On This Day: The Ōtsu Incident

  May 11, 2016 at 3:26 am by

On this day 125 years ago in 1891 a failed assassination attempt was made on Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich of Russia -the future Tsar Nicholas II- during his visit to Japan. The Russian heir was invited to Japan to improve the relations between Japan and Russia which were under pressure as Russia’s militairy presence in the far East was growing rapidly.

During the visit the Tsarevich tried to charm his hosts: he showed an interest in Japanese crafts, got a dragon tattoo on his arm and bought  a hair pin which he gave to a Japanese girl. However, on May 11th Nicholas was attacked by Tsuda Sanzō, one of his escorting policemen, who swung at the Tsarevich’s face with a sabre. This happened after a visit to Lake Biwa in Ōtsu, near Kyoto. Due to the quick intervention of Prince George of Greece and Denmark, who accompanied his cousin Nicholas during the visit, worse was prevented. The prince parried a second blow of Tsuda’s sabre with his cane, thus saving Nicholas’ life. Although the culprit tried to flee, he was soon apprehended by two rickshaw drivers of Nicholas entourage.

Nicholas was rushed back to the Imperial palace in Kyoto. It appeared that the wound in the Tsarevich forehead was not life threatening, though Nicholas had a scar of nine centimeters long. A worried Emperor Meiji quickly came from Tokyo to visit Nicholas, perhaps out of fear that th Russian Empire would use the assassination attempt as a pretext for war. The Emperor refused to listen to some in his entourage who advised him to take Nicholas hostage, to prevent a Russian attack. Instead Nicholas was allowed to move to a Russian warship in Kobe, where he could recover.

                     George of Greece and Tsesarevich Nicholas in Nagasaki

The reactions to the assassination attempt in Japan were shocked, especially as the Emperor publicly expressed sorrow at Japan’s lack of hospitality towards his guest. This led to to an outpouring of public support and messages; more than 10,000 supportive telegrams were sent. The Yamagata prefecture outlawed the use of the names “Tsuda” and “Sanzō” and both the Japanese Home minister as the minister of Foreign Affairs resigned. When Nicholas decided to cut his trip short and return to Russia in spite of Emperor Meiji’s apology, a young seamstress, Yuko Hatakeyama, slit her throat with a razor in front of the Kyoto Prefectural Office as an act of public contrition. Her patriotism was praised in the Japanese press.

Tsuda was sentenced to life imprisonement but died of an illness in September of the same year. His motivation for the attack remains unclear with explanations ranging from mental derangement to hatred of foreigners. Historians have speculated if the attack influenced the future Nicholas II in his decisions leading to the fateful Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

Filed under Historical Royals, Japan, Russia
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