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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1865: Okada Izo, barbarian-expeller

Add comment July 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1865, the Japanese samurai Okada Izo was dispatched by crucifixion.

He was one of* the “Four Hitokirimanslayers — 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.

During the chaotic Bakumatsu period, triggered by Japan’s becoming involuntarily opened to the outside world, the emperor — long a figurehead marginalized by the shogun — entered the political fray under the xenophobic banner “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.”

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.

The execution, usually conceived as the end, is the jumping-off point for the surreal time-and-space-hopping 2004 Takasha Miike bloodbath Izo, “one of the most difficult works of art to be made in recent times.”

* Along with fellow-execution victim Kawakami Gensai, and two other guys who met violent deaths that were not (more’s the pity for this site) executions.

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1868: Kondo Isami, Shinsengumi

Add comment May 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Shinsengumi commander Kondo Isami was beheaded at Itabashi as the civil war between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rising Meiji government that would replace it unfolded.

A commoner raised to samurai, Kondo is famous for commanding the Shinsengumi, a sort of shogunate paramilitary renowned for hunting pro-imperial samurai.

This, of course, was ultimately a nonstarter, notwithstanding the Shinsengumi’s flair for dramatic success.

Kondo had little power to reverse the Tokugawa Shogunate’s deteriorating position even though his skill earned him progressively higher appointments in its service.

In the event, however, our principal lost the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma, and was captured shortly thereafter.

From there, nature took its course.

He was brought in a cage to Itabashi, near Yedo, where he was beheaded. His head was put in spirits and sent to Kioto, where it was exposed in the dry bed of the Kamogawa near the fourth bridge. This most shameful of all punishments was inflicted upon Kondo Isami because, as chief adviser of his lord, the prince of Aidru, he had made himself especially hateful to the southern clans. (Source)

As a result, Kondo wouldn’t be around to say “I told you so” when the victorious Meiji scrapped their samurai-friendly xenophobia and replaced their former supporters in the warrior caste with a modernized army.

But he and his doomed band of upwardly-mobile swordsmen in romantic service of a historical dead-end are still with us. Shinsengumi adventures and Kondo Isami characters remain a staple of popular culture.

[flv:http://www.executedtoday.com/video/Shinsengumi_trailer.flv 440 330]

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1872: Yoarashi Okinu, geisha

Add comment March 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, geisha Yoarashi (“Night Storm”) Okinu was beheaded at Tokyo’s Kozukappara execution grounds after killing her lover to run away with a kabuki actor.


Via

A notorious dokufu, so-called “poison-women” that captivated that country in the late 19th century, Night Storm (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was of humble origins but became a sought-after geisha in Edo.

Her celebrity affairs are treated here (reliability: unknown), but the reason she’s in this here blog is poisoning off the second-last of them with arsenic in order to get free to run off with kabuki actor Arashi Rikaku.

Rikaku himself was up to his eyeballs in this same plot, and was arrested — our source says, during a kabuki performance! — and initially condemned to death. Since Okinu was pregnant, however, her execution was put off pending childbirth; eventually, Rikaku’s sentence was moderated from capital punishment altogether.

Okinu’s head was cut off, and displayed in public for several days. Her lover served three years in prison, then rebuilt his kabuki career as Ichikawa Gonjuro.

* The date was the “20th day of the 2nd month of the fifth year of Meiji”, using Japan’s system of dating years from the start of the current emperor’s reign. Helpful in nailing down the date: Tokyo’s first daily newspaper published its first issue on the very next day.

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1870: Kumoi Tatsuo

Add comment December 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1870, Japanese samurai Kumoi Tatuo was beheaded for attempting to topple the Meiji government.

Briefly a bureaucrat under the restored emperor, Tatsuo like many samurai grew disillusioned with the new state and its eclipse of the old ways.

Suspected of plotting an attack on senior government officials, he was arrested and beheaded with eleven others.

At death, I fear no dying;
In life embrace not living;
The brilliance of the sun
Is rivaled by integrity.
Execution has no terror,
Though it be a boiling cauldron;
But how insignificant my poor person,
Against the Great Wall!

