Posts filed under 'Japan'

1335: Prince Moriyoshi, imperial martyr

Add comment August 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1335,* imperial power in Japan received the executioner’s decisive verdict.

The three-year Kenmu Restoration (1333-1336) makes an interregnum sandwiched between two different eras of samurai-backed feudal shogunates, but if you were an heir to Japan’s ancient imperial house you might call the Kenmu era a plain-old regnum: the briefest of moments when the emperor actually exercised his purported authority.

It would not recur for another five centuries, during Japan’s 19th century Meiji Restoration.

Our older restoration saw Emperor Go-Daigo attempt to seize autocratic powers for his family, appointing his own sons successively as shogun. One of those sons was our date’s principal, Prince Moriyoshi (English Wikipedia entry | the more robust Japanese).

And one of those outside lords aggrieved at being cheated of the shogunate was Ashikaga Takauji, a samurai lord who would rebel against Go-Daigo. It says here that the subsequent period in Japanese historiography was the Ashikaga Shogunate, so that gives you an idea why you’re reading about Prince Moriyoshi on an execution blog. In the midst of his civil war, the upstart shogun-to-be captured Moriyoshi and sent him to a brother, who held the prince prisoner in a cave and had him beheaded at the provocation of some setback to the family cause.

Upon the re-establishment of the imperial house all those centuries later, the Meiji emperor had a Shinto shrine erected in veneration of this martyred ancestor at the place of his sufferings; the Kamakura-gu remains a popular pilgrimage and tourist site to this day.

* As best I can determine, August 12 is the consensus translation of the date from the Japanese lunisolar calendar; a date of “July 23” can also be found in some citations, which apparently reflects the 23rd day of the 7th month. However, the first day of the Japanese year occurred a few weeks after the Julian calendar’s January 1.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1942: Julius “Babe” Hoffmeister, alcoholic POW

Add comment May 10th, 2019 Headsman

An American Morris-Knudsen civilian contractor captured when the Japanese forces seized Wake Island during World War II was executed on this date in 1942.

Julius “Babe” Hoffmeister’s essential offense was alcoholism; this indeed was the reason for his presence on Wake in the first place, as he’d signed up for this remote hitch in an effort to force himself to cold-turkey detox. Thereafter finding himself in a war zone did no favors for his illness.

During the December 1941 Japanese bombardment of Wake, Hoffmeister looted alcohol from the hospital and stashed it around the atoll, stealing back to them periodically in the subsequent months of slave labor for the occupiers to self-medicate against the misery of his situation. By May those stockpiles had been exhausted, forcing Hoffmeister to more desperate ventures.

We catch a glimpse of this unfortunate man his countrymen’s diaries.

One of those observers was an officer named Leal Henderson Russell, whose rank entitled him to milder treatment and a degree of cordiality with his Japanese opposite numbers. On May 8th, Russell’s journal (self-published in 1987 and hard to come by) recorded

Wakened by guards on coming into the barracks. They went inside and I could hear them questioning someone. After breakfast I found that they had arrested Babe Hoffmeister who was out of the compound during the night. Okazaki told me later he had broken into the canteen. They called several of the men in to question them concerning it but I think he was alone at the time. I also heard he was drunk. It is apt to go very hard on Babe as he had been repeatedly warned.

Two days afterwards, it did go very hard.

May 10th — Julius ‘Babe’ Hoffmeister was murdered this morning. Nearly all foremen and dept. superintendents were called to witness it. Possibly it will serve as a warning to some who still feel that they have some rights here.

A different prisoner, Logan Kay, noted well the warning

The Japs made Hoffmeister crouch on his hands and knees. A Jap officer took his sword, laid the blade on his neck, brought it back like a golf club and then down on his neck, severing his head with a single blow.

