A History of Japanese Literature/Book 6/Chapter 3



Popular Literature—Saikaku—Children's Stories
—Chikamatsu, and the Popular Drama

Concurrent with the movement described in the preceding chapter, another and very different development of literature was going on in Japan. It was threefold, comprising fiction, the drama, and a new kind of poetry known as Haikai. But while the Kangakusha wrote mainly for the Samurai class, the writers of romances, plays, and Haikai addressed themselves for the first time in Japanese history to the people. Their public consisted more especially of the populace of the three great cities of Yedo, Kiōto, and Ōsaka. In Japan as in China, the traders occupy a very low place both morally and socially. Of the four classes into which the population is divided, the Samurai, including men of learning, soldiers, and officials of all grades, stand at the top. Next to them are the peasants, the artisans come third, and the merchants last of all. It cannot be denied that there was much justice in this classification. Under the Tokugawa regime the city populations enjoyed great material prosperity. But their moral standards were not high. Naturally quick-witted, and educated up to a point which may fairly be described by our own slang phrase, "the three R's," they had little real culture or refinement. The many-headed beast had, however, learned to read, and demanded an intellectual pabulum suited to its tastes. A want had been created which required to be supplied. The result was a popular literature of which some account must now be given.

The seventeenth century has not much to show in the way of fiction. One of the earliest romances of this time was the Mokuzu Monogatari, a highly melodramatic tale of love, jealousy, and revenge, the leading feature of which is of such a nature as to debar more particular description.

The Usuyuki Monogatari and the Hannosuke no Sōshi (1660) both relate the same story. A man while visiting the temple of Kiyomidzu, in Kiōto, meets a woman named Usuyuki (thin-snow). They love and are united, but the woman dies soon after, and the man shaves his head and retires to a monastery.

Ibara Saikaku was the founder of a new school of popular writing in Japan. He revived a class of composition which had been sadly neglected since the days of Murasaki no Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon, and gave to the world a large number of volumes consisting of tales, novels, and sketches of contemporary life and manners. The latter are extremely lifelike and humorous. Saikaku was a resident of Ōsaka, where he followed the profession of composer of Haikai. The world has very willingly forgotten his poetry. Nor have the short dramatic pieces which he wrote for the Ōsaka stage fared much better with posterity. He was a man of no learning. Bakin says that he had not a single Chinese character in his belly,[1] and his books, most of which have very little story, are mainly descriptions of the manners and customs of the great lupanars which then, as now, formed a prominent feature of the principal cities of Japan. The very titles of some of them are too gross for quotation. The immoral tendency of his works was denounced even in his own day by a hostile critic under the suggestive title Saikaku no Jigoku Meguri ("Saikaku in Hell"), and led to their suppression by the Government. It is only recently that a new edition has been permitted to appear, the reason for this tolerance being perhaps the circumstance that the fugitive humour of fast life in the seventeenth century has become in a great measure unintelligible to modern readers.

Saikaku has written one decent book, a collection of gossipy stories about his fellow-writers of Haikai. It is entitled Saikaku Nagori no Tomo, and was published posthumously in 1699. He died in 1693, in his fifty-second year.

For various reasons it is impossible to give a really characteristic specimen of Saikaku's writings. The following is a story of the Enoch Arden class, with a Japanese ending. It is one of a series of tales woven into a work entitled Fudokoro no Suzuri or "Bosom Ink-slab," a fanciful title for what we might call Notes of Travel (1687). This work is less objectionable than most of his productions:—

"Listening to the cries of the plovers that frequent the Isle of Awaji, one may perceive the sadness of the things of this world.

