The Three Great Execution Grounds of Edo
The first time I visited Tōkyō, I heard about a place where the rent was cheap because it used to be an execution ground. The locals called it a 心霊スポット shinrei supotto haunted place. It was a place so haunted that people still brought new flowers ever day to appease the angry spirits. This place was 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds.
As soon as I heard this, I wanted to visit! Later I read a book by Romulus Hillsborough that briefly touched on the subject. Since that time, I’ve been fascinated with the 3 great execution grounds of Edo.
At the time, about 8 years ago, there was nothing on the internet about these places, especially in English. Since that time, a lot more has come to be written about these facilities – some for better and some for worse. There have also been some new developments in some of the areas – particularly in the field of archaeology.
|Japanese Name||English Name||Status |
|鈴ヶ森||Suzugamori||The killing floor is extant. The area is well maintained by the nearby temple and neighbors. Well and some post holes are extant.|
|小塚原||Cemetery is extant. The symbolic Buddha statue collapsed in the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. One of the executioner’s swords is owned by the nearby temple.|
|伝馬町||The killing floor is commemorated on the grounds of a temple, some foundations and sewage pipes still exist.|
What can we say about these places?
Well, first of all, they were on the outskirts of town. Suzugamori was in Shinagawa – waaaay outside of the center of the city and basically on the bay. Kozukappara was in Minami-Senju, while outside of the city, it was near one of the access points to the city. Denma-chō was the closest to the center of Edo, its legal standing within the old city is debatable.
In accordance to Shintō practice, to keep the city of Edo “ritually pure,” “unclean activities” such as butchery, leatherworking, and executions had to be done outside of the city limits. Prisons and execution grounds were laid out according to the principles of 風水 fū-sui feng-shui having entrances and exits[i] placed in auspicious directions to keep the dark activities within from “leaking out” and “defiling” the city.
Each of these areas was located near a major artery. Suzugamori was near the Tōkaidō. Kozukappara was near the Nikkō Kaidō, Ōshū Kaidō and Mito Kaidō. Kodenma-chō was near Nihonbashi, which was the hub of Japan. This sent a strong and clear message to those coming in and out of the shōgun’s capital that the shōgunate held the power of life/death. As you entered the shōgun’s city and as you left it, you would be reminded of his absolute power.
And lastly, the point most Japanese don’t want to bring up is that because pre-modern Japan had a caste system, these areas have been and still are associated with the 穢多 eta “untouchables[ii].” These were families who fell outside of the samurai-famer-artisan-merchant class system. They could only work as butchers, executioners, leather workers, and disposers of corpses, etc… These 3 areas bore a heavy stigma because of their association with prisoners, killings, and the eta class. Rent in these areas is said to be cheap. Schools in these areas are said to be bad. People who live here are said to be cursed.
Well, at least in the old days. Tōkyō doesn’t really have a problem with this anymore – I’ve heard that issues with “untouchable” families continue to persist in Ōsaka and some other parts of Japan. In Tōkyō, half of the population is from somewhere else. People can’t be arsed to worry about your ancestry unless you have a bad as name like Tokugawa or Matsudaira. So I think most of the “stigma” of these areas is exaggerated today. However, when you visit these places, Kozukappara, in particular, you’ll notice that there’s something off about these places. They’re not vibrant places. They’re not affluent places. They’re places that you’d probably need a good reason to even go to. Some are downright inconvenient.
Executions were carried out by untouchables. The lead executioner was an untouchable given samurai status and certain legal rights by the shōgunate. The position and the family name were hereditary. The most famous executioner was the hereditary 様斬 tameshigiri sword tester of the Tokugawa Shōgun Family, whose first and second name was hereditary[iii].
A vast array of techniques existed for dispatching criminals. But the main technique was beheading. In special cases for samurai of distinction, 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment was allowed. Torture was commonplace. Corpses and heads were generally put on display outside of the facilities as a reminder to passersby that you don’t fuck with the shōgun. Conditions within the facilities seem to have been pretty bad. Disease was rampant and inmates often killed other inmates for petty transgressions such as snoring too loudly or receiving too many gifts from a wife or family. Generally speaking, there was no shaving or bathing. Public latrines were filthy breeding grounds for bacteria and stink. You get the picture. Unpleasantness all around – some of which may still linger today.
I’m going to say right now, this isn’t going to be pretty. I refrained from putting anything too graphic in this first article. But in the next three articles some pictures will be more grotesque than I have included before. If you’re squeamish about cadavers, dismembered heads and whatnot, you might want to wait until the series is over. That said, I’m not going to go crazy with death and gore pictures. I don’t like it either. But for illustrating certain points, it may be necessary. So I just want to give everyone a heads up. OK?
Anyhoo, the next 3 installments of JapanThis will be my Edo Execution Ground Spectacular. Get ready to strap it on and feel the G’s, baby.
EDIT: Here’s a cool link that Rekishi no Tabi shared with me. It’s an online version of The Pictorial Book on the Penal Affairs of the Tokugawa Government, a Meiji Era document. I think it will compliment this series nicely.
Loads of bad ass-ness from MIT.
[i] The “exit” of the execution ground being the place where the corpses were taken out for disposal or exposure.
[ii] The word eta is extremely taboo now. The “preferred” term is burakumin. But burakumin is seen as more of a problem of western Japan, not the modern eastern capital. But that said, even today in international, cosmopolitan Tōkyō, there are some remnants of this legacy of discrimination. It’s really pretty fucked up. Check out the article on Wikipedia if you want to know more about this shitty discrimination.
[iii] ie; each generation’s male head of the household had the same name.