The Horrifying, Little-Known History of Japanese Crucifixion

Crucifixion in Japan took various forms and was used to punish thieves, threats to public order, and religious enemies alike. It's unclear when crucifixion was introduced into Japan – historians theorize it happened anywhere from the 12th to the 16th century – but the Japanese added their own twists and turns to the longstanding method of execution. Through the Second World War, Japanese crucifixion was a method of torture and execution, inflicting pain and fear on criminals, spectators, and political prisoners.

Because of its relationship to Christianity, however, not all those who were meted this horrific form of punishment met it with apprehension. In fact, some saw it as their chance at martyrdom, dying in the same manner as their savior, Jesus Christ.


  • Crucifixion Was Used For Thousands Of Years Before Entering Japan

    Crucifixion Was Used For Thousands Of Years Before Entering Japan
    Photo: Cea. / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    As a means of punishment, crucifixion was used to inflict pain, suffering, and humiliation on offenders and enemies. From ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Persia, onward through the Greek and Roman periods, through to the rise and spread of Christianity, it was meant to shock the body, cause slow asphyxiation, and perhaps even incite cardiac arrest within a few hours at the least, days at the most. The person crucified was also subjected to the elements – wind, heat, rain – projectiles hurled at them, taunts and ridicule, and even fires lit under them to make a bad situation even worse. 

    By the time it entered Japan, crucifixion had nearly 2,000 years of history behind it. Crucifixion is most often associated with the death of Jesus, but its widespread and long-term use in the ancient world created a practice that was adaptable and subject to the whims of political, religious, and social leaders. The Japanese practiced haritsuke, which included spearing the strung up person to death.

  • Crucifixion Was Reserved For The Worst Offenders

    Execution was reserved for the worst offenders and could be done by beheading, hanging, and crucifixion – or some combination of the three. Crimes against individuals of higher social status and against family members were punished severely, and killing one's master could result in beheading prior to crucifixion. Adultery, theft, and subterfuge were all crucifiable offenses because they threatened both the social and political order. 

    In the 1570s during the Period of the Warring States, Japanese soldier Torii Suneemon was crucified for treason. In the 1860s, Sokichi, a 25-year-old servant, was crucified for killing the son of his master, his arms and legs spread on a cross and displayed to the world in a haunting, long-lasting photograph. The specifics about his crime are unknown, but there are additional heads on frames in front of Sokichi's body shown in another picture of the same event.

  • Crucifixion Was A Heroic End For At Least One Samurai Warrior

    In the 1570s during the content for control over Japan, Japanese soldier Torii Suneemon was crucified as a traitor. As a retainer for the Tokagawa clan, Suneemon snuck out of the castle at the siege of Nagashino. He successfully arranged for reinforcements but was captured by Takeda Katsuyori sneaking back into the castle. Sunnemon was strung up on a cross, told to yell to his comrades in the castle that reinforcements weren't coming.

    Defiant and fearless, Sunnemon announced to his fellow fighters that help was on the way, betraying his captors. He was then stabbed and killed, but he was praised as a hero after a coalition of Oda and Tokagawa reinforcements arrived and won the Battle of Nagashino Castle. 

  • Crucifixion In Japan Was A Very Public Process

    Capital punishment was not used widely in Japan until after the Heian period, which ended in the late 12th century. Carrying out a crucifixion in Japan began by carrying the condemned to his death through town on horseback, a practice known as hikimawashiThis was done in most cases of execution as a way of bringing added humiliation to the offender. He was accompanied by guards who poked and prodded at him, as well as a banner with his name, offense, and punishment. The route would, of course, pass by his residence and the location where the initial crime took place.

    The "unfortunate was then tied to a cross made from one vertical and two horizontal poles. The cross was raised, the convict speared several times from two sides, and eventually killed with a final thrust through the throat."

    Onlookers would be intrigued by the criminal, yes, but the process also served as a reminder to behave, lest the same fate fall upon them.