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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. 39-42 of which the following story has been taken.

Unusually for one of Saikaku’s stories, A Friend of the Streets was set long before the time of writing, namely some time between 1449, when Ashikaga Yoshimasa became shogun, and 1473 when he nominally retired, or perhaps 1490, when he died.

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 boy Gorokichi is described as sixteen, he was (in English) fourteen or fifteen.

A Friend of the Streets[1] 

The old man’s hermitage was the capital itself.
His honor forced him to take an old man as a lover.

"Lord Higashiyama" Ashikaga Yoshimasa 1434-90

The arts and elegant accomplishments reached new heights under the patronage of Lord Higashiyama, the eighth Kyoto shogun.[2] There was universal refinement and discrimination, and the people lived in elegant fashion. Of the many aesthetic pleasures, the Shogun was especially fond of sampling the fragrance of fine incense, and from many different places he had collected sixty varieties whose very names were full of allurement.

The Shogun stayed up through one frosty night discussing the merits of different incense. A wind rose toward morning and wafted an unfamiliar but exquisite perfume which refreshed the hearts of all who were present. They searched the residence, but the scent seemed to be coming from beyond the gate. So the Shogun commanded Tamba no Kami Toshikiyo to go and find out who was burning the incense.

Accompanied by two close retainers, Toshikiyo allowed himself to be drawn along by the elusive fragrance. Soon they had left Yanagihara far behind and, with the scent growing stronger by the minute, they reached the Kamo riverbed. Since it was the moonless twenty-sixth day of the eleventh month, they could hardly see to cross the shallows, but they managed to pick their way along by the faint glimmer of starlight on the ripples. At last they climbed on the opposite bank. A man wearing a straw cloak and a woven-reed hat was sitting on a rock at the edge of the river, holding an incense burner at the wide opening of his sleeves. He possessed an air of complete serenity, and the scene was almost unbearably poetic.

When Toshikiyo asked, ‘May I inquire why you are here all alone?’, the man replied, ‘I have just been listening to the chirping of the plovers near the river.’

The old man burning incense, the fumes of which reach the shogun’s abode

A man who lives in so extraordinary a fashion and whose tastes are so exquisite surely cannot be just an ordinary person, thought Toshikiyo, and he said, ‘Please tell me your name.’

The man replied, ‘I am neither a monk nor a denizen of the secular world. I wander on this earth with no fixed abode, and fortunately, despite my sixty-three years, I am still steady on my feet.’ With this response, he walked off up the hill between the pine trees.

Toshikiyo was not satisfied with this offhand reply, and so he followed the man and said, ‘I have searched for you because of the exquisite fragrance of your incense. Please tell what it is called.’

The man answered, ‘An old man like me knows nothing about such complicated matters. There is not much incense left, but take it and decide for yourself.’ With that, he handed over the incense burner, and disappeared, giving them no clue as to where he was going.

Toshikiyo returned to the residence and reported what had happened. The Shogun envied the old man’s attitude toward life and did everything possible to find him, but to his great disappointment he was unsuccessful. He had the name ‘Plover’ engraved on the censer, and later it became a prized treasure.[3]

Now at that time there was a sixteen-year-old boy named Sakurai Gorokichi in the service of Shogun. He was the son of an eastern samurai  and had been chosen as a page because of his exceptional beauty, which put even the cherry blossom in the capital to shame. From the moment he saw the Plover Censer, Gorokichi fell into a deep depression and his distress was apparent for all to notice.

A close friend privately asked him what was wrong but at first Gorokichi refused to confide in him. But then he lapsed into a dangerous decline, and when he had grown very weak, Gorokichi related his tale, telling his friend to consider this gesture as a parting gift if he should die.

The Silver Pavilion of Jishō-ji, built by the shogun Higashiyama as his main residence and presumably the main scene of this story, by Isaku Nakagawa

‘The owner of this censer and I exchanged fervent vows of love, but my lover feared that he would ruin my future, and so he left our village and came to the capital. Since I could not forget him, I followed him here out of love and began to serve in   this household in the hope that I would find him again. And then as fate would have it, I recognized his censer. But I have not been able to find my lover and so have fallen ill with grief. How my life has been cursed by misfortune!’ Gorokichi’s sleeves became completely soaked, for his tears fell endlessly on them like a river of jewels.

