from THE CONCUBINE'S TATTOO
Edo; Genroku Period, Year 3, Month 9 (Tokyo, October 1690)
"It is my privilege to open this ceremony in which Sosakan Sano Ichiro and Lady Ueda Reiko shall be united in marriage
before the gods." Pudgy, nearsighted Noguchi Motoori--Sano's
former superior and the go-between who had arranged the match--solemnly
addressed the assembly gathered in Edo Castle's private reception
On this warm autumn morning, sliding doors stood open to a
garden resplendent with scarlet maple leaves and brilliant
blue sky. Two priests, clad in white robes and tall black caps,
knelt at the front of the hall before the alcove, in which
hung a scroll bearing the names of the kami--Shinto deities.
Below this, a dais held the traditional offerings of round
rice cakes and a ceramic jar of consecrated sake. Two maidens,
wearing the hooded cloaks of Shinto shrine attendants, stood
near the priests. On the tatami to the left of the alcove knelt
the bride's father and closest associates: stout, dignified
Magistrate Ueda and a few relatives and friends. To the right,
the groom's party consisted of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi,
Japan's supreme military dictator, dressed in brocade robes
and the cylindrical black cap of his rank, attended by several
high officials; Sano's frail, elderly mother; and Hirata, Sano's
chief retainer. All eyes turned to the center of the hall,
the focus of the ceremony.
Sano and Reiko knelt side by side before two small tables-he
in black ceremonial robes stamped with his family's gold flying-crane
crest, his two swords at his waist; she in white silk kimono
and a long, white silk drape that completely covered her face
and hair. They faced a flat porcelain dish containing a miniature
pine and plum tree, a bamboo grove, the statues of a hare and
a crane: symbols of longevity, pliancy, and fidelity. Behind
them, Noguchi and his wife knelt at a table reserved for the
go-between. As the priests stood and bowed to the altar, Sano's
heart pounded. His stoic dignity hid a turmoil of emotion.
The last two years had brought him continuous, traumatic upheaval:
the death of his beloved father; the move from his modest family
home in the Nihonbashi merchant district to Edo Castle, Japan's
seat of power; a dizzyingly rapid rise in status and all the
associated challenges. At times he feared his mind and body
couldn't withstand the relentless onslaught of change. Now
he was marrying a twenty-year-old girl he'd met exactly once
before, more than a year ago, at the formal meeting between
their two families. Her lineage was impeccable, her father
one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Edo. But they'd
never spoken; he knew nothing of her character. He barely remembered
what she looked like, and wouldn't see her face again until
the end of the ceremony. To Sano, the tradition of arranged
marriage now seemed like sheer madness--a potentially disastrous
pairing of strangers. What perilous turn had his fate taken?
Was it too late to escape?
From her tiny bedchamber in the Edo Castle women's quarters,
the shogun's newest concubine heard hurrying footsteps, slamming
doors, and shrill feminine voices. The dressing rooms would
be littered with opulent silk kimonos and spilt face powder,
the servants rushing to finish dressing the two hundred concubines
and their attendants for the sosakan-sama's wedding feast.
But Harume, weary after only eight months at the castle of
the suffocating presence of so many other women, had decided
to skip the celebration. Privacy was almost nonexistent in
the crowded women's quarters, but now her chambermates were
gone, the palace officials busy. The shogun's mother, whom
Harume attended, hadn't required her services today. No one
would miss her, she hoped--because Harume meant to take full
advantage of her rare solitude.
She latched the door, then closed the shutters. On a low table
she lit oil lamps and incense burners. The flickering flames
cast her shadow against the mullioned paper walls; the incense
smoked, sweetly pungent. A hushed, secretive atmosphere permeated
the room. Harume's pulse quickened with dark excitement. She
set a rectangular black lacquer box, its lid inlaid with gold
irises, and a porcelain sake decanter and two cups on the table.
Her movements were slow and graceful, befitting a sacred ritual.
Then she tiptoed to the door and listened.
