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.
The Truk Atoll, in Micronesia, is more commonly known today as Chuuk. It’s a hot diving location notable for the many sunken World War II Japanese hulks to be explored there — the legacy of its once-pivotal position in the Pacific War.
Japan used Truk as forward naval base in the South Pacific, and armored up its little islands like an armadillo.
Rather than capture it outright, the U.S. Navy bombed Truk right out of the war in February 1944, leaving that enormous warship graveyard and a stranded stronghold of starving soldiers who were left to wither on the vine. At war’s end, it was just a matter of circling back to collect 50,000 surrenders.
Unfortunately, the castaway Truk garrison did not pass the last months of the war with sufficient care for its foreseeable postwar situation.
According to testimony given the postwar Guam war crimes tribunal, 10 American prisoners were murdered on Truk in 1944 “through injections, dynamiting, tourniquet applications, strangling and spearing.” (Source) Hiroshi Iwanami was executed for these gruesome experiments/murders in January of 1949.
Ueno, a lieutenant surgical commander, hanged for two other killings that read quite a bit murkier.
Five American POWs were being held in a temporary stockade that was hit by an American bombing raid in June 1944 — killing three of those prisoners.
The surviving two were severely injured, eventually leading Dr. Ueno on June 20, 1944, to perform what he characterized as a legitimate exploratory surgery on one of those men. His prosecutors framed it instead as a fiendishly gratuitous vivisection.
During that procedure, an order arrived for the execution of both the prisoners. The other guy, the one Dr. Ueno wasn’t operating upon, he never had in his care at all; that unfortunate fellow ended up being bayoneted to death. The man on the table (both men’s names were unknown to the prosecuting court) Dr. Ueno stitched back together well enough that subalterns could stretcher him out to a swamp and chop off his head.
Here’s the difficult part: Ueno actually gave the immediate order to execute his ex-patient.
As described in the National Archives’ Navy JAG Case Files of Pacific Area War Crimes Trials, 1944-1949, the physician’s barrister mounted a quixotic philosophical defense of this deeply indefensible order, noting the principled acceptability of euthanasia in Japanese hospitals (so he said), the inevitability of the prisoner’s approaching execution via superior orders, and the agony the man was already in from his wounds.
[Dr. Ueno] had expected that some other person would dispose of this prisoner. But he could not find anyone who looked like the person to carry this out … the thought dominated his mind that all hope is lost to save this prisoner. His fater has been determined. Yet the prisoner is in pain …
He was faced with the predicament of killing by his order the prisoner which he had treated as hiw [sic] own patient. What sarcastic fate was this that he had to face? As the Napoleon, described by George Bernard SHAW, and as McBeth [sic] described by William SHAKESPEARE, the accused, UENO was also “a man of destiny.”
A certain English poet wrote, “Life protracted is protracted woe.” If the life of the prisoner in the present case was protracted one second, he would have so much more suffering to endure. Should it be condemed [sic] so severely to shorten one’s life under such circumstances and shorten his last woe in this world?
There were in all either 10 or 13 official executions of Japanese war criminals on Guam from 1947 to 1949. It’s devilishly difficult to find those 13 enumerated by name and date, but it appears to me that Truk and his boss Admiral Shimpei Asano were the very last to achieve that distinction.**
Shortly after eight o’clock on the humid, tropical evening of March 31, 1949, according to War Department Pamphlet #27-4 Procedure For Military Executions, the 5’6″ Japanese surgeon with extremely strong neck muscles was escorted up the nine steps to the gallows. The handcuffs were removed by a Marine guard and a strap placed to secure his arms to his side and another placed around his legs. A black hood was placed over his head and at 8:26 p.m. the floor panel on which he was standing fell from under his feet and Ueno dropped 94 inches to eternity. He was the last to die, as Rear Admiral Shimpei Asano* had preceded him only moments before. Under the dubious honor that rank has its privileges — the Admiral went first.
* Executed for these same two murders on Truk, as well as two other POWs killed at Kwajalein, in the nearby Marshall Islands.
