In old Japan there must have been couples who quietly loved each other, raised their children and lived happily ever after.

They are not the stuff of love stories.

Love in the literature of the Edo Period (1603-1868) is tragic always, criminal often, fatal usually. A lover plunges into love not expecting to make it out alive. What does life matter in this fleeing, insubstantial world?

Two centuries of civil war had taught Japan bleak lessons. Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93), born into peace, knew them well: “Nothing is so evanescent on this Earth as human life.”

That’s sufficient introduction for “The Story of Seijuro in Himeji,” the first of five tales in Saikaku’s “Five Women Who Loved Love.” All the women in the Seto Inland Sea port town of Murotsu loved Seijuro. In the local pleasure quarter, he reigned supreme, his wit and natural charm abetted by unlimited funds from his father, a rich merchant — who, disgusted at last with the boy’s excess, disinherits him. That’s the end of that.

Reform forced upon him, he pursues it with vigor. He goes to work in a merchant house and does well. He “no longer (had) an appetite for love.” He’d outgrown it. Wealth is what matters.

How little we know ourselves. The master of the establishment has a young sister, Onatsu, 16 and still a virgin, “surpass(ing) in beauty the former queen of courtesans in Shimabara.” What makes Seijuro irresistible to her? A chance discovery of old love letters written to him by courtesans he’d known. What “secret skills” would he not have acquired? “From then on, from morn till night, her heart was consumed with desire for Seijuro.” Her desire ignites his. They are lost.

They bide their time, pine in anguish; finally an opportunity presents itself. The affair is consummated.

There’s no going back now. They elope, take a ship bound for Osaka; they’ll lay low there, for years if necessary.

Fate has other plans: They are discovered and hauled back, he to execution, she to the equivalent of house arrest, eventually to become a nun.

One wonders: What capital crime did he commit? What crime of any kind? But Edo Period law showed lovers no mercy. Love was destabilizing. It wrecked marriages, trashed the social hierarchy, unfitted people for worthier pursuits. The relevant statute is clear: “Persons who have engaged in illicit intercourse with their master’s daughter” — sister in this case, but no matter — “or have attempted such: death.”

It’s a true story. Saikaku exaggerated, but did not invent. The strict facts are irrecoverable, beyond place (Himeji) and time (1659-60), but balladeers, playwrights and storytellers of all kinds have accorded Seijuro and Onatsu an immortality impervious to death.

That’s love in peacetime. In another set of stories, “Tales of Samurai Honor,” Saikaku takes us back to the endless wars of the 15th and 16th centuries. People loved then, too — but differently. Honor came first, love second. In Edo it was the reverse.

“The arts and elegant accomplishments reached new heights,” Saikaku writes of the shogunate of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (ruled 1449-73). While the fearful Onin War (1467-77) devastated Kyoto, culture flowered regardless. Yoshimasa was an aesthete, master and patron of all the arts, not least among them incense blending. One night the scent of “an unfamiliar but exquisite perfume” penetrated the palace. Where from? Yoshimasa sent a retainer in pursuit.

Riding through the night, the retainer at last comes upon an aged hermit on a bank of the Kamo River. The incense is his. “What is it?” asks the retainer. The hermit shrugs. He has no idea. Indifferently, he hands over his censer and continues on his solitary way.

At the palace, a 16-year-old page named Gorokichi, whose beauty “put even the cherry blossoms in the capital to shame,” perceived the fragrance and “fell into a deep depression.” What troubled him? He would tell no one. His condition worsened. Death was imminent. Everyone loved him for his beauty, but with one boy, Marunosuke, he “enjoyed a particularly close and loving relationship.” To him, at last, Gorokichi opened his heart.

He knew the incense well, he said; it belonged to a man with whom he had once exchanged vows of love. Fearing his lowly status would hold the boy back, the man, out of love for him, vanished, plunging Gorokichi into the most disconsolate grief. Gorokichi left home, wandered to the capital and took service with the shogun, all in the hope of hearing news of his lost love. “I beg you with all my heart,” he entreats Marunosuke, “search for that man after my death and then take my place as his lover.”

So said, so done. The dying wish of a friend is sacred. The hermit, found and told, is heartbroken. The sight of him sobers Marunosuke. The man is old, withered and ugly. How can a beautiful boy love him? But duty is duty. “I will take Gorokichi’s place,” he says. “From now on, I want you to think of us as sworn brothers and treat me with tenderness and love.”

Deeply touched, the man nonetheless protests. He cannot possibly accept such a sacrifice. “Marunosuke,” Saikaku writes, “blushed with shame at having failed in his mission. ‘Then I cannot save my honor as a samurai,’ he said, indicating his resolution to commit suicide.” He meant it, and the man knew it. The relationship was consummated, and “everyone praised Muranosuke’s loyal and true heart.”

Boy meets girl — it happened in 12th-century Japan, too. A samurai youth “as lovely as a spray of plum blossom” — the reader will recognize Saikaku’s language; this too is from “Tales of Samurai Honor” — and a girl (“one could scarcely believe that such perfection had ever existed in the world”) fell helplessly in love with each other, sight unseen. Hearsay was enough. No one else would do for either. The boy’s father was willing, but the girl’s hesitated. No disrespect meant, he explained, but such was the boy’s reputed samurai purity that “should our lord die, it is clear to me that Umemaru (the boy) is resolved to commit suicide and follow him. And so my daughter could suddenly be widowed at any moment. Foolish as I must seem, as a parent I cannot help but be anxious about my child’s future.”

“This was rather a faint-hearted speech for a samurai,” Saikaku tells us.

This is the second of three parts on love and loyalty in Japan. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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