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In addition to their regular mixture of celebrity gossip and scandals mixed with practical advice for readers — such as how to quit smoking or winning pachinko techniques — the weeklies also treat their readers to snippets of Japanese history.

Flash (July 28) devoted four pages to details of how law and order was maintained during the Tokugawa Era (1602-1867).

The provinces under direct Tokugawa rule dispensed justice with 11 types of punishments. For relatively minor infractions, an offender might receive a humiliating kitto shikari (a nasty scolding), administered while the recipient knelt, head bowed in shame. Another light sentence was oshikome (to be put under house arrest of between 20 to 100 days). More serious offenses were punished by flogging, banishment to the countryside and exile to an island such as Hachijojima in the Izu chain or Sado, off Niigata.

For the worst criminal offenders, no fewer than six varieties of the death penalty awaited, including decapitation by sword and burning at the stake — the standard punishment for arsonists.

Flash also sets the record straight regarding several illustrious magistrates of yore. Referred to as machi-bugyo, they were equivalent to today’s prefectural governors and Tokyo’s predecessor Edo, populated by about a million souls, had two, and they were kept perennially busy. Incredible as it seems, by one count, they handled some 40,000 civil and criminal cases a year. With Sundays and holidays included, that would average 109 cases a day.

Saddled as they were with such a heavy workload, the tales of sagacious and incorruptible jurists, such as Ooka Tadasuke and Toyama Kinshiro, as portrayed in popular TV period dramas, were surely exaggerations. Many early works extolling their virtues were lifted almost verbatim from older Chinese texts; others were based on original stories by writers in the modern era, who drew on “Sherlock Holmes” and other Western detective stories for inspiration.

This writer confesses he became a fan of the “Toyama no Kin-san” TV series, which ran on different networks over some four decades. Every episode followed a similar pattern. Judge Toyama would slip on commoner’s clothes and roam the town undercover, assuming the guise of a streetwise rogue named Kin-san. When a showdown with the bad guys ensued, just before the police constables came storming in, Kin-san would flash his bare shoulder, tattooed with fluttering cherry blossoms, and make a quick getaway. The accused were soon afterward dragged into court before Kin-san, now supposedly unrecognizable in his elaborate judge’s robes. The villains would vehemently deny their crimes, but little did they know … as the judge would rise to his feet, bare his tattooed shoulder and thunder, “Surely you’re not trying to tell me you’ve forgotten these cherry blossoms fluttering on my back.” While they tremble in fear, he dispenses swift justice, sending them off to their well deserved fates with a haughty “hitatee!” (“Take them away!”).

Actually, Flash notes that Toyama’s legendary popularity among Edo’s hoi polloi did have some basis in fact. It came about when he took their side during the “Tempo Reforms,” a series of blue laws enforced in 1841 by the dour head of the Shogun’s Council, Mizuno Tadakuni, that banned many forms of recreation. As far as sporting a tattoo, it’s entirely possible that the historical Toyama really had one — supposedly of a scroll depicting a woman’s decapitated head. Deemed unsuitable for family entertainment on TV, the tattoo was changed to fluttering cherry blossoms.

Haiti is not the only country where voodoo is used to put a curse on someone. Japan also has a native form of voodoo that dates back to the sixth century, if not earlier. It seems the ceremony, called ushi no koku mairi (visit at the hour of the ox, between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.) is still being practiced. Nikkan Gendai (July 10) reported that a man in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, was recently issued a warning by police for nailing a wara ningyo (straw doll) to a tree.

The doll, measuring some 30 cm in height and 20 cm wide, was found on April 16 by a primary school child in one of the city’s parks. The article did not mention how police tracked down the culprit, a man in his 50s.

“The problem was that a photo of a woman’s face was superimposed on the doll’s head,” a police source explained. “Several nails had been driven into the doll’s head and body. The suspect said he had performed the hex ‘to make himself feel better’ after having been rejected by the woman.”

He added that as the woman concerned resided in another prefecture, it was “unlikely” that she would have encountered the doll herself.

Hex kits that include a straw doll, nails and instructions for use have been sold as a novelty item for quite some time. They are even peddled via Amazon Japan.

While the disappointed suitor in Matsue was let off with a warning this time, attorney and former criminal prosecutor Yoji Ochiai is quoted as saying that such behavior could be construed as a form of slander, because it might influence any third parties who see it to conclude that the target of the hex is a bad person.

“Or, it could be treated as a form of intimidation,” Ochiai added. “Just as someone might mail a bullet or photo of a murder victim as means of harassment, it would carry the implication that ‘You’re next.'”

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