The noise had diminished; the other women must have finished
dressing and started toward the banquet hall. Harume returned
to the altar she'd created. With eagerness rising in her breast,
she pushed back her glossy, waist-length black hair. She loosened
her sash and parted the skirts of her red silk dressing gown.
She knelt, naked from the waist down.
She contemplated herself with pride. At age eighteen, she
was as ripe of flesh as a mature woman, yet with youth's fresh
radiance. Flawless ivory skin covered her firm thighs, her
rounded hips and stomach. With her fingertips Harume stroked
the silky triangle of pubic hair. She smiled, remembering his
hand there, his mouth against her throat, their shared rapture.
She reveled in her eternal love for him, which she would now
prove beyond any possible doubt.
One of the priests swished a long wand tasseled with white
paper strips, crying, "Evil out, fortune in! Whoosh!
purify the room. Then he chanted an invocation to the Shinto
gods Izanagi and Izanami, revered procreators of the universe.
Hearing the familiar words, Sano relaxed. The timeless ceremony
lifted him above doubt and fear; anticipation soared in him.
No matter the risks, he wanted this marriage. At the advanced
age of thirty-one, he was at last ready to make the decisive
step into official adulthood, to take his place in society
as the head of his own family. And he was ready for a change
in his life.
His twenty months as the shogun's sosakan-sama--Most
Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People--had
nonstop cycle of criminal cases, treasure hunts, and spying
assignments, culminating in a near-catastrophic trip to Nagasaki.
There he had investigated the murder of a Dutch trader, been
shot, almost burned to death, charged with treason, and nearly
executed before clearing himself. He'd returned to Edo seven
days ago, and while he hadn't lost his desire to pursue truth
and deliver criminals to justice, he was tired. Tired of
violence, death, and corruption. The aftermath of last year's
love affair had left him lonely and emotionally drained.
Now, however, Sano looked forward to a respite from the rigors
of his work. The shogun had granted him a month's holiday.
After a yearlong betrothal, Sano welcomed the prospect of a
private life with a sweet, compliant wife who would provide
a haven from the outside world. He yearned for children--especially
a son who would carry on his name and inherit his position.
This ceremony was not just a social rite of passage, but a
gateway to everything Sano wanted.
The second priest played a series of high-pitched, wailing
notes on a flute, while the first beat a sonorous accompaniment
on a wooden drum. Now came the most solemn, sacred part of
the wedding ritual. The music ceased. One attendant poured
the consecrated sake into a long-handled brass ewer and brought
it to Sano and Reiko. The other attendant set before them a
tray containing three flat, wooden cups, graduated in size,
nested together. From the ewer, the attendants filled the first,
smallest cup, bowed, and handed it to the bride. The assembly
waited in hushed expectation.
Harume opened the lacquer box and took out a long, straight
razor with a gleaming steel blade, a pearl-handled knife, and
a small, square black lacquer jar with her name painted in
gold on the stopper. As she arranged these objects before her,
a tremor of fear fluttered in Harume's throat. She dreaded
pain, hated blood. Would someone interrupt this ceremony--or
worse, discover her secret, forbidden liaison? Dangerous intrigues
shadowed her life, and there were people who might wish to
see her disgraced and gone from the castle. But love demanded
sacrifice and necessitated risk. With unsteady hands she poured
sake into the two cups: one for herself; a ritual one for her
absent lover. She lifted her cup and swallowed the drink. Her
eyes watered, and her throat burned, but the potent liquor
enflamed her courage and determination. She picked up the razor.
With careful strokes Harume shaved her pubic area bare, brushing
the cut black strands onto the floor. Then she set aside the
razor and lifted the knife.
Reiko, her face still concealed beneath the white headdress,
lifted the sake cup to her lips and drank. The process was
repeated three times. Then the attendants refilled the up
and passed it to Sano. He drank his three draughts, imagining
he felt the transient warmth of his bride's dainty fingers
on the polished wood and tasted the sweetness of her lip
rouge on the rim: their first, albeit indirect touch.
Would their marriage be, as he hoped, a union of kindred souls
as well as sensual satisfaction?
