THE SHIROISHI VENDETTA
In southern Miyagi Prefecture, the castle town of Shiroishi lies in the shadow of Mt. Zao.
An old legend tells of two brave girls from this town who embarked on a daring, deadly mission to avenge their slain father. It was a famous tale during the Edo Period (1603-1868), featuring prominently in kabuki plays, bunraku theater, and educational textbooks on the lives of exemplary women (though it is less well-known today). What’s more, it might have actually happened; though we have no surviving records that attest to the incident from the time it allegedly took place, the story has long been presented as true, or at least rooted in real events. Whatever its exact origins, the legend features places that actually exist and can still be visited today.
The story is a thrilling one, and the most generally-accepted version goes like this: One day in the year 1636 AD, a peasant named Yoemon was out in the rice fields on the east edge of town, pulling weeds with his teenage daughters, Miyagino and Shinobu. It was a typical rural scene on an idyllic summer morning—yet it all took a horrific turn when a clump of weeds, tossed by one of the girls, accidentally splashed mud on the clothes of a passing samurai.
That samurai was Shiga, a vassal and sword instructor to a powerful official at the castle. A proud, hot-tempered man, he turned in fury upon the hapless peasants, berating them for their disrespect. “I serve the masters of the castle,” he raged. “To throw filth on me is no different from spattering it upon them.” Yoemon crawled out of the rice paddy and knelt at Shiga’s feet, apologizing and begging for mercy. But Shiga drew his sword, kicked him over, and slew him with one blow right in front of his horrified daughters.
(It should be noted here Shiga had a right to do this. The law at the time recognized a samurai’s prerogative to cut down a commoner as punishment for disrespect, as long as he acted immediately and in the presence of witnesses.) Having avenged the insult, Shiga wiped the blood from his sword and left Yoemon where he lay, returning in disgust to the castle.
Miyagino and Shinobu raced home in tears to relay the news to their ill, bed-ridden mother. Overwhelmed by the shock of her husband’s fate, their mother’s health rapidly deteriorated, and she soon followed him in death. Officials from the town soon bought up the family property, and the girls were sent to live with their aunt in a neighboring village. In the wake of such repeated tragedy, most in the community sadly figured that Miyagino and Shinobu had little choice but to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and begin again as best they could.
But instead, they burned with the desire for revenge. The girls could not simply move on while their father’s killer walked free, and they knew their parent’s souls would never rest in peace until their family’s disgrace was washed away and Shiga destroyed. They owed it to their father to answer the injustices inflicted upon their family, and so they resolved to pursue this vendetta together, even if it cost them their lives.
Still, as mere peasants, they had no combat training, which they would need if they were to have any hope of victory over Shiga. Taking the money they’d received for their family’s land, the sisters slipped away in secret and journeyed south to the capital, where they searched high and low for someone willing to instruct them. They found that someone in a man named Yui Shosetsu, one of the most prominent martial arts teachers of the day, himself of common birth. Though Yui had many disciples already, he pitied the sisters and agreed to take them in as his students.
The girls trained under Yui for five long, grueling years. Neither proved much good with the sword, but the younger sister, Shinobu, became adept with the halberd, and the elder, Miyagino, mastered the kusarigama—an unconventional weapon featuring both a chain for entangling an opponent’s sword and a sickle for striking the finishing blow. Yui constantly matched the sisters against his other students, and once he finally deemed them sufficiently skilled, he bade them farewell and sent them back up north to fulfill their vendetta.
Still, the girls couldn’t just attack Shiga in his home or ambush him on the road; that would have been murder. In typical Japanese fashion, there was a process to such things. First, they had to submit a formal request for vengeance to the master of the castle; the master had to approve that request and then send it off to the lord of the entire Sendai region; then, once approved by the Sendai Lord, the request would be sent down to Edo, the capital, for final approval by the Shogunate. The process took weeks, but in the end, the girls attained what they’d long sought: legal permission for a duel of vengeance against their father’s killer.
The duel took place on the bank of the Shiroishi River, at a place called Ropponmatsu where criminals were usually executed. An arena was cleared out and the boundaries fenced off to keep excited crowds of onlookers at bay. Several high-ranking authorities from the castle sat in attendance to officiate the duel. Dressed in white—the color of death and funeral—the sisters received a ritual meal before stepping out onto the arena to face their enemy.
