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Kozukappara Execution Grounds

In Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!, Japanese History on July 25, 2013 at 3:07 pm

小塚原死刑場
Kozukappara Shikeijō
Kozukappara Execution Ground

This illustration is said to be at Denma-cho, but in reality, it could have been anywhere. Although, probably not a daily occurance, it would have been a regular enough scene at Kozukappara that normal people like you and me would have avoided the place like the plague.

This illustration is said to be at Denma-cho, but in reality, it could have been anywhere.
Although, probably not a daily occurance, it would have been a regular enough scene at Kozukappara that normal people like you and me would have avoided the place like the plague.
Notice the paper blinds on the faces of the condemned.
Also notice the hole dug to contain the blood and catch the head so it doesn’t roll off under a bush somewhere.

This is probably Edo’s 2nd  most notorious execution ground. It definitely has the longest lasting legacy. The facility was in operation from 1651 – 1873. It’s said that 100,000 – 200,000 people were executed here.

The killing floor is supposedly under the train tracks, and most of what remains is a small cemetery. Real Edo-kko might tell you that the Jōban and Hibiya lines break down often when passing through here or that the trains slow down so as to not disturb the spirits that haunt the area. Sounds spooky, but totally untrue.

Again from Denma-cho. Disposing of the bodies and cleaning the heads. Cleaned heads would be displayed for about 3 days so that anyone passing through would realize the shogun's power over life and death.

Again from Denma-cho.
Disposing of the bodies and cleaning the heads.
Cleaned heads would be displayed for about 3 days so that anyone passing through would realize the shogun’s power over life and death.

This seems to have been the most mismanaged and sloppiest execution grounds of Edo. The area had a reputation for being filthy and just downright nasty. For whatever reason, bodies of the executed weren’t cremated, but just dumped in shallow mass graves. Stray dogs and other animals would regularly come and dig up the carcasses and eat them and drag bones all over the area. The smell of decaying human flesh was said to be unbearable on hot summer days. The street on which on the corpses and heads were displayed was apparently littered with human bones and so it came to be called 骨通り kotsu dōri bone street[i]. The name has never been official, but locals still use it. This is part of the reason that, even today, the area is considered a bit of a pisspot in Tōkyō. Apparently, new construction sites find human bones regularly[ii]. The main modes of execution were beheading, crucifixion, boiling, burning at the stake and a variety of creatively gruesome methods.

Heads were displayed outside of the execution grounds at street level as a warning to passersby.  Note crucified guy in the background. Crucifixions were a mess to clean up, as were burnings at the stake. Those also took place at the street level.

Heads were displayed outside of the execution grounds at street level as a warning to passersby.
Note the crucified guy in the background.
Crucifixions were a mess to clean up, as were burnings at the stake.
As such those also took place at the street level.

Close up of the heads

Close up of the heads

As an execution ground, Kozukappara was considered spiritually defiled. Therefore, the only people who lived there were the 穢多 eta untouchables. The area was essentially an 穢多村 eta mura a government enforced ghetto populated by a group of people considered non-human or at best 1/7th the worth of “normal person.” The only work these people could get was in the business of death; executions, disposal of corpses, butchery, leather-working, and chaperoning Justin Bieber. After the execution ground was closed, “bone street” continued as an untouchable ghetto and the main businesses in the area were shoe makers, leather-workers, and butchers.

A Google search said this is  today's Kotsu Dori. The architecture looks like bubble economy style. Notice how low the buildings are. (but since I haven't been in a while, I don't know if this is how Kotsu Dori looks today.)

A Google search said this is today’s Kotsu Dori.
Notice how low the buildings are.
(but since I haven’t been in a while, I don’t know if this is how Kotsu Dori looks today.)

Even today, the area is famous for cheap housing for day laborers as well as a meet up point for day laborers in the area formerly known as 山谷 San’ya (still informally called that, but no official name exists). Every morning, hundreds of poor and homeless descend upon the area in hopes of scoring a job for the day and a little money.

Kubi Kiri Jizo.

Kubikiri Jizo.

In 1741, the 首切地蔵 kubikiri jizō was built[iii]. A jizō is a Buddha who – among other things – watches over souls in the underworld (ie; the dead). Executions were carried out in front of this statue. So it’s said that this Buddha was the last thing a condemned criminal would see in this world. The statue stood watch over the cemetery until March 11th 2011, when the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake knocked it over. Since the area is rarely talked about, I just found out about this recently. I don’t know if there are plans to reassemble the statue, but I hope they do. It’s really a symbol of the area.

Kubikiri Jizo as he looked at the end of the Edo Period. I'm not sure, but I hope this is how the execution ground looked at the time, not after it was shut down.

Kubikiri Jizo as he looked at the end of the Edo Period or beginning of Meiji.
I’m not sure, but I hope this is how the execution ground looked at the time, not after it was shut down in 1873.

Kubikiri Jizo after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.

Kubikiri Jizo after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.

As with Suzugamori, the execution ground was blocked off from the general public and so the final farewells were said at 泪橋 Namidabashi the Bridge of Tears. The bridge crossed the 思川 Omoigawa which is now underground. Today the area is a nondescript intersection with a bus terminal.

I haven’t been to Minami Senju in years. I’ve only actually been twice in my life – both times to explore and photograph the execution ground. My impressions at the time were just depressing. When I exited the station there were almost no people in sight (a very unusual phenomenon in Tōkyō). The buildings were old and dirty. There was litter all over the streets (another unusual phenomenon in Tōkyō). The few locals I saw were either just dirty, or homeless. There were a few shops here and there and although the area looked somewhat like other shitamachi areas, the shops lacked the lively atmosphere. When I got to the execution ground’s graveyard, there was a temple with a massive 葵之御門 aoi no go-mon the coat of arms of the Tokugawa. I couldn’t help but feel like the shōgunate having executed so many here was still just lording over the dead. “We took your life and we’ve still got our eyes on you, muthafuckas.”

