(Boylove Documentary Sourcebook) - "Love Letter Sent in a Sea Bass" by Ihara Saikaku, 1687 (full-text short story)

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Autumn of Kurama (鞍馬の秋 Kurama no Aki, 1926). Japanese illustration depicting the samurai boy Ushiwakamaru (the childhood name of the late 12th-century military commander and folk hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune), by Kashō Takabatake.

From The Great Mirror of Male Love (男色大鑑 Nanshoku Ōkagami, 1687) by Ihara Saikaku, translated, with an introduction, by Paul Gordon Schalow (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990). Footnotes omitted.

Note 1: Saikaku's short story collection was written at a time when Japan followed the East Asian age reckoning, by which people are born at the age of one, i.e. the first year of lifetime using an ordinal numeral (instead of "zero" using a cardinal numeral), and on Chinese New Year or New Year's Day one year is added to their age. Since age is incremented at the beginning of the lunar or solar year, rather than on the anniversary of a birthday, people may be one or two years older in Asian reckoning than in the international age system.[1]

Note 2: The main character pair of this short story breaks laws strictly forbidding boys in the personal service of the daimyō (feudal lord) from establishing sexual relationships outside.[2]

The story was inspired by historical events that occurred in 1667 involving a young samurai named Mashida Toyonoshin (Jinnosuke in Saikaku’s version) from Bizen Province. Saikaku’s major change was to transpose the events from Bizen to Izumo Province on the basis of a powerful literary association that the sea bass (suzuki) had with the town of Matsue in Izumo. The association stems from the fact that there are a province and a lake of the same name (Sungkiang in Chinese) that are connected with the sea bass in ancient Chinese poetic references. The shift of province motivated by literary factors extraneous to the factual aspects of the account immediately reveals Saikaku’s focus on poetic association and image in the way he retells the narrative. Certain similarities in vocabulary and story line can be observed between Saikaku’s version of the tale and the two surviving historical accounts (jitsuroku) of the same incident, but “Love Letter Sent in a Sea Bass” is so thoroughly injected with Saikaku’s haikai sensibility that it stands independently as a distinct literary product.


Love Letter Sent in a Sea Bass

Gods of the Great Shrine also ordain bonds of boy love.
His tale of three years of devotion makes people weep.
He wrote down his complaints in a final testament.

It is said that, “Cherry blossoms forever bloom the same, but people change with every passing year.” This is especially true of a boy in the bloom of youth. It is as if he were hit by a rain squall when the sleeve vents in his robe are sewn shut. He shudders under a rising wind when his temples are shaved. When at last he comes of age, his blossom of youth falls cruelly to the ground. All told, loving a boy can be likened to a dream that we are not even given time to have.

Jinnosuke was the second son of the Mashida family in service to the lord of the province where “eight clouds rise.” He was a handsome boy from birth. By the spring of his eleventh year he had mastered the skills of both pen and sword. Everyone who saw him fell immediately in love. When the gods assembled at the Great Shrine, this boy was the main topic of conversation. “There will never be another like him in all the provinces of Japan,” they said.

The gods had matched Jinnosuke in a vow of love with a man also in the daimyo’s service. He was Moriwaki Gonkurō, aged 28 that year, a samurai of reliable and trustworthy character. Gonkurō had first been smitten with the boy in the autumn of Jinnosuke’s thirteenth year. Thereafter he made a point of becoming friendly with the boy’s attendant, Dengorō. Through him he sent a love letter to the boy. In order to avoid discovery, he had it delivered to the attendant’s quarters in the mouth of a sea bass. While combing the boy’s hair the following morning, Dengorō slipped the letter into Jinnosuke’s robe. The boy’s lovely face reflected calmly in the mirror.

“He seems in such good spirits,” Dengorō thought. “Now may be my chance to mention the letter.”

He explained at great length the extent of Gonkurō’s passionate feelings for Jinnosuke and how much the man suffered with love for him. Without even opening the letter, Jinnosuke hurriedly took out an inkstone to write a reply.

As he considered what Dengorō had just told him, he felt overwhelmed with joy and affection for his suitor. He decided to ally himself with the man from that day forward and ignore whatever condemnation the world might have regarding his conduct.

Without writing his reply, he returned Gonkurō’s letter still sealed and said to Dengorō, “The path of love will not tolerate a moment’s delay. Go tell him immediately of my decision.”

Touched by the boy’s sensitivity, Dengorō put down the comb and left straight away.

Gonkurō wept when he heard of the boy’s decision. “I can never thank you enough.” He had not even met the boy, and he was already crying into his sleeves!

On a summer’s night in his fourteenth year, like the long-awaited song of the nightingale, Jinnosuke first made love to Gonkurō. They met in strictest secrecy, fearful lest news of their love become known. Except for the moon, not a soul knew what was going on through the autumn of his fifteenth and sixteenth years.

Fate determines whom we love. There was a minor retainer named Hanzawa Ihei who fell in love with Jinnosuke. He used a guard named Shinzaemon as his unwilling intermediary to send letter after letter to the boy. Jinnosuke, however, refused to answer a single one. Having once revealed his feelings, Ihei now found it impossible to retreat. He sent one final letter:

“No doubt you do not deign to respond because of my lowly status. If you already belong to someone, let me know. If not, I shall clear up my resentment as soon as we have a chance to meet.”

