Chikamatsu Produces

Chikamatsu’s The Love Suicides at Sonezaki created a new puppet theater genre called domestic plays, which made tragic heroes of ordinary townspeople, the chōnin,rather than of the samurai.

Summary of Event

The military rulers of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1867) enforced rigid class divisions and adopted the condescending view of conservative Confucian ethics on the social status of merchants. Merchants were placed below warriors, peasants, and artisans on the social hierarchy. However, believing agriculture was the productive part of the economy, the shogunate taxed the farmers heavily while puzzling over the growing wealth of the chōnin
Ch{omacr}nin culture, Japan[chonin culture] (common townspeople). [kw]Chikamatsu Produces The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (June 20, 1703)
[kw]Sonezaki, Chikamatsu Produces The Love Suicides at (June 20, 1703)
[kw]Suicides at Sonezaki, Chikamatsu Produces The Love (June 20, 1703)
[kw]Love Suicides at Sonezaki, Chikamatsu Produces The (June 20, 1703)
Puppet theater
Love Suicides at Sonezaki, The (Chikamatsu)
[g]Japan;June 20, 1703: Chikamatsu Produces The Love Suicides at Sonezaki[0160]
[c]Theater;June 20, 1703: Chikamatsu Produces The Love Suicides at Sonezaki[0160]
Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Takemoto Gidayū
Takeda Izumo

Excluded from any political or administrative role by the samurai bureaucrats, the chōnin were irreverently ambivalent about the values of their “social betters” and found consolation in consumption, theater, and the brothels of the licensed quarters, a safety valve their authoritarian masters allowed. The Floating World District Floating World District, Japan (Ukiyo), as it came to be known, became the focal point of emerging chōnin culture. Indulging in its delights entailed such obvious risks as neglecting one’s livelihood or dissipating one’s fortune, but the forbidden fruit of the pleasure quarter was not sex but romance. Such emotional attachments often disrupted marriages or other obligations, and courtesans’ indentured status usually made enduring relationships impossible. Such was the stuff of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s play Sonezaki shinjū (1703; The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, 1961).

A central theme of the play was suicide, Literature;suicide which was colored by association with samurai, Samurai
Literature;samurai who probably chose the taking of one’s life Suicide in Japanese society as more dignified and less painful than the consequences of capture. In time, suicide was regarded as a way of redeeming one’s honor in defeat or after having failed one’s lord in some other way. Remarkably, suicide even was used to admonish one’s lord with utmost seriousness. By the Tokugawa period, the traditional samurai suicide by self-disembowelment, or seppuku, Seppuku (suicide) had become a highly formalized ceremony, one that was sensitive to personal dignity even though it also was the samurai mode of capital punishment. A samurai would tuck his sleeves firmly under his knees so his body would not topple forward, and a second samurai decapitated the first before agony could destroy the composure of the one being killed. The ugliest side of seppuku was that it reflected the demands of feudal lords for ultimate submission. Clearly, however, the association of samurai suicide with dignity and the restoration of honor touched the chōnin. Finally, while Stoicism and Christianity taught Westerners that suicide is sinful, it was not regarded as sinful in Japan. Indeed, widespread belief in salvation simply through faith in Amida Buddha led some samurai to regard suicide as a speedier path to paradise. This aspect of seppuku, too, was echoed in Chikamatsu’s play.

Tokugawa popular theater consisted of Kabuki Kabuki theater and Jōruri. J{omacr}ruri theater[Joruri theater] As in Western opera, music and emotions were central to both. Kabuki grew out of skits by a troupe of female dancers and singers, and the boys who replaced them (female as well as young male performers were banned from the stage when their images were tainted by prostitution). When adult male actors took over the roles, drama emerged as a more serious enterprise. Jōruri (now called Bunraku) developed when puppeteers began miming the narratives of balladeers accompanied by the banjo-like shamisen. Through most of the seventeenth century, both theaters staged jidaimono (history pieces), depicting the fabulous heroics of warriors, romantic trials, and acts of loyalty.

Chikamatsu transformed Jōruri, elevating it to a form of literature and turning its attention to the chōnin themselves. From a cultured samurai family, and a page for an imperial prince and other court aristocrats in youth, he was drawn to Jōruri by chanter Uji Kaga-no-jō Uji Kaga-no-jō (1635-1711), for whom he wrote his first plays, including Yotsugi Soga (the soga successors), first performed in 1683 (pb. 1896), his earliest known play. The following year, Kaga-no-jō’s pupil Takemoto Gidayū used the play to open his new theater in Osaka. In 1686, Chikamatsu wrote Shusse Kagekiyo
Shusse Kagekiyo (Chikamatsu) (pr. 1686, pb. 1890; Kagekiyo the victorious) for Gidayū. Its intense heroine, reminiscent of Medea, marked a new epoch in Jōruri. However, between 1688 and 1703, Chikamatsu wrote mainly Kabuki plays for Kyoto actor Sakata Tōjūrō (1647-1709). Typically involving well-born young men falling on hard times, the plays allowed Chikamatsu to explore human psychology, but none of his texts survive intact. (Because Jōruri chanting became a popular hobby, its plays were published. Kabuki plays, however, were not published widely.)

