Loyal, Even Unto Death


For many centuries the Fujiwara nobles (the Empresses were always chosen from this family) had secured for themselves supreme control and influence over the Mikados in Kyoto. In the ninth century another family of courtiers came into prominence, namely the Sugawara, who eventually gained sufficient power with the Emperor to be a serious menace to the schemes of the Fujiwara. At the end of the ninth century there arose one especially, Lord Michizane Suguwara, brilliant statesman, scholar, high-souled patriot and poet.

The Emperor Uda held him in high esteem and promoted him from the position of his tutor to that of Minister of the Right.[1] In 898 the Fujiwara succeeded in compelling Uda to abdicate in favour of his son, a child of twelve years of age, expecting him to be a more pliant tool in their hands. This boy became the 60th Emperor, Daigo, who, by the advice of his Imperial father, planned to give Michizane absolute authority in state affairs. The jealousy of the vigilant Fujiwara courtiers was fully aroused, and through the machinations of Lord Tokihira (Fujiwara), Minister of the Left, his rival, Michizane, was falsely accused of high treason and banished to Kiushiu where, in the horrors of poverty and exile, he died in 903. Michizane is now known by the posthumous title of Tenjin. Many Shinto temples have been erected in his honour, and students still worship his spirit as the patron god of letters and literature.

The following drama, one of the most popular in Japanese literature, tells the story of one heroic incident in the scattering of the Sugawara family, and of the rescue of Lady Sugawara, and the loyalty of Matsuo and O Chiyo, his wife, vassals of the Sugawara.

Matsuo, the better to serve his lord’s cause, feigns to be unfaithful to him and to go over to the enemy—in fact, he acts the dangerous part of a spy. The Fujiwara Minister is completely deceived and, enlisting his aid, reveals to Matsuo his secret plans for the final overthrow of the exiled Sugawara and the murder of his son. So clever and thorough is Matsuo’s dissimulation that even his own father and his brothers are deluded, and Matsuo is calumniated by all who know him, accused of disloyalty to his lord (an unpardonable offence in old Japan) and disinherited by his family. Finally, in a crowning act of transcendent devotion to the Sugawara House, Matsuo and O Chiyo, to save their young lord from death, willingly substitute their own child, Kotaro, in his place. In the feudal days loyalty was the one great social obligation of the samurai to his lord. And this spirit of loyalty often involved painful self-sacrifice. “Life was freely offered, not only by him who was bound by fealty to his lord, but by his children.”

The following is a typical tragedy of its kind.

Persons Presented

LADY SUGAWARA, wife of the exiled Prime Minister or “Minister of the Right”—hiding from the enemy in Matsuo’s house. MATSUO, a devoted vassal of Lord Michizane Sugawara. O CHIYO, wife of Matsuo. KOTARO, the little son of Matsuo and O Chiyo. SHUNDO GEMBA, the emissary of Lord Fujiwara Tokihira, triumphant enemy of Sugawara. TAKEBE GENZO, a schoolmaster in the suburbs of Kyoto, also vassal of the Sugawara. TONAMI, wife of the schoolmaster. KANSHUSAI, Lord Sugawara’s son, a handsome clever boy, eight years of age. Several village school children and their parents.

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Loyal, Even Unto Death or The Sugawara Tragedy

SCENE I. Matsuo’s cottage in Kyoto. Night. Lanterns lighted in the room.

In the old capital of Kyoto, not far from the Imperial Palace, there lived a samurai named Matsuo with his wife O Chiyo, and their little son Kotaro, eight years of age.

With Kotaro by her side, O Chiyo reverently on her knees pushed aside the sliding screens of an inner room, and disclosed the Lady Sugawara seated on the mats, bending forward with her face buried in her hands, her whole attitude expressive of grief and despair.

O Chiyo bowed low and said with a voice hushed in sympathy: “It is terrible to me to think that such a great lady as you cannot go even to the veranda in the daytime for fear of being seen by your enemies. You must, indeed, feel like a prisoner—and above all, the separation from the Prime Minister, and your son and daughter. How despondent you must feel! While you were hiding in the capital the secret of your whereabouts leaked out, and you were in danger of being caught—at that crisis my husband saved you and brought you here. You must be sadly ill at ease confined in this poor house, and after what you have been accustomed to the loneliness must be very depressing. But do not despair! You may yet join your husband and son sooner than you think. Till that time comes patiently endure all hardships, hoping for happier days.”

“Oh!” answered the Lady Sugawara in melancholy tones, “you are so sympathetic and good, I shall never forget your kindness, even after death. Through the malice of a bad man[2] my husband was banished to a distant place, and my poor boy and myself are refugees. The thought of them haunts me from morning till night. There is nothing but misery in dragging out my existence from day to day in this state—but I will, at least, wait till I can see them again, if but for a moment, and then die, especially as your little Kotaro reminds me vividly of my own son, to whom he bears a great resemblance. My longing to see him again grows ever more and more intense.”

With these sad words the unfortunate lady burst into tears; O Chiyo, deeply affected by her sorrowful plight, wept with her, and the silence of the room was only broken by the sobs of the two women.

Suddenly, some one from outside announced in a loud voice that an emissary from an exalted personage had arrived. Both women started to their feet. O Chiyo barely had time to conceal Lady Sugawara in an inner room, when, preceded by several attendants carrying lanterns, the emissary, Shundo Gemba, arrived in full state as befitting the bearer of an important message—he pompously entered the room and seated himself in the place of honour before the alcove.

O Chiyo’s husband, Matsuo, who had secluded himself and was resting in an inner room, overhearing the commotion, came out to welcome the visitor.

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“As I am suffering from illness I must beg you to overlook my lack of ceremony in not receiving you in official dress,” and he bowed to the ground in a respectful manner.

Gemba replied haughtily: “However ill you may be you must listen to the command of Lord Tokihira (the new Prime Minister who had supplanted Sugawara). Sugawara’s son, whose hiding-place was hitherto unknown, has at last been discovered by some one who has revealed the secret. The boy is now in the house of Takebe Genzo, by profession a teacher of Chinese writing, but in reality a secret and staunch supporter of Michizane. This man passes the young lord off as his own son. There is no one on our side who knows Kanshusai except yourself, so you are commanded to identify the head as soon as it is cut off, and to bring it as a trophy to Lord Tokihira. By way of reward for this service sick leave will be granted you, and on your recovery you will be created Lord of Harima. There is no time to be lost, so you must make preparations at once.”

