On this date in 1868,* eleven samurai committed seppuku before the French consul in Japan spared their nine comrades.
The affair was stunning punishment for what’s known as the Sakai Incident — an offense eight days prior that occurred during Japan’s Boshin War, a last rearguard battle of loyalists to the (now officially ended) Tokugawa Shogunate against the rising imperial party of the Meiji Restoration.
What’s noteworthy for our purposes in this period is that the Meiji espoused an anti-foreigner policy — one that was not the less intently felt by the Meiji base for being entirely insincere on the part of elites.
It was in this tense context that a boat full of French sailors from the corvette Dupleix called on March 8 at Sakai — a port city whose shogunate forces had routed. It had been recently occupied by imperial troops.
Japan had only been opened to the west 15 years before, and access was still quite restricted; there might have been a misunderstanding between the French sailors and Sakai’s Tosa clan occupiers over whether this city was open at all. There was definitely a misunderstanding once the tourists ran into samurai on shore, and before you know it high words and suspicious glares turned into a street skirmish that left eleven Frenchmen dead.
Illustration from Le Monde Diplomatique (1868)
This Sakai Incident (English Wikipedia entry | French) incensed western powers, and not only the French: the British, Dutch, Prussians, Italians, and Americans all pulled down their embassy colors in solidarity pending adequate satisfaction for the French. Japan at this moment was not at all in a position to take a stand against foreign gunships over this dust-up, and it met the conditions — which consisted of some personal groveling by a state minister, the payment of a 150,000-piastres indemnity, and the execution of the officers and soldiers involed. The punishment would be self-administered by seppuku at a Sakai shrine. This set the scene for a powerful climax, in which the soldiers one by one tore out their own guts in a ceremony that must have played as defiance no less than submission.
Quoting the Moniteur, the London Morning Post of May 19, 1868 (news was slow in those days) describes the operatic punishment.
On the 15th [a Japanese] high functionary brought a written reply from his Government conceding all the satisfaction required. On the following day Captain du Petit-Thouars, commander of the Dupleix, landed at Sakai to witness the execution of two officers, a subaltern, and 17 Japanese soldiers, condemned to death as the principal authors of the aggression. The two chiefs were the first put to death, after which nine others perished successively. Captain du Petit-Thouars then seeing that the Japanese Government was decided on carrying out its engagements to the end, and ceding to a feeling of humanity, stayed the execution, declaring that he considered the reparation sufficient, and that he proposed to ask the Minister of France to intercede for a commutation of punishment in favour of the other condemned.
The last nine beneficiaries of the captain’s clemency were sent into internal exile instead.
On this date in 1629, Spanish Dominican Louis Bertran was burned at Omura, Japan for evangelizing, along with two Japanese-born converts known as Mancius of the Holy Cross and Peter of the Holy Mother of God.
Bearing the Gospel to the far-flung corners of the globe was sort of the family business: Bertran’s more famous relative and namesake, Louis Bertran(d), ministered to the New World so tirelessly that he’s been unofficially known as the Apostle of South America.
For two generations by this point, Christianity had struggled under intensifying official persecution — the shogunate deeply suspicious of the infiltration of western clerics who so often it seemed from Japan’s neighbors to bring along with them some patron king’s overweening navy.
He was one of* the “Four Hitokiri“ — manslayers — whose legendary blades coruscated in the Bakumatsu era that marked Japan’s pivot from an isolationist feudal state, one where samurai were big men on prefectures, to a burgeoning modern power ruled by industry and mass conscription.
The irony was that dinosaurs like the Hitokiri helped bring the asteroid down on their own heads.
Warriors/assassins like the Hitokiri were wooed by the imperial camp and the promise of a policy that would maintain the purpose and privilege of elite swordsmen. But once power was conquered, the Meiji emperor repaid those knights’ exertions by doing the modernization thing that Hitokiri types had hoped to avoid.
Okada Izo was among the first barbarian-expellers to be caught up by the policy swing. After a couple of years running amok in Kyoto, the anti-foreigner movement was suppressed and its leader forced to commit seppuku, which was still more deference than Izo received.