It’s interesting to wonder what Shiga must have felt, staring into the faces he’d last seen five years ago, then streaked with mud and tears, now steely with righteous anger and resolve. Still, he was a samurai, and a master swordsman at that—how dare anyone think he could lose to these girls, these peasants?
The sisters faced him together, and the combatants clashed in several rounds before a breathless crowd, each side scoring wounds upon the other yet neither able to attain a clear edge. Some versions claim Shiga wielded two swords, others say just one, but in any case he seems to have gradually gained the upper hand—until Miyagino’s chain finally caught him around the arms, tangling them together and rendering his swordplay useless. Shinobu stepped in and severed his arms with her halberd. Shiga collapsed to his knees, much as the peasant Yoemon had knelt five years before. The sisters had bested him, and there was nothing left for him to do but stare in disbelief as their blades descended into his neck. Their vengeance at last accomplished, the sisters offered a prayer for their deceased parents, and for Shiga as well. In the wake of their sensational victory, they declined enthusiastic offers of marriage by local samurai families and instead retired to a monastery, becoming nuns in order to dedicate themselves in prayer for the salvation of their parents’ souls. Their story spread throughout the land, and in time the sisters came to be regarded as icons of courage, duty, and filial piety.
The town of Shiroishi has public markers indicating several of the locations depicted in the legend. On the eastern outskirts lie the Hachimaida paddy fields, where the peasant Yoemon was slain; on the slope above the site stands a shrine to the brave sisters and their parents, called Koshido, or The Hall of Filial Loyalty. Northwest of town, at Ropponmatsu on the bank of the Shiroishi River, a stele marks the location of the famous duel. Having been interested in the story of the sisters' vendetta for many years, seeing Shiroishi was a major priority on my Tohoku journey, and I stopped there specifically to visit these places.
At the center of town stands the castle, currently undergoing repairs, but which keeps its guest hall, museum, and theater open to visitors.Twice each day, the theater plays a 40-minute, 3-D film adaption of the Shiroishi Vendetta Story, made exclusively for screening at the castle. I admit, I had somewhat low expectations going in, expecting a low-budget and cheesy affair, but I ended up really enjoying it. Aside from a few (admittedly expected) instances of overacting and melodrama, it conveyed the story quite well, and the final duel was appropriately exciting. The performances were generally solid, and I particularly enjoyed Shishido Kai as Shiga—he called to mind a Japanese version of Jason Isaacs (one of my all-time favorite villainous actors), perfectly capturing the pride, temper, and scorn of the brash swordsman. It was a fun film overall, and I’d happily show it in my legends and folklore class if only I were able to obtain a copy.
Filial piety, or devotion to one’s family and ancestors, is central to Confucian thought, and is regarded as one of the highest virtues in traditionally Confucian societies (Edo Period Japan being one). Indeed, though the sisters in the tale had every reason to hate Shiga, it was their devotion to their parents that served as the primary thrust for their quest for revenge. Vendettas of this kind were referred to as katakiuchi, (alternatively, adauchi), and such vendettas were not carried out on one’s own behalf, but as a moral obligation to a slain lord, teacher, or family member. Generally, Confucian hierarchies determined who ought to be avenged, and by whom, with those of lower status in a family relationship having an obligation to avenge those higher than themselves—but not vice versa. Thus, it was righteous for children to avenge murdered parents, and for younger siblings to avenge older siblings. But there was no such moral imperative for parents to avenge their children, nor for older siblings to avenge younger ones.
Part of the Shiroishi Tale’s appeal lies in the way it appears subversive on the surface while ultimately reinforcing proper Neo-Confucian social values, truly both having its cake and eating it. For a reader in the 21st Century, it may be especially tempting to read social commentary into the tale that flatters a more modern, egalitarian ethos. After all, Edo Japan was a rigid, hierarchical, patriarchal world, with society divided into strict castes: samurai at the top, and peasants, artisans, and merchants following below (descending in that order). Men stood above women in practically every social sphere. Therefore, the notion that two peasant girls should rise up and take vengeance against a samurai might seem, on the surface, transgressive (no doubt more than a few kabuki attendees enjoyed the thrill of watching brave commoners avenge abuse at the hands of the warrior class). But the core of the tale, and the reason these girls were held up throughout Japan as heroes, lies in their adherence to the fundamental ethics of their time, their embodiment of the virtue of filial piety.
Their vendetta also just made for a bloody good story.