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  • Not Just Words:Shogunal Politics and the Daijōsai in Mori Ōgai's "Saigo no ikku"
  • Doris G. Bargen (bio)

At a banquet a palace woman (uneme 釆女) offered the royal wine cup to the Emperor, unaware that a leaf had fallen into it from a giant zelkova tree next to the Hall of First Fruits (niinaeya 新嘗屋). Seeing this, the Emperor put his sword to her neck and almost killed her, had she not been able to soothe him with a poem. Her staggering song celebrated the journey of the leaf through the entire imperial realm—from the upper through the middle to the lower branches, swirling like a brine-churning spearhead into the "moist, gem-glistening cup" of the Child of the Sun. Trembling, she bore irrefutable testimony,

"The story,The words of the storyAre these words."And the Emperor was moved to forgive her.1

Kojiki, Book 3, Chapter 133

This episode from Japan's most ancient chronicle powerfully reflects the magic of words inspired by narrative tradition to restrain the severe hand of authority. The uneme saves her own life at the site of the annual Harvest Festival by singing a song for her ruthless ruler, often thought to be Emperor Yūryaku 雄略 (traditional reign dates, 456-479). Her verbal triumph over her sovereign's threat of brute force has a remarkable affinity to the story "Saigo no ikku" 最後の一句 (1915) by [End Page 1] Mori Ōgai 森鴎外 (1862-1922). In both tales, feasting—at the Hall of First Fruits and the Great Feast of Enthronement (Daijōsai 大嘗祭, or daijō-e 大嘗会), respectively—forms the ritual frame for the clash between ruler and subject.

Ōgai's story celebrates the victory of self-sacrifice over formal legal procedures. In this article I illuminate aspects of "Saigo no ikku" that have not yet been examined in detail, such as economic conditions under shogunal rule and the political repercussions of self-sacrifice inside and outside a court of law and within the ritual context of the Daijōsai. Although this imperial enthronement rite is mentioned only at the end of the tale, its significance must be appreciated in order to feel the force and understand the extraordinary efficacy of the young female protagonist's offer to die in her father's place. The Daijōsai, to which no previous critic has given more than passing attention, enables the reader to untie the knots in Ōgai's formidably complicated narrative.

Ōgai wrote "Saigo no ikku" in a very short time—virtually "in one sitting" (ikki kasei 一気呵成), according to Takita Choin 滝田樗陰 (Tetsutarō 哲太郎, 1882-1925), the noted liberal and editor in chief of Chūō kōron 中央公論. Having finished the story on 17 September 1915, Ōgai handed it three days later to Takita, who published it in Chūō kōron in October under the author's given name of Rintarō 林太郎, rather than his nom de plume of Ōgai.2

This short piece of historical fiction belongs to a group of stories that Ōgai himself characterized as rekishibanare 歴史離れ (departing from history), in contrast to his earlier tales that follow his sources more closely, although never slavishly so. Written a few months after his somewhat perplexing—and hence much discussed—historiographical essay "Rekishi sonomama to rekishibanare" 歴史其儘と歴史離れ (January 1915), which deals with the search for truth both in and aside from recorded "fact,"3 it takes as its principal source an account by Ōta Nanpo 大田南畝 (1749-1823) of the so-called Katsuraya Incident.

The Katsuraya Incident in Nanpo's Ichiwa Ichigen

Nanpo's text, titled "Genbun sannen Ōsaka Horiebashi kinpen Katsuraya Tarobē no koto" 元文三年大坂堀江橋近辺かつらや太郎兵衛事 (The 1738 Incident Involving Katsuraya Tarobē in the Horiebashi Neighborhood of Osaka), appears in chapter 17 of Ichiwa ichigen 一話一言 (1779-1820), his monumental collection of various writings (zuihitsu 随筆).4 According to the postscript, the account is a faithful copy, made by [End Page 2] an unidentified person on 1739.3.23, of notes set down, immediately after the case was settled, by an official named Kin'ya. Ōgai's story, then, is thrice removed from the historical event by Kin'ya's report, the copy of Kin'ya's report, and Nanpo's reproduction of both.

The Ichiwa ichigen episode begins with the jailing of a...


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