Introduction to Shinjû Ten no Amijima


Historical Basis for Shinjû Ten no Amijima


Shinjû Ten no Amijima (The Love Suicides at Amijima), written and produced in 1720, is among the finest of all jôruri (puppet) plays, and possibly the best of the shinjûmono (love suicide) genre of fifteen or so plays written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). The play is representative of the first popular culture of Japan which flowered during the Genroku period (ca.1680-1730). If Ihara Saikaku (1642-93) and Matsuo Bashô (1644-94) epitomized the rise of popular novels and poetry, respectively, then Chikamatsu was the colossus of theatre. All three wrote for and about merchants, who were transforming Japan into a market society focussed on large cities. Although the merchants controlled the nation’s commerce, the government retained unchallenged political authority based on Confucian notions intended to safeguard the warrior ideals of the samurai from base notions of money. In practice, the government separated the districts in which the merchants and samurai were permitted to live. Furthermore, it licensed pleasure quarters on the fringe of each major city to provide the merchants with temporary escape from the social restrictions imposed by the government. Young girls were sold into the pleasure quarters for the equivalent of lifetime contracts, but some merchants inevitably fell in love. There were only two paths to freedom from the pleasure quarters: ransom of the courtesan’s contract or absconding to commit love suicide. In such instances, ninjô (“passion”) conflicted with complex giri (“duties” or “obligations”) to family.


The play splendidly depicts such conflict, which was common to all of the shinjûmono and to many jôruri and kabuki plays of the Edo era (1600-1868) when Japan isolated itself from almost all other nations. Kamiya Jihei, a seller of paper, loves a young courtesan in the pleasure quarters, Koharu, and also his wife, Osan. Jihei is an anti-hero; a weak man unable to choose between two women. Chikamatsu further complicates matters by creating a relationship of mutual obligation and respect between Koharu and Osan. Jihei’s quandary is brought to a head by his father-in-law, Gozaemon, who forcibly removes Osan from the family home and leaves behind her two children. The loss of Osan removes the choice between the two women and Jihei is released to play out the consequences of his love for Koharu. He cannot afford the ransom to purchase her freedom from the pleasure quarters, so the two lovers abscond. In the poetic, closing act, a michiyuki (“[final] journey”), Koharu and Jihei make their way to the place of their suicide. This michiyuki arouses intense sympathy for the pair of lovers in a manner uncommon to Japanese theatre.


Shinjû Ten no Amijima, in common with other theatre of the Genroku era, was heavily influenced by popular Buddhist morality plays which had dominated popular theatre during the preceding centuries. If Confucianism provided the ethical basis for giri, then Amida Buddhism supplied the religious basis. Amida Buddhism prescribed that individuals who believed in the saving grace of the saint, Amida, would be reborn in paradise. Thus, Chikamatsu’s characters continually concern themselves with thoughts of karma (i.e. the effect that actions in the present life will have on reincarnation in the next) and salvation. The concept of the michiyuki is also fundamental in this regard. The purpose of the michiyuki is for the lovers to travel to their death and thus reach Amida’s paradise. In accordance with the concept of Amida Buddhism, Chikamatsu creates a dance journey where the lovers progressively find release from everyday concerns or giri so that they may enter paradise. However, Chikamatsu symbolically indicates that the path to paradise for Jihei and Koharu will not be simple. The lovers travel east, whereas Amida’s paradise is in the west! They commit suicide, which normally disqualifies an offender from rebirth! They die apart: Jihei stabs Koharu on the riverbank and then hangs himself from a sluice with Koharu’s sash. Lastly, Koharu’s final words concern her duty to Osan, rather than Jihei.


Principal Characters


(Bold Font marks the name by which the character is popularly known.)


