Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Ahhhh, Romantic Japan

I'm reading an excellent book called "Samurai William" about William Adams, the first Englishman to come to Japan. He was a pilot aboard a Dutch trading vessel that came to Japan in 1600. Eventually, he came to be a very trusted advisor to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and his story was fictionalized in the novel, "Shogun". He was, however, a very real person and he lived part of his life in Hirado, a small town in Nagasaki where I also lived for 2 years on the JET Program. He and the other Englishmen who eventually established a trading house on the island left behind some very interesting accounts of life during this period, that should give us second thoughts about how great it would be if we could only go back in time to the glorious Age of the Samurai! (That Trans-Dimensional Portal Kim is always mentioning...) For example:

"[Captain] Saris might have had more success had he employed Japanese punishment which, he soon discovered, was as brutal as it was severe. When three local men started a street brawl, King Foyne [local daimyo Mastuura] ordered their summary execution. When this had been carried out, all the able-bodied men of the town 'came to try the sharpenesse of their katanas upon the corps[es] so that before they left off they had hewn them all three into pieces as small as a man's hand.'
The casual violence of the Japanese never ceased to amaze newcomers. It was common practice for samurai to test their swords on criminals, hacking at their corpses 'until the wretched body is chopped into mincemeat'. They were also in the habit of stitching the bodies together so that the same exercise could be repeated again and again. 'They often sew up bodies which have been cut up by swords,' observed the Jesuit, Joao Rodrigues, who said that 'the delight and pleasure which they feel in cutting up bodies is astonishing.'
King Foyne was as inexorable as any other Japanese lord. He governed his fiefdom with a razor-sharp sword, crushing disobedience and refusing mercy. [Captain] Cocks's men were no strangers to the spectacle of public beheadings and grisly disembowelments - for they were a common occurrence in London - yet they were surprised to discover that Adams was not exaggerating the inflexibility of Japanese justice: even minor transgressions were capital offences. Worse still, the sentence was inviolable, and King Foyne would not 'revoke or mittigate the severitie of it'. Once judgement was passed, the punishment was immediate. The victim was instructed to kneel and the executioner cut off his head. Then, the head and body were chopped into tiny pieces.
Cocks and his men were horrified by such violence and watched in dismay as young children were executed for minor crimes. In their first months, they had been too nervous to intervene. But, when they were more familiar with their new home, they began to lodge complaints with King Foyne. On a December afternoon in 1615, Cocks learned that 'a boy of sixteen yeares old was [to be] cut in peeces for stealing a littell boat and carrying it to another island'. Cocks felt that the death sentence was unduly harsh and 'sent [an appeal] to the king to beg his life'. He also despatched a message to the executioner, asking him to refrain from killing the boy until he had learned of King Foyne's reaction. The executioner, infuriated by the English petition, was further angered when he learned that Foyne was intending to pardon the lad. Without further ado, he unsheathed his sword and 'put him to death before the pardon came, cutting him in many mammocks'.
Life was cheap in Hirado, and death was so commonplace that the local populace were untroubled by the sight of corpses lying in gutters or fields. Cocks was rather more sensitive, and such horrific spectacles would remain for ever etched on his mind. One day, he was enjoying a walk on the edge of the town when he 'fownd a young girl of some eleven or twelve years of age, dead on the backside under the walle [of a little lodge]'. He was disgusted to see 'dogges feeding on her, having eaten both her legges and her lower parts'. He was unable to discover her identity or the cause of death, but noted that 'it is thought some villen had ravished her and after killed her, or else, being a slave, her master had killed her upon some displeasure and cast her out to be eaten of dogges, an ordenary matter in these partes.'"


Anonymous Trevor Stewart said...

I know that you posted this quite some time ago (understatement, neh?)...
i recently ran into this book after having finally read 'Shogun' over the summer (thank you DESY Bistro for having a small English-language reading nook-thingy).

Very memorable passage indeed. While I'm very interested in Japan during this time period, I don't think I'd like to have lived it. Frankly, I can say the same thing about early medieval Europe as well... maybe there is a terrible difference in being genuinely interested and living out the period.

Cheerio then

10:29 PM  

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