Crime in news nishikie

Failings that make us human

Crime is a barometer of social health, a reminder that societies, meaning people, are not perfect. A crimeless society would be as unhealthy as a society with too much crime, if only because an eradication of crime would require an elimination of the conditions -- the emotions and failings -- that make us human and which humans, as humans, to some extent make.

News nishikie featured all manner of crimes, from murder and rape to robbery and theft, deviant behaviors like torture, and public nuisances like nudity. Some offenses had tragic consquences for victims and perpetrators alike. Others were of the victimless type that authorities considered a threat to public order. All testify to the natural depravity and utter normality of Japanese society.

The heinous killing of one human being by another is always shocking. Imagine living at a time when telegraphy and photography have just begun. There is no radio, no news reels, no live coverage on television or streaming video on the Internet. Maybe a rumor, possibly a story in a woodblock paper, probably nothing. Then suddenly, at a local book and print shop, or among the items offered by a street peddler, is a full-color drawing of a murder in progress, the blood practically leaping off the sheet.

Every news medium, in every country that is relatively free of censorship, will report murders. Television networks today vie with one another to run footage of murders in progress caught by someone with a video camera. Some tabloids pay sizeable sums for crime scene and morgue shots.

Years before the spread of photography in journalism -- much less the advent of color or digital photography -- news nishikie drawers used their vivid imaginations to "re-enact" the crimes they reported. The weapon of choice in murder was usually a "Saturday night" sword or dagger. This meant lots of blood, and depictions of murder in news nishikie rank among the most gruesome "eye witness" accounts in history.

Click any story and imagine you are there -- watching, or participating, as you like. (WW)


Crime themes



Passion murders

People murder for profit or revenge, out of jealousy, to conceal a crime or avoid humiliation, out of homicidal mania -- and simply because it is their job, as a soldier or other agent of a state, or as a paid killer. The number one culprit, though, is passion mutated as rage.

The right kind of passion creates and protects life. Extreme jealously can drive one to murder, carefully planned and executed, or explosive.

Redirected passion, or changes in romantic loyalties, can be just as dangerous. If one can kill to possess an errant lover, one can also kill to dispossess oneself of a lover who is no longer wanted, and stands in the way of a new life, as seen in the "Poisonous affair" of TNS 877. (WW)


The wicked itinerant priest Keizan robs and kills the virtuous woman Sen.


Harada Okinu murders her patron to pursue affair with actor Arashi Rikaku. She is executed, he serves time and resumes career.

TNS 877

A married woman who is having an affair poisoned her bed-ridden husband and feigns grief at his funeral.

YHS 649

A woman abandons her husband and their daughter to become the wife of another man she had been seeing. She also leaves him and eventually returns to her first husband. The second husband kills them and injures their daughter.


A woman kills her husband's lover, serves him the woman's vulva as sashimi, then kills herself.


Greed murders

Greed, forensically defined, is wanting something that is not, by right, yours. The law does not differentiate between theft by the rich and theft by the poor. All property crimes are motivated by greed -- the desire to have more than one is entitled to by law.

The desire to possess another person's wealth or belongings sometimes leads to murder. The victim is often someone the culprit knows, as in the "Dog Finds Head" case of TNS 865a. (WW)

TNS 220

A "tiger-husband wolf-wife" couple strangle the officer who had captured them with his own ropes.

TNS 865a

A man is arrested when a dog finds the body of the woman he killed and trots up with her head in his mouth.

TNS 919a

A man and wife living in the mountains kill an itinerant peddler and take his money.

TNS 9001

Using a stolen sword, a shizoku kills a restaurateur's daughter on whom he has lavished all his money only to be jilted. A friend talks him into surrendering instead of disemboweling himself.

1876 case

A money changer strangles an apprentice to another money changer and attempts to get rid of the body in a rice box.

1880 case

A shizoku goes to view the lanterns of New Yoshiwara and gets suckered out of his money at a brothel. Three days later he returns and cuts up seven people.

1887 case

On 9 June 1887, Hanai Oume, a geisha who owns a Tokyo restaurant, kills her lover, Minekichi (Kamekichi).


Rape and assault

Sexual impulses, left to their natural inclinations, can easily become aggressive and violent as men, in particular, endeavor to be males in the biological rather than social sense of this word. Only very recently have certain forms of unilateral sexual aggression -- once generally tolerated if not always welcome or approved -- become unacceptable and criminalized as "sexual harassment" or "date rape" and the like.

Sexual assault, though defined differently in different societies, has generally been disapproved, and violent assault has usually been punishable. The reports of rape in news nishikie suggest the extent that such acts were considered beyond the bounds of acceptable sexual behavior and therefore shocking -- as in the "Five men rape woman" incident related in YHS 561. (WW)

YHS 561

Five men rape Omatsu, the girlfriend of Hisazo.


Battery and violence

Chronic or impulsive rage can explode in acts of violence that result in injury to others or self -- extremely, homicide or suicide. Injuries falling short or death run the gamut bruised and scarred feelings from aborted blows or pushes, to severe disfigurement or disability.

