The Mistress of Tonbo and Nezu

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

The Ginza area of Tokyo is overflowing with local legends and gossip. This is one of them.

The restaurant itself is no longer standing, but from the Meiji era through the Taisho and Showa eras, the name Tonbo would have been familiar to any residents of the Ginza.  The popular restaurant flourished for decades, and appears as a setting in several historical accounts.  This is a story concerning the mistress of the restaurant.

As a restaurant, Tonbo was famous for the fierce loyalty of its customers.  A Tonbo customer did not stray to other establishments.  And none obeyed this code more stringently than the name named Nezu, Tonbo’s most loyal customer. Such was the extent of his patronage that the two had become synonymous.   “Nezu’s Tonbo” the restaurant was called, just as he was called “Tonbo’s Nezu.”

Now Nezu was a man of strong passions, and one of his passions was for a woman named Mochizuki.  Although they were not married, such was their relationship that Mochizuki accompanied Nezu when he took trips abroad.  It so happened that, on the day Nezu died in his home, his lady Mochizuki had happened to come calling to his house and discovered his body.   The Ginza gossip said that it was almost as if the Buddha had summoned her at that exact moment to tend to her love.  To no one’s surprise, it was only a day before Mochizuki too passed away, following Nezu into the afterlife.  Nezu must have called for her from the other world, everyone said. 

It turned out Nezu was not as loyal to his women as he was to his restaurant, for with Mochizuki also dead yet another woman, an employee of an antique shop, came forward as Nezu’s lover and offered to attend to the funeral arrangements as was her duty.  Her assistance was not long, as she too soon died and joined Nezu in the other world.

With his lovers gone, the obligation of arranging the funeral now fell to the Mistress of Tonbo.  Feeling safe that Nezu was well-comforted in death, the Mistress of Tonbo dutifully performed the purification rites and attended at the funeral of her most loyal customer.  In spite of this show of affection and duty, Nezu was not content to bring only his two lovers with him to the afterlife.

A year had passed, and on January 4th, the exact day of Nezu’s death anniversary, the Mistress of Tonbo also died.  Her funeral was on January 8th, the same day that Nezu’s funeral had been held.  Some said this was mere coincidence.

Now, the Mistress of Tonbo had no children, but she was very fond of costumes and clothing.   For reasons unknown, prior to her death the Mistress of Tonbo had already prepared her funerary wear, ordered from her favorite kimono shop.   The head clerk of this shop, a woman named Nishi, had been the one to discover the Mistress of Tonbo’s body when she stopped by to pay her traditional New Year’s greeting.  Everyone said that the Mistress of Tonbo had foreseen her own death, citing both the preparation of her funerary wear as well as the timing of the expected visit from Nishi.  After these events, Nishi of the kimono shop suddenly died.

Next up was a man named Koya.  An old friend of the Mistress of Tonbo’s father, Koya had often looked after her when she was growing up, and his presence at her funeral was taken for granted.  When Koya failed to appear, the Ginza was abuzz with gossip over the reason why, until the day of the funeral Koya’s daughter came to give her regrets and say that Koya too had passed away.

Not only had Koya died on January 4th as well, but his own funeral had been held on January 8th, and it was thought that the Mistress of Tonbo had somehow brought Koya along with her to the afterlife.  At least that is what everyone believed.

I first heard this story from my aunt, but because the legend of the Mistress of Tonbo and her loyal Nezu are so famous almost everyone is familiar with this haunting tale of coincidental death.  My aunt could not resist adding a personal touch, however, and whenever she finished the story she would say with a slight smile that there was more to the story.

During wartime, such a grand restaurant as Tonbo could not expect to operate, and it was forcibly shut down by the government and its resources re-allocated.  The Mistress of Tonbo could not stay idle, however, and in a different location she soon opened a much smaller neighborhood shop.  Such was her pride, however, that she could not bring herself to stand in the shoddy booth day-after-day taking customer orders. So the Mistress of Tonbo asked my aunt if she wouldn’t mind coming in and taking over the running of the new shop?

To my aunt, this seemed a somewhat mercenary request.  The Mistress of Tonbo would collect all the cash while my aunt did all the work.  Still, a job was a job, and my aunt mulled it over for awhile.  Finally, my aunt decided that she too had pride and that perhaps it would be for the best to recede from the company of the Mistress of Tonbo.  My aunt instead recommended Okiku, a girl who had worked at Tonbo restaurant for some time, to stand in as mistress of the new shop.  Although disappointed at my aunt’s refusal, the Mistress of Tonbo soon warmed to the idea of Okiku, and it was just a short while before they were in business together.

Of course, their little venture was cut short of January 4th of that year when the Mistress of Tonbo suddenly died.  And it was only half a year later before it was Okiku’s turn, who found that her Mistress had a pull on her in death as well as life.

My aunt dutifully attended Okiku’s funeral, but sure that Okiku would also want to drag someone along with her to the afterlife, my aunt placed two small dolls in Okiku’s coffin.  My aunt always bragged that it was she and her little dolls that ended the chain of deaths.  In such times of violent war people took such death superstitions seriously.

There was no doubt in my aunt’s mind that Okiku had taken her place in more than the restaurant.  If my aunt had not transferred that job to Okiku and completely severed her ties with the Mistress of Tonbo, then it would have been my aunt’s cold body lying in that coffin.  And surely Okiku would not have been clever enough to think of the two dolls, and the situation would have dragged on even further.

Now when you normally hear the story of Nezu and the Mistress of Tonbo, it ends with the death of the Mistress.  But my aunt liked to flavor the story with her own personal experience.  That is typical of these local legends swapped in the Ginza.  Each person twists the details, or emphasizes parts intended to reinforce the moral lesson they wish to tell, or even just to boast of some personal triumph over the supernatural.

But if you look back into folklore and history, there is some precedence to the story’s conclusion and the two dolls my aunt says she placed in Okiku’s coffin.  The ancient story of Nomi Sukune tells of a samurai who defied the custom of committing ritual suicide in order to accompany his empress into the afterworld when she died.  Instead, Sukune placed a set of unglazed clay warrior figures, called haniwa, into her coffin for company.

My aunt’s dolls served the same purpose as these haniwa, nullifying the dead person’s curse and satisfying the need for someone to accompany them to the afterlife.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Matt
    Oct 08, 2011 @ 19:22:49

    January 4th is my birthday.


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