Shocking Facts About the Empire of Japan


Most of us in the Western World aren’t as familiar with the history of other nations as we are with our own. For instance, the history of Japan is likely totally unknown to most people beyond their involvement in the Second World War to anyone who hasn’t gone out of their way to learn about it. That’s a definite shame because Japanese history is full of some amazing events and customs. Take a look here at 10 of the most shocking.

10. Japan Had a Massive Slave Trade

The slave trade from Africa to America is well known to history, but less well-told is the history of the Japanese slave trade. Word is that Japanese slaves were so common in Portugal and its territories that Portuguese slaves would have their own Japanese slaves as a kind of meta-awfulness.

Slavery began in Japan as far back as the third century and it wasn’t until 1590 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a politician known as the Great Unifier, abolished it outright. Even though slavery was outlawed at that time, women were still forced into sex slavery as “comfort women” with the consent of the government as late as the Second World War.

In the early to mid 1500s, the slave trade between Portugal and Japan became so pervasive that even Portugal, which was trading the slaves from Japan, began to have second thoughts and the King officially banned Japanese slaves by 1571. This was because they had brought so many slaves to Europe, particularly sex slaves, that the King feared it was putting people off converting to Catholicism and was bad for the country as a result.

9. Samurai Engaged in Crossroads Killings

The word “tsujigiri” means “crossroads killing” and there is no conceivable way, even devoid of context, that it can mean anything good, right? Right. This was a practice that was reportedly rare, but obviously one that happened often enough to merit a term to describe it, in which a samurai, in an effort to test the sharpness of their blade, would simply murder someone at a crossroads.

In stark contrast to the image of the noble warrior, a samurai committing tsujigiri wanted to know if their sword could kill a human with ease. Having a dull sword was considered a shameful act, so of course it needed to be sharp, and ideally sharp enough to kill an enemy with one single slice. If you could decapitate an enemy or basically cleave them in two, all the better. But this practice was not used on enemies, just unlucky peasants.

The samurai, with a new sword in hand or with new training in how to use it, would kill the first random person they saw. The disgraceful act was banned during the Edo era, but of course it didn’t fully stick. Some samurai would still perform the act as a means of making money, murdering travelers and stealing their belongings. It took extremely stiff punishments of shaming and execution to finally put an end to the practice.

8. There are Nose Tombs

In 1592, Japan began to wage a war against Korea that lasted for six long, brutal years. While any war likely includes acts of savagery that make a common person cringe, this war holds a special place in history for its grisly monuments. To this day in Japan you can go and visit Mimizuka, a burial mound near Kyoto erected as a tribute to the thousands upon thousands of noses and ears hidden within. 

You’ve probably seen the practice in movies before; films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket included scenes in which soldiers are shown to have collected body parts from fallen enemies as trophies. Imagine that, only if every soldier is doing it, and that’s what led to a place like Mimizuka.

Amazingly, the habit of taking noses and ears was a compromise as it had been more common to take whole heads previously. But the distance between Korea and Japan made taking heads a difficult task for practical reasons, so the ears and noses had to suffice.

It’s believed there are 38,000 remains in Mimizuka, but between 100,000 and 200,000 Koreans were killed and mutilated during the war. Soldiers may have even taken to killing peasants, including women and children, to gain more trophies for which they were rewarded.

7. Meat was Illegal Until 1872

Japanese cuisine as we know it today is not necessarily as meat heavy as, say, Brazilian cuisine, but it’s not strictly vegan either. That’s just today. As it happens, prior to 1872, meat wasn’t just uncommon on Japanese menus, it was illegal. How long had the prohibition on meat been going on? Roughly 1,200 years.

Japan abandoned meat in the 6th century when Buddhism got a foothold in the country, putting an end to a tradition of hunting venison and wild boar. The taboo against meat was so powerful that anyone caught eating beef was given 100 days of penance in the form of fasting. 

Buddhism holds as one of its beliefs the idea of reincarnation. Your ancestors could have been born again as those deer or cows you’re eating, so no one wanted to be a part of that. This was combined with the fact that meat had always been somewhat scarce, owing to the fact Japan is an island and much more well-suited to fishing than raising livestock. Fish were never considered part of the ban.

The Emperor celebrated the New Year in 1872 by eating beef, an act which greatly disturbed Buddhists but was seen as a necessary step in opening Japan to the West and adopting new habits that would make the country competitive on a world stage.