"Our junk anchored for the night in a harbour called Yashima. A wretched place it was. With what eyes could the poet have regarded it who called it 'the flowery Yashima'? Even though it was spring, there were no cherry-flowers; so, with feelings suited to an autumn eve, I approached a mat-roofed shed which stood near the beach. There were some women assembled here enjoying themselves over a cup of tea. Usually it would have been a case of commonplace ill-natured daughter-in-law gossip; but judging from their excited manners that something unusual was going on, I inquired what was the subject of their important-seeming conversation. It appeared that a fisherman of this shore, by name Hokugan Kiuroku, was in the habit of hiring himself annually for the sardine fishery off the east coast. He usually went down there in company with many others, but the previous autumn nobody else came forward, and so he wilfully went alone. Time passed and nothing was heard of him. Being an illiterate man, he naturally held little communication with the world, and thus became a cause of anxiety to his relations. That autumn there were many storms, and great numbers of fishing-vessels were lost. All his family, when they listened to the noise of the wind, lamented, 'Ah! Kiuroku is no more of this world.' Others talked as if they had actually witnessed his end. There was a rumour that two hundred and fifty men had perished in a body in the outer sea, and all congratulated themselves that owing to a presentiment of ill-luck they had this year stayed at home. His wife hearing this, even in the depth of her misery and sorrow, felt her condition still more profoundly wretched. Morning and evening she could think of nothing else, to such a degree that she was on the point of throwing away her life. Thus she gave proof of a gentle, womanly heart. Moreover, Kiuroku, in his capacity of iri-muko,[2] had been on excellent terms with his wife, and had done his duty faithfully towards her parents, so that when she remembered his position, his loss was a source of great grief to her.

"Winter arrived, spring came and went, nearly a year passed with no news of him. There could be no longer any doubt that he was dead. The day on which he said good-bye and left his native village was chosen for the anniversary of his death. Priests said the proper masses, his personal effects were restored to his true parents, and, as is the way of the world, he began gradually to be forgotten.

"Now his wife was still young. People thought it a pity she should remain a widow, and urged her to take a second husband for the relief of her parents' cares, as was the custom. But she could by no means be persuaded to give her consent. She resolved by-and-by to shave her head, to abandon the world, and with profound 'incense-and-flowers' purpose of heart to devote herself to her husband's memory. Everybody did his best to dissuade her, saying first of all how undutiful it would be towards her parents. In short, they insisted with such success that a lucky day was chosen for her nuptials. The man selected for her husband was a fisherman of the same village, named Iso no Mokubei, a far better match than Kiuroku, and satisfactory in every respect. The parents rejoiced, the friends exulted, and though it was a second marriage, even in this fishing hamlet everything was done in a style equal to that of the ceremony of breeching a boy. The women had on their boxwood hair-combs; saké was circulated freely. But there are jealous people everywhere, and the company were disturbed from time to time by pebbles flung against the door. As the night went on, this too ceased. The bride and bridegroom retired to their chamber, and placing their wooden pillows side by side, began a confidential talk, in which Kiuroku was naturally forgotten. The wedding company, fatigued with their enjoyment of the previous night, slept soundly late into the next morning. When the door was opened, there was Kiuroku in his travelling garb. He walked in with an air of being at home, his heart full of love for the wife he had not seen for so long. He entered the disordered sleeping-chamber, which was lighted up by a ray of sunshine from the southern window. A feeling of pride came over him when he caught a glimpse of his wife's hair, which was more beautiful than ever. 'The prettiest woman in this village,' he thought to himself. But observing her companion, his dream was shattered. The woman, too, waking from her joy, burst into tears, and Mokubei came out, looking much embarrassed. With a strange expression on his countenance, 'What is this?' asked Kiuroku. Mokubei explained what had happened, laying the blame of this terrible misadventure on fate. What made things worse was the presence of so many people, and the fact that Mokubei had for a long time been on bad terms with Kiuroku. But Kiuroku, showing him a more friendly cheer than usual, collected himself and related the story of his sufferings when cast away on the remote sea. When he had done he calmly stabbed his wife, cut down Mokubei, and with the same sword put an end to himself. What a heroic winding-up of the matter for a mere rustic!"

