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three pairs of lovers with space



The following story, originally called “Love’s Flame Kindled by a Flint Seller”, is from Ihara Saikaku’s Nanshoku Ōkagami 男色大鑑 (Great Mirror of Male Love), a collection of forty short stories of Greek love published in 1687.

The shortened translation presented here is the first into English and was made by E. Powys Mathers from the French translation of Ken Sato. Mathers published it as “An Actor loved his Patron, even as a Flint Seller” in pp.  64-68 of Comrade Loves of the Samurai, the first section of volume seven of his Eastern Love (London, 1928).

The story is explicitly set in the capital, Kyoto, around 1652.

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 the main character of this story, Sennojyo, was 12 or 13, rather than 14, when he first appeared on the stage.

An Actor loved his Patron, even as a Flint Seller

THERE WAS ONCE A CELEBRATED FEMALE CHARACTER-ACTOR named Sennojyo. He had made his first appearance on the stage at the age of fourteen, and at forty-two years of age was still so popular that people loved to see him portray feminine characters.[1] His greater success was in the drama called While going toward Kawashi to an assignation, which was performed for three years at Yedo.[2]

A priest pedicating a boy actor, from the series 'Butterflies and Plovers' by Utagawa Kunisada, ca. 1828

But one autumn an epidemic disease of the spinal marrow broke out in Yedo, and to this Sennojyo fell a victim.[3] His back grew bent and deformed, and he altogether lost his grace of body. But he was gifted with high talent and intelligence, and did not lose his popularity because of his disease.[4] Many employers even found it difficult to secure him for their comedies; for, when he was a little drunk, his cheeks became rosy, giving him such charm that many men fell in love with him. Several well-known priests lost their heads about him, and spent so much money to have him that they were obliged to sell the precious relics of their temples to gain an interview. Some of these were even so mad as to sell the holy trees of the sacred forests, for which they were driven from their temples and became beggars. Many clerks also spent their employers’ money to see Sennojyo privately, and ruined their masters.

Once, when he was still young, Sennojyo took his diary from a little private chest. Its title was My experiences with many men, and it was a very interesting record. He started to read it through. He had noted down in it all his impressions, from the very first day, of widely different people. Sometimes he would go to a samurai’s room. By the mere caress of his hand he would soothe a demon in an angry man. He would make men of refinement or priests even out of farmers. In a word, he had treated each of his different patrons in the way most suitable to him. He shut the diary with a smile.[5] But suddenly he thought of one of his patrons who had been most devoted to him. Sennojyo did not know where this man was. That evening a violent gale blew up, and snow began to fall. The mountains to the north of Kyoto were already white. A wretched-looking man was standing under the Gojyo bridge. He lived on the bank of the river Kamo, and there he slept during the night. In the morning he gathered pebbles from the river Kurama and sold them in Kyoto for gun flints. Those that he had been unable to sell he threw away in the evening. His life under this bridge was very miserable.

He had formerly been one of the rich men of the Province of Owari. He had been given over to male love. He had written a book in four volumes, called A Collection of Stories Pure as Crystal,[6] in which he had recorded in every detail everything that he knew of any of Sennojyo’s actions and gestures. In it he mentioned even such a trifling matter as a black mole on the actor’s back. He had loved Sennojyo with all his heart from the first day the latter had appeared upon the stage; but some time afterwards he had wearied of all earthly joys[7] and had hidden himself away from society.

Sennojyo had been greatly grieved at not being able to find this man again, and always bitterly regretted his disappearance. Someone informed him that his patron was living miserably on the bank of the Kamo, and he burst into tears, saying: ‘Truly the destiny of man is variable. If he had let me know of his situation, I should not have left him in such misery. I have written him many letters to his house in Owari, but he has never answered me. I sorrowfully thought he had forgotten me, as frequently happens with us poor actors.’

That night Sennojyo received his patrons in the tea-house with the greatest cordiality;[8] but at dawn he went to the bank of the river Kamo to look for his former patron. He went alone, without a servant, along the gritty and pebbly river bank, with the river flowing at his side. At last he reached the bridge, and called: ‘Samboku, my dear Owari patron!’ But no one answered him. It was the twenty-fourth of November, and not yet very light; therefore he could not distinguish the faces of the wretched men lying under the bridge. There were many beggars and vagabonds there.

