Love and Marital Heroism in Two Chikamatsu Plays

Chikamatsu’s Plays

Love and Marital Heroism in Two Chikamatsu Plays

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Azuma, the courtesan, comes to deliver a letter. A razor blade hides in the paper. Her love, Yojibei, a married man, sits in house arrest for a violent crime he did not commit. His wife, Okiku, consoles him. She knows that “without money, his life is doomed” (Chikamatsu, 152). Azuma passes the letter over the wall and calls out for Yojibei. But Okiku intercepts it. Jealously, she emerges to confront the “brazen hussy” who has stolen her husband’s heart.

Taken from Chikamatsu’s play “The Uprooted Pine,” this scene goes to the heart of the tension between dutiful married life and feeling-based extramarital romance in Tokugawa Japanese culture. In eighteenth century Japanese society, marriage was an arranged affair. Love was not presumed to be a part of it. Downer (2001) writes, “Marriage was a political matter, nothing to do with love” (p. 35). It was an alliance between families that did not consider the free will of the participants. Downer goes on to suggest that sexual gratification and love were not expected within marriage (p. 36). Apart from the duty to procreate, the man was free to visit the non-stigmatized “pleasure quarters,” where only full-blown romance was frowned upon.

Much in Chikamatsu’s literature, says Hibbert (1959), is crafted out of “incidents of bourgeois life — in particular the emotional entanglements of tradesmen” (p. 27). His plots center on the activities of samurai and ch-nin (merchants, craftsmen, entrepreneurs) in the entertainment zones. Huffman (2010) writes, “By the late 1600s, each major city boasted an area called the ukiyo or ‘floating world,’ where men (and more than a few women) from all the classes sought relief from the strictures of daily life” (p. 66). Men roamed the streets around theatres, brothels, and teahouses, singing and drinking. It was the land of the geisha dancers, as well as the sumptuous oiran or courtesans, who smoked and wrote letters under night lanterns. These social types invariably found their way into Chikamatsu’s plays. They suggest an urban life in which money competed with honor and duty competed with feeling in the field of love.

Using telescoped analysis of marriage and love in two plays, this essay hopes to throw light on just one of the main social tensions of the time: the rub between marriage and prostitution. Courtesans pursued love in addition to money, wishing for their lover to redeem them. Meanwhile, wives pursued dutiful objectives in the social function of marriage. Often their husbands jeopardized the family honor, finances, and stability with their affairs. Yet as we will see, sometimes wives sacrificed their interests heroically for their husbands to maintain face in society. It was an important social dynamic that rotated on the ever-important axis of honor and obligation without which action at that time cannot be understood.

In Chikamatsu’s “The Uprooted Pine,” Azuma chooses an exclusivity which is the privilege only of high courtesans. She tells Yohei, “I should like to have you as my lover always, and to offer you my body and soul, but I am so deeply pledged to another man that I am not free to exchange even so much as a few words of love with anyone else” (137). She considers herself Yojibei’s wife, although he already has a wife and she is under contract (137). It brings her grief (139). Touched by her love story, Yohei promises to return to redeem her so that Azuma and Yojibei can be together. The priority of love for the courtesan is apparent from this scene.

The conflict in a courtesan’s life often came from rival suitors. These were the men who wished to use her services out of base gratification rather than from affection. In “The Uprooted Pine,” Hikosuke plays this role with venomous gusto. As Yojibei’s rival, he is a typical braggart, a tobacco merchant with money to flash around. He boastfully thinks Azuma should sell herself to him: “Doesn’t she realize what a rich man I am? . . . I’m willing to bet that if I scatter around enough pieces of gold and silver, Azuma will come round to my tune” (142). The key point for us is that the courtesan rejects such advances out of a committed love. Azuma slaps him and says, “I’m sure that no matter what happens — even if I have to spend the rest of my life paying house fees for the privilege of not answering your call — I’m not the kind of prostitute to be manipulated by a rotten scoundrel like you with the lever of your money” (142). The motif of courtesan resistance to unloving ransom demonstrates the woman’s principle desire and her morality: that love is worth more than money. This is despite the fact that many courtesans came from impoverished backgrounds and would have had reason to value money for their families.

After Yojibei is incarcerated for his “crime” (he allegedly stabs Hikosuke), Azuma travels to his house. She is aware that her romance with him has created domestic turmoil. The marital relationship between Yojibei and his wife Okiku emerges gradually. In the initial part of the scene, Okiku confronts her husband’s courtesan. With animosity, she tells Azuma, “Thanks to you my husband has neglected the family business and has shown himself completely indifferent to what happens at home” (154). His visits to the pleasure quarters foment disgraceful gossip. Romance of this risky, feeling sort is disruptive, if not destructive, to social norms. To make matters worse, Yojibei’s life hangs in the balance. The wife has reason to be upset. Even while claiming to act with restraint as a model wife untouched with jealousy (155), she blames Azuma, naturally, for the waste and slander that has tainted her marital existence. By contrast with Azuma, her feelings are repressed out of duty and constrained by social image.

The text says that Yojibei’s heart “goes out to both” (155). He listens as Azuma justifies her appearance and her relationship with Yojibei. She explains why she has come: to warn Yojibei that Hikosuke is near death, and to prepare Yojibei to die for honor’s sake. Azuma intends to commit suicide with him. Upon seeing Azuma take a razor to her neck, Okiku’s attitude changes. She says, “Anyone willing to give up her life, even if it is only a gesture to society, cannot be lying” (156). She agrees to take Azuma to Yojibei. On the way, Azuma begs forgiveness for having an affair with Okiku’s husband. Her apology is accepted. We cannot help but notice in this exchange a social point of obligation. Okiku feels obligated to help Azuma because of her loyalty to Yojibei. While jealousy is natural, Okiku comes to terms with the truth that a husband-wife relationship at that time was not expected to be exclusive in the realm of sexuality. The wife places more importance on duty than on personal feelings.

