Reflecting on his yearning for the beautiful young Tsuru—and reflecting on his reflections—Jibun invokes a classic Japanese love suicide, “a tragic tale of unrestrained desire” (Brownstein). The scandalous affair of Onatsu and Seijuro occurred in the mid-seventeenth century and inspired poetry, novels, plays for bunraku puppet theatre, and several plays for the kabuki stage. The city of Himeji has hosted an annual Onatsu-Seijuro festival for seventy years. Six feature films and an NHK television drama have been based on their story.
Ihara Saikaku‘s short story “The Tale of Seijuro of Himeji,” in the collection Five Amorous Women (1686), is perhaps the widest known version. From a young age, his handsome looks and charm had made Seijuro, son of a merchant in the town of Murotsu, irresistible to women. Indeed,
[he] had been familiar with the ways of love since late in his thirteenth year. In Murotsu the women of pleasure numbered eighty-seven, and there was none he had not known. The vows of love written during his affairs might have been bound into a thousand packets, and the fingernails his mistresses had sent as pledges of their devotion were more than a ditty box could hold.Saikaku,Ihara. Five Women Who Loved Love (aka Five Amorous Women) (Tuttle Classics). Kindle Edition
Comparing with Jibun’s own situation, certain contrasts are too apparent to bear mention. If we didn’t know him better, we might discern traces of wish fulfilment and aggrandisement in his reference to Onatsu.
One of the courtesans in the pleasure quarter commits suicide on Seijuro’s account. Unwilling to reciprocate the gesture, he steals off to Himeji and finds work and advancement in a saké brewing business. Here he becomes an object of desire for the waitresses and maids, and most notably, for Onatsu, the daughter of the proprietor. Similar to Jibun and Tsuru, Seijuro is now twenty-five, Onatsu sixteen.
Hopelessly in love with Seijuro, Onatsu gives herself to him in a furtive erotic scene during a household festival outing. Unfortunately, soon afterwards Seijuro is mistakenly accused of stealing gold pieces, arrested, and executed.
“To know nothing is to know the peace of Buddha.” Onatsu’s peace is broken when she learns of Seijuro’s execution from children in the street. She loses her sanity and joins the children in their cruel dance, singing along with them: “When you kill Seijuro, kill Onatsu too.” She wanders in the countryside, searching for her dead lover. In Saikaku’s version, Onatsu is dissuaded from committing suicide and becomes a nun.
Here is a kabuki scene depicting Onatsu’s mad dance, in her search for her dead lover Seijuro, who habitually wore a sedge-hat:
I went to Kugenuma Pavilion the next day, the fourth of March. There were few patrons, as the spring holidays were still a few days away. I occupied a sunny room on the second floor with a view of Enoshima.
I wanted to come here to nourish my courage. It was best to leave everything about Tsuru to Kawaji and fate, and not think about them at all, but keep my body and thoughts sound. I was becoming a little too neurotic these days.
Walking around the beaches and fields for four days, I read as little as possible. On the fifth day, I returned home.
After that, I tried as hard as I could not to think about Tsuru, but could not help myself. Then, at some point on the fifteenth or sixteenth of March, I started once again to have the feeling we would marry.
I still believed she yearned for me, and moreover, that fate would join us as husband and wife.
Why? I can only answer ‘why not?’ I am a man of reason but somehow believe in this irrationality. Perhaps not fully, but at least to some extent.
My feelings are impossible to explain. However, the year before last, I tried to do so in the form of a short statement, which ends as follows:
* * *
…. I thought it was because of her passionate love for me. However, her behaviour did not seem to indicate anything of the sort. It was as though, at least she did not quite dislike me, but may not quite love me, either. In this way, she does not seem a particularly ardent woman. I forced myself to imagine that if we were unable to marry, I would become desperate and kill myself, even though she did not seem to be particularly suitable. She is an old fashioned, womanly woman, who would go wherever her family commanded. This would be far too weak a reason to marry her.
In any event, I now have a passionate love for her, and my only wish is to be married to her. I can only say that I have the feeling that I must.
However, to me, this is not a meaningless feeling, perhaps because, although I do not even want to think about her, I cannot help doing so. That is just the way I think and I am unable to stop.
The facts are these. I sometimes meet a seventeen or eighteen-year-old woman in my neighbourhood, an elegant, beautiful, solitary, seemingly affectionate, and quite vivacious woman. I have never spoken to her, even to say hello. Even though I did not know her name, since I was fifteen or sixteen, every time we encountered each other, we exchanged glances, and for some time now I have had feelings for her. I have loved her since the year before last. Now more than ever, we need morally to be together.
I had never experienced anything of the sort before. I felt unqualified for marriage with others whom I have loved. But this time love commands me to marry her.
Underlying my dilemma seems to exist an insistence by nature, which is at the same time a deep and mysterious indication of my soul. It is like a sign, a mystical pronouncement: “Marry her, and you shall have the greatest assistance in your work. And so shall your offspring be born the favoured children of nature.”
This is my superstition, and to me it seems true, that is all. As in Onatsu-san’s story of love and lost love, is it not fate’s way of binding Tsuru and me together?
So far in life, I may have done some lowly things, but I have not disobeyed nature’s tacit revelations. I have even learned recently to understand these natural directives to some extent.
Indeed, I am afraid not to follow my superstitious beliefs. I have never told my father or mother about this. They would laugh at me if I did. But it is my own individual thinking. Even if it means offending my father and mother for the present, I will follow my beliefs. I do not wish to defy my parents, but I can still redeem myself. Above all, the most dangerous thing is to resist nature.
I wonder whether my superstition is really a superstition. Would it please my parents if it were not? That would be a huge thing.
Therefore, even though my parents may think me selfish and ignorant, I will not marry anyone else until I have asked Tsuru to marry me and she has refused.
It is best to follow my superstitious belief and nature’s advice as far as possible, and if I do not succeed, then there will be simply nothing more I can do about it.
It is wrong for the shallow human intellect to test nature, but I want to know whether my belief is mere superstition or not.
But if someone says to me, ‘You are only inventing a fanciful theory because you want to marry her,’ then I will have no choice but to be silent.
* * *
With the ability to hold onto this superstition, I can forever have hope that Tsuru and I will one day be united by fate.
In the beginning, it may have been a struggle to hang onto hope, without my realising it. But over the course of five years, hope has become habitual. No matter what may come along to deny it, no matter how many reasons may arise to refute it, I am certain that, before I know it, Tsuru and I will become husband and wife.
References and further reading
Brownstein, Michael. “Sedge-Hat Madness: A Translation of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s ‘Onatsu Seijūrō Gojūnenki Uta Nenbutsu'”. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 71, No. 1 (2016), pp. 43-53, 55-82
Seikaku, Ihara. “The Story of Seijuro in Himeji” in Five Women Who Loved Love trans. Wm. Theodore de Bary. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956 (Amazon Kindle version).
English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Omedetakihito (1910) by Michael Guest © 2022
Categories: Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man