate they justified themselves in poems they had themselves written. In 1864 the killer of two Englishmen chanted a verse at his execution:
I do not regret being taken and put to death for to kill barbarians is in the true spirit of a Japanese.
After the execution of eleven samurai who had killed seven French sailors at Sakai their ‘death poems’ were widely circulated. To quote a few –
Though I regret not my body, which becomes as dew scattered by the wind, my country’s fate weighs down my heart with anxiety.
The sacrifice of my life for the sake of my country gives me a pure heart in the hour of my death.
The cherry flowers too have their seasons of blossoming and fading, What is there for the Japanese soul to regret in death?
Haber’s assassin, too, wrote some such poem. One of his guards reported that he lent him a brush and paper and Hidechika “wrote down a sort of verse and kept it with him” Unfortunately this poem has not been preserved. Hidechika did however write a lengthy justification in prose – quoted later.
Between 1862 and 1863 a large number of xenophobic murders had taken place but by 1874 the wave appeared to have subsided. The Haber murder thus shook foreign residents. The British ambassador, Sir Harry Parkes, in a dispatch to the Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Derby, wrote -
It is painful to note in these days a fresh instance of that murderous disposition which, it was hoped, the Japanese had ceased to exhibit towards foreigners.