Skip to main content

Adachi-hime and the mother-in-law from hell

This is the story of a beautiful woman, a mother-in-law from hell and a multiple suicide.

Adachi-hime (足立姫) was a famous beauty who lived in the Adachi district during the reign of Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇, 701–756). She had numerous offers of marriage, but eventually agreed to marry a samurai called Toshima Saemon'nojō Kiyomitsu (豊島左衛門尉清光).¹

It was a happy marriage, except for one complication: Saemon's mother. Adachi-hime did her best to please the older woman. She was kind, respectful and hard-working, but her mother-in-law found fault with everything she did.

Funakata Jinja in Horifune is dedicated to Adachi-hime.

Eventually this constant criticism became so unbearable that Adachi-hime committed suicide by drowning herself in the Arakawa River, together with five maids who sympathised with her plight. It is said that the bodies of the maids were found, but not Adachi-hime's.

After her death, her grief-stricken father, Adachi Shyōji (足立庄司), went on a pilgrimage to Kumano Gongen (熊野権現) in the Kii Peninsula. He carved six statues of Buddha and donated it to six temples in nearby villages. He planted his daughter's rosary, which was made from sudachi (スダチ) wood, near a hut in the same area, and eventually a sudachi² tree sprouted on the same spot.

Temples and shrines

Various temples and shrines in Arakawa and Adachi are associated with this story, but I'll focus on the two that have the closest links: Funakata Jinja (舩方神社), which is near the spot where she drowned; and Shōō-ji (性翁寺), popularly known as Kiamari, where you can see a tomb in her honour.

Funakata Jinja

Stones commemorating Adachi-hime and the five maids who died with her

Adachi-hime's grave at Shōō-ji in Ōgi

If you look at the map, you'll see that the two spots are separated by two rivers, but remember that the modern-day Arakawa River that runs through Tokyo is an entirely man-made canal (link). When Adachi-hime lived, there was only one river in that area that followed the course of the current Sumidagawa. (I still can't figure out how to embed the new format of Google Maps on my blog. This is a screen shot, but there's a "real" online map at the end of the post that shows you where Funakata Jinja is.)


Adachi is the poorest of Tokyo's 23 special wards: it has the highest percentage of families on social welfare in the whole of Tokyo, and over 40% of children attending junior high school receive public financial assistance to continue their compulsory education. 

My eikaiwa students, who mostly have full-time jobs at big companies, seem to believe that Adachi is a crime-ridden yankii³ disaster zone, but if you're a battle-scarred veteran from South Africa, "bag-snatching" gets a meh and a yawn. (Ayase Station, as you can see in this link, is a police hot spot for bag-snatching.)

Autumn means berries. These ones remind me of tiny tomatoes.
I spotted them somewhere along the way.

When I was riding on the Nippori-Toneri Liner, I did see a toddler wearing a small black jacket with "Bad Custom High Roller" and gambling scenes embroidered in silver on the back. He was on the hip of a girl who looked sixteen, i.e. she's either a very old fourteen or a youthful-looking twenty. If it were in South Africa, I would've assumed the "High Roller" message was meant ironically. Here? Unlikely.

Adachi doesn't have a good public transportation network; as a matter of fact, that's why the Nippori-Toneri Liner was originally constructed. It's a so-called automated guideway transit, in other words, a fully automated, driverless transit system in which vehicles are automatically guided along the tracks. The planning of the line started in 1985, with the initial intention of constructing a full-fledged subway, but this idea was scrapped due to the high cost and projected low ridership.

It's the only train line that serves that area of Adachi; that explains why I walked.

Oh, who am I kidding, I would've walked anyway.

A homeless man's tent in a meadow next to the Arakawa River

It's a bleak area: flat, industrial, with no personality and not much charm. Even Google Maps got depressed and refused to work. That's a first for me: it couldn't read my location, it wouldn't update as I walked along, it kept telling me I was ten blocks further. So I got lost in a maze of crooked alleys and had to return the next day to try again.

I'm stubborn that way.


When I read this story, I got all hot and bothered. Why didn't Saemon tell his mother to get lost? Why didn't he defend his wife? Why didn't he do something?

I'm not a sociologist, but it's probably due to a) filial duty and b) the very close bond between mother and child, especially son, in Japan. Also, in all fairness, it was a few centuries ago!

Traditionally, a wife was expected to be a servant to her mother-in-law and in certain instances couldn't leave the house without the older woman's permission. This created animosity, and to this day mothers-in-law are regarded with suspicion.

It's also possible that Saemon sided with his mother because – and this is just one barbarian's observation4 – the primary family bond in Japan is between mother and children, not between husband and wife.

Sunlight on ginkgo leaves at Funakata Jinja

Recently I talked to an eikaiwa student who's started taking English lessons because he'll be transferred to Vietnam on the 1st of December. He'll stay there for two years. His wife is pregnant; she expects their first child on the 15th of December.

"What?! Does you company know this?" I sputtered.

"Yes," he said.

"Will she join you next year?"

"No, she wants to stay with our baby in Japan."

I can't see a (middle-class) South African man, or his wife!, accepting this situation. The husband would insist on a later transfer, and the wife would join him as soon as possible, wherever he was.

How can a company transfer a young man two weeks before his first child is born? Therein, dear readers, lies a possible explanation for Japan's low birthrate: big companies aren't exactly sympathetic towards family life.

If you want to read more about mothers-in-law and wives, I recommend this article.


1) I couldn't verify this name in any English source. If you're a native Japanese speaker and you think/know I got it wrong, please let me know!

2) Sudachi (Citrus sudachi) is a green citrus fruit that is a specialty of Tokushima Prefecture. It is believed to relieve diabetes, and to this day people pray at temples with sudachi trees for a cure for their disease.

3) "Yankii (a corruption of Yankee) are young men and women who dye their hair blond or orange, wear trashy clothes and smoke, drink and have children before they're out of high school. They are famous for being loud, rude and refusing to take part in the strict manners of Japanese culture," according to

4) Actually this has been documented in several sociology books. I'll list only five:

Women and Family in Contemporary Japan by Susan D. Holloway
Japanese Patterns of Behaviour by Takie Sugiyama Lebra
Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club by Anne Allison
Young Women in Japan: Transitions to Adulthood by Kaori H. Okano
Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender, and the State, 1600-2000 by Harald Fuess

The stones at Funakata Jinja, taken from the back

The approach to the stones. It's rather gloomy.

Memories behind barbed wire

Interesting tap, but no water

I spotted this tome-ishi at a temple along the way.

Adachi-hime's grave with danchi in the background

Shōō-ji's main building is rather nondescript.

Shōō-ji's gate is more impressive.

If you go there, don't be put off by the gate. It's not locked during the day:
you can just push it aside.

Roof detail at Shōō-ji

This has nothing to do with Adachi-hime, but ... you can now see lovely
autumn roses next to the Toden-Arakawa Line (explanation here).

View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…