O Chiyo, who was listening with a beating heart in the next room, felt keenly apprehensive, for her husband had been extra moody and reticent of late, and she could neither fathom what was in his mind, nor what answer he would make to the dreadful proposition of this man straight from the enemy’s camp.

To her utter consternation Matsuo replied: “What kindness on the part of our lord! No greater honour could be conferred upon our house. I will obey the command at once. But owing to my illness matters cannot be arranged as speedily as I could wish. If that man Genzo should happen to hear that I am going to attack him and wrest his prize from him, he may escape with the young Sugawara.”

“Do not trouble yourself about that,” returned Gemba, “it is only a ronin’s[3] hut, and need not even be surrounded.”

“But Takebe, knowing that Lord Tokihira is instituting a search for the boy, still boldly harbours him—it is certain that the schoolmaster can be no common man—we must be very cautious in dealing with him,” objected Matsuo.

“You are quite right,” replied the envoy, “if they should manage to escape both of us will be blamed.”

“Yes, indeed,” Matsuo agreed; and then as if suddenly struck by the thought, “I am sorry to trouble you, but do not fail to let your men keep a sharp watch on every exit of the village during the night.”

“All right,” responded the other, “you need not trouble on that score, every necessary precaution will be taken.”

“Well, then at an early hour to-morrow I will accompany you to Takebe’s house,” said Matsuo.

“Thank you for your trouble,” and the two men took leave of each other, Gemba departing from the house in the same haughty style as he had entered it.

Matsuo, with a troubled heart, watched until the emissary’s procession had disappeared in the distance. Before he could carry out his intended plan he must first sound his wife.

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During the interview O Chiyo had waited in the next room, a silent witness of all that had taken place between her husband and Lord Tokihira’s messenger. As soon as Gemba’s party had taken their departure she opened the sliding screens and with some trepidation confronted her husband.

“It seems,” said the wife, “by what Gemba had to communicate, that the hiding-place of our young lord is at last discovered. Before the assassin has had time to carry out his murderous work let us send for him here, and try to rescue the poor child before he falls into the hands of the enemy. There is no time to lose.”

As Matsuo made no response, O Chiyo pressed him again and again not to delay.

At last he laughed cynically.

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“You do not seem to have the slightest idea of what is in my mind! I brought Lady Sugawara here from Kita’s house so that I might deliver her up together with her son’s head at the same time—that is why I have hidden her here.”

“What are you saying?” gasped O Chiyo. “Can it be your real intention to betray them to Tokihira?”

“Yes,” answered her husband, calmly looking her in the face, “now is the time to grasp my long-wished for ambition—my fortune has come at last,” and he smiled as if well pleased with himself.

This was the first time that Matsuo had given any hint of his sinister intention towards the innocent Lady Sugawara and her son, and O Chiyo was so startled and horrified that for a few moments she was choked for utterance. She had hitherto felt convinced that he was devoted, heart, soul, and body, to the cause of their beloved ex-Prime Minister.

Bitter tears fell from her eyes, and she moved nearer to him on the mats; in the earnestness of her appeal she stretched out a hand and laid it on his arm, till she could find words to falter out:

“Oh, my husband, since when has this dreadful scheme taken possession of your heart? For the Sugawara family I have been quite resigned to your being misunderstood and disinherited by your father’s house, and the severance of all relationship with your brothers—indeed, so staunch and whole-hearted has been your devotion to this cause that I always intended to apologize and explain matters to your family when the time came. Now suddenly, without the least warning, your lifelong fidelity has been perverted into treachery. However great your ambition for promotion may be, to betray the wife and child of our Lord Sugawara into the hands of Tokihira is impossible. Are you a devil or a dragon? The punishment for such baseness will fall not only on yourself, but on your child. Oh! purify your heart from this evil intention, and conduct the Lady Sugawara and her son safely to the ex-Prime Minister in Tsukushi,[4] I implore you!” and the distraught woman lifted her hands in an attitude of prayer to her husband, while the tears coursed down her cheeks.

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But, unmoved by her appeal, Matsuo still laughed contemptuously.

“What silly woman’s talk! I have now no parents or brothers—they are strangers to me! It would be foolish to forget our own child’s welfare for the sake of exiles banished by the State. You may say it is against reason and righteousness, but I do it for the sake of my boy—there is no treasure more precious than a son.”

“Oh! oh!” sobbed O Chiyo, “how heartless you are! If you think so much of your own boy, Lady Sugawara’s feelings must be the same for her son. To attain your ambition at the expense of others, sorrow can bring you no good. Your life will end in sorrow and misery as the result of such a deed.”

Matsuo became more incensed, and sternly bade his wife be silent.

“If the Lady Sugawara overhear you and escape, everything will be lost, you foolish woman!” and with these words Matsuo turned to leave the room. His wife seized the edge of his robe and tried to hold him back.

“Do not hinder me, whatever you do!” he said, angrily, and pushing her aside, he disappeared in the direction of Lady Sugawara’s room.

O Chiyo fell as her husband tore himself from her detaining grasp, and lay prostrate on the mats, stunned with the horror of what he was about to do. After a few minutes she collected herself.

“Oh, oh! it seems like some dreadful dream,” she murmured in acute distress. “I have lived happily with Matsuo for so many years, and surely he cannot be such a bad man. For the sake of our boy he has lost his conscience. Poor lady! Poor lady! In total ignorance of his change of heart she has trusted to him as her chief staff and pillar of support. How can I look her in the face after this? To prove to her that I am not one with my husband it is better to kill myself and ask her pardon in another world.”

The poor woman, in her grief and perplexity, wept and trembled by turns. After a few minutes she wiped away her tears and sat up with determination written on her face.

“It is now impossible to change my husband’s cruel purpose,” she said to herself aloud. “My innocent little Kotaro will be taught wrong ways, he will grow up a degraded man and come to a bad end. I foresee it all quite plainly. It is far better to kill him now and let his pure soul accompany me on my long journey to the next life. Besides, when Kotaro is no longer alive, Matsuo may return to his better nature and repent of his treacherous schemes, and the knowledge of it will reach me and I shall be glad, even after death.”

