The Chrysanthemum Vow

Translated from Nihon no Yurei

Ueda Akinari’s “Ugetsu Monogatari” is a nine-story collection of tales of the mysterious and strange. It is a pedantic work, designed by the author largely as a display to flaunt his own body of knowledge. In the nine stories, Ueda wrote about the nature of yurei. Among them is the story “The Chrysanthemum Vow,” the gist of which goes like this:

In the country of Harima there was a post-town called Kako that stood as a relay station for official messages. Living there in honorable poverty and relative safety was an old mother and her son, who was named Hasebe Samon. One day Samon saw a visitor coming into town. The visitor was sick with a high fever and in obvious pain. Terrified of a contagious infection, the people of the tiny post-town gave the stranger a wide berth. Hasebe alone took pity on the stranger and brought him into his own home where he cleaned him and nursed him slowly back to health.

The visitor was from Shoue, in Izumo. His name was Akana Soemon. He had served as a mentor in strategy and tactics to the Lord of Toda, Enya Kamonnosuke , but one day when Akana was out delivering a message to Sasaki Ujitsuna of Oumi, a man named Amako Tsunehisa betrayed and attacked Lord Enya Kamonnosuke. Sadly, Akana’s patron died in the ensuing battle. Soemon pleaded with Ujitsuna to take up the sword and exact revenge on Amako, but aside from some pretty speeches Ujitsuna did nothing. The lack of action on the part of Ujitsuna was upsetting, so Akana decided to leave Oumi and return home to Izumo. But on the journey back he fell ill.

Akana was overwhelmed by the kindness he had been shown by Hasebe, and the two became sworn brothers. At the beginning of summer, Akana wished to stay with his new companion but he still needed to fulfill his original purpose and return to Izumo to check on his holdings. After that was taken care of, Akana promised to return to Hasebe’s house for a lengthy stay.

Akana promised to return to Kako before the season had a chance to change into fall. He set the day at September 9th, the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival. Akana gave his most solemn vow to Hasebe that the festival would not pass without his return. That said, Akana set out for Izumo.

In time, the promised day arrived, September 9th. From the very earliest light of morning, Hasebe Samon busily prepared for his dear friend’s return, and when preparation was done he waited patiently. Noon came and went with no sign of Akana. Soon it was evening, and even as the sun was sinking into the West Akana did not arrive. After waiting well into the night, Hasebe told his mother that she should retire, and that he would continue his vigil alone. It never occurred to Hasebe that Akana would not fulfill his vow.

Waiting still, as he looked beyond the door of his house, Hasebe saw the faint glow of the Milky Way above, and the dim illumination of the setting Moon. In the distance, he heard the sound of ocean waves breaking, and he could clearly hear the barking of the family dog. The fading moonlight outlined dark silhouettes of the mountains. As he stood in the doorway without any intention of entering, Hasebe watched the night scene.

Just then, from out of the silhouettes of the mountain, Hasebe saw the shape of a person begin to appear. The figure did not walk, but floated as if carried on the wind. Although it seemed impossible, when Hasebe looked closely he saw the shape of his friend Akana Soemon. Exactly as promised, Akana Soemon had kept his vow and come on September 9th, the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival.

But the Akana Soemon that arrived was not the man of this world that Hasebe had been expecting. Only Akana’s spirit had appeared.

Akana’s shade told his story to Hasebe. Once in Izumo, Amako Tsunehisa had Akana placed under house arrest and kept him there, making it impossible for Akana to keep his vow and arrive for the Chrysanthemum Festival. Akana had pondered this for awhile. He reasoned that even if it was impossible for his physical body to make the journey of a thousand ri to see his friend, his spirit alone would have no problem traveling that great distance. And so with his own hand and his own sword, Akana freed his spirit and traveled on the wind in order to keep his promise. Once Akana told this story to Hasebe, his spectral form vanished and Hasebe was alone once again.

After expressing the extreme fidelity of these two friends, Ueda Akinari notes that you should not become attached to frivolous people, or wrap your fate with those who will not pay in kind.

The Chrysanthemum Vow can be seen as a template for this kind of yurei story. If we compare it to other Tokuhon-shu stories popular with Edo period readers, we see the similarities. It stands to reason that the yurei of Akana Soemon came to visit Hasebe Samon, and did not just blindly return to the house where he had stayed. If Hasebe had been elsewhere, then Akana would have found him there and appeared before him. This element of ghosts is one of the unique points of Japanese yurei.

In other words, Japanese yurei have a specific goal in mind, a purpose. If they are seeking a person, they will find them no matter where they go or where they hide. There are some exceptions, most notably the story in my first chapter (Translated as The Scared Yurei) where I tell the story of a ghost of Ginza who wished to get revenge on the person who killed her, but, being still afraid of the murderess even in death, deigned to appear at the kindly old lady’s home next door. But this kind of story is rare, and ignores the rules of Japanese yurei.

Translator’s Note: Those familiar with Lafcadio Hearn will probably reconize his version of this story, recorded as Of a Promise Kept in A Japanese Miscellany.  This is a shortened, less poetic version of the tale told just as a recap for the book Nihon no Yurei.  The story originally appeared in Ueda Akinari’s Ugetsu Monogatari.