Far more extensive horrors awaited the prisoners of Wake as the war progressed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,History,Japan,Occupation and Colonialism,USA,Wartime Executions

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1942: The Laha Massacre

Add comment February 20th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, 200-plus Australian and Dutch prisoners captured after the Battle of Ambon earlier that same year were summarily executed near Laha Airfield on present-day Maluku, Indonesia. It was the last and the largest of a series of POW executions in the days following the February 3 conclusion of the battle; collectively, they’re known as the Laha Massacre.*

The individual incidents, timelines, and body counts of the several incidents are reported with a good deal of variance and conflation in the sites describing these horrible days, but the evening of February 20 as the consummating atrocity appears to me solidly attested — as does the destruction of a Japanese minesweeper during the battle (by this time, an event that was a couple of weeks past) as one of the motivations. The Japanese officer tasked with conducting the butchery, a Captain Nakagawa, recorded the event in a grim diary entry. (According to Ambon: The Truth About One of the Most Brutal POW Camps in World War II and the Triumph of the Aussie Spirit, Nakagawa did not approve of the executions, but he obeyed his orders.)

The prisoners of war were brought by truck from the barracks to the detachment headquarters, and marched from there to the plantation. The same way of killing was adopted as before, i.e. they were made to kneel down with their eyes bandaged and they were killed with sword or bayonet. The poor victims numbered about two hundred and twenty in all, including some Australian officers.

The whole affair took from 6 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. Most of the corpses were buried in one hole, but because the hole turned out not to be big enough to accommodate all the bodies an adjacent dug-out was also used as a grave.

LOS NEGROS, March 9 (A.A.P.-Reuter) — The Australian War Crimes Court here yesterday heard how Japanese sailors beheaded, bayoneted and shot 200 Australian war prisoners at Ambon in February, 1942.

The massacre lasted four hours.

The prosecutor, Major Alex Mackay, of Perth, told the Court, “The Australians were killed in a spirit of revenge.

They were all killed, so no one could live to tell the story of the massacre.

The Japanese sailors whipped themselves into a frenzy and shouted the names of dead comrades during the killings.

THREE CHARGED

Before the Court are Navy Sub-Lieutenant Takahiko Tsuaki, Warrant-Officer Keigo Kanamoto, and Seaman Shikao Nakamura — all charged with having murdered Australian prisoners.

The names of other former men of the Japanese Navy appear on the charge sheet, but these men have evaded arrest.

Major Mackay said the prisoners were not blindfolded.

They did not know they were going to be executed until they arrived at the side of prepared mass graves.

They had been told they were going swimming.

AFTER SHIP SANK

Major Mackay said the massacre occurred soon after a Japanese minesweeper had struck a mine and sunk in Ambon Bay.

About 20 Japanese were killed.

Survivors of the ship’s company took part in the execution.

One Australian, an officer, managed to loosen his bonds and to seize a rifle from a Japanese, said Major Mackay.

He levelled the rifle at one of his captors and pulled the trigger. But the rifle was not loaded.

Another executioner shot and killed the officer.

“LENT MY SWORD”

In a sworn statement, one of the accused, Kanamoto, said:

Every executioner, without exception, shouted names of fallen comrades and cried ‘in revenge of so-and-so’ as he swung his sword.

Kanamoto denied having executed anyone. He said he lent his sword to a friend so he could take part in the execution.

“Brandishing the naked blade, he let out a yell and brought the sword down,” said Kanamoto.

A head rolled into a prepared pit.

He then beheaded another victim. This time the sword cut too well. The blade, in full swing as it cut off the prisoner’s head, almost touched and wounded my leg.

“MADE TO KNEEL”

In his sworn statement, Tsuaki, another of the accused, said some of the victims were made to kneel facing the grave, and then were bayoneted from the back through the heart.

Another witness said he looked into a grave and saw the bodies of about 20 executed prisoners-of-war.

“I heard some faint moans from inside the grave.”

The trial is expected to last a week.

Tsuaki admitted conducting an execution, “to set a good example to others”: “Observing all the rules of Japanese swordsmanship, I beheaded the victim with one stroke.” He and Kanamoto were both convicted; Kanamoto caught a prison sentence, while Tsuaki was one of five Japanese hanged as war criminals and then buried at sea on June 11, 1951.

These five were the last death sentences of Australia’s controversial post-World War II war crimes proceedings.

