Values for the Commoner

Tragic tales from Chikamatsu and Saikaku laud variant values in ethics, honor, and love for the lower social classes of feudal Japan.

In many ways, the romanticized passions of Chikamatsu’s plays are in stark contrast to Saikaku’s irreverent and prudent realism. Their tales of contemporary life in Edo were born of the same genre of commoner class tragedy, yet each utilizes his own unique point of view to teach of which human qualities are to be valued as members of their particular social standing. In comparing Chikamatsu’s famous tragedies—Love Suicides at Sonezaki and Love Suicides at Amijima—with Saikaku’s The Calendar Maker’s Wife and His Dream Form is Gold Coins, one sees a prominent difference in narrative style, outlook on love, and the meaning of tragedy.

While each author pulled inspiration from the common urban dweller, their individual outlooks garnered variant approaches toward depicting the lives of the working class. Chikamatsu’s characters are upheld to almost noble standards, and struggle to find a balance between personal passions and obligations, while Saikaku’s stories stress the importance of conservative practicality. Due to his upbringing in the samurai class, “Chikamatsu’s contemporary-life plays do not glorify the kind of merchant values (such as prudence, thrift, ingenuity) found in Ihara Saikaku’s [work]. Instead, [he]… stresses samurai values (loyalty, devotion, self-sacrifice, honor) which urban commoners had absorbed into their own ethics” (EMJL 242). The tragedy in each author’s work is the result of each character’s ability to uphold, or not uphold, these values.

Although they are of a lower social status, characters in Chikamatsu’s love stories embody the ideals of samurai class loyalty and devotion. In Amijima, Jihei’s wife Osan confesses her sins to him and offers to give up all her money, clothing, and even spousal rights in order to save his lover Koharu. Her honorable actions show devotion to her husband, loyalty to Koharu as a woman, and a level of self-sacrifice which befits a woman of higher status.

Instead of focusing on existential values such as honor and loyalty, Saikaku’s narratives pinpoint the ethics which he felt were concerned with actual use. Gold Coins offers practical financial advice for the common man: “’Never forget about business,’ advised one very rich man, ‘even in your dreams…’ Money, it seems, only appears after you’ve worked for it” (154). To illustrate this point, the poor man in the story does just the opposite. He doesn’t work hard or think about business, but rather obsessively dreams of having magically amassed a fortune. Because he didn’t take the rich man’s words to heart, he is left poor, sad, and powerless. His failure stresses the importance of practicality for members of his standing.

In their stories, both Chikamatsu and Saikaku write of youthful working class men and women faced with societal pressure, be it due to an impermissible relationship or financial burden. Chikamatsu utilizes a masterfully poetic narrative to submerge the audience in his stories of ill-fated lovers, while Saikaku’s technique is much more conventional. His tales are founded not on the tragedy of passion, but rather on the trials commonly faced by the less fortunate. His tone seems to criticize those who follow their fantasies, painting them as adulterers and fools. The effect is far more relatable on an every-day level, and teaches the value of keeping a level head.

Saikaku’s use the word ‘love’ parallels how the concept was often viewed in the Edo period. Marriages were arranged for convenience and profitability—a love born out of passion was widely seen as impractical. Calendar Maker’s bachelor serves as the perfect example of Saikaku’s sense of social acumen. He upholds exacting tastes, and looks to procure an exquisite female specimen to claim as his wife. His falling immediately “in love” with Osan is based solely on her immaculate outward appearance. The couple properly get along as husband and wife, and Osan practices the dutifulness and frugality which is becoming of a city merchant’s spouse. Their form of love is wholly established on the idea that prosperity is equivalent to happiness, which illustrates Saikaku’s values of commoner practicality.

Calendar Maker further stresses the fatuity of passion by illustrating how indulgence in lustful temptations can lead to dire, dishonorable consequences. After falling “deeply in love” over correspondence with the housemaid Rin, Moemon mistakenly has sex with Osan. Thinking he had slept with Rin, and suddenly regretting his passionate appeasement, he decidedly dismisses his affections, but his foolishness has already sealed his fate. Osan changes her affections to Moemon in an instant when faced with the shame of their mutual sin, and the two are forced to flee with plans of committing double suicide as a means of redemption. Because their intentions are dishonest, their hearts are set only on survival. As unfounded lovers whose bond is impure, they are dishonorably executed as adulterers. Saikaku’s message warns of succumbing to personal feelings, and begs the importance of steadfastness at home and in business.

The urgency with which Chikamatsu’s characters share passion greatly contrasts with Saikaku’s themes of capricious love and shameful adultery. Sonezaki’s Tokubei is introduced as being “a slave to his sweet remembrances of love” (243,) and the sincerity of his feelings for Ohatsu are constantly legitimized through the emotionally charged dialogue they share. In the touching opening scene of reunion, the couple is depicted as pure and of good intention: “She takes his hand and presses it to her breast, weeping reproachful and entreating her tears, exactly as if they were husband and wife. Man though he is, he also weeps” (244). Although their relationship cannot be recognized by society, the strength of their bond is not something which can be lightly cast aside.

Chikamatsu’s characters, unlike Saikaku’s, are pure of heart and intention. Each central figure is painted in a deeply sympathetic and poetic light. The artistry of his tragic poetry elevates his characters, allowing each to face their sad fate with an air of nobility reminiscent of the samurai class. In both Sonezaki and Amijima, the lovers’ embark on a sorrowful yet beautiful final michiyuki, with the “suggestion that the dying protagonists will be reborn together and achieve Buddha-hood” (243) after committing double suicide. Rather than being shamed in the mortal realm as in Calendar Maker, their memories serve as the embodiment of true love’s ideal.

Though Chikamatsu and Saikaku stress contrasting views on what is to be valued by the working class, their stories place a familiar emphasis on the evils of greed. Each author depicts money as greatly desired and necessary for life, but warns that it can also be the cause of great misfortune. Their narratives teach that the power of money can provoke calamitous events when taken for granted, and that greed is capable of tearing friends and lovers apart.

In Sonezaki, an act of greed seals the lover’s fate. Because Tokubei did not treat his money with utmost caution, he is tricked, slandered, and hence deprived of any option beyond that of suicide with Ohatsu. Amijima’s lovers are similarly stripped of the money they need—their last remaining chance—to be together in life. Fantasies of money turn a poor man into a fool in Saikaku’s Gold Coins, and refuge is sullied with the mere mention of a dowry in Calendar Maker. Through their stories, Chikamatsu and Saikaku stress the importance of exercising caution when dealing with money, for “people everywhere are moved by greed…” (76).

Both Chikamatsu’s romantic tragedies and Saikaku’s portrayals of realistic misfortune depict the immense pressures faced by the common man. Sonezaki, Amijima, Calendar Maker, and Gold Coins all feature characters who act and dream against the social order of the Edo period. Chikamatsu’s characters, though they are of a lower class, embody the values held dear to those of samurai standing, and their tragedy is brought on by society’s unwillingness to accept those important qualities. Because they uphold honorable morals in life, they are painted as heroes in death. Tragedy befalls the common man in Saikaku’s stories due to their own unwillingness to uphold the practical ethics which he promotes as necessary for the working class. Each depiction of tragedy stands as an important lesson in values for the common man of the Edo period.

Works Cited

  • Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature an Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.

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