This photograph is based on the story of Saito Okichi, the first casualty of ‘international relations’ between the US and Japan.
Months after Commadore Matthew Perry sailed his Black Ships in Japan, and established the first US consul in Shimoda, he lodged a request with the burghers of the town for a ‘nurse’ to soothe him from the difficulties he faced in establishing trade negotiations with the Japanese.
He hinted that should his request not be met, he may very well be forced to employ additional ships and men to help the shogunate ‘make up their mind’.
In an effort to appease him, a young geisha ( 17 at the time) named Okichi was conscripted to fulfill this important role. She rebelled at the idea, already being engaged at the time to a ships carpenter named Tsurumatsu, but her fiance was unceremoniously shuffled away by being granted Samurai status and sent to a far corner of Japan.
Okichi was sent to Harris.
After 3 days, he informed the town burghers that she had a ‘skin lesion’ and for her not to come back until it was healed.
He never asked her to come back.
Not only was she drafted against her will – as a woman, and a geisha, she had been found inadequate. She become untouchable by ‘decent’ Japanese men and although she struggled to survive for the next 30 years, running a hair dressing shop and a restaurant, she became an alcoholic and a real prostitute. Ravaged by syphilis, she eventually committed suicide.
Oddly enough – in the Journals of Townsend Harris, there is no mention of her, having lived and left Japan not caring about the young girl whose life he had utterly destroyed – but there is plenty of information about her in Japan.
The movie ‘Barbarian and the Geisha’ was “based” ( I use the term very loosely, as the only thing accurate are the characters names) upon their story.
However, the movie portrays the two as falling in love and spending many happy years together – which couldn’t be further from the truth.
After her death, no one from her family would claim her body, so a priest from her family temple arranged for her to be buried there. She rests in Hofukuji Temple in Shimoda.