1271: Not Nichiren, at the Tatsunokuchi Persecution

Add comment October 17th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1271, the Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren was taken away to be executed by his political foes … only to find them spooked off completing their mission by terrifying heavenly signs.

He’s the founder of the still-extant school of Nichiren Buddhism, his name concatenating the words for Sun (Nichi) and Lotus (Ren) — for he centered his philosophy on the Lotus Sutra.

Nichiren (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was a major, and controversial, teacher in the mid-13th century: attributing a series of devastating natural disasters in the 1250s to the enervated spiritual condition of the populace owing to non-Lotus Sutra strains of Buddhism attracted enough enmity that he faced multiple assassination attempts, and was exiled to the Izu Peninsula in 1261. (He was suffered to return a couple of years later.)

Nichiren’s doomsaying got a lot more credible — a lot more dangerous — by the end of that decade when the expanding Mongols reached the coasts of China and Korea and started threatening Japan. He’d literally forecast foreign invasion as a consequence for failing to get your lotus right and the arrival of that very prospect drew followers to Nichiren. He intensified his preaching against the rival, but state-favored, varietals of Buddhism.

Summoned to court for questioning, Nichiren remonstrated effectively with his opponent Hei no Saemon. By the prophet’s own account, “on the twelfth day of the ninth month” of Japan’s lunisolar calendar — corresponding, per this calendar converter, to the 17th of October of 1271 by the Julian calendar — an armed host abducted Nichiren and carried him to Tatsunokuchi for beheading.

Instead the would-be executioners were shaken to their core, as Nichiren described in his autobiographical The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra.

That night of the twelfth, I was placed under the custody of the lord of the province of Musashi and around midnight was taken out of Kamakura to be executed. As we set out on Wakamiya Avenue, I looked at the crowd of warriors surrounding me and said, “Don’t make a fuss. I won’t cause any trouble. I merely wish to say my last words to Great Bodhisattva Hachiman.” I got down from my horsee and called out in a loud voice, “Great Bodhisattva Hachiman, are you truly a god? When Wake no Kiyomaro was about to be beheaded, you appeared as a moon ten feet wide. When the Great Teacher Dengyo lectured on the Lotus Sutra, you bestowed upon him a purple surplice as an offering … If I am executed tonight and go to the pure land of Eagle Peak, I will dare to report to Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, that the Sun Goddess and Great Bodhisattva Hachiman are the deities who have broken their oath to him. If you feel this will go hard with you, you had better do something about it right away!” Then I remounted my horse.

Finally we came to a place that I knew must be the site of my execution. Indeed, the soldiers stopped and began to mill around in excitement. Saemon-no-jo, in tears, said, “These are your last moments!” I replied, “You don’t understand! What greater joy could there be? Don’t you remember what you have promised?” I had no sooner said this when a brilliant orb as bright as the moon burst forth from the direction of Enoshima, shooting across the sky from southeast to northwest. It was shortly before dawn and still too dark to see anyone’s face, but the radiant object clearly illuminated everyone like bright moonlight. The executioner fell on his face, his eyes blinded. The soldiers were filled with panic. Some ran off into the distance, some jumped down from their horses and huddled on the ground, while others crouched in their saddles. I called out, “Here, why do you shrink from this vile prisoner? Come closer! Come closer!” But no one would approach me. “What if the dawn should come? You must hurry up and execute me — once the day breaks, it will be too ugly a job.” I urged them on, but they made no response.

The warriors could by no means be persuaded to do their duty in the face of this dread omen. Eventually the lot of them — executioners and former prisoner alike — wandered off together and drank some well-earned sake as comrades. Nichiren’s official pardon arrived the next morning.

The incredible event is known as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution, and (obviously) remembered as a watershed moment in Nichiren’s life.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Religious Figures

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1895: The Vegetarian perpetrators of the Kucheng Massacre

1 comment September 17th, 2012 Headsman

On the morning of September 17, 1895, in the presence of the British and American consuls, seven perpetrators of a Chinese massacre of western Christian missionaries were beheaded at Foochow.

Anticipating the better-known Boxer Rebellion by four years, the Kucheng Massacre (there are many other transliterations of “Kucheng”) was likewise a response to the Celestial Empire’s frustrating second-class status as against European interlopers.

Christian missionaries had been a point of friction in China for decades. Though their rights to proselytize had been guaranteed in a hated treaty dictated to China by force of arms, they often met resentment or worse on the ground.

