Chikamatsu: "Japan's Shakespeare"

The puppet theater of Japan, Bunraku, reached the peak of its popularity during the eighteenth century, and at the center of its development was the great dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). One of Chikamatsu's greatest contributions to Japanese theater was the "domestic play," which treated the conflicts and problems in the lives of the urban merchant class. The audience for the puppet theater, drawn largely from that class, could identify closely with the concerns being dramatized. By reading these plays, it is possible for us to learn a great deal about the values held by urban commoners during the Tokugawa Period.

Suggested Chikamatsu Play for Reading

In one of Chikamatsu's most famous plays, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, the protagonist Tokubei is an apprentice clerk; his beloved Ohatsu is a prostitute in the pleasure quarters in the merchant city of Osaka. Tokubei is dishonored by a series of unfortunate events, and he and Ohatsu, finding no way to join their lives, decide to commit suicide together so that they can at least be together in death. As you read, keep in mind the values and choices that create the circumstances of their story.

A translation of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki can be found in Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Grove Press, 1955).

Classroom Exercises

  1. Describe Tokubei's predicament. What role did his stepmother have in creating his problems? His uncle? His false friend Kuheiji? From Tokubei's relations with these people, what can you say about their duties toward each other? Was he himself responsible for his situation? Note: many of Chikamatsu's play are about the conflict between giri (social duty and obligation to others) and ninjo (human emotion). Why do you think giri and ninjo could not always be reconciled in Japan during the Tokugawa Period? Do they conflict even today?

  2. In view of your answers to question 1, and in light of the scene in which Tokubei is beaten by Kuheiji and his gang, what kind of hero would you say Tokubei is? What qualities does he have to enlist our sympathy? Compare him with what you would imagine the attributes of a samurai hero would be. Is he similar to the protagonists of any contemporary American plays or movies? If so, how? If not, how does he differ?

  3. For Tokubei and Ohatsu, suicide seems to be the only solution to their problems. Review the play with a view toward understanding why that should have been so. What values and expectations seem to dictate such a drastic solution?

  4. The plot of Love Suicides at Sonezaki was based on a real historical event. In fact, love suicides are the subject of several Chikamatsu plays, as well as of popular songs and stories during the Tokugawa Period. Why do you think they were romanticized this way? Are these "love scandals" similar to those we hear about today? Why do they capture people's imagination?

  5. Reread the beginning of "Scene III: Journey." How does the inclusion of this passage raise the situation of Tokubei and Ohatsu to true tragedy? What aspects of its language and imagery account for its fame in Japanese literature?