Note for those who don't read Japanese: Katsushiro is written with the kanji win + four + young man, suggesting that he's the fourth son of his family. Four isn't a number used randomly by the Japanese because it sounds like the word for death. (Shichiroji is seven + next + young man, making him a seventh son. I don't know if the Japanese have the superstition about the seventh son of a seventh son, but Shichiroji certainly *is* lucky.) Kyuzo is written enduring + storehouse. Kyuzo's name is pronounced with the Chinese reading of the kanji; Japanese readings are hisashii and kura. Note that only Katsushiro has a Japanese-read element in his name. Our samurai are a very stiff-named lot, however unstiff they may be in fact.



             Shimada Kanbei and his two followers took service with Takemori Hidenaka, a retainer of the Hatano clan, and followed him to the Hatano stronghold on Mt Takashiro. Kanbei took note of the glances his tall young student drew from the men in the barracks.

That night after dinner- a good meal of rice and broiled fish with sake after- he said to Katsushiro, "How old are you now?" The boy looked startled. "Seventeen, sensei."

"Born in what month?"

"The twelfth."

"Mhh." So, on the younger side of seventeen. Kanbei brooded a while, looking down the crowded common hall. Looked back and caught Shichiroji's eye and saw his lieutenant was thinking the same thing as himself.

"There's no point in waiting, then. We'll have your coming of age ceremony now. Let me find out when the next auspicious day is and we'll do it then."

Katsushiro's eyes shone. "Thank you- thank you, sensei!"

Kanbei grunted. "It won't amount to much in the way of celebration, I'm afraid."

Katsushiro smiled- that doesn't matter. "I- I am happy that I'll be a man at last. Thank you very much!" He put his hands to the floor and bowed his head low.

Kanbei snorted. "Go set our bedding out. Put your mat between mine and Shichiroji's."

"Yes sir!" He ran off to do his master's bidding.

Shichiroji filled Kanbei's cup again. "What about his family?"

"Mnh. A fourth son travelling on his own says to me they didn't have the means to keep him. He's alone now, whatever."

"Mmmh. And glad to be a man at last." Shichiroji smiled a touch sardonically. "He still thinks he's a boy, even after--" He jerked his head westward.

"That only shows how much a boy he still is. But times being what they are--" Kanbei sighed.

"Yes," Shichiroji sighed in turn. "Boys don't get to stay boys for long."


"In four days' time, on the seventeenth," Shimada-dono told him next evening. "You'll shave your forehead then. Will you keep the same name? It's a good one."

"If you wish, sensei." If Shimada-dono liked his name then he had no desire to change it. None of this was the way he'd thought it would be- not the way it had been for his two oldest brothers, certainly. The formal ceremony, their father's congratulations, the feast afterwards. But that was what war did to one's life and this was a world of war. Happiness had to be taken where you found it because happiness lasted no longer than cherry blossoms. That Shimada-dono had accepted him as a pupil was happiness and Katsushiro meant to make the most of it. There was no telling when he'd lose Shimada-dono as well. When, not if. He'd learned that fact too well.

Perhaps it was this melancholy thought mingling with his happiness that made him dream of the swordsman that night. There was no context to the dream. It was just Kyuzo-dono standing somewhere with his back turned on him. With a lifting of his heart and a quickening step Katsushiro came to stand a pace behind him, as was proper. Kyuzo-dono turned to look over his shoulder. The long face was expressionless as ever but something in it made Katsushiro's heart skip a beat. There was anger there-- was it? or was it more like sadness? or-- something.... that Katsushiro had no words for. And then he remembered that Kyuzo-dono was dead. The aching hurt of that struck like a blow to the chest; he woke to find tears streaming down his face. It was close to dawn. There were small stirrings elsewhere in the great room, other boys like himself getting up before their masters. He wiped his eyes, rose quietly and started his preparations, so as to greet Sensei and Shichiroji-dono when the morning drum woke them.


It was three days later before breakfast. Kanbei stood in front of Katsushiro and said, "What's the matter with you?"

The young man looked at the ground. "Nothing, sensei. I'm quite well."

"No you're not." His tone left no room for argument. "What is it?"

Katsushiro's eyelids flickered and his lips moved unthinkingly before he bit them still. Kanbei waited. "Sensei--" Kanbei said nothing. "Sensei," Katsushiro faltered again, looking younger by the minute. And ill. Dark smudges under his eyes, a pallor in his skin. Finally the boy managed to get it out. "Sensei, could we delay--- my coming of age ceremony.... Just a few days-- Forgive me for causing you trouble at such a late date but---"

"Why?" His tone was gentle enough but Katsushiro still flinched at the question. There was an anguished silence. At last the boy said in a voice that was barely audible: "I would rather not say."

"You cry in your sleep at night," Kanbei told him. Katsushiro's shoulders jerked. "You're distracted during the day. I tell you to do things and you forget I've told you. What is it, Katsushiro?" using his name as he never did.

Katsushiro looked up then, eyes huge with the thing he wanted to say and clearly felt he couldn't. Kanbei held his gaze and waited. The boy took a huge breath. "I dream," he said. "Every night. I dream of- of Kyuzo-dono." The young hands twitched and then were made to be still. "I-- He-- I think if I- if I cut my hair-" he was going red, and he dropped his head as if unable to finish.

Well well. Who would have thought it? "If you cut your hair his spirit will stop visiting you."

