Haiku is a traditional Japanese poem consisting of three lines and 17 syllables. Unlike Western poetry, haiku rarely rhymes. This poetry conveys layers of meaning by using natural imagery. Zen Buddhism appears throughout haiku, and a specific branch of poetry, called jisei, or death poem, were written just before the writer died in battle or committed ritual suicide. Many haiku are rather funny too. I’ve included a few of those in this selection. Here are some traditional haiku.
Iio Sogi (1421-1502)
Snow yet remaining
The mountain slopes are misty—
An evening in spring
Does not China also
Lie beneath the selfsame sky
Bound in misery
Ame shita to ya
Passing through the world
Indeed this is just
A shelter from the shower.
Mono goto ni
Oi wa kokoro no
Ato mo nashi
Yamazaki Sokan (1464-1552)
Even at the time
When my father lay dying
I still kept farting.
Waga oya no
Shinuru toki ni mo
He o kokite
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)
The quiet pond
A frog leaps in,
The sound of water.
Mizu no oto
Seeping into the rocks
The cicada’s voice.
Iwa ni shimiiru
Semi no koe
The roadside thistle, eager
To see the travelers pass
Was eaten by the passing ass!
Mukuge wa uma ni
Stabbed in a dream—
Or was it reality?
The marks of a flea.
Yume wa makoto ka
Nomi no ato
Yamamoto Kakei (1648-1716)
I have no wife, said I.
And so my landlord gave to me
A tiny maiden flower.
Tsuma nashi to
Yanushi ya kureshi
Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738)
Although I say,
“Come here! Come here!” the fireflies
Keep flying away!
Koi koi to
Iedo hotaru ga
I’ll be looking at the moon
With no child on my knee.
Kono aki wa
Hiza ni ko no nai
Ogawa Shushiki (1669-1725)
The cherry by the well
Is dangerous for one
Drunken on wine
Sake no ei
Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775)
What are the dreams that make him
Flutter his wings?
Nani o yume mite
I sleep…I wake…
The bed with none beside
Nete mitsu kaya no
Tan Taigo (1709-1771)
The change of servants
Splash on the tatami.
Tatami e otosu
Yosa Buson (1716-1783)
There’s no loincloth
On that butt blown in view –
In the spring breeze.
Haru no kaze
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)
“The peony was as big as this,”
Says the little girl
Opening her arms.
Kore hodo to
Botan no shikata
Suru ko kama
Ours is a world of suffering,
Even if cherry-flowers bloom.
Ku no shaba ya
Hana ga kirakeba
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
I’m trying to sleep—
When you swat flies.
Nemuran to su
Nanji shizuka ni
Hae o ute
How much longer
Is my life?
A brief night…
Ikubaku ka aru
Bowers, Faubion. (1996) The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. New York: Dover Publications
Note: This account dates to 1871 and contains unconventional spellings for transliterations. For example, daimyo is spelled daimio. It also uses British-English spellings of words such as honour. I decided to retain these spellings and retain the old grammar rules to help you become used to these conventions. As you dig through old stories (the oldest English translations of most Japanese stories date to the late Tokugawa period and early Meiji period), you will encounter unusual transliterations. Western Japanese studies were in their infancy. With some translations, you will even encounter sections of Latin. You don’t have to worry about that with this account. Latin was used to represent imperial Japanese, the language of the imperial court during older periods of Japanese history. You will see Latin in the Kojiki and other documents that have gods and emperors conversing. Lafcadio Hearn, in particular, used this convention in his translations.
A ronin was a samurai who didn’t serve a lord. This story about a band of ronin remains a favorite in Japan. It represents the values of bushido, or the samurai code of honor. Forty-seven Ronin accounts a true event in Japanese history with a few flourishes, of course. The event is also known as the Ako incident or Ako vendetta.
While some of the details are questionable, scholars consider this account by A.B Freeman-Mitford authoritative.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Samurais in Armour Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c600-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
At the beginning of the eighteenth century there lived a daimio, called Asano Takumi no Kami, the Lord of the castle of Ako, in the province of Harima. Now it happened that an Imperial ambassador from the Court of the Mikado having been sent to the Shogun at Yedo, Takumi no Kami and another noble called Kamei Sama were appointed to receive and feast the envoy; and a high official, named Kira Kotsuke no Suke, was named to teach them the proper ceremonies to be observed upon the occasion. The two nobles were accordingly forced to go daily to the castle to listen to the instructions of Kotsuke no Suke. But this Kotsuke no Suke was a man greedy of money; and as he deemed that the presents which the two daimios, according to time-honoured custom, had brought him in return for his instruction were mean and unworthy, he conceived a great hatred against them, and took no pains in teaching them, but on the contrary rather sought to make laughing-stocks of them. Takumi no Kami, restrained by a stern sense of duty, bore his insults with patience; but Kamei Sama, who had less control over his temper, was violently incensed, and determined to kill Kotsuke no Suke.
