Translated from Nihon no Yurei Banashi
The Customer and the Government Official
Long ago, in the town of Tsuyama in the province of Mimasaka (modern day northern Okayama prefecture), there was a general store called Ebisu-ya, the shopkeeper of which had the extraordinarily auspicious name of Zenroku.
The “zen” in Zenroku’s name had the meaning of “virtuous,” and used the same kanji character as in the term “Men of Honor.” If you were to look at nothing but his name, you might think that Zenroku was an equally extraordinary person. But if you could peer past the surface into Zenroku’s heart, you would see that in fact he was exactly the opposite. Whether he was selling oil, or beans, or dried awa melon he would find a way to cheat and deceive his customers.
“Hey Zenroku! Get me a measure of awa.”
Whenever this call came from a customer, Zenroku would smile sociably and say “Sure! Sure!” making a big show of handing over the measuring box while saying “Go ahead and scoop it yourself!” He would then quickly take the filled measuring box and dump it into a sack.
Seeing all of this at first, you would think that Zenroku was an exceptionally generous and trusting shopkeeper, allowing his customers to take their own measure. But if you were to take a closer look at Zenroku’s measuring box, you would find a carefully crafted tool of deception, one that had been modified with a thick board cut and sized to fit invisibly in the bottom of the box. It was in this way that he swindled his customers out of a full measure.
To be sure, Zenroku also kept an unmodified measuring box behind the counter ready at any time for those days when officials from the government came in for inspection.
“Here is the measuring box we use for this shop. Please inspect it to your heart’s content!”
The government officials were always entirely taken in by this simple trick, and soon left the shop satisfied. But sure enough, as soon as Zenroku saw their backs walking out his door, he would stick his tongue out at them.
“Ha! I fooled them completely!” Zenroku would later brag to his wife Ume.
Ume would not answer, but after such incidents sadness would cloud her face.
“Why does my husband have to be such a bad person? All the time he is thinking only of how he can cheat and deceive people!”
This constant deception caused Ume great pain and sadness. She would beg her husband to mend his ways, but Zenroku would never comply with her wishes. Instead he would rage and shout at her.
“Shut up you! Taking advantage of people and swindling customers is just good business!”
In the face of this admonishment Ume would hold her tongue and be silent. And then once again, right in front of his wife, Zenroku would charge people for a full measure while using his fixed box to supply them with only a half-measure at most. Even then, he had no trouble looking his customers in the eye.
But Ume was not like Zenroku, and in her heart she desperately hated the deception on which they lived.
“How can I possibly turn my husband into a good person?”
This was Ume’s sincere prayer to the kami spirits every day, and then every day again. But in her heart she had no real hopes that he would ever change. Such was her despair that Ume eventually fell deathly ill, and was bed-ridden. Zenroku did not spare a thought for his sick wife and just went on with his business as usual, taking dishonest money from his customers as he pleased.
In a short time Ume’s illness was slowly taking her from this world, and she lay fading. In her very deathbed, she implored her husband to change.
“Husband I beg of you. Cease using the two measuring boxes to deceive your customers. Use only the proper measuring box that you show to the government officials.”
With those very words on her lips she died.
But even in death, Zenroku would continue to disappoint his wife. Her dying words did not touch his heart and he remained unchanged. While smiling in his customers face he continued to swindle them unashamedly.
The Lost Wife
Zenroku had a friend, a man named Hikohachi.
At the time of Ume’s death, Hikohachi had been away on a trip to Edo (modern day Tokyo). On the journey home, he was passing through Odawara town in the province of Sagami (modern day Kanagawa prefecture). As night fell, the path darkened around him until it was pitch black and difficult to see.
“There must be some kind of shelter around here…”
Hikohachi wandered around looking for somewhere to stay the night. It so happened that he found his way into a thick bamboo forest.
“Ahh…this is a nasty place. I’m not going to find a shelter around here!”
While attempting to hurry back out of the forest he had stumbled into, Hikohachi caught site of a pale blue light moving lazily through the trees.
“Wha..wha…what is that?”
Hikohachi couldn’t help but stare at the mysterious phenomenon. Slowly, the glowing light began to take on the distinct shape of a woman’s form. It was too much for him. In a place such as this, where there should be no woman wandering, there was clearly a woman right in front of him. Try as he might he could not deny the evidence of his eyes.
Swaying back and forth, the woman edged closer to Hikohachi. In a thin, fading voice she said to him:
“Hikohachi san. It is I, Ume of Ebisu-ya. My husband Zenroku, to whom I am bound, has shamed me with his misdealing. Even though I have died I cannot pass into the presence of the Buddha. I wander here lost.”
Hikohachi heard this, shaking from the tips of his toes to the ends of his hair. This simply could not be happening. Where he stood now, that distant bamboo forest in Odawara, was more than a month’s journey from Tsuyama where Ume had only recently died. Yet here, is such a far and forlorn place she wandered as a yurei.
Ume then drew even closer to Hikohachi. Turning to flee, his legs gave out beneath him making it impossible to even stand much less run. In the darkness Ume loomed over him. With a voice dripping with tears, she cried:
“Hikohachi san. Tell my husband Zenroku that he must give up his deceiving ways and put away his false measuring box. Tell him of me wandering lost here as a yurei. And show this to him.”
Ume then reached up and tore the sleeve of her kimono off at the shoulder and presented the fabric to Hikohachi. With this done, she faded back into a blue light, which faded further still until she had disappeared.
As said it took a month for Hikohachi to make the journey from Kodawara to Tsuyama, but when he arrived back in his hometown he went straight to Zenroku and told him the tale:
“Eh? You say Ume has become a yurei?”
Zenroku listened to the story skeptically, until Hikohachi produced the sleeve that had been torn from Ume’s kimono. Zenroku recognized it as the same kimono Ume had worn when she died, and he at last felt pitty for his wife and mourned her. Finally Zenroku understood the darkness in his own heart.
“Ume, I was wrong! Please forgive me! From now on, I will strive to be a decent upright man so you can go forth to paradise!”
He held the strip of her kimono cloth closely to his face and wept his apology. Zenroku then gathered all of his ill-gotten money together, and used it to construct a Buddhist temple to stand as a memorial for his good wife Ume.
Because of this, the yurei that was Ume was able to move on to paradise. And even now, in Daienji temple in Nishitera town, you can still see the temple built by Zenroku for Ume.
This legend is unusual in how the yurei simply admonishes the person with the bad heart. This makes the story a more moralistic tale than most yuei legends of the same type.