Ujie Mikito, “Historical records of crimes committed during the Edo period” (Kobunsho ni miru Edo hanzai kõ), Shõdensha, 2016.
Chapter One. The case of the ‘thousand cuts’ killer
When examining crimes committed during the Edo period, it is clear that the motives, methods, number of victims and scale of heinousness of those crimes greatly varied. So where should we start our investigation? While I don’t have any particular preference for such incidents, I’ll start by looking at a crime committed by a ‘stone-cold killer’ (in Japanese, a tõrima - literally ‘a passing devil’. This term used to refer to an incident where a person armed with some form of sharp implement, such as a knife or a sword or indeed any sort of implement, suddenly and violently begins randomly stabbing and slashing people around him or her without provocation).
This particular incident comes courtesy of Ishizuka Hõkaishi’s “Collection of records of street gossip” (Daidan Bunbun Shûyõ).
From the end of the 1st month (January) to the 3rd month of the 3rd year of Bunka (1806), someone in the city of Edo had taken to stabbing poor and disabled people to death with a spear after the sun went down. Why? It was clear from the victims that the motive for such crimes wasn’t money.
Let’s explore this in greater detail. At around 8pm on the 1st day of the 3rd month, a 32 year old blind ‘vagrant’ was stabbed by a spear on the road just below Mizaka in the city of Edo and later died of his wounds. Then on the 6th, at around 7pm in the evening, a 50 year old vagrant was stabbed on the road at Kõjimachi San-nõ-chõ and gravely wounded.
There would be another two victims on the 6th. At 9pm, on the road out the back of Kõjimachi Ichõme, a 45 year old blind masseuse had been stabbed and wounded. At around the same time, on the road at Asakusa Higashigachõ, a 25 year old apprentice to a local doctor was stabbed and killed. (14, 15)
It appeared that a serial killer was on the loose. The killer may not have been acting alone, and we can’t rule out the possibility that some of these incidents might have been ‘copycat’ killings inspired by the original murder. In all, 13 people were attacked with a spear between the 1st and 3rd months, and 6 died. 7 or 8 victims managed to flee from their attacker after being wounded.
Luckily the culprit was finally apprehended in the 4th month, and on the 13th day of the same month was handed over to authorities for sentencing. He was executed at the prison grounds at Suzugamori on the same day and his head was put on display. The culprit had previously served as a retainer within a samurai household, and his motive appeared to be a desire to test his spear training on a living human body. Unable to control himself, he had then repeated his crimes. (15)
The joy shared by the arrest of the culprit was short-lived, however. On the very day that he was executed, another blind masseuse was stabbed at Asakusa, and four days after the retainer’s execution, on the 27th of the 4th month, 3 people were stabbed in the vicinity of Kagurazaka. One of these was a lad aged 17. On his way back from collecting some medicine from a local doctor to give to his mother who had suddenly fallen ill, the boy was stabbed through the chest, from the ribcage through to the spine, and died almost instantly. The weapon this time was not a spear, but a newly forged carving knife which had been left in the body of the victim after the culprit fled. (15, 16)
A similar series of incidents later occurred throughout the 11th and 12th months of the same year. Yet again, all of the victims were either itinerants or disabled. Despite the implementation of stricter restrictions on movement by the various towns within the city of Edo, authorities were still unable to catch the culprit.
As the perpetrator of the original crimes had been put to death in the 4th month, the continuation of such incidents was believed to be a result of copycat killings. (16)
Be that as it may, it doesn’t explain why such grotesque crimes were repeatedly happening to the infirm and those at the very bottom of society.
