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1653: Sakura Sogoro, righteous peasant

September 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Perhaps on this date in 1653 — it is, at any rate, the date saluted by a festival that honors him — the peasant Sakura Sogoro was crucified for protesting the oppressive taxation of his local lord.

Sogoro — familiarly known as Sogo-sama — was a village head man who dared to take his complaints about his daimyo‘s heavy hand right to the shogun himself. As punishment for this effrontery, the daimyo had the peasant executed (which punishment the sacrificial Sogoro anticipated in making his appeal) along with his wife and sons (which was an outrage).

As classically described, Sogoro from the cross damns the cruelty of the punishment and promises to revenge himself as a ghost, destroying the daimyo‘s house within three years. A century or so after his death, a shrine was erected to his memory which attracted pilgrims throughout the realm and made Sakura Sogoro “the patron saint of protest” (Anne Walthall, whom we shall hear more from later.) The tale has earned popular staging in Japanese culture from the kabuki stage to television.


The great 19th century kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji as the avenging specter of “Asakura Togo”, the Kabuki character based on Sakura Sogoro. Image from this gorgeous collection.

As one might infer from the sketchy account here, the story’s historicity is shaky despite its popularity down the centuries in Japan. According to one an academic paper by Walthall,*

The archetype of the peasant martyr, a man who deliberately sacrificed himself on behalf of his community.”

More has been written about Sakura Sogoro than about any other peasant hero, but the evidence of his existence is extremely circumstantial. Written accounts of him remain fragmentary until the 1770s …

The first mention of the Sogoro legend appears in Sakura fudoki (a record of provincial lore on Sakura), compiled by a Sakura domain bureaucrat, Isobe Shogen. He recounts how an old man had told him that Sogoro’s vengeful spirit caused the downfall of a seventeenth-century lord. This emphasis on revenge after death is common to many Japanese folktales. Its constant recurrence as a theme in Japanese history reflects a widely held belief in the power of strong emotions to wreak havoc after a person has died. At this point Sogoro was hardly a martyr for the peasants — they remembered not his own deeds, if any, but what had happened to the lord.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the story gains more detail. After the death of the just lord, Hotta Masamori, his retainers take control of domanial administration, treat the peasants unjustly, and increase the land tax. To save the people, Sogoro makes a direct appeal to the shogun … becom[ing] an exemplar of righteous action, a man who placed community welfare above individual self-interest …

In narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the plot becomes still more elaborate. Sogoro is described as a man of scholarship, deeply religious, respectful of his superiors, mindful of his subordinates, esteemed by his neighbors. “He was intelligent, tactful, and did not look like he was peasant born. Everyone said he must be the descendant of a warrior” … As the savior of his village, he represented the peasants’ aspirations; as an angry spirit, he reflected their resentment of those in authority.

The most modern version of the legend omits all reference to revenge by angry spirits. Now the story depicts the courage of Sogoro and his supporters among the peasants and his heartrending renunciation of his family when he resolves to sacrifice himself for the community. He still puts his appeal directly in the hands of the shogun, even though modern historians have long argued that a meeting with the shogun was impossible for a peasant. In contrast to the “good king,” (the shogun Ietsuna) the villain, Hotta Masanobu, executes not merely Sogoro, but his four children. Even the cruelty of this command has become further elaborated. To evade the bakufu prohibition on the execution of women, officials pretend that Sogoro’s three daughters are actually sons and cut off their heads. In short, today people know only a lachrymose tale of tyranny and heroism.

English speakers can grab a couple renderings of this story in the public domain:

* Walthall, “Narratives of Peasant Uprisings in Japan,” The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1983.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Japan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Myths,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Uncertain Dates,Women

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