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  • A Pernicious GangŌshio Chūsai and the Prosecution of Heretics in Late Tokugawa Japan
  • James McMullen
Christian Sorcerers on Trial: Records of the 1827 Osaka Incident. Translated and with an introduction by Miyazaki Fumiko, Kate Wildman Nakai, and Mark Teeuwen. Columbia University Press, 2020. 408 pages. Hardcover, $140.00/£108.00; softcover, $35.00/£28.00.

Since the time of Socrates, trials on capital charges have held a compelling historical and human interest. Their poignancy increases when the voices of the accused have been recorded verbatim or when the evidence was extracted under duress or torture. A sympathetic response is also evoked where judicial procedures, though acceptable in their age, were used for apparently ulterior ends and flout what modern humanist sensibilities would see as moral fairness. Examples may be political, as in the case of Anne Boleyn, or religious, as in the Spanish Inquisition. Another case, the notorious East Anglian witch-hunt led by Matthew Hopkins from 1645, is suggested to have had pecuniary as well as sectarian motives.1

Christian Sorcerers on Trial treats an analogous case from early modern Japanese history—an exhaustively documented trial that even at the time aroused questions as to the justice of its convictions. From 1827, a group of commoner men and women was tried by local Osaka agents of the Tokugawa military government for the alleged [End Page 117] crime of practicing Christianity. To be party to this “evil teaching” had been a capital offense since the seventeenth century, but, as the editors and translators of this excellent book point out in their introduction, sentencing had been in abeyance for over a century. This case is distinguished by the thoroughness of the investigation, the rigor of the prosecution, and the preservation of comprehensive records of the proceedings. It also holds a special fascination thanks to its leading prosecutor, who was credited at the time for its success but who remains a controversial figure in Japanese history: a decade after the trial, Ōshio Chūsai 大塩中斎 (Heihachirō 平八郎; 1793– 1837), a well-known Neo-Confucian scholar and activist adhering to the late-Ming school of Wang Yangming 王陽明 (1472–1528), would go on to lead a suicidal insurrection against the authority of the same administration on whose behalf he had earlier proudly claimed to administer justice.2 The principal theme of this review, then, is Ōshio’s role in the judicial proceedings from 1827 and particularly the idiosyncratic Confucian thinking that informed his approach. A brief epilogue addresses the apparent volte-face between Ōshio the ruthless implementer of shogunal laws of the late 1820s and Ōshio the rebel.

Christian Sorcerers will be eagerly read by historians of Japan and scholars of comparative legal history, but should also have a much wider appeal. It is above all the moving story of a group of people by no means evil who became subject to a ruthless and, to modern sensibility, excessive punishment for relatively minor offenses. The book meticulously details the historical background to the case in the restless city of Osaka and its hinterland and, more marginally, the ancient capital Kyoto. It describes the well-established institutional procedures of the Tokugawa legal system and provides highly readable translations of the oral testimonies of the accused. This somber, dramatic, and dispassionate telling of the crushing exercise of power on defenseless individuals will likely rouse disquiet in modern readers, recounting as it does the involvement of the highest court in the land in the lives of disprivileged and largely inoffensive people.

The seemingly effortless mastery of technical detail with which Christian Sorcerers tells the story confers a certain grandeur on the book. Its glimpses of the lives of the accused give a vivid sense of the complex, sophisticated, and—despite the criticism of contemporary moralists—predominantly law-abiding character of urban society in Japan on the verge of its self-conscious Western modernization. There is already a modern feeling to this urban world of rented accommodation, relative freedom of movement, and restaurant entertainment. This was a wealth-conscious society in which family connections played a major part and a competitive scene in which women generally and middle-aged women in particular were more influential than conventionally...


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