To Japanese

The Story of Kwashin Koji

By Lafcadio Hearn


From: Lafcadio Hearn, Japanese Miscellany, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, MA, 1901, Page 37-51.

(Footnotes with astatic are from the original book, others by Masatoshi Iguchi.)




During the period of Tenshō, [1]*; there lived, in one of the northern districts of Kyōto, an old man whom the people called Kwashin Koji.[2]*;[3] He wore a long white beard[4], and was always dressed like a Shinto priest; but he made his living by exhibiting Buddhist pictures[5] and by preaching Buddhist doctrine. Every fine day he used to go to the grounds of the temple Gion[6], and there suspend to some tree a large kakémono [7] on which were depicted the punishments of the various hells [8]. This kakémono was so wonderfully painted that all things represented in it seemed to be real; and the old man would discourse to the people crowding to see it, and explain to them the Law of Cause and Effect, — pointing out with a Buddhist staff [nyoi][9], which he always carried, each detail of the different torments, and exhorting everybody to follow the teachings of the Buddha. Multitudes assembled to look at the picture and to hear the old man preach about it; and sometimes the mat which he spread before him, to receive contributions, was covered out of sight by the heaping of coins thrown upon it.


Oda Nobunaga[10] was at that time ruler of Kyoto and of the surrounding provinces. One of his retainers, named Arakawa [11], during a visit to the temple of Gion[12], happened to see the picture being displayed there; and he afterwards talked about it at the palace. Nobunaga was interested by Arakawa's description, and sent orders to Kwashin Koji to come at once to the palace, and to bring the picture with him.


When Nobunaga saw the kakémono he was not able to conceal his surprise at the vividness of the work: the demons and the tortured spirits actually appeared to move before his eyes; and he heard voices crying out of the picture; and the blood there represented seemed to be really flowing, — so that he could not help putting out his finger to feel if the painting was wet. But the finger was not stained, — for the paper proved to be perfectly dry. More and more astonished, Nobunaga asked who had made the wonderful picture. Kwashin Koji answered that it had been painted by the famous Oguri Sōtan,[13]* — after he had performed the rite of self-purification every day for a hundred days, and practised great austerities, and made earnest prayer for inspiration to the divine Kwannon of Kiyomidzu Temple [14].


Observing Nobunaga's evident desire to possess the kakémono, Arakawa then asked Kwashin Koji whether he would “offer it up,” as a gift to the great lord. But the old man boldly answered: — This painting is the only object of value that 1 possess; and I am able to make a little money by showing it to the people. Were I now to present this picture to the lord, I should deprive myself of the only means which I have to make my living. However, if the lord be greatly desirous to possess it, let him pay me for it the sum of one hundred ryō of gold. With that amount of money I should be able to engage in some profitable business. Otherwise, I must refuse to give up the picture.”


Nobunaga did not seem to be pleased at this reply; and he remained silent. Arakawa presently whispered something in the ear of the lord, who nodded assent; and Kwashin Koji was then dismissed, with a small present of money.


But when the old man left the palace, Arakawa secretly followed him, — hoping for a chance to get the picture by foul means. The chance came; for Kwashin Koji happened to take a road leading directly to the heights beyond the town. When he reached a certain lonesome spot at the foot of the hills, where the road made a sudden turn, he was seized by Arakawa, who said to him: — “Why were you so greedy as to ask a hundred ryō of gold for that picture? Instead of a hundred ryo of gold, I am now going to give you one piece of iron three feet long.” Then Arakawa drew his sword, and killed the old man, and took the picture.


The next day Arakawa presented the kakémono — still wrapped up as Kwashin Koji had wrapped it before leaving the palace — to Oda Nobunaga, who ordered it to be hung up forthwith. But, when it was unrolled, both Nobunaga and his retainer were astounded to find that there was no picture at all — nothing but a blank surface. Arakawa could not explain how the original painting had disappeared; and as he had been guilty — whether willingly or unwillingly — of deceiving his master, it was decided that he should be punished. Accordingly he was sentenced to remain in confinement for a considerable time.


Scarcely had Arakawa completed his term of imprisonment, when news was brought to him that Kwashin Koji was exhibiting the famous picture in the grounds of Kitano Temple [15]. Arakawa could hardly believe his ears; but the information inspired him with a vague hope that he might be able, in some way or other, to secure the kakémono, and thereby redeem his recent fault. So he quickly assembled some of his followers, and hurried to the temple; but when he reached it he was told that Kwashin Koji had gone away.


