The Snake’s Curse

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

In North Toyoshima, in the town of Oji, a dealer in hardware named Kumatani Harumachi had a house where five people died in the month of March.  In fear of a similar fate, the house had stood empty ever since.

But on August 2nd, the house of Harumachi’s younger brother, Tamura Sanmachi, was destroyed in a landslide after heaving flooding brought some seaside cliffs tumbling down.  Sanmachi and his wife Aki moved into the abandoned house of his older brother. From the very first night, Aki was besieged with terrible nightmares. It was more than she could handle, and eventually Aki and her husband moved again and had the cursed house torn down.

The curse was said to have begun some two or three years earlier, when Harumachi was working in his back yard.  He had decided to remove a saikachi tree, and when he cut it down he saw five snakes pouring out of a hollow in the tree.  Even with his wife pleading him to stop, Harumachi swung his hatchet at the snakes and cut off all five of their heads, the flung their bodies into the Keshin river to be washed away.

That same hatchet was later used to murder Harumachi and his entire family, and the neighborhood began to whisper about the snake’s curse.

There are many similar legends about the curses of snakes.  It was reported in a newspaper that a child was hurt by a snake in Tachimori village while gathering dry grass for horses.  In response the village got together and worked to drive all of the snakes from the village, but that night the villagers were tortured by dreams of great masses of snakes crawling over their bodies.  The nerves of even the toughest man were severely shaken, and several people went mad.

The Cursed Mansion of Yoshioka Gondayu

Translated from Nihon no Yurei


In 1870, Yoshioka Gondayu died in jail, imprisoned by the newly-installed Meiji government at the start of the Meiji reformation.  But before that, he had been a man of some repute.   Gondayu had sailed with Fukusawa Yuichi on the warship Kanrin-maru during Japan’s first official embassy to the United States of America in 1860, and was even mentioned in Fukusawa’s classic book, “Autobiography of Fukusawa Yuichi.”  Gondayu had the official post of what we would now call an Administrative Official in the Navy, as well as being attached to the Department of Foreign Affairs.  

But the government that Gondayu served under was the Tokugawa shogunate, and with the defeat of the Shogun’s private army in 1869 his once favored position left him as a marked man.  The new Imperial Meiji government rounded up all of the members of the former military government and gave them a choice.  They could surrender freely, admit guilt to false charges leveled against them, and be released but dishonored, or they could spend the rest of their days in a dark prison cell until death finally took them.  Gondayu was not alone in refusing to buy his freedom at the cost of his honor.

Now, Yoshioka’s death seems to be a purely political contrivance, but there were those who thought otherwise.  In 1932, Yoshioka’s grandson published a book about his grandfather, titled “A Biographical Sketch of Yoshioka Gondayu.”  In the book, Yoshioka’s grandson laid the blame not on the Meiji government, but on the mansion where Yoshioka had lived.  A place infused with evil energy.

After the battle of Toba-Fushimi in the Boshin War (1868), Gondayu followed his lord, the shogun Tokyogawa Yoshinobu, back to Edo.  Much to his surprise, even in defeat Gondayu was gifted with a hereditary mansion to retire in.   The mansion, it is said, came to Gondayu through his connections with the Head Representative of the voyage on the Kanrin-maru, and as a reward for his services there.  The mansion had formerly been the property of Vice Port Warden Kaishu Kimura, and the particular nature of this mansion was first mentioned by an editor in the introduction to Kaishu’s book “Kikuso Guhitsu.”

Although he owned the mansion, Kaishu himself had never lived there, and he was thankful for that.  The mansion, it was said, was a cursed, and had caused the deaths of many of its residents.  The first person to fall under the curse was Nagai of the Bishu clan, who had been rebuked by the clan lord for some misdeeds and sentenced to house arrest.  In the mansion, Nagai became painfully ill, and eventually took his own life.  The next resident was a wealthy man who hung himself in the mansion for unknown reasons.  Then there was Gondayu, who died in prison not long after inheriting the property. 

After Gondayu, the mansion fell into the hands of a man who used it for clandestine affairs with his prostitute lover.  One night, in a fit of madness, the man slew his lover and then killed himself.  He was found sitting on his own toilet with his own sword shoved through his body.  All told around six or seven residents of the mansion met with grim endings.

The mansion retains its notoriety and sense of dread, even though a great number of people have lived there and experienced no problems whatsoever.  But the Japanese people love a good story, and will instantly believe that the mansion is cursed even though the accidental deaths seems to be a matter of odds rather than some sort of lingering curse.

Stories like this, of strange coincidences and unnatural happenings, are usually bound together by a single string.  This connecting string can be almost anything, from the location of a certain home or the grudge of a certain person, or even some unrelated fatality in the past that taints a place with evil energy.  In the case of Yoshioka Gondayu’s Cursed Mansion, there is no foundation of the legend, nothing linking together the random deaths other than they were all at sometime residents of the same mansion.  This, I think, should serve as a warning.

Japanese people have as a moral guiding principal the Buddhist system of karma, or cause-and-effect and retribution. But in practice that cannot explain the truths of people’s lives and deaths.  According to the system of karma, those who avoid doing bad things will find safety and peace of mind.   But life is not really that simple. There are things that happen for no reason whatsoever, and curses reach out to those who are entirely unrelated.

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