In Edo, the practice of samurai attacking passers-by in order to test the sharpness of their swords (known in Japanese as tsuji-giri) occurred from time to time. However the perpetrator of the serial crimes in the 3rd year of Bunka was no samurai. Moreover the man executed earlier who belonged to the samurai household was believed to have been a simple town resident (or else a peasant). Hence whomever had committed the copycat crime with the carving knife was also not a member of the warrior class. (16)
It appeared as the the perpetrators of these incidents wanted to kill a living human being, be it with a spear or a knife. They may have sought out the experience for the thrill and sensation that it gave them. However such abominable motives led to miserable ends. (16, 17)
The work of a devil
The next record was written by Matsuura Seizan and titled “Kasshi Yawa” (Evening Tales of the First Lunar Cycle). Matsuura was a venerable elder (and former ruler) of Hirado district of Hizen province (modern Nagasaki and Saga prefectures, land that came with a stipend of 60,000 koku a year (a koku being a unit of measurement, with 1 koku being the amount of rice deemed necessary to feed one man for one year). His writing contains some important records of crimes. One of those concerned a series of murders that took place in the 5th month of the 9th year of Bunsei (1826). (17)
At around 6pm on the 18th day of the 5th month of Bunsei 9, a man by the name of Kingorõ, an apprentice to a business located in Kohinata Myõgatani chõ (another part of Edo), was making his way home from the local bathhouse when he was set upon by a number of assailants. He was cut open from his left hip to his throat and quickly expired. The culprits fled the scene, and their motive remained a mystery. Kingorõ had been making his way to the bathhouse with barely any clothing on, hence the perpetrators cannot have been seeking to rob him of any money he might possess. It looked as though this was yet another tõrima incident. (17)
At around 9pm on the same night, an official by the name of Kamekichi, working in front of the temple of Dentsûin at Ko-ishikawa, came across two men who appeared to be samurai on the path above the district of Tomisaka. Kamekichi saw both men reach for the swords and move to strike him, whereupon Kamekichi quickly ran off and lived to tell the tale. Then at 7pm on the 20th of the 5th month, a peasant by the name of Gonbei of Kazusa province was walking along the banks of a moat outside of the Hitotsubashi gate when somebody took a swing at him with a sword from above his straw (kasa) hat. Gonbei chased after his assailants, all two of them, but lost sight of them in the dark. It was after returning to his house that Gonbei first noticed that he had a 3cm gash in his forehead.
The fact that Gonbei hadn’t noticed his injury because he was so surprised at having been randomly attacked in the first place bore a striking similarity to the tale of Tetsugorõ, a carpenter of the Tõkichi school at Fukugawa. At around 6pm on the 5th day of the 6th month of Bunsei 9, Tetsugorõ was set upon by an unknown number of assailants on his way back to Fukugawa from Morishita chõ. Despite being quite incapacitated by alcohol, somehow Tetsugorõ managed to get away. He didn’t even notice that he had a cut running across his back until after he returned home and tried to have a bath. The blood that ran from his back into the water told him all he needed to know about the attack on him. (18)
Were his attackers attempting to test their swords out on Tetsugorõ or was simple murder their motivation? Whatever the case may be, as far as Seizan was concerned these serial murders were ‘the work of a devil’. (18)
The madness of Magara Shingorõ
Up until now we have been dealing with the opening act, but now it is time to move on to the main event. I should add that simply quoting from the source would be difficult for readers to understand, hence I would like to introduce the next case by offering my own interpretation of the original text. (19)
On the evening of the 24th day of the 8th month of Kanbun 3 (1663), in an area between a grass field and Koku-chõ - a part of the Nihonbashi district - a number of incidents occurred where people passing through that area were randomly attacked. 8 people in all were killed while another 10 were wounded. Despite occurring in the dead of night, people were soon rushing to their local magistrates’ houses to demand something be done to put a stop to such madness. (19)
The identity of the culprit remained a mystery, however. Then, at about 8 am the following day, a monk from the Kõya monastery by the name of Shinetsubõ made his way to the local magistrate’s residence at Koku-chõ and relayed the following information:
“Last night, a well-disposed rõnin (unemployed samurai) by the name of Magara Shingorõ came to visit me at my house. Upon arrival, he asked “I have been holed up at Atagoyama (part of Edo city) where I have been offering prayers. However I am very tired. Might I rest here for a while?”. He looked like a fairly stable, trustworthy sort of fellow so I let him in. Almost as soon as he had entered, he suddenly dropped down onto the floor and quickly fell into a deep sleep.
This morning, when I went to take breakfast to Magara in his room, where he was still asleep, I noticed that he had blood on various parts of his clothing. Not only that, the sword that he had drawn from its scabbard and placed upright on the floor was covered in blood, right up to the hilt. Being that he is a large man, and unsure what he might do after he wakes up, I’ve hidden both his main and short swords as a precaution”.
The magistrate exclaimed “That’s him, that’s the culprit. Seize him”, and dispatched a posse of retainers off to Shinetsubõ’s house. Upon entering the house, the posse found Magara sound asleep and easily overpowered him. He was then taken back to the official’s residence, and gave the following response to questioning:
“Ordinarily I pray at Atago Shrine. Last night, while I was praying, I received a divine message which said “You should cut one thousand people starting tonight. If you do this, all of your wishes shall come true.” So I left Atagoyama and ran about cutting anybody I happened to come across, just cutting and running, cutting and running. I remember cutting around 20 or 30 people, but I have no idea whether they are still alive or dead”.
