Original Story from Asataro Miyamori's Tales of the Samurai
Afterword & Commentary by Justin Hagen
Matsudaira Nobutsuna was one of the ministers of the Shogun Iemitsu, next to Ieyasu, the ablest of all the Tokugawa Shoguns. A man of great sagacity, he contributed not a little to Iemitsu's wise administration.
When Iemitsu was a young boy named Takechiyo, Nobutsuna who was called at that time Choshiro served him as one of his attendants and playmates.
One morning when the young nobleman was passing along a corridor accompanied by Choshiro and two other boys, on the way to the private apartments of his father, the Shogun Hidetada, his attention caught by some fledgling sparrows that were hopping about and chirping gaily on the tiles of the roof. Takechiyo, then but ten years of age, was seized with a fancy to have them ; and turning to Choshiro, three years older than himself, he commanded:
“Catch those little sparrows for me, Choshiro."
“With pleasure, your lordship ; but should I be found catching sparrows I should be reprimanded by his Highness and the officials. Fortunately I shall be on duty tonight; so tonight I will climb out on to the roof when there is no one to see me, and give you the little birds in the morning. Will you please to wait till then, my master?”
“I suppose I must.” And the small company passed on.
That night when all was quiet, Choshiro managed somehow or other to get out on to the roof, and crawling carefully on all fours to the spot where the parent birds had built their nest, reached out one hand and seized one of the little sparrows. Poor little things! Surprised in their sleep they were not able to escape. Transferring his captive to the left hand Choshiro again stretched out his right and caught another. Whether the attainment of his purpose caused him to relax his care or for some other reason, certain it is that at this moment his foot slipped and with a heavy thud he fell down into the courtyard below. As he fell he in voluntarily clutched the birds more firmly so that they were instantly squeezed to death. With the dead birds in his hands, he fainted. But the roof was comparatively low, and he also had the good fortune to fall on to some bushes so that he was not killed as might have been the case.
The sound of the fall awoke the Shogun. He started up and followed by his consort and some attendants went out on to the veranda and opening a sliding shutter looked down. By the light of a lantern held by one of the servants he perceived the boy lying on the ground just beneath. Choshiro had now recovered consciousness and was trying to rise though the pain he felt all over his body rendered the operation one of considerable difficulty. His consternation was great when the light of the lantern revealed his person to those on the veranda
“Choshiro, is that you ? " called his lord, recognizing the boy at once. “It is strange that you should be on my roof at this time of night! Come up instantly and explain your conduct. This must be inquired into.”
The boy, still holding the dead sparrows, obeyed. Prostrating himself before the Shogun he waited for him to speak.
“What have you in your hands, Choshiro?”
“Sparrows, my lord."
“Sparrows? Do you then climb roofs at midnight to catch sparrows? A strange fancy!”
“Yes, my lord. I will tell you the truth. When Takechiyo Sama and I were passing along the corridor this morning his attention was attracted by some little sparrows on the roof and we stopped to watch them. Takechiyo Sama said, 'What dear little things they are!' and the desire then arose in my mind to get them for him that he might play with them. So tonight when everyone was asleep I climbed out on to the roof of your apartments in disregard to the respect I should have shown to your august person, and caught two of the young sparrows. But how quickly the punishment of Heaven followed my crime! I fell down as you see and my wickedness was discovered. I am ready for any chastisement your lordship sees fit to inflict.
“My lord,” here broke in Lady Eyo, the Shogun's consort. "Excuse my interference, but I think Takechiyo must have ordered Choshiro to catch these sparrows. There is no doubt about it.”
It should be explained that Lady Eyo had two sons Takechiyo and Kunimatsu. Takechiyo, the elder, was sharp-witted and active though rather rough in his manners ; his brother, on the contrary, was quiet and effeminate. For this and probably some other unknown reason the younger son was his mother's favorite, and it was her desire that he should be appointed heir to the Shogunate in place of his elder brother. She therefore lost no opportunity to disparage Takechiyo in the estimation of his father, hoping thereby to attain her object in due time.