Chikamatsu happened to be in Osaka in the spring of 1703 during an incident that became the talk of the city. A shop assistant and a lower-ranked courtesan committed a love suicide (shinjū) Shinj{umacr} (love suicide)[shinju] in the woods by Sonezaki shrine. (The term shinjū was first used to describe a pledge of love such as an oath or a torn-off fingernail.) Within three weeks, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki was performed by chanter Gidayū, the first such Jōruri play. Less-conservative Kabuki, often termed a “living newspaper” because it would often reenact recent events, had staged a shinjū play in 1683. Once again, a Kabuki company rushed to the boards with the story of the Sonezaki suicides, ahead of Chikamatsu and Gidayū. Nevertheless, in 1703, their play was an immense success as well, packing the Takemoto Theater for months, making it financially secure, and shaping Chikamatsu’s career. He moved to Osaka and devoted the rest of his life to Jōruri. The Love Suicides at Sonezaki also created a new Jōruri genre called sewamono
Sewamono (domestic play) (gossip piece, or, more commonly, domestic play, obscuring memories of earlier Kabuki shinjū dramas). The play describes the plight of Tokubei, a shop assistant in love with a courtesan, Ohatsu. Tokubei commits love-suicide (shinjū) with Ohatsu after he is cheated out of dowry money by a supposed friend for a marriage he refused to accept. He thus had been shamed, was unable to return the dowry, was jobless (he was fired for rejecting the proffered marriage), and had no possibility of redeeming Ohatsu’s contract and freeing her from the life of a courtesan.

The play’s hero seems inept and pathetic, and his lover seems emotionally fragile. Yet the purity of their love and the beauty of the poetic narrative describing their final journey (michiyuki)—praised as one of the most beautiful passages in Japanese literature—made the modest pair tragic heroes. The michiyuki expresses the couple’s feeling that their love was the only fine thing in their lives. Desiring to preserve it unsullied, to be beautiful in death, they tie themselves to a tree. They ask Amida for salvation and union in the next life, a prospect affirmed by the narrator, who calls them models of true love who will attain Buddhahood. The Love Suicides at Sonezaki not only depicted ordinary chōnin with striking realism, it also elevated them, through literary brilliance, to a tragic level. While its dialogue is straightforward, the narrative passages have a poetic quality and textual density, which is amplified by kakekotoba (or pivot words), puns that conclude one phrase and take the next in a new direction. The passages also highlight allusion and the 7- and 5-syllable line counts traditional in Japanese poetry, which is impossible to replicate in translation and rarely equaled in any literature. Another innovation was that the puppeteer for Ohatsu performed in full view (she was elevated in one scene where Tokubei hid under her skirt). This practice would become universal, a unique feature of Jōruri. In 1705, Gidayū first positioned himself in public view, creating a similar precedent.


The success of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki spawned a rash of shinjū plays, both Kabuki and Jōruri, and so many real shinjū that suicide became criminalized and the word banned from play titles. Chikamatsu wrote about thirty Kabuki plays and more than ninety Jōruri plays, of which twenty-four are sewamono. Their unity and literary excellence made them his finest works.

Praised as the “god of writers,” Chikamatsu made Jōruri dominant for most of the eighteenth century and made Jōruri books popular throughout Japan. His most popular work, Kokusenya kassen (pr. 1715; The Battles of Coxinga, Battles of Coxinga, The (Chikamatsu) 1951), splendidly staged by Takeda Izumo, included sewamono elements and became a model for later jidaimono, although they became increasingly disjointed. Multiple authors wrote virtually self-contained acts designed to showcase florid new chanting styles and virtuoso puppeteers with new three-man puppets (1734) with movable fingers, eyes, eyebrows, and mouths. Eroding the quality of many later jidaimono was a preoccupation with spectacle, with a type of violence that Kabuki could not match, with stunning “revelations” (that turned on their heads famous episodes from medieval epics), and with emotionally stupefying acts of loyalty. However, the course Chikamatsu set with The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, exploring human passions (ninjō) Ninj{omacr} (human passions)[Ninjo] and their clashes with the duties, obligations, and principles that give order to society (giri), Giri (society) and the often resulting pathos (urei), produced an extraordinary body of mature work (about seventy-five Jōruri plays after he was fifty years old). His jidaimono were invariably fables criticizing contemporary political ills (for example, the arbitrary use of power, instability, and overregulation), and, in sewamono, he probed with increasing subtlety the ways ninjō and giri interact.

Confucianism, samurai codes, and jidaimono embodied giri. The so-called Floating World fiction and art, however common, certainly manifested the chōnin’s desire to follow their passions, but it is interesting that a samurai-born playwright created the purest expression of ninjō in Tokugawa literature with his Love Suicides at Sonezaki. The play is a testament to the chōnin’s less-visible idealism.

Further Reading

  • Gerstle, C. Andrew, ed. Chikamatsu: Five Late Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. An excellent work on Chikamatsu’s career and mature jidaimono.
  • Kato, Suichi. The Years of Isolation. Vol. 3 in A History of Japanese Literature. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1979. An insightful interpretation by a Japanese scholar trained in Western literary scholarship.
  • Keene, Donald. World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. A solid and comprehensive analysis of Tokugawa literature
  • _______, trans. Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Includes the text of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, with a good introduction.

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