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About the Book

About the Author

Also by Yukio Mishima

Title Page

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55


About the Author

Yukio Mishima was born into a samurai family and imbued with the code of complete control over mind and body, and loyalty to the Emperor – the same code that produced the austerity and self-sacrifice of Zen. He wrote countless stories and thirty-three plays. Several films have been made from his novels, including The Sound of Waves, Enjo, which was based on The Temple of the Golden Pavilion; and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Among his other works are the novels Confessions of a Mask and Thirst for Love and the short-story collections Death in Midsummer and Acts of Worship.

The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, however, is his masterpiece. After Mishima conceived the idea of The Sea of Fertility in 1964, he frequently said he would die when it was completed. On 25 November 1970, the day he completed The Decay of the Angel, the last novel of the cycle, Mishima committed seppuku (ritual suicide) at the age of forty-five.

About the Book


Tokyo, 1912. The closed world of the ancient aristocracy is being breached for the first time by outsiders – rich provincial familes, a new and powerful political and social elite.

Kiyoaki has been raised among the elegant Ayakura family – members of the waning aristocracy – but he is not one of them. Coming of age, he is caught up in the tensions between old and new, and his feelings for the exquisite, spirited Sakoto, observed from the sidelines by his devoted friend Honda. When Sakoto is engaged to a royal prince, Kiyoaki realises the magnitude of his passion.


The Sea of Fertility tetralogy

Runaway Horses

The Temple of Dawn

The Decay of the Angel


Confessions of a Mask

Thirst for Love

Forbidden Colours

After the Banquet

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

Five Modern Nō Plays

The Sound of Waves

Death in Midsummer

Acts of Worship

Spring Snow

The first book in The Sea of Fertility tetralogy

Yukio Mishima

Michael Gallagher


WHEN CONVERSATION AT school turned to the Russo-Japanese War, Kiyoaki Matsugae asked his closest friend, Shigekuni Honda, how much he could remember about it. Shigekuni’s memories were vague—he just barely recalled having been taken once to the front gate to watch a torchlight procession. The year the war ended they had both been eleven, and it seemed to Kiyoaki that they should be able to remember it a little more accurately. Their classmates who talked so knowingly about the war were for the most part merely embellishing hazy memories with tidbits they had picked up from grown-ups.

Two members of the Matsugae family, Kiyoaki’s uncles, had been killed. His grandmother still received a pension from the government, thanks to these two sons she had lost, but she never used the money; she left the envelopes unopened on the ledge of the household shrine. Perhaps that was why the photograph which impressed Kiyoaki most out of the entire collection of war photographs in the house was one entitled “Vicinity of Tokuri Temple: Memorial Services for the War Dead” and dated June 26, 1904, the thirty-seventh year of the Meiji era. This photograph, printed in sepia ink, was quite unlike the usual cluttered mementos of the war. It had been composed with an artist’s eye for structure: it really made it seem as if the thousands of soldiers who were present were arranged deliberately, like figures in a painting, to focus the entire attention of the viewer on the tall cenotaph of unpainted wood in their midst. In the distance, mountains sloped gently in the haze, rising in easy stages to the left of the picture, away from the broad plain at their foot; to the right, they merged in the distance with scattered clumps of trees, vanishing into the yellow dust of the horizon. And here, instead of mountains, there was a row of trees growing taller as the eye moved to the right; a yellow sky showed through the gaps between them. Six very tall trees stood at graceful intervals in the foreground, each placed so as to complement the overall harmony of the landscape. It was impossible to tell what kind they were, but their heavy top branches seemed to bend in the wind with a tragic grandeur.

The distant expanse of plains glowed faintly; this side of the mountains, the vegetation lay flat and desolate. At the center of the picture, minute, stood the plain wooden cenotaph and the altar with flowers lying on it, its white cloth twisted by the wind.

For the rest you saw nothing but soldiers, thousands of them. In the foreground, they were turned away from the camera to reveal the white sunshields hanging from their caps and the diagonal leather straps across their backs. They had not formed up in neat ranks, but were clustered in groups, heads drooping. A mere handful in the lower left corner had half-turned their dark faces toward the camera, like figures in a Renaissance painting. Farther behind them, a host of soldiers stretched away in an immense semicircle to the ends of the plain, so many men that it was quite impossible to tell one from another, and more were grouped far away among the trees.

The figures of these soldiers, in both foreground and rear, were bathed in a strange half-light that outlined leggings and boots and picked out the curves of bent shoulders and the napes of necks. This light charged the entire picture with an indescribable sense of grief.

From these men, there emanated a tangible emotion that broke in a wave against the small white altar, the flowers, the cenotaph in their midst. From this enormous mass stretching to the edge of the plain, a single thought, beyond all power of human expression, bore down like a great, heavy ring of iron on the center.

Both its age and its sepia ink tinged the photograph with an atmosphere of infinite poignance.


Kiyoaki was eighteen. Nothing in the household where he had been born would account for his being so sensitive, so prone to melancholy. One would have been hard pressed to find, in that rambling house built on high ground near Shibuya, anyone who in any way shared his sensibilities. It was an old samurai family, but Kiyoaki’s father, Marquis Matsugae, embarrassed by the humble position his forebears had occupied as recently as the end of the shogunate fifty years before, had sent the boy, still a very small child, to be brought up in the household of a court nobleman. Had he not done so, Kiyoaki would probably not have developed into so sensitive a young man.