Okiku then encourages him to flee with her rival, Azuma, despite what it means for the marriage. She is “hoarse with tears” (160) and insists that he write her when they have found a safe hiding place. Okiku says, “I have so many things to tell you, but they’re in my heart and don’t come to my lips” (160). Secretly, not publicly, she laments that she is sending her husband off with another woman when it should be she who is going. By withholding her resistance, she demonstrates real love. Yojibei is overwhelmed by his wife’s love (160). He is torn with conflict as he scrambles into the sedan with his courtesan and rides off. Soon afterwards, Yojibei questions his decision: “A courtesan’s basin is her faithful companion, her wife, and she may herself seem desirable enough for you to make her your wife, but once you ransom her the bottom of the basin drops away, it holds no more moonlight” (162). He longs for his wife. “My heart is one but torn in two, like the notes of the cuckoo . . .” (162). It is his wife’s compassionate reaction to the situation that elicits a bountiful expression of requited love. He and Azuma are now homeless desperadoes, banned from returning. The play ends when Yosei, now laden with money, redeems Azuma and fulfills his vow to the romantic couple.

The social dynamics of love and marriage are poignant also in “The Love Suicides at Amijima.” The courtesan Koharu is in love with Jihei, a paper merchant with a family. She demonstrates her love with gloom when she meets other clients. From thwarted love as a result of Jihei’s inability to ransom the courtesan, both have vowed to commit suicide together (179). Yet Koharu renounces the plan — a bitter betrayal for Jihei who overhears it. He does not realize she still loves him (185). This scene demonstrates love and contradiction in a courtesan’s life.

As in the previous play, conflict arises between the courtesan and a villain. Tahei has sworn to ransom Koharu against her will. In his swaggering insolence, he believes that money will win her affection: “You may not want to hear me, but the clink of my gold coins will make you listen” (175). Tahei shows his unsavory arrogance further when he taunts and insults a samurai (Jihei’s disguised brother) (176). Later he finds Jihei tied up and drubs him violently (182).

Meanwhile, Jihei’s life is falling apart. His business is on the rocks, nearing bankruptcy. He laments: “I’ve neglected my parents, relatives — even my wife and children — and wrecked my fortune, all because I was deceived by Koharu” (184). At home, he sleeps as the business sinks. Osan, his devoted wife, is a boring creature who looks after their shop and domestic matters (186). Her aunt-in-law blames her for the trouble and disgrace of the family (188). Jihei’s brother tries several times to advise him to stop his socially threatening romance with Koharu. He believes the affair mortifies their family name. During an intervention, Jihei promises in writing never to see Koharu again, a promise made under the false impression that she is a traitorous witch who has deceived and rejected him.

Osan’s hope for a renewed marriage is dashed quickly. Jihei counters her by saying that he is upset because of Koharu’s betrayal of him, which he blames on not having the ransom money. As a result of poverty, his rival can ransom her. He cries, “My heart is broken and my body burns with shame” (191). Osan courageously reveals her secret, keeping her obligation to the courtesan. She admits to scheming in a letter that begged Koharu not to suicide. Koharu broke the relationship out of honorable obligation to Osan: “She answered that she would give you up, though you were more precious than life itself, because she could not shirk her duty to me” (192). Osan sees her rival as noble, committed, and bound for death rather than marry the rival Tahei (192). As a result of this exchange, Osan commands that her husband go and save the courtesan’s life. She gives him the money for it — money she’s saved away by selling her own clothes. Thus we see her dedication to duty and to her husband. She would “do anything which might serve my husband” (193). Her motive is honor. She says: “It doesn’t matter if the children and I have nothing to wear. My husband’s reputation concerns me more. . . . Assert your honor before Tahei” (193). The crucial consideration here, just as with the previous play, is that the husband is granted priority out of a dutiful need to preserve family honor, not out of feeling. By contrast, the courtesan and husband act together from feeling. What is key is the contradiction between marital obligation and affection achievable only through the courtesan in the social world of the characters. It is the contrast of commanded love vs. chosen love. Yet the husband cannot resist feeling guilty since he is indebted to his wife’s generosity. He shows finally an attitude of respect and obligation, even love. Just before he departs, she hugs him affectionately, not knowing that the ultimate result will be the suicides of husband and courtesan.

In this analysis from two of Chikamatsu’s plays, the tension between dutiful marriage and passionate romance is central. Wives are shown to act heroically from duty against their feelings to preserve the reputation of their husbands. The interchange between courtesans and wives is shown to be based on gender obligation. The financial problems of the husbands lead them down ruinous paths that are ultimately resolved either in the salvation of love or in love suicide. What comes to light in the two analyzed “floating world” romances of Chikamatsu is how they offer a powerful glimpse into the dynamics of honor, love, and money in the urban social history of Japan at that time. Much about that history is embedded in microcosm in these narratives.


Chikamatsu. (1961). Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu. Donald Keene (Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Downer, Lesley. (2001). Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway Books.

Hibbett, Howard. (1959). The Floating World in Japanese Fiction. London: Oxford University Press.

Huffman, James L. (2010). Japan in World History. New York: Oxford University Press.

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