“You bring incense in one hand, a spear in the other;” one evangelist reported being told: that is, however honorable the immediate intentions of many individual missionaries, their presence looked like a stalking horse for less reputable western interventions like the opium trade. (That’s how it looked to many Chinese. Professional western diplomats themselves found the impolitic preachers a hindrance to their statecraft, according to Ian Welch’s 2006 paper “Missionaries, Murder and Diplomacy in Late 19th Century China: A Case Study” (pdf).*)

On August 1, 1895, these frustrations unleashed a river of blood at the village of Huashan in Gutian County, where a Buddhist secret society — known as “Vegetarians” in the western press for their characteristic dietary vow — fell upon a group of vacationing British Anglican missionaries still abed at dawn and ruthlessly slaughtered eleven of them. (There are some 1890s books paying tribute to the fallen available online: Robert and Louisa Stewart: In Life and in Death, and The sister martyrs of Ku Cheng : Memoir and Letters of Eleanor and Elizabeth Saunders (“Nellie” and “Topsie”) of Melbourne.)

“The attack came,” said a physician from a nearby town who was summoned to the bloody scene, “like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, not one of the victims having received the slightest intimation of the intended assault.”

Word of the carnage struck western powers with similar force.

Incensed newspaper-readers literally demanded** gunboat diplomacy, and literally got it, especially when Chinese authorities drug their feet on the condign punishment the missionaries’ countrymen were clamoring for.

All this put British diplomacy on a sticky wicket, which Welch (pdf) deals with in detail. To satisfy the domestic audience, the government had to be seen to be taking a hard line on avenging the outrages; at the same time, London was wise to the Chinese state’s shakiness and wary that a “barbarous holocaust” perpetrated against the Vegetarians would trigger a mass backlash and bring the whole thing down.

An obdurate Chinese viceroy impeded the quick resolution everyone was after by making inflammatory public proclamations against Christians, and releasing without explanation six of the thirteen men who had initially been condemned to death in the month of August. The seven who were executed on this date were therefore only the vanguard of 26 humans ultimately put to death for their involvement in the atrocity.

Some of the execution photographs that follow are Mature Content. They’re obtained via Visual Cultures in East Asia; some also available at USC Digital Library.



Raids and investigations to bring the Vegetarian movement to heel continued for several months thereafter, and the whole affair ultimately was quelled without doing any of the wider damage that might have been feared — not even to missionaries who continued pouring into China.

And that, effectively, kicked the can down the road on the anti-foreigner sentiments afoot in the land … sentiments that would find much costlier expression a few years later when another secret society kicked off the Boxer Rebellion.

* I’ve relied heavily on Welch for this post. He’s also collected a massive trove (over 1,200 pages) of primary documents from this incident available in a series of pdfs (some quite large) from the Australian National University website:

** This was not universally so. The wife of missionary Stephen Livingston Baldwin, who knew some of the victims of the attack, urged a “charitable” response and sensitivity that “the Chinese feel that all the world is against them, and they are not far from right.” (New York Times, Aug. 10, 1895) In letters responding to intemperate coverage elsewhere, she acidly compared (pdf) western editorialists’ high dudgeon to their look-forward-not-back dismissal of recent stateside anti-Chinese violence.

It was ten years yesterday since more Chinese were killed, and burned alive and left to die wounded, in one hour, at Rock Springs, Wyoming (the very same Territory in which the recent massacre occurred) than have been Americans and English in China in the thirty-four years I have personally known that land, being a resident there twenty years and closely connected with it ever since. Ten years yesterday since that awful Rock Springs massacre, and up to date no one arrested, much less punished! The anti-Chinese papers of the town and neighbourhood gloating over the awful details and assuring all that there would be “no Congressional investigation,” and no waste of “enterprising newspaper eloquence” over the woes of the Chinese, “though their blood flow like rivers, as they had no votes and no friends.” In less than four weeks after the Ku-Cheng massacre, arrest, investigation and execution have all taken place for the Ku-Cheng massacre. Would that our colored, red and yellow brethren, so helpless in our so-called civilized and Christian land, had some power behind them to bestir Ministers Plenipotentiary, wave flags, and run gunboats to the front, to bully, if necessary, our pusillanimous Government into some sort of civilization — I will not say Christian justice!

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,History,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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