One night when his duties at the castle were ended, Kamei Sama returned to his own palace, and having summoned his councilors to a secret conference, said to them: “Kotsuke no Suke has insulted Takumi no Kami and myself during our service in attendance on the Imperial envoy. This is against all decency, and I was minded to kill him on the spot; but I bethought me that if I did such a deed within the precincts of the castle, not only would my own life be forfeit, but my family and vassals would be ruined: so I stayed my hand. Still the life of such a wretch is a sorrow to the people, and to-morrow when I go to Court I will slay him: my mind is made up, and I will listen to no remonstrance.” And as he spoke his face became livid with rage.
Now one of Kamei Sama’s councillors was a man of great judgment, and when he saw from his lord’s manner that remonstrance would be useless, he said: “Your lordship’s words are law; your servant will make all preparations accordingly; and to-morrow, when your lordship goes to Court, if this Kotsuke no Suke should again be insolent, let him die the death.” And his lord was pleased at this speech, and waited with impatience for the day to break, that he might return to Court and kill his enemy.
But the councillor went home, and was sorely troubled, and thought anxiously about what his prince had said. And as he reflected, it occurred to him that since Kotsuke no Suke had the reputation of being a miser he would certainly be open to a bribe, and that it was better to pay any sum, no matter how great, than that his lord and his house should be ruined. So he collected all the money he could, and, giving it to his servants to carry, rode off in the night to Kotsuke no Suke’s palace, and said to his retainers: “My master, who is now in attendance upon the Imperial envoy, owes much thanks to my Lord Kotsuke no Suke, who has been at so great pains to teach him the proper ceremonies to be observed during the reception of the Imperial envoy. This is but a shabby present which he has sent by me, but he hopes that his lordship will condescend to accept it, and commends himself to his lordship’s favour.” And, with these words, he produced a thousand ounces of silver for Kotsuke no Suke, and a hundred ounces to be distributed among his retainers.
When the latter saw the money their eyes sparkled with pleasure, and they were profuse in their thanks; and begging the councillor to wait a little, they went and told their master of the lordly present which had arrived with a polite message from Kamei Sama. Kotsuke no Suke in eager delight sent for the councillor into an inner chamber, and, after thanking him, promised on the morrow to instruct his master carefully in all the different points of etiquette. So the councillor, seeing the miser’s glee, rejoiced at the success of his plan; and having taken his leave returned home in high spirits. But Kamei Sama, little thinking how his vassal had propitiated his enemy, lay brooding over his vengeance, and on the following morning at daybreak went to Court in solemn procession.
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1900 – 1940). Samurai warrior in armour. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c261ef12-e4eb-3577-e040-e00a18067776
When Kotsuke no Suke met him his manner had completely changed, and nothing could exceed his courtesy. “You have come early to Court this morning, my Lord Kamei,” said he. “I cannot sufficiently admire your zeal. I shall have the honour to call your attention to several points of etiquette to-day. I must beg your lordship to excuse my previous conduct, which must have seemed very rude; but I am naturally of a cross-grained disposition, so I pray you to forgive me.” And as he kept on humbling himself and making fair speeches, the heart of Kamei Sama was gradually softened, and he renounced his intention of killing him. Thus by the cleverness of his councillor was Kamei Sama, with all his house, saved from ruin.
Shortly after this, Takumi no Kami, who had sent no present, arrived at the castle, and Kotsuke no Suke turned him into ridicule even more than before, provoking him with sneers and covert insults; but Takumi no Kami affected to ignore all this, and submitted himself patiently to Kotsuke no Suke’s orders.
This conduct, so far from producing a good effect, only made Kotsuke no Suke despise him the more, until at last he said haughtily: “Here, my Lord of Takumi, the ribbon of my sock has come untied; be so good as to tie it up for me.”
Takumi no Kami, although burning with rage at the affront, still thought that as he was on duty he was bound to obey, and tied up the ribbon of the sock. Then Kotsuke no Suke, turning from him, petulantly exclaimed: “Why, how clumsy you are! You cannot so much as tie up the ribbon of a sock properly! Any one can see that you are a boor from the country, and know nothing of the manners of Yedo.” And with a scornful laugh he moved towards an inner room.
But the patience of Takumi no Kami was exhausted; this last insult was more than he could bear.
“Stop a moment, my lord,” cried he.
“Well, what is it?” replied the other. And, as he turned round, Takumi no Kami drew his dirk, and aimed a blow at his head; but Kotsuke no Suke, being protected by the Court cap which he wore, the wound was but a scratch, so he ran away; and Takumi no Kami, pursuing him, tried a second time to cut him down, but, missing his aim, struck his dirk into a pillar. At this moment an officer, named Kajikawa Yosobei, seeing the affray, rushed up, and holding back the infuriated noble, gave Kotsuke no Suke time to make good his escape.
