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A Tour of Denma-chō Prison & Execution Ground

In Japanese History on April 27, 2017 at 3:29 am

伝馬町牢屋敷
Denma-chō Rōyashiki (Denma Town Jail Precincts)
伝馬町処刑場
Denma-chō Shokeiba (Denma Town Execution Ground)

22

Years back, I did a series on the 3 execution grounds of Edo. At that time[i], outside of JapanThis! there wasn’t much reliable info on the subject in English online[ii]. Despite the lazy expat biters over the years, I thought I’d drop a little refresher on this Edo Period Execution Ground. If you missed the original 2013 article on Denma-chō Prison, you can read it here. Today, I thought I’d give you a personal video tour of the premises. If you’re ever in Tōkyō, I can give you a personal tour of the area, too.

Denma-chō Prison was pretty much your average Edo Period Prison, except for the fact it had a special “high end” area. What was “high end” about it? Well, this is where direct retainers of the shogun, samurai in general, or in some cases, rich commoners were imprisoned. These social elites were given clean accommodations that were more like an inn than a prison. It wasn’t Club Med, mind you. Directly across the street was a larger building that housed the general population who lived a horrific existence in filth and squalor as they awaited torture and execution. That said, lots of high profile executions took place here.

Map with English

Map of the prison, I’ve translated some of the main sites. You may want to refer back to this throughout the article or while watching the video.

The prison was in the heart of the city, 日本橋 Nihonbashi, which literally means “bridge to Japan.” This bridge marked the beginning of the 5 major highways, the 五街道 Gokaidō[iii], that led from the shōgun’s capital of Edo to the rest of the country. As the most important crossroads in a country that used crossroads to post laws and regulations nationwide for travelers, Nihonbashi was where the public display of the shōgunate’s power over life and death were felt to be the most effective. The other execution grounds were located at the outskirts of Edo, but Denma-chō was at the center of the country – a place where commoner and samurai alike passed one another. It was the perfect place to display severed heads and to showcase those slated for execution.

detention and torture warehouse.jpg

This is a great illustration that shows the general population detention facility (note the lack of windows), the fireproof warehouse where inmates were tortured, and the moat surrounding this section of the prison.

How High End Was the Prison?

For the average prisoner, it definitely wasn’t great. Reportedly, the stench was godawful and there was minimal circulation in the cells so during the hot and muggy summers, it must have smelled like a long-lost garbage truck full of homeless people. The general population was usually denied bathing rights which definitely didn’t help the situation.

While the other execution grounds were just places to display heads and crucified bodies at the outskirts of the city, Denma-chō Prison was a fully functional detention facility in the heart of the city. The elite prisoners were afforded certain luxuries, such as baths. However, to what degree this was true wasn’t really understood until 1949, when archaeologists made some astonishing discoveries. They unearthed the Edo Period plumbing system, which revealed a complex system of pipes bringing clean water into the facility for drinking and bathing, as well as a sewerage system to dispose of dirty water. The clean water came in from the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui Kanda Aqueduct[iv].

sendai domain prison.jpg

Photo of a prison in Sendai Domain, while it must have had better ventilation that Denma-chō, it still looks abysmal.

After the Prison was Torn Down

After the Meiji Coup, the facility was decommissioned in 1875 (Meiji 8). The land lay fallow for a few years before the main detention facility was re-purposed as an elementary school. Two temples also bought property on the newly available lot. One temple assumed the responsibility of the souls of the prisoners who were executed at Denma-chō and the prisoners who had died during torture or in the horrible conditions of the prison. The temple’s name is a little strange as most temples have 3 kanji names. This 4 kanji name is 大安楽寺 Dai’anraku-ji Dai’anraku Temple and derives from the main contributors, two businessmen named 大倉喜八郎 Ōkura Kihachirō and 安田善次郎 Andō Zenjirō. Combine the first kanji of each family name ( + ) and you get “dai’an,” which means “great comfort.” The rest of the temple’s name is familiarly Buddhist, 楽 raku ease/repose and 寺 -ji temple.

denmacho

This graphic is courtesy of Deep Azabu, quite possibly the greatest Japanese history blog ever. I’m very thankful for his help in putting this together. The top image is Edo Period, the bottom image is present day.

The temple used to cover the area from the backdoor of the facility (ie; the killing floor) to its present location. The way modern maps correspond to the Edo Period maps is eerily accurate. The temple sits directly behind a reverse L-shape block of shops, that follows the layout of blocks from back in the day.

Daianraku-ji

Another temple called 見延別院 Minobu Betsu-in[v] also bought real estate next to Daianraku-ji on the former grounds on the old prison. Both temples flourished until the Great Kantō Earfquake of 1923. While these two temples had substantial landholdings and clearly distinct missions, after the earfquake and the war they were both reduced to their current locations. They still seem quite distinct today, though at first glance you’d probably think they were part of the same complex.

IMG_2631.PNG

Minobu Betsu-in

After you visit these two temples, you’ll find yourself standing in one of the most normal urban parks ever. Most likely you’ll see housewives playing with their kids or local pre-school kids running around having a great time – completely unaware that this was once an execution ground. And while Suzugamori is probably the most interesting extant killing floor, and Kozukappara is the darkest, I have to say that Denma-chō Prison is the best preserved and ironically, the most friendly. The architectural records and maps of the facility are so good that unlike Suzugamori and Kozukappara, Denma-chō Prison has been recreated accurately with 3D models. In fact, if you go to 日光江戸村 Nikkō Edo Mura Edo Wonderland[vi], they’ve built a fantastic recreation of a tiny corner of Denma-chō Prison[vii].

 

IMG_2560

The Yoshida Shōin yadayadayada monument.