Magara then made a final request, which was to “Please allow me to continue to cut a thousand people. My wishes won’t come true if I don’t”. So in addition to randomly attacking numerous passers-by and causing their deaths, not only was Magara barely aware of the gravity of his crimes, he had the audacity to ask the local magistrate to allow him to continue to perpetrate them. What is more, the expression on his face, with his wide-open eyes and gritted teeth, made him appear as if he was in the grips of madness. (20, 21)
The sword that Magara used to commit his crimes was around 3 shaku (approximately 90 cm) in length and 3.4 cm in width, forged by Kawachi no Kami Kunisuke. It appears that Magara had only to swing at each passer-by once for him to cut them down. Hence after the incident the sword was highly regarded for its cutting edge, and Kunisuke himself became renowned as a master swordsmith and a maker of superlative blades. (21)
‘To cut a thousand people’
The above incident (which I have taken to calling ‘the case of the thousand cuts killer’) has many things in common with modern incidents committed by tõrima.
Magara prayed fervently in the hope that it would make his wishes come true. His main wish was probably to secure a good job as an official somewhere (i.e., be re-hired). Here he was, a powerfully built individual, excelling in military arts and literate. So why was he still unemployed? His overconfidence in his own abilities and dissolution with a society that didn’t acknowledge his skills, combined with his anxiety over an uncertain future and current poverty, must have damaged his psyche. Hence his ‘auditory hallucination’ of receiving a message from the gods, which transformed him into a mass murderer. (22)
This conjecture might seem pretty forced, but it is entirely possible that these were the sort of thoughts going through Magara’s head before he committed his crimes. Obviously everyone’s past is different. And it is not so easy to simply compare Magara Shingorõ with the perpetrators of modern tõrima incidents, but still…
Actually, there is one point where Magara’s case differs considerably to the modern day. Magara’s case occurred at a time when the smell of blood still tainted the air of the warrior class. The fact that Magara’s sword, which would otherwise be regarded as a murder weapon, could instead be praised for its sharpness speaks volumes about the times in which the incident happened. I very much doubt in this day and age that a knife used to perpetrate a tõrima incident would later start flying off the shelves because of the maker’s claim that it ‘cuts really well’. (22, 23)
Nevertheless, no matter how much we put Magara’s behaviour down to his insanity, I have no words to express my horror at his request to ‘be allowed to keep on cutting a thousand people’. It was as though he had shamelessly declared “As a warrior, I have been lenient. So please allow me kill another 900 or so people”. No matter how heinous a crime might be committed today, I doubt the culprit would utter words so detached from reality. (23)
But what exactly was this phenomenon Magara spoke of – this ritual of ‘cutting one thousand people’? (sennin-kiri, not to be confused with the modern use of this expression which refers to something ENTIRELY different)
For the answer to this, I first must thank the naturalist, botanist, and cultural anthropologist Minagata Kumakuzu, a ‘giant of knowledge’. I wonder if you are familiar with his work ‘About the cutting of a thousand people’ (Sennin-kiri no Hanashi) published in Meiji 45 (1912)? Minagata, who was in his late 50s when he wrote that essay, was a collector of the historical records and literature of this country, and not only offered up examples of the ritual of ‘one thousand cuts’, but followed the trail of clues all the way back to its origins in the Angulimala Sutra. That tale can be summarised as follows: (23, 24)
“The teacher Baramon had a gifted young acolyte of whom he was jealous. In order to try and get the young monk to ‘remove himself’ (i.e., commit suicide) he laid false accusations on him, saying ”You are an evil person”, and ordered the young monk “to kill one thousand people in order to wash away the stain of your sins”. The young monk, with no other option, proceeded to start killing people.
After killing nine hundred and ninety-nine people, the young monk had one person left to fulfil his task. At that moment, his mother, worried about her son’s emaciated form, brought him a delicious meal to eat. When the son was on the verge of killing his mother, Lord Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha) appeared, and explained how wrong the actions of the young monk were to him. The young monk then became enlightened, and would go on to become a venerated holy man.”