Marquis Matsugae’s residence occupied a large tract of land beyond Shibuya, on the outskirts of Tokyo. The many buildings spread out over a hundred acres, their roofs rising in an exciting counterpoise. The main house was of Japanese architecture, but in the corner of the park stood an imposing Western-style house designed by an Englishman. It was said to be one of four residences in Japan—Marshal Oyama’s was the first—that one might enter without removing one’s outdoor shoes.

In the middle of the park a large pond spread out against the backdrop of a hill covered with maples. The pond was big enough to boat on; it had an island in the middle, water lilies in flower, and even water shields that could be picked for the kitchen. The drawing-room of the main house faced the pond, as did the banqueting room of the Western house.

Some two hundred stone lanterns were scattered at random along the banks and on the island, which also boasted three cranes made out of cast-iron, two stretching their long necks to the sky and the other with its head bent low.

Water sprang from its source at the crest of the maple hill and descended the slopes in several falls; the stream then passed beneath a stone bridge and dropped into a pool that was shaded by red rocks from the island of Sado, before flowing into the pond at a spot where, in season, a patch of lovely irises bloomed. The pond was stocked both with carp and winter crucian. Twice a year, the Marquis allowed schoolchildren to come there on picnics.

When Kiyoaki was a child, the servants had frightened him with stories about the snapping turtles. Long ago, when his grandfather was ill, a friend had presented him with a hundred of these turtles in the hope that their meat would rebuild his strength. Released into the pond, they had bred rapidly. Once a snapping turtle got your finger in its beak, the servants told Kiyoaki, that was the end of it.

There were several pavilions used for the tea ceremony and also a large billiard room. Behind the main house, wild yams grew thick in the grounds, and there was a grove of cypresses planted by Kiyoaki’s grandfather, and intersected by two paths. One led to the rear gate; the other climbed a small hill to the plateau at its top where a shrine stood at one corner of a wide expanse of grass. This was where his grandfather and two uncles were enshrined. The steps, lanterns, and torii, all stone, were traditional, but on either side of the steps, in place of the usual lion-dogs, a pair of cannon shells from the Russo-Japanese War had been painted white and set in the ground. Somewhat lower down there was a shrine to Inari, the harvest god, behind a magnificent trellis of wisteria. The anniversary of his grandfather’s death fell at the end of May; thus the wisteria was always in full glory when the family gathered here for the services, and the women would stand in its shade to avoid the glare of the sun. Their white faces, powdered even more meticulously than usual for the occasion, were dappled in violet, as though some exquisite shadow of death had fallen across their cheeks.

The women. No one could count exactly the multitude of women who lived in the Matsugae mansion. Kiyoaki’s grandmother, of course, took precedence over them all, though she preferred to live in retirement at some distance from the main house, with eight maids to attend to her needs. Every morning, rain or shine, Kiyoaki’s mother would finish dressing and go at once with two maids in attendance to pay her respects to the old lady. And every day the old lady would scrutinize her daughter-in-law’s appearance.

“That hairstyle isn’t very becoming. Why not try doing it in the high-collar way tomorrow? I’m sure it would look better on you,” she would say, her eyes narrowed lovingly. But when the hair was arranged the Western way next morning, the old lady would comment: “Really, Tsujiko, a high-collar hair-do simply doesn’t suit an old-fashioned Japanese beauty like you. Please try the Marumage style tomorrow.” And so, for as long as Kiyoaki could remember, his mother’s coiffure had been perpetually changing.

The hairdressers and their apprentices were in constant attendance. Not only did his mother’s hair demand their services but they had to look after more than forty maids. However, they had shown concern for the hair of a male member of the household on only one occasion. This was when Kiyoaki was in his first year at the middle school attached to Peers School. The honor had fallen to him of being selected to act as a page in the New Year’s festivities at the Imperial Palace.

“I know the people at school want you to look like a little monk,” said one of the hairdressers, “but that shaved head just won’t look right with your fine costume today.”

“But they’ll scold me if my hair is long.”

“All right, all right,” said the hairdresser. “Let me see what I can do to improve it. You’ll be wearing a hat in any case, but I think we can arrange things so that even when you take it off, you’ll outshine all the other young gentlemen.”

So he said, but Kiyoaki at thirteen had had his head clipped so closely that it looked blue. When the hairdresser parted his hair, the comb hurt, and the hair oil stung his skin. For all the hairdresser’s vaunted skill, the head reflected in the mirror looked no different from any boy’s, yet at the banquet Kiyoaki was praised for his extraordinary beauty.

The Emperor Meiji himself had once honored the Matsugae residence with his presence. To entertain his Imperial Majesty, an exhibition of sumo wrestling had been staged beneath a huge gingko tree, around which a space had been curtained off. The Emperor watched from a balcony on the second floor of the Western house. Kiyoaki confided to the hairdresser that on that occasion he had been permitted to appear before the Emperor, and His Majesty had deigned to pat him on the head. That had taken place four years ago, but it nevertheless was possible that the Emperor might remember the head of a mere page at the New Year’s festivities.

