(Denma Town Jail Precinct)
(Denma Town Execution Ground)
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.
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.
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].
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 (大 + 安) 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.
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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
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].
Mi wa tatoe
|Despite my body|
Decomposing deep under
The Musashi Plain,
I will always hold on to
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.
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.
- 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.
Take a Tour:
- Guess who runs tours of the Execution Grounds of Edo? Please have a look.
[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.