Suzugamori Execution Ground
This is probably the most famous and most accessible 死刑所 shikeijo execution grounds in Tōkyō. It’s located on the old Tōkaidō highway, near 品川宿 Shinagawa-shuku Shinagawa post town and is designated as one of the 100 Historic Spots of Shinagawa.
The area that is preserved today is allegedly the actual killing floor. As such there are many Buddhist monuments which have been erected to “soothe the lost souls” that inhabit the area. Today, two streets run along the preserved area and an elevated pedestrian crossing goes over the entrance, so most people don’t even notice the area. This may be by design, as execution grounds are seen as unclean places. I’ve heard the rent is cheap in this area because people are afraid of ghosts – never investigated this myself, but my gut instinct tells me that while this might have been true in the past, in the overcrowded Tōkyō of today, this area might be just as pricey as anywhere else in the area. And while the name Suzugamori instills fear in the hearts of those who know the gruesome history of the area, there is a park and elementary school which both bear the name Suzugamori. So it’s not quite as dark and taboo as I’d been told when I first came to Japan.
Executions at Suzugamori were directly overseen by a hereditary line of men called 弾左衛門 Danzaemon, which looks like an Edo Period given name, but to the best of my knowledge it was a translatable family name. The male heads of the Danzaemon family always started their given names with the kanji 集[i]. Danzaemon was the highest ranking 穢多 eta untouchable in Edo. He was a sort of lord the outcaste – that is to say, lord of the butchers, executioners, undertakers, and all those who dealt in the business of death.
Suzugamori was home to some of the wilder forms of execution; sawing in half, boiling, burning alive, and everyone’s favorite, crucifixion. There was a small detention facility there, but the area was more or less just for executions.
Suzugamori’s Claim to Fame
Yaoya O-shichi, the crazy bitch that tried to burn down Edo was supposedly burned at the stake here[ii]. A stone 台 dai post hole for 火刑 kakei burning at the stake is preserved at the site[iii]. The sign says this was the post hole that O-shichi was burned at. But nobody can really know. Apparently, because of its distance from the city and its location next to Edo Bay, Suzugamori was the main execution site used for burning at the stake. The body would be left exposed for about 3 days.
A stone 台 dai post hole for crucifixion can also be seen here. When westerners think of crucifixion, they think of the stylized Christian symbol that comes down to us from Roman Catholicism. But even that isn’t an accurate representation of what Roman crucifixion was. Japanese crucifixion is a similar ordeal to the Roman style. While the Roman’s typically emphasized exposure to the elements and starvation as a mechanism of death, the Japanese tended to be a little more officious about the whole thing. They’d tie you to a few stakes and eventually a pair of dudes armed with halberds would come forth to stab the condemned 20-30 times and then dispatch them by cutting their throat. The body would be left exposed for about 3 days.
There are stories that nearby Edo Bay were also used for executions. I’ve heard of upside down crucifixions that waited for the tide to come in and drown the poor bastards. But I can’t confirm if these were real or not. At any rate, this type of execution is associated with Suzugamori.
And lastly, there is still preserved a place called 泪橋 Namidabashi the Bridge of Tears. This bridge crosses the river that marked the natural, physical boundary of the Suzugamori Detention Center and Execution Grounds. It was the last place where the family could say goodbye to their loved one before they met their final moment. Edo Period executions were generally not public, though they were often witnessed by the offended party and the presiding magistrates. However, after the execution, heads and/or corpses were quite regularly put on display for at least three days. The remains would be disposed of according to Buddhist rites, or in some cases, the remains would just be left exposed to whatever stray dogs or crows lived in the area[iv]. Burnings and crucifixions tended to be down outside of the facilities for safety reasons and because it would just be a pain in the ass to move all that mess for displaying.
Today, there are apartments and houses and schools and companies and highways and even a major aquarium near Suzugamori. If no one told you about its ghastly past, you might not even notice it. But a few hints still exist. No train station uses the word Suzugamori. The train station there now, which is quite close, is called 大森海岸 Ōmori Kaigan Ōmori Beach (it was a beach in the Edo Period, now it’s not). The train line that stops there is a pretty minor train line – at least in the sense that it doesn’t go through central Tōkyō. Shinagawa is as close as it gets. And lastly, only the local train stops there, most of the trains just pass it by. Coincidence? I think not.
[i] Here’s a list of their names.
[ii] I mentioned her in my article on fires in Edo-Tōkyō.
[iii] 火刑 kakei fire punishment is the formal word for this kind of execution. 焼き殺す yakikorosu burn and kill is a casual way to refer to it.
[iv] Again, keep in mind, these areas have been traditionally considered unclean (things are a little different now), but in the Edo Period, Suzugamori was really quite far from the urban center. Even walking from the Suzugamori ruins to Namidabashi is quite a hike. It gives you a feel for how isolated the area actually was.