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A Tour of Denma-chō Prison & Execution Ground

In Japanese History on April 27, 2017 at 3:29 am

伝馬町牢屋敷
Denma-chō Rōyashiki (Denma Town Jail Precincts)
伝馬町処刑場
Denma-chō Shokeiba (Denma Town Execution Ground)

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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.

Map with English

Map of the prison, I’ve translated some of the main sites. You may want to refer back to this throughout the article or while watching the video.

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.

detention and torture warehouse.jpg

This is a great illustration that shows the general population detention facility (note the lack of windows), the fireproof warehouse where inmates were tortured, and the moat surrounding this section of the prison.

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].

sendai domain prison.jpg

Photo of a prison in Sendai Domain, while it must have had better ventilation that Denma-chō, it still looks abysmal.

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 ( + ) 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.

denmacho

This graphic is courtesy of Deep Azabu, quite possibly the greatest Japanese history blog ever. I’m very thankful for his help in putting this together. The top image is Edo Period, the bottom image is present day.

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.

Daianraku-ji

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.

IMG_2631.PNG

Minobu Betsu-in

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].

 

IMG_2560

The Yoshida Shōin yadayadayada monument.

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.

twat

Yoshida Shōin – Osama bin Laden of the Bakumatsu.

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.

edo mura

Recreation of Denma-chō Prison at Nikkō Edo Wonderland

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].

身はたとひ
武蔵の野辺に
朽ちぬとも
 留め置かまし
大和魂

Mi wa tatoe
Musashi no Nobe ni
Kuchinu tomo
Todome-okamashi
Yamato-damashii

Despite my body
Decomposing deep under
The Musashi Plain,
I will always hold on to
My Yamato-damashii

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.

 

beheading.jpg

Good old fashion beheading.

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.

Special Thanks:

  • 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.

 

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

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[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.

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.”

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.

Denma-cho Prison

In Edo Execution Ground Spectacular!, Japanese History on July 22, 2013 at 10:56 pm

伝馬町牢屋敷
Denma-chō Rōyashiki
Denma-chō Prison

Denma-cho Prison & Execution Ground

Denma-cho Prison & Execution Ground

Alternatively written 傳馬町牢屋敷 Denma-chō (old style), and often referred to as  小伝馬町 Kodenma-chō after the local train station name, Denma-chō Prison and Execution Ground was located near Nihonbashi in the outskirts of old Edo. It’s estimated that during its 200 year history somewhere between 100,000 – 200,000 people were executed here. The facility was in use from 1613 – 1875 and it was the largest of the prisons in Edo. The famous samurai doctor, Takano Chōei, was sentenced to 5 years in the commoner’s section here for criticizing the Tokugawa shōgunate in a paper he wrote. Chōshū Domain’s Yoshida Shōin, teacher and all around twat extraordinaire, was sentenced here and eventually executed by beheading[i]. While Denma-chō Prison had a section for commoners, it primarily housed high ranking officials (retainers of daimyo, direct retainers of the shōgun, physicians, and other criminals of samurai status). As far as Edo’s prisons and execution grounds went, this was the nice one. It also housed female inmates in an area called the 揚屋 agariya[ii]. Because of the amount of high ranking inmates, it was said that your level of hell depended on how much money you had. I don’t know if that means the judges and guards were taking bribes or not. But certainly, in the Edo Period, your social status might have afforded you slightly better accommodations and treatment.

Prisoners arriving at the gate of Denma-cho Prison

Prisoners arriving at the gate of Denma-cho Prison

Gate of Jisshi Park

Gate of Jisshi Park

But don’t think the samurai and female prisoners had it too good here. The buildings were windowless so there was no ventilation during the hot and humid summers. There was no sunlight. Food was given twice a day (thrice a day for women), usually just brown rice and miso soup. The public latrine was located within the prison grounds, and with about 500 prisoners at a time, it apparently stank to high hell. The close quarters meant that disease was rampant, and the physicians who were called to the site hated visiting the place so they did half-ass checkups on the inmates. As a result, it was common for inmates to dying of disease – even those who weren’t condemned to death. Executions were performed in full view of the inmates and carcasses were exposed for days at the perimeter, which meant the smell of rotting human flesh was constant. Torture was a regular policy for certain types of prisoners. Little effort was made to conduct such activities in private, so screams of pain were just a normal part of the background noise.

