Merely days after Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, news broke out of individuals arrested for protesting at royal events (Timsit 2022; Edwards 2022). Politicians and advocacy groups expressed concerns about free speech as the late monarch’s last procession commenced under the watchful eyes of police force (Askew 2022; Dodd and Mason 2022). Made convenient by the intense media coverage, I quickly added “breach of the peace” to my vocabulary of Legal English when a 22-year-old man uttered but one sentence at Prince Andrew during the queen’s funeral cortege (Porterfield 2022).

Insofar as royal processions exist as a public display imbued with political symbolism, so are the necessity of an audience and the risk of disturbances. However, a bystander’s decision to go beyond just watching was not always judged in terms of the law. Such is the case of Fujiwara Hidejirō, where the diagnosis of his behavior towards the Meiji Emperor of Japan (r. 1867–1912) turned out to be literally medical.

The day was 28 December 1905. At 10:30 in the morning, the royal entourage left the Tokyo Imperial Palace for the Meiji Emperor’s appearance at the parliamentary opening ceremony. Before the state carriage could reach the Imperial Diet Building, a commotion took place. In a swift sequence of movements, Fujiwara darted out of the crowds that flanked the royal procession, took off his footwear, and threw himself down to the ground on one knee. As he reached into a purple muslin parcel, apparently trying to pull its contents out, two alarmed police officers seized him, thwarting Fujiwara’s attempt to submit what turned out to be a direct appeal to the Crown. In his appeal, Fujiwara asked amnesty to be granted to House Representative Kōno Hironaka (1849–1923). Earlier that year, Kōno was arrested for inciting the Hibiya Riot against the Portsmouth Peace Treaty that concluded the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905 (Tōkyō Asahi shinbun 1905a).

Unlike some of his present-day and British counterparts, Fujiwara’s action led to neither a charge nor a fine. In fact, the day following his arrest, he was visited by Nishimura Tanjirō (1866–1937), who was a House Representative from Fujiwara’s home prefecture Okayama. Learning of his shortage of funds, a sympathetic Nishimura even gifted Fujiwara cash before the latter was sent on his way home (Tōkyō Asahi shinbun 1905b). One cannot help but marvel at the speedy handling of Fujiwara’s appeal. After all, the then 43-year-old lived in an emergent empire where legal protection of free speech was flawed, where civil and political rights remained restricted, and where lese-majesty existed as a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment and, in extreme cases, by death.

As it turned out, Fujiwara was subjected to a different kind of repercussion—that of a medical nature. During his sojourn at the police station, Fujiwara calmly responded to questioning. However, his occasional display of agitation and tears transformed the police investigation into a clinical one. Summoned to evaluate Fujiwara were two medics, one a contract physician of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and the other Ishikawa Teikichi (1870–1940), a psychiatrist of Sugamo Hospital, which had been called the Tokyo Metropolitan Psychiatric Asylum until 1889. At the police station, the pair diagnosed Fujiwara for manifesting “psychiatric abnormalities” (seishin ijō), which national newspapers then cited as both the unfortunate and an excusable cause of his direct appeal as well as the rationale behind his release without prosecution (Tōkyō Asahi shinbun 1905a).

Fujiwara’s endeavor was no new invention of history, but a response in psychiatric nomenclature was. Individuals made direct appeals (jikiso or jikisō) to the Tokugawa shogun and the daimyo local lords as a type of osso—petitioning outside the standard legal procedures—during the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) as well (Vlastos 1990, White 1995, Hosaka 2006). Following the collapse of the Shogunate and the establishment of imperial authority (Fujitani 1996), the Meiji Era (1868–1912) saw direct appeals redirected to the royal family. This had driven Chancellor of the Realm, Prince Sanjō Sanetomi (1837–1891) to stipulate in 1876 that prefectures instruct the public against making direct appeals during royal processions, so as to avoid the pitiful scenario where common folk committed the offense out of confusion (Sanjō 1876).

The efforts to deter direct appeals by means of raising public awareness of their legal risks fell short. The first year of the twentieth century concluded with one of the most well-remembered direct appeals in imperial Japan, committed by none other than a renowned lawmaker. In December 1901, Tanaka Shōzō (1841–1913) interrupted Meiji Emperor’s royal procession. Disappointed at the government’s handling of environmental disasters caused by the polluting Ashio Copper Mine, Tanaka quit his position as a House Representative in October 1901, and resorted to stopping the state carriage to make his case (Strong 1977, 108–118). A year before his direct appeal, Tanaka stood trial for insulting the prosecutor and judges working on the pollution case (Tōkyō Asahi shinbun 1900). He understood perfectly the legal risks of keeping fighting for his cause.