6. The World’s Oldest Company was Japanese

Shigemitsu Kongo was a man who knew how to build a temple. The renowned Korean builder had such a reputation that the Empress of Japan sent for him in the year 578 because she had a problem. Buddhism was taking hold in Japan, and the Empire actively wanted this to happen, but they had no temples. Moreover, having never had temples, no one knew how to build them. But Kongo did.

In 578, Kongo seized an opportunity and formed a construction company called Kongo Gumi. That company stayed in business for an absolutely staggering 1,428 years. In 2004, the company was still building temples. By 2006 the company was forced to shutter after nearly a millennium and a half in business due to unmanageable debt.

5. Sakoku was Extreme Isolation

If you were a world traveler between the years 1639 and 1853, the one place in the world you wouldn’t get a chance to enjoy was Japan. It was during this 214 period that Japan was engaging in something called sakoku, a period of self-imposed isolation that was taken very seriously.

There was some trade with other countries, but it was tightly regulated and limited. Foreign dignitaries visited on rare occasions but the idea that a common Japanese citizen would leave the country was totally out of the question, and the penalty for doing so was death.

4. Old Timey Robots 

In modern times, Japan and robots go hand in giant metal hand. Voltron didn’t grow in a vacuum, after all. Turns out, all of the robots, both fictional and real, have a solid pedigree in the Land of the Rising Sun. Robots date back far earlier than most people would guess.

In the 17th century, robotic puppets known as karakuri were developed for use in both theater and homes. One popular form of the tiny clockwork robots could be used to serve tea. A pot placed in the robot’s hands would cause it to move forward in a straight line and stop when the pot was removed. It was a simple mechanism to be sure, but popular in its time. 

3. Blackened Teeth Were All the Rage

Few things are more coveted in the world of personal hygiene these days than a pearly white smile. It wasn’t always the sign of physical beauty and health we view it as, though, and in ancient Japan they went out of their way to experience the polar opposite.

Cultural beauty standards are probably not worth debating because they shift across space and time frequently, but the methodology is the real curious part here. How does one achieve black teeth? Iron filings would be soaked in tea or, if you were feeling a little saucy, sake. The oxidation of the metal creates a black liquid. To help soften the blow of sucking on a mouthful of iron, some spices would be added to the brew, creating a tasty metal tea.This had to be done on a nearly daily basis to keep your teeth looking their most onyx-ian. The effect was a lasting one and there have been skeletons unearthed from the Edo period that still have black teeth.

Why did people start doing this? Well, white face paint was another common beauty trend, but the rice flour makeup was ultra white. Against a person’s normal teeth, the contrast was stark, and teeth looked yellow. Rather than trying to whiten them to match the face, they were darkened to apply an even starker contrast. Also, it was believed this practice shielded the teeth from harm and protected against dental problems. Odds are most modern dentists are not going to recommend it.

2. Poop Had Value

If there’s one thing most people don’t want to have on hand it’s poop. Call it feces, call it crap, call it night soil, it’s not a pleasant substance for most of us. But in ancient Japan, it had some value. And we mean the human kind, not just fertilizer from animals. 

In the 18th century, human waste was a big ticket item in Japan precisely because of its value as fertilizer. Japan doesn’t naturally have a lot of lush soil for growing crops and it doesn’t have a lot of ways to get it, either. The lack of livestock means what we consider fertilizer was not in any abundance. The only viable poop on hand was man-poop. With a rising population and limited agricultural land, it was the only option and that made it a commodity. 

Eventually guilds were set up to collect human waste in towns, and the value went through the roof. There was actual gold value attached to it and those farmers who couldn’t afford it would sometimes resort to poop theft. Imagine telling your cellmate that’s what you got hard time for.

1. You Could Be Guilty by Vote 

One of the most bizarre customs in Japan’s history is an act known as “irefuda.” This was a method of maintaining law and order through democracy, only not in any predictable way. Say someone burns down a barn in the night and there are no witnesses. Arson has been committed, but who do you punish? While some might think this crime can’t be punished with no suspects, irefuda was the process by which the citizens of a town would vote on who they thought did it. And whoever got the most votes was then punished.

The person chosen as the criminal would be jailed and the village would provide their food and water. If a real criminal was caught, or another fire was set — meaning the incarcerated person couldn’t be guilty — then they would be free and a new person was jailed.

In one case, when three bales of rice were stolen, a vote was cast that named five people. They banished the two who received the most votes, and the village confiscated their belongings, including their homes. They ordered the other three who only got one or two votes into house arrest.

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