English Audio Books

Tales of Old Japan


The drama is exclusively the amusement of the middle and lower classes. Etiquette, sternest of tyrants, forbids the Japanese of high rank to be seen at any public exhibition, wrestling-matches alone excepted. Actors are, however, occasionally engaged to play in private for the edification of my lord and his ladies; and there is a kind of classical opera, called Nô, which is performed on stages specially built for the purpose in the palaces of the principal nobles. These Nô represent the entertainments by which the Sun Goddess was lured out of the cave in which she had hidden, a fable said to be based upon an eclipse. In the reign of the Emperor Yômei (A.D. 586-593), Hada Kawakatsu, a man born in Japan, but of Chinese extraction, was commanded by the Emperor to arrange an entertainment for the propitiation of the gods and the prosperity of the country. Kawakatsu wrote thirty-three plays, introducing fragments of Japanese poetry with accompaniments of musical instruments. Two performers, named Takéta and Hattori, having especially distinguished themselves in these entertainments, were ordered to prepare other similar plays, and their productions remain to the present day. The pious intention of the Nô being to pray for the prosperity of the country, they are held in the highest esteem by the nobles of the Court, the Daimios, and the military class: in old days they alone performed in these plays, but now ordinary actors take part in them.

The Nô are played in sets. The first of the set is specially dedicated to the propitiation of the gods; the second is performed in full armour, and is designed to terrify evil spirits, and to insure the punishment of malefactors; the third is of a gentler intention, and its special object is the representation of all that is beautiful and fragrant and delightful. The performers wear hideous wigs and masks, not unlike those of ancient Greece, and gorgeous brocade dresses. The masks, which belong to what was the private company of the Shogun, are many centuries old, and have been carefully preserved as heirlooms from generation to generation; being made of very thin wood lacquered over, and kept each in a silken bag, they have been uninjured by the lapse of time.

During the Duke of Edinburgh's stay in Yedo, this company was engaged to give a performance in the Yashiki of the Prince of Kishiu, which has the reputation of being the handsomest palace in all Yedo. So far as I know, such an exhibition had never before been witnessed by foreigners, and it may be interesting to give an account of it. Opposite the principal reception-room, where his Royal Highness sat, and separated from it by a narrow courtyard, was a covered stage, approached from the greenroom by a long gallery at an angle of forty-five degrees. Half-a-dozen musicians, clothed in dresses of ceremony, marched slowly down the gallery, and, having squatted down on the stage, bowed gravely. The performances then began. There was no scenery, nor stage appliances; the descriptions of the chorus or of the actors took their place. The dialogue and choruses are given in a nasal recitative, accompanied by the mouth-organ, flute, drum, and other classical instruments, and are utterly unintelligible. The ancient poetry is full of puns and plays upon words, and it was with no little difficulty that, with the assistance of a man of letters, I prepared beforehand the arguments of the different pieces.

The first play was entitled Hachiman of the Bow. Hachiman is the name under which the Emperor Ojin (A.C. 270-312) was deified as the God of War. He is specially worshipped on account of his miraculous birth; his mother, the Empress Jingo, having, by the virtue of a magic stone which she wore at her girdle, borne him in her womb for three years, during which she made war upon and conquered the Coreans. The time of the plot is laid in the reign of the Emperor Uda the Second (A.D. 1275-1289). In the second month of the year pilgrims are flocking to the temple of Hachiman at Mount Otoko, between Osaka and Kiôto. All this is explained by the chorus. A worshipper steps forth, sent by the Emperor, and delivers a congratulatory oration upon the peace and prosperity of the land. The chorus follows in the same strain: they sing the praises of Hachiman and of the reigning Emperor. An old man enters, bearing something which appears to be a bow in a brocade bag. On being asked who he is, the old man answers that he is an aged servant of the shrine, and that he wishes to present his mulberry-wood bow to the Emperor; being too humble to draw near to his Majesty he has waited for this festival, hoping that an opportunity might present itself. He explains that with this bow, and with certain arrows made of the Artemisia, the heavenly gods pacified the world. On being asked to show his bow, he refuses; it is a mystic protector of the country, which in old days was overshadowed by the mulberry-tree. The peace which prevails in the land is likened to a calm at sea. The Emperor is the ship, and his subjects the water. The old man dwells upon the ancient worship of Hachiman, and relates how his mother, the Empress Jingo, sacrificed to the gods before invading Corea, and how the present prosperity of the country is to be attributed to the acceptance of those sacrifices. After having revealed himself as the god Hachiman in disguise, the old man disappears. The worshipper, awe-struck, declares that he must return to Kiôto and tell the Emperor what he has seen. The chorus announces that sweet music and fragrant perfumes issue from the mountain, and the piece ends with felicitations upon the visible favour of the gods, and especially of Hachiman.