Children's Tales

To the fiction of the seventeenth century belong a number of children's tales,[3] which retain their popularity even at the present day, unless they have been swept away of late years by the advancing tide of European civilisation. Though they bear a general resemblance to such stories as Cinderella, and appear in various forms, I am inclined to think that they are not really folk-lore, but had definite authors, whose names have long been forgotten. The Nedzumi no Yomeiri ("Rat's Wedding") dates from before 1661, while of the Saru-kani Kassen ("Battle of the Ape and the Crab") and the Shitakiri Suzume ("Tongue-cut Sparrow") we have "new editions" which bear the date of Hōyei (1704–1711). Others are Momotaro ("Little Peachling"), Hana Sakaye Jiji ("The Old Man who made Trees to Blossom"), Usagi no Katakiuchi ("The Hare's Revenge"), and Urashima Tarō (a version of the legend told above, p. 39).

The novelist Bakin, a very competent authority on folk-lore, was much interested in these tales, and has been at the pains to ransack Chinese and Japanese literature for anything which might be thought to suggest the incidents related in them.[4]

The Popular Drama—Chikamatsu

It would not be quite correct to say that the popular drama owed nothing to the Nō. But it certainly followed a different and independent line of development. Its literary progenitor is the Taiheiki, which, it may be remembered, was chanted or recited in public by men who made this their profession. The Taiheiki was followed by more or less dramatic stories, which were recited by a single person seated before a desk, to the accompaniment of taps of a fan to mark the time or to give emphasis. To this was subsequently added the music of the samisen, a three-stringed guitar recently introduced from Loochoo. A favourite story for this purpose was the Jōruri jiu-ni dan Sōshi, written towards the end of the Muromachi period. It relates the loves of the famous Yoshitsune with a heroine whose name, Jōruri, is now used as a synonym for a whole class of dramatic compositions.

Towards the middle of the seventeenth century we hear of Jōruri-Katari (chanters of Jōruri) at Yedo, for whom two authors named Oka Seibei and Yonomiya Yajirō are said to have written a number of pieces, some of which, known as Kompira-bon, are still in existence. They relate the adventures of a hero named Kompira, nine feet two inches high, with a face so red that nothing could be redder, whose doughty deeds in quelling demons and slaying savage beasts are still the delight of the Japanese schoolboy.

The first Kabuki Shibai, or popular theatre, as distinguished from the Nō Shibai, and from the Ayatsuri Shibai, or marionette theatre, is said to have been established at Kiōto early in the seventeenth century. We are told that a priestess of the great temple of Kidzuki in Idzumo, named O Kuni, having made the acquaintance of one Nagoya Sanzaburō, ran away with him to Kiōto. There they got together a number of dancing-girls and gave performances on the bank of the river Kamo, where the Theatre Street stands at the present day. O Kuni as a priestess would naturally be acquainted with the pantomimic dances performed in honour of the Shinto gods, and was doubtless herself a trained dancer and mime. Owing to certain abuses, the employment of women as actors was put a stop to by the authorities. Their place was taken by boys, but this also was eventually prohibited. A marionette theatre was next established. In 1661 it was transferred to Ōsaka, where it was famous in subsequent dramatic history as the Takemoto Za. The marionette theatre is still popular in Japan. The puppets are elaborate contrivances, fitted with machinery for rolling the eyeballs, raising the eyebrows, opening and closing the mouth, moving the fingers so as to grasp and flirt a fan, and so on. The popularity of the Takemoto Za procured it several rivals, the most celebrated of which was the Toyotake Za.