Yoshida Shōin, Teacher of Terrorists & Darling of Ultra-nationalists

Most people who come to the site are curious about a memorial called the 吉田松陰終焉之地 Yoshida Shōin Shūen no Chi Site of the Demise of Yoshida Shōin[viii]. Although the name seems to indicate that Yoshida Shōin was executed at this exact location[ix], this was actually the location of back entrance of the prison. It was also the location of the 揚座敷 agari zashiki, the apartments for the highest ranking samurai jailed at Denma-chō. Such prisoners would have arrived in style and were securely situated on the administrative side of the prison where sanitation was presumably up to societal norms of the day. Being a samurai of 長州藩 Chōshū Han Chōshū Domain, but not quite high ranking enough to stay in the spacious agari zashiki, Yoshida stayed on the other side of the fence in the main detention facility in an area called the 東揚屋 higashi agariya the premium eastern rooms. He was in an “upscale,” semi-private cell that was removed from the filthy confines of the general population, but it was by no means on the level of the nice living quarters of the of the agari zashiki.

twat

Yoshida Shōin – Osama bin Laden of the Bakumatsu.

Who was Yoshida Shōin?

I’m not getting into this again. You have the internet. You can look this one up yourself. Or maybe this is more to your liking. Anyhoo, he was an advocate of overthrowing the Tokugawa Shōgunate, pledging loyalty to the imperial family, and killing or expelling all foreigners who came to Japan. After the Meiji Coup, he came to be revered as a hero, but in fact, he was nothing but a traitor, a xenophobe, and a teacher who preached terrorism and treason. He was duly executed at age 29 in 1859, and in a bizarre twist of fate – at least in the eyes of the shōgunate – factions inspired by his crazy ideas managed to toppled the shōgunate in 1868. In short, the terrorists won.

edo mura

Recreation of Denma-chō Prison at Nikkō Edo Wonderland

That said, Yoshida Shōin was an educated man. He was well read in the Confucian Classics and was steeped in the samurai culture of his day. One aspect of was his ability to write poetry. Before his execution as an anti-shōgunate terrorist, Yoshida wrote his death poem. It’s a 31 syllable 和歌 waka poem[x] that is now inscribed on the stone memorial[xi].

身はたとひ
武蔵の野辺に
朽ちぬとも
 留め置かまし
大和魂

Mi wa tatoe
Musashi no Nobe ni
Kuchinu tomo
Todome-okamashi
Yamato-damashii

Despite my body
Decomposing deep under
The Musashi Plain,
I will always hold on to
My Yamato-damashii

In the last line, Yoshida uses the term 大和魂 Yamato-damashii. This word means “Japanese spirit” or “the soul of Japan.” On the surface, this phrase seems harmless enough, and indeed, in a casual context this can refer to the spirit of a Japanese man and his pride in Japanese culture and tradition. However, the term 大和 Yamato has a deep association with the imperial court and the imperial family[xii]. A case could be made that Yoshida was directly referencing the imperial family as a counterbalance to 武蔵 Musashi, the ancient province in which 江戸 Edo was located. However, what we can really take away from his use of this term is what it has become today. Of course, casually it just means “Japanese spirit,” but the phrase is often used by right wing ultranationalists to show their disdain for Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution, their loyalty to the now secular imperial family, and in a kind of passive-aggressive way, their xenophobia and feeling of racial superiority. No matter how you look at it, Yoshida Shōin definitely ended his death poem with a bang.

 

beheading.jpg

Good old fashion beheading.

Yoshida Shōin a Drop in the Bucket

Denma-chō Prison operated from 1613 to 1875, so Yoshida is just a blip on the radar. The sad fact is that historians think that somewhere between 100,000 – 200,000 prisoners met their own demises here. Not all the prisoners died at the hands of the executioner. Many of them died of diseases they contracted from the filthy living conditions of the general population, and others were assassinated by other inmates due to personal grudges or for simple annoyances like snoring too loudly.

Despite how crappy it must have been to be a prisoner at Denma-chō, and how even worse it must have been to have been killed at Denma-chō, the present facility is actually quite lovely today. What I like about the present site is how peaceful and inviting it is. I also love the fact that the original compound is still preserved – and visibly so by maps. It’s a strong contrast to Suzugamori and Kozukappara, which just feel really dark and ominous.

Special Thanks:

  • I’d like to thank Iwata-san who writes Deep Azabu, one of my favorite Japanese History blogs. He prepared the image comparing maps from today and the Edo Period.

 

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[i] 2013, to be exact. Here are the original articles: Edo Execution Ground Spectacular.
[ii] Since then, interestingly a lot more has surfaced. In fact, a lot of subjects that were never covered in English online that I’ve written about have magically appeared in all kinds of places online. I wonder how that happened…
[iii] And, yes, I have an article about the Gokaidō.
[iv] What’s the Kanda Aqueduct? I’m glad you asked!
[v] The priest whom I asked if it was OK to take a picture of the famous sitting Buddha statue in their main hall called it “Minobe” not “Minobu,” so in the video I keep saying “Minobe,” but all the written Japanese sources say みのぶ Minobu. Both readings are possible, but Minobu seems way more common. On the other hand, the priest at the temple clearly said Minobe several times. Maybe he knows something we don’t…., or maybe it’s 下町言葉 shitamachi kotoba the shitamachi dialect, a holdover of the Edo Dialect used by commoners. Who knows.
[vi] Here’s the link to Edo Wonderland.
[vii] Unironically located across the street from the office of the 代官 daikan city magistrate.
[viii] Who was Yoshida Shōin? Good question!
[ix] BTW, in my original article I said that Yoshida Shōin was imprisoned at Denma-chō and then later executed at Kozukappara in Senjū. Now, I’m not so sure about that. At the time of writing the original article, I came across a few sources that insisted Yoshida wasn’t killed at Denma-chō. Now, I can’t find any of those sources. In fact, everything I see now insists that he was executed where he was detained (at Denmachō), but was buried at Kozukappara. This leads me to think his decapitated head may have been exposed at Kozukappara as well – just speculation, though.
[x] Waka, literally “Japanese poems” are written in the format of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7.
[xi] I’m not a great judge of waka or haiku or any Japanese poetry in general, but I have to say when I compare the Meiji Emperor’s poem about Ōkubo with Yoshida’s death poem, I have to say, the Meiji Emperor was way more adept at the art than Yoshida was. Here’s the article where I translated the Meiji Emperor’s poem.
[xii] The rise of the imperial family and its influence in the Japanese islands both martially and culturally is generally referred to as the Rise of the Yamato State.