The second piece was Tsunémasa. Tsunémasa was a hero of the twelfth century, who died in the civil wars; he was famous for his skill in playing on the biwa, a sort of four-stringed lute.

A priest enters, and announces that his name is Giyôkei, and that before he retired from the world he held high rank at Court. He relates how Tsunémasa, in his childhood the favourite of the Emperor, died in the wars by the western seas. During his lifetime the Emperor gave him a lute, called Sei-zan, "the Azure Mountain"; this lute at his death was placed in a shrine erected to his honour, and at his funeral music and plays were performed during seven days within the palace, by the special grace of the Emperor. The scene is laid at the shrine. The lonely and awesome appearance of the spot is described. Although the sky is clear, the wind rustles through the trees like the sound of falling rain; and although it is now summer-time, the moonlight on the sand looks like hoar-frost. All nature is sad and downcast. The ghost appears, and sings that it is the spirit of Tsunémasa, and has come to thank those who have piously celebrated his obsequies. No one answers him, and the spirit vanishes, its voice becoming fainter and fainter, an unreal and illusory vision haunting the scenes amid which its life was spent. The priest muses on the portent. Is it a dream or a reality? Marvellous! The ghost, returning, speaks of former days, when it lived as a child in the palace, and received the Azure Mountain lute from the Emperor—that lute with the four strings of which its hand was once so familiar, and the attraction of which now draws it from the grave. The chorus recites the virtues of Tsunémasa—his benevolence, justice, humanity, talents, and truth; his love of poetry and music; the trees, the flowers, the birds, the breezes, the moon—all had a charm for him. The ghost begins to play upon the Azure Mountain lute, and the sounds produced from the magical instrument are so delicate, that all think it is a shower falling from heaven. The priest declares that it is not rain, but the sound of the enchanted lute. The sound of the first and second strings is as the sound of gentle rain, or of the wind stirring the pine-trees; and the sound of the third and fourth strings is as the song of birds and pheasants calling to their young. A rhapsody in praise of music follows. Would that such strains could last for ever! The ghost bewails its fate that it cannot remain to play on, but must return whence it came. The priest addresses the ghost, and asks whether the vision is indeed the spirit of Tsunémasa. Upon this the ghost calls out in an agony of sorrow and terror at having been seen by mortal eyes, and bids that the lamps be put out: on its return to the abode of the dead it will suffer for having shown itself: it describes the fiery torments which will be its lot. Poor fool! it has been lured to its destruction, like the insect of summer that flies into the flame. Summoning the winds to its aid, it puts out the lights, and disappears.