Several days later, word was brought to Arakawa that Kwashin Koji was exhibiting the picture at Kiyomidzu Temple, and preaching about it to an immense crowd. Arakawa made all haste to Kiyomidzu; but he arrived there only in time to see the crowd disperse, — for Kwashin Koji had again disappeared.


At last one day Arakawa unexpectedly caught sight of Kwashin Koji in a wine-shop[16], and there captured him. The old man only laughed goodhumoredly on finding himself seized, and said: — “I will go with you; but please wait until I drink a little wine[17].” To this request Arakawa made no objection; and Kwashin Koji thereupon drank, to the amazement of the bystanders, twelve bowls of wine. After drinking the twelfth he declared himself satisfied; and Arakawa ordered him to be bound with a rope, and taken to Nobunaga's residence.


In the court of the palace Kwashin Koji was examined at once by the Chief Officer, and sternly reprimanded. Finally the Chief Officer said to him: — “It is evident that you have been deluding people by magical practices; and for this offence alone you deserve to be heavily punished. However, if you will now respectfully offer up that picture to the Lord Nobunaga, we shall this time overlook your fault. Otherwise we shall certainly inflict upon you a very severe punishment.”


At this menace Kwashin Koji laughed in a bewildered way, and exclaimed: — “It is not I who have been guilty of deluding people. Then, turning to Arakawa, he cried out: — “You are the deceiver! You wanted to flatter the lord by giving him that picture; and you tried to kill me in order to steal it. Surely, if there be any such thing as crime, that was a crime! As luck would have it, you did not succeed in killing me, but if you had succeeded, as you wished, what would you have been able to plead in excuse for such an act? You stole the picture, at all events. The picture that I now have is only a copy. And after you stole the picture, you changed your mind about giving it to Lord Nobunaga; and you devised a plan to keep it for yourself. So you gave a blank kakémono to Lord Nobunaga; and, in order to conceal your secret act and purpose, you pretended that I had deceived you by substituting a blank kakémono for the real one. Where the real picture now is, I do not know. You probably do.”


At these words Arakawa became so angry that he rushed towards the prisoner, and would have struck him but for the interference of the guards. And this sudden outburst of anger caused the Chief Officer to suspect that Arakawa was not altogether innocent. He ordered Kwashin Koji to be taken to prison for the time being; and he then proceeded to question Arakawa closely. Now Arakawa was naturally slow of speech; and on this occasion, being greatly excited, he could scarcely speak at all; and he stammered, and contradicted himself, and betrayed every sign of guilt. Then the Chief Officer ordered that Arakawa should be beaten with a stick until he told the truth. But it was not possible for him even to seem to tell the truth. So he was beaten with a bamboo until his senses departed from him, and he lay as if dead.


Kwashin Koi was told in the prison about what had happened to Arakawa; and he laughed. But after a little while he said to the jailer: — “Listen! That fellow Arakawa really behaved like a rascal; and I purposely brought this punishment upon him, in order to correct his evil inclinations. But now please say to the Chief Officer that Arakawa must have been ignorant of the truth, and that I shall explain the whole matter satisfactorily.”


Then Kwashin Koji was again taken before the Chief Officer, to whom he made the following declaration: — “In any picture of real excellence there must be a ghost; and such a picture, having a will of its own, may refuse to be separated from the person who gave it life, or even from its rightful owner [18]. There are many stories to prove that really great pictures have souls. It is well known that some sparrows, painted upon a sliding-screen [fusuma] by Hōgen Yenshin [19], once flew away, leaving blank the spaces which they had occupied upon the surface. Also it is well known that a horse, painted upon a certain kakémono, used to go out at night to eat grass[20]. Now, in this present case, I believe the truth to be that, inasmuch as the Lord Nobunaga never became the rightful owner of my kakémono, the picture voluntarily vanished from the paper when it was unrolled in his presence. But if you will give me the price that I first asked, — one hundred ryō of gold, — I think that the painting will then reappear, of its own accord, upon the now blank paper. At all events, let us try!


There is nothing to risk, — since, if the picture does not reappear, I shall at once return the money.”


On hearing of these strange assertions, Nobunaga ordered the hundred ryō to be paid, and came in person to observe the result. The kakémono was then unrolled before him; and, to the amazement of all present, the painting reappeared, with all its details. But the colours seemed to have faded a little; and the figures of the souls and the demons did not look really alive, as before. Perceiving this difference, the lord asked Kwashin Koji to explain the reason of it; and Kwashin Koji replied: — “The value of the painting, as you first saw it, was the value of a painting beyond all price. But the value of the painting, as you now see it, represents exactly what you paid for it, — one hundred ryō of gold. . . . How could it be otherwise?” On hearing this answer, all present felt that it would be worse than useless to oppose the old man any further. He was immediately set at liberty; and Arakawa was also liberated, as he had more than expiated his fault by the punishment which he had undergone.