What does Iogi mean?

In Japanese History on April 19, 2017 at 3:31 am

井荻
Iogi (well and reeds, more at “place between Igusa and Ogikubo”)

Iogi South Entrance

South Exit of Iogi Station

Coming up with new place names in Tōkyō to write about is never a problem. On those rare days when I have no inspiration, a random look at a map of the city might spark an interest. Other times, I get requests from you, the reader. And it’s not unusual for certain place names to come up in face to face conversation. Today is one of those face to face instances.

Last month, I was at an event in which a very interesting story came up – a story typical of hand-me-down stories in Tōkyō. It was a lurid story that involved a train station and a lot of shit and piss[i]. (Oh, and be prepared. I’m gonna use the phrase shit and piss a lot in this article). But it’s a fitting example of how a little truth and a little fiction get mixed up over the years. It’s also a great example of how stories aren’t passed down clearly by the locals themselves leading to confusion once people try to share their local history with outsiders.

As a person obsessed with diachronic linguistics, I think this story demonstrates the murky waters we tread when exploring the etymologies of local place names[ii]. In short, this is why skepticism is important when talking about history, language, and your mom[iii].

linguistics nerd.jpg

Exploring Edo-Tōkyō Like Locals Do

So, I was introduced to a new colleague by Donny Kimball of Distant Dystopia, and when the conversation turned to Edo-Tōkyō place names[iv], my new friend suggested a place name for JapanThis!. The area was called 井荻 Iogi[v], and although I’d never heard of it before, I was intrigued. Our conversation was brief, but what I took away from it was this:

I live in a place called Iogi on the Seibu Shinjuku Line. It’s not much to look at these days, but a local old man told me trains used to carry shit and piss from Tōkyō to the countryside. They used to dump all this excrement in a lake or swamp in Iogi. Furthermore, if you look at the color of the cars on this train, they’re a shitty version of piss yellow. That color was a deliberate indicator (or direct inheritance) of this train line’s association with the transport of human excrement, ie; avoid the yellow colored train!

I’d heard about feces used for compost as early as my elementary school days. My parents had spent two years in the countryside of Kanagawa Prefecture before I was born and they showed me a curious bill that they had saved. It was a bill for a shit and piss collection service. Seemed weird to me as a young kid who knew nothing about Japan, but whatever. I soon forgot about this because, it was totally irrelevant to my life.

When I heard this story about Iogi, I remembered my parents’ story about the shit and piss collection service they paid for every month. I quickly made a connection to the Pre-Modern custom of selling so-called “night soil.” Soon I was determined to see how much of this story was true and immediately thought that you, dear reader, would be curious too.

etymology time.jpg

First, Let’s Look at the Kanji


i

usually this kanji means well, the sort you would draw water from; it has a secondary meaning of community.


ogi

this means reeds; it commonly occurs in marshy lowlands or where lakes once stood.

The etymology of 井荻 Iogi is simple, really. Iogi is not a place name, just a station name[vi]. Located in Tōkyō’s 杉並区 Suganami-ku Suginami Ward, it’s surrounded by 上井草駅 Kami Igusa Eki Upper Igusa Station and 下井草駅 Shimo Igusa Eki Lower Igusa Station. Upper and Lower Igusa are references to their respective locations upstream and downstream on the 井草川 Igusa-gawa Igusa River. Directly south of Iogi Station is an area called 荻窪 Ogikubo. In 1927, when naming the station, the 西武鉄道 Seibu Tetsudō Seibu Railroad decided to take the 井 i from Igusa and the 荻 ogi from Ogikubo and voila! We have Iogi.

Further Reading:

 

edo period well.jpg

An Edo Period well, ie; nothing related to today’s topic.

The Uncomfortable Bits

There are two other terms that are going to be critical to this story. The first is 汚穢 owai, commonly translated as “night soil[vii].” The second is 汚穢屋 owai-ya, the people or organizations who handled this so-called night soil. Night soil is the euphemistic English translation of urban shit and piss, especially in the big cities like Edo and Kyōto, but it was by no means limited to the large urban centers. Any castle town, post town, or village would have needed a way to remove human excrement from residential areas. Actually, the post towns had a particularly unique problem as they kept horses stabled for official use by shōgunate officials[viii].

And just a heads up, the term owai-ya is inextricably linked to the 穢多 eta, the class of untouchables who existed outside of the class system and were relegated to work that was considered spiritually defiled or filthy. In modern Japan, the terms owai-ya and eta are considered some of the most extreme 差別用語 sabetsu yōgo discriminatory words. So, don’t throw these terms around lightly – especially outside of specific historical contexts[ix][x]. They are extremely offensive when not used correctly.

Night Soil Collector in Ōsaka.png

A night soil collector in Ōsaka.

Night Soil and its Legacy

Now that we’ve got etymology and some basic concepts out of the way, let’s get to the heart of the discussion.

You’ll often hear the Japanese praise the Edo Period, and Pre-Modern Japan in general, as being particularly environmentally friendly. There are a lot of ways in which this was true. In the case of disposal of human excrement and sanitation, this is pretty much undeniable. While westerners were just dumping their chamber pots out on to the street spreading germs and disease, the Japanese had developed a so-called circular economy[xi]. They weren’t the first in doing so – most pre-industrial societies made attempts at this – but the Japanese excelled at it in many regards.

loop economy.jpg

So, what’s a circular economy? The term describes an efficient loop system where produced items are either repaired, reused, or recycled[xii]. In this kind of closed loop, there is no waste produced that isn’t used. The owai-ya, night soil collectors, would visit public latrines and toilets of private residences at night and collect[xiii] the day’s contents in order to bring them to the nearest agricultural lands to compost and sell as fertilizer. Farmers could pay for this natural fertilizer with money, or by repaying the collectors with high end crops grown in the rich soil they had purchased. This meant, human waste was no longer urban pollution, but rather a valuable commodity. It was a source of employment for Edo’s outcastes who were relegated to the filthiest and most abhorrent types of work[xiv].

owaiya-san
This closed loop economy kept cities sanitary in the Edo Period, and the system was particularly rigorous in the shōgun’s capital. The business became so lucrative for the night soil collectors that many of them had relationships both directly and indirectly with the shōgunate that made several outcaste families very wealthy[xv]. Sure, they could never marry up. But, some of them did better than low level do-nothing samurai of the late Edo Period who had status, but not much else[xvi].

night soil collector

Passersby cover their noses as a night soil collector carries shit and piss down the street.

