Meiji University Museum’s Criminal Materials Department – Tokyo, Japan - Atlas Obscura

Meiji University Museum’s Criminal Materials Department

Exploring crime and punishment in feudal and pre-modern Japan. 

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One of Japan’s top private universities, Meiji University has its main campus in the Kanda area of Tokyo, in addition to several research centers and a museum exhibiting unique collections inherited from three different museums: archaeology, commodities, and criminal materials, established in 1952, 1951, and 1929, respectively.

The archaeological collection is widely considered to be its crème de la crème, containing several Important Cultural Properties such as Hoshikuso Pass obsidian, ancient Yamagata earthenware, and Paleolithic arrow points from the Iwajuku site. But more popular and infamous is its Criminal Materials Department, boasting a diverse collection of torture devices and artifacts related to the penal systems of feudal and pre-modern Japan.

There are legal documents from the medieval Kamakura period, weapons used by the feudal police of Edo such as jitte and sasumata, and miniature models depicting methods of execution in the early modern times. But the must-see section is at the end of the exhibit, where a replica of the French guillotine stands next to a 19th-century “Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.”

Conceived in the early 19th century, the hoaxical, faux-medieval torture device spawned at least a couple dozen Nuremberg-made copies, which ironically became prized artifacts after the original was lost during World War II. They are so rare worldwide today, the Meiji University Museum’s specimen may just be the only one of its kind in all of Asia, not only in the country.

Know Before You Go

The museum is housed in the Academy Common building of the university, located within a few minutes' walk from Ochanomizu station on the other side of the Kanda River. Admission to the permanent exhibition, including the archaeological, commodities and criminal materials collections, is free for all visitors.

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August 5, 2022

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