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More Hokusai Manga Yurei

Here are three more yurei from Hokusai’s 15-volulme Manga series.

Iga no Tsubone– Volume 05

Iga no Tsubone serves double-duty as an actual historical person as well as a folkloric figure. She was the wife of Kusunoki Masanori, an Imperial serving in the court-in-exile for the Emperor Go-Diago.

The story goes that Sasaki no Kiyotaka was an unsuccessful advisor to Emperor Go-Daigo. Sasaki advised the Emperor to attack Ashikaga Takauji’s armies, despite the weakness of the Imperial position. The result was disaster, and Sasaki was ordered to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, as atonement.

Sasaki’s yurei returned to haunt the Imperial court-in-exile after his death, appearing in the form of a tengu. ( It is not uncommon for members of the Imperial court to return after death as tengu instead of normal yurei.) The ghost of Sasaki no Kiyotaka tormented the court-in-exile, until finally the lady Iga no Tsubone confronted it in the palace gardens, and persuaded it to leave.

The scene of Iga no Tsubone confronting the yurei of Sasaki no Kiyotaka was a very popular one and appeared in many ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo period. The artist Yoshitoshi Tsukioka included this scene of Iga no Tsubone in both his “One Hundred View of the Moon” and his triptych “Famous Women of Japan.”

Oiwa and the Buddhist Monk Yuten – Volume 10

By far the most famous ghost story of Japan, and the most famous ghost in Japan, this is a scene of Oiwa from the kabuki play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. Oiwa was a woman cursed from birth with being ugly. Despairing of any happiness, she was finally married and had a baby with a poor ronin named Iemon, who eked out a living as an umbrella maker. Iemon somehow won the heart of the beautiful daughter of a well-off neighbor, and realized that the only thing standing in his way was his wife and child. He secured a vial of poison that he gave to Oiwa, which didn’t kill her but only caused her eye to droop and her hair to fall out. Disturbed, Iemon finally outright killed Oiwa and her baby. Oiwa returned to haunt Iemon and his new bride and family until she got her revenge.

This image of Oiwa from the Yostuya Kaidan is highly unusual, in that the vast majority of pictures of Oiwa (and there are hundreds, if not thousands) have her facing off against her husband Iemon. Instead, in this scene she is confronting the Buddhist monk Yuten. In some versions of the story, it was this monk who supplied the poison to Iemon.

Hokusai has another, much more famous print of Oiwa from his Hyakumonogatari series. That image is the famous scene of Oiwa’s face appearing from a lantern to confront Iemon.

Okiku and the Buddhist Monk Mikazuki Jyounin – Volume 10

Another of Japan’s most famous ghosts, the story of Okiku and the Nine Plates is usually told as the Bancho Sarayashiki. In the tale, Okiku is an innocent maid who breaks one of the ten plates that are the heirloom of the family she works for. In his wrath, the master of the house has Okiku thrown down a well where she dies. Every night, her ghost rises from the well and goes to the house to count the plates, shrieking horrifically when she gets to number nine.

The story of Okiku has as many variations as there are old wells in Japan, each claiming to be the original. This picture is based on a version where a monk hid nearby when Okiku rose to count the plates. As she counted the plates, and reached the final ninth plate, the monk shouted “ten,”and Okiku, satisfied that she had finally finished her count, dissipated to the afterlife.

Like Oiwa and Iga no Tsubone, there are several ukiyo-e woodblock print versions of the Okiku story.

Hokusai’s Manga Yurei

This is in response to a reader question about a particular yurei picture, specifically Hokusai’s manga yurei.

Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s best-known artist internationally. His print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, is without a doubt the most famous work of Japanese art. Like most artists in the Edo period, Hokusai illustrated supernatural scenes from famous kabuki plays and popular hyakumonogatari kaidankai tales. In 1831, he created five prints in a hyakumonogatari series that are still some of the most famous Japanese ghost prints.

The particular yurei in question, however, comes from a different period in his life. In 1811, at the age of 51, Hokusai changed his professional name to Taito, and began work on a series of sketchbooks and small images he called manga. The word manga (漫 画) translates directly to “frivolous pictures,” and Hokusai’s manga series were originally meant to be a quick money-making venture that would attract new students. The manga series was very popular, and Hokusai created fifteen volumes in total.

This yurei image comes from the 13th volume, one of the three not published during Hokusai’s lifetime. This yurei is not from any particular story, but just seems to be a “frivolous picture” of a yurei that Hokusai drew. The text next to the picture say simply yurei, with no other identification. It is a very usual depiction of a yurei in that it is winsome rather than scary. But it does include the standard Edo period yurei characteristics of pale skin, white kimono, black hair, and no feet.

The yurei is part of a four-paneled series of mythological creatures. The yurei is in the top left, with a picture of a Yamauba underneath. On the right side in the top left is a tengu, and underneath that is a mountain yokai called a Hihi. Hihi is the Japanese word for baboon, and at the time a baboon was no less a fantastical creature than a mermaid or tengu.

It is clear from looking at the original that the picture has been color-corrected. The original impressions from Hokusai’s manga series were three-colored, black, gray, and pale flesh.

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