Has ever a civilized people lived in greater intimacy with death than the Japanese?

“Every day without fail one should consider oneself as dead,” says the “Hagakure,” an 18th-century military treatise. Mortal combat is life’s sublime climax, its peak, its raison d’etre. A warrior’s first conquest must be his own instinct of self-preservation. To value life is to corrupt it.

Early in the 17th century something new and strange came to Japan: peace. For 400 years civil war had raged, death had reigned supreme; Japan “lived as though in a graveyard,” says the eminent scholar Wm. Theodore de Bary. Exhausted, the country entered a new phase.

Not everyone celebrated. Some mourned. To the trained warrior whose life was war — whose life was death — peace could seem a disease. A samurai-poet wrote, “What a waste! / Born into times so fortunate / that I must die lying at home on the tatami!”

The samurai survived as a class, becoming administrators, scholars, Confucian moralists, tea masters and so on. Slowly, over time, death receded from their immediate outlook on life. The “Hagakure,” written a century into the “great peace” that defined the Edo Period (1603-1868), was a nostalgic anachronism.

Death did not die. Its torch was passed. To whom? Lovers. A raging fever seized the populace. Its name was love — pursued, says de Bary, with “an extraordinary intensity akin to religious feeling.” That there was such a thing had hardly been acknowledged, let alone celebrated, since “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th-century love novel.

Its background too was a “great peace.” Genji and his friends and lovers were a gentle breed — a courtly, exquisitely refined, highly cultured, somewhat effeminate aristocracy. Their 17th-century successors were earthier types — townsmen, merchants, penny-pinchers, money-grubbers whose thrift as proverbial as their profligacy in the one place where profligacy was the unwritten law: the new urban pleasure quarters, where “the breezes of love are all-pervasive … where love-drowned guests, like empty shells, bereft of their senses, wander the dark ways of love.” That’s how Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), the great kabuki and bunraku puppet theater playwright, saw them.

In 1703 two lovers, Tokubei and Ohatsu by name, committed suicide together in the Sonezaki forest in Osaka. Barely a month later their real-life drama was on stage, Chikamatsu having shaped it into the great puppet play “Sonezaki Shinju” (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”). It was wildly popular. Audiences wept. Lovers seized their daggers. Love suicide inspired love suicide. The world was hopeless. Life made love impossible. Death beckoned. Chikamatsu sang them on their way: “Farewell to this world, and to the night farewell.”

Tokubei is a seller of soy sauce, Ohatsu a prostitute. They love each other but Ohatsu has been purchased, in effect, by another customer. What can the penniless Tokubei do? Nothing, and as for Ohatsu, she has no more control over her own life and body than a slave would. Tokubei sinks into despair, but Ohatsu rallies: “Did our promises of love hold only for this world?” Of course not. Night falls. They slip away into the forest. “They embrace,” recites the narrator, “flesh to flesh, then fall to the ground and weep — how pitiful they are! Their strings of tears unite like entwining branches.” Tokubei draws his dagger, slits her throat, slits his. The narrator concludes: “High and low alike gather to pray for these lovers who beyond a doubt will attain Buddhahood. They have become models of true love.”

Peace spawned pop culture, Japan’s first. Love stories were its heart and soul. And love stories, almost always, were death stories. They wouldn’t have been true to life otherwise. Love is anarchic, uncontrollable, anathema to a government bent above all else on order and control. “Illicit intercourse” was a capital crime. The law gave no quarter. “Persons such as those who have engaged in illicit intercourse with their master’s daughter, or who have attempted such: death. … Persons such as those who commit adultery with their master’s wife, or with their teacher’s wife: death for both the man and the woman.”

Rulers imposed death, lovers defied it, or courted it. Chikamatsu’s contemporary, novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), tells of a greengrocer’s daughter who fell in love with a temple acolyte. They met in the aftermath of a fire. Fires were frequent in Edo (modern Tokyo). Their home destroyed, the greengrocer’s family took refuge at the temple, where love had its way. Home reconstructed, the affair broke off. When could they see each other again? The girl brooded and brooded. At last she conceived a plan. Fire had brought them together once; it would bring them together again. All she had to do was set the fire. Which she promptly did.

It was a pitiful attempt. Soon apprehended, she was “exposed to shame on the old bridge of Kanda” and elsewhere; then she “gave up her life to join the wisps of smoke that hovered in the morning air” — which is to say, she was burned at the stake, the prescribed punishment for arson. This story, too, was based on a real-life episode. The year was 1681. The girl’s name was Oshichi. She was 15 years old.

Tragedy begets comedy. The gifted wit who played it for laughs was novelist Santo Kyoden (1761-1816). His “Grilled and Basted Edo-Born Playboy” (1785) is love and suicide turned to hilarity. Young Enjiro is a rich merchant’s pampered son who somehow, despite his eagerness to please and his desperate efforts to acquire the reputation of an irresistible lover, lacks whatever it is that attracts women. He is simply beneath their notice. Which bothers him little — all he craves is reputation. His father’s wealth at his command, he pays prostitutes and geisha to pretend to be in love with him. This they do, publicly, but alas! — who cares? The climax is a fake love suicide. When even that goes unnoticed, our hero gamely resigns himself to obscurity — and becomes a successful merchant, like his dad.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.