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Suzugamori Execution Ground

In Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!, Japanese History on July 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm

鈴ヶ森死刑場
Suzugamori Shikeijō
Suzugamori Execution Ground

At first, the ruins of Suzugamori look like a nice park.

At first, the ruins of Suzugamori look like a nice park.

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.

The area around Suzugamori in 1887. This is most likely the Tokkaido. Edo Bay/Tokyo Bay to the left, the remains of the execution ground would be to the right.

The area around Suzugamori in 1887.
This is most likely the Tokkaido.
Edo Bay/Tokyo Bay to the left, the remains of the execution ground would be to the right.

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 [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.

Decapitated heads displayed as a deterrent.

Decapitated heads displayed as a deterrent.

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.

Decapitated heads displayed as a deterrent.

So executioner dudes hanging out with some heads.

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.

Burning at the stake.  Awwwwww yeah.

Burning at the stake.
Awwwwww yeah.

Post hole for burning at the stake. Fresh flowers are given throughout the year by the nearby temple staff and neighbors.

Post hole for burning at the stake.
Fresh flowers are given throughout the year by the nearby temple staff and neighbors.

Sign marking the post hole for burning at the stake.

Sign marking the post hole for burning at the stake.

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.

Post hole for crucifixions.

Post hole for crucifixions.

Sign marking the post hole for crucifixions.

Sign marking the post hole for crucifixions.

A real Japanese crucifixion. Straight up gangster shit.

A real Japanese crucifixion.
Straight up gangster shit.

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.

The Japanese equivalent of drawing and quartering...

The Japanese equivalent of drawing and quartering…

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.

Namidabashi (the Bridge of Tears) as it looks today. The current incarnation of the bridge was built in the late Meiji Era.  The original bridge was (naturally) wooden.

Namidabashi (the Bridge of Tears) as it looks today.
The current incarnation of the bridge was built in the late Meiji Era.
The original bridge was (naturally) wooden.
The neighbors didn’t like the name Namidabashi and its association with Suzugamori, so today the bridge is officially known as Hamakawabashi.

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.

The well of Suzugamori.  This is where decapitated heads were washed before being put on display. (The fence is there to keep people from falling in)

The well of Suzugamori.
This is where decapitated heads were washed before being put on display.
(The fence is there to keep people from falling in)

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[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.

Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!!!

In Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!, Japanese History on July 22, 2013 at 6:59 am

江戸の大三死刑所
The Three Great Execution Grounds of Edo

Burning at the stake. Capital punishment for arsonists.

Burning at the stake.
Capital punishment for arsonists.

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.

Witnesses observing a crucifixion. Note the two guys with halberds, they are delivering the coup de grace by simultaneously slitting the condemned's throat.

Witnesses observing a crucifixion.
Note the two guys with halberds, they are delivering the coup de grace by simultaneously slitting the condemned’s throat.

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

  Kozukappara

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

 Denma-chō

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.

Heads were generally put on display along main street that passed by the execution grounds. "don't do it again!"

Heads were generally put on display
along main street that passed by the execution grounds.
“Don’t do it again!”

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 etauntouchables[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].

Execution by cutting the condemned's abdomen, separating top and bottom. (I feel bad for whoever has to clean up after this...)

Execution by cutting the condemned’s abdomen, separating top and bottom.
(I feel bad for whoever has to clean up after this…)

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

EDIT: http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/beato_people/fb2_essay01.html
Loads of bad ass-ness from MIT.

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[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.

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