Sanpu Gokō Utsusu Gentō & the Normanton Incident

Kunichika: Ichikawa Sadanji I, Sawamura Gennosuke IV, Nakamura Fukusuke IV & Ichikawa Danjūrō IX in the play “Sanpu Gokō Utsusu Gentō” (三府五港写幻灯, “The Photographic Lantern of the Three Prefectures and the Five Ports”?), staged at the Shintomi-za theatre from 20th October 1887

Sometimes when I see a print in auction I am intrigued but something looks a bit wrong or I’m in 2 minds whether to bid. This print was such an example because on first glance it looked like a diptych plus an unrelated page, and I’m sure that many bidders ignored it for this reason. It’s an unusual composition though and I noticed that all 2 pages seemed to share the same border style, so I was convinced that it was an in tact triptych and managed to get it fairly cheaply. 

I can’t find much about the characters and the specific details of the play but by Googling I came upon a treasure trove of information about what it was about, generally speaking, and that is – the Normanton Incident! I’d never heard about this but it raises quite a few interesting details about the mood in Meiji Japan in the 1880s. 

The Normanton Incident was a huge scandal, caused by the sinking of a British merchant vessel called the Normanton. It seems that the steam ship left Yokohama harbour on 24th October 1886 for Kobe loaded with goods plus 25 paying Japanese passengers. She quickly encountered a heavy storm which caused her to eventually flounder on a reef just off the Cape of Kashinozaki in Wakayama Prefecture, sinking with the loss of all 25 Japanese passengers and most of the non-European (Chinese & Indian) crew. Allegations quickly flew round that the British & German crew has taken to the lifeboats and left the others to drown. 

The incident was worsened when the Japanese Foreign Minister, Inoue Kaoru, attempted to lodge protests with the British and to investigate himself what the details of the sinking were. Japan had been so eager to westernise that they had signed treaties with foreign powers which were quite unfair and they quickly found out that while the British could demand information of the Japanese, there was no right for reciprocation. Furthermore, after a brief investigation, the British Consulate completely exonerated Captain Drake after the crew claimed that they had tried to get the foreigners to leave but that they hadn’t understood English and had stayed in their cabins. 

The outcry was enormous and the story ran and ran in the popular press as details of the acquittal of Captain Drake came to light. Newspapers such as the Yomiuri Shimbun ran almost daily stories about the victims and the court cases that ensured. Even Georges Bigot produced a satirical cartoon (above) called “The Rescue of the Menzare”, showing the British crew rowing away from the drowning Japanese.

Finally Inoue Kaoru was able to bring a charge of murder against the captain and crew, via the British Court for Japan, where Captain Drake was found guilty of the lesser charge of criminal negligence and given 3 months in prison. The courts refused to award any compensation to the families of the dead though so it was cold comfort. 



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