Whatever the origins of this story may be, the fact is that it led to a stupid belief that if you kill one thousand people your wishes will be granted. When this was combined with the nonchalance of the warring states period (1465-1615), when killing peasants was considered no great sin, and whose ethos was carried over into the early Edo period by the warrior class, this led to the appearance of people who repeatedly committed acts of tsuji-giri. It was these individuals who then proceeded to ‘glorify’ such acts of random terror by linking sennin-kiri to the fulfilment of a religious vow. (24, 25)
In sum, the ‘case of the thousand cuts killer’ took place at a time when an atmosphere of naked blood lust had yet to fade into history. It was a tragic practice perpetrated by rõnin that emerged in the early Edo period following the dissolution of many daimyõ (warlord) households. (25)
Was the above crime an anomaly caused by the mental state of the perpetrator, something that would be familiar to the modern age, or was it a crime steeped in the mores and manners of its time? The jury is out on the verdict, but when examining the origins of the crime, one further theory emerged which I find quite intriguing. It is a theory that links such acts to a phenomenon that would be familiar to inhabitants of the Malay peninsula – that of ‘Amok Syndrome’. (25)
In his study of sennin-kiri, Minagata Kumakuzu had the following to say about ‘Amok Syndrome’:
“Debts, separation from loved ones, and punishment. When a man feels that these have all piled up and that there is no fairness left in the world, he temporarily goes insane, aware neither of what led him into his current state nor what its consequences will be. Taking a knife in hand, he runs about attacking people indiscriminately, men, women, young and old, without rest. Afterwards, despite the deaths of scores of people, the mob will seemingly praise him for his act.” (26)
A man whose dissatisfaction and indignation have piled up to the point that he loses control of himself is transformed into a mass murderer. After the crimes are committed, there is a tendency for people to find worth in the grotesqueness of such acts. In this sense, such acts closely resemble that committed by Magara Shingorõ. (26)
Minagata also wrote the following based on notes made by Alfred Wallace in his “Record of the Malay Islands”:
“56 years ago (around 1856), a series of incidents took place in Makassar (located in the centre of Sulawesi Island in eastern Indonesia). These occurred at the rate of once or twice a month. The worst of these would see 20 or so people killed or injured.”
The origins of the word ‘amok’ were explained in Chapter Six of Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works”. According to Pinker:
“Amok is a Malay word for the homicidal sprees occasionally undertaken by lonely Indochinese men who have suffered a loss of love, a loss of money, or a loss of face.”
Pinker also points out records of such acts being committed in Papua New Guinea. In terms of the relationship between ‘Amok Syndrome’ and indiscriminate acts of mass murder, Pinker made the following observation. In 1986, 7 men admitted to a hospital in Papua New Guinea and suffering from ‘Amok Syndrome’ were interviewed and analysed, with the results comprising the basis for the ‘amok mindset’. These results were identical to the thoughts held by Thomas Hamilton, the perpetrator of the Dunblane Massacre. On the 13th of March 1996, Hamilton walked into a primary school in the Scottish town of Dunblane and proceeded to murder sixteen children and their teacher using various guns before killing himself. (27)
Pinker explained the ‘amok mindset’ thus:
“I am not an important or “big man”. I possess only my personal sense of dignity. My life has been reduced to nothing but an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing left to lose except my life, which is nothing, so I trade my life for yours, as your life is favoured. The exchange is in my favour, so I shall not only kill you, but I shall kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process.”
Even in samurai households of the Bakumatsu era….
One could therefore say that the ‘case of the thousand cuts killer’ that took place on the evening of the 24th of the 8th month of Kanbun 3 (1663), steeped though it was in the mores of the early Edo period, was a tragedy whose origins lay in the amok mindset of its perpetrator, a mindset whose existence transcends both time and place.
Tonight’s story thus ends here. Or does it? Since we’ve come this far, I’ll relay the details of one further case that took place during the Edo period.
On the evening of the 10th of the 9th month of Kaei 4 (1851, during what is known in Japanese as the Bakumatsu era, when the Tokugawa shõgunate was in its twilight years yet before the emerge of Japan as a modern state), an incident took place in the residence of one of Tokugawa shõgunate’s close retainers, that of Hongõ Tango no Kami Yasukata. One of the members of the household retinue managed to cut his way into the female quarters at the centre of the household, where he proceeded to strike five women down before killing himself. (28)
A doctor was called for, yet all of the women were already dead. I’m not really sure what sort of treatment they were hoping the doctor would be able to offer. Nevertheless this incident was recorded in the ‘Naniwa Diary’ (Naniwa Nikki) written by Kawaji Toshiakira. It seems that Minagata wasn’t aware of the existence of this book, and so it wasn’t included in his study of sennin-kiri. (28)
But what became of Magara Shingorõ? He had gone about slicing up victims with abandon and so, no surprises here, wasn’t spared execution. The conclusion to this case is recorded in the “Collection of Various Tales and Testimonies of Martial Houses” (Bumon Shosetsu Shûi), which said:
“And so Shingorõ, despite being affected by madness, was found guilty of having killed a large number of people and was cut down.”
This “cut down” tells us that even seppuku (ritual suicide) was considered too good for someone of the likes of Magara. (29)