The Suit of Feathers is the title of a very pretty conceit which followed. A fisherman enters, and in a long recitative describes the scenery at the sea-shore of Miwo, in the province of Suruga, at the foot of Fuji-Yama, the Peerless Mountain. The waves are still, and there is a great calm; the fishermen are all out plying their trade. The speaker's name is Hakuriyô, a fisherman living in the pine-grove of Miwo. The rains are now over, and the sky is serene; the sun rises bright and red over the pine-trees and rippling sea; while last night's moon is yet seen faintly in the heaven. Even he, humble fisher though he be, is softened by the beauty of the nature which surrounds him. A breeze springs up, the weather will change; clouds and waves will succeed sunshine and calm; the fishermen must get them home again. No; it is but the gentle breath of spring, after all; it scarcely stirs the stout fir-trees, and the waves are hardly heard to break upon the shore. The men may go forth in safety. The fisherman then relates how, while he was wondering at the view, flowers began to rain from the sky, and sweet music filled the air, which was perfumed by a mystic fragrance. Looking up, he saw hanging on a pine-tree a fairy's suit of feathers, which he took home, and showed to a friend, intending to keep it as a relic in his house. A heavenly fairy makes her appearance, and claims the suit of feathers; but the fisherman holds to his treasure trove. She urges the impiety of his act—a mortal has no right to take that which belongs to the fairies. He declares that he will hand down the feather suit to posterity as one of the treasures of the country. The fairy bewails her lot; without her wings how can she return to heaven? She recalls the familiar joys of heaven, now closed to her; she sees the wild geese and the gulls flying to the skies, and longs for their power of flight; the tide has its ebb and its flow, and the sea-breezes blow whither they list: for her alone there is no power of motion, she must remain on earth. At last, touched by her plaint, the fisherman consents to return the feather suit, on condition that the fairy shall dance and play heavenly music for him. She consents, but must first obtain the feather suit, without which she cannot dance. The fisherman refuses to give it up, lest she should fly away to heaven without redeeming her pledge. The fairy reproaches him for his want of faith: how should a heavenly being be capable of falsehood? He is ashamed, and gives her the feather suit, which she dons, and begins to dance, singing of the delights of heaven, where she is one of the fifteen attendants who minister to the moon. The fisherman is so transported with joy, that he fancies himself in heaven, and wishes to detain the fairy to dwell with him for ever. A song follows in praise of the scenery and of the Peerless Mountain capped with the snows of spring. When her dance is concluded, the fairy, wafted away by the sea-breeze, floats past the pine-grove to Ukishima and Mount Ashidaka, over Mount Fuji, till she is seen dimly like a cloud in the distant sky, and vanishes into thin air.

The last of the Nô was The Little Smith, the scene of which is laid in the reign of the Emperor Ichijô (A.D. 987—1011). A noble of the court enters, and proclaims himself to be Tachibana Michinari. He has been commanded by the Emperor, who has seen a dream of good omen on the previous night, to order a sword of the smith Munéchika of Sanjô. He calls Munéchika, who comes out, and, after receiving the order, expresses the difficulty he is in, having at that time no fitting mate to help him; he cannot forge a blade alone. The excuse is not admitted; the smith pleads hard to be saved from the shame of a failure. Driven to a compliance, there is nothing left for it but to appeal to the gods for aid. He prays to the patron god of his family, Inari Sama.38 A man suddenly appears, and calls the smith; this man is the god Inari Sama in disguise. The smith asks who is his visitor, and how does he know him by name. The stranger answers, "Thou hast been ordered to make a blade for the Emperor." "This is passing strange," says the smith. "I received the order but a moment since; how comest thou to know of it?" "Heaven has a voice which is heard upon the earth. Walls have ears, and stones tell tales.39 There are no secrets in the world. The flash of the blade ordered by him who is above the clouds (the Emperor) is quickly seen. By the grace of the Emperor the sword shall be quickly made." Here follows the praise of certain famous blades, and an account of the part they played in history, with special reference to the sword which forms one of the regalia. The sword which the Emperor has sent for shall be inferior to none of these; the smith may set his heart at rest. The smith, awe-struck, expresses his wonder, and asks again who is addressing him. He is bidden to go and deck out his anvil, and a supernatural power will help him. The visitor disappears in a cloud. The smith prepares his anvil, at the four corners of which he places images of the gods, while above it he stretches the straw rope and paper pendants hung up in temples to shut out foul or ill-omened influences. He prays for strength to make the blade, not for his own glory, but for the honour of the Emperor. A young man, a fox in disguise, appears, and helps Munéchika to forge the steel. The noise of the anvil resounds to heaven and over the earth. The chorus announces that the blade is finished; on one side is the mark of Munéchika, on the other is graven "The Little Fox" in clear characters.