“Really?” exclaimed the hairdresser, overwhelmed. “Young master, you mean to say you were caressed by the Emperor himself!” So saying, he slid backward across the tatami floor, clapping his hands in genuine reverence at the child.

The costume of a page attending a lady of the court consisted of matching blue velvet jacket and trousers, the latter reaching to just below the knees. Down either side of the jacket was a row of four large white fluffy pompons and more were attached to the cuffs and the trousers. The page wore a sword at his waist, and the shoes on his white-stockinged feet were fastened with black enamel buttons. A white silk tie was knotted in the center of his broad lace collar, and a tricorn hat, adorned with a large feather, hung down his back on a silk cord. Each New Year, about twenty sons of the nobility with outstanding school records were selected to take turns—in fours—bearing the train of the Empress, or in pairs to carry the train of an imperial princess during the three days of festivities. Kiyoaki carried the train of the Empress once and did the same for the Princess Kasuga. When it was his turn to bear the Empress’s train she had proceeded with solemn dignity down corridors fragrant with the musky incense lit by the palace attendants, and he had stood in attendance behind her during the audience. She was a woman of great elegance and intelligence, but by then she was already elderly, close to sixty. Princess Kasuga, however, was not much more than thirty. Beautiful, elegant, imposing, she was like a flower at its moment of perfection.

Even now, Kiyoaki could remember less about the rather sober train favored by the Empress than about the Princess’s broad sweep of white ermine, with its scattered black spots and its border of pearls. The Empress’s train had four loops for the pages’ hands, and the Princess’s two. Kiyoaki and the others had been so exhaustively drilled that they had no trouble in holding firm while advancing at a steady pace.

Princess Kasuga’s hair had the blackness and sheen of fine lacquer. Seen from behind, her elaborate coiffure seemed to dissolve into the rich white skin-textures of the nape of her neck, leaving single strands against her bare shoulders whose faint sheen was set off by her décolleté.

She held herself erect, and walked straight ahead with a firm step, betraying no tremor to her trainbearers, but in Kiyoaki’s eyes that great fan of white fur seemed to glow and fade to the sound of music, like a snow-covered peak first hidden, then exposed by a fluid pattern of clouds. At that moment, for the first time in his life, he was struck by the full force of womanly beauty—a dazzling burst of elegance that made his senses reel.

Princess Kasuga’s lavish use of French perfume extended to her train, and its fragrance overpowered the musky odor of incense. Some way down the corridor, Kiyoaki stumbled for a moment, inadvertently tugging at the train. The Princess turned her head slightly, and, as a sign that she was not at all annoyed, smiled gently at the youthful offender. Her gesture went unnoticed; body perfectly erect in that fractional turn, she had allowed Kiyoaki a glimpse of a corner of her mouth. At that moment, a single wisp of hair slipped over her clear white cheek, and out of the fine-drawn corner of an eye a smile flashed in a spark of black fire. But the pure line of her nose did not move. It was as if nothing had happened . . . this fleeting angle of the Princess’s face—too slight to be called a profile—made Kiyoaki feel as if he had seen a rainbow flicker for a bare instant through a prism of pure crystal.

His father, Marquis Matsugae, watched his son’s part in the festivities, absorbing the boy’s brilliant appearance in his beautiful ceremonial costume, and savoring the complacency of a man who sees a lifelong dream fulfilled. This triumph dispelled completely his lingering fears of still seeming an imposter, for all his attempts to establish himself as someone fit to receive the Emperor in his own home. For now, in the person of his own son, the Marquis had seen the ultimate fusion of the aristocratic and the samurai traditions, a perfect congruence between the old court nobles and the new nobility.

But as the ceremony continued, the Marquis’s gratification at the praise people had lavished on the boy’s looks changed to feelings of discomfort. At thirteen, Kiyoaki was altogether too handsome. Putting aside natural affection for his own son, the Marquis could not help noticing that he stood out even in comparison with the other pages. His pale cheeks flushed crimson when he was excited, his brows were sharply defined and his wide eyes, still childishly earnest, were framed by long lashes. They were dark and had a seductive glint in them. And so the Marquis was roused by the flood of compliments to take note of the exceptional beauty of his son and heir, and he sensed something disquieting in it. He was touched by an uneasy premonition. But Marquis Matsugae was an extremely optimistic man, and he shook off his discomfiture as soon as the ceremony was over.

Similar apprehensions were more persistent in the mind of young Iinuma, who had come to live in the Matsugae household as a boy of seventeen the year before Kiyoaki’s service as a page. Iinuma had been recommended as Kiyoaki’s personal tutor by the middle school of his village in Kagoshima, and he had been sent to the Matsugaes with testimonies to his mental and physical abilities. The present Marquis’s father was revered as a fierce and powerful god in Kagoshima, and Iinuma had visualized life in the Matsugae household entirely in terms of what he had heard at home or at school about the exploits of the former Marquis. In his year with them, however, their luxurious way of life had disrupted this expectation and had wounded his youthfully puritanical sensibilities.