-Kumoi Tatsuo

Tatsuo’s verse would later inspire the developing People’s Rights movement against the Meiji government’s authoritarianism, as well as nascent pan-Asianism.

Still, where art’s concerned, everyone is a critic. Japanese intellectual Shiga Shigetaka, addressing another young poet around the turn of the century, implored him to rise above Tatsuo.

You are only twenty-seven or -eight of age and your future is greatly promising. Above all, you must aim to be a great man in maturity and, without becoming content with temporary honor, work hard from this moment, striving to leave a name imperishable for a thousand years in the history of English literature. Tatsuo … has left nothing for the history of Japan, let alone for the history of the world. It is merely that because his poems are inept (they are, yes, inept when viewed in Chinese literature), because they meet the taste of those without a discerning eye as readers, a handful of students, who just want to feel good, recite them. You must draw your own conclusion from Tatsuo’s example.

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1771: Green Tea Hag, the beginning of Dutch Learning

7 comments March 4th, 2010 dogboy

The typical turning-point execution features an illustrious protagonist upon the scaffold: a royal dethroned, a politician overthrown, a revolutionary laid low.

On this day in 1771, an obscure woman executed for everyday crimes launched a new era in Japan.

The Kyoto resident, nicknamed “Aochababa” — roughly translated as the Green Tea Hag — sparked a scientific revolution that would span decades, push Japan into its own Age of Reason called Dutch Learning, and keep an island nation astride goings-on from thousands of miles away in spite of isolationist practices.

The Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s through the mid-1800s, was widely regarded as anti-Western for closing down trade with several European nations.

Concerned with what it saw as colonial aspirations in the Americas, the Shogunate clamped down on Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal. Starting in the 1630s, the island nation officially enacted the Seclusion Laws, which effectively allowed trade only with China, Korea, and the Netherlands; contact with the last was only legitimated through the Dutch trading outpost in Dejima, an isolated island with strictly controlled access.* Because of these limitations, Japan became a repository of non-Christian Dutch paraphernalia.**

The execution of Aochababa itself is practically forgotten: she was hanged in Kyoto’s Kozukappara (the present day Arakawa ward) in Meiwa 8, the second year of a 15-year drought gripping Japan. Her crime is unknown, and her execution would have been as un-noteworthy as dozens of others that year had her body not been secured for science.

However, under the reign of (though little due to) Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu, Dutch influence was increasing dramatically in Japan.

As a result, Aochababa’s corpse was brought to a medical facility, where Sugita Genpaku, Maeno Ryotaku, Nakagawa Jun’an, Toyo Yamawaki, and others performed and viewed an autopsy. Their medical training was Chinese; their medical texts were a mixture of Chinese and Dutch; as Genpaku reports in his later book Rangaku Kotohajime:†

Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs.

Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions.

After the dissection was over, we were tempted to examine the forms of the bones too, and picked up some of the sun bleached bones scattered around the ground. We found that they were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.

In short, their medical results matched those of the Dutch and flew in the face of a millennium of Chinese anatomical teachings.

Genpaku was intrigued. As he tells it (40-some years after the fact), Ryotaku, Jun’an, and he immediately laid down a plan to translate the Dutch text into Japanese.

The process was a slog. Lacking a dictionary or translator for anatomical studies, the team — bolstered by the Shogun physician Katsuragawa Hoshu — was forced to reverse-engineer the Dutch language using a short phrase book, occasional contacts with the Dutch themselves, and a host of educated guesses based on the anatomical features they were attempting to describe. In addition to the problems of simple translations — turning a language with definite and indefinite articles into one with no such concept — many anatomical features had never been named in Japanese before; Genpaku and his collaborators invented dozens of words just to get by. A brief history is given here.

Finally, in 1774, Kaitai ShinshoThe New Book of Anatomy — based mostly on the Dutch book Ontleedkundige Tafelen (itself a translation from German), was published, the first translation of a Western text into Japanese. The book was four volumes (three of text, one of illustrations) and scribed in a Chinese-based writing style known as Kanbun.‡


An image (more can be seen here) from the 1774 Japanese anatomy treatise.

Topical historical literature, recommendation via Reddit.

