Phaeton Incident

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The British frigate HMS Phaeton disguised itself as a Dutch vessel and entered Nagasaki harbor late in the eighth month, 1808, in an effort to plunder Dutch vessels located there. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but represented a dramatic failure on the part of the shogunate, and of the domains of Saga han and Fukuoka han, to effectively defend Nagasaki (and by extension, Japan's harbors, and Japan as a whole). The harbor defenses, consisting primarily of cannon roughly a century old and limited in number (the battery closest to the Phaeton held only seven cannon), were not only technologically & numerically inferior to the task, but were sorely inadequately manned as well. Where roughly a few hundred men might have been necessary to effectively man the batteries that existed, only 50-60 men from Saga were in fact present.

Nagasaki bugyô Matsudaira Yasuhira committed suicide in the aftermath of the event, the only example in the entirety of the Edo period of a Nagasaki bugyô having to kill himself for defense-related reasons.


The Incident

The Phaeton was the first British man-of-war to enter Nagasaki harbor. It was captained by Fleetwood Pellew, with a Lt. C.B. Stockdale as second-in-command. The frigate was 141 feet long, armed with 48 cannon, and crewed by roughly 250 men.

Historian Noell Wilson identifies two major weaknesses in the organization of Nagasaki's defense. Firstly, the manner in which Saga and Fukuoka han shared responsibility for the defense of Nagasaki was ambiguous and inefficient. Second, the Nagasaki bugyô, a shogunate official, nominally had command of the defense of the harbor, and of the Saga and Fukuoka troops assigned there, but had no troops of his own, and had rather limited powers within Saga or Fukuoka domains themselves, outside of the city or harbor of Nagasaki itself.

While the defense of other "gateways" to Japan at this time was entrusted entirely to individual domains (namely, the Sô clan of Tsushima han and the Shimazu clan of Satsuma han, respectively, in guarding against foreign incursions in/via Tsushima and the Ryukyus), an arrangement much like that at Nagasaki was employed in Ezo in the 19th century, where the Tsugaru clan and Nanbu clan shared responsibility, and in Edo.

White sails were spotted on 8/15, and assumed to be Dutch, even though the Dutch, who normally arrived in the 6th or 7th month, almost never came to Nagasaki this late in the season. It was for that same reason - the fact that no European ships were expected so late in the season - that only 50-60 samurai from Saga han were on duty, even though policy demanded 1,000 be present throughout the summer trading season (6th-9th months). The Dutch had not come for the season, and were not expected to at this point, and so most of the troops had returned to Saga already. Typical numbers for the off-season were closer to 200-400, but even if this were to be considered the off-season, on account of the absence of Dutch trading ships that summer, the 50-60 present were a mere fraction of what was standard.

The Dutch East India Company at this time used a wide variety of ships - including those from other countries - so, when the British warship Phaeton raised a Dutch flag, nothing was perceived as being unusual at first. The ship was permitted to approach, and to enter the harbor. It anchored at a spot called Kôsaki, and Japanese inspectors went to greet the captain and to inspect the ship. They found that it was much more heavily armed than a typical merchant vessel, with 38 eighteen-pound cannon, eight 32-pound carronades (a type of cannon), and two more carronades of unknown caliber. By contrast, the largest cannon the Japanese had nearby was only a 12-pounder. If a battle were to break out, the Japanese would be not only severely out-gunned, but outnumbered, even here in their own home port, the 250 British crew outnumbering the Saga samurai roughly five-to-one.

The Japanese were presumably still sorting out the foreigners' identities and intentions, and what to do with them, when the Phaeton lowered a boat with fourteen or fifteen sailors. The sailors then proceeded to seize the Dutchmen who had accompanied the Japanese inspectors (in order to help them properly greet foreign visitors), leading them back to the Phaeton at gunpoint. They demanded water and provisions, threatening to kill Gerrit Schimel, the Dutch secretary they'd abducted, and to burn the Japanese and Chinese ships in the harbor if these demands were not met.

Nagasaki bugyô Matsudaira Yasuhira considered a number of ways to destroy the Phaeton, but abandoned them all for lack of manpower, lack of sufficient force, or just general infeasibility. The Japanese cannon emplacements were seriously inferior to even this solitary British warship, both in number of cannon, and in their size and age (read: level of technology). Yet, even these were far from fully manned. Many emplacements did not have enough men to move or maneuver the guns, and many posts lacked commanders.

In the end, the bugyô provided the British water, two cows, four sheep, and other food & provisions. The British released their captives and left the following morning. Matsudaira committed suicide that night, and a few hours later 8,000 troops arrived from Fukuoka han to serve as reinforcements and to attack the Phaeton, which was now gone.

Matsudaira's Account

Before committing seppuku, Matsudaira left behind a written account of his interpretation of the events which unfolded, and of where blame should be placed. Noell Wilson argues that among the chief motives behind his suicide were an acknowledgement of his failure to obey shogunate policy, which demanded that Nagasaki harbor be denied to foreigners other than the Dutch and Chinese, and that the British ship should have been destroyed. In killing himself, he pre-empted any formal trial and sentence, and thus saved his own family from harm or death, as was standard in such cases of seppuku committed in order to preserve or protect family honor.

In his account, Matsudaira chastises his own men for failing to protect the Dutch agents, who were officially under the protection of the shogunate, from their abduction at the hands of the British. He then also rebukes Saga han for its failure to have enough men actively stationed in the harbor. It would seem, however, that even at the time it was unclear whether policy or precedent called for Saga troops to require permission from the Nagasaki bugyô to withdraw from their posts. Rather, it was standard for troops to withdraw - without explicit permission from the bugyô - after the Dutch ships left for the season; no Dutch ship had arrived nor was expected that summer.