* This massacre on Ambon is not to be confused with the 17th century Amboyna Massacre at the same island.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Beheaded,Execution,History,Indonesia,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1859: Yoshida Shoin, samurai sage

Add comment November 21st, 2018 Headsman

The name at the head of this page is probably unknown to the English reader, and yet I think it should become a household word like that of Garibaldi or John Brown. Some day soon, we may expect to hear more fully the details of Yoshida’s history, and the degree of his influence in the transformation of Japan …

Robert Louis Stevenson

On this date in 1859,* Japan’s fading Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded samurai sage Yoshida Shoin as an enemy of the state.

Inheriting leadership of an unprosperous samurai house by the untimely death of his adoptive father, Yoshida (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Japanese) studied war and philosophy from the age of five but understood right away that the classics he knew backward and forward were no match for the American gunships that steamed into Edo Bay in 1853.

Keen to learn the barbarian’s secrets, Yoshida and a friend named Sakuma Shozan* surreptitiously presented the American flotilla with an illicit request to come aboard. The American Commodore Perry never knew their identities, but he remembered the two “men of some position and rank, as each wore the two swords characteristic of distinction, and were dressed in the wide but short trowsers of rich silk brocade. Their manner showed the usual courtly refinement of the better classes, but they exhibited the embarrassment of men who evidently were not perfectly at their ease, and were about doing something of dubious propriety. They cast their eyes stealthily about as if to assure themselves that none of their countrymen were at hand to observe their proceedings, and then approaching one of the officers and pretending to admire his watch-chain, slipped within the breast of his coat a folded paper.” That paper, in courtly Mandarin, implored the visitor that the authors

have been for many years desirous of going over the ‘five great continents,’ but the laws of our country in all maritime points are very strict; for foreigners to come into the country, and for natives to go abroad, are both immutably forbidden … we now secretly send you this private request, that you will take us on board your ships as they go out to sea.

Instead, the shogunate clapped them in cages.

Would that iron bars could contain the shock Commodore Perry’s ships had given to Japan. Those islands had long closed themselves against the West save for narrow apertures on Dutch Learning. The evident superiority of American arms and the consequent necessity of accepting unequal treaties proved a fatal blow to the shogunate. Anger at the shogun manifested in a movement to restore the rights of the emperor — a position that the shogunate had centuries before reduced to a mere figurehead.

Our man Yoshida Shoin emerged from prison as a teacher whose loyalty hewed to the emperor. In vain did the shogunate attempt to purge such characters, for their cause far outstripped this or that man. Several of Yoshida’s students would be important players in the coming Meiji Restoration that did indeed reanimate the imperial office and topple the shogunate by the late 1860s.

By that time, Yoshida was rated a martyr and spiritual forerunner, for the dying shogunate had indeed seen fit to destroy him: “the old story of a power upon its last legs,” as Stevenson’s biography figures it: “learning to the bastille, and courage to the block … He failed in each particular enterprise that he attempted; and yet we have only to look at his country to see how complete has been his general success.”

* The Gregorian date. By the Japanese calendar it occurred in the tenth month, and some sites erroneously place it in October for that reason.

** Shozan was destined to be assassinated in 1864 by Kawakami Gensai.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Japan,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Treason

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2018: Shoko Asahara and six Aum Shinrikyo followers, for the Tokyo sarin attack

Add comment July 6th, 2018 Headsman

Shoko Asahara and six of his followers in the Aum Shinrikyo cult were hanged today in Japan as authors of one of the most infamous terrorist attacks in recent history: the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway of 1995.

Thirteen people died and several thousand more were injured when members of this millenial sect deposited punctured bags of homemade liquid sarin on multiple rail lines of Tokyo’s subway during Monday rush hour.

It was only one of several gas attacks perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo during the 1990s; just nine months previous, they had killed nine people in a sarin attack in Matsumoto. But it is by far the most notorious. Images of stricken commuters, blinded and suffocating under the nerve agent’s influence, sprawled on the transit platforms or outside them shocked orderly Japan in 1995, especially so since it came fast on the heels of the devastating January 1995 Kobe earthquake.

These comprised “two of the gravest tragedies in Japan’s postwar history,” according to Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. “It is no exaggeration to say that there was a marked change in the Japanese consciousness ‘before’ and ‘after’ these events.” Japanese Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa struck a similar chord in announcing the hangings today: “These crimes … plunged people not only in Japan but in other countries as well into deadly fear and shook society to its core.”