The translation was the first in a long line of texts that the Japanese would eventually use to quietly capture the technology of the West.§

Genpaku was at the forefront of Dutch Learning, and his second masterwork, Rangaku Kotohajime (“Beginnings of Dutch Learning”), published in 1815, provides a thorough description of the events which led to these advances in science and medicine in Japan.

It would be 80 years before the United States Navy forced its way into Japanese harbors and used gunship diplomacy to end Japan’s seclusion. During that time, the Japanese reproduced everything from telescopes to automata to steam engines using borrowed texts and dissection of imported goods. Dutch Learning kept Japan abreast scientific advancements even while it maintained its isolation.

The enduring legacy of Dutch Learning was the late-19th century Meiji Restoration, wherein a Japan now officially opened swiftly modernized efficiently enough to trounce Russia in the Russo-Japanese War at the end of the century.

A fairly complete description of the evolution of Japan under Dutch Learning is given in Wakabayashi’s Modern Japanese Thought and De Bray et al‘s Sources of Japanese Tradition (Vol 2).

Today, many of the Dutch words imported to describe new objects, anatomical and otherwise, remain in the Japanese language as a testament to Dutch Learning. Sugita Genpaku is also the namesake of a modern-day attempt to translate texts to Japanese. And Toyo Yamawaki, through his help with dissections of the era, prompted an interesting ritual of memorializing cadaver donors in medical schools. For physical specimens, a museum with sections devoted to Dutch Learning can also be visited at Nakatsu.

* The Dutch were allowed to stay because they weren’t Catholic. The Shogun also enacted laws forbidding missionaries and Christian prosteletyzing, as well as officially outlawing the practice of Christianity; however, an underground group of Christians remained in the country.

** Initially, all foreign texts were outlawed. However, beginning with Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, Dutch texts were allowed into the country, generating a new wave of books that were, for several decades, largely illegible to their owners. To go with the anti-Christian theme, however, the Japanese authorities continued to blot out all Christian references.

† Translation by Ryozo Matsumoto, available here.

Kanbun is a mapping of Chinese ideograms and writing style into Japanese-comprehensible language using classic symbolic meanings (a standardized shape to represent a tree) and sound equivalents (using the same standard shape to represent the the sound of the word “tree” rather than its meaning), as well as sentence structure and purpose markings. Using this style, direct Chinese-to-Japense translation is possible, but the onus is on the author to properly annotate the text.

§ Strangely, there is as yet no Dutch-Japanese dictionary in print.

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1871: Kawakami Gensai

11 comments January 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the shadowy but legendary swordsman Kawakami Gensai was beheaded on a pretext — his use to the Meiji government at an end.

The Hitokiri — “mankiller” — Gensai came to manhood during the confusing death throes of the shogunate leading into the Meiji Restoration.

That Japan’s feudal stagnation would give way to the Meiji era’s centralization and modernization may well be accounted an inevitability of history. The particular form of its birth superimposed upon the epochal conflict a bitter internal division over openness to foreigners vis-a-vis the centuries-old isolation.

The Tokugawa Shogunate had been forced to accept trading pacts dictated by better-armed western nations, and the resulting cultural and economic shockwaves carried many to the camp of a long-slumbering imperial house ready to assert its authority. Power in Japan was a prize worth killing for.

Gensai did so. Physically small and even effeminate, he was justly among the most feared warriors of his day. He became an elite imperial assassin renowned for the speed of his blade; he was famous for murdering pro-western shogunate politician Sakuma Shozan in broad daylight in 1864 — only one of scores of Tokugawa retainers assassinated during the period, although the only one that can be definitively attributed to Gensai.

It was not for any of this that Gensai was put to death, for his side won the war.

But the legendary killer was really in it for the immigration policy — “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians” — and the Meiji government sensibly dropped the second plank of that platform as soon as it was in the saddle. That volte-face didn’t push Gensai into anything so drastic as revolt, but with modern police forces elbowing aside old-school samurai and outward-facing engagement still the political order of the day, the true believer had become a liability.

The character Himura Kenshin from the Japanese manga and anime series Samurai X is loosely based on Gensai. He’s the one helpfully marked with an “X” on his cheek:

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