The subjects of the Nô are all taken from old legends of the country; a shrine at Miwo, by the sea-shore, marks the spot where the suit of feathers was found, and the miraculously forged sword is supposed to be in the armoury of the Emperor to this day. The beauty of the poetry—and it is very beautiful—is marred by the want of scenery and by the grotesque dresses and make-up. In the Suit of Feathers, for instance, the fairy wears a hideous mask and a wig of scarlet elf locks: the suit of feathers itself is left entirely to the imagination; and the heavenly dance is a series of whirls, stamps, and jumps, accompanied by unearthly yells and shrieks; while the vanishing into thin air is represented by pirouettes something like the motion of a dancing dervish. The intoning of the recitative is unnatural and unintelligible, so much so that not even a highly educated Japanese could understand what is going on unless he were previously acquainted with the piece. This, however, is supposing that which is not, for the Nô are as familiarly known as the masterpieces of our own dramatists.

The classical severity of the Nô is relieved by the introduction between the pieces of light farces called Kiyôgen. The whole entertainment having a religious intention, the Kiyôgen stand to the Nô in the same relation as the small shrines to the main temple; they, too, are played for the propitiation of the gods, and for the softening of men's hearts. The farces are acted without wigs or masks; the dialogue is in the common spoken language, and there being no musical accompaniment it is quite easy to follow. The plots of the two farces which were played before the Duke of Edinburgh are as follows:—

In the Ink Smearing the hero is a man from a distant part of the country, who, having a petition to prefer, comes to the capital, where he is detained for a long while. His suit being at last successful, he communicates the joyful news to his servant, Tarôkaja (the conventional name of the Leporello of these farces). The two congratulate one another. To while away his idle hours during his sojourn at the capital the master has entered into a flirtation with a certain young lady: master and servant now hold a consultation as to whether the former should not go and take leave of her. Tarôkaja is of opinion that as she is of a very jealous nature, his master ought to go. Accordingly the two set out to visit her, the servant leading the way. Arrived at her house, the gentleman goes straight in without the knowledge of the lady, who, coming out and meeting Tarôkaja, asks after his master. He replies that his master is inside the house. She refuses to believe him, and complains that, for some time past, his visits have been few and far between. Why should he come now? Surely Tarôkaja is hoaxing her. The servant protests that he is telling the truth, and that his master really has entered the house. She, only half persuaded, goes in, and finds that my lord is indeed there. She welcomes him, and in the same breath upbraids him. Some other lady has surely found favour in his eyes. What fair wind has wafted him back to her? He replies that business alone has kept him from her; he hopes that all is well with her. With her, indeed, all is well, and there is no change; but she fears that his heart is changed. Surely, surely he has found mountains upon mountains of joy elsewhere, even now, perhaps, he is only calling on his way homeward from some haunt of pleasure. What pleasure can there be away from her? answers he. Indeed, his time has not been his own, else he would have come sooner. Why, then, did he not send his servant to explain? Tarôkaja here puts in his oar, and protests that, between running on errands and dancing attendance upon his lord, he has not had a moment to himself. "At any rate," says the master, "I must ask for your congratulations; for my suit, which was so important, has prospered." The lady expresses her happiness, and the gentleman then bids his servant tell her the object of their visit. Tarôkaja objects to this; his lord had better tell his own story. While the two are disputing as to who shall speak, the lady's curiosity is aroused. "What terrible tale is this that neither of you dare tell? Pray let one or other of you speak." At last the master explains that he has come to take leave of her, as he must forthwith return to his own province. The girl begins to weep, and the gentleman following suit, the two shed tears in concert. She uses all her art to cajole him, and secretly produces from her sleeve a cup of water, with which she smears her eyes to imitate tears. He, deceived by the trick, tries to console her, and swears that as soon as he reaches his own country he will send a messenger to fetch her; but she pretends to weep all the more, and goes on rubbing her face with water. Tarôkaja, in the meanwhile, detects the trick, and, calling his master on one side, tells him what she is doing. The gentleman, however, refuses to believe him, and scolds him right roundly for telling lies. The lady calls my lord to her, and weeping more bitterly than ever, tries to coax him to remain. Tarôkaja slyly fills another cup, with ink and water, and substitutes it for the cup of clear water. She, all unconcerned, goes on smearing her face. At last she lifts her face, and her lover, seeing it all black and sooty, gives a start. What can be the matter with the girl's face? Tarôkaja, in an aside, explains what he has done. They determine to put her to shame. The lover, producing from his bosom a box containing a mirror, gives it to the girl, who, thinking that it is a parting gift, at first declines to receive it. It is pressed upon her; she opens the box and sees the reflection of her dirty face. Master and man burst out laughing. Furious, she smears Tarôkaja's face with the ink; he protests that he is not the author of the trick, and the girl flies at her lover and rubs his face too. Both master and servant run off, pursued by the girl.