A collective sigh passed through the assembly. The san-san-ku-do--the "three-times-three-sips
pledge" that sealed the marriage bond--never failed to
arouse poignant emotion. Sano's own eyes burned with unshed
tears; he wondered if Reiko shared his hopes.
The attendant set aside the cup and filled the second one.
This time Sano drank first, three times, then Reiko did. After
the third, largest cup was passed and the liquor sipped, the
flute and drum music resumed. Joy nearly overwhelmed Sano.
He and Reiko were now joined in wedlock. Soon he would see
her face again . . .
Touching the knife's sharp blade to her tender, shaved skin,
Harume flinched at the coldness of the steel. Her heart thudded;
her hand trembled. She put the knife down and took another
drink. Then, closing her eyes, Harume summoned the image
of her lover, the memory of his caresses. The incense smoke
her lungs in the scent of jasmine. Ardor flooded her with
daring. When she opened her eyes, her body was still, her
She took up the knife again. On her pubis she slowly cut
the first stroke, just above the cleft of her womanhood.
Crimson blood welled. Harume let out a sharp hiss of pain;
tears stung her eyes. But she wiped away the blood with the
end of her sash, took another drink, and cut the next stroke.
More pain; more blood. Eleven more strokes, and Harume sighed
in relief. The worst part was done. Now for the step that would
bind her irrevocably to her lover.
Harume opened the lacquer jar. The stopper was fitted with
a bamboo-handled brush, its soft bristles saturated with gleaming
black ink. Carefully she brushed the ink onto the cuts, enjoying
its cool wetness, balm to her pain. With her bloody sash she
blotted up the excess ink and stoppered the bottle. Then, sipping
more sake, she admired her work.
The complete tattoo, the size of her thumbnail, etched in
black lines, now adorned her private place: an indelible expression
of fidelity and devotion. Until the hair grew back, she hoped
she could keep herself covered, hiding her secret from the
other concubines, the palace officials, the shogun. But even
after the tattoo was safely obscured, she would know it was
there. As would he. They would treasure this symbol of the
only marriage they would ever celebrate. Harume poured herself
another cup of sake, a private toast to eternal love.
But when she drank, she couldn't swallow; the sake leaked
from her mouth, running down her chin. A strange tingling began
in Harume's lips and tongue; her throat felt strangely thick
and numb, as if packed with cotton. An eerie cold sensation
crept across her skin. Dizziness washed over her. The room
spun; the lamp flames, unnaturally bright, whirled before her
eyes. Frightened, she dropped the cup. What was happening to
Sudden nausea gripped Harume. Doubling over, hands pressed
against her stomach, she retched. Hot, sour vomit clogged her
throat, shot up her nose, spewed onto the floor. She wheezed
and coughed, unable to get enough air. In a panic, Harume rose
and started for the door. But the muscles of her legs had gone
weak; she stumbled, scattering incense burners, razor, knife,
and ink bottle. Lurching and limping, all the while struggling
to breathe, Harume managed to reach the door and open it. A
hoarse cry burst from her numb lips:
The corridor was empty. Clutching her throat, Harume staggered
in the direction of voices that sounded distorted and far away.
Ceiling lanterns burned as bright as suns, blinding her. She
grabbed the walls for support. Through a haze of dizzy nausea,
Harume saw winged black shapes pursuing her. Claws snatched
at her hair. High-pitched shrieks echoed in her ears.
Now the attendants served sake to Sano's mother and Magistrate
Ueda, honoring the new allegiance between the two families,
then passed cups of liquor to the assembly, which proclaimed
in unison, "Omedeto gozaimsu--congratulations!"
Sano saw happy faces turned toward him and Reiko. His mother's
loving gaze warmed him. Hirata passed a self-conscious hand
over the black stubble on his head--shaved during their Nagasaki
investigation--and beamed. Magistrate Ueda nodded in dignified
approval; the shogun grinned.
From the table before him, Sano picked up the ceremonial document
and read in an unsteady voice: "We have now become united
as husband and wife for all eternity. We vow to execute our
marital duties faithfully and spend all the days of our lives
together in neverending trust and affection. Sano Ichiro, the
twentieth day of the ninth month, Genroku Year Three."
