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Shinju Post by :WastedFate Category :Essays Author :Lafcadio Hearn Date :September 2011 Read :2917

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Shinju

SOMETIMES they simply put their arms round each other, and lie down together on the iron rails, just in front of an express train. (They cannot do it in Izumo, however, because there are no railroads there yet.) Sometimes they make a little banquet for themselves, write very strange letters to parents and friends, mix something bitter with their rice-wine, and go to sleep for ever. Sometimes they select a more ancient and more honoured method: the lover first slays his beloved with a single sword stroke, and then pierces his own throat. Sometimes with the girl's long crape-silk under-girdle (koshi-obi) they bind themselves fast together, face to face, and so embracing leap into some deep lake or stream. Many are the modes by which they make their way to the Meido, when tortured by that world-old sorrow about which Schopenhauer wrote so marvellous a theory.

Their own theory is much simpler.

None love life more than the Japanese; none fear death less. Of a future world they have no dread; they regret to leave this one only because it seems to them a world of beauty and of happiness; but the mystery of the future, so long oppressive to Western minds, causes them little concern. As for the young lovers of whom I speak, they have a strange faith which effaces mysteries for them. They turn to the darkness with infinite trust. If they are too unhappy to endure existence, the fault is not another's, nor yet the world's; it is their own; it is innen, the result of errors in a previous life. If they can never hope to be united in this world, it is only because in some former birth they broke their promise to wed, or were otherwise cruel to each other. All this is not heterodox. But they believe likewise that by dying together they will find themselves at once united in another world, though Buddhism proclaims that self-destruction is a deadly sin. Now this idea of winning union through death is incalculably older than the faith of Shaka; but it has somehow borrowed in modern time from Buddhism a particular ecstatic colouring, a mystical glow. Hasu no hana no ue ni oite matan. On the lotus-blossoms of paradise they shall rest together. Buddhism teaches of transmigrations countless, prolonged through millions of millions of years, before the soul can acquire the Infinite Vision, the Infinite Memory, and melt into the bliss of Nehan, as a white cloud melts into the summer 's blue. But these suffering ones think never of Nehan; love's union, their supremest wish, may be reached, they fancy, through the pang of a single death. The fancies of all, indeed--as their poor letters show--are not the same. Some think themselves about to enter Amida's paradise of light; some see in their visional hope the saki-no-yo only, the future rebirth, when beloved shall meet beloved again, in the all-joyous freshness of another youth; while the idea of many, indeed of the majority, is vaguer far--only a shadowy drifting together through vapoury silences, as in the faint bliss of dreams.

They always pray to be buried together. Often this prayer is refused by the parents or the guardians, and the people deem this refusal a cruel thing, for 'tis believed that those who die for love of each other will find no rest, if denied the same tomb. But when the prayer is granted the ceremony of burial is beautiful and touching. From the two homes the two funeral processions issue to meet in the temple court, by light of lanterns. There, after the recitation of the kyo and the accustomed impressive ceremonies, the chief priest utters an address to the souls of the dead. Compassionately he speaks of the error and the sin; of the youth of the victims, brief and comely as the flowers that blossom and fall in the first burst of spring. He speaks of the Illusion--Mayoi-- which so wrought upon them; he recites the warning of the Teacher.. But sometimes he will even predict the future reunion of the lovers in some happier and higher life, re-echoing the popular heart-thought with a simple eloquence that makes his hearers weep. Then the two processions form into one, which takes its way to the cemetery where the grave has already been prepared. The two coffins are lowered together, so that their sides touch as they rest at the bottom of the excavation. Then the yama-no-mono (1) folk remove the planks which separate the pair--making the two coffins into one; above the reunited dead the earth is heaped; and a haka, bearing in chiselled letters the story of their fate, and perhaps a little poem, is placed above the mingling of their dust.

These suicides of lovers are termed 'joshi' or 'shinju'--(both words being written with the same Chinese characters)-signifying 'heart- death,' 'passion-death,' or 'love-death.' They most commonly occur, in the case of women, among the joro (2) class; but occasionally also among young girls of a more respectable class. There is a fatalistic belief that if one shinju occurs among the inmates of a joroya, two more are sure to follow. Doubtless the belief itself is the cause that cases of shinju do commonly occur in series of three.

The poor girls who voluntarily sell themselves to a life of shame for the sake of their families in time of uttermost distress do not, in Japan (except, perhaps, in those open ports where European vice and brutality have become demoralising influences), ever reach that depth of degradation to which their Western sisters descend. Many indeed retain, through all the period of their terrible servitude, a refinement of manner, a delicacy of sentiment, and a natural modesty that seem, under such conditions, as extraordinary as they are touching.

Only yesterday a case of shinju startled this quiet city. The servant of a physician in the street called Nadamachi, entering the chamber of his master's son a little after sunrise, found the young man lying dead with a dead girl in his arms. The son had been disinherited. The girl was a joro. Last night they were buried, but not together; for the father was not less angered than grieved that such a thing should have been.

