Jitsuroku: Japanese Tales of Bloody Revenge
By Justin Hagen
Vendettas, honor, loyalty, murder and betrayal, key components of a classic and yet little known Japanese literary genre known as jitsuroku. The word “jitsuroku” translates as “memoir” and was a genre of literature in feudal Japan that were largely fictitious or embellished stories of political scandals and revenge. These stories were largely based on true events, however through oral transmission and embellishment, these stories would soon intertwine fact and fiction together to the point that trying to decipher between the too would become quite difficult. The result is that epic tales of revenge would soon become transmitted and popularized throughout Feudal Japan.
Even more interesting was that the jitsuroku literary genre was actually banned by the Tokugawa shogunate as they disliked their promotion of vendettas and lawlessness as well as the disclosure and dramatization of political scandals. Upon taking power, Tokugawa Ieyasu, while he wished to preserve the ideals of Bushido warrior culture, he also sought to temper and prevent it from leading to rampant lawlessness and pursuits of vendettas. The Tokugawa shogunate wished to strictly control access to texts and historical records through regulations that restricted and banned works that mentioned Tokugawa shoguns and related daimyos, Christian ideology and current events as the Tokugawa condemned any work that may undermine their political authority.
The result of the Tokugawa restrictions is that many versions of the same story existed throughout Feudal Japan with main characters often having different names and various versions still exist to this day. Some changed the names in order to try to circumvent mentioning the names of banned figures, while others held true to the original names or inserted known figures from history to make the stories sound greater. Despite the ban, circulation of these stories ran concurrent to Tokugawa efforts to suppress them. In fact in 1771 the Kyoto booksellers guild compiled a list of banned books called the Kinsho mokuroku to be distributed among other book sellers so that they would be made aware of books they should not be selling.1
Despite jitsuroku works being outlawed, that nonetheless did not stop their circulation and many such banned books were in circulation especially in rural areas away from the Edo. Nonetheless, copies of such manuscripts were still found in the libraries of well known daimyo and retainers such as Uchiike Nagatoshi (1763-1848) who was a merchant and follower of Lord Motoori Ohira (1756-1833). Nagatoshi owned many illicit books including those that mentioned Tokugawa Ieyasu such as the Gokoku onna taiheiki, a sensational account of the murder of shogun Tsunayoshi.
Another group of Samurai in the Hachinohe domain formed a lending library with a large collection of banned books including jitsuroku, with the support of domain authorities, many books having been printed in Edo. Even Nitobe Inazo, author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan recounted of his childhood that while growing up in a samurai household stories such as that of the 47 Ronin and other tales promoting great acts of bravery were often propagated in his and other samurai households to instill martial valor and a sense of duty to their superiors as well as inclined them towards pursuing acts of bravery and was taught in conjunction to with Confucian philosophy.
Tokugawa seems to have drawn a lot of his political policies on Confucian and Neo-Confucian philosophers such as Mencius in an effort to temper the warlike qualities of the samurai to be both brave and level headed. Such a saying that drawn from by Tokugawa from Mencius was, “Though you denude yourself and insult me, what is that to me? You cannot defile my soul by your outrage.” It was therefore during the Tokugawa shogunate that ideals of upholding honor in samurai culture was intertwined with patience and level hotheadedness, the sayings of the time emphasized that not reacting to petty disputes upheld your honor as acting out would bring disgrace to yourself and your feudal lord. Should a fight erupt and bring disgrace to the samurai it would bring shame to their family as well and so to be enticed into a fight had consequences both internally and externally. As so the inner sense of honor and preventing shame helped emphasize not returning insult with injury.
Therefore, while the Tokugawa tried to limit access to such works, their accepting position on attempting to balance encouraging pursuing martial endeavors in conjunction to philosophical often yielded the perpetuation of such tales of revenge among the samurai. While ideally the Tokugawa would have preferred to perpetuate tales of valor in battle only, stories of revenge and honor were all too appealing to the samurai mindset and were near impossible to suppress.
Many of these stories survived in Japan and were contained in a pre-turn of the 20th century Japanese work titled the Kokon jitsuroku eiru bidan. This Kokon jitsuroku eiru bidan was a one piece of literature in a series of 80 Kokon jitsuroku titles published by an author that is only known as Eisensha in the 1880's. Kokon literally translates from Japanese as “ancient and modern” and were traditional Japanese stories transmitted orally through the generations2. As such, the Kokon jitsuroku was a volume of orally transmitted stories of the jitsurokugenre. This volume however is near non-existent in the West.
While many stories have remained unknown, others have managed to permeate pop-culture and survive through the ages by being transformed into Kabuki plays. These plays became so popular throughout Feudal Japan that many have survived into the modern day and continue to see new recreations in Japanese Television and movies.
I interested in reading a few of these stories?
In an attempt to revive these classic stories and introduce them to the western reader I have combined out of print and old texts to compile a modern jitsuroku series of various classic Japanese tales so that these stories may continue to live on for generations to come.
A series of ten stories are now available on Amazon Kindle HERE