1651: Marubashi Chuya, Keian Uprising conspirator

1 comment September 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, the ronin Marubashi Chuya was crucified for a failed attempt to topple the Tokugawa shogunate.

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.

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1600: Ishida Mitsunari, Konishi Yukinaga and Ankokuji Ekei for the Tokugawa Shogunate

1 comment November 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1600, the emergent Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded three men as rebels in Kyoto after they lost one of the pivotal battles in Japanese history.

The Battle of Sekigahara, on Oct. 21 of that same year, had pitted the shogunate’s founder Tokugawa Ieyasu against a coalition known as the Western Army.

This was the culmination of Japan’s bloody process of national unification.

The preceding ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had more or less unified Japan under central authority to end a century of civil war. But when Hideyoshi shuffled off leaving a five-year-old heir, a squabbling coterie of regents began elbowing for position.

The political scene eventually crystallized into one of those regents — the said Tokugawa Ieyasu — against all the others. Give yourself a gold star if you guessed that the guys who had their heads lopped off by the Tokugawa Shogunate played for the “all others” team.

Ishida Mitsunari

Ishida Mitsunari, a daimyo who served the late national unifier Hideyoshi, became the focal point of the opposition to Ieyasu.*

Mitsunari failed in a 1599 assassination bid on Ieyasu, and so the two came to outright warfare the following year — a war that Ieyasu economically won by routing Mitsunari at the Battle of Sekigahara.

That, in turn, cleared the way for Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually to take the title of shogun and found his eponymous dynasty — a dynasty whose intellectuals circled that decisive battle as the keystone in the arch.

“Evildoers and bandits were vanquished and the entire realm submitted to Lord Ieyasu, praising the establishment of peace and extolling his martial virtue. That this glorious era that he founded may continue for ten thousands upon ten thousands of generations, coeval with heaven and earth!”

Hayashi Gaho, a little on the optimistic side

Captured after Sekigahara, the “evildoer” Mitsunari was beheaded this date alongside two of his allies: a Christian convert named Konishi Yukinaga, and Ankokuji Ekei of the powerful Mori clan.

* Ishida Mitsunari wasn’t one of the regents; rather, the anti-Ieyasu regents ended up adhering to him.

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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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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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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Japan,Known But To God,Language,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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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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