Text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
I was writing last week how unique can symbols be but the opposite is equally remarkable: how often they meet over the tight boundaries set by each culture, regardless of how strong the people who created it proclaim their distinctiveness. The thought came to me the other day seeing in the Edo-Tokyo Museum, one of the metropolis’ most interesting museums, that as characteristic of Kabuki the curators have chosen a scene from “Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Sakura” (助六由縁江戸桜) or “Sukeroku, Edo’s Cherry Blossom. From all of Kabuki’s repertory, the characters of “noble townsmen” or “otokodate” (男伊達) are perhaps the most loved and in the constellation of these characters – Umeshibu no Kichibei, Danshichi Kurobei, Banzuin Chobei, Issun Tokubei, Karigane Bunshichi or Akaushi Yasubei- Sukeroku is the most emblematic. If Edo –and Tokyo- could be personified in one image, that image would undoubtedly be Sukeroku.
As usually happens with literary and theatrical characters, the otokodate of Edo and Osaka weren’t exactly the heroes presented in the plays. They might have functioned occasionally as a shield for the commoners-townspeople against the corrupt samurai and, by extension the ruling class and its often irrational demands and privileges but the line separating real protection and what the law defines as such is very thin and the otokodate would step on it more than they respected it. Most references to the historical origins of the yakuza want them to descend from the otokodate of Edo and in their interviews even they themselves allege that the “protectors of the people” of that “heroic age” were their progenitors. And it makes sense: who isn’t charmed –even today- by a noble outlaw like Robin Hood?
Everyone needs heroes; the people of Edo, living in a society with injustices much more obvious than the ones we experience today perhaps even more. But the otokodate Sukeroku, with samurai origins yet poor, with artistic sensibilities yet strong and excellent swordsman, lover of one of the famous oiran-courtesans and willing and able to ridicule the archetypically evil samurai Ikkyu and in the end annihilate him, doesn’t only symbolize the clash between social classes but the broader clash between old and new –hence that the playwrights made Sukeroku young and Ikkyu old and named the former “cherry blossom”, the most common symbol of spring and rejuvenation as much then as today. For a people so reluctant to change, the timeless love of the Japanese for Sukeroku is surprising in its contradiction. Or, for pessimists it’s a reminder that symbols often lose their value and degenerate into something that’s simply familiar.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.