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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 武州公秘話 (The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi)

I cannot bring myself to write or read anything that takes real facts for its material, or that is even realistic. This is one reason I make no attempt to read the works of contemporary authors that appear in the magazines every month. I’ll scan the first five or six lines, say to myself,”Aha! he’s writing about himself,” and lose all desire to go on reading. When I read historical novels, nonsense tales, even realistic novels of fifty years ago, or contemporary Western novels far removed from Japanese society, I can enjoy them as so many imaginary worlds.

Many of the conventional histories of famous Japanese historical heroes were often boring and didactic. Tanizaki, with his aim of subtly subverting convention, writes the early history of one such (fictional) hero who has the sort of foible that would not appear in a conventional history, namely a strange sexual perversion. He does that by an old and tried technique, that of perusing hidden and old manuscripts, which purport to tell the true history, rather than the conventional one that has come down in history and, of course, he compares the more official history with the one in the secret manuscripts.

The main character is the man who became Terukatsu but, when young, was known as Hoshimaru. Conventional portraits show him as a ferocious warrior but the narrator, knowing what he does, sees an air of concern and fallibility in the portraits. When he was young, Hoshimaru was sent as a hostage to Tsukuma Ikkansai, to ensure that this father, Terukuni, behaved. He grew up at Mount Ojika, the castle of the Ikkansai. Everything went well and he was treated well. When he was twelve, the castle was attacked by the forces of Yakushiji Danjo Masataka. The castle was besieged, while the attackers gradually forced their way closer to the centre of the castle. As he was too young, Hoshimaru did not see the fighting but, as the attackers moved further in, the people living in the outer parts had to come and live in the main citadel and his fairly luxurious room was used by some of the women. Hoshimaru remained guarded by a samurai so he could not sneak out but he learned that the woman assisted in the caring of the wounded. They tended the wounded and, in the evening they dressed the heads of the attackers who had been killed. It was the practice for the soldiers to decapitate those they had killed and the heads had to be prepared by the women to look clean and tidy for inspection. They tell Hoshimaru about this and he is so fascinated that he asks to see the process. Initially, he is denied but then one of the women takes him to the room where the dressing takes place. He is even more fascinated seeing the process in action. He learns about woman-heads, not the heads of women but the heads of warriors who have had their noses cut off, as the killer had not been able to carry the head during the battle but had cut off the nose so he could identify the head later. While watching an attractive woman preparing one such head, he gets a sexual frisson and, subsequently, associates sexual feelings not just with attractive women but with woman-heads.

His sexual excitement at the heads makes him want more. However, the woman-heads were comparatively rare. The only solution was to kill an enemy himself and have the head brought in, to be handled by the woman. He manages to sneak out, past the guards, and makes his way to the enemy camp. With the enemy inside the castle, the camp was relatively unguarded and he is able not only to enter the camp quite easily but finds he is in a sumptuous tent, which can only belong to the general. He finds the general and kills him but is unable to cut off his head – a difficult task – as he hears guards coming, so he cuts off the nose and flees. No-one in the castle, of course, knows that the general is dead and when the enemy retreats, a rumour is put out that he is ill. Even on Hoshimaru’s side, very few know about the disgrace of the loss of the nose. But his daughter, Lady Kikyu, knows and she vows revenge. When there is a reconciliation between the two sides later, and she marries Norishige, son of the enemy leader, she pretends to be a faithful wife but all the time she is plotting her revenge and that revenge means that he should have his nose removed and survive to tell the tale. Unfortunately for her, all attempts fail, not least because there is one man who works out what is happening and that man, Hoshimaru, now Terukatsu is Norishige’s faithful retainer. But he imagines Lady Kikyu with Norshige’s noseless head and his loyalties are called into question.

Tanazaki, as always, tells a wonderful if somewhat improbable story. It is witty, fast-moving and superbly told. Tanizaki’s themes, such as the enigmatic and idealised woman and the responsibility we have for our acts, are to the fore but it is Tanizaki’s story-telling skill that makes this novel so enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published by Chuō Kōronsha in 1935
First English translation by Knopf in 1982
Translated by Anthony H. Chambers