Laying down the law, one rope at a time


Among the legendary exploits of machi bugyo of Edo, the greatest of them all perhaps was Ooka Echizen (1677-1751). His full title was Ooka Tadasuke, Echizen no Kami. Born in 1677, he began his career at age 35 as an obscure magistrate. His abilities caught the eye of Tokugawa Yoshimune, the reform-minded Shogun, and in 1717, he was promoted to machi bugyo of Edo’s southern court, where he presided until 1736, making him the third longest-serving governor-magistrate of the Edo period.

Judge Ooka gained a legendary reputation for his integrity and ability to serve the interests of justice. As part of his duties, he also made an effort to influence the language. In 1723, he banned the usage of shinju (heart center), the popular term for a suicide pact, which in his view romanticized what was an illegal act. Shinju itself was an artificial term, created by puppet theater and kabuki dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) for the title of his 1703 play “Sonezaki Shinju” (which was based on an actual incident occurring only two weeks before).

To replace it, Ooka coined a new bit of legalese: aitai-jini (mutual death). Unfortunately this term never really caught on, and he would no doubt be displeased to learn that Chikamatsu’s term remains in popular use to this day.

As Ooka’s fame spread, apocryphal stories about his exploits were compiled into a book known as Ooka Seidan. Many were extrapolated from earlier tales, originating both in Japan and China, that are regarded as embellishments with at least some basis in fact.

“The Case of the Bound Jizo,” is one such tale. One day, the story goes, a kimono merchant came to Ooka’s tribunal to report that an entire cartload of cloth merchandise had been stolen while he took an afternoon nap by a temple, in the shadow of a statue of Jizo, a guardian god.

Constables were sent to investigate. As no witnesses could be found, the judge decided that exceptional measures would be needed to solve the case. After pondering the matter, he decided that the statue of Jizo, a god whose job was to protect travelers, had been derelict in its duty.

Ooka instructed his constables to return to the scene of the crime and arrest the statue. No doubt shaking their heads in bewilderment over their strange orders, the men grunted as they lifted the heavy stone Jizo from its pedestal, bound it with ropes, and then began to pull it back to Ooka’s court in an open-wheeled cart used in those days to transport criminals.

Naturally, these strange goings-on attracted the attention of the people in the neighborhood where the theft had occurred. They fell in behind the cart and followed it into the compound at Sukiyabashi and up to the shirasu (literally “white island”) where litigants knelt before judge.

The spectators were astonished to see Ooka angrily scold the Jizo for negligence – after which he ordered the rope bindings to remain affixed until the Jizo arranged for the stolen goods to be returned to their owner!

Seeing this, the spectators erupted in nervous laughter. Ooka, infuriated by such a lack of respect in his court, berated the spectators and then slapped a heavy fine on them for contempt. The crowd started to wail piteously that they could not afford to pay such a stiff fine. Pausing for dramatic effect, Ooka reconsidered briefly and then told them, “I am willing to settle for a token fine. Each of you must give to the court a small swatch of cloth (measuring about six centimeters square). But if even one person among you fails to pay this token fine, then the full amount will apply.”

The people rushed to comply. When they returned with the token fines, Ooka told the old man who had been robbed to examine the swatches of cloth. Halfway through the lot he spotted a sample of goods that matched one of the bolts of stolen material. Ooka ordered the suspect’s residence searched, and a portion of the stolen goods was recovered. Under further questioning, the man revealed the identities of his confederates, and an entire gang of thieves was apprehended.

Ooka then walked up to the statue of Jizo and personally removed the ropes still binding it, all the while acknowledging its part in recovering the stolen merchandise. The constables then returned the statue to the grounds of the *Nanzo-in temple.

While it is generally acknowledged that this story never took place, the existence of the Jizo itself is beyond dispute. Edo’s townspeople even adopted the custom of reporting thefts to the statue, at which time they would replicate the actions of the famous judge by tying a piece of rope around it. The statue became known as Shibarare Jizo, or the bound Jizo.

Originally in Azumabashi, in Sumida-ku, the Nanzo-in temple relocated to Katsushika-ku on the city’s eastern outskirts after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Here, the one-meter high Jizo stands beneath a protective roof, covered from head to foot in meter-long sections of straw ropes attached by visiting worshipers.

Although the custom of tying a rope around the Jizo has taken on a less ominous meaning in recent years, a few of the temple’s visitors, it is said, stand before it as the victims of thieves who ask for the Jizo’s help in recovering lost property. Straw ropes are available from the temple for 100 yen each.

*This article first appeared in “The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals” by Mark Schreiber (Kodansha International, 2001).
Featured on TokyoBound with permission.

*The Nanzoin Temple is a 15-minute walk from JR Kanamachi Station on the JR Joban/Chiyoda Line. A taxi ride will take about 5 minutes. The bus bound for Togasaki Sosajo, departing from stop No. 2 in front of Kanamachi Station, stops at “Shibarare Jizo.”


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  1. Cool story. I have read about this guy and his very intelligent decisions.
    Good to read about him, but by all means, I would not trust this rope.

  2. Very interesting reading. Thanks for sharing it with us.
    It’s nice to keep on understanding the tradition of rope in Japan.

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