A number of garbled reports of the murder were published in Germany and England. Our 21st century is familiar with suicide bombers – killers seeking martyrdom for ideological reasons. In the 19th, such attacks were far rarer. Even the Nihilists who assassinated crowned heads tried their best to make a getaway. The unfamiliarity with the behaviour of this murderer may explain the incomprehension of the reporters.
The murdered man was Ludwig Haber, a German citizen from Brieg in Silesia – now Brzeg in Poland – a trader who had shortly before been appointed to act as German consul at Hakodate. The killer was Hidechika Tazaki, a samurai from Akita on the main island of Japan, Honshu.
The fullest consecutive account of the day’s happenings is given in the memoirs of one of Haber’s acquaintances, a Scottish seaman named Captain John Baxter Will ‘Old Will’ – as he liked to be called - wrote his memoirs a quarter of a century later and some inaccuracies crept into his account. They were only published 70 years later. The editor explained that Will, an ‘old salt’, was superb at handling sailing vessels, but he had had little schooling. His grammar and spelling were eccentric. He could, for example, never distinguish between ‘their’ and ‘there’.
A slightly shorter account of the murder was given in the memoirs of Max von Brandt, the German ambassador to Japan, also published a quarter of a century later. However some accounts written earlier do survive. An unpublished diary kept by R. Eusden, the British consul at Hakodate, provides contemporary details. This was preserved in the British Foreign Office Archives. The German ambassador at Yedo (later referred to as Edo and then renamed Tokyo) had appealed to his British counterpart to allow the British consul at Hakodate to represent German interests temporarily. In fact, Eusden had started this diary before any instructions from Edo could have reached him. By far the most valuable contemporary sources are, however, some 90 records of police interrogations and judge’s notes in the Japanese language. These have been published in a History of Hakodate City Hakodate Shi-shi. They supplement and often correct errors in the three European accounts.
Captain Will’s memoirs relate that when on shore he lived at Hakodate in a house maintained by Captain Blakiston, the head of a British shipping company, Blakiston, Marr & Co. So did various other foreigners including Ludwig Haber. On Haber’s last day they lunched together. Haber had with him a German visitor, a professor who had come to spend his holidays at the northern port. To quote Captain Will:
During the meal a difference of opinion occurred between Mr. Haber and myself. As the meal was finished Mr. Haber arose laughing, saying we would settle the argument at tea time. It was a fine day and he and the professor were going for a walk. Having been confined to the house so long by fever he was weak but his friend was a big burly man and would be able to carry him if he broke down.
Haber was only just recovering from one of his recurring bouts of debilitating malaria. The professor who went walking with Haber that day was F.M. Hilgendorf, co-founder of the German Society for Natural History and Ethnography of East Asia**. He was the author of numerous scientific studies in botany and biology. According to the Society, which still exists at Kobe, no account of the day’s event from Hilgendorf’s pen survives. To return to Captain Will’s account -
They walked out the new road to the tea houses at Yatsugashira where they rested for some time. Mr. Haber felt so well he suggested to the professor that they should take different roads back, Mr. Haber taking the old road, the professor taking the road they had followed going out and he said he would reach the house first. So they separated……
The account of the British consul adds that Hilgendorf was going beetle hunting .
The murderer had come up to Hakodate from Akita prefecture. He was one of those samurai who had sworn to kill foreigners and up to this time in his own country had never come across one he could tackle with a chance of success. At that time few if any foreigners were to be met in Akita.
There were only three harbours in Japan which were then open to foreign vessels, Hakodate being one of them. In the rest of Japan foreigners were few and far between. Captain Will says he believes that Hidechika had been hanging around Hakodate some weeks stalking foreigners. However, police records say he had only arrived three days earlier.
The German ambassador of the time, Max von Brandt, published his memoirs a quarter of a century after these events. Captain Will wrote his memoirs around the same time, though they were only published much later. Neither is totally accurate. On the whole, however, there appear to be fewer errors in Will’s account. He was on the spot, at Hakodate, at the time of the murder while the ambassador was far away at Edo. Von Brandt appears to have relied on reports from the embassy’s secretary-interpreter, Herr Kempermann, whom he had sent to Hakodate by a German naval vessel to act as his observer. Von Brandt wrote -
The murderer, a samurai, had stolen money from his mother and with the proceeds had embarked for Hakodate on a junk, remaining in debt to the captain for his fare. He had frittered away his money in dissolute establishments and had then gone out into the streets. There he had seen the consul and had enquired of an old woman whether this was a foreigner, had followed the slight and weak man who had tried in vain to save himself and had killed him with a few blows of his short sword. He had been seized at once and since there could be no doubt of his guilt it was only for me to establish whether he was sane or insane. I entrusted this to some navy doctors who maintained that he was sane. 
As we shall see, this contains several inaccuracies. The memoirs also differ in some detail from a letter written by von Brandt himself very shortly after the murder. This was a letter of condolence addressed to Ludwig’s brother Julius. This gives a different account of the assassin’s arrest:
The murderer, who gave himself up to the police himself, claimed that a dream had induced him to kill the first foreigner he met….Coming upon the deceased was entirely a matter of chance so one must assume that we are faced by a fanatical xenophobe of very ill repute – as such people always are. The circumstances were, however, against him. By chance there were witnesses to the attack since the victim could flee a short distance. He [the murderer] gave himself up and now tries to play the hero. 