The fame of the Takemoto Za was chiefly owing to the genius of Chikamatsu Monzayemon, who is unquestionably the most prominent figure in the history of the Japanese drama. The birthplace of this remarkable man has been as much disputed as that of Homer. The most probable statement is that he was a Samurai of Hagi, in Chōshiu, where he was born in 1653. It is said that in his boyhood he became a priest. He himself tells us that he was a retainer of more than one noble house in Kiōto. For some reason his services ceased, and he became a Rōnin. The Rōnin, that is, a Samurai who has been dismissed for misconduct, or whose indocile temper has found the severe discipline of the Yashiki irksome beyond endurance, is a very familiar personage during the Yedo period of Japanese history, not only in fiction, but in real life. Countless deeds of desperate courage and many atrocious crimes are related of them, among which may be mentioned the well-known revenge of the forty-seven Rōnins and their subsequent suicide, and the murderous attacks on the British Legation in 1861 and 1862. In the early days of foreign intercourse with Japan, Rōnin was a word of fear to all quiet, law-abiding people. It is significant that the principal playwright as well as the most eminent novelist (Bakin) of this period should both belong to the ranks of these hommes déclassés.

After leaving the service of the Kiōto nobles, Chikamatsu wrote a number of stories and pieces of no great merit for dramatic performance at Kiōto. One of these, formerly attributed to Saikaku, is the Kaijin Yashima, which bears traces of a study of the older Nō drama and Kiōgen. Its subject is an episode in the life of Yoshitsune. Chikamatsu's earliest dated work was written in 1685. In 1690 he took up his residence in Ōsaka, when his connection with the Takemoto marionette theatre began. From this time until his death in 1724, he produced in rapid succession a number of dramas which, whatever their faults, leave no doubt of his possessing a fertile and inventive genius.

On a superficial examination of one of Chikamatsu's plays, a European reader might fail to recognise the fact that it is a drama at all, and take it for a romance with rather more than the usual proportion of dialogue. All the Jōruri contain a large narrative element of a more or less poetical character. This part of the play is chanted to music by a chorus seated on a platform overlooking the stage on the spectator's right, where also the persons sit who declaim the speeches of the puppet actors. It is the narrative part which is more especially designated by the term Jōruri. The chorus which recites it is the true successor of the Jōruri-Katari or dramatic reciters above mentioned, and is the nucleus of the whole, the dialogue being at first merely subsidiary. It not only supplies a thread of story to connect the scenes represented by the puppets on the stage, but aids the imagination of the audience by describing expressions of countenance, scenery, and much more that the resources of a theatre, and especially of a marionette theatre, fail to convey.

On closer examination, however, it becomes apparent that Chikamatsu's works are not really romances, but stage-plays. They have a well-marked movement of plot from the opening scene up to the final catastrophe; they abound in dramatic situations, and many of the scenes are obviously designed with a view to spectacular effect. These things were new in Japan, and to Chikamatsu therefore belongs the credit of being the creator of the Japanese drama.

Chikamatsu's plays are classified by the Japanese as Jidai-Mono or historical plays, and Sewa-Mono or dramas of life and manners. With the exception of a few in three acts, they are all plays of five acts; but whether the choice of this consecrated number had anything to do with the fact that the Dutch were in the habit of visiting the theatres of Kiōto and Ōsaka on their periodical journeys to Yedo to pay their respects to the Shōgun, I have not been able to ascertain. Nor is it possible to verify a suspicion that the arrangements of the Japanese popular theatre, with its capacious pit and galleries, and a stage well furnished with scenery, trap-doors, turntables (as in ancient Greece), and other appliances, may owe something to hints given by these visitors. In these respects the Japanese popular theatre is certainly far in advance of any other in Asia, and more particularly of the Nō Shibai above described.

Chikamatsu was a voluminous writer. The modern edition of his selected works comprises fifty-one plays, and runs to more than two thousand closely printed pages. He is credited with the authorship of as many more. Each is of about the same length as one of Shakespeare's plays, so that they constitute a truly formidable bulk of literary matter. The novelist Kiōden tells us that a three-act piece of his called Naga-machi onna Hara-kiri ("The Woman's Hara-kiri," a gruesome title) was written in a single night, and the statement, whether true or not, bears testimony to the opinion entertained by his countrymen of his facility of composition. His works deal with all manner of subjects. They show that he was well acquainted with the Shinto and Buddhist religions, and that he possessed a wide and varied knowledge of the history and institutions of Japan and China.