Then Reiko read from her identical document. Her voice was
high, clear, and melodic. This was the first time Sano had
ever heard it. What would they talk about, alone together,
The attendants handed Sano and Reiko branches of saka tree
with white paper strips attached, leading the couple to the
alcove to make a traditional wedding offering to the gods.
Small and slender, Reiko barely came up to Sano's shoulder.
Her long sleeves and hem trailed on the floor. Together they
bowed and laid the branches on the altar. The attendants bowed
twice to the altar, then clapped their hands twice. The assembly
"The ceremony is successfully completed," announced
the priest who had performed the invocation. "Now the
bride and groom can begin to build a harmonious home."
Pursued by the demons, Harume somehow found her way through
the winding passages of the women's quarters, to the door
leading to the main palace. There stood the castle ladies,
in bright, colorful kimonos, attended by servants and a
few male guards. Harume's strength was fading. Wheezing
she crashed to the floor.
In a loud rustle of silk garments, the crowd turned. A flurry
of exclamations arose: "It's Lady Harume!" "What's
wrong with her?" "There's blood all over her mouth!"
Now a shifting collage of shocked, frightened faces hovered
over Harume. Ugly purple blotches obscured the familiar features
of these women she knew. Noses elongated; eyes burned; fanged
mouths leered. Black wings sprouted from shoulders, fanning
the air. Silk garments became the lurid plumage of monster
birds. Claws reached out to grab.
"Demons," Harume gasped. "Don't come any closer.
Strong hands seized her. Authoritative male voices gave orders. "She's
ill. Get a doctor." "Don't let her disrupt the sosakan-sama's wedding." "Take her to her room . . . "
Panic infused strength into Harume's muscles. As she kicked
and thrashed and gasped for breath, her voice burst from her
in a scream of terror: "Help! Demons! Don't let them kill
"She's mad. Stay back--out of the way! She's violent."
Down the corridor they carried her, trailed by the screeching,
flapping horde. Harume struggled to free herself. Her captors
finally set her down, pinning her arms and legs. She was trapped.
The demons would rip her to shreds, then devour her.
Yet even as these fearsome thoughts flashed through Harume's
mind, a more terrifying power gathered within her body. A gigantic
convulsion arced through bone, muscle, and nerve; stretched
sinews; drew invisible chains tight around internal organs.
Harume screamed in agony as her back arched and her stiff limbs
shot out. In a cacophony of shrieks, the demons let go, thrown
off by the force of her involuntary movements. A second, stronger
convulsion, and darkness seeped across her vision. External
sensations receded; she couldn't see the demons or hear their
voices. The wild, erratic pounding of her own heart filled
her ears. Another convulsion. Mouth open wide, Harume couldn't
draw another breath. Her final thought was of her lover: with
a grief as agonizing as the pain, she knew she would never
see him again in this life. Then one last gasp. One more unspoken
Help . . .
Sano barely heard the assembly's murmured blessings, because
the attendants were lifting the white drape away from his
new wife's head. She was turning toward him . . .
Looking even younger than her twenty years, Reiko had a perfect
oval face with a delicate chin and nose. Her eyes, like bright,
black flower petals, shown with somber innocence. On her high,
shaved brow arched the fine lines of painted eyebrows. The
white rice powder covered smooth, perfect skin, contrasting
with the satiny black hair that fell from a center part all
the way to her knees. Her beauty took Sano's breath away. Then
Reiko smiled at him--the merest shy curving of dainty red lips
before she demurely lowered her gaze. Sano's heart clenched
with a fierce, possessive tenderness as he smiled back. She
was everything he wanted. Their life together would be sheer
conjugal bliss, which would begin as soon as the public formalities
The assembly stood as the attendants escorted Sano and Reiko
from the altar to their families. Sano bowed to Magistrate
Ueda and thanked him for the honor of joining the clan, while
Reiko did the same to Sano's mother. Together they thanked
the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi for his patronage, and the guests
for coming. Then, after many more congratulations, thanks,
and blessings, the party, led by the shogun, moved through
the carved doors and down the wide corridor toward the hall
where the wedding banquet would take place and more guests
Suddenly, from deep within the castle's interior, came loud,
high-pitched screams, then the sound of running footsteps.