Court records, on the contrary, show Hidechika surrendered voluntarily within two hours of the murder. In court he stated frankly that he spent his two previous nights in brothels. We shall come back to this matter of the brothels. But Hidechika had paid his ship’s fare. The boat’s captain – Murayama Chutaro – was fined one tenth of this fare because he had taken on board a passenger who did not possess the permit required at that time to leave his home town. 
To return to Captain Will’s account:
When the professor and Mr. Haber parted, taking different roads, the man must have been close behind him. He must have decided to follow Mr. Haber as Haber was the smallest and certainly the weakest man and was taking the old road which, besides being at first steep, was very lonely….There was only one house on it and a small one at that, with a little patch of garden on the slope of the hill.
According to police interrogation, Hidechika was some 50 to 70 metres behind Haber. He passed two women and one man and asked each one whether the man he was following, who was wearing European clothes, was a foreigner. Two of them confirmed that he was and Hidechika speeded up his own pace. To return to the Will memoirs:
The man carried a common Japanese umbrella as well as a concealed sword. When they got opposite the little house, he got up to Mr. Haber and poked him in the back to make him turn around to see if he was a foreigner; then he threw away the umbrella, drew the sword, and cut at him. Mr. Haber, seeing the house and garden, must have run to it, but so far as I could learn there was nobody in it, and if there had been, I question if they would have interfered. Samurai were still feared by the common people.
The captain would have known that for centuries it had been one of the privileges of the warrior caste – the samurai – to cut down any member of the lower orders who had not shown them sufficient respect. It was, however, a right rarely invoked.
The owner of the house and his son were later interrogated by the police. They said they had just come back from their farm lands and were washing their feet when they were astonished to hear someone running into their property:
I saw a samurai running after a Westerner with a drawn sword. He finally slew the westerner down in the vegetable garden 20 metres from the farm house.
Hidechika himself said that the foreigner, finding himself at bay, put his hands together – apparently pleading for his life. He addressed some words to Hidechika in a language the latter did not understand. This only made him more furious and he continued to belabour Haber with his sword. The farmer continued:
We were so scared of this dreadful person and so afraid what might befall us that we shut the door and kept the murderer out….He tried to open it… demanding in a threatening voice that we open. We could not but yield to him and when we opened he asked, with a blood-dripping sword in hand, for a cup of water for himself and [demanded] that a bucketful of water should be poured over the face of the victim to see if he was still alive. 
The terrified farmer went to examine the victim but did not pour water over him. The killer apparently did not follow him, perhaps because Shinto believers regard corpses as polluting. The farmer came back and reported that Haber was stone dead. He was ordered to go back once more to take the watch of the deceased as evidence that he had been killed. He did this, too. The murderer then left immediately. The farmer’s 19-year-old son, however, was bolder than his father. He followed carrying a piece of paper and a brush and asked Hidechika for his name so as to be able to report him. Hidechika signed his name and rank and said calmly there would be no problem at all in reporting the matter. An annotation to the police record says that since the farmer and his son had acted under duress there would be no charges against them.
Captain Will himself had been aroused from his afternoon siesta by a commotion and found Captain Blakiston struggling to explain – probably with only a limited command of the Japanese language - that he wanted a team of four of his boatmen to go to the place where Haber’s body was lying:
To save further trouble I volunteered to go….the five of us went off at the double……..When we came to the place, I found a policeman standing on the roadway, about forty yards from where the body was lying with its head down hill. I found the body there, being the first, with the exception of a solitary policeman, on the scene of the tragedy. After seeing that his victim was dead, the murderer took the hat and watch off the body, walked into town to the government authorities, and told them what he had done.
I went to…..see whether there was any life, but one look was enough. The body was fully stretched out…… I wanted to turn it over, but the policeman…..said I must not touch it till the officials came.
After some time the government officials, doctors and foreign consuls began to turn up. Then the temporary examination of the body began. When finished I was asked to take charge of the corpse and get it to the government office as quick as possible. My men got a door and a tatami (mat) from the house on the grounds. When trying to put the body on the mat, we found one leg and one arm hanging by the skin only and three cuts on the head had almost divided it.
…. I heard next day that the doctors wrought all night at it, examining the wounds and putting it together where it was badly severed. They found 17 wounds on the body, five of which would have been, singly, fatal……
The official autopsy - performed by an American and several Japanese doctors - is more cautious in assessing how many of the wounds would have been fatal but they counted an even greater number of wounds - twenty-two in all.
When we got to the government office we found all the officials, consuls and doctors there, sitting in judgement on the murderer, who was kneeling on what they called the soroban, with a heavy stone on his knees, to keep him down. This was my first sight of him. He looked like an ordinary Japanese to me, nothing ferocious about him.
Sane in the opinion of the navy doctors consulted by the German ambassador?
Not ferocious, in the view of Captain Will?
To try to understand this murder by an apparently rational man without a personal motive who killed a man he had never seen before we will have to look into the volcanic state of Japan at the time.
* Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur= und Völkerkunde Ostasiens.