Now Arakawa had a younger brother named Buichi, — also a retainer in the service of Nobunaga. Buichi was furiously angry because Arakawa had been beaten and imprisoned; and he resolved to kill Kwashin Koji. Kwashin Koji no sooner found himself again at liberty than he went straight to a wine-shop[21], and called for wine. Buichi rushed after him into the shop, struck him down, and cut off his head. Then, taking the hundred ryō that had been paid to the old man, Buichi wrapped up the head and the gold together in a cloth, and hurried home to show them to Arakawa. But when he unfastened the cloth he found, instead of the head, only an empty winegourd [22], and only a lump of filth[23] instead of the gold. . . . And the bewilderment of the brothers was presently increased by the information that the headless body had disappeared from the wineshop, — none could say how or when.


Nothing more was heard of Kwashin Koji until about a month later, when a drunken man was found one evening asleep in the gateway of Lord Nobunaga's palace, and snoring so loud that every snore sounded like the rumbling of distant thunder. A retainer discovered that the drunkard was Kwashin Koji. For this insolent offence, the old fellow was at once seized and thrown into the prison. But he did not awake; and in the prison he continued to sleep without interruption for ten days and ten nights, — all the while snoring so that the sound could be heard to a great distance.


About this time, the Lord Nobunaga came to his death through the treachery of one of his captains, Akéchi Mitsuhide [24], who thereupon usurped rule. But Mitsuhidé's power endured only for a period of twelve days.


Now when Mitsuhidé became master of Kyoto, he was told of the case of Kwashin Koji; and he ordered that the prisoner should be brought before him. Accordingly Kwashin Koji was summoned into the presence of the new lord; but Mitsuhidé spoke to him kindly, treated him as a guest, and commanded that a good dinner should be served to him. When the old man had eaten, Mitsuhidé said to him: — “I have heard that you are very fond of wine; — how much wine can you drink at a single sitting?” Kwashin Koji answered: — “I do not really know how much; I stop drinking only when I feel intoxication coming on.” Then the lord set a great wine-cup [25]* before Kwashin Koji, and told a servant to fill the cup as often as the old man wished. And Kwashin Koji emptied the great cup ten times in succession, and asked for more; but the servant made answer that the wine-vessel was exhausted. All present were astounded by this drinking-feat; and the lord asked Kwashin Koji, “Are you not yet satisfied, Sir?” “Well, yes,” replied Kwashin Koji, “I am somewhat satisfied; — and now, in return for your august kindness, I shall display a little of my art. Be therefore so good as to observe that screen.” He pointed to a large eight-folding screen upon which were painted the Eight Beautiful Views of the Lake of Ōmi (Ōmi. Hakkei); and everybody looked at the screen. In one of the views the artist had represented, far away on the lake, a man rowing a boat, — the boat occupying, upon the surface of the screen, a space of less than an inch in length. Kwashin Koji then waved his hand in the direction of the boat; and all saw the boat suddenly turn, and begin to move toward the foreground of the picture. It grew rapidly larger and larger as it approached; and presently the features of the boatman became clearly distinguishable. Still the boat drew nearer, — always becoming larger, — until it appeared to be only a short distance away. And, all of a sudden, the water of the lake seemed to overflow, — out of the picture into the room; ­— ;and the room was flooded; — and the spectators girded up their robes in haste, as the water rose above their knees. In the same moment the boat appeared to glide out of the screen, — a real fishing-boat; — and the creaking of the single oar could be heard. Still the flood in the room continued to rise, until the spectators were standing up to their girdles in water. Then the boat came close up to Kwashin Koji; and Kwashin Koji climbed into it; and the boatman turned about, and began to row away very swiftly. And, as the boat receded, the water in the room began to lower rapidly, — seeming to ebb back into the screen. No sooner had the boat passed the apparent foreground of the picture than the room was dry again! But still the painted vessel appeared to glide over the painted water, — retreating further into the distance, and ever growing smaller, — till at last it dwindled to a dot in the offing. And then it disappeared altogether; and Kwashin Koji disappeared with it. He was never again seen in Japan.




