The return to Yokohama was accomplished without any incident of consequence. Fred was a little disappointed to think that their lives had not been in peril. "Just a little danger for the fun of the thing," he remarked to Frank, and at one time on the way he was almost inclined to gloominess when he reflected on the situation. "There hasn't been any attack upon us," he said to himself, "when there might have been something of the kind just as well as not. Not that I wanted any real killing, or anything of the sort, but just a little risk of it to make things lively. It's really too bad."
The Four Classes of Society

He was roused from his reverie by the Doctor, who told him they were approaching the spot where some Englishmen were set upon by a party of two-sworded Samurai, in the early times of the foreign occupation. The attack was entirely unprovoked, and quite without warning. One of the Englishmen was killed and another seriously wounded, while the natives escaped unharmed. Fred wanted to know the exact character of the Samurai, and why they were nearly always concerned in the attacks upon foreigners.

"It is a long story," said Doctor Bronson, "and I am not sure that you will find it altogether interesting, but it is a part of Japanese history that you ought to know, especially in view of the fact that the Samurai exist no longer. With the revolution of 1868 and the consequent overthrow of the old customs, the Samurai class was extinguished, and the wearing of two swords is forbidden.

"The population of Japan was formerly divided into four great classes. The first was the military and official class, and these are what were called Samurai. The second was the farmer class that rented the lands from the government, and engaged in agriculture. The third was the artisan class, and included all the trades and occupations of an industrial character, and the fourth was the merchant class, including all kinds of traders from the wholesale merchant to the petty peddler. Of course, there were subdivisions of these classes, and sometimes several of them in a single class, but the general outline of the system is as I have stated it. Below these classes, and outside the ordinary scale of humanity, were the Eta and Hinin castes, who comprised beggars, tanners, grave-diggers, and, in fact, all persons who had anything to do with the handling of a dead body, whether human or of the lower animals. It was pollution to associate with a person of the Eta caste, and these people were compelled to dwell in villages by themselves. As they were not respected by others, they had no great respect for themselves, and lived in the filthiest condition. They could not enter a house where other people lived, and were not permitted to sit, eat, or drink with others, and they could not cook their food at the same fire.
Two-Sworded Nobles

"This was the way society in Japan was made up until the revolution of 1868, when the whole fabric was swept away, and the principles of our Declaration of Independence were adopted. The Japanese have virtually declared that all men were created equal, by putting the classes on the same level and abolishing the distinctions of caste. The Eta and Hinin castes were made citizens, the Samurai (or gentry) were deprived of their hereditary rights, and the feudal princes were compelled to turn their possessions into the hands of the general government. The change was very great for all, but for none more so than the Samurai.

"These fellows had been for centuries a class with extraordinary privileges. Their ideas in regard to work of any kind were like those of their kindred in Europe and some other parts of the world. It would degrade them to do anything, and consequently they were generally addicted to a life of idleness. There were studious and enterprising men among them, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule. The ordinary Samurai was, more or less, and usually more, a worthless fellow, whose sole idea of occupation was to follow the lord of his province and be present at ceremonials, and, for the rest, to spend his time in drinking shops and other improper places, and indulge in occasional fights with the men of other clans. They were the only persons allowed to wear two swords, and it was the constant wearing of these swords, coupled with the drinking of sake, that brought on most of the difficulties between the natives and the foreigners. A group of these men would be drinking in a tavern, and, while they were all heated with the spirits they had swallowed, one of them would propose to kill a foreigner. They would make a vow to go out and kill the first one they met, and in this mood they would leave the tavern and walk along the principal street. They would fall upon the first foreigner they met, and, as they were three or four to one, and were all well-armed, the foreigner was generally slaughtered. Mr. Heusken, the interpreter of the American Legation, was thus murdered at Yeddo in 1861, and the German consul at Hakodadi met his death in the same way. The Samurai were the class most opposed to the entrance of foreigners into Japan, and, so long as they were allowed to wear swords and inflame themselves with sake, the life of a stranger was never safe."

