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Kozukappara Execution Grounds

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

小塚原死刑場
Kozukappara Shikeijō
Kozukappara Execution Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Close up of the heads

Close up of the heads

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

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

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

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

Kubi Kiri Jizo.

Kubikiri Jizo.

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

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

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

Kubikiri Jizo after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.

Kubikiri Jizo after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iii] Kubikiri jizō means “decapitation jizō.”

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.

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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.

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