Original Story from A.B. Mitford's Tales of Old Japan
Afterword & Commentary by Justin Hagen
About two hundred and fifty years ago Ikeda Kunaishoyu was Lord of the Province of Inaba. Among his retainers were two gentlemen, named Watanabe Yukiye and Kawai Matazayemon, who were bound together by strong ties of friendship, and were in the habit of frequently visiting at one another's houses. One day Yukiye was sitting conversing with Matazayemon in the house of the latter, when, on a sudden, a sword that was lying in the raised part of the room caught his eye. As he saw it, he started and said:
“Pray tell me, how came you by that sword? ”
“Well, as you know, when my Lord Ikeda followed my Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu to fight at Nagakude, my father went in his train; and it was at the battle of Nagakude that he picked up this sword.”
“My father went too, and was killed in the fight, and this sword, which was an heirloom in our family for many generations, was lost at that time. As it is of great value in my eyes, I do wish that, if you set no special store by it, you would have the great kindness to return it to me.”
“That is a very easy matter, and no more than what one friend should do by another. Pray take it.”
Upon this Yukiye gratefully took the sword, and having carried it home put it carefully away.
At the beginning of the ensuing year Matazayemon fell sick and died, and Yukiye, mourning bitterly for the loss of his good friend, and anxious to requite the favor which he had received in the matter of his father's sword, did many acts of kindness to the dead man's son-a young man twenty two years of age, named Matagoro
Now this Matagoro was a base-hearted cur, who had begrudged the sword that his father had given to Yukiye, and complained publicly and often that Yukiye had never made any present in return; and in this way Yukiye got a bad name in my Lord's palace as a stingy and illiberal man.
But Yukiye had a son, called Kazuma, a youth sixteen years of age, who served as one of the Prince's pages of honor. One evening, as he and one of his brother pages were talking together, the latter said,
“Matagoro is telling everybody that your father accepted a handsome sword from him and never made him any present in return, and people are beginning to gossip about it. ”
“Indeed,” replied the other, “ my father received that sword from Matagoro's father as a mark of friendship and goodwill, and, considering that it would be an insult to send a present of money in return, thought to return the favor by acts of kindness towards Matagoro I suppose it is money he wants.”
When Kazuma's service was over, he returned home, and went to his father's room to tell him the report that was being spread in the palace, and begged him to send an ample present of money to Matagoro Yukiye reflected for a while, and said:
“You are too young to understand the right line of conduct in such matters. Matagoro's father and myself were very close friends; so, seeing that he had ungrudging given me back the sword of my ancestors, I, thinking to requite his kindness at his death, rendered important services to Matagoro It would be easy to finish the matter by sending a present of money; but I had rather take the sword and return it than be under an obligation to this mean churl, who knows not the laws which regulate the intercourse and dealings of men of gentle blood.”
So Yukiye, in his anger, took the sword to Matagoro's house, and said to him:
“I have come to your house this night for no other purpose than to restore to you the sword which your father gave me;” and with this he placed the sword before Matagoro.
“Indeed,” replied the other, “I trust that you will not pain me by returning a present which my father made you.”
“Amongst men of gentle birth,” said Yukiye, laughing scornfully, “It is the custom to requite presents, in the first place by kindness, and afterwards by a suitable gift offered with a free heart. But it is no use talking to such as you, who are ignorant of the first principles of good breeding; so I have the honor to give you back the sword.”
As Yukiye went on bitterly to reprove Matagoro, the latter waxed very wroth, and, being a ruffian, would have killed Yukiye on the spot; but he, old man as he was, was a skillful swordsman, so Matagoro, craven-like, determined to wait until he could attack him unawares. Little suspecting any treachery, Yukiye started to return home, and Matagoro, under the pretense of attending him to the door, came behind him with his sword drawn and cut him in the shoulder. The older man, turning round, drew and defended himself; but having received a severe wound in the first instance, he fainted away from loss of blood, and Matagoro slew him.
The mother of Matagoro, startled by the noise, came out and when she saw what had been done, she was afraid, and said:
“Passionate man! What have you done? Murderer; and now your life will be forfeit. What terrible deed is this!”
“I have killed him now, and there's nothing to be done. Come, mother, before the matter becomes known, let us fly together from this house.”
“I will follow you; do you go and seek but my Lord Abe Shirogoro, a chief among the Hatamotos, who was my foster child. You had better fly to him for protection, and remain in hiding.”
So the old woman persuaded her son to make his escape, and sent him to the palace of Shirogoro
Now it happened that at this time the Hatamotos had formed themselves into a league against the powerful daimyos; and Abe Shirogoro, with two other noblemen, named Kondo Noborinosuke and Midzuno Jiurozayemon, was at the head of the league. It followed, as a matter of course, that his forces were frequently recruited by vicious men, who had no means of gaining their living, and whom he received and entreated kindly without asking any questions as to their antecedents; how much the more then, on being applied to for an asylum by the son of his own foster-mother, did he willingly extend his patronage to him, and guarantee him against all danger. So he called a meeting of the principal Hatamotos, and introduced Matagoro to them, saying:
“This man is a retainer of Ikeda Kunaishoyu, who, having cause of hatred against a man named Watanabe Yukiye, has slain him, and has fled to me for protection; this man's mother suckled me when I was an infant, and, right or wrong, I will befriend him. If, therefore, Ikeda Kunaishoyu should send to require me to deliver him up, I trust that you will one and all put forth your strength and help me to defend him.”
