from THE WAY OF THE TRAITOR
Genroku Period, Year 2, Month 5 (June 1690)
Like a pale moon, the sun's white globe rose in a mesh of
drifting clouds above the eastern hills beyond Nagasaki, the
international port city on Kyushu, the westernmost of Japan's
four major islands. Mist clung to the forested slopes and shrouded
the city clustered around the harbor. Bells echoed from hillside
temples, over the governor's stately mansion, the townspeople's
thatched houses, and the foreign settlements. In the harbor,
a salt-laden summer breeze stirred the sails of Japanese fishing
boats, Chinese junks, and myriad vessels from the exotic, faraway
lands of Arabia, Korea, Tonkin. A patrol barge glided down
the corridor formed by the harbor's high, wooded cliffs, past
the watchtowers, toward a calm sea. On the western horizon,
the silhouettes of distant ships appeared as dawn gradually
pushed back night's curtain.
On a steep road leading away from town, a low, anguished
moaning heralded a solemn procession. First came Nagasaki's
highest officials--mounted samurai dressed in black ceremonial
robes and caps--then four hundred lesser dignitaries, attendants,
servants, and merchants, all on foot. Last marched a small
army of soldiers armed with swords and spears, guarding the
terrified prisoner in their midst.
"No," whispered the samurai between his moans, which grew
louder as the procession climbed higher into the hills. He
had been stripped of his swords, and all clothing except a
loincloth. He tried to break free, but heavy shackles hobbled
his ankles; ropes bound his wrists behind his back. Spears
prodded him up the path. "This can't be happening!"
Amid the lower ranks of officials, one witness fought back
fear and nausea. He hated watching executions, but his attendance
at this one was mandatory, along with that of everyone else
who had dealings with Nagasaki's foreign community. The bakufu--the
military dictatorship that ruled Japan--wanted to remind them
all of what would happen to anyone who violated the nation's
harsh anti-treason laws, to warn them against any allegiance
with the foreigners, no matter how innocent, or any act of
disloyalty toward the government. Here, in the only place where
foreigners were allowed in Japan, an ambitious man might gather
powerful allies and launch a rebellion against the Tokugawa
regime. To prevent this, the bakufu enforced the laws more
rigorously than anywhere else in the country, devoting immense
effort to identifying and punishing traitors. Even a minor
infraction would inevitably lead to death.
"Why are you doing this?" the prisoner pleaded. "I beg you,
No one answered. The march continued relentlessly, until
at last the members of the procession gathered on a plateau
overlooking the city and harbor. None spoke, but the witness
sensed their emotions, hovering in the moist air like a malignant
cloud: fear; excitement; disgust. He watched, terrified and
appalled, as the army bore the captive into the center of the
There waited four grim, muscular men with cropped hair, wearing
ragged kimonos. One, hammer in hand, stood beside a newly erected
frame composed of two wooden pillars joined by a crossbeam.
Two others seized the prisoner's arms and forced him to his
knees beside the man holding a sword; the sharp blade gleamed
in the dawn light. These were eta, outcasts who served
as executioners, and they were ready to cut off the prisoner's
head and mount it on the frame as a warning to would-be criminals.
"No!" the prisoner screamed. "Please!" Straining away from
his captors, he entreated the audience. "I've committed no
crimes. I haven't done anything to deserve this!"
The witness longed to clap his hands over his ears and shut
out the screams, to close his eyes against the sight of the
panic-stricken samurai whose courage had fled before this ultimate
disgrace, to deny his terrible sense of identification with
the condemned prisoner.
Hoofbeats clattered as the governor of Nagasaki urged his
horse forward. "The prisoner, Yoshido Ganzaemon, is guilty
of treason," he announced in grave, ceremonial tones.
"Treason?" The samurai ceased struggling, his face blank
with shock. "I'm not a traitor. I've served the shogun well
all my life." His voice rose in disbelief. "I'm the hardest-working
officer in the harbor patrol. I always volunteer for extra
duty. I risk my life in rough weather. I practice the martial
arts so that I can someday bring my lord glory on the battlefield.
I've never acted against the shogun or his regime. Whoever
says so is lying!"
But the governor's voice drowned out his plea. "Yoshido Ganzaemon
has cravenly denounced the lord to whom he owes his ultimate
duty and loyalty. He has called His Excellency the Shogun Tokugawa
Tsunayoshi a weak, stupid fool."
The witness knew that Yoshido had insulted the shogun during
a party in the pleasure quarter, where the courtesans flattered
and the sake flowed freely, removing men's inhibitions and
loosening their tongues. Nagasaki boasted more spies than anywhere
else in Japan, all alert to the slightest transgressions. They'd
overheard Yoshido's careless words and brought him to this
sorry fate as they had many others.
"I didn't mean it," Yoshido protested. "I was drunk; I didn't
know what I was saying. A thousand apologies!" He tried to
bow, but the two eta held him firmly. "Please, you can't
kill me for one little mistake!"
No one spoke in his defense, not even the witness, who knew
of the man's exemplary record and character. To take a traitor's
side would mean sharing his guilt, and punishment. "For his
dishonor, Yoshido Ganzaemon is hereby sentenced to death." The
governor nodded to the executioners.
Now the prisoner's fear turned to rage. "So you condemn me
as a traitor?" he shouted at the silent, watchful assembly. "When
there are much, much worse criminals in Nagasaki than I?" Harsh,
bitter laughter exploded from him. "Just take a look around
Deshima, and you'll see!"
The crowd stirred; murmurs swept the plateau like a troubled
wind. The witness gasped at the accusation, for Yoshido spoke
the truth. By unfortunate accident, the witness had discovered
shocking activity on Deshima, the Dutch trade colony. He'd
observed clandestine comings and goings, illegal transactions,
forbidden collusion between foreigners and Japanese. Even worse,
he believed he knew who bore the primary responsibility for
the crimes. Now his bowels loosened; he swayed dizzily. If
an underling like Yoshido knew about the crimes, then who else
did, or would eventually find out?
The governor held up a hand, arresting all sound and motion. "Proceed!" he
The eta seized the looped knot of hair at Yoshido's
nape and yanked, forcing his head high, holding it immobile.
The witness's heart thudded; his limbs went numb and cold in
horrible empathy. He saw himself in Yoshido's place, ready
to die not in glorious battle, or honorably by his own hand
in ritual suicide as befitting a samurai, but in disgrace,
a convicted traitor.
Then he pictured the person he suspected of the Deshima crime,
kneeling beside the executioner whose sword now rose in a high,
deadly arc. A person to whose fate his own was inextricably
bound. Would they die together like this, someday? The penalty
for a crime of such magnitude was death not just for the criminal,
but also for his whole family and all close associates. Please, the
witness prayed in mute terror, let it not happen!
"Oh, yes, there are bigger villains than I, who are probably
committing their evil, treasonous deeds even now. Punish them
Yoshido's hysterical voice echoed through the hills, in vain.
Panic sharpened the witness's senses. He heard the crowd's
simultaneous intake of breath, smelled anticipation mingling
with the salty sea breeze. Under the sun's blind, merciless
eye, and over the hammering of his own heart, he heard Yoshida
scream: "No, please, no no no NO!"
The executioner's sword slashed downward. In a great red
fountain of blood, the blade severed Yoshido's head, forever
ending his protests and accusations.
But the witness's terror lived on. If matters continued along
their present course, the danger would escalate. There would
be more violent death, more mortal disgrace . . . unless he
stopped the crimes before someone else did.
Excerpt from THE
WAY OF THE TRAITOR
©Laura Joh Rowland, 1997