Kamiya Jihei, twenty-eight year old paper merchant

Koharu, nineteen year old courtesan at the Kinokuni House in Sonezaki

Osan, wife of Jihei

Konaya Magoemon, brother of Jihei

Gozaemon, father-in-law of Jihei

Tahei, a rival for Koharu


Act 1. The Kawachi Teahouse: The World of Ninjô (Passion)


Koharu is worried for her lover Jihei, who has a wife, Osan, and two small children. She receives a letter from Osan urging her to break with Jihei. Another courtesan encourages Koharu to cheer herself by finding another lover, the wealthy Tahei. Koharu’s denigration of Tahei is overheard by the would-be lover, who threatens Koharu and insults the absent Jihei. Tahei also abuses Koharu’s customer, Magoemon, who is Jihei’s brother in disguise. Magoemon expels Tahei and then tries to discover whether Koharu is contemplating a love suicide. Jihei, jealous that Koharu has another customer, listens outside and is shocked to hear Koharu renounce the idea. Jihei slashes at her through the window and, in comic-pathetic fashion, has his hand bound to the window by Magoemon who departs with Koharu. A short time later, Magoemon rescues Jihei from a thrashing by Tahei. Magoemon warns Jihei to break off the love affair and Jihei pretends to do so by returning all of Koharu’s letters. However, an exchange of looks by the lovers reveals their resolution to die.


Act 2. The House of Kamiya Jihei: The World of Giri (Duty)


Osan plays with her children while Jihei feigns sleep by the brazier. Magoemon arrives and informs Osan of a rumor that Jihei will ransom Koharu. Jihei denies the rumor and Magoemon leaves. Jihei sobs underneath his blanket and lies again to Osan. Osan is not fooled, confesses her letter to Koharu, and tells Jihei that she has scraped together one hundred and fifty gold coins, by selling her best kimono and the children’s winter clothes, to ransom Koharu. Gozaemon, Osan’s father, arrives and thwarts the ransom. He takes Osan and the money with him, leaving the two children to Jihei. Osan’s suffering is the climax of the play.


Act 3. The Michiyuki; and Amijima: Beyond the Living World of Ninjô and Giri


Koharu and Jihei evade Magoemon and set out on their michiyuki to Amijima. The lovers make a symbolic descent into hell, and ascend to death at daybreak. Thus, paradise is represented as a new dawn. Koharu’s final action is an expression of sorrow for the hardship that she has caused Osan. Jihei stabs Koharu and hangs himself with her sash.


In Conclusion


Shinjû Ten no Amijima confronts audiences with the extremely painful consequences of death by love suicide in Japan of the Edo era. Repeated attempts are made to obstruct the lovers’ attempts by emphasizing the consequences for family. Dramatic tension depends not upon whether the choice will be made, but rather when. Chikamatsu’s dramatic structure of opposing worlds underlines the consequences of the decision which make the timing so difficult. The pleasure quarters is the world of ninjô (passion) where Jihei seeks escape, but only finds despair; the home is the world of giri (reason and responsibility), whose obligations ensnare Jihei. The path to salvation through Amida Buddhism is strewn with continual reminders of attachment to the living world. The michiyuki is, therefore, an extremely painful release.


Recommended Internet Sites and Reading

Internet Sites

Introduction to jôruri (ballad puppet theatre)

Biography of Chikamatsu Monzaemon and analysis of the chief characteristics of jôruri. See page 4 for a photograph of Osan’s suffering, the climax of Shinjû Ten no Amijima.


Introduction to Bunraku

Overview of the history of bunraku (another term for jôruri)


Photographs of Aspects of Bunraku

The History of Bunraku

Narrator and Shamisen

The Shamisen

Th Puppeteers

Assembling a Puppet

The History of the Puppets

The Making of a Puppet Head

The Puppet Heads

The Puppet Heads Gallery (1 & 2)

The National Bunraku Theatre, Osaka (a puppeteer at work)


Excerpt from a translation of a sister shinjûmono (Chikamatsu’s first): Sonezaki Shinjû (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki). The michiyuki (and love suicide) of Tokubei [= Jihei] and Ohatsu [= Koharu].



Shively, Donald (Trans. and Ed.). The Love Suicides at Amijima: A Study of a Japanese Domestic Tragedy by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Keene, Donald (Trans. and Ed.). Major Plays of Chikamatsu, New York: Columbia University Press, 1961. Rev. Ed. Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.



Gerstle, C. Andrew. Circles of Fantasy: Convention in the Plays of Chikamatsu. Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1986.


To the Shinju ten no Amijima contents

Last revised December 31, 2000