Its mastermind Shoko Asahara, the first man executed this morning, emerged soon thereafter into public view a bedraggled and half-blind fanatic, almost the picture of an agent of chaos. Shockingly, his cult had been able to thrive in the early 1990s thanks in part to murdering an attorney who was investigating Aum Shinrikyo back in 1989.

Beyond the seven hanged on July 6, 2018, six additional members of the cult still remain under sentence of death in Japan for the Tokyo subway atrocity.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Japan,Mass Executions,Murder,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Terrorists

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1944: Seisaku Nakamura, Hamamatsu Deaf Killer

Add comment June 19th, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1944, nineteen-year-old serial killer Seisaku Nakamura was hanged for a series of horrific murders in wartime Japan. He killed at least nine people, perhaps as many as eleven, many of them while he was still a minor.

Nakamura, born deaf, was ostracized by both his family and society at large for his disability. Robert Keller, in his Asian Monsters: 28 Terrifying Serial Killers from Asia and the Far East,* notes:

It has been noted that many serial killers who suffer such ostracism retreat into a fantasy world, fueled most often by revenge fantasies. This was certainly the case with Seisaku Nakamura. He developed a near obsession with the Samurai culture and enjoyed watching movies where Samurai slaughtered their victims with lethal Katana swords.


The 47 Ronin (1941).

Yet on the surface all appeared normal. Seisaku was a bright boy who excelled at school. He was polite and deferential. He endured his condition without complaint. He’d grown, too, into a tall and strapping youth.

All was not normal, however.

According to Nakamura’s later confession, he committed his first two murders on August 22, 1938, when he was only fourteen. He tried to rape two women, he said, and murdered them after they resisted. This account has never been confirmed; perhaps he was boasting, or perhaps the murders did occur and the Japanese military government kept them out of the news.

Nearly three years passed before he committed another homicide: on August 18, 1941, Nakamura stabbed a woman to death and nearly killed another. Two days later, he stabbed and hacked another three victims to death. The police had a suspect description, but hushed up the information about the crimes for fear of causing a panic.

On September 27, Nakamura got into an argument with his brother at their parents’ home. The result was a bloodbath: he stabbed his brother in the chest, turned the knife on the rest of the family, stabbing and slashing his father, sister, niece and sister-in-law. Amazingly, only Nakamura’s brother died. Questioned by the police, the survivors refused to cooperate, saying they were afraid of retribution if they named their attacker.

Nearly a year passed with no bloodshed, but on August 30, 1942, Nakamura targeted another family. He saw a young woman on the street, followed her home, where her husband and three children were. Nakamura began his attack on the mother, and when her husband tried to defend her, he stabbed them both to death. He then slaughtered their two youngest children and turned his attention to the oldest, a girl. He started to rape her, then inexplicably broke off his assault and ran away, leaving her alive.

The survivor provided a good witness description to the police, who had their eye on Nakamura already; they had come to believe the reason his family wouldn’t say who attacked them the year before was because their attacker was one of their own.

The “Hamamatsu Deaf Killer” was arrested and quickly tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death in spite of his youth and the parade of witnesses ready to say he was insane.

Little is known about him and his crimes, as Japanese government suppressed most of the information.

* As we’ve previously noted, we cite the titles, we don’t write the titles.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Japan,Murder,Other Voices,Serial Killers,Wartime Executions

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1938: Chinese soldiers and civilians after the Battle of Wuhan

Add comment October 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1938 the Imperial Japanese Army conquered the Hankow or Hankou industrial district within the city of Wuhan, and according to the Associated Press* “shot scores of Chinese soldiers or civilians luckless enough to be taken for soldiers” including “twenty uniformed and civilian-garbed Chinese … executed within sight of foreign gunboats.”

A major trading city that had been forced open to western concessions by the Second Opium War, Wuhan had become, briefly, the capital of the Chinese Kuomintang after Japan’s initial onslaught the previous year quickly captured the former capital Nanking.

* The linked newspaper miscopied the dateline; it should read “Hankow, Oct. 27” rather than “Oct. 2”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1946: Hong Sa-ik, a Korean general in the Japanese army

1 comment September 26th, 2017 Headsman

Hong Sa-ik, an ethnic Korean officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, was hanged in Manila on this date in 1946 for war crimes against captured prisoners in the Philippines.