At this moment her little son came gaily running to her. Knowing nothing of the tragic web of death, which Fate, like a grim spider, was weaving round him, he playfully caressed his mother, his bright eyes shining, his little face alight with smiles.

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“Mother, Mother, the lady inside is calling you! Come, quick, quick!”

As O Chiyo looked at the child’s innocent face the tears rose to her eyes.

“Oh! Kotaro, my little son, come here—here,” she said with a sob, and drew him close to her side. “Oh! Kotaro, listen attentively to what I am going to say, like a good boy. The lady in the inner room is the wife of your father’s and your mother’s lord, and yours also, Kotaro. For many years we have received nothing but favours and kindness from them, therefore we owe them both a debt of great gratitude. Now, Kotaro, your father tells me that he intends to kill that good unfortunate lady, our own lord’s wife—therefore, I, your mother, cannot remain alive any longer—I have decided that my spirit shall accompany her as an attendant to the other world. But you, Kotaro, are the favourite of your father—perhaps you would like to remain behind in this world with him?”

“Oh, no, no,” answered the child, “I won’t stay with such a cruel father. If you die, I want to die with you!”

“Oh, how sensible you are, Kotaro. Even if you had refused to die, I must have killed you for the sake of your father—you seem to understand that without being told. I have, therefore, the more pity for you as you are so intelligent and your wish is to die with me. When your father sees you lying dead, sorrow may make him repent of the evil path he has chosen. The other day I made a consecrated banner for the grave of little Sakura Maru, your uncle. How little did I dream, while making it, that I should ever use it for my own son.”

With these words she drew out a dagger which had been concealed in her obi,[5] unsheathed it, and with raised hand was about to stab the child.

“Stay, stay, do not be too hasty!” the voice of Matsuo rang out sharply in the silence, as he suddenly appeared in the open shoji[6] leading Lady Sugawara by the hand. As they entered the room in front of the startled O Chiyo, whose hand, poised to strike the fatal blow, fell to her side, Matsuo made a gesture to Lady Sugawara to take the place of honour by the alcove.

Matsuo then seated himself opposite Sugawara’s unhappy wife in the lowly seat near the exit of the room, prostrating himself before her.

“It is quite natural that your ladyship and my wife do not know my true heart: now let me speak the truth,” he said, with quiet and impressive dignity. “After the overthrow of your house and the banishment of Lord Sugawara, when my brother became ronin and quarrelled with me, I served Prince Tokihira for some time. I was soon disgusted with his ways, and finding my situation untenable, asked for sick leave, with the purpose of finding your son so that I might do my best to restore your house to its former position. I did everything in my power to help you, but to my dismay nearly everyone was in league with the enemy. It was part of my plan, you must know, to throw our crafty enemy off the scent, and it was to this end that I entered his service and pretended to be one of his party. I played my part so well as to deceive my own father, who, despising me for a disloyal and faithless man, condemned my conduct and disinherited me, for he, too, was devoted to your cause. For this policy also I separated from my brothers. In thus misleading the enemy I felt sure that I could be of some use in saving you and your son at a critical moment. It was a drastic step to take, but Tokihira has been completely misled, and events have turned out just as I expected. This night, as you must have heard, I received strict orders to act as identifier of your son’s head. As Takebe is a faithful man he will not kill our young lord, of that rest assured. But alas! he is one, while the enemy are many.

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‘If anything should happen to our lord’s son, it can never be undone,’ these were the thoughts that troubled me this evening when I overhead what your ladyship said, that Kotaro bore a strong resemblance to our young lord; and the idea flashed into my brain that our boy can be used as a substitute to save him. At the same time it occurred to me, that if my wife’s love for Kotaro obstruct my plans I should be powerless, so to prove what was in her heart I said cruel things that I did not mean—that, for the sake of my boy, I would betray you and your son. She did not understand me, and then and there decided to kill herself and Kotaro, and by thus removing the cause of my supposed temptation to induce my repentance. What a noble wife!”

O Chiyo, as she listened to this long explanation from her beloved husband, wept for joy, and Lady Sugawara was overcome with emotion at the surpassing loyalty of her retainers; they seemed to her to be exalted above ordinary human beings—and were as Gods in the pure sphere of a selfless world.

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“For sake of loyalty you have become an outcast to your father’s house, and now you would kill your son, your only son, for us—it distresses me too much—it is overwhelming. I cannot accept such a sacrifice! The punishment of Heaven may be visited upon me. No, no, no—you must not slay your little Kotaro even for your lord’s sake. If everything should fail us, you must try to save both, my son and Kotaro,” implored the hopeless wife of the exiled minister.

Matsuo, whose mind never wavered, prostrated himself before her.

“How grateful I am to you for your considerate thought for us, but as every exit in the village is carefully watched, there is no way of escape.”

Then he turned to his wife.

“After your decision of an hour ago, I do not think you will now hesitate to sacrifice our boy.”

He then leaned forward and looked at his son with a smile.

“Kotaro, you are too young to understand these things, but for the sake of your young lord and your parents, die without regret!”

As Matsuo spoke those tragic words, fixing his eyes upon the upturned face of his boy, whose bright eyes looked back at him trustingly and fearlessly, a shudder involuntarily passed through his frame in spite of the iron restraint he put upon himself. But loyalty demanded the sacrifice, and at all costs the house of Sugawara must be saved. To control himself he closed his eyes, to shut out the vision of his boy’s smile. The moment of weakness passed, and Matsuo once more sat erect, gazing at his son with an unmoved face, white and set as a mask.

Lady Sugawara and O Chiyo dared not look at him. Both began to sob, covering their faces with their sleeves. “Do not give way to weakness,” at last Matsuo forced himself to say, sternly. “If we spend our time thus, everything will be lost. Look, the dawn is beginning to break. Get ready to take Kotaro to Takebe’s house immediately. Quick, quick!”

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“Yes, yes,” assented the mother, with a sinking heart, and she slowly rose to her feet, taking Kotaro by the hand. She knew that this was the end. Her boy’s doom was at hand and his hours were numbered.

“Have I to go now?” said Kotaro, bravely. “Father, will you not say farewell and call me your good boy for the last time?”

Thus the mother and her son set out for the sacrifice.