Sennojyo and his old lover under the bridge together: a woodblock illustration accompanying the original text

Then he remembered that his patron had a little scar on his neck; so he started to examine all the sleepers closely, and after a long search found his man. ‘You are cruel,’ he said. ‘I have kept calling you, and you never answered.’ And he wept for pity and joy at finding his old lover again, and chatted with him a little of past days and of their former love. The morning air was fresh, and to warm the two of them Sennojyo poured out the wine which he had brought, and they both drank. When the sky grew light in the East he could distinguish his old lover’s features. He had lost all refinement, and Sennojyo was very sorry for this. He tenderly caressed the scurfed feet, and lay down with the old man under the bridge.

Day came and people began to pass over the bridge; and the time came for the announcement of the theatre programme. Sennojyo was obliged to retire secretly, for he could not stay there in the sight of all. He said to the old man: ‘I beg you to wait for me here this evening. I shall come and take you back to my house with me.’ But the old man had no wish to accept such a proposal. This meeting with his former lover had, in fad, troubled him. He wished to continue in his simple and serene obscurity. Therefore he disappeared.

Sennojyo sought him through all Kyoto, but in vain. He collected all the gun flints that his lover had left behind, and made a tomb of them among the bamboos, in a corner of the field of Nii-Kamano at Higashiyama. His lover’s favourite tree had been the violet paulownia, so he planted one beside the tomb. He engaged a priest, who lived in a little hut near the field, to pray for his lover’s and his own soul. People named this tomb, ‘The new tomb of love.’[9]


[1] In the first footnote to his translation of this story in The Great Mirror of Male Love, (Stanford, 1990), P. G. Schalow contradicts two of Saikaku’s statements with the following facts: Tamagawa Sennojō (as Saikaku gives his full names) “was an actor of female roles in the Murayama Theater in Kyoto between 1650 and 1660, spanning the shift from boys’ kabuki to men’s kabuki. Theater records indicate he performed in Edo in 1661 at the Nakamura Theater in Sakai-chō, and died in 1670 at the age of 35 or 36.” Schalow also notes that “according to superstition, 42 is a dangerous age for men.”

[2] Here P. G. Schalow in his full and more accurate translation in The Great Mirror of Male Love, (Stanford, 1990) adds: “His lavish praises even appeared in Yarō mushi.” and further reveals in a footnote what Yarō mushi said of him (in 1660): “His face, form, and artistry are beyond criticism. He is slightly past his prime, however, like a twenty-day-old moon, and will soon become a man, which we find most regrettable.”

[3] This sentence follows a long digression omitted by Mathers in which it is stated that the autumn in question was that of the first year of Jō-ō, ie. 1652.

[4] The original is more forthright on Sennojyo’s popularity with amorous patrons. In P. G. Schalow’s words (The Great Mirror of Male Love, Stanford, 1990): “He was in such demand that it was not unusual to wait ten days for an appointment. It was impossible to share even a drink with him without advance notice.”

[5] Mathers both shortened and changed this story more than was his custom with Saikaku.  In the original, it is Saikaku himself, not Sennojyo, who reads and reflects on the boy’s diary. At this particular point, Saikaku comments (in P. G. Schalow’s translation in The Great Mirror of Male Love, Stanford, 1990): “Sennojō was so perfect in everything he did, what fault could one find with him? Perhaps his one weakness was this: if a man, no matter how low his rank, expressed his love for the boy, Sennojō would meet him on the sly. In time he frequently developed deep attachments this way. He did not care if these relationships became public knowledge.”

[6] In P. G. Schalow’s translation in The Great Mirror of Male Love, (Stanford, 1990), this book is “called ‘The Abyss of Tamagawa’s Heart’ and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in boy love.”

[7] The original says rather that the cause of his going into hiding was that he found it “necessary”.

[8] Again, the original is more explicit. In P. G. Schalow’s translation (The Great Mirror of Male Love, Stanford, 1990), “That night, Sennojō worked especially hard to make his patron happy and spent an intimate night in bed. By the time Sennojō got up to leave, the man was completely satisfied.”

[9] “Reference to the Lover’s Tomb (Koizuka) in Toba.” (Note 10 to P. G. Schalow’s translation in The Great Mirror of Male Love, Stanford, 1990).




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