The Two Measuring Boxes

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.

Misplaced compassion

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

My great-grandmother was born and raised in Uneme-cho (present-day East Ginza, fifth ward), and lived there until she died at age eighty-five in the tenth year of the Taisho era.  Many were the stories that we heard from her.  This is one of them.

 A certain monk was walking by and saw a chicken that was due to be slaughtered.  Pulling some money from his pocket, the monk bought the chicken and thus saved its life.  However that night, the chicken stood before the monk as if in a dream and cursed the monk:

“If I had died today as was my destiny, I could have been reborn as a human! Instead of that, because you saved my life, my dearest hope has been lost and I am doomed to go back into the re-birth cycle all over again!”

The Scared Yurei

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

In a certain house an old woman lived alone. One night, as she was sitting down to her dinner, she spied a young woman’s downhearted face peering out at her from the darkness of a corner.   Looking closer, she could see that the face was that of a young  girl of the next-door geisha house who had recently passed away.

This young girl had been the protégé of the madam of that house, calling her “older sister” in the style of the geisha.  However, their relationship was not good and it had been the talk of the town that the madam had badly mistreated this girl when she had been alive.  The madam devised such mischief as waiting until the young girl was just about to bring her chopsticks to her lips, before letting loose a torrent of chastisment to which the she must endure, thus leaving her with barely a morsel eaten.  The madam also covered the girl’s body with bruises to such an extent that the color of her beatings never faded. Finally, it was said, she killed the girl. 

Before the abused girl had died, this old woman of the next-door house had pitied her. Sometimes, the old woman would stealthily enter the geisha house in order to slip the young woman candies and bites to eat.  Because of this, when that girl’s lost spirit appeared at the old woman’s house, that old woman was quite vexed.  Always stout-hearted in nature, the old woman scolded the yurei who had mistakenly appeared in her home.

 “Hey you!  You have absolutely no reason to hold a grudge against me!  If you are going to haunt someone, go next door to your older sister!  You are here by mistake!”

The old woman had no doubt that the yurei, who had mistakenly appeared in the wrong house, would soon leave and so she lightly pummeled the spirit with her fists.

 Now if the yurei had replied something along the lines of how she had meant to go straight to her older sister’s house but felt she couldn’t do the job properly because she was too hungry and so she had dropped by the house of the kind old woman who had fed her when she was alive, the story would have more of a comedic feel to it.  But instead the yurei sadly replied with her downcast face:

“I am too scared to go to my older sister’s house.”

This answer is what marks this story as unusual for the yurei genre. In the normal way of things, a person who has transformed into a yurei is usually an object of terror to the person who harassed them in life.  But even though she has died, the young girl still fears her older sister, and this twist ending  is what lends the story its interest.

What the old woman said in reply, and how the story continued after that moment, has never been told, and in fact if the story had continued with all the loose ends properly tied up it would have given the story the stink of a literary creation. 

Instead, the story remains how it was told by the old woman, who lived in that area until around the start of the war.  She would often tell the tale of the young girl yurei, forever adding at the end “Say it is stupid if you want, but it just goes to show you can’t be thoughtlessly kind to people. “ 

I heard this story from my father, who had spent his whole life in Ginza until he died after the war.

Kataba no Ashi – The One-sided Reed

Translated from Edo no Kimyo no Hyakumonogatari

There was a villain named Tomedo whose heart was wicked.   He attempted to seduce a young widow named Oyoshi, who held an amulet in the shape of a shogi chess piece that he desired.  When she refused him, he became enraged and killed her, pruning off her left leg and arm as if she were a bonsai tree and throwing them into a ditch.

From that time, the ditch grew nothing but a weed called kataba no ashi, which means “one-sided reed” and has leaves that grow on only on the right side.

Even now, they say that this reed is the spirit of Oyoshi.

Translator’s Note:

This print, by Utagawa Kuniteru, is called Kataba no Ashi  (片葉の葦), and depicts one of the Honjyo Nana Fushigi (本所七不思議) meaning one of the Seven Wonders  of Honjo.

Akarinashi Soba – The Unlit Soba Shop

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

Above the bridge that spanned the flowing canal, a soba shop stood whose paper lantern had the words “28” written on it in thick, bold characters.  Even when all the fires were put out, and the street was in darkness, this lantern would continue to shine, without candle or oil.

Those who tried in vain to douse the lantern would meet with no success, and misfortune would fall upon their household.

Translator’s Note:

This print, by Utagawa Kuniteru, is called Akarinashi Soba (燈無蕎麦), and depicts one of the Honjo Nana Fushigi (本所七不思議) meaning one of the Seven Wonders  of Honjo.

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