Then there arose a great uproar and confusion, and Takumi no Kami was arrested and disarmed, and confined in one of the apartments of the palace under the care of the censors. A council was held, and the prisoner was given over to the safeguard of a daimio, called Tamura Ukiyo no Daibu, who kept him in close custody in his own house, to the great grief of his wife and of his retainers; and when the deliberations of the council were completed, it was decided that, as he had committed an outrage and attacked another man within the precincts of the palace, he must perform _hara-kiri_,–that is, commit suicide by disembowelling; his goods must be confiscated, and his family ruined. Such was the law. So Takumi no Kami performed hara-kiri, his castle of Ako was confiscated, and his retainers having become Ronins, some of them took service with other daimios, and others became merchants.
Now amongst these retainers was his principal councillor, a man called Oishi Kuranosuke, who, with forty-six other faithful dependants, formed a league to avenge their master’s death by killing Kotsuke no Suke. This Oishi Kuranosuke was absent at the castle of Ako at the time of the affray, which, had he been with his prince, would never have occurred; for, being a wise man, he would not have failed to propitiate Kotsuke no Suke by sending him suitable presents; while the councillor who was in attendance on the prince at Yedo was a dullard, who neglected this precaution, and so caused the death of his master and the ruin of his house.
So Oishi Kuranosuke and his forty-six companions began to lay their plans of vengeance against Kotsuke no Suke; but the latter was so well guarded by a body of men lent to him by a daimio called Uyesugi Sama, whose daughter he had married, that they saw that the only way of attaining their end would be to throw their enemy off his guard. With this object they separated and disguised themselves, some as carpenters or craftsmen, others as merchants; and their chief, Kuranosuke, went to Kioto, and built a house in the quarter called Yamashina, where he took to frequenting houses of the worst repute, and gave himself up to drunkenness and debauchery, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kotsuke no Suke, in the meanwhile, suspecting that Takumi no Kami’s former retainers would be scheming against his life, secretly sent spies to Kioto, and caused a faithful account to be kept of all that Kuranosuke did. The latter, however, determined thoroughly to delude the enemy into a false security, went on leading a dissolute life with harlots and winebibbers. One day, as he was returning home drunk from some low haunt, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed him to scorn. It happened that a Satsuma man saw this, and said: “Is not this Oishi Kuranosuke, who was a councillor of Asano Takumi no Kami, and who, not having the heart to avenge his lord, gives himself up to women and wine? See how he lies drunk in the public street! Faithless beast! Fool and craven! Unworthy the name of a Samurai.”
And he trod on Kuranosuke’s face as he slept, and spat upon him; but when Kotsuke no Suke’s spies reported all this at Yedo, he was greatly relieved at the news, and felt secure from danger. One day Kuranosuke’s wife, who was bitterly grieved to see her husband lead this abandoned life, went to him and said: “My lord, you told me at first that your debauchery was but a trick to make your enemy relax in watchfulness. But indeed, indeed, this has gone too far. I pray and beseech you to put some restraint upon yourself.”
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (187-). Japanese Yakonin in dress of ceremony Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c596-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
“Trouble me not,” replied Kuranosuke, “for I will not listen to your whining. Since my way of life is displeasing to you, I will divorce you, and you may go about your business; and I will buy some pretty young girl from one of the public-houses, and marry her for my pleasure. I am sick of the sight of an old woman like you about the house, so get you gone–the sooner the better.” So saying, he flew into a violent rage, and his wife, terror-stricken, pleaded piteously for mercy.
“Oh, my lord! unsay those terrible words! I have been your faithful wife for twenty years, and have borne you three children; in sickness and in sorrow I have been with you; you cannot be so cruel as to turn me out of doors now. Have pity! have pity!”
“Cease this useless wailing. My mind is made up, and you must go; and as the children are in my way also, you are welcome to take them with you.”
When she heard her husband speak thus, in her grief she sought her eldest son, Oishi Chikara, and begged him to plead for her, and pray that she might be pardoned. But nothing would turn Kuranosuke from his purpose, so his wife was sent away, with the two younger children, and went back to her native place. But Oishi Chikara remained with his father.
The spies communicated all this without fail to Kotsuke no Suke, and he, when he heard how Kuranosuke, having turned his wife and children out of doors and bought a concubine, was grovelling in a life of drunkenness and lust, began to think that he had no longer anything to fear from the retainers of Takumi no Kami, who must be cowards, without the courage to avenge their lord. So by degrees he began to keep a less strict watch, and sent back half of the guard which had been lent to him by his father-in-law, Uyesugi Sama. Little did he think how he was falling into the trap laid for him by Kuranosuke, who, in his zeal to slay his lord’s enemy, thought nothing of divorcing his wife and sending away his children! Admirable and faithful man!
