Page 10 of Hakoiri musume is a strange one because it contains a mini-story that seems to have little to do with the rest of the story. It’s actually a pop culture reference to an event that took place in 1790.
There was a popular legend swirling around Edo that a fisherman named Tsuribune no Seiji encountered a yakubyōgami on his boat on the 24th day of the 5th month. Seiji offered a fish to the spirit as a gift. As a thanks, the yakubyōgami promised that he would not enter Seiji’s home and kill him. It told him to write a note on his door to signify which house was his. Shortly after that, paper charms with the words “Tsuribune no Seiji’s Home” written on them were being sold in shops all over the city. Today’s page is a direct parody of that fad.
It’s not hard to imagine that someone reading this book when it was published in 1791 would have found this part very amusing, even though it hardly makes sense to us today. Think how confusing it might be for people 230 years from now looking at articles from our time, and finding all these references to snapping fingers and killing half the universe, or anagrams like WAP. That’s similar to what we’re looking at here.
The ordinary folk of the world love to exaggerate everything they talk about, so that a needle becomes a stick, and a stick becomes a pillar, and so on. The rumors about how Heiji brought home a mermaid, for some reason, turned into this: “Heiji met a yakubyōgami off the coast of Shinagawa and treated it to one of his fish. As a thank you, the yakubyōgami told Heiji to write ‘Tsuribune no Heiji’s Home’ in his own handwriting on a paper charm and hang it on his front gate. The yakubyōgami promised not to enter that house.”
The story spread far and wide. Throngs of people flocked to Heiji’s home. They begged him to write them charms in his handwriting to hang on their own houses. He tried to explain that it was all a hoax, but nobody believed him.
Neighbors: “Master Heiji, please give me a charm!”
Page 9 of Hakoiri musume shares a double-page spread with page 8. We see Heiji on his boat in his first meeting with the mermaid, and the start of their strange romance. It’s not exactly love at first sight, and it seems like a very weird match, but they both of their reasons to make it work.
The mermaid looked up from the deck and implored Heiji: “I just am a mermaid, nothing fishy. Please, would you make me your wife? Please, won’t you hold me and sleep with me? Don’t you like me¹?”
Heiji replied, “I’d love to hold you and sleep with you, but as they say, ‘When you go in with a fish in your arms, you go out with a fish in your arms².’ So it would be bad luck.”
But then he thought about it for a moment and he said, “Trying to find a wife at my age would be absurd³, but the really absurd thing is that you, a fish, have managed to hook me, a human, with that pick-up line.”
These lines are written in a way that resembles Bungo-bushi, a style of song and dance accompanied by shamisen that was super popular at the time. She’s basically squirming around, doing a sexy fish dance, and acting excessively flirty as she says this. Bungo-bushi was eventually deemed too erotic by government censors, and was banned. Here’s an example of what Bungo-bushi sounded like.
Heiji is misquoting a line from The Book of Rites by Confucius. The real quote says that wealth gained through improper ways will be lost through improper ways as well. Heiji’s somewhat scrambled version is a pun of mispronunciation, as “wealth gained” (takara sakatte) sounds like “holding a fish” (sakana dakatte). The pun doesn’t translate well, but in Japanese it’s a real groaner.
The phrase Heiji uses to mean absurd is “tails and fins”—another fish pun, but it doesn’t translate into English well. The “hook” pun he uses a moment later translates quite nicely though.
This is where our story changes timelines. Everything we’ve read so far has merely been backstory—the main character’s origin story. Today, we meet the titular mermaid of the book, the hakoiri musume herself. Fast forward several years, and she is now a young (mer)woman. Put Urashima Tarō and Orino out of your minds for now.
You’ll notice my mermaid is pretty similar to Kyōden’s image. That’s because this is one of my favorite illustrations in the book. Notice how, despite not having arms, her hair curls under her chin like a supporting wrist, playing coy. Genius! I didn’t want to change it much because I think Kyōden’s mermaid is just perfect.
