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Sunday, May 11, 2003

Shaking off the shogun's shackles

Free spirits in a country unfree


Special to The Japan Times

"The world is wider than we can imagine," said the novelist Iharu Saikaku (1642-93). It's a pregnant thought under a regime doing its utmost to narrow the world. A contemporary of Basho's, Saikaku shows us a restlessness of spirit quite different from the monkish poet's. "There's nothing," declared Saikaku, "you won't find somewhere in the world."

Edo Period Japan is not readily associated with travel. We remember it more for restrictions on travel -- on movement of any kind; the Tokugawa Shogunate seemed intent on clamping the universe in place. Leaving the country was forbidden. Circulating within it required documents that would satisfy inspectors at the 53 sekisho (barriers) on the five national highways. The documents, obtainable at one's temple or from the head of one's village or household group, specified the trip's purpose and bore the name of a sponsor or guarantor. "Falsification of such information," writes historian Marius B. Jansen, "could cost all concerned dearly."

Only once does Basho mention a barrier other than the symbolic Shirakawa in present-fay Fukushima Prefecture. It was on a back road leading west from Hiraizumi in present-day Iwate Prefecture. "Since there were very few travelers on this road, we were regarded with suspicion by the barrier guards, and it was only after considerable effort that we were able to cross the barrier." A guard offered him hospitality when a storm blew up. Primitive hospitality indeed, though kindly meant:

"Fleas, lice -- a horse pissing by my pillow."

And yet, people traveled. Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician with the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki from 1690 to 1692, said of Japan's roads that they were better maintained than Europe's and swarmed with people of all sorts. Besides lords and their attendants in procession to or from obligatory residence in the shogunal capital of Edo, he noted merchants, pilgrims, priests, and various classes of beggars -- "shorn beggars," "Kannon beggars," "silent beggars" and "common beggars." Jansen estimates an annual traffic of hundreds of thousands -- millions in auspicious years of the Chinese sexagenarian cycle -- bound mostly for the national shrine at Ise, "in festival fervor that sometimes bordered on the millennarian."

Often enough the pilgrimage was mere pretext. Saikaku portrays a delightful Ise-bound party consisting of a girl and two rivals for her love, chaperoned by an old crone who dabbles in love potions and abortions. Plodding along on a rented horse, "On one side Kyushichi fondled Osen's toes; on the other the cooper reached up and put his arms around her waist; and each playfully indulged his secret desires as best he could . . . None of the group had any real interest in the pilgrimage itself."

Yonosuke, hero of Saikaku's "Life of an Amorous Man," is an indefatigable traveler. His life is one long, restless pursuit of love. He finds it, repeatedly, but it never satisfies him for long. The road soon beckons -- the road to another courtesan in another pleasure quarter in another city.

The winds of love

At last he has seen them all. He is 60. It is time to turn his thoughts to the next world. No -- too late. "Entering the Buddhist path wasn't that easy." With seven like-minded friends he builds a boat, outfits it with "20 crates of Women-Delighter Pills . . . 600 latticed penis attachments, 2,550 water-buffalo-horn dildos" and so on, and sets sail for "the Island of Women."

"Following the winds of love, they sailed out into the ocean . . . and disappeared, whereabouts completely unknown."

The Island of Women claims another famous Edo fictional traveler -- only temporarily, though, for Asanoshin -- such is his name -- has a destiny higher than his own pleasure. His voyage is an education and he must return to impart what he has learned.

Asanoshin's adventures, recorded in "The Modern Life of Shidoken" by Hiraga Gennai (1728-79), spoof Fukai Shidoken (ca. 1680-1765), the notorious "penis-priest of Asakusa," a salacious street-corner raconteur who owed his nickname to his one-time priestly status and to the phallic stick he flourished as he harangued his audience.

Asanoshin, conceived when "a golden mushroom came flying through the air from the south and entered [his mother's] navel," is no ordinary child. His doting parents, fearing he is doomed to die young, persuade him to "give up the world" and become a Buddhist monk. He is not pleased, but feels bound to obey, and studies with prodigious diligence. One day his studies are interrupted by a beautiful woman hatched from an egg laid by a bird on his desk. The woman leads him into a cave, where he meets a sage who debunks Buddhism and promises him a real education. The sage confers upon Asanoshin a magic fan and sends him on his way.

The first part of his education resembles Yonosuke's, but after traveling throughout Japan and visiting all the pleasure quarters, "Asanoshin decided he wanted to learn about love in other countries as well." Sailing his magic fan across the sea, he came to an island. This was "the famous Land of the Giants." (Gennai's tale appeared in 1736, 10 years after "Gulliver's Travels" -- such ideas must have been in the air at the time.) The adult giants were 6 meters tall. Thanks to his fan, he understood their language at once, and they his. The giants lucky enough to have found him quickly throw an exhibition together. "Come right in! Take a good look! See a real live Japanese! A handsome man so small you can put him on the palm of your hand and watch him crawl!"

Asanoshin is suddenly not the observer, but the observed. Fortunately his fan can also fly, and it whisks him away from his uncomfortable predicament to another island, the Land of the Tiny People.

Misadventure dogs his exploration. Every step he takes proves a danger either to himself or to others. At last, with a party of Chinese sailors, he alights on the Island of Women. "There wasn't a single man on the entire island. When the women here wanted to have a child, they opened their robes and faced in the direction of Japan. Wind blew on their bodies and made them pregnant, and later they bore girl babies."

The demand fierce and frenzied, Asanoshin and his Chinese companions become courtesans in the service of the women, who keep them busy day and night. Pleasure soon becomes hard labor, fatal to all except our hardy hero, who -- an old man back in Japan at last -- confronts his patron sage. The lesson of his travels is plain . . . is it not? says the sage. Life is a joke, humor is its essence. Therefore, "go to Asakusa and gather audiences in the precincts of the Kannon Temple by telling humorous stories . . . "

Such is the fantasy born of a closed country's claustrophobia. Many years were to pass before the shogunate allowed real people to journey to real foreign countries. In 1860, and again in 1864, the tottering regime sent official delegations to Europe to report first-hand on conditions in the land of progress. A photograph shows a party of hakama- and haori-clad samurai, the traditional two swords at their sides, gazing bemusedly at the Great Sphinx during a stopover in Egypt. Whatever their travels may have taught them, it was too late to save the shogunate, which breathed its last in 1867.



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