Of Chikamatsu's merits as a dramatist and poet it behoves a European writer to speak with some degree of reserve, more especially as it is impossible to read more than a tithe of his works. The admiration of his own countrymen for him is unbounded, some of them going so far as to compare him with Shakespeare. It is certainly possible to trace resemblances. Both in Shakespeare and Chikamatsu, comedy frequently treads on the heels of tragedy; in both, prose is intermixed with poetry, and an exalted style of diction suited to monarchs and nobles alternates with the speech of the common people; both divided their attention between historical and other dramas; both possessed the fullest command of the resources of their respective languages, and both are tainted with a grosser element which is rejected by the more refined taste of later times. It may be added that neither Shakespeare nor Chikamatsu is classical in the sense in which we apply that term to Sophocles and Racine. Chikamatsu in particular is very far removed indeed from the classical type.

But few such comparisons have any value, and it is really idle to compare Shakespeare with a writer whose portraiture of character is rudimentary, whose incidents are outrageously extravagant and improbable, whose philosophy of life is wholly wanting in originality or depth, and who is constantly introducing scenes brutal and revolting to a degree inconceivable to the Western mind. Of this last blemish his audiences must share the responsibility. Nothing seems to have given greater pleasure to these smug, unwarlike shopmen and mechanics with their womankind (no Samurai with any self-respect ever entered a theatre) than sanguinary combats, and scenes of torture, suicide, and murder. They loved to have their blood curdled, and their flesh made to creep, and Chikamatsu, like other writers of his day, took care to supply this demand in no stinted measure. Defects like these are only partially compensated for by a certain barbaric vigour and luxuriance which undoubtedly distinguishes his works. That such a writer should hold the position of the prince of Japanese dramatists only shows by what an imperfect standard this art is judged in Japan.

It is difficult for a Western reader to understand the esteem in which Chikamatsu is held by his countrymen as a poet. In that part of his plays which is chanted to music by the chorus we may, it is true, find metre, rhythmical cadence, fit language, and play of fancy, but all in a very modest degree. The metrical form adopted by him is the usual alternation of seven and five syllable phrases, which is even less substantial than our ordinary blank verse, or the irregular, unrhymed lines favoured by Southey. Nor does he adhere strictly even to this. Longer or shorter lines are introduced from time to time for no other apparent reason than the author's convenience. The rhythmical quality of his poetry is unmistakable; but, for reasons already pointed out, the Japanese language does not lend itself to any but the simplest harmonies of this kind. A more serious blemish is the abundant use of pivot-words and other meretricious ornaments, which are fatal to coherent sense, and destructive to grammar. The general result is seldom such as to satisfy a European taste.

It will nevertheless, I think, be found that Chikamatsu's poetry, with all its faults, occupies an important place in the history of Japanese literature. The writers of Nō had done something to extend the domain of the poetic art beyond the narrow limits prescribed by tradition: Chikamatsu continued their work, and took possession of, if he failed to reclaim, large tracts of subject-matter which had been neglected by his predecessors. The older poetry may be compared to a trim garden of a few yards square: Chikamatsu's Jōruri resembles a wide clearing in a forest where the products of a rude agriculture are seen growing among tree-stumps and jungle.

Chikamatsu's most famous play is one which is entitled Kokusenya Kassen (1715), or the "Battles of Kokusenya." Kokusenya (called Coxinga by older European writers on Japan) was a famous pirate, the son of a Chinese by a Japanese mother, who played a considerable part in the wars of the last days of the Ming dynasty in China. As this is considered the masterpiece of the greatest of Japanese dramatists, it seems desirable to give an analysis of it here.


