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Posts Tagged ‘edo execution ground spectacular’

What does Tachiaigawa mean?

In Japanese History on January 18, 2019 at 2:52 pm

立会川
Tachiaigawa
(Tachiai River; more at water meets water)

untitled-1

Tachiaigawa in the Edo Period and today

It’s been about a year since I updated the site. A whole fucking year [i]. Long time readers will remember the time I got rivered and almost abandoned the project altogether. Well, I started an article one year ago that, on the surface, seemed so simple, but actually turned into a nightmare. So, I’ve decided to take smaller bites and get things up and running again. I also apologize for keeping everyone waiting and hope I didn’t have anyone worrying. Also, a note about footnotes. WordPress changed the backend editor, so there is a chance the footnote links may not work.

So without further ado, let’s talk about a place in Tōkyō that foreigners don’t often go. Actually, a lot of Tōkyōites have never heard of this area either. It lies on 東海道 Tōkaidō the Eastern Sea Route[ii], just past the former post towns of 北品川宿 Kita Shinagawa-shuku North Shinagawa Post Town and 南品川宿 Minami Shinagawa-shuku South Shinagawa Post Town, between the former fishing village of  鮫洲 Samezu and 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds. Of course, I’m talking about 立会川 Tachiaigawa[iii]. In the Edo Period, travelers leaving the capital for Kyōto would have probably lodged in either Shinagawa Post Town or 川崎宿 Kawasaki-shuku Kawasaki Post Town[iv], but they definitely would have passed this rural seaside area, called 大井村 Ōi Mura Ōi Village at the time.

Further Reading:

suzugamori at night (1 of 1)

Suzugamori Execution Grounds at night. Ooooooh, spooooooky.

Let’s Look at the Kanji


tatsu, tachi
stand, rise, set up

au, ai
meet, join

kawa, -gawa
river

There are several creative theories that try to explain the origin of this place name, yet none of them are particularly convincing to me. I have my own pet theory which is not creative and seems super-obvious, but before we talk about the explanations people have put forward over the years, I want to talk about the geography of the area.

Until the late 1950’s, the coastline of  江戸湾東京湾 Edo-wanTōkyō-wan Edo/Tōkyō Bay was more or less the same. The neighborhood called Tachiaigawa was outside of the old city limits on the Tōkaidō Highway and lay directly on the beach at a place where a distributary of the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River called the Tachiai-gawa which flowed into Edo-Tōkyō Bay[v]. Until 1903, when 立会川駅 Tachiaigawa Eki Tachiaigawa Station opened, the area was not called Tachiaigawa. In fact, this is just a local term. In the Edo Period, this area was just considered 荏原国大井村 Ebara no Kuni Ōi Mura Ōi Village, Ebara Province[vi]. Even today, Tachiaigawa is not an official postal code. These days, this is 南大井一丁目 Minami Ōi Itchōme 1st block of South Ōi. The only thing you have to remember is that the Tachiai River has flown and continues to flow through this area. That’s key to its etymology.

samurai battle

Theory 1: There was a Samurai Battle here

This theory posits that the name derives from the combination 太刀 tachi long sword 会 ai meeting 川 kawa river (ie; the river where long swords met). And sure, since the 弥生時代 Yayoi Jidai Yayoi Period (let’s say from 300 BCE) until the Edo Period (1603), the history of Japan was dominated by warfare, but without a specific battle connected to this location, it’s really hard to say if this is just oral tradition or false etymology. If 太刀会 tachiai meeting of long swords is a prevalent place name in other places in eastern Japan or the rest of the country[vii], I might buy into this theory. However, what would seal the deal for me is if someone could point to a specific battle at this location[viii].

waterfall

Theory 2: There were Beautiful Waterfalls

It’s well a known fact that Edo Period castle towns didn’t have street names, so when people described their villages or neighborhoods to each other they used landmarks, hill names, and bridge names. It’s fair to say that either the bridges over the Tachiai River or the river itself could become an unofficial reference to the area.

The story goes that the original village lie on a calm section of the river between two waterfalls and was originally called 滝間 takima between the waterfalls, so locals began to refer to that stretch of the river as 滝間川 Takima-gawa the river between the falls which over time changed into Tachiai-gawa. I find this to be pretty unconvincing because in all my years running this site, I don’t remember a /ki/ becoming a //. Not that it isn’t possible[ix], I just can’t recall an example of that sound change in Japanese off the top of my head. Also, given the constant waterworks projects over the centuries, it would be hard to prove this.

buddha suzugamori (1 of 1)

Buddha statue at Suzugamori Execution Grounds. Recently, I’ve been going here late at night because I like creepy ghost shit. Awwwww yeah.