This was a challenge to fight to the death.

Thus far, Jinnosuke had kept the entire matter to himself, but he now spoke to Gonkurō, thinking that he should know what was going on.

“Just because he is a samurai of low rank does not mean you should treat his plea lightly,” Gonkurō advised. “What if we were to get ourselves killed? That would be the end of our enjoyment together. Try to think of a response that will somehow satisfy him.”

Jinnosuke’s eyes turned red with fury when he heard this. “We made an eternal vow of love,” he thought bitterly to himself. “Should the lord himself desire me, am I to surrender myself? I have a mind to kill Gonkurō and be done with him. But first I must duel with Ihei. If it is my destiny as a samurai, I will succeed in dispatching him. Then, with the same blade, I shall slay Gonkurō.”

His mind made up, Jinnosuke headed home. There, he wrote his challenge to Ihei.

“You will have a chance to relieve your rancor tonight. Meet me at the pine grove at Tenjin.”

He called Shinzaemon and had him deliver the letter to Ihei immediately.

It was already late in the day, the 26th of the third month. Jinnosuke listened dispassionately to the tolling of the sunset bell. He was sure that this would be the last time he ever heard its sound, but the thought did not alarm him, for he was familiar with the idea of life’s uncertainty. He spent a few quiet moments with his parents, acting more solicitous of them than ever. Alone again, he wrote letters of farewell to all of his relatives and close friends. In his final letter, addressed to Gonkurō, he poured out all of the resentment stored in his heart. He was determined to make Gonkurō understand the righteousness of his anger.

“From the very beginning, when I first said, ‘this body is no longer my own,’ I understood that I would have to die if the nature of our relationship were ever revealed. Now that this situation has come about, I feel no particular sorrow. Tonight, I shall fight to the finish at a mountain temple.

“In view of our years of intimacy, I am deeply hurt that you should hesitate to die with me. Lest it prove to be a barrier to my salvation in the next life, I decided to include in this final testament all of the grudges against you that have accumulated in me since we first met.

“First: I made my way at night to your distant residence a total of 327 times over the past three years. Not once did I fail to encounter trouble of some kind. To avoid detection by patrols making their nightly rounds, I disguised myself as a servant and hid my face behind my sleeve, or hobbled along with a cane and lantern dressed like a priest. No one knows the lengths I went to in order to meet you!

“Remember last year, the twentieth day of the eleventh month? I was gravely ill (with worry about you, I am sure), and my mother stayed at my bedside all evening. I was convinced that I would not see morning, but the thought of dying without one last meeting with you was unbearable. I cursed the light of the rising moon and made my way in disarray to your door. Surely you recognized my footsteps, but my only welcome was to have you extinguish the lamp and hush your conversation. How cruel you were to me! I would love to know who your companion was that night.

“Next: Last spring, I casually wrote the poem ‘My sleeves rot, soaked with tears of jealous rage’ on the back of a fan painted by Kano no Uneme in the pattern of a ‘riot of flowers.’ You took it and said, ‘The cool breeze from this fan will help me bear the flames of our love this summer.’ How happy you made me! But shortly it came to my attention that you gave the fan to your attendant Kichisuke with a note across the poem that said, ‘This calligraphy is terrible.’

“Again, when I asked you for your favorite lark as a gift (the one you got from the birdcatcher Jūbei), you refused and gave it to Kitamura Shōhachi instead. He is, of course, the most handsome boy in the household. My jealousy has not abated yet.

“Next: On the eleventh day of the fourth month past, the lord ordered all of his young attendants from the inner chamber to practice horseback riding. Setsubara Tarōzaemon was kind enough to tell me that the back of my skirt was soiled and brushed it off for me. You were standing directly behind me, but did not tell me about it. In fact, I saw you exchange amused glances with Kozawa Kurōjirō. After our years of love together, such a thing should never happen.

“Next: On the eighteenth of the fifth month, you were angry with me for talking well into the night with Ogasawara Han’ya. As I explained to you that night, he came for recitation practice along with Ogaki Magosaburō and Matsuhara Tomoya. There were no other visitors. Han’ya is still a mere child, Magosaburō is my age, and Tomoya you know. There should be no problem with our getting together to practice every night if we wish, yet you are still full of suspicions. I find your frequent insinuating remarks very upsetting. By the gods of Japan, I swear that I still cannot forget my anger at your distrust.

“Next: Since the time when we first became lovers, you never once saw me to my house when we bid each other farewell in the morning. In fact, in all these years, you only twice saw me as far as the bridge in front of Uneme’s. If you love someone, you should be willing to see him safely home through wilds filled with wolves and tigers.

“Though I hold this and that grudge against you, the fact that I cannot bring myself to stop loving you must be the work of some strange fate. To weep is my only comfort. For the sake of our friendship up to now, I ask you to pray, even if but once, for my rebirth in paradise. How strange to think that the impermanence of this world should also affect me.”