He could shut his eyes to other things, but not to Kiyoaki, who was his personal responsibility. Everything about Kiyoaki—his looks, his delicacy, his sensitivity, his turn of mind, his interests—grated on Iinuma. And everything about the Marquis and Marquise’s attitude toward their son’s education was equally distressing. “I’ll never raise a son of mine that way, not even if I am made a Marquis. What weight do you suppose the Marquis gives to his own father’s tenets?”

The Marquis was punctilious in observing the annual rites for his father, but almost never spoke of him. At first, Iinuma used to dream that the Marquis would talk more often about his father and that his reminiscences might reveal something of the affection in which he held his father’s memory, but in the course of the year such hopes flickered and died.

The night that Kiyoaki returned home after performing his duties as an imperial page, the Marquis and his wife gave a private family dinner to celebrate the occasion. When the time came for Kiyoaki to hurry off to bed, Iinuma helped him to his room. The thirteen-year-old boy’s cheeks were flushed with the wine that his father, half as a joke, had forced upon him. He burrowed into the silken quilts and let his head fall back on the pillow, his breath warm and heavy. The tracery of blue veins under his close-cropped hair throbbed around his earlobes, and the skin was so extraordinarily transparent that one could almost see the fragile mechanism inside. Even in the half-light of the room, his lips were red. And the sounds of breathing that came from this boy, who looked as though he had never experienced anguish, seemed to be the mocking echo of a sad folksong.

Iinuma looked down at his face, at the sensitive darting eyes with their long lashes—the eyes of an otter—and he knew that it was hopeless to expect him to swear the enthusiastic oaths of loyalty to the Emperor that a night like this would have invoked in any normal young Japanese boy striving toward manhood, who had been privileged to carry out so glorious a task.

Kiyoaki’s eyes were now wide open as he lay on his back staring at the ceiling, and they were filled with tears. And when this glistening gaze turned on him, Iinuma’s distaste deepened. But this made it all the more imperative for him to believe in his own loyalty. When Kiyoaki apparently felt too warm, he pulled his bare arms, slightly flushed, out from under the quilt and started to fold them behind his head; Iinuma admonished him and pulled shut the loose collar of his nightgown: “You’ll catch cold. You ought to go to sleep now.”

“Iinuma, you know . . . I made a blunder today. If you promise not to tell Father or Mother, I’ll say what it was.”

“What was it?”

“Today, when I was carrying the Princess’s train, I stumbled a little. But the Princess just smiled and forgave me.”

Iinuma was repelled by these frivolous words, by the absence of any sense of responsibility, by the tearful look of rapture in those eyes, by everything.


IT WAS HARDLY surprising, then, that by the time Kiyoaki turned eighteen, his preoccupations had served to isolate him more and more from his surroundings. He had grown apart from more than just his family. The teachers at the Peers School had instilled in their pupils the supremely noble example of the principal, General Nogi, who had committed suicide to follow his Emperor in death; and ever since they had started to emphasize the significance of his act, suggesting that their educational tradition would have been the poorer had the General died on a sickbed, an atmosphere of Spartan simplicity had come to permeate the school. Kiyoaki, who had an aversion to anything smacking of militarism, had come to loathe school for this reason.

His only friend was his classmate Shigekuni Honda. There were of course many others who would have been delighted to be friends with Kiyoaki, but he didn’t like the youthful coarseness of his contemporaries; he shunned their rough, coltish ways and was further repelled by their crude sentimentality when they mindlessly roared out the school song. Kiyoaki was drawn only to Honda, with his quiet, composed, rational temperament, unusual in a boy of his age. Even so the two had little in common in appearance or temperament.

Honda seemed older than he was. Though his features were quite ordinary, he tended to assume a somewhat pompous air. He was interested in studying law, and was gifted with keen intuition, but it was a power he tended to disguise. To look at him was to believe that he was indifferent to sensual pleasures, but there were times when he seemed fired by some deep passion; at these moments, Honda—who always kept his mouth firmly shut, as he kept his somewhat near-sighted eyes severely narrowed and his brows in a frown—was to be caught with a hint of parted lips in his expression.

Kiyoaki and Honda were perhaps as different in their makeup as the flower and the leaf of a single plant. Kiyoaki was incapable of hiding his true nature, and he was defenseless against society’s power to inflict pain. His still unawakened sensuality lay dormant within him, unprotected as a puppy in a March rain, body shivering, eyes and nose pelted with water. Honda, on the other hand, had quite early in life grasped where danger lay, choosing to shelter from all storms, whatever their attraction.

Despite this, however, they were remarkably close friends. Not content to see each other in school, they would also spend Sundays together at one or the other of their homes. And because the Matsugae estate had more to offer in the way of walks and other amusements, Honda usually came to Kiyoaki’s house.

One October Sunday in 1912, the first year of the Taisho era, on an afternoon when the maple leaves were almost in their prime, Honda arrived in Kiyoaki’s room to suggest that they go boating on the pond. Had this been a year like any other, there would have been a growing number of visitors coming to admire the maple leaves, but as the Matsugaes had been in mourning since the Emperor’s death the previous summer, they had suspended normal social activities. An extraordinary stillness lay over the park.

