Nakai Hiromu & Anglo-Japanese Relations


A review of Nakai Hiromu: Meiji Statesman and Hero of Anglo-Japanese Relations, by Eleanor Robinson.

The list of important actors in the Meiji Restoration is long and includes some of Japan’s most revered historical figures. People like Saigō Takamori, Kido Takayoshi, Ōkubo Toshimichi, and Sakamoto Ryōma quickly come to mind for even casual students of Japanese history. With her dissertation, Eleanor Robinson aims to add the name of Nakai Hiromu 中井 弘 (1838–1894) to that distinguished pantheon. Unknown to most, including historians of Japan, Nakai was active throughout the Bakumatsu and early Meiji periods. To list but a few activities, the Satsuma native traveled to England in 1866, advised Sakamoto Ryōma in political matters, worked in the fledgling Meiji foreign office, and served as governor of Kyoto. These activities, along with his many connections within the Meiji government, make Nakai a “figure who played a tremendously important role within Japanese history” (p. 1).

By offering the first extended examination of Nakai in English, the dissertation seeks to reclaim him from the dustbin of history. To do this, Robinson takes “a broad interdisciplinary, social-scientific approach” (p.3). The result is a dissertation composed of an introduction and conclusion with three evidence-based chapters that present the case for Nakai as an important historical figure. The first piece of evidence is an analysis of Nakai’s travel journal from his trip to England, followed by a discussion of his role in the Nawate Incident, in which he saved the lives of British dignitaries, and lastly by an examination of Nakai’s extensive political network within the early Meiji government. Robinson adds supplemental material to the dissertation by providing three appendices, a chronology of Nakai’s life, and a bibliography. The appendices include a full English translation of Nakai’s trip to England, titled “A Travel Sketch of the West—A New Account of Crossing the Seas,” three reproduced letters from British officials regarding Nakai’s heroics, and a collection of photographic illustrations.

The introductory chapter provides context and background on Nakai. Born in the Satsuma capital of Kagoshima in 1838, Nakai’s early years were typical of samurai boys. He studied the Chinese classics and trained in the art of fencing. His schooling is a matter of some controversy as source information on Nakai’s teenage years is contradictory. This is a theme repeated throughout the dissertation. Nakai appears to be a difficult character to firmly pin down. He does have extant primary records, which include the above-mentioned travel journal, a published collection of speeches, and letters to and from Nakai held in various archives. He also appears in several secondary sources, including two books of reminisces published in the 1930s. Because of his wide network of connections to the Meiji elite, Nakai further surfaces in many diaries and “collected works” such as Hara Takashi’s diary and the “Zenshū” of Itō Chiyū. Despite all of the sources mentioned above, confirming basic facts as well as the actual views and outlook of Nakai requires the historian to piece together information in a veritable jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps as a result, few historians have attempted to complete the puzzle, for only Robinson and one other, a descendant of Nakai who recently published a monograph, have produced full-length biographies of Nakai. Even so, as Robinson explains in the conclusion, the puzzle is still far from complete as the unanswered questions concerning Nakai’s life leave many avenues for future research.

In addition to the uncertainty behind Nakai’s schooling, there exists confusion over when and why he left his home domain of Satsuma. Indeed, very little can be verified concerning Nakai’s life until he takes his journey to England in 1866 and produces his first travel journal. The trip was arranged by Tosa samurai Gotō Shōjirō, with whom it was believed Nakai had been working closely. It is not certain why Gotō chose Nakai to travel to England given his complete lack of language training but Nakai nonetheless embraced the opportunity by writing down his activities and thoughts throughout the journey.

An analysis of Nakai’s travel journal comprises the first of Robinson’s three empirical chapters. First published in 1868, Nakai’s Kōkai Shinsetsu (“A Travel Sketch of the West—A New Account of Crossing the Seas”) was the first complete travel journal of the West available in Japan. Published privately and limited in distribution, the journal covers his voyage from Japan to London, his relatively brief stay in the capital, and then the journey home. Many of the entries are simple descriptions of daily activities without much embellishment. Known as a gifted poet, Nakai intersperses poetry throughout the journal. As Robinson explains, “without the poetry, Kōkai Shinsetsu, for the most part, may be described as a simply mundane, monotonous record of a long sea journey” (p. 40). And what does the poetry convey? Again in Robinson’s words, it “presents the uncertainty and nervousness of a Japanese experiencing ‘the foreign’ for the first time” (p. 38).

Nakai’s reactions to visiting various ports in Asia are similar to those of many Bakumatsu and early Meiji era travellers: China was ‘backwards’ while Japan was a more civilized Asian nation; despite this fact, however, Japan needed to modernize to prevent Western encroachment. Nakai regarded Chinese ships at Shanghai harbor as “laughable” (p. 43). And, he believed that one way to accomplish this latter charge was to establish “a clear and concise education system in order to raise a strong nation” (p. 57). Owing to his inability to converse in English, Nakai’s interactions with Westerners during his trip were noticeably limited. Still, the journal (and the translation provided in the appendices) provides another source to consider when examining nineteenth century Japanese worldviews and experiences.