Korea surrendered her diplomatic sovereignty to Japan in 1905 when our man Hong was just 16; five years later, Japan annexed Korea outright. These were events that would move many years of violent hostility on the peninsula and shape the progress of Hong’s life and death.

However many and well-remembered are martyrs in resistance, there are always many who would sooner go along with events. Hong was in this agreeable latter camp; when Japan shuttered the Korean military academy he was attending, he simply transferred to the Japanese one. When Japan took over his homeland, he declined his Korean classmates’ entreaties to put his combat training at the service of an underground resistance.

Instead, Hong rose through Japan’s ranks to the position (late in World War II) of lieutenant general and supervisor of all the POW camps in the Philippines — whose conduct rated a sore Allied grievance as the war came to a close.

Hong was prosecuted by the United States as a Class B war criminal, and was the highest-ranking Korean officer to be executed for war crimes in the postwar period.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Japan,Korea,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes

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1622: Charles Spinola, martyr in Japan

1 comment September 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1622, Jesuit Charles Spinola was martyred in Nagasaki.

He was the son of both Spanish noble stock and the spirit of missionary martyrdom that swelled in Europe’s Age of Discovery. As a young man, Spinola thrilled to reports of evangelists suffering for the faith in the New World, for “to die for the faith, to shed his blood for Jesus Christ, seemed to him supreme happiness. Thenceforward all his thoughts tended to the means of attaining this end.” Indeed, his very decision to enter the Jesuit order was “impelled by his ardor for martyrdom.”*

And he would need the ardor, because merely to attain the scene of this hoped-for Calvary in distant Japan would require a Homeric six-year odyssey featuring a shipwreck, a pestilence, a stint in an English prison, nearly drowning in the Caribbean, nearly dying of fever in Goa, and outmaneuvering the attempted interpositions of his powerful family who aspired to a more comfortable and proximate appointment for their kin.

Finally alighting in Nagasaki in 1602, Spinola enjoyed or endured (as the mathematically disposed reader will infer) a twenty-year chase for the palm of martyrdom. He passed most of those years in the small and unglamorous labors of religious and managerial constancy necessary to tend the growing flame of Christianity in Japan.

Around 1612 Japan’s tenuous toleration of Christian proselytizing began taking a turn very much for the worse. The only recently coalesced state had long feared that the Catholic priests dispatched by Spain and Portugal portended the imperial domination visited elsewhere in Asia. Were these Christians, now perhaps two million strong, being prepared as a fifth column?

Spinola went underground, going by the foreshadowing alias “Joseph of the Cross”, a haunt of the shadows who was obliged to conceal himself from daylight because his foreign features were instantly recognizable. With the help of Nagasaki’s ample Christian community he eluded capture for an amazingly long time.

For nearly two years and a half I have devoted myself to encourage and support the Christians of this country, not without great difficulty. Having no home, I pass secretly from house to house, to hear confessions and celebrate our holy mysteries by night. Most of my time I spend in utter solitude, deprived of all human converse and consolation, having only that which God gives to those who suffer for his love … However I am tolerably well, and, though destitute of almost everything and taking but one scanty meal a day, I do not fall away. Does not this prove that “man liveth not by bread alone?”

-Letter of Spinola dated March 20, 1617

He wouldn’t be caught for almost two more years yet after that letter, in December 1618 — whereupon, “seeing that he was discovered, he raised his eyes and hands towards heaven, and in a burst of unutterable joy, humbly thanked God.” God was still going to make Charles Spinola wait another four years for martyrdom, time mostly spent in the “tedium” (Spinola’s word) of prison with some other Christians, on a diet of meager rice portions and regular penitential self-flagellation.

Spinola burned when the time finally came with twenty-one other holy martyrs … plus three Japanese converts who attempted to apostatize to escape the flame, but were put to the stake just the same.

* These quotes, and a good deal of this post’s narrative, come from the public domain hagiography Life of the Blessed Charles Spinola, of the Society of Jesus.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Japan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1653: Sakura Sogoro, righteous peasant

Add comment 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 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.

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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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