Part 2

SCENE: A village school kept by Takebe Genzo and his wife Tonami, both devoted vassals of the exiled Prime Minister, Michizane Sugawara. Among Takebe’s pupils is the young Sugawara. This boy they disguise and pass off as their own child. The little lord, though only eight years of age, excels in everything among the pupils and, inheriting the ability from his father, writes Chinese hieroglyphics with great skill. The senior pupil is a lazy, stupid, and incorrigibly mischievous fellow, fifteen years of age, who will not study at all.

“While our teacher is out it is a great waste of time to practise writing. Look! I have done all my writing on my head.” and the lazy boy came forward and showed his school-fellows a shaved pate all blackened with Indian ink.

The little Sugawara looked at him and said: “If you learn one new character every day you will acquire three hundred and sixty-five characters in a year. Instead of wasting your time playing like that, you must study.”

But the older boy only laughed at him, and left his desk to prance about the room.

The other boys took the part of little Sugawara and, growing disgusted with the idle boy, wanted to punish him. There arose a great clamour in the school-room, all the boys shouting together and leaving their places to attack him.

Disturbed by the noise, the schoolmaster’s wife came out from the inner room.

“What is the matter? Are you quarrelling again? To-day the master is away. He has been invited by a friend, and I do not know when he will come back. As we are expecting a new pupil to-day I am anxious for his return. Now, if you are good boys and will work hard this morning, I will give all of you a half-holiday this afternoon.”

The boys were delighted with this promise. All promptly returned to their seats, and opening their books and their inkstands, became diligently absorbed in their tasks of reading and writing.

Just then a sound at the porch made Tonami draw aside the screens. A gentle and aristocratic-looking woman was standing there with a pretty boy of about eight years of age by her side. A manservant, carrying a desk, was in attendance.

After an exchange of civilities, the visitor explained: “Our home is at the other end of the village. The reason for my visit is to ask you to take this naughty boy into your care, as arranged the other day. I am told that you have a child of your own about his age. I should like to see him!”

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Tonami beckoned to the little Sugawara.

“Why, certainly; this is our son and heir!”

“Oh, what a nice little fellow! And how clever he looks!” Then looking round the school-room, she added: “How busy you must be with such a number of scholars in your care. They must be a great trouble and responsibility.” “Yes, you may imagine it is no easy work to look after them all. Is this the boy you wish us to take charge of? What is his name?”

“His name is Kotaro!” answered the mother.

“What an intelligent-looking child!” exclaimed Tonami.

“Unfortunately my husband has been obliged to keep an appointment with some friends. But if you are in a hurry and cannot wait, I will go and fetch him.”

“No, no,” protested Matsuo’s wife, “as I have an errand elsewhere I will call in on my way back. He may have returned by then.”

Then calling her servant, she ordered him to bring in the presents she had brought, one for the master, and some cakes to distribute amongst the schoolboys. In a few graceful words the gratified hostess acknowledged her visitor’s kind thought.

“Oh, it is nothing—only a little token of thanks from my heart for all the trouble my boy is going to give you.” Then turning to Kotaro, she added: “I am going to the next village, so you must wait for me here like a good child—don’t forget all I have told you!” “Oh, mother, I want to come with you!” Kotaro suddenly cried, catching her by the sleeve as she was stepping into the porch.

“Now, do not be naughty!” remonstrated his mother, “a big boy like you ought not to run after your mother. Look, Tonami San, what a baby he is still!”

“Oh, it is quite natural, poor little fellow. Look here, Kotaro! Come with me and I will give you something nice.” Then, turning to O Chiyo, she added “Try to come back as soon as possible.”

“Yes, yes, I will come back at once, if you are a good boy, Kotaro.”

Seizing the opportunity she slipped out through the porch gate, followed by her servant, who closed it after her, and the two briskly clattered away on their clogs. The poor mother yearned to turn back once more, for she knew that she would never see her little son again in this world; but she kept bravely on her way.

While Tonami was trying to console Kotaro, and to distract his attention by introducing him to the little Sugawara, her husband returned. His face was pale, and he was evidently profoundly agitated. As he entered the school-room he sharply scrutinized each of the boys in turn. His wife saw at a glance that something unusual must have occurred.

“Oh, what common fellows they are!” he muttered, crossly. “Such country-bred louts can never serve my purpose, however great the trouble I take with their education,” and he gloomily regarded them with knitted brows, as though something was weighing heavily on his mind.

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His wife approached him and anxiously inquired: “What is the matter? You seem unusually worried to-day. You knew from the first that those village lads can never become intellectual. People will not think well of you, if you speak against your own scholars in this way. Besides, we have another pupil to-day. Please try to recover your good temper and look at the new boy.” With these words she brought forward Kotaro, but Takebe had become absorbed in his own preoccupation, and took no notice of the child.

Kotaro came forward, bowed respectfully, and said: “Please, sir, I look to you to teach me from now.”

At these words, spoken in a clear, sweet treble, Takebe started from his reverie and fixed his eyes upon the new-comer; by degrees his face gradually brightened as though struck by a new train of thought.

“What a handsome and dignified boy. You might easily pass for the son of a nobleman or any other exalted personage. Well, you are a fine fellow!”

“He is, indeed,” responded Tonami, with a smile. “I thought you would be glad to see such a promising pupil.”

“Yes, yes,” assented the master—”nothing could be better,” he muttered, in an undertone, as if speaking to himself; and then aloud, “where is the mother who brought him here?”

“As you were not at home, she went to the next village on an errand,” replied his wife.

“That is capital!” said Takebe, growing more and more pleased. “Send this child with our boy to an inner room, and let them play together.”

“Now,” said Tonami, turning to the class of schoolboys, who had been more assiduous than ever since their master’s return, “all of you may have a holiday. Run away and play in the garden!”

After sending her two special charges into the next room, and looking around with suspicious eyes that no eavesdropper was lingering behind, she lowered her voice and half-whispered to her husband: “When you came in you looked so harassed and troubled, but since you have seen that boy, your demeanour has suddenly undergone a complete change. What can be the reason for this? Something unexpected must have happened! Won’t you let me share the secret?”

