Ep. 008: The Execution Ground

Oh, the things you see strolling down a suburban Tokyo street...

When you set out on a walk of hundreds of kilometers in a foreign country, you're bound to see some things you hadn't expected. Read on to learn about one such sight very close to the start of my journey through Japan back in 2001.


Down the Old Tokaido

At the Shinagawa Barrier Gate

It was the second day of my walk down the Old Tokaido Highway, part of a ten-week journey through Japan, mostly on foot. [See my "as it happened" journal here.] That morning I had cleared the crowded, swanky neighborhoods of Tokyo's Shitamachi (literally "downtown") and passed the once-formidable Shinagawa Barrier Gate, which used to prevent unwanted characters from entering old Edo--and keep hostage the wives of provincial lords, to prevent the mischief of their rising up against the Shogun.

At last, I was strolling down a tree-lined, two-lane road, with birds cheeping over my head, and dappled sunlight on the highway under my feet. And just under that, blood-soaked earth.


Suzugamori Execution Ground

This pleasant little park is all that's left of the Suzugamori Execution Ground

The area is called Suzugamori--perhaps meaning "the ringing forest" (but see note below)--and named for a shrine that was once nearby (but see below). A suitable name for the place today, but from 1651 to 1871? Not so much.

Because that's when the more-than-slightly paranoid Tokugawa Shogunate--de facto military rulers of Japan in an era of weak imperial power--used this roughly 1200 square meters (13,000 square feet) to execute their enemies (real or imagined); common criminals; and those rascally Christians.

A little math: In its 220 years, Suzugamori saw maybe 100,000 deaths (though estimates vary), or just over 450 a year--more than one a day on average. In terms of area, that means more than seven-and-a-half deaths per square foot over the years.

It's no coincidence that the Ground lies outside of the Barrier Gate: so many deaths would pollute the city, spiritually speaking (not that there wasn't blood on a lot of hands anyway). But the pollution lives on: a friend told me that rents in the area tend to be cheaper--to entice people to move there despite their fear of ghosts.


The Gruesome Details

There were multiple means of execution, including--as one might expect--hanging and burning at the stake. A more surprising method, perhaps, is crucifixion, though unlike the Roman version it involved a lot of stabbing of the victim as he hung spread-eagle. (There's a picture of one such victim here, on Japanese Wikipedia; I won't post it in the Newsletter for sensitivity's sake.)

And the most gruesome procedure I read about was this: Tokyo Bay used to reach quite near to the area (before a couple of miles of landfill was added), so the authorities would hang the victim upside down over the bay at low tide, and wait for the water to rise.

Memorial stones on the Ground

Today, the site contains signs of active reverence, such as live flower offerings. And nearby Daikyo-ji temple conducted (conducts?) services to appease the spirits of the dead.


Inspired by Actual Events (?)

Marubashi Chuya in the Kabuki play Keian Taiheiki (Wikipedia)

Not surprisingly, Kabuki plays were written about some of the more romantic victims. One, called Keian Taiheiki, was about Marubashi Chuya, said to be the first victim of execution at Suzugamori. He had led an uprising against the oppressive Shogunate in 1651. Alas, his co-conspirator fell ill before the appointed date and gave it all away in his fevered ramblings. Tradition says Chuya was "drowned" in the bay after his death, as a warning to other would-be rebels.

Yaoya Oshichi in an ukiyo-e (woodblock print) (Wikipedia)

Even more evocative is the story of Yaoya Oshichi, the young daughter of a greengrocer. She and her family had taken refuge at their local temple during the 1683 "Great Fire of Tenna" (that being the era's name). While there, Oshichi was immediately and deeply smitten (you know how that is) with a young temple worker (some say monk) named Ikuta Shonosuke. When the all-clear was given after the fire, the family traveled home, and Oshichi was bereft.

The next year, despairing of ever seeing Shonosuke again, Oshichi hit on a plan: she would start a fire, hoping to duplicate the conditions of the previous year so her family would again be forced to stay at the temple--and she would be reunited with her love. (Never mind that perhaps as many as 3,500 people perished in the previous fire.) Unfortunately for her, she was caught in the act of arson.

At her trial, the judge kept asking her pointedly, "Are you not just 15 years old, my dear?" Because at 15, she would not be subject to capital punishment. Either too dim to catch it, or perhaps just an upright lass, Oshichi kept insisting she was 16, which led her to Suzugamori and the too-fitting punishment of being burned at the stake.

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More about the name "Suzugamori": A friend (Hi, Reiko!) wrote after the Podcast was recorded to tell me that the old "Suzugamori Shrine" I mentioned is now called Iwai Shrine, about a kilometer south of the Execution Ground on the other side of the expressway.

The shrine still holds a stone which, when struck, rings like a bell. So the name might be more like "Forest of the Ringing [Stone]." The stone can be seen clearly in the top picture on this page, also graciously provided by Reiko; a Google map location is also given there.

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Well friends, that's it for this episode. And don't forget, Suzugamori in Shinagawa's the place for low, low rents in greater Tokyo!

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Come with Lila and me as we visit the spectacular cave complex known as the Longmen Grottoes, cliffs along two sides of a river stretching over half a mile, with an estimated 100,000 Buddhist statues located in hundreds of caves. These are some of the most outstanding examples of Chinese Buddhist art anywhere in the world. Don't you dare miss it!