In this way Kuranosuke continued to throw dust in the eyes of his foe, by persisting in his apparently shameless conduct; but his associates all went to Yedo, and, having in their several capacities as workmen and pedlars contrived to gain access to Kotsuke no Suke’s house, made themselves familiar with the plan of the building and the arrangement of the different rooms, and ascertained the character of the inmates, who were brave and loyal men, and who were cowards; upon all of which matters they sent regular reports to Kuranosuke. And when at last it became evident from the letters which arrived from Yedo that Kotsuke no Suke was thoroughly off his guard, Kuranosuke rejoiced that the day of vengeance was at hand; and, having appointed a trysting-place at Yedo, he fled secretly from Kioto, eluding the vigilance of his enemy’s spies. Then the forty-seven men, having laid all their plans, bided their time patiently.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Osaka Castle Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c4cc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
It was now midwinter, the twelfth month of the year, and the cold was bitter. One night, during a heavy fall of snow, when the whole world was hushed, and peaceful men were stretched in sleep upon the mats, the Ronins determined that no more favourable opportunity could occur for carrying out their purpose. So they took counsel together, and, having divided their band into two parties, assigned to each man his post. One band, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, was to attack the front gate, and the other, under his son Oishi Chikara, was to attack the postern of Kotsuke no Suke’s house; but as Chikara was only sixteen years of age, Yoshida Chiuzayemon was appointed to act as his guardian. Further it was arranged that a drum, beaten at the order of Kuranosuke, should be the signal for the simultaneous attack; and that if any one slew Kotsuke no Suke and cut off his head he should blow a shrill whistle, as a signal to his comrades, who would hurry to the spot, and, having identified the head, carry it off to the temple called Sengakuji, and lay it as an offering before the tomb of their dead lord. Then they must report their deed to the Government, and await the sentence of death which would surely be passed upon them. To this the Ronins one and all pledged themselves. Midnight was fixed upon as the hour, and the forty-seven comrades, having made all ready for the attack, partook of a last farewell feast together, for on the morrow they must die. Then Oishi Kuranosuke addressed the band, and said–
“To-night we shall attack our enemy in his palace; his retainers will certainly resist us, and we shall be obliged to kill them. But to slay old men and women and children is a pitiful thing; therefore, I pray you each one to take great heed lest you kill a single helpless person.” His comrades all applauded this speech, and so they remained, waiting for the hour of midnight to arrive.
When the appointed hour came, the Ronins set forth. The wind howled furiously, and the driving snow beat in their faces; but little cared they for wind or snow as they hurried on their road, eager for revenge. At last they reached Kotsuke no Suke’s house, and divided themselves into two bands; and Chikara, with twenty-three men, went round to the back gate. Then four men, by means of a ladder of ropes which they hung on to the roof of the porch, effected an entry into the courtyard; and, as they saw signs that all the inmates of the house were asleep, they went into the porter’s lodge where the guard slept, and, before the latter had time to recover from their astonishment, bound them. The terrified guard prayed hard for mercy, that their lives might be spared; and to this the Ronins agreed on condition that the keys of the gate should be given up; but the others tremblingly said that the keys were kept in the house of one of their officers, and that they had no means of obtaining them. Then the Ronins lost patience, and with a hammer dashed in pieces the big wooden bolt which secured the gate, and the doors flew open to the right and to the left. At the same time Chikara and his party broke in by the back gate.
Then Oishi Kuranosuke sent a messenger to the neighbouring houses, bearing the following message:–“We, the Ronins who were formerly in the service of Asano Takumi no Kami, are this night about to break into the palace of Kotsuke no Suke, to avenge our lord. As we are neither night robbers nor ruffians, no hurt will be done to the neighbouring houses. We pray you to set your minds at rest.” And as Kotsuke no Suke was hated by his neighbours for his covetousness, they did not unite their forces to assist him. Another precaution was yet taken. Lest any of the people inside should run out to call the relations of the family to the rescue, and these coming in force should interfere with the plans of the Ronins, Kuranosuke stationed ten of his men armed with bows on the roof of the four sides of the courtyard, with orders to shoot any retainers who might attempt to leave the place. Having thus laid all his plans and posted his men, Kuranosuke with his own hand beat the drum and gave the signal for attack.
Ten of Kotsuke no Suke’s retainers, hearing the noise, woke up; and, drawing their swords, rushed into the front room to defend their master. At this moment the Ronins, who had burst open the door of the front hall, entered the same room. Then arose a furious fight between the two parties, in the midst of which Chikara, leading his men through the garden, broke into the back of the house; and Kotsuke no Suke, in terror of his life, took refuge, with his wife and female servants, in a closet in the verandah; while the rest of his retainers, who slept in the barrack outside the house, made ready to go to the rescue. But the Ronins who had come in by the front door, and were fighting with the ten retainers, ended by overpowering and slaying the latter without losing one of their own number; after which, forcing their way bravely towards the back rooms, they were joined by Chikara and his men, and the two bands were united in one.
General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (191-?). Armour and Weapons of Ancient Warriors. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-83bf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
By this time the remainder of Kotsuke no Suke’s men had come in, and the fight became general; and Kuranosuke, sitting on a camp-stool, gave his orders and directed the Ronins. Soon the inmates of the house perceived that they were no match for their enemy, so they tried to send out intelligence of their plight to Uyesugi Sama, their lord’s father-in-law, begging him to come to the rescue with all the force at his command. But the messengers were shot down by the archers whom Kuranosuke had posted on the roof. So no help coming, they fought on in despair. Then Kuranosuke cried out with a loud voice: “Kotsuke no Suke alone is our enemy; let some one go inside and bring him forth. dead or alive!”