The shogun paused, halting the procession. "What is that
noise?" he asked, his aristocratic features darkening
in annoyance. To his officials, he said, "Go and, ahh,
determine the cause, and put a stop to--"
Down the corridor toward the wedding party stampeded hundreds
of shrieking women, some dressed in brilliant silk robes, others
wearing the plain cotton kimonos of servants, all holding their
sleeves over their noses and mouths, eyes wide with terror.
Palace officials stormed after them, shouting commands and
trying to restore order, but the women paid no heed.
"Let us out!" they cried, shoving the bridal procession
up against the wall as they rushed past.
"How dare these females treat me in this disrespectful
manner?" Tokugawa Tsunayoshi wailed. "Has everyone
gone mad? Guards--stop them!"
Magistrate Ueda and the attendants shielded Reiko from the
horde, which quickly expanded to include panicky guests pouring
out of the banquet hall. They crashed into Sano's mother; he
caught her before she fell.
"We're all doomed if we don't run!" shrilled the
Now an army of guards appeared. They herded the hysterical
women back to the castle interior. The wedding party and guests
clustered in the banquet hall, where tables and cushions had
been arranged on the floor, a troupe of frightened musicians
clutched their instruments, and maids waited to serve the feast.
"What is the meaning of this?" The shogun straightened
his tall black cap, knocked atilt in the scuffle. "I,
ahh, demand an explanation!"
The guard commander bowed to Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. "My
apologies, Your Excellency, but there's been a disturbance
in the women's quarters. Your concubine Lady Harume just died."
The chief castle physician, dressed in the dark blue coat
of his profession, added, "Her death was caused by a sudden
violent illness. The other ladies fled in panic, fearing contagion."
Murmurs of dismay rose from the assembly. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi
gasped. "Contagion?" His face paled, and he covered
his nose and mouth with both hands to keep the spirit of disease
from entering. "Do you mean to say there is an, ahh, epidemic
in the castle?" A dictator of delicate health and little
talent for leadership, he turned to Sano and Magistrate Ueda,
the men present who ranked next below him in status. "What
is to be done?"
"The nuptial festivities must be cancelled," Magistrate
Ueda said with regret, "and the guests sent home. I will
see to the arrangements."
Sano, though shocked by this calamitous end to his wedding,
hastened to his lord's aid. Contagious disease was a serious
concern in Edo Castle, which housed hundreds of Japan's highest-ranking
officials and their families. "In case there really is
an epidemic, the ladies must be quarantined to prevent its
spread." Sano instructed the guard commander to manage
this, and told the castle physician to examine the women for
symptoms. "And you, Your Excellency, should stay in your
chambers to avoid illness."
"Ahh, yes, of course," said Tokugawa Tsunayoshi,
obviously relieved to have someone else take charge. Hurrying
in the direction of his private suite, the shogun summoned
the officials to follow, while shouting orders to Sano: "You
must personally investigate Lady Harume's death at once!" In
his fear for himself, he seemed indifferent to the loss of
his concubine and the fate of his other women. And he'd apparently
forgotten all about Sano's promised holiday. "You must
prevent the evil spirit of disease from reaching me. Now go!"
"Yes, Your Excellency," Sano called after the retreating
despot and entourage.
Hirata hurried to join him. As they started down the corridor
toward the women's quarters, Sano looked over his shoulder
and saw Reiko, white bridal gown trailing behind her, being
escorted out by her father and attendants. He felt extreme
annoyance at the shogun for reneging on his promise, and regret
for the delayed wedding celebrations, both public and private.
Had he not earned a little peace and happiness? Then Sano suppressed
a sigh. Obedience to his lord was a samurai's highest virtue.
Duty prevailed; once again, death commanded Sano's attentions.
Marital bliss would have to wait.
Excerpt from THE
©Laura Joh Rowland, 1998
Published by St.