A blow to Russo-Japanese relations

by Victoria James

When, in 1891, Tsarevich Nicholas reached the age of 23, his father Czar Alexander III sent him on a tour of the Far East to “round out his political development,” recalled Russian politician Count Sergei Witte some years later.

The Emperor Meiji was doubtless pleased to hear of the young Tsarevich’s travel plans — Nicholas was heir to the throne of Russia, and was the highest-ranking royal visitor yet to visit modernized Japan.

Nicholas, and his cousin Prince George of Greece, arrived in Nagasaki on April 27 aboard the warship Pamiat Azova. For the next three weeks, the young men enjoyed official duties, such as banquets, exhibitions of Japanese arts and crafts, and displays of traditional martial skill such as horseback archery. Included in the current exhibition are photographs of the Tsarevich riding in a rickshaw and enjoying the view from one of the Western-style houses provided for their accommodation.

Also showing are several menus, written in French, from the gut-busting formal dinners Nicholas attended. One 14-course feast features such fashionable dishes as Parisian filet mignon and roast turkey with truffles. The only Japanese dish on the menu is an unspecified “Poudin de Japon.”

Unofficial pleasures also awaited the adventurous Tsarevich, including a seven-hour trip to a tattoo shop in Nagasaki, where a dragon was needled into his arm. After stopping at Kagoshima and Kobe, the entourage moved on to Kyoto, where Nicholas declared that he wished to visit “Kyoto prostitutes.”

Then, in the afternoon of May 11, as its procession of rickshaws was passing down a narrow, crowded street, the royal party was set upon by a sword-wielding assailant disguised as a policeman. He aimed a blow at the Tsarevich’s head, but succeeded only in damaging his hat and inflicting a cut to his forehead. Terrified, Nicholas took to his heels and fled.

The would-be assassin was soon caught and Nicholas easily recovered from his slight wounds. The Japanese people, however, went into shock. Many believed that war with Russia was imminent; many more grieved over the damage done to Japan’s prestige and international standing. Gifts for the Tsarevich poured in from around the country.

By the time Nicholas left Japan, on May 16, the heartfelt Japanese response to the incident seemed to have averted diplomatic disaster.

Or did it merely postpone it?

“It seems to me that the attack left the Tsarevich with an attitude of hostility toward and contempt for the Japanese people,” wrote Witte, in the aftermath of Russia’s crushing defeat in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war.

“If not for his belief that the Japanese are an unpleasant, contemptible and powerless people . . . we would not have adopted a policy in the Far East that led us into the unfortunate war with Japan.”