A True-Life Kabuki Crime Story: An Actor And His Geisha Mistress Murder Her Patron
An historical tale of love and murder that resulted in the death penalty!
Between 1868 – 1869 Kobayashi Kinpei, the boss of a successful money lending business, had prospered as a result of the economic downturn caused by the Boshin Wars between the Imperial and Shōgunate forces which led to the Meiji Restoration and the modernisation of Japan. In 1869 he met and bought the contract of a Geisha, Yoarashi Okinu and set her up in Saruwaka-cho in a shōtaku (a house in which a mistress is kept) and with a haneri (kimono under collar) shop in the nakamise (alleyways of shops) surrounding Sensoji Temple in Asakusa.
In 1868, amidst an early summer downpour, the battle of Ueno began when the Imperial forces led by Saigō Takamori, whose was using used the Ueno branch of the Matsuzakaya Department store as the base for his staff officers, attacked from Hongo Hill in a full on assault of the Kuromon (black gate) of Kaneiji Temple.
Rumour has it that Okinu rushed over from the Sensoji’s nakamise area which had been set up as a field hospital to see what was happening when a stray bullet passed through her umbrella and she fainted, collapsing in the mud and was taken back to Sensoji.
In 1870 Okinu met a Kabuki nimaime actor, a handsome and refined lover role specialist, Arashi Rikaku III. Enchanted she fell in love and in December 1870 they met at a restaurant in Tōkyō’s Geisha district of Mukojima (in the area where the Sky Tree is now located). Wanting to be together as a couple they began to plot the murder of Yoarashi’s patron.
Rikaku – ‘Okinu han, I am forgetting myself and whether or not it’s OK with you for me to involve myself in your affairs. But Okinu han, look, about your patron, he is a lucky and flourishing prominent money lender. Can you do this? By your deed from tomorrow we will have a new life when will know if we’ll become a committed couple’.
Okinu – ‘My teacher, unless my patron is too clever if I need to do this to get away from him, then I, his mistress, will do it’
Rikaku – ‘You’ve already acknowledged our love. Did you find it difficult to have to wait until coming to Mukojima like this on this snowy day?’
Okinu – ‘I am honestly truly happy’
Rikaku – ‘If I am to be truthful it is unlikely that our meetings will concern anyone. In this society, Okinu san, it’s trifling and expected of a woman’
Okinu – ‘It’s not wrong’
A few nights later they finalised their plan in discussions with another nimaime Kabuki actor, Onoe Matsusuke IV, who advised them, ‘Anyway, from our conversations if your patron is to die, how is it to be done? First you must mix Iwami Ginzan (silver mine – an analogy for arsenic rat poison) in with the kuzuyu (starch gruel). You must also understand perfectly the plan that was put together a few nights ago. Well I never! That patron Kinpei will be beaten by a rat’.
Implicated in the later trial he was acquitted of having been an accomplice of Okinu, criticising her in his rehearsed entreaty as a debauched woman. On the evening of New Year’s Day in 1871 Okinu followed his advice and poisoned and murdered Kinpei.
Okinu and Rikaku continued their relationship feigning ignorance of the circumstances of the murder and, probably later that January, Okinu became pregnant with Rikaku’s child. As time passed society gossip became a rumour on which the authorities acted and in May 1871 Okinu was arrested at her shop in Asakusa.
Feigning ignorance Okinu told the authorities that it had been, ‘A careless mistake which might have happened because the kuzuyu starch gruel was mixed with a jittei (a small truncheon)’ and that ‘Rikaku instigated it’. Under cross examination she revealed the real reason for Rikaku’s assistance. A warrant for Rikaku’s arrest was issued and on 27 June 1871 Rikaku was supposedly arrested in the middle of a performance at the Moritaza and sent to Kodenma-chō prison.
As a result of a judicial decision, Rikaku’s death sentence was commuted to three years in jail and he was sent down to serve his sentence in Ishikawashima Prison. On 1st October 1871 Okinu gave birth to a son in prison. On the 20 Feb 1872, as a cold day dawned, Okinu was led out of Kodenma-cho prison. As she left on her last journey it was to the reluctant farewells of the other women prisoners, ‘Okinu san, so sorry, please accept your destiny, and ours too, to journey into the next life’.
Her hands were tied together with straw rope and she was squeezed into a tiny bamboo cage which was tied to the back of a horse to be taken to Kodukahara execution ground. En route as they passed through the theatre district of Saruwaka-cho they passed in front of the Moritaza Kabuki Theatre. The official asked ‘Is this where he appeared?’ ‘Yes’ she said turning her face away and weeping silently. Eventually they reached the execution ground and she was asked if ‘In your final moments is there anything that you would like to say’ ‘Master, just cause demands repayment’ she replied. She was brought out of the cage and told that ‘For having committed a capital crime your sentence is to be carried out and you are going to cross the Sanzu River (the Buddhist river to be crossed on the way to the afterlife)’ she replied, ‘For what I did in this wretched matter my life is about to end’. Then, just 28 years old, she bequeathed her death poem, ‘Yoarashi is awake and arranging flowers without dreaming’.
She was then beheaded with a famous katana (Japanese long sword) called Seki no Maguroku Kanemoto by the then 19 year old Government executioner Yamada Asaueimon VIII (Japanese) at Kodukahara execution ground.
Afterwards a government official asked her lover, ‘What about it Rikaku san? For you this lotus blossom has been beheaded. Wasn’t she was special to you?’ Sobbing he replied ‘I am very sorry I caused this wretched matter’.
On the 23rd of February 1872 the forerunner of the Mainichi Shimbun Daily News,, Tōkyō Nichi Nichi Shinbun – Tokyo Daily News published an article about the affair.
Tokyo Prefecture office report states that a thief taker entered Okinu’s Harada shop on 4th avenue (yonban) off Komagata-chō in the neighbourhood of Kobayashi, Asakusa. A 29 year old person who gave a false identity and Arashi Rikaku were both arrested for the criminal poisoning of a local person. Having committed such a shameful and nefarious deed they were imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement. Twenty days later they were both sentenced to be executed twenty-two days after sentencing and their heads exposed publicly for three days. Tōkyō Nichi Nichi Shinbun 23rd February 1872
Rikaku was released in 1874 after 3 years eventually becoming Ichikawa Gonjūrō II who became very popular with the public and died of pneumonia in Tōkyō in 1904
A more detailed, though fictitious, account based on these events was published approximately 10 years later, between June – November 1878, written by Okamoto Kisen (岡本起泉) “Night-storm Okinu: Flower-Frail Dreams of Revenge” (夜嵐 阿衣 花-廼-仇夢 -, Yoarashi Okinu Hana-no-adayume) which was republished in 2006
Yoarashi Okinu’s story was also the subject of four films:
Yoarashi Okinu – 1913, Mukojima Studio
Yoarashi Okinu – 1927, Kinema Studio, directed by Yamashita Hidekazu and starring Matsue Tsuruko
Yoarashi Okinu – 1936, Kinema Studio, directed by Watanabe Shintarō and starring Suzuki Sumiko
Femme Fatale Yoarashi Okinu and Tenjin Otama – Dokufu Yoarashi Okinu to Tenjin Otama – 1957, Shin Toho Studio, directed by Namiki Kyōtarō and starring Wakasugi Katsuko
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.