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“It is quite natural that I should have been so perplexed and dumbfounded,” answered Takebe. “To deceive me they pretended to be giving a feast, and invited me to the residence of the village mayor, but when I arrived I soon found the feast was all a myth, and the house was in the occupation of Shundo Gemba, vassal of Tokihira, and another man, Matsuo by name, who is under great obligations of gratitude to the ex-Prime Minister, but who has deserted the house of Sugawara, and now shamefully serves the enemy, Tokihira. It seems as though he must have been appointed to examine the head of our young lord, for it has leaked out that he is here under our guardianship, and Tokihira has ordered him to be beheaded. These two men, with some hundred followers, surrounded me in a hostile manner, with this threat: “We have received information that you are secreting the only son of the ex-Prime Minister in your house, disguised as your own child. Unless you kill him at once and bring his head to us, we will attack you and slay him ourselves.

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“As no alternative was left me, I was compelled to pretend to assent to their proposal. I thought that amongst our pupils surely there would be one sufficiently like to be sacrificed in his stead, but when I came home and was confronted by all that row of plebian faces, it was an obvious fact that not a single one would answer the purpose.

All those young boors are of a common and vulgar type, and as unlike as possible to the aristocratic face and noble bearing of our palace-reared boy. Despair seized me, but—when I saw the new pupil—it seemed as if he had been specially sent by Providence as a substitute. The difference between them is not so great as that between a crow and a white heron. If I can deceive them but for a short time with that boy’s head, I intend to escape to Kawachi with the young prince.”

His wife broke in: “But that man, Matsuo, has known Kanshusai intimately since he was three years old. How could he be deceived?”

“There lies the difficulty,” said Genzo, “but after death faces always change to some extent, and as Kotaro unmistakably bears some resemblance to our young master, even Matsuo may be deceived. At any rate we will risk it. In the event that the ruse is discovered, I am determined to kill Matsuo at once, and try to cut my way through the guards as best I can, but if they are too strong for me, I will die with the young prince. Such is my decision, but the chief anxiety at present is concerning the mother of that boy. If she should come back before this can be achieved, what course of action can we decide on?”

“Leave her to me! I will try to throw dust in her eyes!” suggested Tonami.

“No, no, that won’t do—a great plan often fails through some small mistake.” Then, after a moment’s reflection, he added, “Oh, well—I suppose she must die, too!”

“What!” cried his wife, in alarm.

“Be quiet,” admonished her husband. “For the young lord’s sake we must stop at nothing. It is for our master’s sake, remember that!”

“Yes, yes, if we are weak we shall fail in our great scheme. Let us become devils. There is not much difference between pupils and one’s own children. That boy became our pupil at this critical moment—heaven must have delivered him into our hands as the result of his mother’s sin in a former existence. Oh, well! the same fate may overtake us before long—” At this point their pent-up feelings gave way, and both of them shed tears.

Shortly afterwards Gemba and Matsuo arrived at the gate. They were closely followed by a number of villagers, the parents of the common pupils in the school. In great excitement, one and all were loudly clamouring for the safety of their own children.

Matsuo almost laughed. The situation was one of such grim comedy. Each peasant evidently thought his own son might easily pass for the young aristocrat!

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“Oh, mine is a beautiful boy,” shouted one man. “You mustn’t make any mistake between my son and the real victim. Give me my boy—” he turned fiercely to Gemba.

“You need have no apprehension whatever regarding your children,” said Gemba, calmly addressing the alarmed parents, who now squatted on the ground with their heads bowed in the dust, “if you want them, you are at liberty to take them away at once!”

Matsuo, who was in a kago,[7] here stepped out, using his long sword as a stick to lean upon. Both he and Gemba sat on stools, which their attendants placed ready.

“Just wait a little,” said he—”we cannot be too careful even with these villagers. The reason why I accepted the office of examiner is because there is no one else who knows the young prince’s head as well as I do. These people allowed the young Sugawara to live in this village, so very likely they may have sympathy with the ex-Prime Minister and may claim his son now, pretending that he is one of their own family, and so aid him to escape! Who knows?”

Then, turning to the agitated peasants, he said to them, “Now, my men, you may call out your children’s names one by one. I will examine each face carefully. Your own boys shall be safely restored to you, rest assured of that!”

The schoolmaster and his wife, from the house, overheard all that was going on, and Matsuo’s determined and arrogant demeanour only served to intensify their fears. It was going to be even more difficult than they had apprehended. An elderly man came forward, and in a loud voice, called out: “Chomatsu, Chomatsu!”

In answer, an ill-favoured, pock-marked boy ran out, his face covered with smudges of Indian ink.

Matsuo glanced at him.

“The difference is as great as between snow and charcoal. He may go!” In turn, all the rest of the pupils were searchingly inspected, but not one bore the slightest resemblance to the ill-fated Kanshusai. When the pacified villagers had carried away all their offspring in triumph, Gemba and Matsuo entered the schoolmaster’s house.

“Genzo!” began Gemba, in tones of authority, “you promised to behead the young Sugawara—I will receive that head now!”

Without betraying the least sign of feeling, Genzo replied: “Yes, but he is the son of the ex-Prime Minister. We cannot slaughter him like a common boy. Please wait for a short time!”

“Oh, you cannot deceive us,” said Matsuo, quickly. “Dallying in this way is merely pretext for gaining time. But it is useless for you to attempt to disappear now, the rear of the house is guarded by some hundred men, and there is no room even for an ant to escape. You may produce a substitute head, with the explanation that a dead and a living face have a different appearance. I shall not be taken in by a subterfuge. Such tricks on your part will only lead to repentance!”

This last thrust hit Genzo hard, but he did not lose his self-possession and answered Matsuo quietly, “What a far-fetched idea! Your eyes, after your long illness, may not be able to see things clearly, but I will surely give you the head of the young lord you demand.”

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“Before your tongue is dry,” exclaimed Gemba, impatiently, “behead him at once!”

“It shall be done!” replied Takebe, and went into an inner room. His wife, who had listened to all that transpired, was in an agony of anxiety, pale and trembling. Matsuo, with sharp eyes, was looking round the room.

“It is rather mysterious,” he said, suddenly, “eight pupils have gone home, and yet, there are nine desks. What has become of the owner of that extra desk?”

Tonami started. She began to explain that there was a new pupil. Matsuo saw her vacillation. In an undertone, he said: “What a fool you are! Keep quiet!” Then, realizing how fatal such a mistake would be—Tonami collected herself and managed to stammer out. “That is the young Sugawara’s desk!”

