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three pairs of lovers with space


The following story, originally called “The Sickbed No Medicine Could Cure”, 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 slightly 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 “All Comrade-Lovers die by Hara-kiri” in pp. 10-19 of Comrade Loves of the Samurai, the first section of volume seven of his Eastern Love (London, 1928).

The story is based on real events in 1637 and accurate in outline.[1]

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 equivalents. Thus, Ukyo was aged 14 or 15, not 16, in modern English, and Uneme was 16 or 17, not 18. Mathers has mangled the first third of the story by confusing the two boys (down to the point where they become lovers). As might be expected, it was really Uneme who fell sick with love for Ukyo, not the other way round. To clarify, Uneme was the desired one in the passive role with Samanosuke, but the desiring or active one with Ukyo, much of the point of the story being that the three youths could accept Uneme, the middle in age, having this double role.

All Comrade-Lovers die by Hara-kiri

THE FAIREST PLANTS AND TREES meet their death because of the marvel of their flowers. And it is the same with humanity: many men perish because they are too beautiful.

Edo in the 17th century (a folding screen)

There was a page named Ukyo-Itami, who served a Lord at Yedo. He was cultured and elegant, and so extremely beautiful that he troubled the eyes of those who looked at him. His master had another page named Uneme Mokawa, eighteen years of age, who also had great beauty and a countenance full of graces. Ukyo was so smitten with this other as almost to lose his senses, so moved was he by his virile loveliness. He suffered to such an extent from his love that he fell ill and had to take to his bed, where he sighed and moaned his unheard love in solitude. But he was very popular, and many people had pity on him and came to see him in his illness, to care for him and console him.

One day his fellow-pages came to visit him, and among them was his beloved Uneme. At sight of him, Ukyo betrayed by his expression the sentiments which he felt for him, and the pages then guessed the secret of his illness. Samanosuke Shiga, another page who was Uneme’s lover, was also present, and was much moved at seeing the suffering of poor Ukyo. He stayed with the invalid when the others went away, knelt down beside him and whispered: ‘I am sure, dear Ukyo, that there is a grief in your soul. Open your heart to me who am your friend and love you very much. Do not keep any secret from me; you only torture yourself by keeping it. If you love any of the pages who were here just now, tell me frankly. I shall do my best to help you, Ukyo.’

But the bashful Ukyo could not open his sick heart to him. He simply said: ‘You are wrong, my Samanosuke, you are mistaken about me,’ and, since Samanosuke insisted, he pretended to be asleep. Samanosuke went away.

They caused two High Priests to pray for Ukyo’s recovery, and after they had prayed without ceasing for two days and two nights Ukyo seemed better. Then Samanosuke again went secretly to Ukyo and said: ‘Dear friend, write him a love-letter. I will give it to him without fail, and he shall at once send you a kind answer. I know whom you love so desperately, and you need not consider me in your passion. He and I are lovers, but I am quite ready to satisfy your desire, because of our long and sincere friendship, Ukyo.*

Then Ukyo took courage and wrote a letter with trembling hand, and entrusted it to Samanosuke. When Samanosuke reached the palace he met Uneme, who was looking in silence at the flowers in the garden. Uneme saw him, and said: ‘Dear friend, I have been very busy every evening amusing my Lord with Nô plays, and this evening I have only come out for a few moments to breathe a little air. I have read my master the ancient classical poem “Seuin Kokin,”[2] and was alone and without a friend except for the silent cherry blooms. I am very lonely.’ And he looked tenderly at Samanosuke.

‘Here is another silent flower, Uneme,’ said Samanosuke, and held out the letter to him.

Uneme smiled at him and said: ‘This letter cannot be for me, dear friend.’ He went behind some thick trees to read it. He was touched by the letter, and kindly replied to Samanosuke: ‘I cannot remain unmoved if he suffers so much for me.’

When Ukyo received Uneme’s answer, he was filled with joy, and quickly recovered his health. And the three young men loved each other with a loyal and harmonious love.