[1] * The period of Tensho lasted from 1573 to 1591 (A.D.). The death of the great captain, Oda Nobunaga, who figures in this story, occurred in 1582.

[2] * Related in the curious old book Yasō-Kidan.

[3] The source novel was “Kwashi Koji (果心居士)” written in Chinese, in Kousai Ishikawa (石川鴻斎), “Yaso Kidan (夜窓鬼談, Night Window Demon Talk), Toyo-do, Tokyo, 1889 (Meiji, 明治 22). Kwashin Koji was sixty odd years old according to the source novel.

[4] Beard and whisker in the source novel.

[5] Buddhist pictures: “A picture to show various phases of the Hell” is better.

[6] temple Gion: “Gion Shrine” in the present-day Gion-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto.

[7] Kakemono = A hanging scroll.

[8] the punishments of the various hells: “various punishments in the Hell” is more feasible.

[9] Nyoi = A ceremonial sceptre used by monks on the occasion of giving pleachings and memorial services.

[10] Nobunaga Oda (1543 - 1582), a powerful lord from Owari (the present-day Aichi Prefecture). He won wars and constructed a great castle at Azuchi in 1576 (Tensho 4). He was appointed the Udaijin (Upper Minister) in Kyoto.

[11] Among retainers of Nobunaga was a certain Shimpachiro Arakawa but he has died in a battle in in 1574 (Tensho 2). Thus, the Arakawa in the story must be an fictional character (Robert Campbell).

[12] Cf. Ref 4.

[13] * Oguri Sōtan was a great religious artist who flourished in the early part of the fifteenth century. He became a Buddhist priest in the later years of his life.

[14] Otowasan Kiyomizu Temple, the main temple of North-Hosso fact of Mahayana, located at Kiyomizu-cho, Higasiyama-ku, Kyoto.

[15] Not a temple but a shurine, called Kitano-Tempangu, at bakurou-cho, Kamigyou-ku, Kyouto, which enshrines Michzane Sugawara.

[16] a wine-shop: “a pub (public house)” is more feasible.

[17] WIne: Japanese sake. “Wine in the text below should be read as “sake”.

[18] “In any picture of real excellence there must be a ghost; and such a picture, having a will of its own, may refuse to be separated from the person who gave it life, or even from its rightful owner.” The following description may be better for what was said in the original novel. “There is a spirit in a masterpiece picture. If it was not owned by the rightfull owner, the spirit would not remain.” There are many traditions that a masterpiece painting bears a spirit, as pointed out by Robert Campbell.  

[19] Hōgen Yenshin: “Hōgen Motonobu” is correct. Kanou Motonobu (1476 - 1559) was a painter, the second master of the Kanou School. Hōgen (later Kohōgen) was his honourable title. Whether he painted “a group of sparrow) is unknown: A painting, entitled “Escaped sparrows (Nuke suzume)”, painted by Nobumasa Kanou (1607 - 1658) on the sliding-screen in Chion-in Temple (Rinka-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto) is well known (Robert Campbell).

[20] A horse painted on the corridor of imperial palace went out of the picture every night and ate bush-clover on the door and rice plant in the farmland (In: Kokin-chomon-shu (古今著聞集) Vol. 11. Robert Campbell). A horse painted by Tanyu Kanou (1602 - 1674) on a picture scroll in Ryuzenji Temple, Hamamatsu, went out night to eat vegetables in nearby fields (Kiyoshi Mitarai, “Enshu nana-fushigi-no-hanashi (Enshu seven wonders)” by Enshu Densetsu Kenkyu Kyoukai 1982. The date of the second tradition is obviously later than the time o Kwasin Koji or Nobunaga.

[21] Ref 16.

[22] Winegourd (?): “a sake bottle” in the original novel.

[23] a lump of filth: “a lump of clay” in the original novel.

[24] Mitsuhide Akechi (1528 (?) - 82), a lord and retainer of Nubonaga, given the fief of Yamashiro, east to Kyoto. As written in the text, he betrayed and attacked Nobunaga who was on sojourn in Honnouji Temple in Kyoto, forcing Nobunaga to suicide. The event was on the 21st June 1582. He was counterattacked by Hideyoshi Toyoyomi, a retainer of Nobunaga and killed eleven days later on the 2nd July 1582.

[25] * The term “bowl” would better indicate the kind of vessel to which the story-teller refers. Some of the so called cups, used on festival occasions, were very large, shallow lacquered basins capable of holding considerably more than a quart. To empty one of the largest size, at a draught, was considered to be no small feat.