Interestingly – but not unsurprisingly – there was a hierarchy of shit and piss that mirrored the hierarchy of Edo Period society. Naturally, the excrement of the samurai class was deemed the most valuable – that of the shōgun’s castle being at the top of the pyramid, followed by the daimyō and their castles and residences. Of these samurai families, the night soil was further divided by gender – men’s feces being deemed more valuable than women’s, as men were generally served higher quality food than women because… you know, misogyny and all. The human and animal waste of the 下町 shitamachi low city (ie; commoner districts) was presumably higher in volume, but fetched the lowest price on the market because… you know, fuck the poor.

This system of waste disposal was so efficient by the end of the Edo Period and the “companies” that dealt with the retrieval, transport, and sale of all this shit and piss were so highly developed that, even as the newly established Meiji Government began building the first western-style sewers in Japan, they saw no need to abolish this delicate balancing act between Japan’s castle towns and agricultural areas. On top of that, the introduction of germ theory from the West confirmed the superiority of Japan’s night soil economy over that of America and Europe in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s[xvii].

In Edo, the system was so effective and so integral to the economy that it wasn’t just dirty outcaste guys pushing carts of excrement from residential areas to local fields. No, there were huge barges on the rivers transporting excess night soil from the shōgun’s capital to strategic agricultural domains in modern Saitama and Chiba Prefectures on a regular basis. Believe it or not, seaworthy “tankers” even transported enormous amounts of excreta from Edo to the cotton fields of Kansai, on the complete other side of the country.

public toilets.jpg

Public toilets in the commoner districts weren’t always separated by gender, but sometimes had one room for squatters and a separate room for “tachishonben,” standing and peeing… which I think is safe to assume was only used by men. However, such distinct rooms were usually only found in the homes of the samurai where the shit and piss was valued higher.

Those Toilets, Though.

An interesting side note about Edo Period toilets. Samurai and rich merchants had toilets in the homes, but the average commoner in a huge city like Edo was stuck using public latrines. In the 下町 shitamchi low city, they were not separated by gender. They were, however, generally restricted to individual use[xviii]. These latrines consisted of little more than a space to do your business over a deep pit dug into the ground that was periodically cleaned out by the outcastes during the day to keep them from overflowing.

Relegated to the back alleys off the main thoroughfares, they afforded a little privacy and reduced the problem of “main street stink.” The half-doors gave a little privacy, but the upper door was cut away for circulation so you didn’t choke to death on the smell of all your neighbors’ shit and piss. Because of this opening, you were theoretically exposed to the view of anyone passing by[xix]. The nature of the kimono and yukata combined with the shame of being watched while doing your business reinforced the habit of squatting while using a toilet to such a degree that you can still find squat toilets – albeit in a modern form with plumbing – to this day all over Japan, even in central Tōkyō. Normally, I hate these modern 和式 washiki Japanese-style toilets, but if I’m wearing a kimono or yukata, I prefer them.

Edo_period_chamber_pot_2.jpg

A portable toilet, one that might be found in the house of a wealthy person.

The toilets of Edo Castle or any samurai residence in the city were a different story altogether. These were completely private, and located in a remote corner of the building near a small garden[xx]. These residences were raised off the ground and the toilet was simply a hole in the floor with a lid to contain the stench. Underneath the hole was a wooden trough that collected the excreta, which could be easily removed at night or at regular intervals during the day by a night soil collector who climbed under the house and pulled out the trough and replaced it with a clean one.

toilet.jpg
As for the toilets of the daimyō class and the residences of the first westerners in Japan, we have an interesting account from a Jesuit priest named João Rodrigues who visited Japan in the late 1500’s. He wrote that toilets of the elites were kept extremely clean – cleaner than in Europe. They were “perfumed” and had “fresh cut paper” provided for wiping, and in the case of the most elite, a stream of clean water was available to wash your hands. He also noted that there were attendants who ran in to clean out the toilet after each use to make sure the next person who used it wouldn’t be squicked out[xxi]. The custom of squatting while doing the do was pretty much the norm among the elites, too. But the conditions seem to have been waaaaaaaay better if you had the money and rank.

Shit Train.jpg

Say hello to the Shit Train!

Night Soil After the Meiji Coup – Train Time!

Anyhoo, back to this circular economy concept. As I mentioned earlier, the system was so sanitary and so efficient, and the industry was so robust and integrated into daily life, the Meiji Government saw no need to abolish it. In fact, the new government encouraged this lucrative business to grow and the train companies were the first to try to expand the existing business model and push it into the new era. Rather than pushing carts of shit and piss around on dirt roads, they built special train lines that could transport more of this rich fertilizer farther, faster, and more discreetly than ever before. This new technology-based efficiency made the companies that dealt with 糞尿輸送 funnyō yusō excrement transportation extremely profitable. The main companies in Tōkyō were the 西部鉄道 Seibu Tetsudō Seibu Railroad and the 東武鉄道 Tōbu Tetsudō Tōbu Railroad[xxii]. Both companies were highly competitive in various aspects of business, chiefly the transport of humans and goods between Tōkyō to Saitama[xxiii].

 

1944 shit train seibu line

Seibu Shit Train in 1944.

End of the Traditional Loop Economy

Because the night soil trade was such a huge part of the day to day economy, the Japanese were slow to modernize their toilets and sewerage systems. During the Edo, Meiji, and Taishō Periods[xxiv], they were far superior to the West in this regard. However, by the Shōwa Period, they had fallen far behind, and by the end of WWII, the Americans and other foreigners operating in Japan were shocked and appalled by the massive cargo trains transporting foul smelling, steaming hot excreta out of the city on sizzling summer days. It’s in the post-war era that the night soil business began to disappear in the big cities, with Tōkyō leading by example. By the early 1970’s, the business still existed in the countryside, but the model had changed fundamentally: in the past, people paid to buy shit and piss, now people were paying to get rid of it.

irori.jpg

This is an irori. Please do not shit or piss in it.