** Angered by Naval administration of the island, Guam’s Congress had staged a walkout earlier in March 1949. This action did successfully force an end to Naval government.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Russia’s imperial ambitions in the east drew it inexorably towards conflict with Japan. This was the period when Russia began constructing the continent-spanning Trans-Siberian Railway linking Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.
Russian troops came right along with the rails.
On the pretext of protecting its construction gangs, Russian troops occupied Manchuria — and the weakened Chinese Qing dynasy couldn’t do much about it.
But the Japanese could.
Manchuria and Korea (which Russia’s presence also threatened) Tokyo conceived as her sphere of influence. The rising hegemon in East Asia would serve notice in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War that it had now to be reckoned among the world’s great powers.
The decisive land battle in this conflict was the Battle of Mukden, February 20 through March 10, 1905 — a gigantic engagement involving more than 600,000 troops.
The defeat sent a shattered Russian army on a disordered retreat north, to the city of Tieling. The Japanese followed in hot pursuit, so defensive regrouping became impossible and within a couple of days the Russians abandoned Tieling, too.
“We are everywhere driving the Russians before us to Kaiyuan,” gloated an official Japanese telegram of Thursday, March 16.
The underwhelming Russian general Aleksey Kuropatkin was there just long enough to get word that Moscow had relieved him of command. By Saturday, March 18, Kaiyuan too was in Japanese hands.*
So it was likely on or about this date in 1905 that a handful of those Japanese forces harrying the Russian flight paused on the outskirts of Kaiyuan to behead an alleged spy.
If this individual’s name is known, I have not been able to locate it — but small wonder. In the charnel house of Russia’s catastrophic defeat, the dead were too numerous to bury.
On this date in 2000, Japan hanged three fifty-something murderers.
While Takashi Miyawaki and Kunikatsu Oishi were rather garden-variety criminals who killed family members over private vendettas, Kiyotaka Katsuta had been impressively dignified by one of his judges as the “most maliciously evil criminal in Japanese history.”
The former firefighter was convicted of eight murders but twice or even thrice that number might lie upon his soul.
He got started in 1972, strangling and robbing a Kyoto bar hostess.
Having found a workable m.o., Katsuta murdered and stole from (police suspected rapes, too, but couldn’t prove it) another four women over the 1970s. Then he moved on to armed robbery of men, stealing a gun from a policeman and killing at least three (with others wounded) in his various stickups — deeply shocking in Japan where guns are hard to own and firearm crime vanishingly rare.
Katsuta was so notorious after his 1983 arrest that a movie came out based on his crime spree.
In the will scribbled out during the few minutes he had left after being informed of his imminent execution, Katsuta professed that he had “managed to lead myself to a spiritual state of resignation.”
One of his victims’ family expressed a different form of closure — that Katsuta’s hanging “has made us feel we at long last have become able to close a chapter in our anguish, although we still feel never able to forgive the perpetrator.”
Most of what’s out there about Sataro Fukiage is in Japanese (like this book). Born in 1889, his hardscrabble upbringing saw him enter the workforce at age nine. He was not a model apprentice, alternating escape attempts with evictions for bad conduct; stealing from his master to procure a prostitute landed him in Kyoto prison at the tender age of 12, and it was in his periodic incarcerations that, Oliver Twist-like, he learned the finer points of pickpocketing from yakuza. He would need those finer points to do the breadwinning for his penniless mother in between his stints behind bars.
His somewhat sympathetic childhood also included a voracious and deviant sexual appetite which was to blossom in time into a carnivorous pattern of abuse.
Fukiage committed his first murder in 1906, when he took an 11-year-old acquaintance to a remote location, then raped and strangled her, only avoiding the death sentence because he himself was still underage at that time.
Released in 1922, he immediately brought himself to widespread public notoriety for a 1922-23 rape spree with at least 27 victims — most of them, again, underage girls. He mixed at least six murders into the one-man crime wave.
On this day in 2001, 66-year-old Kojiro Asakura was executed by hanging at the Tokyo Detention House for the murders of almost an entire family eighteen years before.
In June 1983, he had killed Akira Shirai, age 45, and Shirai’s wife, one-year-old son and two daughters aged six and nine by beating them to death with a hammer and an ax. He then dismembered three of the bodies.