“Ay! That will we, with pleasure !” replied Kondo Noborinosuke. “We have for some time had cause to complain of the scorn with which the daimyos have treated us. Let Ikeda Kunaishoyu send to claim this man, and we will show him the power of the Hatamotos.”
All the other Hatamotos, with one accord, applauded this determination, and made ready their force for an armed resistance, should my Lord Kunaishoyu send to demand the surrender of Matagoro But the latter remained as a welcome guest in the house of Abe Shirogoro
Now when Watanabe Kazuma saw that, as the night advanced, his father Yukiye did not return home, he became anxious, and went to the house of Matagoro to seek for him, and finding to his horror that he was murdered, fell upon the corpse and embraced it, weeping. On a sudden, it flashed across him that this must assuredly be the handiwork of Matagoro; so he rushed furiously into the house, determined to kill his father's murderer upon the spot.
But Matagoro had already fled, and he found only the mother, who was making her preparations for following her son to the house of Abe Shirogoro: so he bound the old woman, and searched all over the house for her son; but, seeing that his search was fruitless, he carried off the mother, and handed her over to one of the elders of the clan, at the same time laying information against Matagoro as his father's murderer. When the affair was reported to the Prince, he was very angry, and ordered that the old woman should remain bound and be cast into prison until the whereabouts of her son should be discovered. Then Kazuma buried his father's corpse with great pomp, and the widow and the orphan mourned over their loss.
It soon became known amongst the people of Abe Shirogoro that the mother of Matagoro had been imprisoned for her son's crime, and they immediately set about planning her rescue; so they sent to the palace of my Lord Kunaishoyu a messenger, who, when he was introduced to the councilor of the Prince, said:
“We have heard that, in consequence or the murder of Yukiye, my lord has been pleased to imprison the mother of Matagoro Our master Shirogoro has arrested the criminal, and will deliver him up to you. But the mother has committed no crime, so we pray that she may be released from a cruel imprisonment: she was the foster-mother of our master, and he would fain intercede to save her life. Should you consent to this, we, on our side, will give up the murderer, and hand him over to you in front of our master's gate tomorrow.”
The councilor repeated this message to the Prince, who, in his pleasure at being able to give Kazuma his revenge on the morrow, immediately agreed to the proposal, and the messenger returned triumphant at the success of the scheme. On the following day, the Prince ordered the mother of Matagoro to be placed in a litter and carried to the Hatamoto's dwelling, in charge of a retainer named Sasawo Danyemon, who, when he arrived at the door of Abe Shirogoro's house, said:
“I am charged to hand over to you the mother of Matagoro, and, in exchange, I am authorized to receive her son at your hands.”
“We will immediately give him up to you; but, as the mother and son are now about to bid an eternal farewell to one another, we beg you to be so kind as to tarry a little.”
With this the retainers of Shirogoro led the old woman inside their master's house, and Sasawo Danyemon remained waiting outside, until at last he grew impatient, and ventured to hurry on the people within.
“We return you many thanks,” replied they, “for your kindness in bringing us the mother; but, as the son cannot go with you at present, you had better return home as quickly as possible. We are afraid we have put you to much trouble.” And so they mocked him.
When Danyemon saw that he had not only been cheated into giving up the old woman, but was being made a laughingstock of into the bargain, he flew into a great rage, and thought to break into the house and seize Matagoro and his mother by force; but, peeping into the courtyard, he saw that it was filled with Hatamotos, carrying guns and naked swords. Not caring then to die fighting a hopeless battle, and at the same time feeling that, after having been so cheated, he would be put to shame before his lord, Sasawo Danyemon went to the burial-place of his ancestors, and disemboweled himself in front of their graves.
When the Prince heard how his messenger had been treated, he was indignant, and summoning his councilors resolved, although he was suffering from sickness, to collect his retainers and attack Abe Shirogoro; and the other chief daimyos, when the matter became publicly known, took up the cause, and determined that the Hatamotos must be chastised for their insolence.
On their side, the Hatamotos put forth all their efforts to resist the daimyos So Edo became disturbed, and the riotous state of the city caused great anxiety to the Government, who took counsel together how they might restore peace. As the Hatamotos were directly under the orders of the Shogun, it was no difficult matter to put them down: the hard question to solve was how to put a restraint upon the great daimyos However, one of the Gorojiu, named Matsudaira Izu no Kami, a man of great intelligence, hit upon a plan by which he might secure this end.
There was at this time in the service of the Shogun a physician, named Nakarai Tsusen, who was in the habit of frequenting the palace of my Lord Kunaishoyu, and who for some time past had been treating him for the disease from which he was suffering. Izu no Kami sent secretly for this physician, and, summoning him to his private room, engaged him in conversation, in the midst of which he suddenly dropped his voice and said to him in a whisper.
