The Story of Umezu Chube

The story of Umezu Chube, or umezu chūbē no hanashi (梅津忠兵衛の話), is a popular story by the famous Irish author in Japan, Yakumo Koizumi (Lafcadio Hearn is his real name). I read this story recently through the White Rabbit Press series of “graded reader stories“,1 and really enjoyed it. This story really epitomizes the way that Shinto, Buddhism and Confucian thought blend together in Japanese religion. I’ve covered the subject before when talking about the mixing of the three in the 1800′s during the Shingaku movement, but this blending of the three essentially occurs throughout Japanese history, and is still very much a part of Japanese religion.

The story is about a samurai named Umezu Chube who is in charge of guarding the gate of his lord’s castle every night. One night, as he came to do his nightly duty, a woman stood waiting for him, clutching a small bundle. When he arrived, she told him that she needed his help and that she had a terrible problem she had to take care of. But in the meantime, she needed him to hold her baby. Umezu was worried that she might be a ghost or phantom, but reluctantly agreed. The woman ran off and disappeared.

As the night wore on, the baby slept soundly, but got heavier, and heavier. Soon, the baby was so heavy that it became excruciating to hold, but Umezu was bound by a sense of duty to keep his promise to the woman. The baby weighed now tens if not hundreds of kilograms and the strong, young samurai was about to collapse from exhaustion, when in desparation he recited Amitabha Buddha’s name three times: namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu. Suddenly the baby became much lighter, and then disappeared utterly.

At that very moment, the woman had come back and looked extremely tired herself. She explained that she was a local kami who was trying to save a pregnant, young village girl going through a very difficult labor. The “baby” that Umezu had been carrying was actually the pain, burden and sorrow the young girl endured during labor, along with the fear and worry of her parents who thought she would not survive labor. If Umezu had dropped the baby, then the woman would have died! At first the kami tried to bear the child herself but she wasn’t strong enough so that was when she sought Umezu’s help.

When Umezu had called on the Buddha Amitabha for help, this gave the woman the strength to get through childbirth and the baby was succesfully born. The kami was so grateful to Umezu that she gave him fantastic strength and promised that his descendants would all have the same strength for generations. Umezu was skeptical at first until the following morning he accidentally crushed his rice bowl while holding it in his hand.

You can see how this story reflects a blend of Confucianism, Shinto and Buddhism. The samurai and his concern with honor, duty and loyalty reflect Confucianism. The kami helping in human affairs is of course a part of Shinto beliefs and the recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha is central to Pure Land Buddhism and many other Buddhist sects. The three work in tandem to help bring a happy ending to this interesting tale.

Unlike some of the more grim and bloody tales told by Hearn, this was more strange but heart-warming. A fun tale to read in Japanese if you can. :)

1 I bought this particular copy at a local Japanese store here in Seattle, but it’s also available at White Rabbit Press online as well.

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