“What a thoughtless boy Takechiyo is!” agreed the Shogun. “This was undoubtedly done at his instigation. How cruel to command Choshiro to endanger his life by catching birds on a roof at night! Though he is but a child there is no excuse for him. The proverb says, 'A snake bites even when it is only an inch long.' One who is so inconsiderate to his attendants when young cannot be expected to govern wisely and well when more power is invested in his hands. Now, Choshiro,” turning to the boy who still knelt at his feet, “Takechiyo ordered you to get the sparrows; is it not so?”
Choshiro had heard with surprise the unkind words of the Shogun and his lady about his adored master. What did they mean by the words 'A snake bites even when it is only an inch long?' If their feelings towards the boy were already so antagonistic what would they think and do should the real facts of the case be disclosed? Choshiro firmly resolved to take all the blame even at the risk of his life.
“Oh, no , my lord," said he earnestly. “Takechiyo Sama never gave me such a command, never! I caught these sparrows quite of my own accord. I meant one for Takechiyo Sama, and one for myself.”
“Nonsense! Whatever you say I know Takechiyo is at the bottom of it. You are a bold fellow to dare to tell me an untruth!......Let me see, what shall I do to you?...... Here, bring me one of those bags."
The Shogun pointed to some large, strong leather bags, resembling a money-pouch in shape, in which in the event of a fire or of an earthquake his valuables would be encased before putting them into the dozo or fire-proof godown.
When the bag was brought the Shogun said:
“Now, Choshiro, if you don't confess the truth, I will have you put into this bag and never allow you to go home again, nor give you any food. Do you still persist in your falsehood?”
“It is no falsehood, my lord. It is the truth that I caught the sparrows of my own wish. No one but myself is responsible for my misdeed. My fall from the root was the punishment of Heaven. It is right that you should chastise me also. I beg you to do so.”
With these words, Choshiro, betraying no signs of fear, put himself into the bag.
“What a stubborn boy!” exclaimed the Shogun in anger.
Then with the help of his consort he tightly fastened up the bag with the boy in it, and had it hung from a peg on the wall of the corridor. Leaving the poor child in this state all retired once more to their broken rest.
Late the next morning, having had breakfast and finished her toilet, Lady Eyo, attended by two maids of honor, came out to the corridor where the bag still hung and ordered it to be taken down. On opening it the boy was found still holding the dead sparrows.
“Good morning, your ladyship,” said Choshiro, rubbing his eyes with his closed fists.
“You were ordered by Takechiyo to take the sparrows, is it not so?” said Lady Eyo kindly, hoping to make the boy confess the truth.
“ No, my lady. It was my own idea. Takechiyo Sama had nothing whatever to do with the matter.”
“Come, boy, if you are so obstinate you will have to remain a prisoner always, and never have anything to eat. But if you confess what I am convinced is the truth, you shall be released and have food at once. Now tell the truth.”
“My lady, as you command me to do so I will tell the truth; but I am so hungry that I find it difficult to speak at all. May I ask for some food first? If you will allow me to have even some musubi (boiled rice), I will say all you wish.”
“Good boy, you shall have some musubi at once.”
The lady gave the order and soon the boy was eagerly devouring the rice-cakes. Three or four large ones made a good meal.
“Thank you, my lady; I am now able to speak.”
“Then confess the truth , good boy, confess quickly; I am tired of waiting.”
“Forgive me, my lady; I caught the sparrows of my own accord. I received no order direct or indirect from Takechiyo Sama. That is the truth.”
The lady for once forgot herself and flew into a passion. Stamping her foot on the floor, she rushed into the Shogun's room and gave him an exaggerated account of what had happened. He was very angry.
“The young rascal,” cried he, rising, and taking his Yoshimitsu sword in his hand, “I will kill him myself. Tango Hasegawa, bring Choshiro here.”
Tango found the culprit sitting in the bag his hands on his lap.
“Choshiro," he said, “his lordship is terribly angry with you; your stubbornness and insolence are past endurance. He intends to kill you with his own hands. Prepare yourself for instant death!”
“I am quite prepared, sir.”