“Well, if you want to. The boat will take three. We’ll get Iinuma to row us.”

“Why do we need anybody to row us? I’ll row,” said Honda, remembering the dour expression of the young man who had just needlessly escorted him with silent but relentless obsequiousness to Kiyoaki’s room.

Kiyoaki smiled. “You don’t like him, do you, Honda?”

“It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s just that, for all the time I’ve known him, I still can’t tell what’s going on inside his head.”

“He’s been here six years, so I take him for granted now, like the air I breathe. We certainly don’t see eye to eye, but he’s devoted to me all the same. He’s loyal, he studies hard, you can depend on him.”

Kiyoaki’s room was on the second floor facing the pond. It had originally been in Japanese style, but had been redecorated to look Western, with a carpet and Western furniture. Honda sat down on the windowsill. Looking over his shoulder, he took in the whole sweep of the pond, the island and the hill of maples beyond. The water lay smooth in the afternoon sun. Just below him, he could see the boats moored in a small inlet.

At the same time, he was mulling over his friend’s lack of enthusiasm. Kiyoaki never took the lead, though sometimes he would join in with an air of utter boredom only to enjoy himself in his own way. The role of exhorter and leader, then, always fell to Honda if the pair were to do anything at all.

“You can see the boats, can’t you?” said Kiyoaki.

“Yes, of course I can,” Honda replied, glancing dubiously behind him.


What did Kiyoaki mean by his question? If one were forced to hazard a guess, it would be that he was trying to say that he had no interest in anything at all. He thought of himself as a thorn, a small, poisonous thorn jabbed into the workmanlike hand of his family. And this was his fate simply because he had acquired a little elegance. A mere fifty years before, the Matsugaes had been a sturdy, upright samurai family, no more, eking out a frugal existence in the provinces. But in a brief span of time, their fortunes had soared. By Kiyoaki’s time, the first traces of refinement were threatening to take hold on a family that, unlike the court nobility, had enjoyed centuries of immunity to the virus of elegance. And Kiyoaki, like an ant that senses the approaching flood, was experiencing the first intimations of his family’s rapid collapse.

His elegance was the thorn. And he was well aware that his aversion to coarseness, his delight in refinement, were futile; he was a plant without roots. Without meaning to undermine his family, without wanting to violate its traditions, he was condemned to do so by his very nature. And this poison would stunt his own life as it destroyed his family. The handsome young man felt that this futility typified his existence.

His conviction of having no purpose in life other than to act as a distillation of poison was part of the ego of an eighteen-year-old. He had resolved that his beautiful white hands would never be soiled or calloused. He wanted to be like a pennant, dependent on each gusting wind. The only thing that seemed valid to him was to live for the emotions—gratuitous and unstable, dying only to quicken again, dwindling and flaring without direction or purpose.

At the moment nothing interested him. Boating? His father had thought the little green and white boat he had imported from abroad to be stylish. As far as his father was concerned the boat was culture; culture made tangible. But what of it? Who cared about a boat?

Honda, with his inborn intuition, understood Kiyoaki’s sudden silence. Although they were the same age, Honda was more mature. He was, in fact, a young man who wanted to lead a constructive life, and he had made up his mind about his future role. With Kiyoaki, however, he always took care to seem less sensitive and subtle than he was. For he knew that his friend was quite receptive to his careful displays of obtuseness—the only bait that seemed to draw a rise from Kiyoaki. And this streak of deception ran through their whole friendship.

“It would do you good to get some exercise,” said Honda brusquely. “I know that you can’t have been reading all that much, but you look as if you’d read your way through a library.”

Kiyoaki smiled by way of reply. Honda was right. It was not his books that had drained him of energy but his dreams. A whole library wouldn’t have exhausted him as much as his constant dreaming night after night.

The very night before, he had dreamed of his own coffin, made of unpainted wood. It stood in the middle of an empty room with large windows, and outside, the pre-dawn darkness was shading to a deep blue; it was filled with the sound of birdsong. A young woman clung to the coffin, her long black hair trailing from her drooping head, her slender shoulders wracked with sobs. He wanted to see her face but could make out no more than her pale, graceful forehead with its delicate peak of black hair. The coffin was half covered with a leopard-skin bordered in pearls. The first muted glow of the dawn flickered on the row of jewels. Instead of funeral incense, a scent of Western perfume hung over the room with the fragrance of sun-ripened fruit. Kiyoaki seemed to be watching this from a great height, though he was convinced that his body lay inside the coffin. But sure as he was, he still felt the need to see it there by way of confirmation. However, like a mosquito in the morning light, his wings lost all power and ceased beating in mid-air; he was utterly incapable of looking inside the nailed-down coffin lid. And then, as his frustration grew more and more intense, he woke up. Kiyoaki took out his secret journal and wrote all this down.


Finally, the two of them went down to the landing and unfastened the mooring rope. The calm surface of the water reflected the flaming scarlet maples beginning to turn on the hill beyond. As they stepped into the boat, its wild rocking evoked in Kiyoaki his favorite feelings about the precariousness of life. At that instant, his inner thoughts seemed to describe a wide arc, clearly reflected in the fresh white trim of the boat. His spirits rose.

