Many, many moons ago I read a book by Mark Schreiber titled `The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals` which was, as the title plainly stated, about the subject of people in Japanese history (from around the Edo period through to the late Showa/early Heisei era – i.e., late 1980s – early 1990s) who had committed some fairly heinous crimes and the type of punishments that they were subjected to. One thing in particular that struck me was a short chapter regarding the Edo execution grounds of Kozukappara (now found in Minami Senjū 2 Chōme, Arakawa ward of the Tokyo municipal area). Mark Schreiber`s description of this area at the time of its founding (around 1651) vividly captured its horrible nature, for in its early manifestation it was common for the bodies of executed criminals to be left where they fell. Their heads were put on display, thus serving as a warning for any travellers coming into Edo along the Tokaidō that this was the type of punishment lawbreakers could expect if they misbehaved in the shogun`s capital. Of course, executing hundreds of criminals over the course of year meant that there were a lot of corpses lying about, and with the coming of summer Kozukappara would become infamous for its horrendous stench and the plague of insects that infested the area.
Eventually a temple was erected nearby (in 1667) in order to provide a place in which to bury the bodies of the recently executed along with their heads. It would perform this role for the next two hundred years until the execution grounds were finally abolished in the early Meiji period (around 1870).
Now why have I gone into all this detail about such a horrible subject? I recently bought a book written by Ujiie Mikito titled `Crime and Punishment in the Edo Period` (published by Soshisha) which details how the trial system of the Edo period worked, and how authorities gradually began to eliminate the more gruesome punishments that were left over from the Sengoku period to embrace a more `humane` system of punishments (by humane, this is of course according to the standards of the time). Clearly there were major issues with the idea of `have the punishment fit the crime` as even minor transgressions could end up in with a death sentence, not to mention the prevalence of `tsujigiri` (a practice that was both sanctioned and outlawed during the course of the Edo period. Basically it allowed members of the samurai class to execute a person without recourse to magistrates. Instant justice, if you will).
The subject of crime and punishment of the Edo era has been dealt with in English within academic studies, however I thought that pursuing this subject in a more accessible format (i.e., a blog) might be more useful, or at least serve as an introduction to the subject. The first chapter of Ujiie`s book alone gives a good indication that it will be both a fascinating read and one that will educate the general public on the path of criminal punishments as practised in early modern Japan. The first chapter is translated as below (and in subsequent posts).
Crime and Punishment in the Edo Period
Suzuki Shōsan criticizes the practice of `tsujigiri`
We shall begin by discussing Suzuki Shōsan.
After being involved in the Osaka campaign as one of the many samurai in the Tokugawa army, Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655), who adopted that name after becoming a monk, was not only well known as an author of religious texts in the early Edo period but is famous in the history of Japanese literature as author of works such as the `Ni nin bi kuni` and the `Inka monogatari` which were written in kana cursive script. (pg.12)
Shōsan`s ideals have already been debated at length by other scholars along with his literary works (one such study is Miura Masahiko`s `Collected Studies of Suzuki Shōsan` etc). So I don`t intend to introduce either Shōsan`s standing in the history of literature or his individual works. (pg.12)
So why Shōsan? The reason is that the words in Shōsan`s theories (one could also call them sermons), which were opposed to just how lightly warriors could take the lives of others, allow one to feel just how painful it was to live during his times. Of course one should not take a life without a second thought, yet it appears that this idea had not really penetrated the world of the samurai at the time. (pg.12)
Shōsan`s acolyte Echū, who wrote a compilation of Shōsan`s sayings titled `Roankyō` (published 1660), posited the following `Montō` (a Zen inspired question and answer session):
If we continued to quote from this piece, most readers would very soon tire of it. So we`ll stop the quote at this point and translate the rest as follows. (pg.13)
“Warriors from the province of Kii were well known for their execution of people. If a person committed even the most minor error while serving in a warrior`s house, they would be cut down without a word. One day a warrior called upon me (Shōsan), and the two of us had the following conversation.
Warrior: I am a well renowned executioner (literally `people cutter`). You will have heard of my bad reputation.
Shōsan: No, not really. The people you execute are thieves or rogues. But you shouldn`t kill the innocent.
Warrior: Well that is true…
Shōsan: Are there others who are rogues, not just in your own household but among your colleagues as well?
Warrior: There are.
Shōsan: Would you kill them?
Warrior: No I wouldn`t.
Shōsan: Well then. It is the very height of folly to only kill those innocents who serve your lord while ignoring those rogues among your colleagues and from other places as well.” (pgs.13-14)