“Your father is my old friend,” went on the man pitifully. “If you have any farewell message for him I will undertake to deliver it.”
“Thank you, sir; but I have no words to send to my father. It is the duty of a samurai to sacrifice his life for the sake of loyalty. After my death my motive for refusing to confess what my lord the Shogun desires will become clear. Tell my father only that I met my doom fearlessly by my lord's own sword. My one sorrow is that my mother is now ill and this news may lead to her death also. That is my only regret.”
“What a truly heroic resolve!” cried Tango, unable to restrain his tears. “Your father may well be proud of you, boy, when I tell him how you met death.”
Taking Choshiro by the hand Tango conducted him into the presence of the Shogun and his lady. The stern noble stood up on their entrance and laying his hand on the hilt of his sword motioned to them to approach nearer. The brave boy kneeling down pushed the stray locks from his neck, and with clasped hands and closed eyes calmly awaited decapitation. The Shogun's manly compassion was not proof against this pathetic sight. Throwing his sword away.
“Choshiro, you are forgiven!” he cried. “I recognize your supreme fidelity to your young master; faithful unto death! Tango, I foretell that when Takechiyo succeeds me as Shogun, no one will be able to assist him in the task of ruling his people so well as this courageous young samurai. Choshiro, you are pardoned!”
Tokugawa Iemitsu with his councilorsii
The main character of Choshiro in this tale is no other than Matsudaira Nobutsuna (Izu no Kami) from our previous Jitsuroku story of Kazuma's Revenge. As already discussed, Matsudaira Nobutsuna was a personage of quite renowned fame in Feudal Japan, having been the key figure in suppressing the Shimabara (1637-1638), Keian (1651) and Joo (1652) uprisings as well as served as the senior councilor to Tokugawa Iemitsu and his successor Tokugawa Ietsuna. It is perhaps his dedicated loyalty to the Shogun in real life that resulted in this dramatization being created regarding his childhood.
As with many personages of fame in Feudal Japan, stories about their lives were often embellished and transformed into Kabuki plays. As we already know the events of the Shimabara, Keian and Joo uprisings had been made into plays and included Matsudaira as a character. Therefore it is very likely that this story is from one such play in order to build up Matsudaira's character as ironclad.1
While I cannot attest to the veracity of this anecdote, it is true that Matsudaira Nobutsuna did indeed begin his life on the lower end of the upper class. Matsudaira was the son of Tokugawa Ieyasu's retainer, Okochi Hisatuna, however would go on to become the heir of his uncle Matsudaira Masatuna in 1601. Upon the birth of Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1603, Matsudaira was sent off to become his attendant. Matsudaira remained a loyal retainer and close adviser to Iemitsu throughout his life and even played a major role in helping Iemitsu and his successor, Ietsuna, build their shogunate administration system. This close relationship between Matsudaira and Iemitsu and the loyalty he served him and his successor is likely to have been dramatized in our story to show just how dedicated Matsudaira was to the Shogun. Therefore, this story is most likely a hyperbole created to represent this loyalty and may or may not represent a specific occurrence rooted in truth.2
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sensei Justin Hagen, has been practicing martial arts since the age of 5 years old and is currently a martial arts instructor as well as an educator for the Pennsylvania public school system. In 2011 he received his Bachelor's degree in history with a minor in philosophy with emphasis on East Asian studies and religion from the University of Rhode Island. Continuing his education, Sensei Hagen also received his Masters degree from DeSales University in Education in 2018 with his final thesis exploring research on the effects martial arts programs have on behavior in the educational setting. Sensei Hagen now seeks to share the knowledge he has accrued through his experiences in life with the world. Currently he teaches Olympic style Tae Kwon Do at BucksMont Tae Kwon Do in Hatfield, PA as well as independently runs a Kyokushin Karate club under the direction of Shihan Roman Herman's KUSA organization. Sensei Hagen also has courses available on Udemy open to the public to take in order to learn more about martial arts philosophy and culture.
In conjunction to martial arts, Sensei Hagen is also a woodburning artist, the subject for his art often inspired by martial arts and Japanese culture.