Board Incident

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The grave of William Board, at the Tomari International Cemetery in Naha.
  • Date: 1854/5/17
  • Japanese: ボード事件 (boodo jiken)

In 1854, when Commodore Perry left Ryûkyû for mainland Japan, he left a number of sailors behind in Naha. A number of minor incidents occurred during the commodore's absence, including incidents of Okinawans throwing stones at American sailors, and Americans trying to pay for goods with American coin, which was illegal and rejected by Ryukyuan officials. On one particular day, there was a scuffle between a group of Okinawans and three drunken American sailors, by the names of Smith, Scott, and Board. Smith escaped the scuffle and returned to his compatriots, while Scott was sorely beaten and found bloody in the streets later, by a Lt. Glasson. William Board, a marine associated with the USS Lexington,[1] meanwhile, wandered off, and is said to have either raped a young Okinawan woman, or assaulted an older Okinawan woman (accounts differ); he was then beaten to death by a group of people including (according to some accounts) the woman's son. Some accounts make no mention of sexual assault, but simply indicate that Board was "violently drunk," was chased by a crowd of [Ryukyuan] people, and drowned under a bridge near Mie gusuku.[2]

The American officers in charge in Perry's absence pressed the Ryukyuan authorities to conduct a proper investigation and trial, which they did. The Americans are said to have done so not out of any desire to see their man acquitted, but out of a desire to show their respect for the rule of law, and their adherence to civilized ideals of following due process (rather than, as they might have believed was done in places they perceived as less civilized, immediate and arbitrary punishment by decree). The kingdom's royal regent and chief treasurer sat in on the trial, along with the American interpreter S. Wells Williams, as six high judges interrogated witnesses and suspects and otherwise oversaw the trial. In the end, the Ryukyuan court put forth a group of men as the culprits, and brought the man they claimed to be the leader directly to Commodore Perry, who had by that time returned. Perry returned the men to Ryukyuan custody, having been assured they would be suitably punished. One of the men was banished to the Yaeyama Islands for life, while the others were sentenced to an eight-year exile to Miyako Island. There are suggestions, however, that the men sentenced may have been substitutes for those truly responsible, as East Asian justice at the time was widely believed (at least among Westerners) to often focus more on ensuring that someone was punished, and the matter resolved, than on finding and punishing the true culprits.

In the aftermath of this incident, the Ryukyuan royal government managed to get Perry & his men to agree to a stipulation, in the Ryûkyû-US Treaty of Amity signed that year, explicitly banning foreigners (Americans) from committing violence against Ryukyuan women.[3]

The grave of the American sailor William Board can be found in the Foreign Cemetery at Tomari in Naha today.


  • "Board Jiken." Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典. Ryukyu Shimpo. 1 March 2003.
  • Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. pp331-332.
  1. Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, International House of Japan (2006), 199.
  2. Ishin Shiryô Kôyô 維新史料綱要, vol 1 (1937), 613.
  3. Marco Tinello, "The termination of the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo : an investigation of the bakumatsu period through the lens of a tripartite power relationship and its world," PhD thesis, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia (2014), 199n345.