The Murder of Henry Heusken
I’ve stayed/lived/whatevered in 3 places in Tokyo. When I first came here I lived in Uguisudani for about 3 months. It’s a pretty historical place and taking walks around Taitō-ku sparked my interested in Japan History. Then I lived in Nakano for about 6 years. It’s not a very historical place, but it has its own charms and I really liked it there. Now I live in Mita, which is an area steeped in history, some of it going back as far as the Taika Era (or so we are told).
Anyhoo, I’m really happy in Mita for the time being because the area was important in the Edo Period and was also the scene of a lot of action during my favorite period in Japanese History, the Bakumatsu.
Anyways, right behind my house there is a river called the 古川 Furukawa “the Old River.” In fact, as I look out the window right now, I can see it flowing all the way down a hill where it disappears under 赤羽橋 Akabanebashi. If there weren’t tall buildings blocking the way, I could probably watch it go past Shiba and the Tokugawa funerary temple of Zōjōji.
I live between two bridges. One is called 一ﾉ橋 Ichi no Hashi (“the first bridge”) and the next is called 中ﾉ橋 Naka no Hashi (“the middle bridge”). Both bridges were sites of murders of two well-known names of the Bakumatsu: 清川八郎 Kiyokawa Hachirō and ヒュースケン Hendrick Conrad Joannes Heusken (better known as Henry Heusken in the anglosphere).
A Little Background
First of all, if you’ve seen the 2004 NHK Taiga Drama 「新撰組！」 (Shinsengumi), you will know this scene well. If you haven’t watched that drama… well, you should watch it. It’s awesome! If you remember the scene when a young Kondō Isami and Hijikata Toshizō hear about a group of anti-foreigner samurai planning to assassinate a foreign translator and Isami sits down and talks with the guy about how much he loves Japan and Japanese women, that would be the event we’re talking about now. Except that scene was fiction and Kondō Isami probably never met Henry Heusken. (I actually doubt Kondō Isami ever met a foreigner ever).
But I digress… (who me??)
Henry Heusken. Who was he?
Henry Heusken was born in Holland. His family immigrated to the US in the 1850’s (maybe he was in his 20’s then?). Because he could speak both English and Dutch he got the gig of a lifetime in 1856: He went to Japan as personal secretary and interpreter to Townsend Harris on America’s first embassy to Japan in (公使館 kōshikan “legation” as compared to 大使館 taishikan “embassy”). Apparently he could speak French and German well enough for those days and he picked up Japanese quickly.
He was apparently a pretty ballsy guy and felt confident in his ability to speak Japanese or other languages to get by in most situations. He was bangin’ a few Japanese bitches around town like Charisma Man and actually knocked on one up. It also seems like he was a fairly high profile foreigner in Edo (at a time when there weren’t many foreigners at all — and most foreigners stayed in their secure diplomatic enclaves). Townsend Harris had apparently told him not to come back after dark because anti-foreign attacks were becoming increasingly common at the time.
Anyways, the American legation was staying at 善福寺 Zenpukuji (“Zenpuku Temple”) in Azabu-Jūban. As Heusken came home late one night, he approached the guardhouse near Naka no Hashi (the bridge). A bunch of dirty rōnin jumped out from an alley on the side of the guard house and attacked him. Accounts vary but he may have lain in the street for close to an hour before he was carried back to Zenpukuji. The attackers aimed for his heart but most of his wounds were in his belly. Apparently he was spilling guts everywhere and it was really gross.
At Zenpukuji he was visited by a doctor and some high ranking Japanese officials. A photographer was there, too, who snapped a picture of him right after he died. Ironically, this may be the only photo of the dude (at least I’ve never seen another photo of him).
He is buried in 光林寺 Kōrin-ji in 南麻布 Minami Azabu (South Azabu), a 20-30 walk from Azabu-Jūban Station.
His assassins were never captured, but a certain Kiyokawa Hachirō was implicated in the attack at the time. Even today most people point the finger at him.
continued in part 2
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4 thoughts on “Two Famous Murders in My Neighborhood (part 1)”
Where did you find the photo from Akabanebashi, and what year is it from?
It’s quite a famous photo. I’ve got it in several Bakumatsu photobooks in my collection. For the purpose of this article, I just googled it. I wrote this in 2013, so I don’t remember exactly where I found it.
It’s by Felice Beato and since I don’t have my books with me (I’m currently stuck out of country due to the pandemic), but if memory serves me well, I want to say it’s 1863 or 1864.
Thanks! I posted it on Facebook and “Deep Azabu” said it was taken in July, 1863.
He’s the man!