It wasn’t until many years later that the mermaid was seen again, by an old fisherman from Hacchōbori, Kanda named Tsuribune no Heiji¹. One day Heiji was fishing in the harbor of Shinagawa. All of a sudden, a female monster with disheveled hair leapt out from the water and on to his boat. She was chewing on something. Heiji was frightened out of his wits. It was none other than the mermaid born between Urashima Tarō and the carp, who had grown up in Shinagawa Harbor.
The mermaid was now 17 or 18 years old; right at the bloom of youth for human girls. Her face was beautiful, like a combination of Rokō, Mangiku, Tojaku, and Gunyatomi in onnagata makeup². Despite having the body of a fish, Heiji couldn’t help but think she was actually kind of attractive.
His name literally means “Fishingboat Heiji,” which isn’t so much of a pun, but I find it amusing—it reminds me of characters like Steamboat Willie or Popeye the Sailor.
These are stage names of popular kabuki actors at the time. They were famous for their beautiful onnagatastyles (when a male kabuki actor plays the role of a woman). Rokō was Segawa Kikunojō III, Mangiku was Yamashita Mangiku I, Tojaku was Iwai Hanshirō IV, and Gunyatomi was Nakayama Tomisaburō I. Contemporary readers would have recognized the names and seen their posters around the city, so this is kind of like celebrity name dropping by Kyōden.
If there is anyone left who doesn’t yet think that Urashima Tarō is a jerk for cheating on Otohime with a prostitute, today’s post will fix that. In the illustration below, the signpost near Urashima Tarō reads, “Right: Genbē Channel, Left: Tennōzu.” It’s oddly specific about where this page’s events take place. Tennōzu is off the coast of Shinagawa, a place which was famous for sillago fishing. Today it’s a stylish and artsy downtown waterfront neighborhood.
I love that the fish nightwatchmen have lanterns. It’s just like how the people at undersea Nakazu’s sideshows were wondering if the clam mirage was a candlelight projection trick. There seems to be no acknowledgment that fire won’t work underwater, just like we’re asked to accept that people with fish on top of their heads = actual fish. Maybe I’m just weird, but that always makes me laugh.
Urashima Tarō knew that if Otohime’s father the Dragon King ever found out about the child there would be big trouble, so he secretly threw the baby away into the sea.
“Ah, if I didn’t belong to the Dragon Palace’s court, I would raise you myself and put you in a freak show in Fukiyachō or Ryōgoku. I’m sure I could make some money that way… It’s such a shame, but I have to throw you away. When you grow up, take care not to get caught by one of the bad freak shows!”
Some fish nightwatchmen who were patrolling the sea nearby heard the baby mermaid’s cries.
“Hey, I can hear a baby! Hurry up and bring the lantern over here!”
Like yesterday’s page, today’s page is full of absurdities. Kyōden’s hyperbolic metaphors for the depth of love between man and fish are splendid, and feel more like something that was written today than over 200 years ago.
The love between man and carp was deeper than the toilets at Shinagawa-juku¹; deeper than the wells at Kōjimachi²; deeper than an indigo cloth which has been died indigo again. They seriously considered running away in secret and starting a new life together… until one day the carp became pregnant. Urashima Tarō was completely at a loss over whether to keep the child or not; but eventually, Orino gave birth to a baby girl. Because it was the child of a man and a carp, it was born with the body of a fish and the head of a human. In other words, it was a mermaid.
Pages 4 and 5 are depicted below. The illustration shows Urashima Tarō and Orino flirting in an expensive, private, 2nd floor brothel room. Fishing gear, take-out noodles, a tobacco tray and sake decanter are scattered about the room. The brothel madame (an elderly catfish) is coming up the stairs with tea.
Urashima Tarō and Orino spent many hours together. They joked about whether they should commit lovers’ suicide or not, or whether he should cook her or boil her, and so on.