Rough samurai (woodblock)

Now it happened that their master took into his service a new courtier named Shyuzen Hosono. This man was rough, evil, and of a hasty temper; he had no finesse or elegance; he was continually boating of his exploits, and no one liked him. When he saw Ukyo he fell in love with him; but he had not the delicacy to make his love known to him in some charming letter: he had not sufficiently good taste for that. He pursued Ukyo with smiles and tears whenever he saw him alone in the palace or the garden. But Ukyo despised him.

The Lord had a servant with his head shaven, whose duty it was to take care of the utensils belonging to the tea ritual. He was named Shyusai Tushiki, and had become the intimate friend of Shyuzen; so he undertook to convey a message from him to Ukyo. Accordingly he said one day to Ukyo: ‘ I pray you to give Shyuzen a kind answer. He loves you passionately,’ and gave him Shyuzen’s letter.

But Ukyo threw the letter away and said: ‘It is not your business to carry love-letters. Attend to your duty of keeping the master’s house clean for tea matters,’ and went away.

Shyuzen and Shyusai were consumed with rage. They determined to kill Ukyo that same night, and then to run away. They could not endure the insult and humiliation which Ukyo had inflicted upon them, and made ready for their vicious deed. But Ukyo was warned of their plot and decided to kill them both before they could attack him. He thought of speaking to Uneme about it, but, on reflection, told himself that it was unworthy of a samurai to speak about his business to his lover with the sole object of obtaining his help. Besides, he did not want to make Uneme his accomplice. So he decided to execute his plan by himself.

It was the month of May and very wet. It rained heavily on that night. It was the seventeenth day of the moon in the seventeenth year of Kanyei (A.D. 1641). All the samurai of the guard were in a state of deep fatigue, and were sleeping. Ukyo put on a thin silk garment as white as snow, with a splendid skirt. He perfumed himself more than ordinarily so as to be pure, for he had determined to die after having killed his two enemies. He put two swords in the girdle which encircled his hips, and crossed through the halls of the palace. Since he was in the habit of doing this every evening, the guards let him pass without questioning.

Shyuzen was on guard that night in one of the rooms. He was leaning against a screen pictured with hawks, and was looking at his fan. Ukyo rushed upon him and thrust his sword deep into his right shoulder as far as his breast. But Shyuzen was a brave and strong man. With his left hand he seized his own sword and defended himself bravely. Yet he was losing blood and getting weak, and finally he fell, cursing Ukyo. Ukyo finished him with two more sword thrusts; then he went in search of Shyusai.

But the guards had been aroused by the noise of the struggle, and had lit lamps in the rooms. They arrested Ukyo, and their captain led him before the Lord, who was much disturbed and very angry. He spoke harshly to Ukyo and said to him: ‘What reason had you for killing Shyuzen? You deserve severe punishment for having thus troubled my palace in the night with your crime. Confess your reason for having killed him.’ But Ukyo kept silent. He was brought before the Chief Judge, Tonomo Tokumatsu, who examined him; and Ukyo confessed. When the Lord was informed of this, he grew calm and ordered Ukyo to be kept in a room in the palace, where he was treated with respect.

Shyuzen’s father was one of the Lord’s hereditary courtiers. He was so outraged by the crime committed against his son that he swore to die by Hara-kiri on the same spot where his son had fallen. His mother also was a favourite of the Princess, the Lord’s wife.[3] She used to take part in the Princess’s poetical gatherings. All night, with bare feet, she wept and mourned her son’s death. She besought the Princess to punish the murderer, saying: ‘If the Lord pardons the murderer, there is no law or justice in the world.’

Accordingly the Lord grudgingly resolved to condemn Ukyo to die by Hara-kiri. Shyusai, who had carried the message to Shyuzen, contrived his own death also.

Uneme had at that time received leave of absence from his master to visit his mother at Kanagawa, and did not know that Ukyo had been condemned to death. But Samanosuke wrote to him to say that Ukyo was to kill himself next morning at the Keiyoji temple at Asakusa. Uneme sent Samanosuke his thanks, and hastened at daybreak to the temple without even taking time to bid his mother farewell. As he stood in the chief entrance to the temple, which was in the form of a low tower, several people started talking noisily about Hara-kiri. They said: ‘Early this morning a young samurai is coming here to kill himself. They say that he is very beautiful. Even an ugly son is dear to his parents; the father and mother of this young samurai will be smitten with despair at realising that so accomplished a son must die. Surely it is a pity to kill such a splendid young man.’ Uneme could hardly restrain his tears on hearing these people. The temple quickly filled, and he hid himself behind a door and waited for the arrival of his darling Ukyo.

