Read CHAPTER VIII - Crimes and punishments of Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs, free online book, by J. M. W. Silver, on

Crimes against property are rare in Japan, which is owing to the high-spirited and honourable feelings that actuate all classes of the community; but from the feudal nature of the government, the small value attached to life, and the deadly weapons constantly carried, by the military classes, who are notoriously proud and revengeful, crimes against the person are very frequent.

A great check upon criminal offences is the severity of the punishments inflicted, and the disgrace entailed upon the culprit’s family.

Although the laws are extremely severe, and in their administration there is neither jury nor counsel, justice is delivered with great impartiality; and the judge, who is generally the governor of the town or district in which the offence has been committed, is entrusted with considerable discretionary power.

When a prisoner is being examined his arms are bound to his sides by a rope, which also passes round his neck, the end of which is held by an official, who, if his charge prove unruly, manages him by pulls and jerks.

‘Thrashemono,’ or ‘public exposure,’ is associated with all Japanese punishments, and is said to be in itself a great preventive of crime, as the spirited Japanese dread being held up to the reprobation of their acquaintance more than they fear the extreme penalty of the law.

The illustration, showing the mode of conducting a criminal to execution, is an instance of ‘thrashemono.’ The culprit is bound on a horse, and is preceded by a placard, borne by his relatives or neighbours, and indicating his crime. In this manner he is conducted through the town to the place of execution, where his sentence is read to him. He is then placed (with his limbs still bound) over a freshly-dug hole, where he is supported by his relatives till the executioner’s sword performs its task.

After execution, the heads of malefactors are generally exposed: that of Simono Sedgi (the lonin who was decapitated in the presence of the British garrison of Yokohama, for being the organizer of the assassination of Major Baldwin and Lieutenant Bird of Her Majesty’s 20th Regiment) was exhibited on the public stand at the guard-house at the entrance of the town.

This man was a fair specimen of the lonin type, and was a most determined ruffian, whose whole life had been a career of crime.

When exposed in the streets of Yokohama the day preceding his execution, he conducted himself with great bravado, remarking on the improvements in the town since he last visited it, and expressing his regret that he had not killed a consul.

At the place of execution he made an impassioned speech, in which he declared that he was a gentleman by birth, and had studied the arts and sciences, and never believed the government would sacrifice a Japanese for the death of a foreigner. He said that the days would come when they would repent the encouragement they were now giving to strangers; and ended by complimenting the executioner on his well-known skill.

The lonin differs from the ordinary criminal, and is thus ably described by the highest authority on Japanese matters:

’As a noble or head of a house is responsible for all who are of his family, or claim his protection, when any of his people are resolved upon a desperate enterprise they formally renounce the protection and declare themselves “lonins;” in other words, outlaws, or friendless men: after which no one is responsible for their acts, and this is considered a highly honourable and proper thing to do.

The worst of this system is, that any one harbouring or assisting a lonin endangers his head; and such men are, therefore, compelled to resort to robbery and extortion as means of supporting themselves. It generally happens that this legalised method of taking the law into their own hands drives those who avail themselves of it into a series of crimes, and frequently they become the associates of common thieves.

Of the gang represented in the illustration as robbing a rich merchant’s house, one or two probably are lonins, the rest being thieves in disguise.

The servants, kowtowing before two men, whose naked swords plainly intimate the consequences of any attempt to give alarm, or to offer resistance to their demands, have apparently been collecting all the money in the house and are laying it before the thieves. The oblong boxes are iron safes, in which the Japanese keep their money.

From the position of the other members of the gang, it is evident that they have not got all they require, and are watching something going on in the interior of the house. They have probably learnt that the merchant has to forward some money for the purchase of goods by a certain date, and know exactly how much to expect.

In the spring of 1865 the Tycoon, in levying a tax on the Yeddo merchants, congratulated them on the fact that the portion of the country under his immediate control was exempt from the depredations of lonins; but notwithstanding this statement, a robbery of the nature described took place in the capital immediately after the issue of the Tycoon’s manifesto, and a lonin concerned in it gave as an excuse for his conduct, that he had learnt that the money was intended for foreigners, who were settled in the country in opposition to the laws of Gongen Sama, which had never been revoked.

With such dread are these men regarded by the non-combatant classes, that it frequently happens that one or two will go into a village and extort what they require without the slightest resistance being offered.

As a rule, Japanese punishments resemble those inflicted by the Chinese, and seem to be based on the Mosaic principle of ’an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ Arson, for instance, is punished at the stake; and a thief who endeavours to conceal the results of his robberies by burying them, has the disadvantages of that mode of concealment impressed upon him, by being himself embedded for a day or two in the ground, with only his head out a mode of instruction that rarely requires a repetition of the lesson.

Apropos of this punishment is the testimony of an eye-witness, who, in passing the public execution place at Yeddo, noticed a head on the ground, which he supposed to have been recently struck off. He had turned away with a shudder, when a laugh from the bystanders caused him to look again, when, to his great astonishment, the head was vigorously puffing at a pipe which the facetious executioner had a few moments before been smoking himself.

The last illustration shows a man and woman undergoing public exposure for adultery a crime which is rare in Japan and which is punished with great severity.

With such detestation is it regarded, that, in addition to all legal cognizance, the husband is permitted, in certain instances, to avenge himself by taking the lives of the offenders upon the spot.

The board on the right contains the official intimation of the crime.

The curious instruments depicted in the woodcut are Japanese emblems of justice and are to be seen at all the guard-houses; they are used to catch runaway offenders or to pin a drunken yaconin against a wall or house, and so facilitate the task of disarming him without danger to the captors.

Although the Japanese use torture to extract information from obstinate criminals, they employ all necessary caution to preserve life; and a doctor and responsible officer are always present when it is employed, as representatives of the respective claims of humanity and justice. A singular punishment, to which only the nobles of the country are liable, is secret banishment to the island of Fatzisiu, which is situated on the northern coast of the empire. It is small and barren, rising perpendicularly from the sea. The only communication with it is by means of a basket, which is lowered from an overhanging tree to the water, a distance of about fifty feet. From this island there is no return, and the unhappy, incarcerated nobles, are compelled to support themselves by weaving silks, which are the most beautiful the country produces. A junk visits the island once a-year, when the silks are exchanged for provisions.