But her confusion had been noticed by the enemy. Gemba started to his feet and shouted in furious tones, “This trifling will cause the frustration of our plans!”

At that moment the sound of a sword broke the silence as it fell swishing through the air, the screens of the room shook, and before Matsuo and Gemba could reach the partition which separated the inner from the outer room, Takebe appeared, carrying a white wooden tray. A cover hid what was beneath, but a thin trail of crimson blood was ominously oozing from the edge. Kneeling on the mats before the two men, he placed his ghastly burden before them.

“There was no alternative, so I was forced to behead the young lord. May Heaven forgive me! As it is a matter of such importance that there should be no mistake—please examine it carefully.”

With these words, Takebe’s hand stealthily fell upon his sword-hilt. Every fibre was on the alert to cut down Matsuo the moment he realized the deception that had been practised on him.

“I will certainly do so,” replied Matsuo, nonchalantly, then, addressing some of the soldiers who had followed him into the room, he peremptorily gave them the command: “Now surround the Takebe couple!”

From the rear of the house several guards entered and took up their posts at the porch, and just behind Genzo and his wife.

The strain was almost too great for the poor woman, and she was well-nigh fainting with the sickening uncertainty of what might be the last act of that dreadful drama. Gemba, looking on, took note keenly of the proceedings.

Everything hung on Matsuo’s decision. The suspense of the moment was agonizing in its intensity.

He slowly lifted the blood-rimmed cover from the wooden tray. A boy’s decapitated head was exposed to view. It was the head of little Kotaro.

Takebe’s eyes were riveted on Matsuo. Defiantly he swore that Matsuo should draw his last breath the moment he declared the head to be a subterfuge. As a tiger ready to spring on its prey, the desperate man watched the judge on whose next word hung all their lives.

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Tonami was praying to the Gods in silent fervour that the truth might not be discovered, tremblingly she clutched a short sword hidden beneath her robe, which her husband had surreptitiously handed her, in preparation for the worst.

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Matsuo deliberately examined the head of his own son—carefully and searchingly from every side he scrutinized the little face, now so still and pallid, sometimes his eyes blinked to hide the gathering tears, and once his face contracted with pain, but at last he loudly pronounced the momentous verdict: “Oh, there can be no doubt that this is the head of Kanshusai, the son of the Lord Sugawara.” Triumph, at the success of his loyal plot, conquered every other feeling and he slammed the lid back into place.

Gemba, delighted that there had been no mistake, and that the gruesome commission had been successfully carried out, accorded words of praise to Takebe for beheading the boy.

“As a reward for this deed, you will be pardoned for harbouring him so long! Let us hasten to take the head to Lord Tokihira,” he said, turning to Matsuo.

“Yes, it is better that no time should be lost,” responded the latter, “but as my duty is now finished, may I request to be discharged on sick leave?”

“Certainly,” Gemba replied, “as your mission is satisfactorily concluded, you may go.”

He then took up the tray with the bleeding head, strode to the door, and calling his attendants, pompously set out at once for Tokihira’s palace. Outside the gate he stopped and mockingly addressed Takebe: “Ha, ha, ha!” he laughed, “though you take great care of the boy usually, when your own life is in danger you do not fail to cut off his head! ha, ha, ha!” and the cruel man, with this parting sneer, went on his ruthless way. Matsuo silently followed him out of the house and got into his kago.

The husband and wife, now that they were left alone, were quite exhausted from the emotion and stress of the past hour. They went out and closed the gates. Both were speechless with joy for some minutes. The master, sighing with relief, bowed his head and turned to the four points of the compass, silently returning thanks to the deities whose help he had invoked.

This is the head of Kanshusai, the son of the Lord Sugawara
This is the head of Kanshusai, the son of the Lord Sugawara

“Oh, Heaven be praised!” he exclaimed at last. “The Gods have accorded their mighty aid to our cause and mercifully caused Matsuo’s eyes to be dimmed, so that he mistook the other boy’s head for that of our young prince. Heaven has clearly interposed to help our lord. Let us rejoice, my wife!”

“Yes, yes,” she answered, “what a terrible strain it has been! In some unfathomable way the spirit of our lord must have cast a veil over Matsuo’s eyes, or that head may have become a golden Buddha to help our cause. Though there was a slight resemblance between the two boys, yet they differ in reality as much as brick from gold. I was so transported at the success of our plan, that I almost wept aloud with the poignancy of joy when I saw that Matsuo was deceived.”

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When the loyal couple had given vent to their feelings, simultaneously they rushed to the side-room, where they had concealed their precious charge. The one from the side and the other from the front pushed aside the screens. Genzo then raised one of the tatami (a padded mat three feet by six feet), disclosing a cavity in the floor, out of which rose up the aristocratic form of Kanshusai, safe and untouched by his enemies. They gazed at him in silence—overwhelmed.

Suddenly, a knocking at the gate and the voice of Kotaro’s mother disturbed them.

“I am the mother of the new pupil. Let me in!”

Startled, they hastily closed the screens. At this turn of events Tonami was at her wits’ end, and knew not what to do for the best. She ran to and fro across the room like one demented.

Seeing that Tonami was losing her self-control and was about to burst out into excited speech, her husband enveloped his hand in the sleeve of his robe and covered her mouth. He held her still with grim determination.

“Remember what I said a short time ago. It means simply this—nothing is so precious as our young lord. You weak creature!” he added, with disdain, as he saw his wife’s trepidation. Then he turned and went to the entrance.

“I fear my naughty boy must be giving you a great deal of trouble,” said the new-comer, as Takebe let her in, “but what has become of him now?”

To gain time, Takebe replied, little knowing that he was confronted by a soul as strong in loyalty to the Sugawara as his own: “He is in the house playing with the other children—school is over for to-day, so you must take him back with you.” “Very well,” she assented, and started towards the house.

Directly her back was turned, Takebe drew his sword and tried to cut her down from behind. O Chiyo, a samurai woman, was a trained fencer. She swiftly comprehended the meaning of Takebe’s movement, even before he drew his sword, the sound, as it left its sheath, confirming what her alert senses divined. Quick as lightning she darted aside, barely escaping the deadly weapon as it tried to compass her destruction. Again and again the desperate man thrust at her.

