Here’s a Japanese story that most people have probably never heard. Taira no Masakado was a nobleman who lived during the Heian era in an area of what is now the northeast of Tokyo. In the year 935 Masakado was ambushed by another local warrior, Tasaku. Unfortunately for Tasaku, he was killed by Masakado, as were many others of his family. Masakado was summoned to Kyoto to answer for his deeds but he convinced them that his behaviours and actions were within the law,  which was accepted. When he returned home however, he got involved in other battles with his father-in-law, cousin, and others. By 939 he attacked the provincial government in Hitachi and thus became an outlaw. From that point, he attacked many other governments in the (Kanto) area. At this point, he may or may not have declared himself the “new Emperor” of Japan; regardless of this however, his actions were beyond acceptable for the real emperor and a bounty was put on his head.

A large army, which contained several of Masakado’s old retainers, finally ambushed him in Shimosa province (modern day Chiba/Ibaraki area) and he was killed with an arrow to the face. So they cut off his head and brought it back to Kyoto, where it was hung outside the palace walls. However, as the weeks went by, people began to notice three things: first, that the head was not decomposing and looked incredibly “fresh”; second, that the features of the face were turning more and more into a scowl; and third, that the head would scream at people to bring his body to him so he could continue fighting. Then, tired of waiting, the head began to glow and took off to the skies.

The head flew back towards the Kanto area, looking for his body, which it could not find. Exhausted, it finally crashed landed in a spot near Tokyo bay in what is now the area of Otemachi in Tokyo (land reclamation has since moved the coast of the bay a few kilometers to the south). The locals were pretty weirded out by this head, but knew it to be powerful, so they carefully washed it and buried it. But strange events continued to happen (earthquakes, strange glowing lights), so they gave it a grand funeral, and buried it under a lavish memorial in hopes of appeasing the angry spirit. That seemed to work until a local temple was built nearby, reawakening the angry spirit of Masakado, when more bad events happened. In the 1300s, when a plague hit the area, the angry Masakado was blamed. So in another lavish ceremony, they moved him to another, more prestigious shrine and made him a major deity. However, by the late 19th century, the Meiji emperor determined that it was inappropriate for an enemy of the imperial family to be enshrined as a god, so his deity status was revoked and he was moved to a lesser shrine. His original stone memorial remained however.

In 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake hit and the Ministry of Finance building, which had been built next to Masakado’s memorial, was razed to the ground. People decided to look for his skull in the mound, but it was not found (why this was surprising, after nearly 1000 years, is beyond me).  In any event, they levelled the mound and built a temporary building for the Ministry over it. Over the next 2 years at least 14 people who worked in the building, including the Minister of Finance himself, died, and many others were injured through falls, illnesses, and accidents. They decided to move the building and held purification rituals to appease the angry spirit.

In 1940, 1000 years after the death of Masakado, the new Ministry of Finance building was struck by lightning and burnt down again. A new memorial was put up for Masakado and this is the one that still stands today. But the story isn’t finished yet! After the war was finished, US occupying forces decided that the area would make a great place for a parking lot for all of their army vehicles. The locals asked them not to go forward with the plan, but they did, even though a number of small accidents began to occur. However, when the bulldozer moved in to remove the mound and monument to Masakado, it flipped and the driver was killed. The locals again explained the story and asked them not to upset the spirit of this ancient samurai. And the Americans agreed. They put their plans on hold and eventually cancelled the project.

Over the years there have been some minor incidents and in 1984 Masakado’s deity status was restored. The memorial remains where it has always been. The Otemachi district, near Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace, is like the Wall Street of Tokyo, full of towering glass and steel skyscrapers in every direction. Yet this fairly large piece of land remains untouched for development. The memorial is looked after by a volunteer group and locals and businessmen come and pay their respects daily. The memorial had plenty of fresh flowers on hand (not plastic or (real) carnations, as you usually see in cemeteries here), and food and drinks were all laid out for him. A business man who came by to pay his respects tossed money into a coin box that lays at the base of the memorial (something I did too – I certainly don’t need bad karma following me around). Masakado even has a bank account in his name at the bank near his memorial. On either side of the monument are plenty of stone and ceramic frogs. One reason may be that as Masakado’s head came crashing down to the ground, it bounced (or hopped) in many places before it finally came to rest where it did. The other reason may be that frog (in Japanese) is “kaeru,” which is a homonym for “kaeru” which means “to return.” Frogs are generally considered to be good luck, and you do see them at various temples and shrines, so perhaps the frogs symbolize the return of the head to the area that it was from, or that the body may one day be reunited with the head, or after all that happened, maybe good luck would come to him in the end.

After reading about his site I knew I had to go see this monument. At the moment however (March, 2016) Tokyo station (and many other places in the city) is going through some major construction in anticipation of the 2020 Olympics coming to Japan. So the exit that leads right to his memorial is currently closed. What I didn’t realize was that it was not only because of the construction below ground, but above ground as well. The entire block is one construction zone. The two buildings that flanked the memorial are currently being demolished. When I first got to the corner I had a sinking feeling that perhaps I had missed my chance to see the memorial to this infamous samurai warrior and that they had finally gotten rid of it. But no, looking closer, I could see a small spot of green between all the tarps and scaffolding. And lo and behold, there the memorial was, in perfect state of being, not seemingly bothered at all by all the construction going on around it. So even now, in 2016, Tairo no Masakado is still being given his due.

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Quality of Monument(s): Good. There are several stone markers here but I don’t know if they are all for Masakado or not. It is very clear which one is the memorial however.

Cemetery Grounds: Immaculate. It’s like a small park, there are trees and shrubs and it feels secluded, even in this busy area. At the moment it’s very noisy with all the construction and jack-hammering going on. There is a plaque that states who the monument is for, but it does not go into the back story of flying heads and whatnot.

Visitors: A couple people were leaving when I arrived, another man came while I was there, and a few more came as I was leaving. Clearly this is one man who is never to be forgotten. That said, I believe that the 1st and 15th of every month are considered special days to come pay respects (I was there on the 1st).

Photographer notes: Not much to say here, it’s a small place.


Memorial: Masakado Kubizuka

Inaugurated: Masakado was killed in 940. The current monument is from 1940. He is enshrined as a deity at Kanda Myojin Shrine.

Location: 1-2-1 Ōtemachi, Tokyo. Exit C5 from Otemachi station.

Hours: Accessible 24 hours a day.