Reprinted with permission of the author

by Richard Cleaver
(c) JANUARY 1999

I've been whiling away the long winter nights recently by reading about traditional forms of bondage and torture in Japan. Some of the information I've found about rope bondage is posted here. I've actually been looking into the subject for a while, but I've held off writing about it for a couple of reasons. The first was I wanted to get the historical picture clear enough in my mind to have some confidence I wasn't giving new life to old falsehoods. The second was that I find myself a bit concerned that I'm feeding into old racist stereotypes about Dr. Fu Manchu and his "fiendish Oriental tortures." There's enough racist nonsense about Japan being published in the pages of the New York Times without my adding to it here.

Still and all, there's nothing in what you're about to read that any ordinary Japanese reader couldn't find in any public library, which is where I got it after all. All this information is from Japanese historical sources, so all I'm doing is summarizing recent scholarship for those who can't read Japanese.

If that sounds rather dry and schoolmasterish, well, what you see is what you get, and you get what you pay for. I assure you, though, when I was reading this stuff I was hard most of the time. I daresay I'm not far wrong if I guess that those of you visiting this site and reading this column will be equally able to turn history into pornography. Didn't we all start out beating off to National Geographic?

But let's get down to business. First a little background.

Torture was used during the Edo Period (1603-1867) both by officials of the Tokugawa Shogunate (in Japanese "Bakufu" which I will use for convenience hereafter) Bakufu and by private persons. The better part of the information about the former comes from the procedures of the Edo (the old name for Tokyo) machi-bugyo or city commissioners. There were machi-bugyo in other cities besides these two--Shizuoka, where I live, had one, since it was under direct Tokugawa rule, not a vassal lord. The two Edo machi-bugyo combined judicial and administrative responsibilities for the commoners of the city. They had a variety of law enforcement bodies under them, among them the regular constabulary and a special arson and robbery squad. The constabulary consisted of two levels of officials, joriki and doshin. The joriki were essentially the officer class of police, with some bureaucratic duties as well, sort of like police detectives in the U.S. The doshin, who were directly under the joriki, were constables. Both posts were filled, often father to son, by members of the very lowest stratum of the samurai class. There were fifty joriki and at most 280 doshin (divided between the two magistracies) for the entire city of Edo , which by 1730 had over a million people, although the machi-bugyo had jurisdiction over only about half the population.

This last fact is why anybody could make an arrest. The declaration "go-yo!" (with the second syllable prolonged), literally something like "official business," was equivalent to "you're under arrest." The person making the arrest was supposed to conduct the suspect to the nearest guardhouse, of which there was theoretically one for each neighborhood. Besides this system of "citizen's arrests," there were several private assistants employed directly by the doshin. As a practical matter, these people were the ones who did most of the work, often on their own account rather than the authorities'. Many of these okappiki or meakashi were former criminals who had been coopted to share their inside knowledge with the police. The system apparently goes back all the way to the Heian period (roughly 800-1200), when criminals would be led around town roped together in a line to point out others of their kind, in order to lighten their own punishments. The risk of such assistants working both ends against the middle is obvious, and in theory their employment was forbidden. But in practice, they outnumbered the official police.

The meakashi were allowed to conduct torture and there were no rules for this. The Bakufu did lay down rules limiting the use of torture in official proceedings. This was a great improvement over previous eras where might more or less made right. The rub was, official proceedings were almost never conducted unless there was every reason to believe the suspect would confess publicly at them--usually because the confession had already been obtained, written out, and sealed before the offical trial began. (This is still true today.) Failure to obtain such a public confession was thought to bring the government into disrepute. Naturally, the professed ideal was to obtain the confession without the use of torture by questioning alone, skill at which was a point of pride; but there's no real way of knowing how often this standard was even aimed at, much less met. If it wasn't, then torture was the only way to get the required confession, and that was its major purpose.

In official proceedings, there were four levels of torture, the two lowest being regarded as ordinary, the highest as extraordinary, and the one in between as--well, in between. They were, from lowest to highest: flogging; pressing with stones; the Prawn; and suspension. Although ranked in this fashion, they usually were used in combination, going back and forth until a confession was obtained. Each level could be pursued up to a named point: a certain period of time, or a certain number of strokes, or the like. If this failed to obtain results, either the technique would be tried again after a given interval (often two days) or a different one would be tried. Any and all of these tortures were used on women as well as men; but I've used masculine pronouns here because that's who I'd want to be working over myself.

(1) Flogging. This was done with the suspect kneeling and bound around his upper arms. Two stout ropes were also held taut by a pair of assistants on either side, or in front of and behind, the suspect. A special scourge was used, called a shimoto or muchi (the latter is a generic word for any kind of whip or scourge).