You’d think that by 2017, this industry would be a thing of the past. But I wouldn’t be too sure. I first visited Japan in 2002/2003. At that time, I spent the New Year’s holiday with a friend’s family in their remote cottage home in the mountains of Nagano. It was a traditional wooden house with an 囲炉裏 irori traditional farmhouse stove and no running water; you had to use a local 温泉 onsen hot spring if you wanted a bath. The toilet was in a small corner room away from the main living area[xxv]. There was a small hole in the floor, beneath which I could see a large rectangular plastic tub and from which I felt the frosty winter air rushing in and filling up the unheated room. There was toilet paper, but that’s it. There were 6 of us staying there.

 

gross toilet

Ummm, I didn’t really want to include a picture of this kind of toilet… but I kinda had no choice.

Needless to say, I was shocked and horrified by the contents accumulating in the dark tub below. Japan clearly wasn’t a third world country, but what was this primitive horror show? I resigned myself to not using the toilet unless it was absolutely necessary.

The next afternoon, when we all hopped in the car to drive back to Tōkyō, I asked my friend’s dad what happens to… you know, all that shit and piss. He told me, “Before we leave, I call a service that comes and picks it up and turns it into compost.” Then I put that awful memory out of my head forever. That is, until this article brought that memory flooding back. That was 2003, and the area was really isolated, but if they still don’t have running water up there, I can totally imagine that system still working now[xxvi].

washlette.jpg

Equipped with wifi, vibrating seats, and mood lighting, modern Japanese toilets elevate the experience of shitting and pissing to the level of fine art.

That said, upon reflection, I think my reaction to such a primitive latrine would be very different today. I wouldn’t be overjoyed to use it, but you know, first world problems. And as for modern Japanese toilets, such as the Washlette… all I have to say is anywhere I go in the world, even my native home of the United States, I look down on toilets as barbaric and primitive. I can’t wait to get back to the luxurious Japanese toilets. So, the country really has kind of gone all the way around from good to bad to the best.

back to the subject

Yo, I Thought this Article was about Iogi, Dawg.

Yes. Yes, it is. So, now let’s talk about how accurate the original story I was told about Iogi was.

In short, the story is pretty close to the truth, which makes all this talk of shit and piss meaningful and not just an excuse to talk about people in kimono squatting down to poop. Iogi Station is indeed located on the Seibu Railroad which connects 新宿 Shinjuku and 荻窪 Ogikubo[xxvii]. Today this particular stretch of tracks is a commuter route known as the 西武新宿線 Seibu Shinjuku-sen Seibu Shinjuku Line. Furthermore, special trains owned by Seibu did indeed carry night soil from the outskirts of central Tōkyō to this once rural area – kind of.

 

Iogi Station 1960's.jpg

Iogi Station in the 1960’s. Clearly a commuter station at the time.

Did the Shit Trains Stop at Iogi Station?

No, they didn’t.

Seibu’s shit trains picked up and dropped off at five stations only. Those were 東久留米駅 Higashi Kurume Eki Higashi Kurume Station, 秋津駅 Akitsu Eki Akitsu Station, 三ヶ島村駅 Mikajima Mura Eki Mikajima Mura Station[xxviii], 仏子駅 Bushi Eki Bushi Station, and 飯能駅 Hannō Eki Hannō Station. The first two are located in modern 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis, while the last three are located in modern 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture. After WWII, the shit train path was modified and a little, causing it to pass through Iogi Station on the north set of tracks. Luckily for the good people of Igusa, Setagaya[xxix], they didn’t make stops here. They merely passed through. They also weren’t dumping shit and piss into – god forbid! – a well for drinking water, or some random lake in the area.

Now that we know, they weren’t dumping trainloads of excrement into a lake anywhere near Iogi Station, I’d like to talk about why I mentioned at the beginning of the article that skepticism is important. The kanji 井 i, which means “well,” always refers to a well for human use or human consumption. The very inclusion of this character sent off warning alarms in my head. Why would anyone do something as unsanitary as dump feces into a source of water used by humans? Additionally, knowing that the city of Edo recycled excrement as fertilizer for profit, why would anyone just dump the shit into a lake in the countryside. It didn’t add up, and hopefully you also understand why now.

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Old rolling stock of the Seibu Shinjuku Line. That’s definitely a shitty shade of piss yellow.

Color of the Seibu Shinjuku Line and Night Soil

So, about the color of the Seibu Shinjuku Line. According to the story I was told, it’s a nasty color and that was by design, perhaps to steer people clear of it. However, after a little research, it seems there are actually two main colors on the modern Seibu trains: yellow and orange, with a third variant for rush hour trains that run on certain sections of track, and a fourth variant of green. I’m not interested in the color differences. I just want to know if the current color is a holdover from the shit trains of yesteryear? One might ask, “is it a shit stain of the shit train?”

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Modern rolling stock of the Seibu Shinjuku Line… still looks shitty and old, though.

Well, it’s a little bit of yes and no. There’s one theory that it was a reference to 黄金 ōgon yellow gold, a reference to the value of night soil[xxx]. However, the original color of the Seibu shit trains was two-tone, actually. They were painted 黄色 ki’iro yellow and 茶色 cha’iro brown. Whether this reflected the foul contents or not, there’s no record either confirming nor denying. However, it’s known that this yellow and brown design persisted until the night soil transportation system disappeared after the war, and yellow is most definitely still used to this day.

 

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Two-tone Seibu Shinjuku Line in 1962.

Another theory about the yellow color of the Seibu Shinjuku Line is branding. In those days, the color was called 金色 kin’iro gold – not 黄色 ki’iro yellow – and was applied to most of the Seibu trains to make them stand out and look cool. The color was expensive in its day, and looked dramatic at the time. It also may have been a safety measure. Trains that were gold/yellow colored moving at high speeds on cloudy days, at night, or running through tunnels could be spotted quickly by pedestrians walking along the tracks[xxxi]. This seems way more reasonable to me than the idea that the company made the shit and piss train brown and yellow as a reference to its contents, so… I’m going with branding.