Her name was Kane. She was remarkably pretty and very gentle; and from all accounts it would seem that her master had treated her with a kindness unusual in men of his infamous class. She had sold herself for the sake of her mother and a child-sister. The father was dead, and they had lost everything. She was then seventeen. She had been in the house scarcely a year when she met the youth. They fell seriously in love with each other at once. Nothing more terrible could have befallen them; for they could never hope to become man and wife. The young man, though still allowed the privileges of a son, had been disinherited in favour of an adopted brother of steadier habits. The unhappy pair spent all they had for the privilege of seeing each other: she sold even her dresses to pay for it. Then for the last time they met by stealth, late at night, in the physician's house, drank death, and laid down to sleep for ever.

I saw the funeral procession of the girl winding its way by the light of paper lanterns--the wan dead glow that is like a shimmer of phosphorescence--to the Street of the Temples, followed by a long train of women, white-hooded, white-robed, white-girdled, passing all soundlessly--a troop of ghosts.

So through blackness to the Meido the white Shapes flit-the eternal procession of Souls--in painted Buddhist dreams of the Underworld.

My friend who writes for the San-in Shimbun, which to-morrow will print the whole sad story, tells me that compassionate folk have already decked the new-made graves with flowers and with sprays of shikimi. (3) Then drawing from a long native envelope a long, light, thin roll of paper covered with beautiful Japanese writing, and unfolding it before me, he adds:--'She left this letter to the keeper of the house in which she lived: it has been given to us for publication. It is very prettily written. But I cannot translate it well; for it is written in woman's language. The language of letters written by women is not the same as that of letters written by men. Women use particular words and expressions. For instance, in men's language "I" is watakushi, or ware, or yo, or boku, according to rank or circumstance, but in the language of woman, it is warawa. And women's language is very soft and gentle; and I do not think it is possible to translate such softness and amiability of words into any other language. So I can only give you an imperfect idea of the letter.'

And he interprets, slowly, thus:

'I leave this letter:

'As you know, from last spring I began to love Tashiro-San; and he also fell in love with me. And now, alas!--the influence of our relation in some previous birth having come upon us-and the promise we made each other in that former life to become wife and husband having been broken -even to-day I must travel to the Meido.

'You not only treated me very kindly, though you found me so stupid and without influence, (4) but you likewise aided in many ways for my worthless sake my mother and sister. And now, since I have not been able to repay you even the one myriadth part of that kindness and pity in which you enveloped me--pity great as the mountains and the sea (5)-- it would not be without just reason that you should hate me as a great criminal.

'But though I doubt not this which I am about to do will seem a wicked folly, I am forced to it by conditions and by my own heart. Wherefore I still may pray you to pardon my past faults. And though I go to the Meido, never shall I forget your mercy to me--great as the mountains and the sea. From under the shadow of the grasses (6) I shall still try to recompense you--to send back my gratitude to you and to your house. Again, with all my heart I pray you: do not be angry with me.

'Many more things I would like to write. But now my heart is not a heart; and I must quickly go. And so I shall lay down my writing-brush.

'It is written so clumsily, this.

'Kane thrice prostrates herself before you.

'From KANE.

'To---SAMA.'

'Well, it is a characteristic shinju letter,' my friend comments, after a moment's silence, replacing the frail white paper in its envelope. 'So I thought it would interest you. And now, although it is growing dark, I am going to the cemetery to see what has been done at the grave. Would you like to come with me?'

We take our way over the long white bridge, up the shadowy Street of the Temples, toward the ancient hakaba of Miokoji--and the darkness grows as we walk. A thin moon hangs just above the roofs of the great temples.

Suddenly a far voice, sonorous and sweet--a man's voice-breaks into song under the starred night: a song full of strange charm and tones like warblings--those Japanese tones of popular emotion which seem to have been learned from the songs of birds. Some happy workman returning home. So clear the thin frosty air that each syllable quivers to us; but I cannot understand the words:-

Saite yuke toya, ano ya wo saite; Yuke ba chikayoru nushi no soba.

'What is that?' I ask my friend.

He answers: 'A love-song. "Go forward, straight forward that way, to the house that thou seest before thee;--the nearer thou goest thereto, the nearer to her (7) shalt thou be."'


FOOTNOTES:


(1) Yama-no-mono ('mountain-folk,'--so called from their settlement on the hills above Tokoji),--a pariah-class whose special calling is the washing of the dead and the making of graves.
(2) Joro: a courtesan.
(3) Illicium religiosum
(4) Literally: 'without shadow' or 'shadowless.'
(5) Umi-yama-no-on.
(6) Kusaba-no-kage
(7) Or 'him.' This is a free rendering. The word 'nushi' simply refers to the owner of the house.


(The end)
Lafcadio Hearn's essay: Shinju

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