All would be lost even now, if this woman discovered that her boy had been slain to save their lord’s son. With a box which she carried in her hand, O Chiyo skilfully parried the blows.

“Wait, wait! What is the matter?” she gasped out. But her frenzied antagonist was far too excited to listen, and he struck out with such good-will that the box, which served her as a shield, was speedily cut in two, and there appeared, unfolding and fluttering in the breeze as they fell, a little winding sheet, and a sacred banner used for the dead, bearing in black hieroglyphics, the inscription, “Namu Amida Butsu!” (All hail, Great Buddha!)

Takebe’s hand was paralyzed by this unexpected apparition. Bewildered as to what this could mean, he glanced inquiringly at O Chiyo.

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“Was my boy considered worthy to take the place of our young lord or not?” she asked, meeting his gaze steadily with her clear eyes. “Tell me the truth!”

At such totally unlooked-for words, Takebe was confounded more than ever. Was it possible that the enemy he was seeking to destroy had unexpectedly become a friend?

“Oh, oh!” he stammered, “Did you understand and anticipate all this?”

“Yes, of course,” answered the brave mother. “As I anticipated everything, I prepared and brought these things in Kotaro’s box.”

“Whose wife are you?” cried the astonished man, as he sheathed his sword.

Before she could answer a voice from outside the gate chanted a poem: Ume wa tobi Sakura wa karuru Yono naka ni Nani tote Matsu[8] wa Tsure na kakuran.

In my service Plum blossom has fled The Cherry has withered How then can the Pine be Heartless to me?

“Rejoice, my wife! Our boy has done his duty!” When these brief words conveyed to the heroic woman that the sacrifice had been consummated in the tragic fate of her cherished son, her brave spirit failed her, and she fell unconscious to the ground.

“What a poor creature you are!” exclaimed her husband, as he entered the room.

At the unexpected arrival of Matsuo, the schoolmaster and his wife were more confused than ever, but with an effort Takebe attempted to regain his self-possession.

The box, which served her as a shield, was speedily cut in two, and there appeared, unfolding and fluttering in the breeze, a little winding-sheet and a sacred banner for the dead
The box, which served her as a shield, was speedily cut in two, and there appeared, unfolding and fluttering in the breeze, a little winding-sheet and a sacred banner for the dead

“I will use more ceremonious speech afterwards. You Matsuo, whom we all believed a traitor to behave like this! What is the meaning of it all?”

“It is quite natural that you cannot understand. We were three brothers. All were faithful vassals of Michizane, the Minister of the Right, to whom my family was deeply indebted. I, Matsuo, latterly entered the service of Tokihira, and on this account I was disowned by my father. I dissimulated thus, the better to serve Lord Sugawara. However, the position proved intolerable, and to get my dismissal I feigned illness. It was at this juncture that the news of where Kanshusai was concealed reached the ears of Tokihira. A messenger informed me that I would be released from office if I would undertake the mission of securing the head of our young lord. I felt sure that you would never commit such a crime, but if no substitute could be procured I knew that you would be desperate. Thinking that the time had come to repay the debt of gratitude to our generous benefactor, I consulted with my wife, and we sent our own boy to take the place of his son. That is why I counted the number of desks, to see if he were already here or not. Lord Sugawara composed the poem I quoted just now, showing his discernment of my character. In that poem he asks, ‘How can the pine be heartless towards me?’ But the world, in general, interpreted those lines in a contrary sense, and everyone denounced me as a cowardly deserter. You may imagine, Genzo, how I resented this. If I had had no son, I must have passed as a traitor all my life. There is no possession so precious as a son.”

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O Chiyo, who had meanwhile recovered from her faint, was intently listening to her husband’s explanations with a composed demeanour. But at these words she could restrain her emotion no longer, and sobbed aloud.

“Oh, how our Kotaro must rejoice although in another world, to hear such sentiments from his father. Those words are his best requiem. When I left him a short time ago, he looked unusually sad—for his childish mind understood that he was about to die. I intended to go home and deceive him, saying that I was going to the next village and would return soon. But I could not go home. Oh! the yearning to see even his dead face once more was so great that I came back. You may scoff at my weakness, but my sorrow is well-nigh unendurable. Had our Kotaro been born ugly, and brought up as a common child, he might not have suffered such a death. But as he was beautiful, obedient, and good, he was chosen for the sacrifice. Could I have known his untimely fate I would never have found fault with him. Oh, my son, my little, little son!”

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And the poor woman, overcome with the poignancy of her grief and the bitterness of her renunciation, fell with her face to the mats, trying to suppress the rending sobs which seemed to tear her breast asunder.

Here Tonami came close to the sorrowing mother and murmured in tones of sympathy: “Only a short hour ago, when my husband had decided that he should be the substitute for the young prince, Kotaro came up to him and said, innocently, ‘Master, please take care of me!’ When I think of this, though I am but a stranger, I feel as if my heart would break. I can imagine how desolate his true mother must be to lose such a sweet child,” and the tears fell from her eyes.

“No, no, Tonami! No, no, my wife! You must not weep. It was our own decision to let him die in the place of our young lord. You, O Chiyo, ought to be ashamed to give way like this before strangers. But,” and Matsuo turned anxiously to Takebe, “although I carefully explained to my boy the reason for his fate, and how he should die with dignity, tell me, did he meet death in a miserable way, or did he die like a samurai?”

“Yes, oh, yes!” Takebe quickly replied. “When I told the brave boy that his head must be cut off to save our young lord, the child of his benefactor, he calmly and courageously, without a word, placed his neck in readiness for the sword—he did not attempt either to hide or to escape from his impending doom. You must have taught him well—he even smiled at the last—rest assured of that!”

The schoolmaster could say no more, with strong restraint he tried to hide his feelings and pretended to laugh, but the forced mirth ended with a choking sound in his throat.

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At this point the stoic father broke down and wept, and as he wiped away the slow tears, he said, in a low voice: “He was both good and clever, was our little Kotaro. Even at the age of nine he takes the place of his parents to prove our gratitude to our lord. He is a filial child—a fortunate child to be able to do that I The more I think of it the more it recalls my brother, Sakura Maru. He died without being able to make any return for the obligation he was under to his lord. How he must envy our boy!”

“Oh, Kotaro soon followed him to another world!” wailed O Chiyo, and with these words she burst into another paroxysm of grief.