The scene opens at the court of Nanking. The last of the Ming Emperors is seen surrounded by his ministers. An envoy from the King of Tartary appears, bringing rich presents, which are piled up in the courtyard. He makes a speech in which, on behalf of his master, he asks for Kwasei, the favourite concubine of the Emperor, so that he may make her his queen, and thus cement friendship between the two powers.

The Emperor and his court are much disturbed by this proposal, as Kwasei was just then expected to give birth to an heir to the Ming throne. A traitorous minister named Ri Toten urges its acceptance. General Go Sankei rushes forward and protests indignantly, ordering the Tartar King's presents to be taken away. The Tartar envoy replies with spirit, and is about to fling out of the Imperial presence, when Ri Toten strives to pacify him. To enforce his appeal, he digs out his own left eye with a dagger, and hands it on an ivory slab to the envoy, who receives it with respect, and accepts it in satisfaction for Go Sankei's insult to his sovereign and himself. The envoy takes his departure.

The next scene is in the apartment of the Emperor's younger sister. The Emperor appears, accompanied by two hundred youthful inmates of his harem, half of whom bear branches of flowering plum and half of cherry. They draw up on each side of the stage. The Emperor tells his sister of Ri Toten's noble self-sacrifice, and again urges the latter's suit for the hand of the Princess, which had previously been rejected by her, suggesting that her answer should depend on the result of a battle between the plum and cherry squadrons of ladies. The Princess agrees to this, and puts herself at the head of the plum party, who, acting in collusion with the Emperor, allow themselves to be defeated.

Go Sankei now rushes in, clad in full armour, and with his lance drives off both squadrons. He remonstrates with the Emperor for setting an example in the palace which, if followed by the people, would lead to disastrous civil tumults, charges Ri Toten with treachery, and by an elaborate analysis of the Chinese written character for Ming, the name of the dynasty, proves that Ri Toten's digging out his eye was merely a private signal to the Tartar envoy that the time was ripe for the execution of their treacherous schemes. The Emperor scoffs at this learned sophistry, and kicks Go Sankei on the forehead with his Imperial foot.

From all sides there now comes a sound of conchs, drums, and battle shouts. The Tartars have arrived, and are surrounding the palace. Their general rides into the courtyard. He tells the Emperor that the Tartar King's love for Kwasei was all a pretence, and that his real object was the destruction of the unborn heir to the Ming throne. He avows Ri Toten's treacherous complicity, and announces to Go Sankei his intention of carrying off the Emperor and Kwasei as prisoners, and of making them serve as menials in his master's kitchen.

Go Sankei's wife, Riuka, now appears with an infant in her arms. She flies with the Princess by a postern gate, leaving her child behind. Go Sankei makes a sally, and with one hundred men drives off several millions of the enemy. In his absence Ri Toten's younger brother, Ri Kaihō, murders the Emperor, cuts off his head, and binds Kwasei. Go Sankei returns, cleaves Ri Kaihō in two, releases Kwasei, and reverently sets up the Emperor's headless trunk, which he adorns with the hereditary regalia. While he is hesitating whether to save the Emperor's body or the pregnant consort Kwasei, the enemy renew their attack. Having beaten them off, he resolves to save the unborn heir to the throne, and to abandon the corpse.

Meanwhile his own infant child begins to cry for his natural nourishment. "What a nuisance!" he exclaims. But on second thoughts he reflects that the child is his own heir, and that it would be on the whole better to save him. So he binds him firmly to the shaft of his spear and retreats to the seashore with Kwasei, pursued by the enemy. Kwasei is killed by a bullet, and Go Sankei, by an improvised Cesarean operation (coram populo!), rescues her living child, a beautiful boy, which he wraps in his dead mother's sleeve. "But stay! if the enemy find that the child is gone, they will spare no pains to discover it." So he stabs his own child, who, it may be remembered, was all this time lashed to the shaft of his spear, and substitutes it for the infant Prince. Exit Go Sankei.