Katsushiro said in a small voice, "Kyuzo-dono was so wonderful. And now he can't get free from this life. I want to help him to salvation-- if I can do it-- I don't want to-- to drive him away-- when he has these... regrets..."

"Mmhh." Kanbei rubbed the back of his neck. This was a poser. "I suppose I could find a monk..." he began.

"Sensei, no! What kind of thanks is that for what he did for us?! Please don't-- please, you mustn't---"

Kanbei snorted. "I'm talking about having a sutra read for the peace of his soul, not an exorcism."

"A- Oh." Katsushiro gulped. "A sutra..."

"But I don't think I can afford it till I get paid-- *if* I get paid..." he mused. "And I don't think it would work with someone as single-minded as that. So we come to the question. How long are you willing to go on being the boy that Kyuzo knew when he was alive? Till you're twenty? Thirty? Forever?"

"I- I- Just for a little longer. When he sees me getting older he'll realize... and then he'll be able to let go..."

"You think so?"

Katsushiro's face was burning red. He shook his head dumbly. "I just don't know what to do," he whispered.

"Really?" It wasn't meant to be unkind. But Katsushiro was on the road to manhood and the only way for him to go was ahead towards a man's responsibilities. It was no kindness to let him look backwards to a boy's dependence. So young, he's still so young, he shouldn't have to carry all this alone. But times being what they are...

Katsushiro's mouth had tightened and he looked at Kanbei at last. "Yes. I do," he said. "Thank you, sensei." He bowed. Kanbei nodded dismissal and Katsushiro went off to his duties. It was only after he'd gone that Kanbei let himself sigh. And heard an echoing sigh from Shichiroji, standing unnoticed off to his left.

"What's Kyuzo thinking of?" Shichiroji said in a low voice. "I thought better of him than that."

"Who can tell how things look to the dead? He may have surprised himself. And in the end we just don't know."


"Whether it's Kyuzo's spirit that won't let go, or Katsushiro's feelings that keep drawing him back."


Katsushiro went to the bath house that night and washed himself carefully. No matter that it was his dream body he meant to yield; his physical body must be clean as well. There were no questions and hesitations about that now. How simple it was, once you made the decision. He had become a single focussed ray of purpose. He didn't even have to try for it. It just happened. There was this one thing he had to do and everything else- the doubt and reluctance and, yes, fear, that he'd felt- simply no longer existed.

He felt himself leaner and stronger, a sword ready for battle. And he thought This is what *he* felt like all the time. If he'd had room for happiness that would have made him happier than he could say. This is what it's like to be a true samurai. This is what it's like to go to one's death.

He lay down on his mat and willed himself to sleep. And at once he slept. He was in that featureless place and Kyuzo-dono was standing there, thinking his own thoughts deep inside him. Only his eyes moved as he watched Katsushiro approach, and they narrowed only a touch as he took in the new Katsushiro who stood before him.

There was no need of talk. Kyuzo-dono saw his intention, saw the reasons for it, saw the devotion and gratitude and need to make amends that brought him here; and saw that he was no longer a boy if he could feel such things. Kyuzo-dono's mouth lengthened in the barest shadow of a smile, gone almost before it was there.

And Katsushiro understood finally what tied Kyuzo-dono's soul to this earth. Nothing as simple as love or lust for himself, a single rope that could be severed by one swordstroke of an act; but regret itself, the thick and many-twined cable of it: for things not done, for work unfinished, for the seed planted and abandoned before ever it became a shoot. The whole of Kyuzo-dono's life that he would never have spread itself before Katsushiro's eye. The bouts unfought, the mastery never achieved, the pupils untrained, the sons ungotten. He saw all the things Kyuzo-dono should have had and never would, reflected in the unmoving darkness of the swordsman's eyes as they looked back at him.

Kyuzo-dono opened his mouth and spoke at last.

"One thing accomplished," he said, and a dour satisfaction sounded in his voice. And then he was gone.


Katsushiro's crying, soundless as it was, woke Kanbei. He moved over in the dark and put a hand heavy on the boy's heaving shoulder. As the storm eased a little he said in a low voice, "It's over. Don't think about it any more."

Katsushiro shook his head. But he gulped air until he found his voice and could speak steadily.

"We can have the ceremony tomorrow," he whispered. He took another deep breath as if to sigh the weight of grief from his chest. "Sensei, I would like a new name- a man's name."

"Mhh," Kanbei murmured. "Katsu's a good name though. Appropriate." He thought a moment, tired though he was. "Katsuhisa," he said, and heard Katsushiro's small drawn breath. "You'll be Katsuhisa, victory enduring. Now go to sleep. Tomorrow's a long day."



Jan 2005



Note: Japanese ages pre-Meiji are a problem. You're assumed to be one year old at birth and automatically become a year older at each New Year. By this reckoning, a week old infant born Dec 27 would be considered two, and Katsushiro here is what we'd call fifteen going on sixteen.


The Japanese were rather like the Greeks in their approach to male love. Boys were the erotic object, and once a boy became a man he presumably lost his erotic attraction. The mark of boyhood and the focus of the attraction, at least in the little literature I've read, is the front hair that young samurai wore. Once that was shaved off the boy was a man and more or less off-limits as a lust object. I'm sure there were exceptions to this, but I can't see Kyuzo being one of them.