The second farce was shorter than the first, and was called The Theft of the Sword. A certain gentleman calls his servant Tarôkaja, and tells him that he is going out for a little diversion. Bidding Tarôkaja follow him, he sets out. On their way they meet another gentleman, carrying a handsome sword in his hand, and going to worship at the Kitano shrine at Kiôto. Tarôkaja points out the beauty of the sword to his master, and says what a fine thing it would be if they could manage to obtain possession of it. Tarôkaja borrows his master's sword, and goes up to the stranger, whose attention is taken up by looking at the wares set out for sale in a shop. Tarôkaja lays his hand on the guard of the stranger's sword; and the latter, drawing it, turns round, and tries to cut the thief down. Tarôkaja takes to his heels, praying hard that his life may be spared. The stranger takes away the sword which Tarôkaja has borrowed from his master, and goes on his way to the shrine, carrying the two swords. Tarôkaja draws a long breath of relief when he sees that his life is not forfeited; but what account is he to give of his master's sword which he has lost. There is no help for it, he must go back and make a clean breast of it. His master is very angry; and the two, after consulting together, await the stranger's return from the shrine. The latter makes his appearance and announces that he is going home. Tarôkaja's master falls upon the stranger from behind, and pinions him, ordering Tarôkaja to fetch a rope and bind him. The knave brings the cord; but, while he is getting it ready, the stranger knocks him over with his sword. His master calls out to him to get up quickly and bind the gentleman from behind, and not from before. Tarôkaja runs behind the struggling pair, but is so clumsy that he slips the noose over his master's head by mistake, and drags him down. The stranger, seeing this, runs away laughing with the two swords. Tarôkaja, frightened at his blunder, runs off too, his master pursuing him off the stage. A general run off, be it observed, something like the "spill-and-pelt" scene in an English pantomime, is the legitimate and invariable termination of the Kiyôgen.


The game of football is in great favour at the Japanese Court. The days on which it takes place are carefully noted in the "Daijôkwan Nishi," or Government Gazette. On the 25th of February, 1869, for instance, we find two entries: "The Emperor wrote characters of good omen," and "The game of football was played at the palace." The game was first introduced from China in the year of the Empress Kôkiyoku, in the middle of the seventh century. The Emperor Mommu, who reigned at the end of the same century, was the first emperor who took part in the sport. His Majesty Toba the Second became very expert at it, as also did the noble Asukai Chiujo, and from that time a sort of football club was formed at the palace. During the days of the extreme poverty of the Mikado and his Court, the Asukai family, notwithstanding their high rank, were wont to eke out their scanty income by giving lessons in the art of playing football.