Incarceration at Denma-cho prison

Incarceration at Denma-cho prison

Dai-Anraku Temple is built on the killing floor to appease the spirits of executed

Dai-Anraku Temple is built on the killing floor to appease the spirits of executed

This stone is supposedly from the prison's well.  The well would have been used for drinking water, but also for the gruesome task of washing decapitated heads before display.

This stone is supposedly from the prison’s well.
The well would have been used for drinking water, but also for the gruesome task of washing decapitated heads before display.

The main executioner was the shōgun’s hereditary 様斬 tameshigiri sword tester 山田浅右衛門 Yamada Asaemon. As such, new swords were tested on corpses and living targets – naturally in plain sight of the inmates. The main form of execution at Denma-chō was beheading, but crucifixions and some other creative methods were employed from time to time. A large bronze bell was rung whenever an execution took place to mark the occasion with a little Buddhist solemnity and – I can’t help but feel – a little festivity. Everybody likes bells, right?

The bell. It was located outside of the prison in the Edo Period, but it was moved here when Daianraku-ji was built on the premises.

The bell.
It was located outside of the prison in the Edo Period,
but it was moved here when Daianraku-ji was established on the premises in 1882.

The facility was shut down by the Meiji Government in 1871 – they had continued to use it for 8 years, mind you – in an effort to appear “modern” as they sought to renegotiate the so-called “unequal treaties” that the shōgunate had agreed to. Beheadings, crucifixion and other “barbaric” methods of dispatching condemned criminals were also abolished. In 1875, Ichigaya Prison replaced Denma-chō and a new era of the Japanese penile system began[iii].

I don't know if this Buddha stood here in the Edo Period, but if it did, it would have witnessed over 100,000 executions.

I don’t know if this Buddha stood here in the Edo Period, but if it did, it would have witnessed over 100,000 executions.

More remains of the execution ground.

More remains of the execution ground.

Little remains of the site today, but the few bits and pieces that are still extant can be seen at  大安楽寺 Daianraku-ji Daianraku Temple and 十思公園  Jisshi Kōen Jisshi Park. The actual site encompassed those locations as well  十思小学校  Jisshi Shōgakkō Jisshi Elementary School. Recent archaeological findings revealed a little about the layout of the facility, but actually shed more light on Edo Period sewage and plumbing. The well and much of the piping were still intact after all these years. Sexy!

A little shrine to Benzaiten, one of the 7 gods of good luck.

A little shrine to Benzaiten, one of the 7 gods of good luck.

Benzaiten likes water.

Benzaiten likes water.

The bell that sounded each execution still remains and some stone foundations and memorials can be seen. A stone memorial states that Daianraku-ji is actually the site of the killing floor. The temple was built to care for the spirits of those who were executed or who died here and as such, it’s not the most popular temple in Tōkyō. The name of the temple means Great Comfort and Ease. I guess it’s the Buddhist version of requiescat in pace[iv].

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Enjoy some of the left over pictures that didn’t fit into the article:

img_334850_13795921_2

Edo Period piping discovered during excavation of the area.

IMG_1023

At the entrance of the park, there’s a small pond beside the Yoshida Shoin monument.

A drinking fountain and a foundation to something that is no longer there.  Probably not Edo Era, but I took a picture anyways.

A drinking fountain and a foundation to something that is no longer there.
Probably not Edo Era, but I took a picture anyways.

Excavations of the foundations

Excavations of the foundations

When you exit Kodenma-cho Station, this stone monument tells you what the area used to be.

When you exit Kodenma-cho Station, this stone monument tells you what the area used to be.

I can't read this. Can you?

I can’t read this. Can you?

The so-called "Demise of Yoshida Shoin" monument.

The so-called “Demise of Yoshida Shoin” monument.

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[i] I’m not a fan of Yoshida Shōin or the ideas he espoused, but his shrine, 松陰神社 Shōin Jinja, in Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward supposedly has a 維新祭 Ishin Matsuri Restoration Festival that sounds kind of interesting. By the way, Shōin wasn’t executed at Denma-chō. He was killed at Kozukappara in Minami Senju.

[ii] For those in the know, agariya was also an Edo Period word for a brothel, but I don’t think the women were being pimped out at Denma-chō. Male and female inmates were segregated – I think that’s all is meant by this word.

[iii] Ooops, I mean penal. Penal system. Sorry.

[iv] Latin for “rest in peace” – R.I.P.

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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