Supreme Court justice Anacleto Diaz and his two sons were among 300 Filipinos machine-gunned by the Japanese on this date in 1945 during the Battle of Manila.
The distinguished 66-year-old jurist had served in his youth in the forces of independence fighter Antonio Luna. Diaz was captured by the Americans, and honed his English so well as a POW that he later built a career as a legal scholar in the American-governed archipelago. He was appointed to the Philippines Supreme Court by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Diaz and his comrades were far from the only civilians to suffer during the bloody monthlong Battle of Manila: Japanese troops conducted intermittent atrocities both wholesale and retail, collectively known as the Manila Massacre. Japan’s commanding general, Tomoyuki Yamashita, was hanged as a war criminal in 1946 due to the Manila Massacre in a highly controversial case — since the Manila Massacre’s atrocities couldn’t be attributed directly to Yamashita’s own orders. But the U.S. war crimes tribunal found, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, that the subordinate troops’ actions redounded to the account of their superiors who “fail[ed] to discharge his duty as a commander to control the acts of members of his command by permitting them to commit war crimes.”
This is one of the foundational cases for that opportunistically observed precedent known as “command responsibility” (indeed, this is the “Yamashita Standard”).
As one might guess by the late date and the juridical aftermath, this Battle of Manila ended in an American victory reconquering a now-devastated Philippines capital, and driving the Japanese from the Philippines — making good Gen. Douglas MacArthur‘s famous promise to return there.
On this date in 1949, Dr. Hiroshi Iwanami was hanged on Guam for murdering ten American POWs during World War II.
The commanding officer of the naval hospital on Japan’s South Pacific stronghold of Truk, Iwanami was condemned by the postwar U.S. Navy war crimes tribunal for overseeing — and rather reveling in — the sadistic murders of ten American POWs that fell into his hands in 1944.
From the Newcastle (NSW, Australia) Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, July 16, 1947
In addition to murder, Iwanami was charged with “preventing the honorable burial” of bodies and with “dissection” and “mutilation” of them. Iwanami had used all ten of his victims for so-called medical experiments. Four of his January 1944 victims had tourniquets placed on their arms and legs by Iwanami for long periods. Two of the POWs had their tourniquets removed in two hours, and the other two at the end of seven hours. The latter two died immediately of shock, but the former survived. On the same day, four others were injected with streptococcus bacteria to cause blood poisoning. All four developed high fevers and soon died.
On February 1, 1944, the two survivors from the tourniquet experiment were marched to a hill in back of the hospital. Naked, with their legs stretched out as far as possible, the men were tied to stakes. Iwanami’s staff then placed a small explosive charge three feet in front of each foot of each victim. The resulting explosion blew off the feet of the men, but both victims survived. Their amazing endurance was short-lived, because Iwanami ordered the men strangled; an aide accomplished the task with his bare hands. Their bodies were returned to the hospital, where they were dissected, and all vital organs were placed in specimen jars. Only some of the organs from the blood poisoning victims were kept, and their bodies were tossed off a nearby cliff.
During an evening meal near the end of July 1944, Iwanami asked his staff if they would assist him in experiments on two more POWs. Instead of answering quickly in the affirmative, the men asked about the value of such experiments. Refusing to discuss the issue, Iwanami ordered his men, instead, to participate in the execution of the two POWs. This time there was no opposition to the order. The two Americans were suspended from a bar placed between two trees. With the order to “stab with spirit,” the hospital staff then began their bayonet practice. There was little left of the bodies after the practice was over, and those bodies, one of them headless, were buried near the scene of the execution. Shortly before his capture, Iwanami had the bodies exhumed and thrown into the sea.
