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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

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.

Mothers-in-law

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.

Notes

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 cracked.com.

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).


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