When an elderly gentleman walked into his liquor store in 1976 and asked the location of a nearby historical marker, Takeo Asaumi had no interest in the Namamugi Incident, in which samurai killed a Briton, igniting a war.
Later, Asaumi received a thank-you letter from the man, who wrote, "The Namamugi Incident has historical significance because it triggered the process by which Japan became a modern nation. It is strange that there's no museum."
That letter awoke Asaumi's curiosity and led him to open the Namamugi Incident Museum on the premises of his home 20 years ago.
Now the 84-year-old, who was born and raised near the site of the episode and turned a part of his home into a free museum that he runs in Yokohama's Tsurumi Ward, plans to retire. The museum, which features a collection of around 1,000 items collected by Asaumi at his own expense, will close May 3.
The Namamugi Incident occurred on Sept. 14, 1862. A retinue led by Shimazu Hisamitsu of the Satsuma Domain was returning home from the shogunate's seat of government in Edo (present-day Tokyo). In the village of Namamugi along the Tokaido highway, located in present-day Tsurumi Ward, they encountered a party of four Britons on horseback.
The samurai, who were indignant over the Britons' refusal to dismount and for disturbing the procession, slashed at them with their swords, killing Charles Richardson and injuring two others. The Satsuma Domain refused demands for reparations and to turn over the perpetrators, leading to the outbreak of the Anglo-Satsuma War.
After being defeated and keenly feeling the need for modernization, the Satsuma Domain reversed its policy of excluding foreigners and opened its borders to the world. It is believed that this led to the opening up of Japan in general and the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
At the Namamugi Incident Museum, photographs, historical documents, "nishiki-e" woodblock prints and other materials related to the historical event are jampacked into a room of about 17 square meters.
Asaumi searched second-hand bookstores in Tokyo's Kanda district for materials pertaining to the incident. Before he knew it, bookstore owners began to call him when related items came in. A Dutch museum even sent him a copy of a photograph of Richardson.
Then, in 1994, Asaumi resigned as the owner of the liquor store, remodeled his home and opened the museum.
At the age of 64, Asaumi went back to college and brushed up on his modern history so he could act as a museum guide. He even traveled throughout Japan to give about 260 lectures. He relies on his trusty notebook, which is filled with facts scrupulously jotted down.
Descendants of the Satsuma Domain lords, a Dutch historian and even the novelist Akira Yoshimura have visited the museum. It attracted 300 people or so a month. Asaumi often invited particularly interested visitors to his study on the second floor to talk and on occasion even had dinner with some. Recently, more elementary and junior high school students came to diligently study the incident.
"If I had the energy, I'd like to study and be a more effective guide," Asaumi says.
He was particularly busy in 2012, the 150th anniversary of the incident. His physical condition has deteriorated with age, so he decided now would be a good time to retire.
"My involvement with the Namamugi Incident changed my life in a big way. I think I've done well for this half of my life. It makes me very emotional."
Asaumi will leave his collection in the museum when he closes it, but he says he would consider giving it away if there is an organization that will take it over.