Honda pushed against the stone landing with an oar and maneuvered the boat out into the water. As the prow shivered the brilliant scarlet surface of the water, the smooth ripples heightened Kiyoaki’s sense of liberation. The dark water seemed to speak in a deep, solemn voice. “My eighteenth autumn, this day, this afternoon, this moment: never to come again,” he thought, “something already slipping irrevocably away.”

“Shall we take a look at the island?”

“What’s the fun in that? There’s nothing to see.”

“Don’t be a kill-joy. Come on, let’s go and look,” Honda urged. His voice sounded deep in his chest as he rowed with a lively vigor that suited his years.

As Kiyoaki stared fixedly down into the pond, he heard the faint sound of the waterfall far away on the other side of the island; he could not see a great deal because of the cloudy water and the red of the maples reflected in it. There were carp swimming down there, he knew, and at the very bottom snapping turtles lurked in the shelter of the rocks. His childhood fears flared for a moment, then died.

The hot sun struck the backs of their close-shaven necks. It was a peaceful, uneventful, glorious Sunday afternoon. Yet Kiyoaki remained convinced that at the bottom of this world, which was like a leather bag filled with water, there was a little hole, and it seemed to him that he could hear time leaking from it, drop by drop.

They reached the island at a spot where a single maple stood among the pines, and climbed the stone steps to the grassy clearing at the top with the three iron cranes. The boys sat down at the feet of the pair that were stretching their necks upward in an eternal, mute cry, then lay back on the grass to stare up at the late autumn sky. The rough grass pricked through the backs of their kimonos, making Kiyoaki rather uncomfortable. It gave Honda, however, the sensation of having to endure an exquisitely refreshing pain that was fragmented and spread out under his back. Out of the corners of their eyes, they could see the two cranes, weathered by wind and rain and soiled by chalky-white bird droppings. The birds’ supple, curved necks, stretched against the sky, moved slowly with the rhythm of the shifting clouds.

“It’s a beautiful day. In all our lives, we may not have many like this—so perfect,” said Honda, stirred by some premonition.

“Are you talking about happiness?” asked Kiyoaki.

“I don’t remember saying anything about happiness.”

“Well, that’s all right then. I’d be much too scared to say the things you do. I don’t have that kind of courage.”

“I’m convinced that the trouble with you is, you’re horribly greedy. Greedy men are apt to seem miserable. Look, what more could you want than a day like this?”

“Something definite. What it might be, I’ve no idea,” the young man answered wearily, as handsome as he was indecisive. Fond as he was of his friend, there were times when Kiyoaki found Honda’s keenly analytic mind and his confident turns of phrase—the very image of youthful promise—a severe trial to his capricious nature.

All at once, he rolled over on his stomach on the grass and raised his head, staring across the water at a spot some distance away, in the direction of the garden that fronted the drawing room of the main house. Stepping-stones set in white sand led from it to the edge of the pond, which was intricately scalloped with small inlets crossed by a network of stone bridges. He had noticed a group of women there.


HE TAPPED HONDA on the shoulder and pointed in that direction. Honda raised his head and peered across the water until he too spotted the women. And so they stared from their hiding place like two young snipers. His mother went for her daily walk whenever the mood struck her; but her company was not confined to her personal maids today; two guests, one old and one young, were walking just behind her. All except the young girl were wearing kimonos of muted, quiet colors. And although she was in pale blue, the material was richly embroidered. As she crossed the white sand to walk along the water’s edge, it shone pale and silky like the sky at daybreak. The women’s laughter, carrying on the autumn air, betrayed her uncertain footing on the irregular stepping-stones, but it rang too pure and sounded a little artificial. It always irritated Kiyoaki to hear the women of the household laughing like that, but he was well aware of the effect it had on Honda, who had a glint in his eye like a rooster alerted to the clucking of hens. The brittle stalks of dry autumn grass bent under their chests.

Kiyoaki felt sure that the girl in the pale-blue kimono would never laugh that way. In a great flurry of merriment, his mother’s maids were leading their mistress and the guests hand-in-hand from the edge of the pond to the hill of maples along a path deliberately complicated by a maze of stone bridges that threaded to and fro across the inlets. Kiyoaki and Honda soon lost sight of them behind the tall grass in which they lay.

“You certainly have a lot of women around your house. We have nothing but men,” said Honda, putting a good face on his interest, which was keen enough to make him get up and move to the other side of the island. Here, from the shelter of the pines, he was able to follow the awkward progress of the women. To the left of him, a hollow in the slope held the first four of the nine waterfalls. The stream then followed the curve of the hill and finally splashed down in front of it into the pool below the red Sado rocks. The women were now making their way below these last falls, testing their footing on the stepping-stones. The maple leaves here were especially beautiful, so thick as to blot out the white ribbon of the falls and stain the water at the edge of the pond a deep scarlet. The maids were leading the young woman in the aquamarine kimono across the stepping-stones, her head bent forward, and even at that distance the white of the nape of her neck was visible to Kiyoaki. It made him think of Princess Kasuga and her creamy white neck, something that was never far from his mind.