Now in front of Kotsuke no Suke’s private room stood three brave retainers with drawn swords. The first was Kobayashi Hehachi, the second was Waku Handaiyu, and the third was Shimidzu Ikkaku, all good men and true, and expert swordsmen. So stoutly did these men lay about them that for a while they kept the whole of the Ronins at bay, and at one moment even forced them back. When Oishi Kuranosuke saw this, he ground his teeth with rage, and shouted to his men: “What! did not every man of you swear to lay down his life in avenging his lord, and now are you driven back by three men? Cowards, not fit to be spoken to! to die fighting in a master’s cause should be the noblest ambition of a retainer!” Then turning to his own son Chikara, he said, “Here, boy! engage those men, and if they are too strong for you, die!”
Spurred by these words, Chikara seized a spear and gave battle to Waku Handaiyu, but could not hold his ground, and backing by degrees, was driven out into the garden, where he missed his footing and slipped into a pond, but as Handaiyu, thinking to kill him, looked down into the pond, Chikara cut his enemy in the leg and caused him to fall, and then, crawling out of the water dispatched him. In the meanwhile Kobayashi Hehachi and Shimidzu Ikkaku had been killed by the other Ronins, and of all Kotsuke no Suke’s retainers not one fighting man remained. Chikara, seeing this, went with his bloody sword in his hand into a back room to search for Kotsuke no Suke, but he only found the son of the latter, a young lord named Kira Sahioye, who, carrying a halberd, attacked him, but was soon wounded and fled. Thus the whole of Kotsuke no Suke’s men having been killed, there was an end of the fighting; but as yet there was no trace of Kotsuke no Suke to be found.
Then Kuranosuke divided his men into several parties and searched the whole house, but all in vain; women and children weeping were alone to be seen. At this the forty-seven men began to lose heart in regret, that after all their toil they had allowed their enemy to escape them, and there was a moment when in their despair they agreed to commit suicide together upon the spot; but they determined to make one more effort. So Kuranosuke went into Kotsuke no Suke’s sleeping-room, and touching the quilt with his hands, exclaimed, “I have just felt the bed-clothes and they are yet warm, and so methinks that our enemy is not far off. He must certainly be hidden somewhere in the house.” Greatly excited by this, the Ronins renewed their search. Now in the raised part of the room, near the place of honour, there was a picture hanging; taking down this picture, they saw that there was a large hole in the plastered wall, and on thrusting a spear in they could feel nothing beyond it. So one of the Ronins, called Yazama Jiutaro, got into the hole, and found that on the other side there was a little courtyard, in which there stood an outhouse for holding charcoal and firewood. Looking into the outhouse, he spied something white at the further end, at which he struck with his spear, when two armed men sprang out upon him and tried to cut him down, but he kept them back until one of his comrades came up and killed one of the two men and engaged the other, while Jiutaro entered the outhouse and felt about with his spear. Again seeing something white, he struck it with his lance, when a cry of pain betrayed that it was a man; so he rushed up, and the man in white clothes, who had been wounded in the thigh, drew a dirk and aimed a blow at him. But Jiutaro wrested the dirk from him, and clutching him by the collar, dragged him out of the outhouse. Then the other Ronin came up, and they examined the prisoner attentively, and saw that he was a noble-looking man, some sixty years of age, dressed in a white satin sleeping-robe, which was stained by the blood from the thigh-wound which, Jiutaro had inflicted. The two men felt convinced that this was no other than Kotsuke no Suke, and they asked him his name, but he gave no answer, so they gave the signal whistle, and all their comrades collected together at the call; then Oishi Kuranosuke, bringing a lantern, scanned the old man’s features, and it was indeed Kotsuke no Suke; and if further proof were wanting, he still bore a scar on his forehead where their master, Asano Takumi no Kami, had wounded him during the affray in the castle. There being no possibility of mistake, therefore, Oishi Kuranosuke went down on his knees, and addressing the old man very respectfully, said–
“My lord, we are the retainers of Asano Takumi no Kami. Last year your lordship and our master quarrelled in the palace, and our master was sentenced to _hara-kiri,_ and his family was ruined. We have come to-night to avenge him, as is the duty of faithful and loyal men. I pray your lordship to acknowledge the justice of our purpose. And now, my lord, we beseech you to perform _hara-kiri_. I myself shall have the honour to act as your second, and when, with all humility, I shall have received your lordship’s head, it is my intention to lay it as an offering upon the grave of Asano Takumi no Kami.”
Thus, in consideration of the high rank of Kotsuke no Suke, the Ronins treated him with the greatest courtesy, and over and over again entreated him to perform hara-kiri. But he crouched speechless and trembling. At last Kuranosuke, seeing that it was vain to urge him to die the death of a nobleman, forced him down, and cut off his head with the same dirk with which Asano Takumi no Kami had killed himself. Then the forty-seven comrades, elated at having accomplished their design, placed the head in a bucket, and prepared to depart; but before leaving the house they carefully extinguished all the lights and fires in the place, lest by any accident a fire should break out and the neighbours suffer.