To the right of the Kubikiri Jizz-o and the cemetery remains, stands Enmei-ji, the shogunate's enduring F U to the executed.

To the right of the Kubikiri Jizz-o and the cemetery remains, stands Enmei-ji, the shogunate’s enduring F U to the executed.

One of the great things about Twitter that I never knew before doing this blog was that all the cool Japanese history nerds are there. I was told by a Twitter friend that the area’s gentrification is indeed taking off and that I should see it firsthand. So maybe it’s not as bad as I remember it. I haven’t been there since… ohhhhh, I don’t know… maybe since 2007, so I reckon another trip up that way is well overdue.

Oh, and speaking of Twitter, hit me up, bitches!
Let’s Japanese History! Awwwwwwww yeah.

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Ah, I almost forgot. The temple next to the Kubikiri Jizō is called 延命寺  Enmei-ji (which ironically mean “long life temple”). But if you go across the train tracks there is another temple built to comfort the souls of the executed called 回向院 Ekōin (ekō are Buddhist memorial prayers said for the souls of the dead). Among its treasures is a sword of the hereditary sword tester and executioner of the shōgunate, 山田浅衛門 Yamada Asaemon.

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EDIT: The Hopeful Monster has informed me via Twitter that the Kubikiri Jizō has been repaired and once again watches over the graves of the executed. He also runs a blog here on WordPress that I think JapanThis readers might also enjoy. You can see his blog here.

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[i] While the name persists among locals, apparently these days it is written コツ通り to disguise the meaning of the word 骨 kotsu bone. When written in kana instead of kanji, kotsu has an idiomatic meaning of “art” or “skill.”

[ii] Recently the area is undergoing gentrification. Even on the so-called “bone street” massive tower apartment buildings have been built in hopes of attracting people to the area.

[iii] Kubikiri jizō means “decapitation jizō.”

  1. Is this the end of the series? I could read about these execution sites all day.

    The Edo Period is always painted as peaceful and elegant, and you’ve shown that there was a murderous darks side to it. Thank you for opening my eyes.

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      And yes, unfortunately this is the end of the series. There were other execution grounds near Edo, for example Itabashi, but for this series I just focused on the 3 within the boundaries of Edo proper.

  2. There’s another sad but interesting Edo site near this temple: Jōkanji (浄閑寺), nicknamed Nagekomi-dera (投込寺) or Throwaway Temple. The corpses of 20 000 Yoshiwara prostitutes were dumped here, since it was the only temple willing to accept them.

    • Thanks for commenting!!

      I visited that temple about 10 years ago on my first visit to Japan. My guidebook had a shitamachi walking tour course and it just happened to include that site.

      It’s sad that those girls were essentially slaves, used and abused and then thrown out like garbage.

  3. There’s also a very interesting link between Kozukappara, the Dutch and a woman called the “Green Tea Hag”, whose autopsy was the start of rangaku. Here’s more info about that:

    http://www.executedtoday.com/2010/03/04/1771-green-tea-hag-the-beginning-of-dutch-learning/

    • Thanks for sharing the link! “Executed Today” – what a wonderfully morbid name for a website. Hahahaha.

      I’m glad you posted this because it’s a nice compliment to this story. I wanted to mention her, but I didn’t have time. So this saves me time!

  4. Sorry. Last one. (Promise.) Normally I don’t self-promote on other blogs, but you might find this interesting. If not, delete. 😉

    http://rurousha.blogspot.jp/2012/06/dead-prostitute-is-of-no-use-to-anyone.html

    • Promote away, this is totally interesting to me and I’m pretty sure my readers will be interested as well.

      By the way, I saw your article on Kozukappara while checking out English resources on the topic.

      There’s so little information in English on this topic, those of us who cover these kinds of topics have to stick together.

  5. What were the common crimes for the 200,000 beheadings?

    • I’m not sure, to be honest. I’m not sure if there was a legal code that prescribed particular punishments for particular crimes or not. My impression has been that it was up to the discretion of whomever judged the case.

      But I could be wrong.

  6. Thanks for the fascinating post. The hostel I stayed in was nearby, and I got familiar with that building with the Shogun’s crest. It is interesting, and creepy, to know some of the history of the area now.

  7. […] in Shinagawa and Kozukappara in Minami Senju are two of the darkest places in the city. These are the remains of execution […]

  8. As always, great article, and I enjoy your writing style immensely-
    Anyway, I just wanted to add my two cents to the question and answer about the crimes that led to the beheadings, etc.
    From all the reading that I’ve done studying the Edo Period (one of my straight-up favorite subjects, the Edo Period fascinates me) there were very very specific laid-out rules covering crimes/punishments, (much like Edo Period in general, eh?), however, especially further away geographically from Edo and the other major towns/cities (where the bakufu bosses weren’t overseeing everything- let’s not forget, 10 miles in 2017 and 10 miles in 1725 are two completely separate things)- anyway, out in the sticks, Lord Yabu might bend the rules a little, but not *too* much–
    Thank you for allowing me to comment.

    • Thanks for the comment and kind words. Yeah, out in the sticks I imagine there were more opportunities to “bend the rules” as you said. I don’t have any specific examples pertaining to torture and execution out in the domains, but it’s my understanding the local daimyō had a fair amount of autonomy weren’t it came to internal governance. I suspect this applies to criminal punishments as well 🤺

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