Urashima Tarō: “Do you really love me? You may be a fish, but don’t make a fool out of me.”
Orino: “If you doubt me that much, you can turn me into sashimi¹ and see my true heart. I prayed to Kinkō Sennin² that my love for you would be returned, and I even swore never to eat rakugan³ again. Even if my body were sliced into thin strips of sashimi and eaten with roasted sake, my heart is unchanging, like a fish boiled in miso soup. My heart is like water dammed up behind the Dragon Gate⁴; it wants to leap out like a dragon and fly to be by your side. As such, I feel like I could become a flying dragon. The love that comes from the underwater kingdom is as deep and profound as the bottom of the sea.”
The text lays the puns on thick, playing with different types of carp-based dishes and the fact that koi (carp) and koi (romance) are homophones. Most of the jokes get lost in translation, sadly.
Kinkō Sennin (Chinese: Qin Gao) was a wizard from ancient Chinese folklore who was able to ride on the back of a carp like it was a horse.
Rakuganis a colorful sweet. In this case, she swore it off as a payment for the wish she made.
An ancient Chinese myth says that a carp who is able to swim up a waterfall to the Dragon Gate at the top of the Yellow River would transform into a dragon.
Pages 4 and 5 of Hakoiri musume are presented with a two-page spread illustration, so I am sharing both pages below. Note how once again the fish characters are portrayed as humans with fish sitting on top of their heads. This served multiple purposes—not only was it easier for an artist to portray posts, emotions, and movement by using familiar human forms; it also allowed artists to sneak in caricatures or cameos of famous people and celebrities into their work!
Thus, Nakazu once again became part of the world of the Dragon Palace. It prospered, and was full of beautiful teahouse girls¹, called shigoku², who were so popular that goldfish and silverfish³ flocked to the neighborhood.
This is where that famous playboy Urashima Tarō⁴ liked to visit–I’m sure you all know his story. He was the lover of the princess Otohime, daughter of Dragon King Shakatsura II, Bakatsura Ryūō⁵. Urashima Tarō had grown a bit bored of the beautiful Otohime, and he secretly began visiting brothels in Nakazu. He fell in love with a courtesan named Orino, who belonged to a brothel called Tonegawaya⁶, and was considered exceptionally beautiful even among the shigoku.
There’s often confusion over the difference between hanamachiand yūkaku, or geisha and sex workers, or what is a legitimate tea house and what is a “tea house.” But banish that confusion, because in this story, teahouse girls definitely means prostitutes!
The real Nakazu was full of inexpensive, unlicensed prostitutes. These women were called jigoku (“hell”) in the local slang. But in the undersea world where everything seems topsy-turvy, Nakazu is full of shigoku (“the best”), who are exceptionally beautiful fish prostitutes.
In the neighborhood of Ryōgoku in Edo there were unlicensed, cheap prostitutes who were nicknamed gold cats and silver cats. Because this story takes place under water Kyōden changed cats to fish, and once again flipped what was unpopular on land into something very popular in the undersea world.
Urashima Tarō is one of Japanese folklore’s most well-known figures. No reader would have been unfamiliar with his story. You can read about him in countless books and webpages. (One of my favorite jokes in this book is how Kyōden has turned Urashima Tarō from a beloved children’s hero into a gigolo and a bit of a jerk. He’s essentially a kept man, a lover of a princess who is too low of rank to marry her, but he mooches off of his royal connections and runs around like a playboy.)
Shakatsura is one of the Dragon Kings in Buddhist scripture. Shakara, Sakara, and Bakara are some of the variations of his name in Japanese, but I just went with how it was written in this book. His Indian/Sanskrit name is Sāgara.
Orino’s name means carp, written in the flowery and fashionable style that courtesans used for their business names. The Tone River was famous for its carp, and similarly the Tonegawaya brothel was famous for Orino. She was the most beautiful fish in all of Nakazu.