World History of Male Love - Home Page Fiction


Author: Ihara Saikaku (1642–1693)
Translator: Paul Gordon Schalow
Work: Nanshoku Okagami (The Great Mirror of Male Love)
Excerpt: Bamboo Clappers Strike the Hateful Number


IHARA SAIKAKU (1642–1693) was a poet and writer of popular fiction who lived in the first century of the Tokugawa period, a period of relative peace and prosperity in Japanese history. Born in Osaka, Saikaku first flourished as a writer of poetry in an age when quantity was sometimes more respected than quality. In one spontaneous “performance” in 1684, he is said to have composed 23,500 verses in one twenty-four hour period. Saikaku is most widely known, however, for his fiction that explored the travails of love and sex (koshoku), often within the pleasure quarters of large cities. The story by Saikaku published here is from The Great Mirror of Male Love, translated from the Japanese by Paul Gordon Schalow.




Bamboo Clappers Strike the Hateful Number.
A monk’s hermitage papered with love letters.
Boy actors hide their age.
A pushy samurai loses his whiskers.

When being entertained by a kabuki boy actor, one must be careful never to ask his age.

It was late in autumn, and rain just light enough not to be unpleasant had been falling since early morning. It now lifted and the afternoon sun appeared below the clouds in the west, forming a rainbow over Higashiyama. Just then a group of boy actors appeared wearing wide-striped rainbow robes of satin. The most handsome among them was an actor in the Murayama theater troupe, a jewel that sparkled without need of polishing, named Tamamura Kichiya. [1] He was in the full flower of youth, and every person in the capital was in love with him.

On that particular day, a well-known lover of boys called Ko-romo-notana Shiroku had invited him to go mushroom picking at Mt. Shiroyama in Fushimi, so a large group of actors and their spirited companions left Shijo-gawara and soon arrived at Hitsu-kawa. Leaves of the birch cherries, the subject of a long-ago poem, [2] had turned bright red, a sight more beautiful even than spring blossoms. After spending some time gazing at the scene, the group continued past the woods at Fuji-no-mori, where the tips of the leaves were just beginning to turn brown, and moved south up the mountain.

They parked their palanquins at the base and alighted, heads covered with colorful purple kerchiefs. Since pine trees were their only observers, they removed their sedge hats and revealed their lovely faces. Parting the tangled pampas grass, they walked on with sighs of admiration. The scene was reminiscent of the poem, “My sleeves grow damp since first entering the mountain of your love,” [3] for these were boys at the peak of physical beauty. An outsider looking at them could not but have felt envious of their gentleman companions. A certain man well acquainted with the ways of love once said, “In general, courtesans are a pleasure once in bed; with boys, the pleasure begins on the way there.”

It was already close to dusk by the time they began hunting for mushrooms. They found only a few, which they carried like treasures back to an isolated thatched hut far from any village. Inside, the walls were papered at the base with letters from actors. Their signatures had been torn off and discarded. Curious, the boys looked more closely and discovered that each letter concerned matters of love. Each was written in a different hand, the parting messages of kabuki boy actors. The monk who lived there must once have been a man of some means, they thought. He apparently belonged to the Shingon sect, for when they opened the Buddhist altar they found a figure of Kaba Daishi adorned with chrysanthemums and bush clover, and next to it a picture of a lovely young actor, the object no doubt of this monk’s fervent devotion.

When they questioned him, the monk told them about his past. As they suspected, he was devoted body and soul to the way of boy love.

“I was unhappy with my strict father and decided to seclude myself in this mountain hermitage. More than two years have passed, but I have not been able to forget about boy love even in my dreams.” The tears of grief he wept were enough to fade the black dye of his priestly robes. Those who heard it were filled with pity for him.

“How old are you?” someone asked.

“I am no longer a child,” he said.

“I just turned 22.”

“Why then, you are still in the flower of youth!” they exclaimed.

