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.