Matsudaira also argues that those in the position of Nagasaki bugyô should not be hatamoto, as he was, with no forces of his own to call upon, but should instead be daimyô, with their own armies, however small, upon which they could rely. It was the disparity between his rank or position and that of the daimyô of Saga and Fukuoka that exacerbated ambiguities in the command hierarchy of the defense of Nagasaki harbor. Nagasaki bugyô had initially been daimyô, but this practice had come to an end quite early in the Edo period, as the result of misconduct on the part of Takenaka Shigeyoshi, Nagasaki bugyô from 1629-1633, and daimyô of Funai han.

Though his reasons for doing so are unknown, Matsudaira focused on this manpower issue in his writing, making no mention of the condition or quality of weaponry as an issue.

Some sources argue that fiscal difficulties on the part of Saga han were to blame for an inability to muster sufficient forces; yet, while Saga may have indeed been experiencing financial difficulties, other sources argue that complacency borne out of the extreme rarity of incidents in which martial defense was called for, was truly to blame for chronic shortfalls in manpower.



Whatever the cause of these shortfalls may have been, Saga was punished by the shogunate for its role in the Phaeton Incident playing out as it did. The Saga daimyô, Nabeshima Naomasa, was placed under house arrest for roughly three months (from 1808/11/24 until 1809/2/21), and various festivals and other activities were banned within the domain. The two heads of the fortifications at Nagasaki, Chiba Saburôemon and Kanbara Jiemon, both samurai from Saga, were ordered on 1808/9/27 to commit suicide, while Nagasaki intelligence officer Seki Dennojô was stripped of his post, Matsumoto Saburô, chief counselor of Fukahori han committed suicide, and ten other Saga officers charged with command of the cannon were placed under house arrest until the following year.

Though the incident exclusively concerned samurai responsibilities, all residents of Saga, including peasants and merchants, were subjected to a variety of punishment measures, including temporary bans on shaving one's forelocks (sakayaki), and having travelers from elsewhere stay at inns or the like within Saga. Merchants were required to shutter their shops, and the people of Saga were forbidden from leaving the domain and traveling, for a time.

Finally, Saga was relieved of its harbor defense duties for the year.

Fukuoka han, which like Saga had also not provided anywhere near the sufficient number of troops necessary to defend the harbor, emerged almost entirely blame-free, due to ambiguities in precedent and policy as to the responsibilities of the "off-duty" domain in any given season. Fukuoka officials made use of these ambiguities to argue Fukuoka's blamelessness; the domain was not only spared the punishments visited upon Saga, but in fact was granted the privilege of appointing a temporary Nagasaki bugyô to replace the late Matsudaira, until the new bugyô appointed by the shogunate, Magaribuchi Kagetsuyu, arrived from Edo. He did so on 9/3, taking up the duties held since 8/26 (roughly one week earlier) by Tsukinari Shigezaemon, the Fukuoka appointee.


The Phaeton Incident, along with encounters with Russians in previous years, highlighted the need for improvement to harbor defenses. Some improvements were made to weapons and fortifications, though little dramatic change was made where historian Noell Wilson argues it was likely needed most - in the organizational aspects of the harbor defense, including the hierarchy of command and the distribution of responsibility between the shogunate and the han (specifically Saga and Fukuoka han).

One notable change was the institution of a system of warning of harbor intrusion, making use of temple bells to sound the alarm. The temples of Sôryûji, Ryûtaiji, and Ganshôji were assigned the responsibility of ringing theirs first, in response to which other temples would sound their bells - in a different manner than when issuing other communications, such as the alarm for a fire in the city - and certain designated individuals would run from town to town to spread the word in person. All of this was meant to help effect the quicker arrival of (additional) samurai forces to the harbor when necessary. This temple bell warning system was first tested on 1809/5/20, but proved an ineffective failure, largely because many mistook the bells for the fire alarm after all, and many others did not hear the bells at all. At best, the system as established was meant to be heard throughout Nagasaki, and only Nagasaki; no system had been put into place at the time to effectively and efficiently then convey that message to Saga and Fukuoka castles. The system was quickly abandoned.

Over the next two years after the incident, the fortifications at Nagasaki were expanded somewhat, upon the orders of the shogunate. Fukuoka han constructed new gun batteries at five locations in 1809, and Saga expanded existing fortifications at four locations in 1810. Meanwhile, the shogunate also ordered the two domains to double the amount of ammunition on hand at the harbor fortifications; between the two, they provided less than half of what was demanded, which was still more than could be fired with the amount of gunpowder available.

Finally, the shogunate attempted to implement a system by which Dutch ships could verify their identity through the use of a set of signals employing flags and lanterns. Additional edicts called for Nagasaki locals to lend their weapons and boats to the effort of defending the harbor. Yet, in the end, the physical defenses remained inadequate, the Nagasaki bugyô remained powerless to unequivocally directly command any significant number of forces at all, and significant ambiguities remained in the extent to which Saga and Fukuoka were each responsible for contributing to the defense, and for obeying the Nagasaki bugyô.


  • Wilson, Noell. "Tokugawa Defense Redux: Organizational Failure in the Phaeton Incident of 1808." Journal of Japanese Studies 36:1 (Winter 2010). pp1-32.
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