Now the friend who so sympathetically inquired about Gorokichi’s despondency was a fellow page named Higuchi Muranosuke. The two boys enjoyed a close and loving relationship, and Muranosuke was broken-hearted at the possibility of losing his very dear friend. But as the days passed, hope ran out for Gorokichi. With his dying breath, he made a last request of Muranosuke: ‘I beg you with all my heart to search for that man after my death and then take my place as his lover.’

Muranosuke hesitated to take on this task, but the boys had pledged to lay down their lives if necessary for each other, and so he was compelled to honor his promise and give his assent. Gorokichi smiled in reply and died a moment later with a happy look on his face.

Death is a part of life in this ephemeral world. Although close friends mourned Gorokichi deeply, those who had not known him well offered just conventional expressions of regret. His flesh turned into evening smoke over Mt Toribe,[4] and by the following morning there was nothing left but white bones. Nothing is so evanescent on this earth as human life.

After his friend’s death. Muranosuke took care of everything, even to disposing of the wastepaper in the sickroom. In accordance with Gorokichi’s dying wish, he searched for and found the old hermit who had been listening to the chirping of the plovers that night.

Close by a bamboo grove near Imadegawa was a small hermitage with a latticed gate that was always kept tightly fastened. Here the old man lived as if lost in a dream, although he did not forget, not even for a single day, the boy Gorokichi whom he had seen for the last time in the east. Today there had been a sudden winter shower and the old man was feeling even more downcast than usual. Muranosuke came to visit him in stealth and told him about Gorokichi’s last days. The old man lost his painfully gained serenity in an instant and gave way to overwhelming grief.

‘Tell me it isn’t true,’ he cried. ‘In this world of illusion, let this too be a lie!’, and he wept with the difficult tears of a man. The sight was so piteous to behold that Muranosuke postponed the rest of the story for a short while. But if he failed to speak, he knew how deep would be Gorokichi’s resentment from beyond the grave, and that thought was unbearable.

Muranosuke looked closely at the old recluse’s features: the man was over sixty and lacked any sexual appeal. Muranosuke felt humiliated at plighting a brotherly troth with such a person, but his promise compelled him to give a full account.

So Muranosuke told him, ‘I will take Gorokichi’s place. From now on, I want you to think of us as sworn brothers and treat me with tenderness and love.’ The old man was shocked despite his sorrow. He replied, ‘I beg you to excuse me from accepting this astonishing arrangement, ‘ and in no way could he be persuaded.

Edo-era woodblock print

Muranosuke blushed with shame at having failed in his mission. ‘Then I cannot save my honor as a samurai,’ he said, indicating his resolution to commit suicide. At this the old man gave in. ‘All right then. I will follow Gorokichi’s wishes and consummate a love match with you,’ he said. ‘Let us be lovers for the rest of our lives.’

Once the old man had given his word, Muranosuke came secretly to visit him every night. What he had been asked to do was unreasonable, but he took the hermit as his older brother out of duty even though he did not love him.

Everyone praised Muranosuke’s loyal and true heart.


[1] Callahan gives this story a title, “The Plover Censer Summons a Gay Paramour” that, strangely, not only has nothing to do with the Japanese one, but introduces a concept (“gay”) that is alien to pre-20th century Japan and for that reason studiously avoided by other translators of wakashudō stories.

[2] Ashikaga Yoshimasa, 1434-1490, the eighth shogun of the Muromachi bakufu. He was respectfully known as Lord Higashiyama after the location of his retirement residence, Ginkakuji, in Kyoto. [Translator’s footnote 14]

[3] This famous plover Censer belonged in turn to many famous people including Toyotomi  Hideyoshi but there is no evidence that it ever belonged to Yoshimasa. [Translator’s footnote 15]

[4] A crematorium and graveyard in the eastern outskirts of Kyoto. [Translator’s footnote 16]




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