“Listen, Tsusen. You have received great favors at the hands of the Shogun. The Government is now sorely straitened: are you willing to carry your loyalty so far as to lay down your life on its behalf?”
“Ay, my lord; for generations my forefathers have held their property by the grace of the Shogun. I am willing this night to lay down my life for my Prince, as a faithful vassal should.”
“Well, then, I will tell you. The great daimyos and the Hatamotos have fallen out about this affair of Matagoro, and lately it has seemed as if they meant to come to blows. The country will be agitated, and the farmers and townsfolk suffer great misery, if we cannot quell the tumult. The Hatamotos will be easily kept under, but it will be no light task to pacify the great daimyos If you are willing to lay down your life in carrying out a stratagem of mine, peace will be restored to the country; but your loyalty will be your death .”
“I am ready to sacrifice my life in this service.”
“This is my plan. You have been attending my Lord Kunaishoyu in his sickness; tomorrow you must go to see him, and put poison in his physic. If we can kill him, the agitation will cease. This is the service which I ask of you.”
Tsusen agreed to undertake the deed; and on the following day, when he went to see Kunaishoyu, he carried with him poisoned drugs. Half the draught he drank himself, and thus put the Prince off his guard, so that he swallowed the remainder fearlessly. Tsusen, seeing this, hurried away, and as he was carried home in his litter the death agony seized him, and he died, vomiting blood.
My Lord Kunaishoyu died in the same way in great torture, and in the confusion attending upon his death and funeral ceremonies the struggle which was impending with the Hatamotos was delayed.
In the meanwhile the Gorojiu Izu no Kami summoned the three leaders of the Hatamotos and addressed them as follows:
“The secret plotting and treasonable, turbulent conduct of you three men, so unbecoming your position as Hatamotos, have enraged my lord the Shogun to such a degree, that he has been pleased to order that you be imprisoned in a temple, and that your patrimony be given over to your next heirs."
Accordingly the three Hatamotos, after having been severely admonished, were confined in a temple called Kanyeiji; and the remaining Hatamotos, scared by this example, dispersed in peace. As for the great daimyos, inasmuch as after the death of my Lord Kunaishoyu the Hatamotos were all dispersed, there was no enemy left for them to fight with; so the tumult was quelled, and peace was restored.
Thus it happened that Matagoro lost his patron; so, taking his mother with him, he went and placed himself under the protection of an old man named Sakurai Jiuzayemon. This old man was a famous teacher of lance exercise, and enjoyed both wealth and honor; so he took in Matagoro, and having engaged as a guard thirty Ronin, all resolute fellows and well skilled in the arts of war, they all fled together to a distant place called Sagara.
All this time Watanabe Kazuma had been brooding over his father's death, and thinking how he should be revenged upon the murderer; so when my Lord Kunaishoyu suddenly died, he went to the young Prince who succeeded him and obtained leave of absence to go and seek out his father's enemy. Now Kazuma's elder sister was married to a man named Araki Matayemon, who at that time was famous as the first swordsman in Japan. As Kazuma was but sixteen years of age, this Matayemon, taking into consideration his near relationship as son-in-law to the murdered man, determined to go forth with the lad, as his guardian, and help him to seek out Matagoro; and two of Matayemon's retainers, named Ishidome Busuke and Ikezoye Magohachi, made up their minds, at all hazards, to follow their master. The latter, when he heard their intention, thanked them, but refused the offer, saying that as he was now about to engage in a vendetta in which his life would be continually in jeopardy, and as it would be a lasting grief to him should either of them receive a wound in such a service, he must beg them to renounce their intention; but they answered:
“Master, this is a cruel speech of yours. These years have we received naught but kindness and favors at your hands; and now that you are engaged in the pursuit of this murderer, we desire to follow you, and, if needs must, to lay down our lives in your service. Furthermore, we have heard that the friends of this Matagoro are no fewer than thirty six men; so, however bravely you may fight, you will be in peril from the superior numbers of your enemy. · However, if you are pleased to persist in your refusal to take us, we have made up our minds that there is no resource for us but to disembowel ourselves on the spot.
When Matayemon and Kazuma heard these words, they wondered at these faithful and brave men, and were moved to tears. Then Matayemon said:
“The kindness of you two brave fellows is without precedent. Well, then, I will accept your services gratefully.”
“Then the two men, having obtained their wish, cheerfully followed their master; and the four set out together upon their journey to seek out Matagoro, of whose whereabouts they were completely ignorant.
Matagoro in the meanwhile had made his way, with the old man Sakurai Jiuzayemon and his thirty Ronin, to Osaka. But, strong as they were in numbers, they traveled in great secrecy. The reason for this was, that the old man's younger brother, Sakurai Jinsuke, a fencing-master by profession, had once had a fencing-match with Matayemon, Kazuma's brother in-law, and had been shamefully beaten; so that the party were greatly afraid of Matayemon, and felt that, since he was taking up Kazuma's cause and acting as his guardian, they might be worsted in spite of their numbers: so they went on their way with great caution, and, having reached Osaka, put up at an inn in a quarter called Ikutama, and hid from Kazuma and Matayemon
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