The line between acceptable (sanctioned) and unacceptable (unsanctioned) violence is often fuzzy. Take "wife beating" for example. Not "spousal battering" or "domestic violence" but just plain old-fashioned "wife beating".

In many societies it was not uncommon -- tolerated by many women and encouraged and even admired by some men -- for a man to slap his wife around now and then. Torture of the kind depicted in news nishikie was reportable because it went beyond the bounds of normal marital violence -- such as in the "Physician tortures wife" case reported in TNS 900. (WW)

TNS 892

A married woman with children cuts off her lover's nose with a razor when he talks of ending their affair.

TNS 900

A physician swindles wealthy families by marrying and divorcing their daughters and not returning doweries. He also tortures his wives.

ONeSw 36

A man tortures his wife with a heated iron. The same print was also published under the banner ONS (Tsuchiya 1995:83). The same story is reported in ONgS 7.

ONgS 7

A man tortures his wife with a heated iron. The same story is reported in ONSw 36.


Theft and robbery

In any society, the most common crimes are those that involve the illegal acquisition of property. Taking something is not illegal unless it is already in someone's possession -- something that belongs to an individual, family, organization, even country, nation or state.

Generally you have to pay for what you get, and it is yours only for as long as you are alive and have paid to possess it, or until someone takes it from you. You pays your money and you takes your choice, and also your chances -- as did the man who legally possessed a woman, who illegally took possession of his wallet, in the "Passion trap" case reported in YHSNg 13. (WW)

TNS 822

A husband and wife swap roles. He wears her clothes and watches the baby, while she cleans house in his.

YHS 527b

A widow, arrested for theft with three other women, gives birth on way to courthouse.

YHS 614b

An armed robber from Shikoku is discovered Tokyo. Patrolmen apprehend him, but not without a chase and struggle.

YHSNg 13

A prostitute steals money from a man she has lulled to sleep.


Fraud and deception

Con artists and swindlers understand the old adage that a sucker is born every minute. All it takes is a tongue and a story that inspire confidence and trust, and eyes and ears that see or hear no reason to doubt or suspect. Celebrities are not immune, and may even be more vulnerable, as was the "Sumo wrestler swindled" in TNS 856b. (WW)

TNS 856b

A man claiming to represent a sumo benefactor cons a wrestler into loaning him some money.


Public Nuisances

A public nuisance is something done outside the home that others find offensive to a degree that is punishable. Nudity and breast feeding, spitting, urination, even farting, and a number of other perfectly normal human behaviors, have been subject to censure or criminalization.

Public nudity was not necessarily objectionable in Japan in the middle of the 19th century, but police were known to crack down on lascivious (sounds sexier than lustful) displays of flesh, as in the "Cop busts bare boobs" case reported in both Tokyo and Osaka. (WW)

YHS 702

An officer warns a geisha not to expose herself in public. The same story is reported in YHSNg 11.

YHSNg 11

An officer warns a geisha not to expose herself in public. The same story is reported in YHS 702.



All criminals face a common problem -- how to get away with their crime. A murderer's biggest headache is how to get rid of the body. Some culprits bury it deep in the mountains or cut it up. Others just abandon it and flee. Eventually, though, most bodies are found and reported to the police.

According to an old joke, if you find a head and bring it to the police, they will tell you to keep it, because no one who has lost their head is going to come in and claim it. In the "Dog finds head" case reported in TNS 865a, the police found both the head's owner and the man who had caused her to lose it. Gokurosan. (WW)

TNS 865a

A man is arrested when a dog finds the body of the woman he killed and trots up with her head in his mouth.


Fujitives at large

Unsolved cases are not easily forgotten. The idea of a perfect crime may fascinate mystery buffs, but law enforcement officials are not amused when someone breaks the law with impunity, and the public cannot rest while a suspect is on the loose.

Newspapers, magazines, books, and now television commonly review open cases, in hopes that the publicity will lead to an arrest. Some cases are never solved, giving the impression that crime does sometimes pay. One news nishikie assures us that, however slow, justice will come to the "Treacherous couple" still at large according to TNS 220. (WW)

TNS 220

A "tiger-husband wolf-wife" couple strangle the officer who had captured them with his own ropes.


Penal reform

Criminals -- once they are caught, tried, and convicted -- face funishment -- death or imprisonment. The extent to which a society invests in the social reconstruction of those who break its laws is a measure of its faith in the ability of people to mend their ways.

Convicts not sentenced to life with hard labor usually undergo some form of vocational education or are otherwise subjected to measures intended to prepare them for a return to society with skills and/or attitudes that will keep them out of prison. YHS 449b reports how "Convicts learn to read" in a Tokyo prison in the 1870s. (WW)

YHS 449b

Miki Toyokichi and fellow inmates teach themselves to read at a Tokyo penitentiary.


Other crime art

Crime is a common theme in early newsprints in Europe. England in the middle of the 19th century was awash with woodcut illustrated publications featuring a drawer's conception of a crime in progress. English drawers also drew scenes of extreme violence, including daggers plunged into victims chests with pooled and splattered blood. The blood was obvious even though , unlike nishikie, the woodcut illustrations were printed in black, as were illustrations on in most woodblock newsprints (kawaraban) and picture books (ezoshi) in Japan. (WW)