As they were on their way to Takanawa, the suburb in which the temple called Sengakuji stands, the day broke; and the people flocked out to see the forty-seven men, who, with their clothes and arms all blood-stained, presented a terrible appearance; and every one praised them, wondering at their valour and faithfulness. But they expected every moment that Kotsuke no Suke’s father-in-law would attack them and carry off the head, and made ready to die bravely sword in hand. However, they reached Takanawa in safety, for Matsudaira Aki no Kami, one of the eighteen chief daimios of Japan, of whose house Asano Takumi no Kami had been a cadet, had been highly pleased when he heard of the last night’s work, and he had made ready to assist the Ronins in case they were attacked. So Kotsuke no Suke’s father-in-law dared not pursue them.
At about seven in the morning they came opposite to the palace of Matsudaira Mutsu no Kami, the Prince of Sendai, and the Prince, hearing of it, sent for one of his councillors and said: “The retainers of Takumi no Kami have slain their lord’s enemy, and are passing this way; I cannot sufficiently admire their devotion, so, as they must be tired and hungry after their night’s work, do you go and invite them to come in here, and set some gruel and a cup of wine before them.”
So the councilor went out and said to Oishi Kuranosuke: “Sir, I am a councillor of the Prince of Sendai, and my master bids me beg you, as you must be worn out after all you have undergone, to come in and partake of such poor refreshment as we can offer you. This is my message to you from my lord.”
“I thank you, sir,” replied Kuranosuke. “It is very good of his lordship to trouble himself to think of us. We shall accept his kindness gratefully.”
So the forty-seven Ronins went into the palace, and were feasted with gruel and wine, and all the retainers of the Prince of Sendai came and praised them.
Then Kuranosuke turned to the councillor and said, “Sir, we are truly indebted to you for this kind hospitality; but as we have still to hurry to Sengakuji, we must needs humbly take our leave.” And, after returning many thanks to their hosts, they left the palace of the Prince of Sendai and hastened to Sengakuji, where they were met by the abbot of the monastery, who went to the front gate to receive them, and led them to the tomb of Takumi no Kami.
And when they came to their lord’s grave, they took the head of Kotsuke no Suke, and having washed it clean in a well hard by, laid it as an offering before the tomb. When they had done this, they engaged the priests of the temple to come and read prayers while they burnt incense: first Oishi Kuranosuke burnt incense, and then his son Oishi Chikara, and after them the other forty-five men performed the same ceremony. Then Kuranosuke, having given all the money that he had by him to the abbot, said–
“When we forty-seven men shall have performed _hara-kiri_, I beg you to bury us decently. I rely upon your kindness. This is but a trifle that I have to offer; such as it is, let it be spent in masses for our souls!” And the abbot, marvelling at the faithful courage of the men, with tears in his eyes pledged himself to fulfil their wishes. So the forty-seven Ronins, with their minds at rest, waited patiently until they should receive the orders of the Government.
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. Fujiyama, Japan. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c260bdb3-9b60-4552-e040-e00a18066d81
At last they were summoned to the Supreme Court, where the governors of Yedo and the public censors had assembled; and the sentence passed upon them was as follows: “Whereas, neither respecting the dignity of the city nor fearing the Government, having leagued yourselves together to slay your enemy, you violently broke into the house of Kira Kotsuke no Suke by night and murdered him, the sentence of the Court is, that, for this audacious conduct, you perform hara-kiri.” When the sentence had been read, the forty-seven Ronins were divided into four parties, and handed over to the safe keeping of four different daimios; and sheriffs were sent to the palaces of those daimios in whose presence the Ronins were made to perform hara-kiri. But, as from the very beginning they had all made up their minds that to this end they must come, they met their death nobly; and their corpses were carried to Sengakuji, and buried in front of the tomb of their master, Asano Takumi no Kami. And when the fame of this became noised abroad, the people flocked to pray at the graves of these faithful men.
Among those who came to pray was a Satsuma man, who, prostrating himself before the grave of Oishi Kuranosuke, said: “When I saw you lying drunk by the roadside at Yamashina, in Kioto, I knew not that you were plotting to avenge your lord; and, thinking you to be a faithless man, I trampled on you and spat in your face as I passed. And now I have come to ask pardon and offer atonement for the insult of last year.” With those words he prostrated himself again before the grave, and, drawing a dirk from his girdle, stabbed himself in the belly and died. And the chief priest of the temple, taking pity upon him, buried him by the side of the Ronins; and his tomb still remains to be seen with those of the forty-seven comrades.
Freeman-Mitford, A.B. (1871) Tales of Old Japan. London,
Back in the 11th century, a Japanese woman wrote the world’s first modern novel. The novel remained unknown in the West until after the Meiji Restoration and the rise of modernism in literature. In 1925, Arthur Waley’s translation of the work released, shocking novelists of the time (Phillips, 2010). The Tale of Genji stands as a cornerstone in Japanese literature and world romantic literature, but we know little about the author. Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-1014) lived as a lady-in-waiting in the Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1185) (Hirota, 1997). Sadly, that’s the only thing we know that’s certain. Many legends surround her. Ironically, the legends draw a contrast to the dalliances found throughout the Tale of Genji. Stories surrounding Muraski rarely include romantic relationships.
