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Jitsuroku Hachi: A Deep Laid Plot

Original Story from Walter Dening's Japan in Days of Yore

Afterword & Commentary by Justin Hagen

Some twelve years before Tokugawa Yoshimune assumed the title of Shogun (became Shogun 1716 A.D.), while he was still in Kii, it happened that one of his concubines called Sawano, being about to give birth to a child, was sent off to her mother, who lived in the village of Hirasawa to be confined there. With her Yoshimune sent a letter, a sword, and fifty ryo in money of the two former articles more anon.

When Sawano reached her home she found no but her mother there. Not long after her arrival she gave birth to a son. But the mother and the child both died. They were buried in the cemetery attached to a temple known as the Kodenji, and Sawano's aged mother was left to bemoan their loss. She carefully laid by the things sent by the Shogun, reckoning them the greatest treasures she possessed.

In Hirasawa there was another temple called the Kwan-o-in; attached to which was student named Hotaku. Sawano's mother used to do the washing for this temple, so she knew the youth very well.

One day, about eleven years after the death of Sawano, Hotaku had occasion to go to the old woman's house on some business. She treated him very hospitably, bringing out some dumplings for him, and while he was eating them chatted with him in a most friendly manner. “How old are you?” asked the old woman.

“Eleven,” replied Hotaku.

“Just the age that my grandson would have been had he lived,”replied the old woman. “In that case, how different would have been my position! I should not have been working for my living as I am now.”

“It is no use your speaking in this way,” replied Hotaku, “to persons who know nothing about the matter. People will think you crazy if you talk so grandly.”

“I am not deceiving you,” replied the old woman. “You have been studying at the temple, so of course you can read. I will show you something that will prove to you that I should have been in very different circumstances had my grandchild lived."

Here she handed to Hotaku a letter which had the Shogun's seal on it , and the purport of which was, that if Sawano gave birth to a son , the said son should be exalted to rank and position and have all the privileges of a member of the Tokugawa family conferred upon him.

“There is no mistake about what you say,” said Hotaku; “but I advise you not to be showing this document to everybody that comes along, for fear it may get you into trouble. You had better keep this matter to yourself.”

As he said this, the thought crossed Hotaku's mind that if he could steal the document and the sword, he could by this means pass himself off as the Shogun's son without any difficulty; for who was to know that Sawano's son was dead? Here was a chance; and he was not the one to miss it. Hotaku went back to the temple full of the subject. That night visions of wealth, rank and pomp fitted before him; and he awoke the next morning fully determined to take the first opportunity of acting on the resolution he had made.

Not many days after, Hotaku had occasion to go with the rector of his temple to a medicine shop. There, while the priest was performing a religious service, the lad amused himself by looking over the medicines. A large jar on the shelf attracted his attention. “What medicine may this be?” inquired Hotaku of a man who was in the shop.

“It is called Hammyo Shiseki, ” said the man. “It is rank poison.” Some of this Hotaku stole while the shopman was engaged elsewhere.

Hotaku waited his time, and, one night, when it was snowing hard, he went to the house of Sawano's mother, and, after thanking her for her kindness to him in the past produced some sake and induced the old woman to take enough to make her quite tipsy; and then, when she was asleep, strangled her. Dragging the corpse over to the hearth, he placed the face in the fire, so as to make it look as though the old woman had fallen into it; and round the hearth he placed wine cups, making it appear as though the deceased had drunk her self tipsy and then in a state of unconsciousness had burnt herself to death. He then took the document, the sword and what money there was in the house and went away.

The neighbors came in the next day, and, seeing how things were, did not suspect foul play. “It was evident," they said, “that the old woman had burnt herself to death whilst tipsy.”

Hotaku thought to himself, “It will never do to leave any one alive who knows me well, or my identity will be discovered. So I must kill the priest with whom I am living.”

This he accomplished by putting some of the poison that he had stolen from the apothecary into the priest's rice.

So the old priest died, no one knowing how or why. The only thing that was conjectured was, that some food he had taken had disagreed with him, no uncommon occurrence in those days of ignorance of the properties of herbs. Probabilities go for much in such cases. And no one thought it likely that a student priest would kill his teacher and benefact