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Washington, Banzai!

How A Band of Japanese Ronin

Helped Win The American Revolutionary War


By Chris Oakley

Part 2



Summary: In Part 1 of this series we detailed the famous 1615- 1617 voyage taken by a band of Japanese ronin to Virginia and the colony they set up near the British settlement at Jamestown; the Japanese newcomers’ first clashes with the Powhatan Indians; and the civil war that erupted inside the Japanese colony in 1622 over differing attitudes among the colonists about the use of guns in battle. In this chapter we’ll see how colony leader Daisuke Tamagura dealt with the leaders of the insurrection against his rule and chart how the Japanese colony grew and changed during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.


Tamagura’s original sorrow over the violent showdown between the pro-gun and anti-gun factions in his colony gradually gave way to stern outrage over what constituted a blatant insult to his honor. Those responsible for the uprising against him had to be dealt with in a swift and decisive fashion; accordingly, three days after the bitter clash between the pro-gun and anti-gun sides at the Japanese colony Tamagura convened a tribunal to judge the men who’d started the revolt and mete out penalties for their actions. The surviving leaders of the anti-gun side were held in a temporary prison put together with the assistance of workmen from the English settlement at Jamestown, and a group of Tamagura’s most trusted bodyguards was assigned to guard the prisoners until the tribunal was ready to interrogate them.

One of the accused made the mistake of trying to escape, and for his troubles he was summarily put to death. This struck fear into the remaining prisoners, though they tried hard not to show it, and put a damper on any remaining escape attempts. As a further insurance policy against such attempts, Tamagura requested and got a party of musketeers from Jamestown to assist his bodyguards in watching the men who still awaited judgment from the tribunal.

That judgment was swift in coming. The surviving ringleaders of the uprising against Tamagura were all found guilty and sentenced to execution; the morning after the tribunal rendered its judgment, these men were beheaded in Tamagura’s presence and their heads mounted on a series of stakes as a warning to those who would think of challenging Tamagura’s authority in the future. To some of the Englishmen at the Jamestown colony the beheadings seemed unnecessarily barbaric, but in the view of Tamagura and his followers they were vital for preventing further attempts at insurrection.

The method in which the insurgent leaders were put to death was a highly ritualistic one; though they had rebelled against Tamagura’s rule, he felt it important to honor the bravery they had demonstrated in battle. After the beheadings were completed, he had the executed rebel leaders buried in a row of graves just outside the boundaries of the Japanese settlement. Several other men who’d been involved in the anti-gun revolt were sentenced to exile and told to leave the colony at once; the fate of those exiles is unknown.


During the next two decades, the Japanese colony near Jamestown continued to steadily grow in tandem with its British neighbor. Trade vessels from both settlements became a common sight in the sealanes of the Atlantic, bringing the riches of the New World to British seaports and carrying British goods to Virginia; fishing ships from the two settlements cruised the coastal waters off Virginia and the Carolinas, bringing home catches of a size that staggered the imagination.

The same cultural cross-pollination that had introduced Tamagura’s men to the making and use of European firearms would also lead to the West discovering the ancient Japanese arts of origami and calligraphy. Virginia Company agents visiting Jamestown to check up on its progress found that some of Jamestown’s more well-to-do citizens had taken up these crafts as a way to relax after a long day’s work; by the early 1650s they were sufficiently popular in Britain for a London gallery to host a calligraphy exhibition.

By 1655 Tamagura had started turning over more and more of the day-to-day responsibilities of running the Japanese colony to his sons; his health had started to decline two years earlier, and he was no longer as vigorous as he had once been. For a time he had talked of going home to Japan in search of one last battle with a worthy foe, but it was feared he would not survive the journey across the ocean if he did go. And even if his health had permitted him to make the trip, it’s questionable whether his homeland’s newly isolationist monarchy would have let him set foot ashore.

On August 3rd, 1657, Daisuke Tamagura died of a heart attack; his body was cremated and the ashes interred in the cemetery at the heart of the Japanese colony in Virginia. 250 years later, those ashes would be carried back to Japan by an American diplomat descended from one of the British colonists at Jamestown.


Within a few years of Tamagura’s death, his faithful archer Ichiro Miyazawa would also pass on. Unlike Tamagura, he would do so in the heat of battle; a year after Tamagura died Miyazawa left Virginia and signed on with a British expedition hunting pirates in the Caribbean, and it was as part of that expedition that he would meet his end in 1661 while taking part in an attack on a pirate stronghold in the West Indies. Miyazawa did not go quietly: according to official Royal Navy archives the Japanese-born Virginia archer personally slew at least half a dozen pirates before perishing himself when a cannonball blew him apart. He fought with such ferocity and fearlessness in his last moments that for decades afterward, the mere mention of the name "Miyazawa" struck terror in the hearts of would-be buccaneers. Even the infamous Blackbeard, no shrinking violet himself, was known to feel a twinge of anxiety at the suggestion that a ship he was stalking might be carrying one of Miyazawa’s descendants on board.

By 1675 the Japanese outpost in Virginia was sufficiently large in both population and land area to be accorded bona fide town status. In the summer of that year, the former Tamagura colony was proclaimed the town of New Kyoto1 and all of the town’s adult males met to organize an official town council; Daisuke Tamagura’s great-grandson, Isoroku, was elected the council’s first chairman.

Over the next century the inhabitants of New Kyoto, like their English neighbors, would come to identify themselves less with the land of their ancestors and more with the vast continent which they now called home. As relations between Britain and its colonists in the New World began to take a turn for the worse in the mid-1760s, the descendants of the original Tamagura expedition banded together with their neighbors to assert their rights-- and later, their independence from the British crown.

Sensing that armed conflict between their fellow American colonists and the British crown was likely, perhaps even inevitable, the citizens of New Kyoto took steps to strengthen their town’s fortifications and organized militia companies for self-defense. By this time, the men of the town were as familiar with Western military concepts and techniques as they were with the traditional Japanese military arts-- a fact which would make them formidable enemies of the British army when war finally did break out in the American colonies in April of 1775....


To Be Continued



[1] Named in honor of Kyoto, the Japanese imperial capital until the late 1860s.


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