All of the actors in the room dutifully wrung the tears from their sleeves, but their expressions seemed strangely reticent. Not one of them was under 22 years of age! Among them was one boy actor who, judging from the time he worked the streets, must have been quite old. In the course of the conversation, someone asked him his age.

“I don’t remember,” he said, causing quite some amusement among the men.

Then, the monk who lived in the cottage spoke up.

“By good fortune, I have here a bamboo clapper that has the ability to tell exactly how old you are.”

He gave the clapper to the boy actor and had him stand there while the monk himself gravely folded his hands in prayer. Shortly, the bamboo clappers began to sound. Everyone counted aloud with each strike.

At first, the actor stood there innocently as it struck seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, but beyond that he started to feel embarrassed. He tried with all his strength to separate his right hand from his left and stop the clappers from striking, but, strangely, they kept right on going. Only after striking 38 did the bamboo clappers separate. The boy actor’s face was red with embarrassment.

“These bamboo clappers lie!” he said, throwing them down.

The monk was outraged.

“The Buddhas will attest that there is no deceit in them. If you still have doubts, try it again as many times as you like.”

The other actors in the room were all afraid of being exposed, so no one was willing to try them out. They were beginning to lose their party mood.

When sake had been brought out and the mushrooms toasted and salted, they all lay back and began to entertain their patrons. One of the boy actors took the opportunity to request a new jacket, another was promised a house with an entrance six ken wide, and still another was presented right there with a short sword (It was amusing to see how nimbly he took the sword and put it away!).

Into the midst of this merry-making came a rough samurai of the type rarely seen in the capital. He announced his arrival with the words,

“Part, clouds, for here I am!” as if to boast of his bad reputation. He forced his way through the twig fence and into the garden, handed his long sword to an attendant, and went up to the bamboo veranda.

“Bring me the sake cup that Tamamura Kichiya is using,” he demanded.

Kichiya at first pretended he had not heard, but finally he said,“There is already a gentleman here to share my cup.”

The samurai would not tolerate such an answer.

“I will have it at once,” he said angrily, “and you will be my snack!”


To see details about this image by Miyakawa Choshun in the Japanese Hall of the Museum, click on it.  

He took up his long sword mentioned earlier and waved it menacingly. at the boy
s companion. The poor man was terrified and apologized profusely, but the samurai refused to listen.

“What an awful fellow,” Kichiya laughed.

“I wont let him get away with this.”

“Leave him to me,” he told the others and sent them back home.

When they had gone, Kichiya snuggled up to the foolish samurai.

“Today was so uninteresting,” he said.

“I was just having a drink with those boring merchants because I had to. It would be a real pleasure to drink with a lord like yourself.”

Kichiya poured cup after cup of sake for the man and flattered and charmed him expertly. Soon, the fool was in a state of waking sleep, unaware of anything but the boy. The man was ready to make love, but Kichiya told him: “I cant go any further because of your scratchy whiskers. It hurts when you kiss me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of keeping anything on my face not to your liking, boy. Call my servant and have him shave it off,” the samurai said.

“If you don’t mind, please allow me to improve my lord’s good looks with my own hands.” Kichiya picked up a razor and quickly shaved off the whiskers on the left side of the samurai’s face, leaving the mustache intact on his upper lip. He also left the right side as it was. The samurai just snored loudly, completely oblivious to what was going on.

Kichiya saw his opportunity and escaped from the place as quickly as possible. He took the man’s whiskers with him as a memento. Everyone laughed uproariously when he showed them the hair.

“How in the world did you get hold of that! This deserves a celebration!” they said. Akita Hikosabura [4] invented an impromptu “whisker dance” and had the men holding their sides with laughter.

Later, when the samurai awoke, he was furious at the loss of his whiskers. Without his beard he had no choice but to quit living by intimidation. Rather than seek revenge, he decided to act as if the whole thing had never happened.

When they saw him some time later, he was making his living as a marksman with his bow. Recalling how he had lost his beard, they could not help but laugh at the man.






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