Ukyo disemboweling himself: a woodblock illustration accompanying the original text

Shortly after, a fine new litter was seen to approach, borne by several men, surrounded by guards. It topped opposite the door, and Ukyo descended from it with the utmost calmness. He was wearing a white silk garment embroidered with autumn flowers, having pale blue facings[4] and a skirt. He stopped for a moment and looked about him. On the tombs were some thousands of wooden tablets bearing the names of those who were buried there. Among them rose a wild cherry tree with white blossom on the upper branches only. Ukyo looked at the pale, fading flowers, and softly murmured an old Chinese poem:

     The flowers wait for next Spring,
     Trusting that the same hands shall caress them.
     But men’s hearts will no longer be the same,
     And you will only know that everything
     O poor lovers.

The seat destined for the Hara-kiri had been placed in the garden of the temple. Ukyo calmly seated himself on the gold-bordered mats and summoned his attendant, whose duty it was to cut off the condemned man’s head to shorten his suffering after he had manipulated the dagger in his belly.[5] This attendant’s name was Kajuyu Kitji Kawa, and he was a courtier of the same Lord. Ukyo cut off the wonderful locks of his hair, put them in a white paper and gave them to Kajuyu, praying him to send them to his venerable mother at Horikawa in Kyoto as a keepsake. The priest then began to pray for the salvation of Ukyo’s soul.

Ukyo said: ‘Beauty in this world cannot endure for long. I am glad to die while I am young and beautiful, and before my countenance fades like a flower.’ Then he took a green paper from his sleeve and wrote his farewell poem upon it. This was his poem:

Two samurai prepare to kill themselves with swords while another cuts off his topknot in preparation for taking Buddhist vows: a woodblock illustrating the last part of the original story omitted by Mathers, in which other members of the household are driven by grief to do this

     I loved the beauty of flowers in springtime;
     In autumn the glory of the moon
     Was my delight;
     But now that I am looking upon death face to
        my face,
     These joys are vanishing;
     They were all dreams.

Then he thrust the knife into his belly, and Kajuyu at once struck off his head from behind. At that moment Uneme ran to the mats and cried: ‘Finish me also,’ and pierced himself. Kajuyu struck off his head. Ukyo was sixteen years old, and Uneme eighteen. The tombs of these two young men remained for a long time in the temple, and Ukyo*s farewell poem was inscribed on their joint stones. On the seventeenth day after their death, Samanosuke also died by Hara-kiri, leaving a letter to say that he could not survive his lovers’ death.

Such was the tragedy of these
young men who died
for love.

[1] Saikaku dates Ukyo’s fatal duel near the end of the story to the fourth month of the year 17 Kan’ei, which Mathers translates as May 1641, but 17 Kan’ei ran from February 1640 to February 1641. In any case, Ukyo and Uneme really killed themselves (as and where described) on 17 April 1637. See Andrew Rankin, Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide (New York, 2011). The story was told in two other popular accounts: Furyu Sogo koyo (1683), and Nanshoku girl monogatari (Tales of nanshoku honour, 1699).

[2] The imperial poetic anthology Shinkokinshū, compiled in 1205. (Footnote 5 to P. G. Schalow’s translation of this story in The Great Mirror of Male Love, Stanford, 1990.) In the Japanese, Ukyo (not Uneme) has also been listening to a lecture, rather than participating in Nô plays.

[3] P. G. Schalow’s more accurate translation in The Great Mirror of Male Love, (Stanford, 1990) does not mention a princess or the lord’s wife, but says rather that Shuzen’s mother “had found favor in certain quarters”, which he interprets (footnote 7) as meaning “people close to the Tokugawa shogun”.

[4] The samurai wore a kind of reversed collar, shaped as two triangles, falling like wings on each shoulder. The clothes worn by Ukyo are those prescribed for Hara-kiri. [Translator’s note]

[5] This helpful explanation of the second’s role in a ritual suicide is Mathers’s and not part of the original story. Saikaku’s readership would not have needed it.




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