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three pairs of lovers with space


The following story is from
Ihara Saikaku’s
Yorozu no Fumihōgu 万の文反古 (A Miscellany of Old Letters), a collection of seventeen stories written in the form of letters, apparently written around 1690-91 and posthumously published in Osaka in 1696. The translation presented here, the only one so far into English, E. Powys Mathers from the French translation of Ken Sato. Mathers published it as “A Samurai becomes a Beggar through his Love for a Page” in pp. 69-74  of Comrade Loves of the Samurai, the first section of volume seven of his Eastern Love (London, 1928).

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. Thus the boy of “about sixteen” with whom the priest has fallen in love in this story was actually about fourteen or fifteen.

Letter from a Buddhist Priest telling
his Friend that his Lover comes
to him

DEAR FRIEND IN THE TEACHING OF BUDDHA: The cherry trees in flower at Kyoto so troubled me that I left the capital last spring. I send you this letter by a man who is going to visit the city. I hope that you are zealous in our religion at your temple, and without disturbance.

My hut must have become the resort of mice and rats since it has been unoccupied; though there is not a single piece of fish left there for such guests to enjoy. You may laugh at my poverty, dear friend. No one will regret the chrysanthemums when they fade in my garden. But if by chance you should be passing near my hut, enter, and, since I have given you the key, let the weary passers-by come in. I buried some nuts and potatoes under the north door: use them, for otherwise they will be spoiled. Takenaka sent me these provisions, and I do not like to waste them.

Buddhist priest (Edo-era woodblock print)

And now I shall speak to you of myself. As you know, my eternal and incurable weakness is to fall in love with some pretty boy; and I confess to you that I have an affair here with an entrancing lad, and I hesitate to return to Kyoto.

Last year, on leaving the capital, I went to my friend at Okayama in the Province of Bizen. He received me very hospitably, but I quickly grew weary there; so I went by boat to the Province of Higo, where I have a friend who is a poet and a priest of the temple of Kiyomasa, and I lived with him.[1]

One evening I was in his wonderful garden, enjoying the fresh breeze after a hot day. An artificial stream flowed between fanciful rocks and grass-covered hillocks which had been built up there. The effect was as the dwelling of some mountain hermit, delighting in spiritual beauty and the pure pleasures of the soul. The faint song of a cuckoo rose from the density of the mighty pines behind the temple, so poignantly pure that I thought I had never heard such beautiful song in Kyoto. I thought that a cuckoo, singing in the evening in so sacred a place as the temple of Kiyomasa, would make a fitting subject for a poem. I began to compose a poem in my head, and was thinking out the rhymes and the arrangement of the syllables.

Then there came out of the temple the whole of the High Priest’s train. Amongst them walked a very beautiful page, about sixteen years old, so lovely that I thought I had never seen such charm and elegance even in the flowering capital. I was indeed surprised to see so beautiful a page in such a remote district as the Western Province of Higo. I was greatly troubled by him. Formerly I had become very weary of the luxurious and artificial life of our capital; but at that moment, in this distant country, I felt a temptation which disturbed all the peace of my spirit. My soul was quite thrown into confusion, and my heart began to beat violently with desire. When the High Priest left the temple after his prayer, I watched the page from behind a screen, and my love grew with each minute. I asked my friend who this beautiful page was, and he told me that he was the second son of a noble family, whose parents had entrusted him to the High Priest because he wished to become a priest and to renounce the pleasures of this world.

My love became so violent that it seemed to me that my soul was breaking into a thousand pieces; and it was, indeed, torn. I lost my calm, and in vain gravely reproached myself. I could not forget this beautiful young man. At last in despair, without caring what my friend thought, I wrote the page a love-letter, pleading the cause of my despairing soul. I hoped to gain a little peace if he should only know of my love, without going nearly so far as to return it.

This is what I wrote:


‘I saw you yesterday evening when you were crossing the garden in the High Priest’s train, and was moved by your beauty. You are so lovely that the most famous beauties of China, such as Taitjio and Token, the fairest young men there, or Hi or the Empress Yo cannot excel you. I am a priest, but, alas! I have also the passions of a man, and I confess that I love you with all my being. Lord, I am a humble and insignificant priest, passing through this Province: you are of a noble family. To aspire to your love is, for me, as impossible and unfeasible as to climb up a ladder to heaven. I admit that it is impudent of me even to love you; but I write to you because I hope to win some satisfaction and contentment by simply letting you know that I do so. I am like a fly in a spider’s web, I am helpless. I bring you my heart in these clumsy words.

by Hideki Koh

‘Since I saw you my heart has not ceased to beat violently. When I am alone, flaming tears run down my cheeks. I am in actual agony; and my words in this letter are all confused. Your face and your whole person are so refined and elegant. I have heard it said that you are the most splendid flower of the Western Provinces; but to me you seem the most precious jewel in the universe. For indeed your beauty exceeds all the flowers of the world. For me, you are as princely a beauty as the Empress Seishi, or the celebrated poetess Komachi[2], or the young Yukishira[3] or the new-born Narihira. I cannot forget you even in my sleep; and when I awake I am excruciated. I have prayed the god Fuyisaki to have pity on my unhappy love. I wish to drown myself in the river Kikutji, to put an end to my pain. I am ready to sacrifice my life for one evening’s love with you. One evening of love with you is more precious than a thousand years of life. I shall gladly do all that you command me. I would rather have half an hour’s life than drag out mere miserable existence for a hundred years. From morning to evening, by day and by night, your face does not leave me, and I endure a thousand deaths for love of you. I am wretched. I am cursed by a cruel Karma.’

But, my dear friend, I am blessed rather than cursed. He has read my letter and sent me such a kind answer. Oh, how tender and sympathetic he is! I am happy and contented; I am the happiest man under the sun. I cannot speak enough of his kindness, for he is truly good. That is all that I can say now. Presently, as soon as he finds an opportunity, he is coming to spend a whole evening with me. All that troubles me is that the day is not yet fixed. I know that this waiting for the day is an agony which all lovers have to endure; and I comfort myself by telling myself so.

I wish I could show you this noble young man. His name is Aineme Okayima. When he comes to see me, we shall drink wine together and have a pleasant conversation by ourselves. I should like the night to last for ever, and that the dawn should never come to put an end to our meeting. This is all that I can tell you at present: there is nothing further. I hope to be calmer and more balanced after seeing him.

Till then, farewell, dear comrade.
                                                  From your far-distant friend.

[1] The Buddhist temple of Honmyō-ji, originally funded by the lord Katō Kiyomasa in Osaka, was moved to the site of Kiyomasa’s grave and shrine on Mount Nakao in 1614.

[2] Ono no Komachi was a ninth-century poetess whose name became a synonym for beauty.

[3] Yukishira and Narihira were brothers of noble family, each famous for his beauty and poetic talent. [Translator’s note on p. 99]. They lived at the same time as Komachi, and Narihira was reputed to be her lover.




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