Theory 3: The Suzugamori Theory

I’ve written about 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds in the past[x] and in that article, I mentioned 涙橋 Namida-bashi the Bridge of Tears. For reasons of ritual cleanliness, executions were generally carried out beyond the city limits, so Suzugamori was a great place for that. People coming in and out of Edo would have seen the shōgunate’s ultimate authority, that over life and death. Also, it’s well known that 浜川橋 Hamagawa-bashi Hamagawa Bridge is generally known by locals as Namida-bashi. This was the last chance for condemned criminals to say their final farewells to their families[xi]. If this is the case, 立会 tachiai has a literal meaning of “standing and meeting.” Family and friends stood and watched their loved ones for the last time here.

namidabashi at night (1 of 1)

Namidabashi at night. Everyone’s coming home after a hard day of work at Suzugamori…

There is a corollary theory that pertains to the specifics of death sentences in the Edo Period. Condemned criminals would have been paraded through the streets as an example to all and then executed at one of the Three Great Execution Grounds of Edo. This related theory says that this river was where 御立会 o-tachiai government “involvement” happened. In short, shōgunate officials would arrive at Suzugamori to confirm the details of the condemned person’s case and observe (another meaning of the word o-tachiai) the execution. That means Tachiaigawa would mean “the place on the river where the shōgunate observed and confirmed executions.”

Because there are two theories presented, this seems to be a solid case for this etymology – on the surface. But guess who has two thumbs, writes JapanThis!, and thinks this is bullshit?

two thumbs

The Edo Period wasn’t that long ago. In fact, last year (2018) was the 150th anniversary of 大政奉還 Taisei Hōkan the shōgunate handing political authority over to the imperial court or 明治維新 Meiji Ishin the Meiji Coup (depending on which side you take). But think about it. Who the fuck would want to brag about living in a neighborhood famous for thousands of executions? To this very day, the former execution grounds of Suzugamori and Kozukappara are some of the least desirable places for real estate, with rent being cheap, and zero developers swooping in to build swanky high-rise apartments and shopping centers[xii]. In fact, the only reason people even live in areas like Tachiaigawa is because of necessity caused by urban sprawl in the post-war years. It’s the main reason the area still feels like the post-war years. Very little has changed since the 1960’s and 70’s! I doubt the execution thing would be a source of pride for the local fishermen and seaweed farmers who operated in this area from before the Edo Period until the 1950’s. Even the “Bridge of Tears” is a nickname. The official name is still “Seaside River Bridge” referring to the fact that it was literally a bridge crossing a river that emptied into the sea. Way more kosher than all that dark execution shit.

ryoma warehouse (1 of 1)

Because Tosa Domain had a huge residence here, you’ll find references to Sakamoto Ryōma and the Black Ships everywhere. For example, on this warehouse or whatever it is.

Theory 4: Where Water Meets Water

In doing this research, I remembered that time I got rivered. There were a few times I came across the kanji stand and meet. We see this in place names like 立川 Tachikawa Tachikawa and words like 合流 gōryū confluence. Without ever reviewing my previous research, it just seemed natural that a place where a river flowed into the sea would be called Tachiai-gawa. Why invoke all this stuff about samurai battles and executions?

To quote from my article on the Meguro River:

The Shinagawa clan was a branch of the main 大井氏 Ōi-shi Ōi clan. In order to irrigate their fief, the Ōi clan dabbled in a little river manipulation. Somewhere near the place called 立会川 Tachiaigawa (the modern kanji mean something like “the place where rivers stand together/come together”), the Ōi separated a section of the river 断ち合い川 tachiai kawa rivers that cut off from each other.  This happened in the Kamakura Period. One of the branches passed by 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple in Shimo-Meguro (see my article on Meguro).

I can’t find any maps from the Kamakura Period for this area[xiii], but Edo Period maps are readily available both online and in my private collection. Although it’s underground today, you can still trace a split in the river near Tachiaigawa Station that once flowed into the 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki suburban palace of 土佐藩 Tosa Han Tosa Domain. I’m assuming this is a remnant of the Kamakura Period waterworks. And when I say you can trace the path, I mean you can literally walk the path of the river today. Like right now. I dare you to do it, you lazy fuck.

All of those other fantastic theories are great stories, but if I were a betting man, I’d venture to say the etymology of Tachiaigawa is a mix of “rivers that split off from each other” and “where the river meets the sea.” In a bayside region full of rivers, Occam’s Razor comes down hard in favor of this theory. It’s clean and simple, looks like other derivations we’ve seen before, yet doesn’t require unattested battles, unconfirmed waterfalls and irregular diachronic sound changes, or a bizarre glorification of public executions for 250 some odd years and the shōgunate’s protocol in such matters. It’s just where water meets water. Pretty sure that’s it.