Oh, and while I couldn’t find information on the color of the Seibu shit trains, they don’t seem to have been decorated. So there’s no connection between the modern color of the Seibu Shinjuku line and th shit trains of old.

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Proof that not all Seibu Shinjuku Line trains are piss yellow. This one is a pleasant blue and green and even has a smiley face.

Let’s Wrap This Shit Up

So, this has been a pretty long, strange trip. But let’s be honest. It usually is, isn’t it? lol

As always, thanks for sticking around to the end of the article. And thank you in particular because I think this time I gave you guys a little insight into my approach to Japanese history, etymology, and local stories. More than that, I hope you could see how old stories get muddied over the years, but also how they often have a kernel of truth in them. It also shows how one part of the Edo Period economy survived the Meiji Coup, yet collapsed when post-war Japan transformed into the power house it has become. Sure, we’ve been talking about shit and piss, but we’ve been talking about so much more. As always, feel free to leave a comment – especially if you’ve had any experiences with night soil.

 

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[i] Shit and piss is now an official tag and searchable term on the site. However, at this point, this is the only article using it lol.
[ii] Folk etymology is real.
[iii] You know your mom was a little crazy in her youth, right? Good.
[iv] As it usually does, no?
[v] It’s not Logi, but Iogi.
[vi] 井荻駅 Iogi Eki Iogi Station.
[vii] The modern PC term in Japanese is 人糞 jinpun which literally means “human feces.” The un-PC Edo Period term owai literally means “filthy dirt” or “dirty filth.”
[viii] And you know, um, horses shit a lot. Like a lot. And this issue came up in my article on Shinjuku.
[ix] Eta, which means “extreme filth,” was interchangeable with 非人 hinin non-human. This gives you an idea of how offensive these terms are today. The descendants of these families try to hide their low status of old, or if they can’t or have chosen to embrace it, identify by the label 部落民 burakumin today. The term literally means “village inhabitant” and references the segregated communities they once lived in.
[x] The preferred term over owai is 屎尿 shinyō or 下肥 shimogoe, because, yep, this job still exists. In the remote countryside, you can still find traditional toilets that empty into containers under buildings and must be manually removed by a service (or by the owners themselves). I’ve experienced it once and it wasn’t pleasant to use or think about who was going to have to clean up the mess (more about that story later). But owai has those old class system connotations and it makes this sensitive topic difficult to discuss outside of historical contexts where everyone is on the same page.
[xi] Also called a closed loop economy or closed loop system.
[xii] And only thrown away when necessary.
[xiii] The term for the collection of night soil was 汲取 kumitori which literally means “scooping up” with a connotation of something wet and dirty. Ewwwwww.
[xiv] Instant economy!
[xv] Essentially, they had hereditary monopolies.
[xvi] Other outcaste families had lucrative family businesses during the Edo Period. Executioners, sword testers, heads of outcaste villages come to mind.
[xvii] Remember, not every city had good sewers, and cities like New York had thousands of workhorses just shitting willy-nilly all over the place. It was so bad, that the cleanup required more horses to take out the horseshit, and said horses just shat willy-nilly all over the place… creating an endless cycle of stinky, gross, and unsanitary city streets.
[xviii] That is to say, you had to wait until someone finished before you could enter. Very different from the public multiuser public toilets of the Roman Empire.
[xix] Presumably, people didn’t walk past these unless they had to. Remember, they were back in the alleyways. But who knows? There was probably the occasional pervert who wanted to sneak a peek.
[xx] Because of the Shintō belief in spiritual defilement, in samurai homes, the toilet was often located next to the 切腹の間 seppuku no ma room or space reserved for committing seppuku. I’m not kidding by the way. The seppuku room is a real thing.
[xxi] You can be sure that by “attendants” he means outcastes.
[xxii] Both companies still exist today, but they don’t work in this sector anymore.
[xxiii] These days, both companies have defined themselves. They’re not really competitors anymore. They are well established parts of the well-greased infrastructure of Kantō.
[xxiv] A quick note about Tōkyō in the Taishō Period. The city was very polluted because of companies dumping industrial waste into the rivers. Shinjuku was still a bit out of the way, so it was easy to transport excrement by train. But the center of the city, former Edo, was too congested and the shit trains were impossible, so it was still being transported by cart, and sometimes stored in tanks near rivers, where occasionally a tank would “accidentally” break and spill into the rivers. The shitamachi areas of Taishō Era Japan seem to have been a mess. That said, in the lovely yamanote areas, things were still extremely sanitary. Furthermore, because Shinjuku was sort of the epicenter of the night soil train industry, it was considered the 東京の穴 Tōkyō no Ketsu Ass of Tōkyō as early as the late Meiji Period. This is where the city blew it all out and flushed it all away.
[xxv] In retrospect, this reminds me of the construction of samurai houses and the deliberate placement of the toilet and seppuku room in a far corner.
[xxvi] Keep in mind, the locals live in towns with all the regular conveniences, but getting running water out to super-remote locations where there’s, say, one house on the north side of the mountain, and another house on the south side – and that’s it – would be costly, to say the least.
[xxvii] The company was established in the 1890’s, but this particular train route to Ogikubo only dates back to the 1920’s. And actually, as I’ll point out later, the Seibu train network actually connects Tōkyō with Saitama. The name 西部 Seibu actually means “West Musashi,” a reference to former 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province.
[xxviii] This station no longer exists. It was replaced by 狭山ヶ丘駅 Sayamagaoka Eki Sayamagaoka Station.
[xxix] Remember, Iogi Station is located in Setagaya Ward. In Shimo-Igusa, to be exact.
[xxx] Similar to the notion of “black gold” meaning “oil.”
[xxxi] You may be thinking, “why the fuck would a pedestrian be walking along train tracks?” Remember, most of the early train lines ran parallel to well established highways (and people usually walked everywhere anyways, especially in the country). The new railways of the late Meiji and Taishō Periods sometimes connected rural villages better than the old Edo Period roads, and traditional farmers often opted to just walk as they had done for generations, but it’s speculated they used the new path cleared by the railroad companies. The Seibu Railroad connected Tōkyō with Saitama (ie; the countryside) and as such, probably ran over its fair share of farmers carelessly moseying along the train tracks – hence the gaudy yellow color that has been passed down to us today.

