Japanese Punishment of Criminals During the Edo Period
The Edo period in Japan was characterized by a class system that prized honor and stringent rules of behavior among all its classes. While many people strove to meet the demands of their station, there were those who failed. Whether their crime was real or an imagined slight, there were five basic categories of Japanese punishment. If you’re curious about how the Japanese maintained their nation’s honor, read on here for more details about punishing criminals between 1600 and 1800.
The death penalty was the most serious Japanese punishment and was reserved mainly for such crimes as arson and murder. There were three places where the Tokugawa shogunate had execution grounds, including Itabashi, Kozukappara, and Suzugamori.
Today, the most famous execution ground, Kozukappara, is located near Tokyo’s Minami-Senju metro station. Some records indicate that up to 200,000 criminals were executed in this location. Only a portion of the grounds still remains, buried under a series of rail tracks. Archeologists have researched the area and found a number of skulls buried there to confirm the various methods of execution used as punishment, including:
- Being Burned Alive
- Boiling to Death
- Cutting a Person in Half
Many times, an execution was a show of strength or used as an example, so criminals were often paraded around the area before the execution. Sometimes, their heads were put on display after their death.
Imprisonment or Exile
While both of these depended on the type of crime, magistrates during the Edo period had many options when choosing prison or banishment. One of the most popular was exile to a secluded island. Two common islands included Miyakejima and Hachijōjima. To ensure that criminals could not escape this Japanese punishment and reintegrate into society, they were given specialized tattoos that declared their status as exiles. To this day, tattoos are still somewhat taboo in Japan.
When it came to incarceration, the largest prison was located at Kodenma-chō, but most often, criminals were banished from the place of their crime. Sometimes, this banishment was to a specific location, but a banishment of a specific distance was also common.
Labor was considered a moderate Japanese punishment at the time, and labor camps were nearly always full. The easiest labor camp was located in Edo Bay, but more serious crimes resulted in work at the gold mine of Sado Island. Sometimes, female convicts were sentenced to work as prostitutes in Red Light-style Districts.
In the late 1500s, Hideyoshi, the daimyo of Japan until 1598, banned penal labor (unfree labor) as a punishment — especially for the families of executed criminals who were often sent off to camps after the death of their family member.
Seizing of Property
This Japanese punishment was mostly used to punish the merchant classes or those nobles with land and titles. In some cases, a merchant’s entire business was confiscated, and they were left destitute. And, if a noble committed a crime severe enough to require the seizing of their lands, they had to watch as another noble was gifted the property.
Samurai, for the most part, didn’t own property, so if they committed a crime that required confiscation, they most likely gave up their weapons.
There were a few different versions of corporal punishment. This was the least of the Japanese punishments around during the Edo period and was infinitely flexible. Someone who was sentenced to corporal punishment could be cuffed and placed under house arrest for between 30 and 100 days, depending on their crime.
Another common corporal punishment included flogging. This was usually the penalty for fighting or theft. A criminal could suffer up to 100 lashes for the most serious of these types of crimes. Samurai and priests were always exempt from flogging, as this was only a punishment for commoners. Sometimes, women were exempt from flogging and suffered imprisonment in its place. Convicts who were to be flogged were stripped to expose their buttocks and back and struck with a particular type of stick. As flogging fell in and out of fashion, it was often replaced with amputation of the nose or ears.
Learn About Japanese Culture
Because the Japanese have always been obsessed with honor, many of their punishments may seem extreme today. While corporal punishment and banishment have fallen out of fashion, in modern times, Japanese punishment still includes the use of the death penalty by hanging, but only for murder.