These “biographies” are largely fiction. In almost all of them, she expresses loyalty her husband, regardless of the situation. The “Bunkai Bag of Wisdom for Women’s Education” (1749) prefaces one of her legends with (Hirato, 1997):
Murasaki Shikibu is the daughter of Tametoki, the governor of Echizen. Because her father Tametoki was a wise scholar, from a young age she read and studied books, and mastered the texts of Japan and China. She also conveyed the essence of then notion of “concentration and insight” to the scholar-priest of the mount of Tendai, and cultivated the essence of the Buddhist way.
The legend pegs her as a scholar of Tendai Buddhism.
Readers of Genji won’t be surprised at how little is known about Murasaki and how many legends circulated about her. Genji is a dense, difficult work to decipher. As a monogatari, or fictional story, Genji targets noble women. The story makes assumptions that noble women of the Heian period would grasp, but these assumptions leave the rest of us feeling lost. Genji is a part of romance literature designed to be read aloud by women to pass the time. As Prince Genji remarks in the story: “Sometimes I stand and listen to the stories they read to my little one,” Reading stories aloud was a part of Heian period noble lifestyle. Because of its assumptions and design, many Westerners outside of modernist circles viewed the work as trite. Basil Hall Chamberlain and other early Western Japanese scholars viewed it as “long-winded” and “devoid of interest” (Phillips, 2010).
The Setting of Genji
We must understand the Heian period to understand Genji. Chiefly, a fascination in Chinese culture marked the Heian period. The Japanese Imperial Court emulated Chinese fashion and customs while they pursued the arts. A noble was expected to be well versed in literature, poetry, painting, dancing, calligraphy, and more. Genji extends this list by being good at perfume making as well. Noble men used the Chinese language similar to how Medieval European nobles and priests used Latin. In Heian Japan, Women were not allowed to speak Chinese. The period expected women to remain separate from men. They would converse through fabric blinders dividing rooms. Genji shows how great the difference was between the genders by having characters fall in love with each other based on their handwriting.
Indirection defined the Heian nobility, much to our confusion. Murasaki’s lack of direct statements makes the Tale of Genji challenging. It even challenged Japanese scholars to the point where they adopted nicknames for the hundreds of characters in the tale. Murasaki refers to each character by their title rather than by a name. During the Heian period, proper names were considered too blunt for polite use. To make things more complicated, these titles would change over the course of the story. So Japanese scholars pinned their nicknames to clarify who was who. For example, Genji’s son is nicknamed Yugiri, which means “evening mist.” These nicknames appear in English translations as if they are a part of the original story, but Murasaki never used them (Phillips, 2010).
The tale formed a critical part of a noble woman’s education (Naito, 2014). Artists lavishly illustrated scrolls depicting the story, making the story expensive. Because of this, less well-off noblewomen dreamed about owning a copy. In an autobiography, Sarashina nikki (c. 1060), a noblewoman from a rural province writes about this longing (Hirota, 1997):
Brought up in a remote country father even than the Azuma Road, I must have been a terribly countrified child. Yet, how did I start longing for the tales whose existence I could barely imagine? At idle hours of the day or at evening gatherings, as I listened to my sister, stepmother and others talking about this or that tale, or discussing pieces from the Shining Genji, my curiosity increased. But how could they recount from memory enough to satisfy me? Frustrated, I had a statue of Yakushi Buddha built in my size…I prostrated myself and prayed, “Please let us leave for the capital soon. They say there are many tales there—please let me read all of them!
The tale continued to be copied and read by women up until the Edo period when printing techniques expanded Genji’s audience. Male critics panned the Tale. For example, Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) didn’t think the tale was proper literature because a woman wrote it (Naito, 2014).
Did you know cliff notes appeared in Japan? The complexity and length of the story prompted artists in the Edo period to create their own version of cliff notes with simplified plots and story summaries. The rise of woodblock printing widened the audience beyond noble women. The Illustrated Tale of Genji by Yamamoto Shunsho made the tale easier to read by adding punctuation, shorter annotations, and reading guides (Naito, 2014).
Understanding The Tale of Genji
The reticence of Murasaki and her assumptions make the Tale of Genji difficult to understand. On its surface, the story looks to be a fluffy romance filled with illicit love and a lot of sex. However, the novel has many things going on that can only be seen by looking at what is left unsaid. For example, Genji brings a young girl home with the intent of raising her. During one of these domestic scenes, he finds her coloring pictures. He dabs red paint on his nose to make her laugh. These moments of humanness speak about the lack of humanness found in the elegance of court life.