The shimoto was something over eighteen inches long, and tapered. At the thick end it was three or more inches in diameter, and at the narrow end (the handle) it was about half an inch. It consisted of a pair of bamboos laid side by side and wrapped lengthwise in hempen cloth, around which hemp twine was wrapped (crosswise) the whole length of the instrument. About five inches at the narrow end were wrapped in white leather to form a grip. Some drawings show the business end of the shimoto exposed with the bamboo shredded for about an inch down, like a brush, presumably to make it hurt more. I don't have any information about the thickness of the bamboos at the core of this instrument, nor how much cloth was used; but it appears from the pictures that the shimoto had some give rather than being rigid. One drawing I saw, taken from an old source, has the outer twine wrapping applied in the same elegant way as the silken wrapping around the hilt of a samurai sword; but all the rest of the pictures show a simple whipping-on of the twine.

This scourge was used to beat the suspect on his shoulders or back until the blood flowed, at which point an assistant would rub sand into the wound to stop the bleeding. Then the beating would be continued at another spot on the back, lower down.

Flogging was also used as a punishment for convicted criminals, in which case it was administered with a long rod, not the scourge described above, and the convict was laid face down and spreadeagled on the ground, with all four limbs held securely. Again the beating was administered on the back, the person carrying out the punishment usually standing at the convict's head (at least this is the arrangement in old drawings).

(2) Pressing. This torture, literally "embracing the stones," was carried out with the suspect kneeling. In some pictures, he kneels on a corrugated surface like an exaggerated washboard, with pointed ridges. His arms were tied behind, somtimes to a post of the building. Large square slabs of stone, about an inch thick, were then laid one after another on the tops of the suspect's thighs. This simple but excruciating torture was usually alternated with beating, though they were on occasion carried out simultaneously. It was said to be nearly foolproof in obtaining a confession.

(3) The Prawn. In cases where the previous two levels of torture failed, however, the Prawn was used. This was also sometimes called "the football," from the shape of the person after being tied up. First the suspect's hands were tied behind his back, with a rope going around the upper arms, the forearms placed on top of each other, the wrists bound together. Next he was forced to sit cross-legged. His ankles were bound together, and the two ends of the rope then brought up and over his shoulders, where they were looped through the rope binding his arms. Then, the torturer would use his foot to press down on the suspect's back, forcing his chest down toward his crossed calves, at the same time pulling up on the ropes and thus raising the suspects feet off the ground. When the suspect was doubled over as far as physically possible, and a little farther, the second rope was tied off on the first. Then they waited.

There were two explanations for the name "prawn." One was that the suspect was bent over like a lobster or prawn. The other was that after a short time in this position, the person turned red. In fact, there was a sequence of colors when the torture lasted for several hours: first red, then purple, then violet, then pale blue. The latter stage was the signal for the torture to end, if the pain had not already produced a confession long since. Continuing once the pale blue stage was reached resulted in death. Sometimes flogging was administered at the same time. Sometimes the victim was rolled around. It was said that some suspects, after their first experience of the Prawn, were in pain for days afterwards, although the same sources indicate that repeated applications of the torture brought diminishing returns. (Feel the burn!)

A variation on this was "the prawn in a box," which was just what the name implies: after being trussed up like a football, the person was put into a wooden box.

(4) Suspension. This was regarded as a last resort. It was carried out by tying the suspect's arms behind, and then suspending him by the wrists from above. A variation was to suspend the suspect upside down by the ankles; but apparently the wrists were more usual. Some drawings show the suspect suspended by the arms alone, while others show a kind of rope girdle around the waist and abdomen to distribute the weight somewhat.

For an especially reluctant suspect, a large stone weight might be laid on the shoulders. As with the previous two tortures, suspension might be accompanied by flogging.

All four of these approved tortures were administered under the eye of clerks who made an official record of the proceedings, and all were confined within certain limits to make sure permanent damage or death did not result. On the other hand, as I've said, there were no rules or limits on the use of torture outside official proceedings. The Edo period wasn't quite as lawless as the chambara movies (samurai swashbucklers) would have us believe; in fact it was made a crime in this period for a samurai to cut down a commoner just to test his sword blade, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding. (The fact that it kept on being punished, of course, suggests that it kept on happening; and local vassal lords had their own legal systems.) The Bakufu authorities weren't human rights fanatics, though. They just wanted to keep the lid on the use of violence. Still, there was plenty of torture outside the strict letter of the law, and plenty of techniques besides the ones I've described here.

In closing I'll just pass on one, mainly because it's a local product: Suruga-doi. Suruga was the old name for this province of Japan, and the large bay I can see outside my window as I sit at my old Mac writing these columns is still called Suruga Bay. Toi (in combination doi) means "inquiry." Apparently this particular form of "inquiry" was invented by a local machi-bugyo sometime in the 250-odd years of Tokugawa rule. The "Suruga inquiry" consists of tying the prisoner's four limbs together behind his back in a bundle, suspending him from the ceiling by this single rope, and placing progressively heavier weights in the middle of his back. Sometimes he would be made to twist in the air at the end of his rope, too. Said to be unfailing in getting answers. Kiddies, don't try this at home!

"Reprinted with permission of the author."