After the path crossed below the falls, it leveled out for a time, following the waterline as the shore began to come toward the island. Kiyoaki had followed the women’s progress with concentration. But now he caught sight of the profile of the woman in the aquamarine kimono and recognized Satoko. His fantasies were shattered. Why hadn’t he recognized her earlier? Probably his whim that the beautiful girl should be a total stranger.

Now that she had destroyed his illusion, there was no point in remaining hidden. Brushing the burrs from his kimono, Kiyoaki got to his feet and parted the lower branches of the pines that had been his cover.

“Hello,” he called.

This sudden cheerfulness took Honda by surprise, and he craned his neck for a better look. Aware that Kiyoaki’s high spirits were by now a reflex response to the interruption of his dreams, Honda did not mind his friend seizing the initiative.

“Who is it?”

“Oh, it’s Satoko. Did I never show you her picture?” answered Kiyoaki, speaking her name with cool indifference. Satoko, the girl on the shore, was certainly a beauty. Kiyoaki, however, seemed determined to ignore this. For he knew that Satoko was in love with him.

This instinctive rejection of anyone who showed him affection, this need to react with cold disdain, were a failing of Kiyoaki’s that no one could have known better than Honda, who saw this pride as a kind of tumor that had taken hold of Kiyoaki when he was no more than thirteen and had first had to endure people making a fuss over his looks. Like a silvery bloom of mold, it would spread at the slightest touch.

Perhaps, in fact, the dangerous attraction that Kiyoaki’s friendship held for Honda was rooted in the same impulse. So many others had attempted to befriend Kiyoaki, only to be rewarded for their pains with his mockery and contempt. In challenging Kiyoaki’s caustic reserve, Honda alone had been skilled enough to escape disaster. Perhaps he was mistaken, but he wondered if his own acute dislike for Kiyoaki’s gloom-faced tutor sprang from the latter’s expression of perpetual defeat.

Although Honda had never met Satoko, Kiyoaki’s stories were full of her. The Ayakura family, one of twenty-eight among the nobility that bore the lofty rank of Urin, was descended from an ancestor named Namba Yorisuke, a skilled player of kemari, the version of football popular at the Imperial Court in the time of the Fujiwaras. The head of the family was appointed a chamberlain of the Imperial Court when it established residence in Tokyo at the time of the Meiji Restoration. The Ayakuras moved to the city and lived in a mansion in Azabu formerly occupied by one of the retainers of the shogun. The family excelled in the sport of kemari and in composing waka. And since the Emperor had seen fit to honor the family’s young heir with a court rank of “fifth degree, junior grade,” even the post of Grand Councillor of State now seemed within reach.

Marquis Matsugae, who was conscious of his own family’s lack of polish and who hoped to give the next generation at least a touch of elegance, had entrusted the infant Kiyoaki to the Ayakuras after obtaining his own father’s consent. And so Kiyoaki had been raised in the atmosphere of the court nobility with Satoko, who was two years older and lavished affection on him; until he went to school, she was his only companion and friend. Count Ayakura himself, a warm and personable man who still retained his soft Kyoto accent, taught the young Kiyoaki calligraphy and waka. The family would play sugoroku, an ancient form of backgammon, far into the night, as was the custom in the Heian era, and the lucky winners would receive traditional prizes, among them candies molded like gifts from the Empress.

Moreover, Count Ayakura arranged for Kiyoaki to continue his early cultural training by going to the palace each New Year to attend the Imperial Poetry Reading Ceremony, in which he himself figured prominently. At first, Kiyoaki had seen this as a chore, but as he grew older, his participation in these elegant and ancient rituals came to hold a certain charm for him.

Satoko was now twenty. And thumbing through Kiyoaki’s picture album, one could see the changes as she grew to maturity, from when she was a child with her cheek pressed affectionately to Kiyoaki’s until the previous May, when she had taken part in the Matsugae Omiyasama festival. At twenty she had passed the stage that was popularly supposed to mark a girl’s greatest beauty, but she was still unmarried.

“So that’s Satoko. And the other one, the woman in the gray tunic everyone’s making such a fuss over, who’s she?”

“Her? Oh yes; that’s Satoko’s great-aunt, the Abbess of Gesshu. I didn’t recognize her at first because of that curious hood.”

Her Reverence the Abbess was indeed an unexpected guest. This was her first visit to the Matsugaes, hence the conducted tour of the garden—something that Kiyoaki’s mother would not have undertaken just for Satoko but was quite happy to do for the Abbess. Her great-aunt’s visit to Tokyo being such a rarity, Satoko had no doubt brought her to see the maple leaves. The Abbess had taken great delight in Kiyoaki when he first came to the Ayakuras, but he could not remember that far back. Later, when he was in middle school and the Abbess had paid a visit to Tokyo, he had been invited to the Ayakuras, but he had had the opportunity to do no more than pay his respects. Even so, the Abbess’s pale face with its air of quiet dignity and the calm authority in her voice had made a lasting impression on him.

Kiyoaki’s voice had brought the group on the shore to an abrupt halt. Startled, they looked toward the island as if pirates had risen before their very eyes from the tall grass beside the decorative iron cranes.