This time, though, police medical technician Okunuki Kyōsuke (1869–unknown) came to examine Tanaka and cleared him of delirium (seishin sakuran) within two hours after his arrest (Fukawa 2001, 169). The Chief Prosecutor of the Tokyo District Court Kawabuchi Ryōki (1860–1941) then deliberated on the applicability of lese-majesty (fukeizai). Stepping in, the Minister of Justice Kiyoura Keigo (1850–1942) decided against pressing charges, though not before he had an audience with the emperor (Yomiuri shinbun 1901; Tōkyō Asahi shinbun 1901; Fukawa 2001, 44–46). A series of legal and political deliberation indeed took place, but it was Tanaka’s preceding psychiatric clearance that inconspicuously underpinned its unfolding. Neither can this medical intervention itself be taken for granted, since its ready availability would have been unimaginable without the steady development of Western psychiatry during the previous decades of the Meiji era.

Those who followed Tanaka’s path did not convince the psychiatric gaze of their decision-making capacity as effectively. These included Tanaka Morihei (1884–1929), who was self-studying law before making a direct appeal during the Meiji Emperor’s procession on 19 November 1903. Opposing a potential peace agreement between the two countries, Tanaka argued for Japan’s declaring war on Russia to advance national interest. Japan eventually did enter the war Tanaka Morihei hoped for—the aforementioned Russo–Japanese War from 1904 to 1905. Okunuki performed psychiatric evaluation as a police medic again, only this time he diagnosed Tanaka Morihei as mentally ill and having gone mad (hakkyō), a decision followed by the latter’s release to his hometown (Yomiuri shinbun 1903). Then in 1906, a man named Matsui Hokokichi (dates unknown) took the opportunity of the grand military parade in celebration of Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War to intercept the Meiji Emperor’s carriage. As Fujiwara before him, Matsui received a diagnose for psychiatric abnormalities and avoided prosecution (Yomiuri shinbun 1906a). Later in the same year, Christian socialist Sekiya Tatsujūrō (1876–unknown) tried to appeal directly to the Meiji Emperor about socioeconomic stratification between the poor and the rich during a royal procession. When questioned by police, Sekiya admitted to be an admirer of Tanaka Shōzō. Unlike his hero and despite his denial of it, Sekiya was labeled as having “psychiatric abnormalities” before his release without charges (Tōkyō Asahi shinbun 1906; Yomiuri shinbun 1906b). Curiously, Sekiya did stand trial six years later. This time, he was arrested and prosecuted on the ground of violating publishing law for distributing his political manifesto and ended up serving a sentence at Shizuoka Prison (Tōkyō Asahi shinbun 1912).  

Scholarship from multiple disciplines has explored medical responses to political activism and social movements as a tool of authoritative, imperialist, and/or colonial rule (Mahone 2006, Good and Good 2010, Buoli and Giannuli 2017, Pearlstein and Escobar 2020). The story of Fujiwara and his contemporaries suggests there can be more to the “psychiatric abnormalities” diagnosis than a device of discrediting political actors and dismissing their claims. In practical terms, such diagnoses kept legal prosecution and penalties ranging from a monetary fine to a prison term at bay. Moreover, in handling the activism of Tanaka Shōzō and Sekiya Tatsujūrō, psychiatry was invoked selectively. It applied when both men tried to advance their cause by the specific means of making direct appeals during royal possessions, but not when they resorted to other methods. It is this curiously inconsistent application of the law that invited the following musing. That is, the mental disorder diagnosis perhaps not only helped dismiss the legitimacy of political appeals, but also saved law enforcement from having to prosecute the emperor’s subjects for being “madly” desperate for his audience. Regardless of whether or not the petitioners were truly mentally ill, the monarchy remained benevolent, blameless, and desirable. To borrow a famous line from the Netflix dramatization of Elizabeth II’s reign:

“The Crown must win. Must always win” (Butler 2022).

Did it not win in this case?


The above comes from an ongoing project of mine that explores the interaction of law, monarchy, and psychiatry in imperial Japan.

Featured Image

Utagawa Kunitoshi, Gohōren no zu (Illustration of the Imperial Carriage), 1889, colored woodblock print, triptych 37 x 73.6 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (Public domain)


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———. 1901. “Tanaka Shōzō jikiso jiken,” December 12, 1901, morning edition. Asahi shinbun kurosu sāchi.

———. 1905a. “Tennō heika ni jikiso wo hakaru,” December 29, 1905, morning edition. Asahi shinbun kurosu sāchi.

———. 1905b. “Jikiso-sha no hōmen,” December 30, 1905, morning edition. Asahi shinbun kurosu sāchi.

———. 1906. “Kitakugo no Sekiya Tatsujūrō,” December 31, 1906, morning edition. Asahi shinbun kurosu sāchi.

———. 1912. “Shizuoka kangoku no Sekiya,” September 28, 1912, morning edition. Asahi shinbun kurosu sāchi.

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———. 1903. “Robo wo okashite jikiso seshi Tanaka Morihei,” November 21, 1903, morning edition. Yomidasu rekishikan.

———. 1906a. “Jikiso-sha fukiso to naru,” May 6, 1906, morning edition. Yomidasu rekishikan.

———. 1906b. “Jikiso-sha nitsuite no beppō,” December 29, 1906, morning edition. Yomidasu rekishikan.

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