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).
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.
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.
One year ago today, Japan hanged three men, among whom the most notorious was Internet suicide-club serial sex killer (you can see why he made the headlines) Hiroshi Maeue.
After a couple brushes with the law over asphyxiation-oriented assaults in the 1990s, Maeue found his medium in hypertext.
Trolling a Japanese “cyber-suicide” site — they’re notoriously popular in Japan — the late-30s Maeue lured two young women and a 14-year-old schoolgirl to separate meetings for the ostensible purpose of committing joint suicides.
M.O.: get the “partner”/victim into a car on the pretext of doing the carbon monoxide poisoning thing together, then tie her up and throttle her. Rape doesn’t seem to have been a part of it, but word was that Maeue “confessed to deriving sexual pleasure from seeing people suffocate.”
He got that treatment himself little more than two years after he was sentenced. Hanged along with Maeue in Osaka this date was Yukio Yamaji, who raped and murdered two sisters in 2005. On the same day in Tokyo, Chinese national Chen Detong got the rope for a 1999 triple homicide.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these high-profile executions occurred just weeks before national elections that were looking bad (and turned out worse) for the then-governing Liberal Democratic Party.
Update: Japan observed the one-year anniversary by hanging two more people this same date in 2010, executions personally witnessed by anti-death penalty Justice Minister.
“It made me again think deeply about the death penalty,” said Keiko Chiba. “and I once again strongly felt that there is a need for a fundamental discussion about the death penalty.”
They were the first executions under the Democratic Party government elected shortly after Maeue’s hanging.
Sixty years ago today, Yoshio Kodaira counted himself “fortunate to be able to die on such a calm and peaceful day.”
For the year after Japan’s wartime surrender to the World War II Allied powers (beginning slightly before that surrender), former Imperial Navy soldier Yoshio Kodaira terrorized Tochigi and Tokyo with a rape-murder binge believed to have claimed ten victims.
Even our monsters — especially our monsters — are creatures of their own milieu.
For Kodaira, that was the Japanese occupation of China, where he slew an unknown number of Chinese soldiers and civilians in his official capacity under the banner of the rising sun … followed by the “anarchy of the postwar years.”
(In between the two, he served a jail term in the 1930’s for killing his father-in-law in a berserk rage when his wife left him.)
Expat author David Peace novelized the 1945-46 Kodaira crime spree in Tokyo: Year Zero, musing (in the voice of the killer),
You know, none of it makes much sense to me … they give us a big medal over there for all the things we did, but then we come back here and all we get is a long rope.
On this date in 1997, the wait was over for a writer who had spent his entire adult life awaiting the noose.
Norio Nagayama witnessed another (eventually executed) murderer’s Tokyo shooting spree in 1965, and three years later popped four people (two security guards and two cabbies) himself. The killing spree shocked Japan.
Only 19 at the time, which made him a juvenile by Japanese law, Nagayama was sentenced, unsentenced, re-sentenced. Twenty-eight years he spent from his arrest until his execution, not necessarily an atypical span for Japan.
It’s what Nagayama did with those years that makes him so remarkable: entering the criminal justice system from an impoverished background, Nagayama became a literary figure and a prominent public spokesman for social justice. He’s still commemorated years after his death.
Nagayama is credited with nine works, the first (Tears of Ignorance) about the poverty he blamed for his murders; the last (Hana) published posthumously from his manuscripts; he donated proceeds to victims’ families and poor children, especially in Peru. In fact, all these years dead, he’s stillraising money for children.
Nagayama’s death was triggered, at last, by apprehension of a 14-year-old for a sensational crime barely a month prior to this date; in hanging Nagayama, the government aimed “to foster support for legislation that would ‘get tougher’ on juvenile offenders. Indeed, in 2000 Japan’s Juvenile Law was revised to make it easier to transfer minors to adult court.”
Nagayama was hanged in Tokyo with another murderer, Hideki Kanda; a husband-wife convict couple were executed the same day in Sapporo.
Two years ago today, Japan resumed executions after a break of more than a year with four hangings.
Septuagenarians Yoshio Fujinami (wheelchair-bound) and Yoshimitsu Akiyama (partially blind) both needed the guards’ assistance to reach the trap at Tokyo Detention Center, a mere hour after they were informed of their imminent demise.
Two other prisoners, 64-year-old Michio Fukuoka and 44-year-old Hiroaki Hidaka, were simultaneously hanged in Osaka and Hiroshima, respectively.
Hidaka, a serial killer, had dropped his appeals and thus died a mere 12 years after his crimes. Fukouka died maintaining his innocence of three murders from 1978-81 he said police torture had forced him to confess. The oldest men were on the hook for killings dating to 1975 and 1981. (Much more from The Japan Times.)
Talk about justice delayed.
In Japan’s strange death penalty system, the condemned might await death for decades only to be hanged, as these were, with next to no warning. Their families and supporters did not hear about it until after the deed was done.
These hangings, though protested, were not altogether unexpected, for a break in the Japanese Diet around the end of the year often heralds an appearance on the public stage by the gallows. (Look for them in 2008 as the Diet goes out of session starting today.) And a turnover at the top of the Justice Ministry had replaced a pol disinclined to authorize any hangings, the source of the long break between executions during a decade when Japan’s use of the death penalty has generally been intensifying.
Although at least one particularly pressing motivation for this date’s hanging will not be present this year. After the long hiatus, an anonymous official told a newspaper,
We absolutely wanted to avoid ending the year with zero executions.
Renowned among espionage aficionados for supposedly forewarning Moscow of the exact date of Germany’s planned surprise attack in 1941, Richard Sorge‘s work in the pregnant years leading up to World War II produced multiple intelligence coups and could lay claim to the uncommon distinction of having materially affected the course of the war.
His signal achievement was establishing, as a foreigner in a highly xenophobic Japan, a spy ring that for years penetrated the highest levels of the Japanese government and the German embassy, giving Moscow an inside look at Axis planning.
Working under the cover of journalism in the German expat community — he had grown up in a mixed German-Russian household in Berlin and won the Iron Cross for his service in the Kaiser’s army in World War I before embracing communism — Sorge struck Hitler from half a world away. His access to the German embassy was untrammeled — indeed, he had an affair with the ambassador’s wife. His lead Japanese collaborator Hotsumi Ozaki was a major public intellectual similarly privy to sensitive information through his contacts.
The two, along with several other Japanese and foreign collaborators, produced a steady diet of top-shelf intelligence, including the (ignored) forecast of Operation Barbarossa. But the ring’s most important coup — arguably a decisive one in the history of the war as a whole — was to inform Moscow in September 1941 that Japan did not intend to attack the Russian Far East. Relieved of the nightmare prospect of a two-front war, Stalin transfered desperately needed Siberian divisions to help throw back the German advance on Moscow.
Japan by 1941 was a dangerous place to operate, however, and the nerve-rattling work — and the alcoholism to which it contributed — were taking its toll on the master spy just as the authorities were closing in. Sorge and his ring were arrested in October 1941.
Sorge’s decisive communique regarding Japanese intentions in the East had not yet borne its fruit. The war had nearly four years yet to run, and Sorge would languish in prison for most of them — long enough to leave fellow detainees with recollections of the captured operative jubilant at Red Army victories. Soviet tanks were at Germany’s doorstep by the time the two went to the gallows, one after the other, with the few minutes’ notice still customary for Japanese hangings to this day.
The spies in history who can say from their graves, the infomation I supplied to my masters, for better or worse, altered the history of our planet, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Richard Sorge was in that group.