Defining the nation

by Donald Eubank

When Chikamatsu Yanagi and his collaborators were writing “Ehon Taikoki” in 1799, Japan was arguably enjoying the height of Edo Period culture (1603-1867). In retrospect it was a transitional time — perhaps the last moments of peace before the pressures of the outside world started to affect the island, and “Ehon Taikoki” is often called the last great bunraku play. Still, as they looked back on the events of 1582 depicted in the story, the writers could see them as fundamental to the establishment of a unified Japan — the origins of the modern, supposedly homogenized nation in which they were living.

Thus they took the opportunity to show the idealized lives of Japan’s founding nobles. Like a modern day creation myth, the play reads like a guide on what it is to be Japanese, from how relationships are to be conducted to what to do when their harmony is destroyed. In this, it acts as propaganda that teaches its audiences the rigid rules that they should aspire to in their own lives. Here are a few of its messages.

Fathers and sons

A son must obey his father, regardless of what he orders him to do, and always over the wishes of his mother. If the son fails the father, he will be disowned and should commit seppuku (ritual suicide). If the son wishes to redeem himself, he must somehow make up for his failures, preferably in a way that still requires him to commit seppuku. For instance, Suzuki Shigenari’s son Magoichi, who has mistakenly allied himself with Oda Harunaga (all names are as they appear in the play) before his assassination, helps his father regain the trust of Hisayoshi by retrieving a letter that announces the death of Harunaga, and then proceeds to take his own life.

If a son is shamed by his father’s actions, he should place himself in a situation in which he may die honorably, as Mitsuhide’s son Jujiro does when he joins the losing battle against Hisayoshi.

Husbands and wives

A wife must obey her husband, regardless of his conduct. When Magoichi asks his own young son and daughter to chop off his head after he has committed seppuku, his wife’s complaints about the inappropriateness of the act are to no avail. Her father-in-law watches over the scene, approving of his son’s sacrifice, which will redeem his name.

Even though Jujiro’s wife-to-be Hatsugiku knows that she is marrying a man who will soon be dead — and that a warrior’s wife can never marry again — her duty insists that she proceed. As well, Jujiro’s grandmother Satsuki tells her daughter-in-law Misao and Hatsugiku that they should return home — it is their responsibility in this time of war to be taking care of the home, not worrying about themselves or the matters of men.

Masters and underlings

Underlings must obey their masters, regardless of the master’s conduct. If he does not, as when Mitsuhide kills Harunaga because of his tyranny (among what are also personal reasons), he will shame his family. Though Harunaga wished to eradicate Buddhism in Japan, Mitsuhide’s mother, a lay Buddhist, accuses Mitsuhide of shaming the family and chooses to die in Hisayoshi’s place to correct the situation.

The exception

The one interesting exception to these rigid and anachronistic rules — which is concealed in the unraveling of the play — is the relation of Mitsuhide to his mother Satsuki. Though she too dies, attempting to right what she perceives as a wrong (her son’s assassination of his overlord), she reserves the right to tell him so and to lament the violent doings of men. It is the one case where a woman’s words are treated as having a weight that must be paid attention to. But this is perhaps best read as an attempt by the writers to convey a message that cannot be spoken by the men in the story; a call for the more feminine value of peace in a hard culture of honor, duty and sacrifice.

See related story:
Tale of treason