Enter Go Sankei's wife with the Princess. They hide among the reeds by the seashore. A Tartar officer named Godatsu follows in pursuit. He takes a small boat and searches all the creeks near them. Riuka (Go Sankei's wife) catches his oar and overturns his boat. He goes to the bottom, and Riuka gets into the boat with the Princess. Godatsu comes up from below all dripping, and a combat ensues, in which Godatsu has his head cut off by Riuka. Then, as in her bedraggled and blood-stained condition she is no fit company for a princess, she shoves off the boat containing the latter, which is carried away by the wind and tide, and remains behind on the shore. The chorus describes the situation in poetical imagery.


The scene changes to Hirado, in Japan. Kokusenya, with his wife, is gathering shellfish on the seashore, when a small boat approaches. It proves to contain the Princess, who had drifted over from China. Kokusenya's wife, a low, vulgar woman, who provides the comic element of the play, is overcome with laughter at the Chinese which the Princess and her husband talk. Jealousy then gets the upper hand, but this gives way to respect when she learns the rank of the stranger.

Kokusenya, who is the son of a trusted minister of the Ming Emperors, makes up his mind to restore that dynasty, and proceeds with his father and mother to China, leaving the Princess in his wife's charge. On arriving there, they resolve to seek the assistance of Kanki, a Chinese magnate who had married a sister of Kokusenya. While travelling through a forest on their way to his castle, Kokusenya bearing his aged mother on his back, they fall in with a tiger. Disdaining to use his sword against the beast, Kokusenya gains the mastery over him after a struggle, which, doubtless, gave much gratification to the "groundlings" of the Ōsaka theatre. A hunting party arrives; their leader claims the tiger for Ri Toten, the traitorous one-eyed minister of the first act. Kokusenya replies in a style of inimitable braggadocio. With the tiger's assistance he subdues the huntsmen, and forms of them the nucleus of an army with which to conquer the Tartar invaders. Kokusenya's first care is to cut off the pig-tails of his recruits, and to give them new names, in which Japanese terminations are stuck on to names indicative of their foreign origin. One of these names is Igirisu (English)-bei. We may well wonder what an Englishman was doing dans cette galère.


Kokusenya, at the head of his newly recruited force, arrives before Kanki's castle, but he is absent, and they are refused admittance. The old mother, however, is permitted to enter in the guise of a prisoner bound with cords. Kanki returns. The old woman begs him earnestly to espouse her son Kokusenya's cause. He forthwith draws his sword and tries to kill his wife, but is prevented. He then explains that he has not suddenly gone mad, but that if he joined Kokusenya people would say he was influenced by women, so it was necessary to remove his wife as a preliminary to granting her request. His wife being still alive, this was impossible.

News of this refusal being conveyed to Kokusenya, he bounds over the moat and parapet of the castle,[5] and presents himself before Kanki. After mutual Homeric defiance they prepare to fight, when Kanki's wife exposes her breast, showing that in order to remove all obstacle to the plans of her husband and brother, she has given herself a death-wound. The two then fraternise, and a quantity of warlike gear is produced, in which Kokusenya is clad, his mother looking on with great admiration. She then commits suicide, enjoining on her son and Kanki to show no weakness in fighting against the Tartars, but to regard them as the enemies of mother and wife. She dies with a smile on her face, gazing at the gallant appearance of Kokusenya in the new armour supplied him by Kanki.


We now return to Go Sankei, who, at the end of the first act, had retired to a secluded place among the hills with the heir to the Ming throne. Here follows a Rip van Winkle episode, at the end of which Go Sankei finds that the young Prince has become a boy of seven, whose voice sounds to him "like the first song of the nightingale heard in some secluded valley where snow still lies." Kokusenya's father now appears upon the scene, accompanied by Kokusenya's wife and the Princess, who have come over from Japan. Whilst they are giving mutual explanations the enemy come in chase; but the gods having been prayed to, a cloud issues from a cave and forms a bridge, over which they cross an abyss to the mountain on the other side. The enemy attempt to follow, but the bridge is blown away by a puff of wind. The five hundred foes tumble to the bottom and are crushed to pieces.


