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three pairs of lovers with space


The following story is from
Ihara Saikaku
s Buke giri monogatari 武家義理物語, a collection of twenty-six short stories about samurai published in Osaka in 1688. As Saikaku himself introduced them: “I have heard many tales, both ancient and modern, about this samurai code of honour, and I have gathered them together here in this volume.”

They were translated by Caryl Ann Callahan as Tales of Samurai Honor, (Tokyo, 1981), from pp. 118-121 of which the following story has been taken.

It should be noted that Saikaku used the traditional Japanese method of counting age, according to which a person is born aged one, and goes up one each subsequent New Year. Thus between one and two years needs to be taken off to find the modern English equivalent, and when the protagonists, Umemaru and Kogin, are described as twenty and fourteen, he was really 18 or 19 (standard for boys to come of age), and she 12 or 13 (standard for girls to marry).

Far Better to Consider  What She Said at the End 

Flowers in rivalry. How her wisdom was proved in the end.

Woodblock illustration accompanying the original text

Birds of a feather flock together.[1]

There once lived in Sanuki a youth named Hosoda Umemaru and he served the lord of the castle. He was as lovely as a spray of plum blossom from the early-flowering south side of the tree.[2] Even the nightingales could only squawk[3] in helpless envy at the melody of his voice, and he must have robbed them of their song. His long, swinging sleeves gave off a tantalizing plum fragrance which snared the souls of those who merely crossed his path. Needless to say, his lord was very enamored of him, and made sure that no one else could enjoy, even in spring, the fragrance, or even the sight, of this, his own special plum.

Yet everything has its season. When Umemaru’s age could be reckoned by counting four times on the fingers of one hand, the lord ordered his coming-of-age ceremony. With a freshly shaven, bluish crescent where his alluring forelock had been, Umemaru was as handsome as a Kyoto doll of the irresistible Narihira.[4]

Now a samurai named Okao Shinroku had a fourteen-year-old named Kogin. Of which famous beauty could she have been the incarnation? One could scarcely believe that such perfection had ever existed in this world. At one time catalogues were made listing the most beautiful women who had ever lived; these books now exist only in legend, but even the women described therein could not possibly have equalled Kogin. There is no need to describe her in detail for she was perfect, with not a single flaw anywhere on her body. People likened Umemaru and her to those peerless lovers Ushiwaka-maru and Jorūri-gozen,[5] and spread the groundless rumor that they were already as good as married.

The peerless lovers to whom Umemaru and Kogin were likened: Ushiwaka-maru serenading Jorūri-gozen by Torii Kiyonaga, ca. 1785

The girl was now of marriageable age and received proposals from all over, for this is one of the advantages of possessing a superb face and figure. Although she had never seen him, Kogin was burning with love for Umemaru and insisted that she would marry no one else. Nothing her parents said about matches with other men made a whit of difference, and so they finally gave up in exhaustion and did nothing further.

Umemaru was himself madly in love with Kogin, sight unseen, and refused to consider offers from anyone else. A would-be matchmaker, hearing of this situation, concluded that the two were made for each other and said as much to the girl’s father, Okao Shinroku. He had expected the father to agree quickly to the match, but instead Shinroku said, ‘Well, there are a few things I must think over. I’ll give my answer before long.’

As the father seemed somewhat disapproving, the guest continued, ‘You need not worry. Now that I have stepped in as matchmaker, I will take care of securing the permission of the lord of this fief, and will make sure that nothing gives cause for gossip. I am positive that you will never regret taking that samurai for your son-in-law.’

Shinroku replied, ‘He really is too good for us. Frankly, there only one reason for my refusal. Umemaru is deeply grateful to our lord for his favor and affection. Should our lord die, it is clear to me that Umemaru is resolved to commit suicide and follow him. And so my daughter could suddenly be widowed at any moment. Foolish as I must seem, as a parent I cannot help but be anxious about my child’s future.’