… the trial was as bizarre as the defendants. Three of Iwanami’s old hospital staff members committed suicide, leaving word that they would rather die than testify against their commanding officer. Another, Lt. Shinji Sakagami, took great pride in the fact that he had strangled two POWs. A staunch advocate of the Japanese war effort and, like so many of his colleagues, convinced that death was better than surrender, he hoped his actions in Truk would serve as a warning to the future enemies of Japan. Iwanami was sentenced to death, although he attempted to cheat the hangman. Smuggling a small, sharpened pencil into his holding cell, Iwanami stood at one end of the tight quarters, shouted “Banzai,” and vaulted against the opposite wall. The pencil was held close to his heart, but it did little damage. Both witnesses on the scene and the commission wondered why a surgeon would have failed to aim the pencil properly. Iwanami’s hanging proceeded as planned, and the most generous verdict for a member of his staff was ten years in prison.
On this date in 1932, Korean nationalist Lee Bong-chang was hanged at Ichigaya Prison for attempting to assassinate Japanese Emperor Hirohito.
The would-be assassin under arrest.
Remembered now as a patriotic hero, Lee on January 9, 1932 chucked a grenade at an imperial procession in Japan as it passed the imperial palace’s Sakuradamon Gate — the aptly-named Sakuradamon Incident. Korea at that point had been directly ruled by Japan since 1910.*
Lee’s hand grenade targeted the wrong carriage, and didn’t even kill the occupants of that conveyance — it just injured a guard. A second grenade failed to explode altogether.
Three months after Lee’s attempt, another Korean, Yoon Bong-gil, also tried to murder Hirohito with a bomb. Both men are interred with garlands at Seoul’s Hyochang Park. A statue of our man Lee, poised with a grenade in hand, stands in the park.
* Newspapers in China — also under Japanese occupation — expressed regret that Lee’s attempt had missed its mark; this impolite language helped to catalyze a Japanese show of force later that month known as the January 28 Incident or the Shanghai Incident.
Allegedly disaffected of the national unification dynasty by having lost his father to battle against it, Marubashi orchestrated, along with a fellow martial arts adept named Yui Shosetsu, a daring plot betrayed only by illness. When shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu died in 1651, leaving power to a 10-year-old heir, the conspirators meant to set fire to Edo (Tokyo) and seize Edo Castle as well as other cities.
But Marubashi came down with a very ill-timed fever and in delirium raved treasonable plot details that got passed along to Tokugawa authorities. The so-called Keian Uprising never made it into execution.
The Keian Uprising inspired many literary interpretations. This 1883 woodblock print depicts actor Ichikawa Sadanji as Marubashi Chûya.
This is more than can be said about the uprisers.
Yui managed to commit seppuku before capture, but Murabashi and a number of the other rebels paid the ultimate price. So too did family members of the rebels.
Marubashi’s is reputed to be the first execution to take place at the Suzugamori execution grounds. The little quarter-acre patch maintained this grim role for the ensuing 220 years, during which time an estimated 100,000 people were put to death there.
Japan is in the news this morning for the surprise hanging of 68-year-old Masanori Kawasaki.
Kawasaki stabbed to death his sister-in-law Keiko Miura and her two granddaughters in 2007.
“It was an extremely cruel case,” Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki said in announcing the execution.
Nevertheless, every execution no matter the circumstances of the crime draws controversy in Japan, which only hangs a handful of inmates in a typical year* and many of them only after very longwaits. (At under seven years from stab to rope, Kawasaki’s was very fast by Japanese standards.)
Japan’s death penalty is distinguished — apart from the very fact of its existence, which makes it the only G8 country besides the United States to boast an active death chamber — by hangings conducted without prior announcement. Once a prisoner’s final appeals are turned down (Kawasaki’s were rejected in 2012) he can essentially be executed at any time the Justice Minister signs off, and have no more warning than the hour it takes to dash off final letters and final prayers. The condemned must acclimate day by day to the continual haunts of a capricious death that might snatch them at any moment.
Amnesty International can’t be far from the mark in the response issued by its East Asia Research Director to Kawasaki’s hanging: “Death row inmates live under the constant fear of execution, never knowing from one day or the next if they are going to be put to death. This is adds psychological torture to an already cruel and inhumane punishment.”
