Alternatively written 傳馬町牢屋敷 Denma-chō (old style), and often referred to as 小伝馬町 Kodenma-chō after the local train station name, Denma-chō Prison and Execution Ground was located near Nihonbashi in the outskirts of old Edo. It’s estimated that during its 200 year history somewhere between 100,000 – 200,000 people were executed here. The facility was in use from 1613 – 1875 and it was the largest of the prisons in Edo. The famous samurai doctor, Takano Chōei, was sentenced to 5 years in the commoner’s section here for criticizing the Tokugawa shōgunate in a paper he wrote. Chōshū Domain’s Yoshida Shōin, teacher and all around twat extraordinaire, was sentenced here and eventually executed by beheading[i]. While Denma-chō Prison had a section for commoners, it primarily housed high ranking officials (retainers of daimyo, direct retainers of the shōgun, physicians, and other criminals of samurai status). As far as Edo’s prisons and execution grounds went, this was the nice one. It also housed female inmates in an area called the 揚屋 agariya[ii]. Because of the amount of high ranking inmates, it was said that your level of hell depended on how much money you had. I don’t know if that means the judges and guards were taking bribes or not. But certainly, in the Edo Period, your social status might have afforded you slightly better accommodations and treatment.
But don’t think the samurai and female prisoners had it too good here. The buildings were windowless so there was no ventilation during the hot and humid summers. There was no sunlight. Food was given twice a day (thrice a day for women), usually just brown rice and miso soup. The public latrine was located within the prison grounds, and with about 500 prisoners at a time, it apparently stank to high hell. The close quarters meant that disease was rampant, and the physicians who were called to the site hated visiting the place so they did half-ass checkups on the inmates. As a result, it was common for inmates to dying of disease – even those who weren’t condemned to death. Executions were performed in full view of the inmates and carcasses were exposed for days at the perimeter, which meant the smell of rotting human flesh was constant. Torture was a regular policy for certain types of prisoners. Little effort was made to conduct such activities in private, so screams of pain were just a normal part of the background noise.
The main executioner was the shōgun’s hereditary 様斬 tameshigiri sword tester 山田浅右衛門 Yamada Asaemon. As such, new swords were tested on corpses and living targets – naturally in plain sight of the inmates. The main form of execution at Denma-chō was beheading, but crucifixions and some other creative methods were employed from time to time. A large bronze bell was rung whenever an execution took place to mark the occasion with a little Buddhist solemnity and – I can’t help but feel – a little festivity. Everybody likes bells, right?
The facility was shut down by the Meiji Government in 1871 – they had continued to use it for 8 years, mind you – in an effort to appear “modern” as they sought to renegotiate the so-called “unequal treaties” that the shōgunate had agreed to. Beheadings, crucifixion and other “barbaric” methods of dispatching condemned criminals were also abolished. In 1875, Ichigaya Prison replaced Denma-chō and a new era of the Japanese penile system began[iii].
Little remains of the site today, but the few bits and pieces that are still extant can be seen at 大安楽寺 Daianraku-ji Daianraku Temple and 十思公園 Jisshi Kōen Jisshi Park. The actual site encompassed those locations as well 十思小学校 Jisshi Shōgakkō Jisshi Elementary School. Recent archaeological findings revealed a little about the layout of the facility, but actually shed more light on Edo Period sewage and plumbing. The well and much of the piping were still intact after all these years. Sexy!
The bell that sounded each execution still remains and some stone foundations and memorials can be seen. A stone memorial states that Daianraku-ji is actually the site of the killing floor. The temple was built to care for the spirits of those who were executed or who died here and as such, it’s not the most popular temple in Tōkyō. The name of the temple means Great Comfort and Ease. I guess it’s the Buddhist version of requiescat in pace[iv].
Enjoy some of the left over pictures that didn’t fit into the article:
[i] I’m not a fan of Yoshida Shōin or the ideas he espoused, but his shrine, 松陰神社 Shōin Jinja, in Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward supposedly has a 維新祭 Ishin Matsuri Restoration Festival that sounds kind of interesting. By the way, Shōin wasn’t executed at Denma-chō. He was killed at Kozukappara in Minami Senju.
[ii] For those in the know, agariya was also an Edo Period word for a brothel, but I don’t think the women were being pimped out at Denma-chō. Male and female inmates were segregated – I think that’s all is meant by this word.
[iii] Ooops, I mean penal. Penal system. Sorry.
[iv] Latin for “rest in peace” – R.I.P.