The only survivor was the family’s oldest daughter, age ten, who was away at summer camp at the time of the murders.
The motive for Asakura’s crimes lay in frustrations related to his job. A property assessor, he had bid successfully on the Shirai family’s house and land in Tokyo when they came up for public auction. He planned to resell the property at a profit, but the deal stalled when the Shirais refused to move out. Four months after the auction, they were still residing in the house illegally.
At his trial, the defense argued insanity or at least diminished capacity, pointing out that normal, sane people do not go on gruesome murder sprees. The court didn’t buy it.
Asakura was hanged on the same day as another Japanese multiple murderer, Toshihiko Hasegawa, who breathed his last at the Nagoya Detention House. These were the first executions in Japan in eleven months, and thirteen months more would pass before anyone else stepped up to the scaffold.
On this date in 1945, Japanese forces occupying Indonesia cut off Dr. Achmad Mochtar’s head for a medical experiment gone horribly awry.
Officially, Dr. Mochtar had been responsible for a supposed vaccine whose administration killed hundreds of Indonesian foced laborers.
Latter-day research, however, indicates that it was the Japanese military who administered the vaccine (Indonesian link), an experimental tetanus-cholera-typhoid-dysentery combination shot, getting a trial run before it was administered to Japan’s own soldiers. When this drug proved lethal to most of its recipients, Mochtar and his staff at the Eijkman Institute were arrested in 1944 and subjected to harrowing torture.
According to Jakarta-based British researcher Kevin Baird, Mochtar agreed to take the fall for the experiment in exchange for the release of his colleagues.
“We think of this sort of heroism as the reserve of military men and not learned intellectuals,” Baird told the Guardian. “Achmad Mochtar was not only a hero of Indonesia, but a hero of science and humanity.”
The Okudaira, allies of the wars’ eventually-victorious Tokugawa clan, found themselves besieged by the Takeda. This would result in the important Battle of Nagashino.
Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha imagines the Takeda where the (real) late daimyoShingen was succeeded after his (real) 1573 death (fictitiously) by an imposter thief posing as the great commander. In the film, the imposter is unmasked and deposed, but witnesses the climactic Battle of Nagashino … and then makes a futile charge under the Takeda banner after that side is slaughtered.
After an initial Takeda attempt to take the fortress by storm, the Takeda settled in for a brief siege — knowing the defenders to have only a few days’ supplies on hand. Enter Torii Suneemon.
Under cover of darkness on the night of the 22nd-23rd, Suneemon slipped out of the Yagyu gate and picked his way through Takeda tripwires to escape the investment … and summon help.
Torii Suneemon embarks on his mission: 19th century woodblock print of Yoshitoshi‘s “24 Accomplishments of Imperial Japan” series. The same artist also depicted that event in this triptych.
He made it on the 23rd to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who upon hearing his report pledged to dispatch a relief force the very next day.
Alas for him, Suneemon’s attempt to sneak back into the encircled fortress to deliver the good news was detected on the 24th, and he came as a prisoner to the Takeda commander. The Takeda prevailed upon their helpless captive to exchange his life for a signal service: approach the fortress walls and shout to the garrison that no help was on the way.
This Suneemon agreed to do.
The legends differ as to whether he walked on up to deliver this bogus bad news, or whether the Takeda lifted him up on a cross to impress upon their new agent the penalty for any funny business. Either way, Torii Suneemon had the last laugh: he immediately began hollering to the defenders that help was coming if they could just hang on a few more days.
The besiegers, of course, crucified him immediately … but everyone could appreciate the doomed man’s heroism.
While the grateful Okudaira elevated his family to samurai rank, even an enemy Takeda commander who witnessed the event was so moved that he adopted the image of the defiantly crucified soldier for his battle standard.
Nor was the brave soldier’s sacrifice in vain. The garrison did hold on — and their allies did relieve them, and did rout the Takeda in the resulting Battle of Nagashino. (The scenario is widely reproduced in video games nowadays).
* Some sites give this as “May 16″, but I believe the primary sources here actually indicate the 16th day of the 5th month on the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar. This date corresponds to June 24, 1575 of the Julian calendar. (1570s conversion aid in this pdf, or use this converter).