He closed the letter with a poem: “While yet in full bloom, it is buffeted by an unexpected gale; the morning glory falls with the dew, ere evening draws nigh.”

It ended, “These are the thoughts I wanted to leave with you. Evening, my last, is drawing nigh, so I shall bid farewell. Kambun 7 [1667], third month, 26th day.”

He gave the letter to Dengorō with instructions to take it to Moriwaki Gonkurō that night at the fourth bell. As the beat of the sunset drum began to echo in the dusk, Jinnosuke rushed to his rendezvous.

He had dressed with some flair, knowing that he would be saying farewell to this floating world in the robes he wore. Against his skin was a lined garment; over that he wore a pale blue robe blending into white at the waist. It was handsomely decorated with a cherry blossom pattern embroidered in multicolored thread. It also bore a circular ginkgo-leaf crest. Faintly visible were autumn leaves dyed on the reverse side of his sleeves. His sash was gray, done in a heavy eight-layered weave. He carried a matching set of long and short swords made by Tadayoshi of Hizen. In preparation for the fight, he discarded his knife and checked to see that the rivet on his sword hilt was secure.

He made his way to the pine grove at Tenjin about one li distant from the castle. There was a large boulder completely hidden by ivy with a giant laurel tree behind it where he sat in wait for his foe. Dusk deepened, and soon it grew too dark to distinguish faces. Suddenly, who should appear but Gonkurō, gasping for breath.

“Is it you, Jinnosuke?”

“A coward is no friend of mine,” he answered.

Moriwaki wept. “I won’t make apologies here. I shall prove my love to you as we cross the river to the next world.”

“I don’t need your help,” Jinnosuke retorted.

In the midst of this argument, Hanzawa Ihei appeared with fifteen of his roughest men.

The four of them drew at the same instant and wielded their swords in the chaotic fray, determined to die manfully in the onslaught. Jinnosuke cut two of them down, and four fell under Gonkurō’s sword. Of the sixteen men, six died outright, seven were injured, and the others escaped. On their side, the attendant Kichisuke died on the spot, Gonkurō received a light wound above his eye, and Jinnosuke suffered a slight gash where a sword grazed his shoulder.

Their task completed, they crept in secret to a nearby temple called Eiun-ji. They requested the resident priest to bury them properly after their seppuku, but the priest insisted that they wait.

“You have made it this far alive. Why not first explain the reason for the duel to the elders and authorities in charge? Then, if you commit seppuku for them to see, you can preserve your reputations unblemished in the world.”

Convinced, the two went immediately to the nearest guard station and explained the sequence of events as recorded above. After verifying the facts and reporting them to the lord, the two were ordered to refrain from committing seppuku and taken that night to the castle town where they were turned over to their respective families and told to nurse their wounds.

The lord ordered that those who had escaped the fight be cut down on sight. The province’s ports were closed, and after an inquiry the injured were summarily executed. Later, the following favorable decision was handed down:

“In the matter concerning Jinnosuke, we find him guilty of grave negligence in breaking the law of his lord. Nevertheless, his father Jimbei is a loyal retainer and pious son, and Jinnosuke himself had served well previous to the event. Moreover, his valorous deeds during this incident we find most remarkable for one of his tender years. Therefore, we have decided not to punish the boy. Likewise, Gonkurō shall be forgiven unconditionally.”

Jinnosuke was reinstated into his former position as a castle guard and ordered to begin service on the fifteenth of the month.

People flocked to Eiun-ji to see the wonders that Jinnosuke’s sword had wrought that night. They counted 73 nicks on his blade and 18 cuts in his sheath. His robes were completely stained with blood. His left sleeve had been cut off entirely. In the midst of such violent fighting, he himself had escaped serious injury. No young samurai had ever performed such a feat. Those who saw it wept in awe. Later, when Jinnosuke came to properly mourn Ihei and his fallen comrades, his reputation for remarkable thoughtfulness was enhanced still further.

The likes of this handsome boy should be a model for future generations. I, for one, would like to take Jinnosuke’s letter to Gonkurō, burn it, and make the tea brewed from the ashes required drinking for the faint-hearted young men of our day.

Someone posted a rhyme on the central gate designating Jinnosuke as the precious incense of boy love. “Ten times the love of Moriwaki, more fragrant than aloeswood: Mashida Jinnosuke.” It became the topic of widespread conversation.

With him as their example, all the sons of samurai strove to emulate Jinnosuke. Even the sons of merchants sweating over their scales, farm boys slaving in the fields, and salt makers’ sons burnt black on the beaches, no matter how rude their appearance or menial their task, all yearned to sacrifice their lives for the sake of male love. Boys without male lovers, like women without husbands, were thought of with pity. Boy love became the fashion, and the love between men and women went into precipitous decline.

Nanshoku-type tryst between a samurai and a boyfriend. Panel from Spring Pastimes (ca. 1750), a series of ten homoerotic scenes by Miyagawa Isshō. Shunga-style painted hand scroll (kakemono-e); sumi, color and gofun on silk. Private collection.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Asian_age_reckoning
  2. Ihara Saikaku, The Great Mirror of Male Love, trans. Paul Gordon Schalow (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 322.

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