Kanki, Kokusenya, and Go Sankei hold a grand council of war, at which the most impossible nonsense is talked. A letter arrives from Kokusenya's father, stating that finding life at his age, seventy-three, not worth living, he is about to find death in the enemy's ranks. The three, full of determination to save him, rush off to Nanking, now the Tartar King's stronghold.

The scene changes to Nanking. Kokusenya's father appears before the gate and challenges Ri Toten to single combat. The Tartar King is seen on the battlements. By his order the old man is seized and brought into the city. Kokusenya and his party appear before the walls. Ri Toten tells Kokusenya that he must choose between his father committing hara-kiri or their both going back to Japan. Consternation of Kokusenya and his party. Speech by Kokusenya's father, reminding him of his mother's dying injunctions, and adjuring him not to think of his fate. Kokusenya is about to spring at the Tartar King, but is deterred by Ri Toten putting his sword to the old man's throat. Go Sankei now throws himself at the feet of the Tartar King, offering to give up Kokusenya if the lives of the other two were spared. No sooner has the Tartar King granted this request than Go Sankei springs at him, knocks him over, and binds him. Kokusenya also rushes forward, releases his father, and seizes Ri Toten. The Tartar King has five hundred blows of a bamboo administered to him, and is sent off a prisoner to Japan. Ri Toten's head is wrenched off there and then, and the play ends amid general rejoicing.

A summary of this kind gives too much prominence to the defects of this most famous of Japanese dramas. Its manner is better than its matter. There is a copious flow of sonorous and often picturesque language, of exalted sentiment, and sententious oratory, which divert the reader's (and still more the audience's) attention from the improbabilities of the story. The personages do and say many absurd things; yet they speak and bear themselves in a manner not altogether unworthy of tragic heroes. It may be added that even in his maddest moods Chikamatsu never neglects dramatic force of situation, and that he has a turn for impressive dialogue which ought not to be ignored. Dulness is not among the numerous faults of the Kokusenya Kassen.

The European reader is not likely to relish the more poetical passages of this drama, with their pivot-words and closely woven allusive phrases. Yet possibly there is more in them than we are willing to acknowledge. The Japanese find them the choicest part of the work, and they might not unreasonably deny to foreigners the right to sit in judgment upon the finer raptures of their national muse. As a poet Chikamatsu may readily be allowed one merit: if Japan ever produces epic, dramatic, or long narrative poems of importance, he will have done much to prepare the way.

The popularity of the Kokusenya Kassen with the audiences of Ōsaka was so great as to call for two continuations in the same style, and it is still one of the stock pieces of the Japanese theatre.

Kabuki Theatre

Meanwhile a somewhat different development of the dramatic art was taking place—chiefly at Yedo. Kabuki theatres, which had men for actors, had been established there before the middle of the seventeenth century. The pieces produced in these theatres were at first the composition of the actors engaged in them, but towards the beginning of the eighteenth century[6] we hear of definite authors whose works were published under the title of Kyaku-bon. Native critics agree that the Kyaku-bon contain little that is of value as literature. In form they approach the European drama far more nearly than do the Jōruri. The dialogue is here all-important, the chorus, with its narratives and poetical descriptions, taking a subordinate position or being altogether wanting.

  1. The seat of knowledge, according to the Chinese and Japanese.
  2. Adopted heir and son-in-law.
  3. Most of these have been translated by Mr. Mitford in his Tales of Old Japan.
  4. See his Yenseki Zasshi, vol. iv.
  5. Incidents like this remind us that it was a marionette theatre for which Chikamatsu wrote. Puppets can do many things impossible to human actors.
  6. The first of the series of great actors bearing the name of Ichikawa Danjurō made his début on the stage in 1673. The present holder of that name is the ninth of the line.