This old Japan
ese folk tale concerns the Eta
, the untouchables of Japanese culture and also ties into my nodes concerning the Heian era
and the Kamakura era
. This particular version is from A. B. Mitford, Tales of Old Japan, London: Macmillan, 1871.
At Asakusa, in Yedo, there lives a man called Danzayémon, the chief of the Etas. This man traces his pedigree
back to Minamoto no Yoritomo, who founded the Shogunate in the year 1192 A.D. The whole of the Etas in Japan are under his jurisdiction; his subordinates are called Koyagashira, or "chiefs of the huts"; and they constitute the government of the Etas. In the "Legacy of Iyeyasu," the 36th Law provides as follows:
"All wandering mendicants, such as male sorcerers, female diviners, hermits, blind people, beggars, and tanners (Etas), have had from of old their respective rulers. Be not disinclined, however, to punish any such who give rise to disputes, or who overstep the boundaries of their own classes and are disobedient to existing laws."
The occupation of the Etas is to kill and flay horses, oxen, and other beasts, to stretch drums and make shoes; and if they are very poor, they wander from house to house, working as cobblers, mending old shoes and leather, and so earn a scanty livelihood. Besides this, their daughters and young married women gain a trifle as wandering minstrels, called Torioi, playing on the shamisen, a sort of banjo, and singing ballads. They never marry out of their own fraternity, but remain apart, a despised and shunned race. At execution by crucifixion it is the duty of the Etas to transfix the victims with spears; and, besides this, they have to perform all sorts of degrading offices about criminals, such as carrying sick prisoners from their cells to the hall of justice, and burying the bodies of those that have been executed. Thus their race is polluted and accursed, and they are hated accordingly.
Now this is how the Etas come to be under the jurisdiction of Danzayémon:
When Minamoto Yoritomo was yet a child, his father, Minamoto no Yoshitomo, fought with Taira no Kiyomori, and was killed by treachery: so his family was ruined; and Yoshitomo's concubine, whose name was Tokiwa, took her children and fled from the house, to save her own and their lives. But Kiyomori, desiring to destroy the family of Yoshitomo root and branch, ordered his retainers to divide themselves into bands, and seek out the children. At last they were found; but Tokiwa was so exceedingly beautiful that Kiyomori was inflamed with love for her, and desired her to become his own concubine. Then Tokiwa told Kiyomori that if he would spare her little ones she would share his couch; but that if he killed her children she would destroy herself rather than yield to his desire. When he heard this, Kiyomori, bewildered by the beauty of Tokiwa, spared the lives of her children, but banished them from the capital.
So Yoritomo was sent to Hirugakojima, in the province of Idzu; and when he grew up and became a man, he married the daughter of a peasant. After a while Yoritomo left the province, and went to the wars, leaving his wife pregnant; and in due time she was delivered of a male child, to the delight of her parents, who rejoiced that their daughter should bear seed to a nobleman; but she soon fell sick and died, and the old people took charge of the babe. And when they also died, the care of the child fell to his mother's kinsmen, and he grew up to be a peasant.
Now Kiyomori, the enemy of Yoritomo, had been gathered to his fathers; and Yoritomo had avenged the death of his father by slaying Munémori, the son of Kiyomori; and there was peace throughout the land. And Yoritomo became the chief of all the noble houses in Japan, and first established the government of the country. When Yoritomo had thus raised himself to power, if the son that his peasant wife had born to him had proclaimed himself the sons of the mighty prince, he would have been made lord over a province; but he took no thought of this, and remained a tiller of the earth, forfeiting a glorious inheritance; and his descendants after him lived as peasants in the same village, increasing in prosperity and in good repute among their neighbors.
But the princely line of Yoritomo came to an end in three generations, and the house of Hojo was all-powerful in the land.
Now it happened that the head of the house of Hojo heard that a descendant of Yoritomo was living as a peasant in the land, so he summoned him and said: "It is a hard thing to see the son of an illustrious house live and die a peasant. I will promote you to the rank of Samurai."
Then the peasant answered: "My lord, if I become a Samurai, and the retainer of some noble, I shall not be so happy as when I was my own master. If I may not remain a husbandman, let me be a chief over men, however humble they may be."
But my lord Hojo was angry at this, and thinking to punish the peasant for his insolence, said: "Since you wish to become a chief over men, no matter how humble, there is no means of gratifying your strange wish but by making you chief over the Etas of the whole country. So now see that you rule them well."
When he heard this, the peasant was afraid; but because he had said that he wished to become a chief over men, however humble, he could not choose but become chief of the Etas, he and his children after him for ever; and Danzayémon, who rules the Etas at the present time, and lives at Asakusa, is his lineal descendant.