"If they did no work," said Frank, "how did they manage to live?"
A Samurai in Winter Dress

"They were supported by the government," the Doctor answered, "in accordance with the ancient custom. Every Samurai received an allowance, which was paid to him in rice, the staple article of food, and what he did not eat he could convert into money. His pay was in proportion to his rank, and the great number of Samurai made their support a heavy burden upon the laboring class. It is said that nine tenths of the product of the soil went, in one way and another, for taxes. That is, for every hundred bushels of rice that a farmer raised, ninety bushels went to the local and general governments, and only ten bushels remained to the farmer. It was by being thus saddled on the country that the Samurai were able to live without work, and, as the right had been conceded to them for generations, they naturally looked with contempt upon all kinds of industry. Their dissipated way of living was very likely to lead them into debt, just as it leads similar men into debt everywhere else. The merchants and tradesmen of all kinds were their victims, as the law allowed no redress for the wrongs they committed. They would sometimes enter a shop, select what goods they wanted, hand them over to a servant, and then leave without paying. If the merchant intimated that he would like to be paid for his property, they became very insolent and threatened to report him to the police as a swindler. They would enter a tavern or teahouse with a crowd of their followers, and, after eating and drinking what they wished, walk coolly away. If the landlord asked for payment, he was not very likely to get it, and if he repeated the request, he not infrequently had his head slashed off by the sword of one of the offended gentlemen. The head of a landlord was not of much consequence, but he was generally quite unwilling to lose it, as, when once taken off, it was difficult to restore it to its place.

"If the Samurai had been on the friendliest terms with each other, they would have rendered Japan too hot for anybody else to live in. But, fortunately for the rest of the population, there were many feuds among the different clans, and there was rarely an occasion when one clan was not in open warfare with some other. In this way they devoted their energies to cutting each other's throats, to the great delight of the merchants and tradesmen. Where two clans were in hostility to each other, and two opposing groups met in the streets, they used to fall to fighting without ceremony and furnish occupation for the coroner before the interview was over. They were a terror to all the rest of the populace, and it is safe to say that there was general rejoicing among the other classes when the Samurai ceased to exist."

Fred asked if the government took away the pensions of these men and gave them nothing in return.
Beheading a Criminal

"Not by any means," the Doctor answered. "The government gave to each man a money allowance, or gift, to take the place of his pension, and let him do with it whatever he pleased. Some of them spent it in dissipation, and found themselves eventually without a penny, and with no means of obtaining anything. They were then obliged to go to work like other people, and some of them had a very hard time to exist. I was told in Yokohama that some of the former Samurai were working as servants in various ways, not only in that city, but all through the empire. A good many of them have found employment among the foreign merchants as clerks and salesmen, and there are many in government employ in the offices at Tokyo and in other cities. The officers you saw at the custom house were probably ex-Samurai, and ten years ago they would have been wearing two swords apiece. The Japanese bookkeeper you saw in the office of the American merchant on whom we called the day of our arrival was once a Samurai of high degree. He spent his government allowance in a short time after receiving it, and was then compelled to find employment or starve. He tried the starvation system a short time, and concluded he did not like it. He turned his education to account by undertaking to keep the Japanese accounts of a foreign merchant, and his employer is well pleased with him.

"As the Samurai were the military class before the revolution, they retain the same character, to a large degree, under the present system. They are the officers of the army and navy, and, to a great extent, they fill the ranks of the soldiery. Those who accepted the change and remained loyal to the government have received appointments where there were vacancies to be filled, and the strength of Japan today is largely in the hands of the old Samurai. But, as might be expected, there was much discontent at the change, and some of the Samurai went into open rebellion against the government. This was the cause of the revolt in 1877, and for a time it was so formidable that many people believed it would succeed. Not a few among the foreigners predicted that the Mikado would be dethroned, and the power of the Tycoon restored, but the government triumphed in the end, and those of the leaders of the insurrection who did not perish in battle were beheaded."

Frank asked how the Japanese performed the ceremony of beheading, and whether it was very frequent.

"As to that," said Doctor Bronson, "much depends upon what you would call frequent. In former times a man might lose his head for a very slight reason, or, perhaps, no reason at all. Crimes that we would consider of small degree were punished with death, and there was very little time wasted between the sentence and its execution. As the Japanese have become more and more familiar with the customs of Western nations, they have learned that we do not remove the heads of our people for trifles, and they show their good sense by following our example. Of late years, executions by decapitation are much less frequent than formerly, but even now there are more of them than there need be.

"As to the manner of performing it, a few words will describe it. The ceremonies that precede it are somewhat elaborate, but the affair itself is performed in the twinkling of an eye, or, rather, in the twinkling of a sword. It is a single flash, and all is over.