This was a rather faint-hearted speech for a samurai, but it is only natural for love to mislead a parent and make him act without regard for the world’s contempt.

The matchmaker continued to press him. ‘Life is full of uncertainties,’ he said. ‘Even those who seem secure and healthy can meet with tragedy. I beg you to agree to this match.’

At last the father gave his consent, allowed the matchmaker to arrange the details, and sent his daughter as bride to Umemaru. The two were already deeply infatuated with each other and after their marriage their love grew even deeper.

Takamatsu Castle, then the principal castle of Sanuki province and the presumable setting for much of this story

Then the lord fell ill; all hope for his recovery faded and at last vanished. Umemaru showed no indecision now that the moment had come, for he was firmly resolved to follow his lord in death.[6]

As Umemaru carefully explained his reasons to Kogin and bade her a final farewell, he was nearly overcome by compassion and love for he expected her to be crushed by grief. But she showed no sign of sorrow and, instead, replied in a voice quieter than usual, ‘Life is as fleeting as a dream, especially for you who, born a samurai, have had always be ready to lay down your life for your lord. It is unnecessary and even meddlesome for a woman to say this, but die bravely and leave behind a name you can be proud of.’

The couple repeatedly exchanged farewell cups of sake, and after Kogin had satisfied Umemaru’s every wish, she said, ‘I am a woman and therefore weak and inconstant. After you are gone, I will trust to luck and look for another husband.’

Hearing this, Umemaru thought with some bitterness, ‘I would never have believed it of her. Is there anything as shallow and as faithless as a woman?’ His expression changed and he left the room. Just then a messenger brought the news that the lord’s condition had suddenly worsened and that the end was near. Umemaru raced to the castle and gazed quietly on the lord’s face as they spoke to each other. His grief at this final parting was very deep.

After accompanying the body to the grave and watching it turn into ephemeral smoke, Umemaru committed a glorious seppuku and died with the bravery of a true samurai. People said, ‘His valiant death shows how well prepared he had been for that moment. However, a man who knew his days were numbered certainly shouldn't have married. His poor widow - she must be heart-broken.’

As soon as Kogin heard that Umemaru’s suicide had gone smoothly, she committed seppuku herself and followed him in death. Those who read her suicide note were moved to tears, for she had written, ‘At our final parting, I spoke coldly and faithlessly in order to anger my husband, so that he could die without any regret at leaving me.’

People were full of admiration for this woman when they learned what her motives had been.


[1] Mono ni wa rui no atsumaru dōri ari, ‘In the natural order of things, types gather together.’ The proverb originates from a line in I-ching. Yokoyama & Maeda, p. 133. [Translator’s note 14]

[2] Nanshi wakashu no bika. Wakashu, ‘a youth’, implies a boy partner in a homosexual relationship; the first character of the name Umemaru means ‘plum’. Saikaku is here alluding to a poem found in Wakan Rōeishū (# 11), ‘The plum blossoms on the south come to bloom and scatter their petals at a different time from those on the north.’ Wakan Rōeishū, p. 49. [Translator’s note 15]

[3] Chū no koe mo dezu, ‘Not even the chirp chū came out,’ a play on Gū no oto mo dezu, ‘Not even the sound came out,’ meaning to be reduced to silence. [Translator’s note 16]

[4] Ariwara no Narihira, 825-880, a poet and courtier whose romantic adventures are recounted in Ise Monogatari; from early times, Narihira was regarded as the model of the courtly love. [Translator’s note 17]

[5] Ushiwaka-maru was the childhood name of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, 1159-1189, who, after inflicting resounding defeats against the Heike clan, was hounded to death by his jealous half-brother, Yoritomo. According to legend, Yoshitsune fell in love with Jorūri, daughter of a wealthy man in Mikawa. [Translator’s note 18]

[6] Qibara, or suicide by seppuku to follow one’s lord in death; the practice, also  called junshi, was forbidden by the Tokugawa authorities in 1663 and again in 1682. [Translator’s footnote 19]




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