Appropriately enough for Veteran's Day (at least still in the US on the other side of the International Dateline), something I came across just last week, just a few miles from my home across the river.
This is gravestone marking the remains of US Navy sailors, on the grounds of Ikegami Temple in southwestern Tokyo. In all, 117 sailors were killed when their ship, the Civil War-era sloop USS Oneida, was run down and sunk in Tokyo Bay by a British steamship in January 1870. I stumbled over its existence when I read references to it in two 19th-century travelogues about Japan, and immediately bicycled over to see for myself.From Jinrikisha Days in Japan by Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1891)
To citizens of the United States Ikegami has a peculiar interest. When the American man-of-war Oneida was run down and sunk with her officers and crew by the P. and O. steamer Bombay, near the mouth of Yeddo Bay, January 23, 1870, our Government made no effort to raise the wreck or search it, and finally sold it to a Japanese wrecking company for fifteen hundred dollars. The wreckers found many bones of the lost men among the ship's timbers, and when the work was entirely completed, with their voluntary contributions they erected a tablet in the Ikegami grounds to the memory of the dead, and celebrated there the impressive Buddhist segaki (feast of hungry souls), in May 1889. The great temple was in ceremonial array; seventy-five priests in their richest robes assisted at the mass, and among the congregation were the American admiral and his officers, one hundred men from the fleet, and one survivor of the solitary boat's crew that escaped from the Oneida.The Scriptures were read, a service was chanted, the Sutra repeated, incense burned, the symbolic lotus-leaves cast before the altar, and after an address in English by Mr. Amenomori explaining the segaki, the procession of priests walked to the tablet in the grounds to chant prayers and burn incense again.No other country, no other religion, offers a parallel to this experience; and Americans may well take to heart the example of piety, charity, magnanimity, and liberality that this company of hard-working Japanese fishermen and wreckers have set them.
From A Diplomatist's Wife in Japan, Volume 1 By Mary Crawford Fraser (or "Mrs. Hugh Fraser", as she is credited), published in 1899, reprinting a letter from 1889:
I must tell you of a strange and touching ceremony which took place in Yokohama the other day. This was a requiem service in a Buddhist temple, for the repose of the souls of a number of officers and men who were drowned when the U.S. warship Oneida was sunk, by a collision with a P. & O. steamer, just in the mouth of the bay nineteen years ago. Lately the wreck was bought by some Japanese gentlemen, who discovered the bones of many poor fellows who had gone down in her. These they brought to shore, and buried beside the bodies of their comrades which had been recovered after the misfortune. Having laid the bones to rest, they thought that it would be kind to do something for the sailors' souls, and organised at their own expense a magnificent requiem service called Segaki, or the Feast for Hungry Spirits. They invited all the foreigners and the American admiral with his officers and men. Admiral Belknap was anxious to take some share of the heavy expense, but the five merchants would not hear of that at all. It seemed to me a kind and holy thought, this unasked benevolence shown to a handful of long-forgotten strangers. A local English newspaper describes the promoters of this charitable function as a “Japanese Firm of Wreckers”!
Mrs Fraser got a few details wrong, I notice: Ikegami is NOT in Yokohama, though it is partway between the British Legation in Tokyo and Yokohama so perhaps the mistake is understandable, and the few bodies which were recovered from the original fruitless rescue attempts in 1870 were buried at the Foreigner's Cemetery in Yokohama.Later today I'm going to drop by the Japan Foundation Library to look up the story's details.