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March 15, 2016

A Kobe Tragedy: The Story of Unai

One of the most "famous" legends from Kobe ("famous" within quotation marks as almost nobody today has heard of it), is the tragic story of Unai, the so-called "marriage-refusing maiden." For us living CE 2016 it is a weird story, but it seems to have haunted the imagination of the ancient Japanese. The Kobe legend inspired several 8th c. Manyoshu poems as well as the Kan'ami Noh play Motomezuka. In addition, the basic version of the legend can be read in the poem-tale collection Yamato Monogatari, dating from the mid-tenth century.

[Otomezuka, near Ishiyagawa St on the Hanshin line in Kobe]

Let's start with the Kobe legend. A young women, called Unai, was torn between two particular suitors, without being able to make a choice (she should have done like Miriam Hopkins in Design for a Living (1933) by Ernst Lubitsch, who takes both her lovers Frederic March and Gary Cooper!). Unai has been named after the village in the Ashiya area where she hailed from (deriving from the term "unabara," which means "vast ocean"), and one of her lovers came from the same village. The other one came from Chinu, on the coast SE of Osaka. Unai did not know what to do - both young men were equally wonderful and she just couldn't make a choice. To decide the case, in the Noh play she has the suitors compete by shooting at waterbirds on the Ikuta River. But both arrows strike the same bird, even simultaneously... and Unai in despair throws herself into the river.

This will shock modern readers: there seems to be no psychological justification for her suicide. Perhaps it is an extreme example of what the Japanese call "enryo," "deference to others." Unai apparently felt bad that these fine young men were fighting each other on her behalf and thought that she could solve the matter by removing herself from the equation. Rather than bring unhappiness to those who loved her, she ended her own life. (By the way, this situation is mirrored in The Tale of Genji, where Ukifune is unable to choose between Kaoru and Niou and decides to drown herself in the Uji River - without, by the way, succeeding for she is saved.)

But that was a miscalculation: both lovesick suitors immediately followed her in death...


People later built her grave on the coast. That is now - still according to legend - the Otomezuka tomb in Higashinada-ku, Kobe. At some distance, on both sides, the tombs of the two suitors have been placed. (Of course, these graves are really kofun, keyhole graves from the 4th century, where local potentates were buried. The legend was later attached to such pre-existing graves).

The best poem version is by Takahashi no Mushimaro (active 720s-730s), who was known for his poems on travel and various local legends. As Edwin Cranston says in the introduction to his translation, Mushimaro recasts the three suicides in terms of flight and pursuit and so manages to convey the blindness of passion.

The Noh play Motomezuka ("The Sought-for Grave") goes one step further than the Manyoshu poem and Yamato Monogatari story by showing us the afterlife of Unai. A priest, who is traveling through the Ikuta area, meets the ghost of Unai and listens to her sad story. The landscape is suitable desolate: although already the season of picking the green spring-shoots, the Kobe countryside is still unnaturally bleak and wintry. We hear the sad story of Unai told by her ghost. She adds that she now suffers torment in Buddhist Hell as punishment for her "offense" (the "offense" presumably being that she was held responsible for the deaths of her lovers, an instance of the misogynistic side of the Buddhism). Despite the priest's earnest prayers, the ghost finally vanishes into the darkness of Unai's tomb, making a mockery of its location, "Ikuta" (which after all means "Field of Life"). Indeed, a sad and strange story...

[Another version of the same tale, called "the Maiden Tegona of Mama," is set in Ichikawa near Tokyo and has also inspired several Manyoshu poems.]
References: A Waka Anthology, Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup by Edwin A. Cranston (Stanford, 1993) contains a translation and discussion of the poem by Mushimaro; 20 Plays of the No Theatre by Donald Keene (Columbia, 1970) contains a translation of the Noh play Motomezuka. The Yamato Monogatari has been translated by Mildred Tahara as Tales of Yamato: A Tenth-Century Poem-Tale (Hawaii, 1980).