Another Japanese death row inmate, Shigeo Okazaki, also died this June 26 of 2014. He suffered respiratory failure.
On this date in 1683,* Yaoya Oshichi gave her life for her red-hot love … and the want of a little white lie.
The greengrocer’s daughter Oshichi (English Wikipedia page | Japanese) legendarily fell in love with a priest of the nearby temple while taking refuge there during one of Edo’s many fires (Japanese link), and in a truly adolescent outburst proceeded to start another fire in the hopes of meeting him again. (Alternate version: it was Oshichi’s gesture that actually started the linked conflagration.)
As a 16-year-old, Oshichi was just barely eligible to suffer the full weight of the law for a capital crime.
In an age of scanty documentation, however, the pitying magistrate (Japanese link) hearing her case is supposed to have asked her in a hinting sort of way, “you’re 15, right?”
Either not catching his drift or else honest to a fault, Oshichi replied that, no, she was 16, thank you very much, and reiterated the point when it was followed-up … thus dooming herself to the stake.
Yaoya Oshichi’s execution.
A few years after this outstandingly tragic demise, poet Ihara Saikaku popularized the tale in his Five Women Who Loved. She’s been waxing immortal ever since in every manner of artistic interpretation, and remains a popular figure for joruri and bunraku and kabuki.
(When next in Tokyo, pay your own respects at her tomb.)
Meanwhile, Yaoya Oshichi’s apparent birth in the zodiacal “fire horse” year of 1666 — fire horses are supposed to be an especially passionate, impulsive bunch — followed by her unfortunate fiery end helps make such cycles superstitiously inauspicious for prospective parents, especially prospective parents of girls.
The year of a fire horse only rolls around once every six decades; in the last one, in 1966, Japanese “fertility dropped by over 25%;” even “the fertility rate of Japanese Americans in California and Hawaii also dropped by 3.3% and 1.8%, respectively, in the same year.”** The abortion rate in Japan for that one year spiked nearly 50% above expected without any other apparent cause.† It’s something to watch for when the next batch of little fire horses are due, in 2026.
* “The 29th day of the 3rd month” is widely cited as “March 29″, but it actually appears to refer to the 29th day of the 3rd month of the third year of the “Heaven’s Blessing” era. That third month spanned the Gregorian dates of March 28 through April 26, 1683.
** Jungmin Lee and Myungho Paik, “Sex Preferences and Fertility in South Korea during the Year of the Horse,” Demography, Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 2006).
† Kanae Kaku, “Increased induced abortion rate in 1966, an aspect of Japanese folk superstition,” Annals of Human Biology, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1975).
[Upon entering the conquered Taku Forts] a distressing scene of carnage disclosed itself; frightful mutilations and groups of dead and dying meeting the eye in every direction.
I walked round the ramparts on the west side. They were thickly strewed with dead — in the north-west angle thirteen were lying in one group round a gun. Signor Beato was here in great excitement, characterising the group as “beautiful,” and begging that it might not be interfered with until perpetuated by his photographic apparatus, which was done a few minutes afterwards. -David Field Rennie
In 1863, Beato moved to Yokohama, Japan and spent the next several years capturing historically invaluable images of Japan at the close of the Edo period.
In this capacity, Beato captured the execution of a young servant by the eye-catching means of Japan’s distinctive spread-eagled crucifixion. The caption on the image reads, the servant Sokichi, crucified at the age of 25* for killing Nikisasuro, son of his master Nuiske in the village of Kiso. Exact year unknown.
To my knowledge, there is no further documentation available about this execution that would, er, affix it to a specific date or even a specific year. But we don’t exactly have a multitude of photographed executions by crucifixion, so we’re not going to be picky about it.
While we’re on the subject, we also have from Beato on the same trip an image called “the executioner” — topical for this blog even though it looks completely staged. This photograph makes use of hand-coloring, for which Beato often engaged Japan’s artisan illustrators. (The crucifixion image is reproduced in monochrome, but it, too, was artificially colored.)
Some Felice Beato photography books
* Various ages of 22 to 25 are given in various locations for the executed servant.