"When I was in Japan the first time, I was invited to be present at an execution, and, as I had a scientific reason for being there, I accepted the invitation. As a friend and myself approached the prison we met a large crowd, and were told that the prisoner was being paraded through the streets, so that the public could see him. There was quite a procession to escort the poor fellow, and the people seemed to have very little sympathy for him, as they were doubtless hardened by the frequency of these occurrences. In front of the procession there were two men bearing large placards, like banners. One of the placards announced the name and residence of the victim, and the other the crime of which he had been convicted, together with his sentence. Close behind these men was the prisoner, tied to the horse on which he rode, and guarded by a couple of soldiers. Following him were more soldiers, and then came a couple of officers, with their attendants. For at that time every officer had a certain number of retainers, who followed him everywhere. We joined the party and went to the prison yard, where we found the ground ready prepared for the execution. But first, according to the usual custom, the prisoner was provided with a hearty breakfast, and it was rather an astonishing circumstance that he ate it with an excellent appetite, though he complained of one dish as being unhealthy. In half an hour or so he had finished, and was led to the spot where he was to lose his head. He was required to kneel behind a small hole that had been dug to receive his head. A bandage was tied around his eyes, and as it was fastened he said 'Sayonara' to his friends and everybody present. When all was ready, the officer in command gave the signal, and the executioner, with a single blow, completed the task. It was the first Japanese execution I ever witnessed, and my last."
Japanese Court in the Old Style

Frank asked the Doctor if this execution was anything like the "hara-kiri" of which he had read, where a Japanese was said to commit suicide by cutting his stomach.

"Not by any means," was the answer. "Hara-kiri is quite another thing."

"Please tell us how it is performed," said Fred.

"It is not altogether a pleasant subject," remarked the Doctor, with a slight shudder. "But as we want to learn all we can of the manners and customs of the people we are among, and as we are now among the Japanese, I suppose we must give some attention to hara-kiri.

"To understand the question thoroughly, it will be necessary to bear in mind that the Asian way of thinking is very often the exact reverse of our way. We have one idea of honor and the Japanese have another. Who is right or who is wrong we will not pretend to say, as each party has its own particular views and will not readily yield to the other. Writers on Japan differ considerably in their views of Japanese points of honor, and there are disagreements on the subject among the Japanese themselves. Therefore I cannot speak with absolute exactness about it. According to the old code, all persons holding office under the government were required to kill themselves in the way mentioned whenever they had committed any crime, though not until they had received an order to do so from the court. If they disobeyed the order, their families would be disinherited, and none of their descendants would be allowed to hold office ever after. Consequently a regard for one's family required a cheerful submission to the custom. There was no disgrace attached to a death by hara-kiri, and in former times its occurrence was almost an everyday affair. One writer says, 'The sons of all persons of quality exercise themselves in their youth, for five or six years, with a view to performing the operation, in case of need, with gracefulness and dexterity, and they take as much pains to acquire this accomplishment as youth among us to become elegant dancers or skillful horsemen. Hence the profound contempt of death which they imbibe in early years.' Curious custom, isn't it, according to our notions?"

Both the boys thought it was, and said they were glad that they were not born in a country where such ideas of honor prevailed.
Japanese Naval Officer

The Doctor told them that an old story, which he had no doubt was true, since it accorded with the Japanese ideas of honor, would be a very good illustration of the subject. It was concerning two high officers of the court who met one day on a staircase, and accidentally jostled each other. One was a very quick-tempered man, and demanded satisfaction. The other was of a more peaceable disposition, and said the circumstance was accidental, and could be amply covered by an apology, which he was ready to make. The other tried to provoke him to a conflict, and when he found he could not do so he drew his short-sword and slashed himself according to the prescribed mode. The other was compelled, as a point of honor, to follow his example. It often happened that where one man had offended another the court required that they should both perform hara-kiri, and they always did so without the least hesitation. And when a man went to another's house, sat down and performed hara-kiri, the owner of the house was obliged by law to do the same thing. There was no escaping it, and it is but fair to the Japanese to say that they did not try to escape it.