The young Sugawara, the innocent cause of this tragedy, overhearing the poor mother’s heart-rending sobs, came out from an inner room, pale and awe-stricken: “If I had only known that he was going to die for me, I would not have allowed it—oh—how sad! how sad!” he exclaimed, and with his long sleeve, he wiped away the tears from his eyes.

Matsuo and his wife turned and bowed to the little fellow while he spoke. For this boy’s sake their family must sink into oblivion and nothingness, and be no longer remembered among the living; for his sake there would be no one to keep up the rites of the dead before their ancestors’ tombs or their own, when they should be no more. On this altar of loyalty to his father’s house they had offered all that this world held for them of joy, hope, and ambition. On this altar they had laid up for themselves a cheerless, desolate, childless old age. To this sublime ideal of duty, unhesitatingly, unflinchingly, regardless of themselves and the acuteness of their sufferings, these simple martyr-souls had made this great renunciation. That the young lord should realize this sacrifice they had not in the least expected. His words surprised them. It was balm to their stricken hearts, that even in some small measure he could appreciate what they had done for him.

Then Matsuo rose and went to the porch.

“I have brought a present for our young master,” and with a whistle, he summoned a kago that had been waiting in the garden. As soon as the bearers set it down out stepped the Lady Sugawara.

“Oh, my mother! My mother!” almost shouted the boy, as she quickly entered the house, her long mantle of gold brocade and crimson linings flashing colour as she moved.

“Oh, my son, my beloved son!” cried the overjoyed mother, folding the child to her heart.

The schoolmaster and his wife exclaimed with joy when they realized the identity of the new-comer After their respectful greetings, Takebe said:

“I have been long striving to discover your hiding place. Where can your ladyship have taken refuge all this time?”

Matsuo answered for her: “When her ladyship was hiding in the suburbs, Tokihira’s retainers got scent of her retreat and nearly succeeded in taking her prisoner. Knowing her danger I disguised myself as a yamabushi[9] and managed to rescue her just in time, so she has been concealed in my house ever since. Without delay you must now escort her and Kanshusai to Kawachi,[10]—so that they may once more be a united family, safe from the pursuit of their enemies.”

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Then, turning to his wife, he added, “Now let us carry home the body of Kotaro and begin the preparations for his funeral rites.”

But before O Chiyo could answer, Tonami reverently carried the headless body of the slain child to the kago. O Chiyo followed, and kneeling, placed over Kotaro the white shroud and the sacred banner.

Matsuo and his wife then took off their outer robes, revealing the white garments of ceremonial mourning in readiness for the obsequies. Takebe and his wife made a gesture of surprise and deprecation.

“It is against custom that parents should attend the funeral of their own son. Let us spare you this trial—we will do everything in your place!” they cried.

“No, no,” said Matsuo, loyal unto death, even the death of his only son for the sake of his lord, “this is not the body of my boy. We are going to bury our young lord!”

'No, no,' said Matsuo ... ;this is not the body of my boy.... We are going to bury our young lord!'
‘No, no,’ said Matsuo … ;this is not the body of my boy…. We are going to bury our young lord!’

With these words, Matsuo and his wife took their farewells. Then, turning in silence, they followed the impromptu bier which bore all that was left to them of their well-beloved child, and with bowed heads reverently wended their way towards their now desolate and empty home. Lady Sugawara, her son, Genzo and Tonami, with tears falling from their eyes, watched the little procession slowly disappear down the road into the deepening shadows of the night.

Note.—”The memory of the unfortunate statesman, Sugawara-no-Michizane, is surrounded by a halo of romance which affords an insight into Japanese character. He belonged to an ancient family of professional litterateurs, and had none of the titles which in that age were commonly considered essential to official preferment. By extraordinary scholarship, singular sweetness of disposition, and unswerving fidelity to justice and truth he won a high reputation, and had he been content with the fame his writings brought him, and with promoting the cause of scholarship, through the medium of a school which he endowed, he might have ended his days in peace. But, in an evil hour, he accepted office, and thus found himself required to discharge the duties of statesmanship at a time of extreme difficulty, when an immense interval separated the rich and the poor, when the arbitrariness and extortions of the local governors had become a burning question, when the nobles and the princes were crushing the people with merciless taxes, and when the finances of the Court were in extreme disorder. Michizane, a gentle conservative, was not fitted to cope with these difficulties, and his situation at Court was complicated by the favour of an ex-Emperor (Uda) who had abdicated but still sought to take part in the administration, and by the jealousy of the Fujiwara representative, Tokihira, a young, impetuous, arrogant, but highly gifted nobleman. These two men, Michizane and Tokihira, became the central figures in a very unequal struggle, the forces on the one side being the whole Fujiwara clan, headed by the unscrupulously daring and ambitious Tokihira; those on the other, a few scholars, the love and respect of the lower orders, and the benevolent tolerance of the self-effacing Michizane. The end was inevitable.

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Michizane, falsely accused of conspiring to obtain the throne for his grandson—an Imperial prince had married his daughter—was banished to Dazaifu, and his family and friends were either killed or reduced to serfdom. The story is not remarkable. It contains no great crises or dazzling incidents. Yet if Michizane had been the most brilliant statesman and the most successful general ever possessed by Japan, his name could not have been handed down through all generations of his countrymen with greater veneration and affection.”—BRINKLEY, “Japan: Its History Arts and Literature,” p. 256.


[1] In the ancient Imperial Court there were two supreme Ministers in the Council of State; first the Minister of the Left (Sadaijin—next in rank to the Prime Minister), and second, the Minister of the Right (Udaijin).

[2] The Fujiwara Minister.

[3] Ronin, a samurai who has severed relations with his lord for the sake, generally, of carrying out some plan which would entail disgrace if unsuccessful.

[4] Where Sugawara was exiled.

[5] Obi, the sash or girdle.

[6] Shoji, sliding paper door.

[7] Kago, a palanquin.

[8] Matsu, the first hieroglyphic of Matsuo’s name. Ume (plum blossom), and Sakura (cherry), were the names of Matsuo’s brothers.

[9] Yamabushi, a wandering priest.

[10] Kawachi: where the friends of Sugawara were the strongest.

Loyal, Even Unto Death – Romances of Old Japan

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