Once upon a time, at a temple where homeless families were sheltering after a fire, a girl and a boy fell in love. Months passed. The burned-out neighborhood was rebuilt. The lovers were separated. Oh, misery! Oh, fleeting, unreal world!
Brooding and sighing, the girl conceived an idea. Since a fire had brought the lovers together, why shouldn’t another one reunite them?
Poor thing — she set to work in such a daze, without plan or precaution, with no guide but the impulse of the moment. The first puff of smoke betrayed her. The law was clear. “Sentences for arson. As for the person who sets the fire: Burning at the stake.”
Resigned, remorseless, accepting her sad fate as her due, she “gave up her life to join the wisps of smoke that hovered in the morning air.”
It sounds like a fairy tale, and is — but a true one, all too typical of Tokugawa life and death. Oshichi, the unhappy lover, was executed in Edo for arson in 1682. She was 15. Four years later the novelist Iharu Saikaku (1642-1693) made her the heroine of a story, the details altered here and there but with no radical departure from factual truth.
The dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) is another writer of the period whose work may seem the product of an undisciplined imagination — but no, he too conformed more or less to the daily life of his time and place. His most popular play, “Love Suicides at Sonezaki,” depicts the doomed love, culminating in erotic suicide, of an Osaka prostitute and her impecunious lover. Its real-life prototype had occurred three weeks before the play was staged in 1703.
All love in Tokugawa Japan was doomed. It was an age of stern rectitude, its moral code ruthlessly shaped to the needs of a regime with an uncertain claim to power, and an unshakeable resolve to hold on to it regardless. Absolute power and absolute submission are ancient Japanese themes. But here’s the twist: In Tokogawa Japan, the submission, though outwardly cringing, was not absolute.
Long peace bred a commercial prosperity and undermined the confidence of the military rulers, who no longer had any sure sense of what to do with themselves. Merchants, despised as money-grubbers, were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, below samurai, peasants and artisans, but they had prospered at the expense of their betters. With their wealth they mocked the stern Confucian calls for abstinence and servility.
They turned life into theater, into fantasy — into fairy tales. Escaping reality, they lived. They were as determined to live as the Tokugawa were to rule. If the price of living was death, they paid it, departing with the final thought that even so they had got the better of the bargain.
It was the grandest show of defiance in Japanese history, and much of it unfolded, in all its flamboyant beauty and horror, in the licensed urban pleasure quarters — walled and moated by a regime that sought absolute control and little knew it was in fact creating a space where something that had no place in its philosophy could bloom: freedom.
It was a tainted freedom, to be sure. The courtesans of the pleasure quarters — some 3,000 in Edo’s Yoshiwara alone — were anything but free. The elegance and artistic accomplishments of the best of them belied their circumstances. They were bought and sold like slaves — sold by their parents as children to brokers roaming the countryside, sold by their brothel-masters to the highest bidder later on. They were owned body and soul. “Multitudes taste their crimson lips,” wrote Saikaku.
In Chikamatsu’s play the prostitute Ohatsu, in love with the soy-dealer’s clerk Tokubei, is about to be auctioned off to Tokubei’s richer, shrewder and most unlovable rival, because he can afford to buy her contract and Tokubei can’t. The lovers’ midnight flight to “the bliss of annihilation” — he stabbing her in the throat, then cutting his own throat with a razor to attain “an afterworld of uninhibited love” — stirred audiences so deeply that a rash of love suicides followed and the shogunate was moved to legislate against the staging of similar plays.
Engelbert Kaempfer, the German physician whose journals record in such profuse detail the sights, sounds and smells of Genroku Japan, was struck by the thronged highways — more crowded and better maintained, he said, than any in Europe.
They were lined with shade trees, vendors’ stalls, makeshift lavatories and public inns, many doubling as brothels. From roadside villages came “petty merchants and farmers’ sons, running after travelers till late into the night, beseeching them to buy their wretched wares.”
Most of the road traffic, though, consisted of regional lords and their massive processions to or from obligatory attendance at Edo. Otherwise, travel was tightly restricted, but exceptions made for pilgrimages made this a nation of pilgrims, most bound on foot for the holiest shrine of all,the Grand Shrine at Ise.
Basho, the wandering poet, wrote of an encounter in 1689 with two prostitutes en route to Ise. Frightened of the long and unknown road ahead, the prostitutes begged him for his protection. The poet declined. Perhaps their profession made him squeamish. “I fear we stop too often along the road,” he said.
Imagine among this slow-motion multitude the fictional rake Yonosuke, hero of Saikaku’s novel “The Life of an Amorous Man,” roaming the closed world of Japan from one pleasure quarter to another. Every city had one, and Yonosuke knew them all — first as a poor man living off his remarkably inventive wits, later as master of a vast inherited fortune. His circumstances altered; his aim, never.
His whole long life was devoted to the pursuit of love. His parents disowned him, his wife deserted him, the ghosts of betrayed women haunted him. He was not an unfeeling man, and not without a conscience, but “the ever-beckoning enchantment” of love at the command of his gold coins was irresistible.
Yonosuke is among the few Saikaku heroes who survive their love lives, mostly because Yonosuke’s is merely a lust life confined to the pleasure quarters where it posed no challenge to society at large.
In “Five Women Who Loved Love” — one of whom is the arsonist Oshichi — it is otherwise. Each love is a reckless, frantic, scarcely sane leap in the dark against the hardly less insane Tokugawa laws prescribing death for the slightest perceived breach of the social order.
There is the girl Onatsu, for example — like Oshichi, a character drawn from real-life — who at 15 falls desperately in love with her merchant brother’s clerk after discovering a pile of love letters written to him by famous courtesans. Here, clearly, is a man worth loving!
Her love awakens his. Marriage is impossible — no mere clerk can marry his master’s sister. The couple elope, but it’s hopeless, as they knew from the start. They are captured and brought back. The man is beheaded, and the girl becomes a nun.
As time passed, the revolt against Tokugawa-Confucian rule grew more conscious, more political, more intellectual — and more dangerous. “Dutch studies” — the laborious attempt by a scattered and discontented few to acquire forbidden crumbs of Western learning through the handful of Dutch traders bottled up on an island off Nagasaki — covered everything from gunnery to surgery. Frivolity gave way to a troubled and restless gravity.
“Something was wrong with their country, they did not know what,” wrote Sir George Sansom of the new men of 19th-century Japan.
“Perhaps it was that its culture had come to a standstill? . . . They were bewildered young men, they knew so little of [the outside] world, their lives were so cramped and confined.”
In a few short years they were to break their bonds.