"If you are deeply interested in the subject of hara-kiri," said the Doctor, "I advise you to read Mitford's book entitled 'Tales of Old Japan.' Mr. Mitford lived some time in Japan in an official capacity, and on one occasion he was called upon to be present at the hara-kiri of an officer who had given orders for firing on some foreigners. He gives an account of this affair, including a list of the ceremonies to be observed on such an occasion, which he translated from a Japanese work on the subject. Nothing could be more precise than the regulations, and some of them are exceedingly curious, particularly the one that requires the nearest friend of the victim to act as his second. The duty of the second is to cut off the principal's head at the moment he plunges the knife into his body. It is a post of honor, and a gentleman who should refuse thus to act for his friend would be considered no friend at all. Again I say it is a curious custom all through.

"The term hara-kiri means 'happy dispatch,' and for the Japanese it was a happy form of going out of the world. It is still in use, the custom as well as the expression, but not so much so as formerly. The Japanese ideas of honor have not changed, but they have found that some of their ways of illustrating them are not in accordance with the customs of Europe. There are cases of hara-kiri now and then at the present time, but they are very private, and generally the result of the sentence of a court. At the termination of the rebellion of 1877, several of the officers concerned in it committed hara-kiri voluntarily just before the surrender, and others in consequence of their capture and sentence.

"In the administration of justice," Doctor Bronson continued, "Japan has made great progress in the past few years. Formerly nearly all trials were conducted with torture. At present the trials are generally open, and the accused has the benefit of counsel to defend him, as in our own courts. Torture has been formally abolished, though it is asserted that it is sometimes employed in cases of treason or other high crimes. Law schools have been established, reform codes of law have been made, and certainly there is a manifest disposition on the part of the government to give the best system of justice to the people that can be found. Japan is endeavoring to take a place among the nations of the world, and show that she is no longer an antiquated land. The United States have been the foremost to acknowledge her right to such a place, but their action has not been seconded by England and other European countries. It will doubtless come in time, and every year sees some additional step gained in the proper direction.
Japanese Steam Corvette

"As I have before stated," the Doctor continued, "the Japanese have made great progress in military and naval matters. They have shipyards at several places, and have built ships of their own after the European models. In addition to these, they have ships that they bought from foreigners, but they are entirely commanded and managed by their own officers, and equipped with crews entirely Japanese. The old war-junks of the country have been discarded for the modern ships, and the young Japanese are trained in the Western mode of warfare. Their schools for naval instruction have made remarkable advancement, and the teachers who were brought from other countries repeatedly declared that they never had seen anywhere a more intelligent assemblage of pupils than they found here. The Japanese naval officer of today is uniformed very much like his fellow-officer in Europe or America, and his manners are as polished as the most fastidious among us could wish. The Japanese ships have made long cruises, and visited the principal ports of Europe and America, and their commanders have shown that they understand the theory and practice of navigation, and are able to take their ships wherever they may be ordered to go. The picture of a Japanese war-junk of the olden time, and that of the war-steamer of today do not show many points of resemblance. They illustrate the difference between the old and the new, very much as do the cango and the railway car when placed side by side."

The Doctor thought he had given the boys quite as much information as they would be likely to remember in his dissertation, and suggested that they should endeavor to recapitulate what he had said. Frank thought the discussion had taken a wide range, as it had included the status of the four classes of Japanese society, had embraced the Samurai and their peculiarities, some of the changes that were wrought by the revolution, and had told them how executions were conducted in former times. Then they had learned something about hara-kiri and what it was for, and they had learned, at the same time, the difference between the old courts of justice and the new ones. What with these things and the naval progress of the empire of the Mikado, he thought they had quite enough to go around, and would be lucky if they remembered the whole of it.

Fred thought so too, and therefore the discussion was suspended, with the understanding that it should be renewed on the first convenient occasion.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Execution: The act of putting to death or being put to death as a punishment.
Hara-kiri: Ceremonial suicide by cutting the abdomen with a dagger or a knife.
Class: A social grouping, based on job, wealth, etc. (e.g. middle class).
Artisan: A skilled manual worker who uses tools and machinery in a particular craft.
Caste: A separate and fixed order or class of persons in society who chiefly associate with each other.
Society: A long-standing group of people sharing cultural aspects such as language, dress, norms of behavior, and artistic forms.
Torture: Intentionally causing someone else's pain and agony.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine the chapter setting in modern times: The city of Yokohama, Japan.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

  • Find the country of Japan on the map of the world.
  • Find Yokohama on the map of Japan.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.