The Ishii Brothers’ Vendetta in Genroku Japan


A review of The Violent Virtue: First Narratives of the Ishii Brothers’ Late Genroku Katakiuchi, by Drake Langford.

Drake Langford’s dissertation examines multiple iterations of the story of the Ishii brothers’ extraordinary vendetta, executed in 1701, which involved the killing of a fellow samurai who had killed both their father and their older brother when they themselves were still small children. It provides valuable insights both into the process by which a historical anecdote was transformed as it was adapted to various fictional and non-fiction genres, and into what Langford posits as the invention of a samurai “tradition” of katakiuchi during the late seventeenth century in reaction to doubts regarding both the usefulness of a large warrior caste in a time of peace and its ability to remain warlike. When carried out to avenge the deaths of elder male relatives, these homicides were presented in texts from the period in question as evidence of the exceptional devotion to filial piety of the samurai, which in turn was cast as a component in an overall moral superiority also evinced, in stories like that of the Ishii brothers, by instances of extreme persistence and self-sacrifice in the violent pursuit of this Confucian virtue. This served to justify the powers and privileges of the samurai in an age when they were subject to criticism as decadent and obsolete. Langford’s examination of the role of katakiuchi narratives making such claims in early Tokugawa discourse on the samurai complements Eiko Ikegami’s study of the transformation of warriors into ink-brush-wielding bureaucrats in The Taming of the Samurai by persuasively portraying these texts as responses to anxieties regarding this process.

In his prologue, Langford jumps ahead to 1788 for a look at a hilarious travesty of katakiuchi narratives by Santō Kyōden published in that year, a text whose implied ideal reader is both well-versed in the tropes of a genre pioneered in the various versions of the Ishii brothers’ tale, and jaded enough to view them with ironic distance. Chapter 1 then shifts back in time to examine the ideology of katakiuchi in the years immediately preceding the denouement of the Ishii vendetta as constituted in a collection of narratives published in 1696, Shokoku katakiuchi: Kokon Nihon bushi kagami (Katakiuchi Across the Lands: A Mirror of Japanese Samurai Past and Present). The book’s preface posits katakiuchi as demonstrating samurai virtue and bravery and as an age-old samurai tradition, and promotes the stories that follow as strictly factual accounts that will help to maintain this tradition at a time when decades of peace threaten to chip away at both the martial spirit and moral superiority of the samurai, the latter consisting in part of greater loyalty and filial piety than that of the rest of the populace. The chapter then analyzes the ways in which a sampling of stories in the collection, the earliest set in the fifth century and the most recent in the late seventeenth, work to support the claims made in its preface.

Having thus elucidated the early history of katakiuchi narratives and established the immediate cultural context in which the Ishii brothers pursued their vendetta, in his second chapter Langford goes on to examine ostensibly factual accounts of the brothers’ feat, beginning with those produced by the brothers themselves. In describing their own actions and the reasons for them, the brothers follow the conventions of the katakiuchi narrative established by the texts treated in Chapter 1, as do later versions of their story. They also differentiate their own use of violence from the act they sought to redress, positing blood-revenge, Langford writes, as “the antithesis of petty quarrels and unannounced attacks, rather than a kindred phenomenon” (p. 78). The remainder of the chapter examines seven early historical accounts of the Ishii brothers’ katakiuchi written by third parties. Noteworthy among these is Kukugoshū’s Confucianistic description of the Ishii brothers and their actions as in “harmony with the cosmos” (p. 98), which is said to explain the spectacular success of their vendetta. Langford demonstrates that even though these accounts contain significant divergences from and amplifications and extensions of the Ishii brothers’ versions of the story, they follow the same four-part narrative structure set by the brothers, describing in sequence the murderous ambush of their father, the killing of their elder brother in the course of the resulting vendetta, the demeaning disguises assumed and deprivations suffered by the younger brothers, once grown, as they spend years stalking their prey, then their final act of vengeance and the relief this brings.

Langford’s third chapter focuses on Tōkaidō katakiuchi: Genroku Soga monogatari (Katakiuchi on the Tōkaidō Highway: A Genroku Soga [Brothers] Tale), a book-length, fictionalized version of the Ishii brothers’ vendetta written in 1702 by Shishidō Kōfū, a rōnin living in Osaka and using the penname of Miyako Nishiki. This ukiyozōshi gives the Ishii brothers and other figures in the story new names and significantly alters and expands on the brothers’ original accounts, adding, for example, plot elements drawn from a story in Ihara Saikaku’s collection of samurai vendetta tales Budō denraiki (1686). With its reference to the twelfth-century vendetta of the Soga brothers, the book’s title inscribes its narrative in a venerable tradition of katakiuchi, and its version of the Ishii brothers’ katakiuchi presents their actions as countering a process by which Genroku-period urbanity had undermined old-fashioned samurai virtues.

The final chapter of the dissertation examines a jōruri version of the Ishii brothers’ vendetta, Dōchū hyōban katakiuchi (Famed Highway Revenge-Killing [ca. 1702]), attributed to Takemoto Takumi Ridayū, which, like Genroku Soga monogatari, significantly alters the original story and gives its figures new names. Its most notable addition to the source narratives is a love affair between one of the avenging brothers and the daughter of their quarry, which threatens to divert the young man from his righteous quest.  But in the end, filial piety and samurai valor win out over erotic love, a finale that, Langford convincingly argues, evinces hope for “the transformative, redemptive power of valor in virtue.” The chapter is followed by an appendix comparing the versions of the Ishii brothers’ story contained in two collections of buhen-banashi (didactic tales of martial exploits): Meiryō kōhan (Enlightened and Excellent Exemplars) and Jōzan kidan (Jōzan’s Histories), both published in the mid-eighteenth century.

Langford’s study of the evolution of the Ishii brothers’ story contributes amply to our understanding of how vendetta narratives came to be invested with great moral significance in Japan, which in turn helps explain their enduring popularity. It also serves to contextualize the now better-known Akō vendetta and narratives based on it, such as Kanadehon Chūshingura; especially given that unlike the vendetta of the forty-seven loyal retainers, that of the Ishii brothers met with official approval. It thus expands readers’ knowledge of the accepted channels for private vengeance under the Tokugawa bakufu and thoroughly elucidates the various ways in which one striking example of authorized vengeance was represented across genres.

David Gundry
Assistant Professor
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of California, Davis

Primary Sources

Dōchū hyōban katakiuchi (Famed Highway Revenge-Killing)
(The 995 Collection)
Shokoku katakiuchi: Kokon Nihon bushi kagami (Katakiuchi Across the Lands: A Mirror of Japanese Samurai Past and Present)
Tōkaidō katakiuchi: Genroku Soga monogatari (Katakiuchi on the Tōkaidō Highway)

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2009. 283 pp. Primary Advisor: Edward Kamens.


Image: Ishii Genzō in an 1855 kabuki production, woodblock print from the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like