Pulling a small fan from her obi, Kiyoaki’s mother pointed toward the Abbess to indicate that a respectful greeting was expected. Kiyoaki, accordingly, made a deep bow from where he stood on the island. Honda quickly followed suit, and Her Reverence acknowledged them both. His mother then opened her fan and waved it imperiously, its golden sheen suddenly giving off scarlet reflections. Kiyoaki urged Honda to hurry up, knowing that they must come back from the island at once.

“Satoko never misses a chance to come here. She’s taking advantage of her great-aunt,” grumbled Kiyoaki with a show of bad temper, while helping Honda by hurrying to cast off the boat. Honda, however, viewed Kiyoaki’s haste and his grumbling with some skepticism. The way Kiyoaki had lost patience with Honda’s steady, methodical movements and had seized the rough rope in his own unseasoned white hands to try to help with the unpleasant task of unknotting it was enough to raise doubts about the Abbess being the cause of his eagerness.

As Honda rowed back to the shore, Kiyoaki looked dizzy, his face picking up a red flush from the reflection of the maple leaves floating on the water. He nervously avoided Honda’s eyes in an attempt to deny his vulnerability to Satoko. For each moment brought him closer to the young woman who knew altogether too much about him, about his childhood, even about his body’s most intimate details, and to whom he seemed tied by almost overwhelming bonds of emotion.

“Why, Mr. Honda! What a good oarsman you are!” said Kiyoaki’s mother admiringly when they reached the shore. Her pale, classic face had a persistently melancholy cast, even when she laughed. Yet her expression was a façade rather than a true indication of her deeper emotions. She was in fact almost invariably insensitive. She had raised Kiyoaki to tolerate his father’s dissipation and boorish energy, but she was quite incapable of grasping the complexities of her son’s nature.

Satoko’s eyes were riveted on Kiyoaki from the moment he stepped out of the boot. Strong and calm, affectionate from time to time, they invariably unnerved Kiyoaki. He felt, not without reason, that he could read criticism in their glance.

“Her Reverence has honored us with a visit today, and we shall shortly have the pleasure of listening to her speak. But first we wanted to show her the maple leaves. Then you gave us such a fright by that rude shout of yours. What were you doing on the island in the first place?”

“Oh, just watching the sky,” Kiyoaki replied, being as enigmatic to his mother as possible.

“Watching the sky? And what’s there to see in the sky?”

His mother was quite unembarrassed about her failure to grasp the intangible, which struck him as her sole admirable characteristic. He found it comical that she could adopt such a pious expression for the Abbess’s sermons. The Abbess maintained her role of guest throughout this exchange, smiling unassumingly. And he would not look at Satoko, who gazed steadily at the thick, glossy, tousled black hair that brushed his smooth cheeks.

The group now started up the steep path, admiring the maples as they went and amusing themselves by trying to identify the birds singing in the branches above their heads. However much the two young men tried to check their stride, they inevitably drew ahead to walk some distance in front of the women around the Abbess. Honda took advantage of this to discuss Satoko for the first time, and admire her beauty.

“You think so?” Kiyoaki replied, well aware that although Honda’s finding Satoko unattractive would have been a severe blow to his pride, he must make a show of cold indifference. He was firmly convinced that any young woman in Satoko’s relationship to him would have to be beautiful, whether he chose to acknowledge her or not.

At last their climb ended at the bridge below the topmost waterfall, and they stood looking up toward its rim. Just as his mother was savoring the compliments of the Abbess, whose first view of the falls this was, Kiyoaki made an ominous discovery which cut across the mood of the day.

“What’s that? At the top there, what’s damming the water like that?”

His mother responded at once. Using her fan to shade her eyes from the bright sunlight that shone through the branches, she peered upward. The landscape artist had painstakingly built up walls of rock on either side of the rim to ensure a graceful fall of water, and could never have intended the flow to be diverted so awkwardly at the middle of the crest. A mere rock wedged up there could never have caused such a disruption in the flow.

“I wonder what can be the matter. Something seems to have lodged itself up there,” his mother said to the Abbess, openly puzzled.

The Abbess, though she seemed to be aware that something was wrong, said nothing and smiled as before. If anyone was to speak out clearly, regardless of the effect, it would have to be Kiyoaki. But he held back, fearing the impact of his words on the happy mood of the group. He realized that everyone must have recognized what it was by now.

“Isn’t it a black dog? With its head hanging down?” said Satoko quite plainly. And the ladies gasped as if they were noticing the dog for the first time.

Kiyoaki’s pride was hurt. Satoko, with a boldness that might be construed as unfeminine, had pointed out the dog’s corpse, ignoring its ominous implications. She had adopted a suitably pleasant and straightforward tone of voice, which bore witness to her elegant upbringing; she had the freshness of ripe fruit in a crystal bowl. Kiyoaki was ashamed of his hesitation, and felt cowed by Satoko’s capacity for directness.

His mother issued some quick orders to the maids, who left at once to look for the negligent gardeners. But her profuse apologies to the Abbess for such an unseemly spectacle were cut short by Her Reverence, who made a compassionate proposal that was totally unexpected.