The History of Hanami

In Japanese History on April 4, 2017 at 8:01 am

花見
hanami (cherry blossom viewing, but literally “looking at flowers”)

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I was recently asked to write an article about the history of 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing, which I was happy to look into. Although I had a broad understanding of this uniquely Japanese tradition – and one of my favorite aspects about living in Japan – I’d never really researched the subject in depth. Needless to say, going all JapanThis! on a non-history website or publication isn’t always appropriate[i], but I was super excited when they agreed to publish the stripped down, 650-word version while allowing me to publish the extended 12” remix here for you guys.

So, without further ado, here’s the history of hanami.

china plum blossom

Chinese courtiers enjoying plum blossoms and crappy plum wine. Sorry, I can’t drink plum wine. It’s so nasty.

The Classical Origins of Hanami

If we take the word literally, hanami just means “looking at flowers.” It’s a Japanese word that falls into a broad category of “looking at things” words – two other famous examples might be 月見 tsukimi moon viewing and 富士見 fujimi Mt. Fuji viewing[ii].

In a world without TV or movies, bored humans have always found ways to entertain themselves. And, as is the case in most cultures, while the poor were toiling in the fields, the rich built lush private gardens. In the West, this happened in the Roman Empire. In the East, this happened in Ancient China. The Chinese were particularly enamored with the fragrant plum blossoms – an equally beautiful flower, but much heartier and less vibrant than 桜 sakura cherry blossoms.

gokusui en

Gokusui no En was a typical Heian Period poetry even linked to seasonal changes practiced by the Northern Fujiwara clan. This one is recreated once a year in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture. It wasn’t a sakura-centric event but definitely influenced by China and was focused on seasonal events like hanami in the literal sense of “looking at flowers.”

When the imperial court was based in Nara in the 700’s, local aristocrats would read Chinese poems celebrating the transient beauty of plum blossoms. In their gardens, each flower’s location became a new venue for poetry writing events or places to engage in other artistic endeavors, such as calligraphy, flower arrangement, and painting. The most common flowers were wisteria[iii], plum blossoms, peach blossoms, and ultimately cherry blossoms which were treasured for their brief yet brilliant bloom. By the Heian Period, the term hanami had become synonymous with cherry blossom viewing specifically, and not just flower viewing in general.

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Toyotomi Hideyoshi at one of his final hanami events in Kyōto before his death.

The Heian Period, as I’m sure you’re aware, essentially ended with the rise of the samurai class. Eventually, in the 1500’s, a warlord named 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified the country. He sought to legitimize the samurai – not just as warriors, but as protectors of aristocratic cultural practices. It’s here that we first find paintings of high ranking samurai, called 大名 daimyō, enjoying hanami – placing themselves on par with the imperial court. Hideyoshi encouraged the warriors to engage in other arts such as poetry, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement.

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Hanami in the Premodern Era

Hideyoshi failed to establish a lasting dynasty, but his ideas of promoting cultural practices of the court among the samurai was a success. When Japan’s most stable warrior government was formally established in Edo in 1603 by 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, hanami was an inherent aspect of the elite culture in peace time. But the Tokugawa Shōgunate took things a step further. They began planting cherry blossoms in Ueno, where you could visit the magnificent mausoleums of the shōguns. This vast religious center was open to the public and would become Ueno Park in modern times. Daimyō from other parts of Japan brought the concept of public cherry blossom viewing spaces from Edo back to their respective domains.

shogun harem hanami chiyoda castle edo castle tokugawa

Ladies of the shōgun’s harem enjoying hanami on the expansive grounds of Edo Castle, once the largest castle in the world – a city within a city.

This brought hanami to the commoners. Kabuki and entertainment in the pleasure quarters were looked down upon by the shōgunate as morally questionable, but enjoying cherry blossoms was good clean fun and people of any rank could enjoy it if they had access to the trees. Of course, some of the best groves where behind the high walls of the palaces of the feudal lords in Edo and of shōgun’s castle in particular, but temples, shrines, and common spaces were open to all.

gotenyama hanami.jpg

One of my favorite ukiyo-e of all time, two groups of women doing hanami on Goten’yama. You can see Shinagawa below, the calm waters of Edo Bay below, and the ever present boats on premodern Japan’s busiest harbor. Looking out at the bay must have seemed like looking at the end of the world – and by that I mean the Pacific Ocean and modern Chiba Prefecture.

Furthermore, large scale planting of sakura in Edo in places like 御殿山 Goten’yama[iv], 飛鳥山 Asukayama[v], 道灌山 Dōkan’yama[vi], and other famous spots provided public spaces where anyone could enjoy the beautiful pink blossoms. Even Yoshiwara, the moated and sequestered red light district had streets lined with cherry blossoms. The tradition of 夜桜 yo-zakura, or nighttime sakura viewing, is generally thought to have origins in Yoshiwara and similar Edo Period red light districts because businesses stayed open late and used lanterns to maximum effect to make their shops seems more attractive at night, especially during the short cherry blossom season. While usually men frequented the pleasure quarters, wives and daughters often came to enjoy the illuminated trees and try to catch a glimpse of the courtesans in their flashy kimono. Anyone who has enjoyed yo-zakura knows there’s a dramatic difference between daytime hanami and nighttime hanami.

yoshiwara night hanami

Nighttime hanami in Yoshiwara. You can see the lanterns illuminating the trees. Also, notice the guy covering his head. Men of prominent positions in the community, while allowed to – and often expected to – have concubines, were discouraged by the shōgunate from going to red light districts like the Yoshiwara. They often covered their heads to avoid recognition. But, of course, they went. Because oiran!!! Who wouldn’t?!!💛