Under the facade of love, elegance, peace, and high aesthetics, Murasaki hints at a deep wrongness with court life. Genji appears to lack a plot unless you read between the lines. Murasaki does all of her plot work through layers of symbols and through the unsaid. Much of the story focuses on how Genji lost his favor in the Imperial Court and had to be removed by his father, the emperor. This was done to protect him from court politics. After all, his mother was a low-ranked consort. The powerful Fujiwara family pressured the emperor to name the child he had with one of their daughters as heir.
Under the first chapter’s picturesque scenes and romance lurks the threat of rebellion and civil war. Murasaki suggests this at the beginning of the book by alluding to a rebellion in China known as the An Shi Rebellion. This rebellion destroyed the Tang dynasty and left millions dead (Phillips, 2010). After this allusion, the conflict disappears. But its unspoken presence creates dread behind the facade and the character’s actions. They too are on the verge of a conflict that could end a dynasty.
At one point, Genji falls in love with his father’s new wife. Genji eventually seduces her, and people mistake his son for his Father’s son. The boy takes the throne later in the story. Despite not saying it, Murasaki suggests Genji regrets his seduction and how it betrayed his father. His act throws the entire line of succession in doubt. Throughout Japanese history, the emperor was thought to be a descendant of the gods. Genji’s son breaks this line for the first time in 1500 years (Phillips, 2010). While we miss the event, the significance would be evident for anyone who lived in the court at the time. The event casts a shadow over the underlying plot and behavior of the characters.
After his father’s death, Genji goes on and has an affair with a daughter of the Fujiwara family, who now controls the court as a regency. In a rare event, Murasaki as the Fujiwara outright state what was unspoken throughout the early chapters:
The Empress Mother’s countenance nevertheless failed to lighten. She could not have Genji pointedly mocking and belittling her by brazenly invading her house while she was at home, so nearby, and this gave her a fine reason to set in train the measures to accomplish his downfall.
Murasaki’s love for the unspoke extends toward Genji himself. About 3/4 through the story, Genji dies. His death comes after he retires from the world as a monk, a common practice for Heian period nobility (Phillips, 2010). The last years of his life do not appear in the story; a blank chapter marks his death. The following chapter picks up 8 years after Genji’s death and focuses on two of Genji’s descendants. Genji’s subtle last years and death, however, doesn’t end Genji’s story. Throughout the last chapters, the story becomes far grimmer and darker. The death of Genji infects the story with a sadness that the thin veneer of beauty and courtliness can’t hide any longer.
The Tale of Genji ends without the closure those of us in the West expect. The tale ends with a young girl, chased by Genji’s descendants Niou and Kaoru, throwing herself into a river to escape them. A group of monks finds her alive, but she can’t remember what happened. When she finally does, the book ends. The abrupt ending and lack of closure troubles modern readers. It doesn’t feel finished. Yet, when you look at the story as a whole, with its veneers and suggestions, the ending fits. Murasaki expects us to see through the veil and fill in the gaps. The ending’s cut off also fits the darker mood of the last portion of the tale. Death couldn’t save the girl from the flowered conflict swirling about her.
The Strangeness of the Tale of Genji
When I read Genji, Murasaki’s reticence struck me. Despite the dalliances of Genji and the general frivolousness of the tale, I felt something was wrong. The entire novel has a pall, a darkness, overlaying it. The characters feel devoid of hope or direction despite their cultivation. An emptiness pervades their behavior, and they appear to be aware of it but unwilling to face it. Murasaki’s genius shows in how she weaves all of this through suggestion alone. The blank chapter that stands in for Genji’s death stuck me. Its silence says more than the most purple prose could.
The complicated nature of the text, with its tangled relationships and emotions, is designed to stimulate discussion. Much of the text is open to interpretation. This makes sense. Heian women were shut off from the world. Boredom was a struggle. A complex, interpretive text like the Tale of Genji would allow them to imagine and discuss the story for years. The longevity of the text and the fact the text has seen over 20 manga adaptions attest to this (Myake, 2008).
The story influenced Japanese art. Genji-e scrolls from the 12th century influenced the Edo period’s woodblock prints, particular that of Utagawa Kunisada. In turn, Utagawa would influence the modern manga adaptions of Genji (Myake, 2008).
You can read Genji as a fluffy romance full of affairs or as a darker story of people attempting to ignore the frivolousness of their lives and looming catastrophes. Without some knowledge of Japanese history, The Tale of Genji makes for a difficult read. Despite the difficulty of understanding the unstated, The Tale of Genji stands as the first novel and speaks about the importance of women’s contributions to world culture.
Hirota, A. (1997). The Tale of Genji: From Heian Classic to Heisei Comic. Journal Of Popular Culture, 31(2), 29-68. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1997.00029.x
Miyake, Lynne (2008) Graphically Speaking: Manga Versions of the “Tale of Genji” Monumenta Nipponica. 63(2) 359-392.
Naito, Satoko (2014) Beyond the Tale of Genji: Murasaki Shikibu as Icon and Exemplum in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Popular Japanese Texts for Women. Early Modern Woman 9 (1). 47-78.
Phillips, Brian (2010) The Tale of Genji as a Modern Novel. The Hudson Review. 63(3). 373-390.