Robinson concludes the chapter on the journal by asserting Nakai’s influence on Sakamoto Ryōma’s famous “Eight Point Plan,” which called for a new government under the leadership of the Emperor and which was presented to Tokugawa Shogun Yoshinobu shortly before he abdicated in 1867. Robinson notes the similarities between Ryōma’s plan and the views Nakai recorded in his journal. Since Nakai published the journal in 1868, Ryōma certainly did not read the text before writing his own plan. However, Robinson asserts that Nakai, just back from England, influenced Ryōma through their talks in 1867 around the time Ryōma was formulating his plan. Robinson thus makes the case that since Nakai and Ryōma were most likely in each other’s company around this time and because the “Eight Point Plan” was similar to Nakai’s own writings from his travels, Nakai therefore played a role in creating this fateful plan. The above is conjecture on Robinson’s part but she concludes that if Ryōma “was influenced by Nakai’s tales of his experience in Britain, this demonstrates even further the importance of Nakai Hiromu to Japanese history” (p. 76).

Chapter 2 presents the second piece of evidence: Nakai’s heroic actions in the Nawate Incident in 1868. As a member of the newly established foreign office, Nakai assisted visiting foreign dignitaries. As such, Nakai found himself on 23 March 1868 accompanying Harry Parkes, the British minister to Japan, on his visit to meet Emperor Meiji at the imperial palace. In the streets of Kyoto, the party was attacked by two disgruntled samurai wielding swords. Nakai quickly sprang into action, subduing and then killing one of the attackers. The other assailant was captured alive but, after a brief investigation, was executed by the Japanese authorities. The delegation concluded their visit to the emperor at a later date.

The British considered Nakai and his colleague Gotō Shōjirō to be heroes for saving the lives of the delegation members, so much so that the British government awarded them swords to show its appreciation. Robinson argues that, due to his heroics in the Nawate Incident, Nakai played a crucial role in the history of early Anglo-Japanese relations. By saving the lives of the minister and other important British officials, men who would go on to have long associations with Japan, Nakai also saved the fledgling and fragile relations of the two island nations. As she explains, “The Nawate Incident has consequences for Anglo-Japanese relations for the remainder of the time that Harry Parkes, Ernest Satow and Algernon Mitford in particular, were involved in the relations between the two nations…Each of these men, particularly Satow and Mitford, continued to play extremely vital roles in the development of the relationship between Britain and Japan” (pp. 108-9).

The third piece of evidence Robinson uses for her argument is Nakai’s extensive network within the Meiji governing elite. According to Robinson, “Nakai Hiromu was surrounded by many well-known and influential people, and he in turn was well-known and influential to them” (p. 128). The list of his connections is a “who’s who” of Meiji leaders: Itō Hirobumi, Iwakura Tomomi, Matsukata Masayoshi, Yamagata Aritomo, Inoue Kaoru, and Mori Arinori, to name but a few. In addition to these Meiji leaders, Nakai had a close relationship with a Taishō era prime minister Hara Takashi, whose first wife was Nakai’s daughter. Hara owed much to Nakai, who apparently introduced the budding politician to Itō Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru. “If not for Nakai assisting Hara in his career,” Robinson argues, “Japanese politics as a whole might have been very different” (p. 137).

Although Nakai was well connected, he never achieved lofty titles or important positions in the Meiji government. Lacking ambition, Nakai mostly desired a “comfortable, simple life” (p. 140). Still, he was not one to pass up an opportunity for fun. The life of every party he attended, Nakai earned the nickname ‘jester of the foreign department’ (p. 140). Nakai’s legacy, Robinson contends, is much more significant than his nickname would suggest.

Finally, in her concluding chapter, Robinson briefly discusses Nakai’s work as governor of Shiga and Kyoto prefectures near the end of his life. As governor, Nakai proved instrumental in building the Sosui canal between Kyoto and Lake Biwa in Shiga and in planning the construction of Heian Shrine in Kyoto. These activities merely supplement Nakai’s case for inclusion in the pantheon of great Meiji leaders, according to Robinson. As she concludes, “that he appears to have had some involvement with many of the major incidents of the times gives the modern historian some idea of how greatly influential he was among his peers” (p. 151). This modern historian is impressed with Nakai’s contribution to Meiji era Japanese history, especially his travel journal, which, now translated into English, should become an important primary source for historians and students alike studying Japan’s transformation in the mid-nineteenth century.

Rustin Gates
Department of History
Bradley University

Primary Sources

Hamatani Yūtarō (ed.) Ōshū Sanjin no Tsuioku [Reminiscences of Ōshū Sanjin]. 40th Buddhist Service Anniversary Publication. 1934.
Nakai Hiromu. Seiyō Kikō Kōkai Shinsetsu [A Travel Sketch of the West—A New Account of Crossing the Seas], reprinted in Meiji Bunka Kenkyū Kai, Meiji Bunka Zenshū, vol. 7. Tokyo. 1928.
Nakai Hiromu. Man’yū Kitei, reprinted in Meiji Bunka Kenkyū Kai, Meiji Bunka Zenshū, vol. 7. Tokyo. 1928.
Kagoshima Prefectural Museum of Culture—Reimeikan.

Dissertation Information

Kyoto University. 2012. 231 pp. Primary Advisor: Nakanishi Terumasa.

Image: Statue of Nakai Hiromu (1838-1894) in Kyoto city’s Maruyama Park, May 2008. Photograph by Eleanor Robinson.