With the great Tokugawa Peace came re-branding. The samurai, traditionally warriors, now found themselves with no wars to fight – essentially functioning as bureaucrats. In order to legitimize their function in society, they were expected to be living examples of Japanese morality and behavior for all of society beneath them to admire and emulate. A proverb arose: 花は桜木、人は武士 hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi as for flowers, there are sakura – as for men, there are samurai. On the surface, this simply means the greatest of flowers are cherry blossoms and the greatest of men are samurai. But there’s another meaning; it’s a reference to the warrior tradition and the expectation of samurai to commit 切腹 seppuku hara kiri/ritual disembowelment for failing to live honorably. A samurai’s life may seem noble and poetic – a thing of beauty, if you will – but at any moment he may be cut down in battle or asked to give his life. Therefore, the life of a samurai was likened to the sakura. He is beautiful, but fleeting. Likewise, a strong storm or sudden frost might ruin all the cherry blossoms, ending the season early. The link between samurai and sakura persists to this day, and commonly comes up in historical movies and TV dramas.

seppuku

Seppuku Fun™

After the Meiji Coup in 1868, the new government embarked on a decade’s long modernization initiative. One of the biggest changes to Japanese society was the abolition of the caste system, including the samurai. There were some in the new government who lobbied – unsuccessfully, luckily – for the removal of sakura from places associated with the Tokugawa and the samurai, such as Ueno and Edo Castle because of the strong connection between the samurai and cherry blossoms. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and as the concept of public parks was introduced, hanami was rebranded as a pan-Japanese tradition that dated back to the heyday of the imperial family during the Heian Period. In fact, to many westerners who learned about Japan through postcards and movements like Japonisme and Orientalism, Japan was often reduced to imagery of Mt. Fuji, geisha, and cherry blossoms.

Further Reading:

ueno daibutsu.jpg

The Great Buddha of Edo. It was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and had been a minor spot in Ueno Park until quite recently. Now it’s famous with Asian tourists, even though most Tōkyōites don’t even know it exists.

Modern Hanami

In the 1880’s and early 1900’s, newspapers began announcing famous spots for hanami and recommending the best times to go. The blooming of sakura coincided with the newly established school year, and companies latched on to this cycle to welcome in new hires and reinforce the commitment of existing workers’ dedication to the organization. In this way, the sakura became a symbol of birth and rebirth, rather than the fleeting existence of the samurai.

shinjuku gyoen.gif

As horticulture and the art of garden construction incorporated new scientific discoveries, public parks and botanical gardens soon learned that they could extend the hanami season by planting two to three varieties in the same park. Why only have two weeks of hanami when you can have three or four?

yoshino sakura.jpg

Having a picnic and drinking sake while looking at cherry blossoms is a tradition that goes back to the Heian Period.  Until recently, you could usually only carry a bottle or two with you, so the parties were shorter. Since the 70’s and 80’s, there have been convenience stores on every corner in major cities. This has made it possible for hanami parties to run from 6 AM to 11 PM because you can just refuel at 7-11 whenever you run out of booze. Furthermore, hanami goers in parks these days can even order delivery pizza, sushi, or whatever they need. In the age of instant gratification, an old proverb came to be associated with hanami: 花より団子 hana yori dango – literally, sweets over flowers. The implication is that some people don’t come to enjoy the sakura as much as for the wild partying.

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Japanese companies often send the youngest or lowest ranking people on their teams or in their departments to go stake out prime hanami spots in busy locations at the crack of dawn. Inevitably, they begin partying, often from 6 AM until the main group arrives. I came across this poor fellow at noon and it seems like… well… I guess hazing is a thing in his company.

Crazy Parties and Secret Spots

If you go to some of the larger parks in Tōkyō, like Ueno, Yoyogi, Inokashira, Meguro, etc., you’ll find a very party-like atmosphere. Ueno Park, in my experience, tends to be the craziest. People used to bring portable karaoke machine – a practice that has long since been banned – but still it’s the rowdiest and booziest. However, Yoyogi Park definitely gives it a run its money. In fact, I’ve seen DJ’s spinning house and techno in that park. Inokashira Park in Kichijōji is still all about the party, but has a much more hippied-out vibe. The Meguro River isn’t as crazy as those three, but it’s pretty noisy because it’s so congested and the sound of generator powering the food stalls forces people to raise their speaking volume just to communicate with one another.

anaba sakura.jpg

All of this is great fun. I love it for sure, but sometimes you just don’t want to deal with all the craziness. As such, a lot of people seek out the best kept secrets, or 穴場 anaba in Japanese (usually shared by word of mouth). This could be anything from a very local shrine to an obscure park. These places tend to have a great hanami experience without the crowds and often don’t have all the drunks shouting and laughing with each other or passing out on wherever on the ground. And while not a secret spot, some places like Shinjuku Gyoen have specific rules banning alcohol – though, that doesn’t actually stop people from bringing it in, but the people who do tend to be low key about it.

So, Edo’s big 5 hanami spots were Goten’yama, Ueno, the banks of the Sumida River, Asukayama, and Koganei. What are your favorite spots in modern Tōkyō? And do you know any cool secret spots?

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[i] There’s a little mantra you’ve probably heard: know your audience.
[ii] Both of these words made their way into architectural terminology of the Edo Period. For example, Edo Castle and Kawagoe Castle both had 富士見櫓 Fujimi Yagura Fujimi Turrets and many places in Tōkyō still bear the place name Fujimi since you could see Mt. Fuji from there, for example 中野富士見町 Nakano-Fujimichō. Tsukimi appears everything from teahouses to castles, most notably Matsumoto Castle’s 富士見櫓 Fujimi Yagura Fujimi Turret.
[iii] Wisteria, or 藤 fuji, were closely linked to the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan, a powerful family of the imperial court that was the ancestor of a number of powerful samurai clans which preserved the kanji for wisteria when establishing new branch families with new names
[iv] This was one of the preeminent hanami spots in the Edo Period, but sadly shōgunate destroyed the area to build defensive islands to protect Edo from the threat of a sea based invasion by western powers in the 1850’s.
[v] This is still a popular hanami spot located a short distance from Ōji Station.
[vi] There are famous ukiyo-e of this spot, but today it’s a shadow of its former glory.

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