Postcard #14. Texts and Torture

Criminal Materials Department, Meiji University Museum
Tokyo, July 2015


The ‘Law and People, Crime and Punishment’ exhibition is a small selection of predominantly Japanese and European texts on law and punishment largely focused on the 17th – 19th centuries, juxtaposed with instruments used in the detention and torture of lawbreakers together with artworks representing the employment of such instruments within and outside the carceral space.

The exhibition is divided into 4 sections: A wall dedicated to ‘Japan’s Crime and Punishment’ featuring a chronology of Japan’s laws, aisles dedicated to ‘Culprits of the Edo Period’, ‘Torture and Tribunal’, ‘Execution and Correction’ and ‘ A Wealth of Criminal History’. Although the museum’s website claims the exhibition is based on the notion of ‘rights’ and ‘dignity’, the focus of the museum seems to be on affirming the different and multiple ways in which the state captured and punished offenders rather than on any narrative of rehabilitation or redemption.

Meiji ArrestbyLadders
Arresting by ladders – there is a certain irony in the use of an object usually used to ‘escape’ arrest or imprisonment as a means of capturing an offender.

I sketched out a rough map of the exhibition to remind me where everything was located. I thought I might start to make maps of all the prison museums and exhibitions I visited with a view of thinking more about the juxtaposition between different displays and the way tours are organised. But this is harder than it seems – partly due to time constraints – it is impossible to keep up with a tour and draw a map, it is hard enough to keep up with a tour as it is and partly due to the size and multiple levels of many prison museums.

Meiji Map
Layout of exhibition

In encompassing law, order, justice and retribution, the exhibition aims to provide a comprehensive view of Japan’s judicial and penal history. As a small exhibition located in between two others (The ‘Commodity Department – A Wealth of Traditional Designs’ and ‘The Archaeology Department – Humankind and History’) within the same university basement museum space, it was perhaps easier to identify an overall narrative (noting my language limitations here and relying solely on those panels and captions translated into English) than in a larger exhibition or former carceral space. Like the other two exhibitions, the emphasis was on the display and description of different ‘authentic’, material objects whose value as historical artefact was taken for granted and privileged over and above their complex function as instrument of state policing and torture.

The limeijitortureandjudgmentnk between torture and judgment is important. The exhibition focuses on torture above other methods of asserting guilt and obtaining information about a crime. This is important in relation to contemporary debates about torture but also current fascination with torture as a practice and its privileged place in both prison and atrocity museums (for a helpful distinction see Paul Williams’ Memorial Museums, Berg, 2007).

Thus, a number of important assumptions and relations frequently made in prison and penal museums and exhibits are made all the more stark in such a compact space due to the lack of personal narratives and focus on the ‘material’ objects and hierarchical structures underpinning and maintaining law and order.


Relationship between military and police

Various tools used by the police during the ‘Edo’ period, were, the exhibition tells us, developed from methods and tools (notably the ‘Goad’, ‘Military Fork’ and ‘Sleeve Entangler’) used by the military to capture enemies without inflicting harm. Given the overall focus on torture, the claim that such objects were not used to inflict pain seems somewhat disingenuous and is telling about contemporary unease with linking military and policing techniques. Obviously there is often a value in capturing enemy soldiers unharmed not least as hostages for barter and exchange but nevertheless the emphasis of the military as underpinning the more ‘humane’ methods of historical forms of policing and detention seems incongruous with the rest of the exhibition and highlights, I think, the complex and often underplayed relationship between military and police historically and in the present.

Use of ‘illegal institutions’ in policing

meiji police structure
Structure of Police during Edo Period

There is much emphasis in the exhibition on hierarchical structures and the way in which law-making and law enforcement work together cohesively through text and weapon. However, it is interesting to note that such cohesion relied upon what the exhibition refers to as ‘illegal institutions’ in operation during the Edo period – these were the Meakashi (or Okappiki) described as ‘minions of the police’ called upon to assist with ‘investigation.’ There is an interesting, unexplored connection to be made here between the extra-legal function of the Meakashi and the extra-legal methods used by various nations and states today notably the outsourcing of torture by the United States as part of their ‘war on terror’.


Role of representation

Accompanying the scrolls, catalogues and instruments are a number of artworks portraying various tools in action. These are the only means by which the ‘personal’ dimension of law and order is represented in the exhibition. The pictures raise an important question about the role of such artwork in the observation, documentation and presentation of punishment to a wider audience than those in attendance. The survival and preservation of such works also suggested they belonged to an official narrative of torture and punishment. Yet, they also raise a larger issue about ways in which methods of policing are represented and critiqued. Moreover, we might consider how to some extent all representation of policing and punishment no matter how apparently critical it purports to be remains open to reappropriation as affirmation of the ideology of punishment itself.


meiji front gate of prison
Scene at the Front Gate of the Former Prison of Tenma-Cho

The global phenomenon of punishment

The museum boasts of the inclusion of various European instruments of torture and death such as a guillotine and iron maiden – artefacts exclusive to the exhibition in Japan. On the one hand, the aura of such objects as museum artefacts bringing visitors closer to the spectacle of death needs greater critique in itself. On the other, the juxtaposition of objects such as the guillotine, easily recognised for its extensive role in capital punishment in France and elsewhere during the 18th and 19th centuries, with objects unique to Japan, situates Japanese judicial and penal histories within a larger global history of punishment, effectively evading focused critique on national ideology and specific methods of torture and execution.

Iron Maiden

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