Further Reading:

hamakawa daiba (1 of 1).jpg

Cannon commemorating the Hamakawa Battery. Yup, that’s right. There’s a big ol’ cannon in the middle of a playground for children. Sounds more American than Japanese…

Sakamoto Ryōma

If you get off the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line at Tachiaigawa Station, you’ll find yourself in a very 下町 shitamachi low city neighborhood with a distinct post-war looking 商店街 shōtengai shopping street replete with local bars, yaki-tori joints, and a big old statue of 坂本龍馬 Sakamoto Ryōma. I’m not gonna explain who he was, you can read about him here. But across the street from the station is a school and residential area that sit on the suburban palace of his native domain, 土佐藩 Tosa-han Tosa Domain – modern 高知県 Kōchi-ken Kōchi Prefecture. He most definitely spent some time walking on the Tōkaidō while serving guard duty at the nearby by 浜川砲台 Hamagawa Hōdai Fort Hamagawa in his twenties[xiv]. In Tachiaigawa, you can find a cheap knock off of a famous statue in Kōchi, which itself is a cheap knock off of the iconic photograph of Ryōma himself taken at the 上野撮影局 Ueno Satsueikyoku Ueno Photography Studio in Nagasaki some time in 1867[xv]. At any rate, nearby is a placard depicting the four 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships commanded by Commodore Perry that arrived in Edo Bay in 1853: the Susquehanna, Mississippi, Saratoga, and Plymouth[xvi].

Further Reading:

ryoma tachiaigawa (1 of 1)

Ryōma voguing Bakumatsu style

tachiaigawa at night (1 of 1)

After a day of walking the old Tōkaidō, I love grabbing dinner Shōwa-style in Tachiaigawa.

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
(And yes, I’ll take you through Shinagawa post town and to Tachiaigawa, or even the execution grounds. It’s not for tourists, it’s for history nerds!)

 


[i] Or, a hole fucking year, if you’re on #TeamIenari.
[ii] One of the 5 Great Highways. The 東海道 Tōkaidō Eastern Sea Route and 中仙道  Nakasendō Mountain Pass Route connected the shōgun’s capital of 江戸 Edo Edo (modern day Tōkyō) with the imperial capital 京 Kyō (modern day Kyōto).
[iii] Of course I am lol
[iv] I’ve actually walked from 日本橋 Nihonbashi, the easternmost starting point on the Tōkaidō (the name literally means “the bridge to Japan”), to the modern city of Kawasaki. Without visiting too many temples and shrines and walking at a brisk pace, I made the journey in a day. I think most Edo Period people would easily spend a full day and night in Shinagawa before beginning the tedious walk to Kawasaki. Shinagawa offered delicious seafood, plenty of drinking and whoring, and a non-stop variety of amazing views of 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay. Some ghoulishly curious types probably checked out the execution grounds, cuz, yeah. Humans.
[v] At various points in history and depending on the stretch of river in question, this may have been referred to as the Shinagawa River.
[vi] It was directly controlled by the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate, but it wasn’t part of Edo proper. The term 国 kuni province was basically a traditional term – as it is today – to refer to old Heian Period territories. Today, it’s nostalgic, but in the Edo Period, province names were retained for their “classical appeal” and used in court titles.
[vii] It’s not.
[viii] I can’t find anything that satisfies these criteria.
[ix] This exact sound change is quite well known and regular in Latin languages – Italian and French in particular. Latin centum /kentum/ became Italian cento /tʃento/ (one hundred) and Latin cattus /cattus/ became French chat /ʃat/ (cat).
[x] Here’s my article on Suzugamori.
[xi] If their families even bothered to show up.
[xii] The exception being 小伝馬町 Kodenmachō, which is near 日本橋 Nihonbashi whose thriving business district overshadows the grim atmosphere of the neighborhoods around Suzugamori and Kozukappara. Kozukappara was so awful that the place name doesn’t exist outside of historical landmarks. Suzugamori’s name is still attached to a park and an elementary school.
[xiii] There might not be any, but maybe I’ll visit the 品川歴史館 Shinagawa Rekishikan Shinagawa History Museum again to see if they can help.
[xiv] This is a 30-40 minute walk today. I suspect in the Edo Period it would have taken about an hour.
[xv] If I remember correctly, the statue used to stand in front of a convenience store or something as a kinda gimmick. But since the renewal of the old Tōkaidō beginning in 2008 or so, they’ve played up Ryōma’s association with the area much more and put the (I’m assuming) plastic statue on a large concrete pedestal and put him in a park next to the train station.
[xvi] Not that these ships ever actually made it to Edo. They did their business in Uraga Bay which is actually miles from Edo-Tōkyō.

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.”

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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