Saturday, 11 January 2014

A camellia tree with a tethered cow

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]

I’m in two minds about putting this translation up. It’s a children’s story, 牛をつないだ椿の木, by 新美 南吉 (NIIMI Nankichi, 1913-1943), one of the best known writers of children’s stories from the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the stories are really very good, and I think this is good too; but it has a problematic element too, towards the end. I’ll quote from the last paragraph here (so if you want to read the story uninfluenced, skip ahead to the background explanation now): ‘In the end Kaizou did not come back. He was one of the gallant flowers scattered in the Russo-Japanese war.’ I can imagine this kind of sentimentality in an English imperialist writer in the late nineteenth century (though I suspect that even then someone like Kipling would not have had much respect for it). Reading something from a book of that period, I’d probably just shrug and call the writer an idiot and read on. But Niimi was writing for children in the second world war, when Japan was cheerfully throwing the lives of its own people away in an attempt to impose its rule on other countries. Since the first world war, writers worth reading in England didn’t write like that about war. If the story were just propaganda, I wouldn’t have translated it. The story is more one of someone finding meaning in doing one little good thing for the community. It's not by giving his life for the fatherland, but by building a well that Kaizou leaves something worthwhile behind him. That too would have been an idea that the regime of the time would have found useful – they were calling for a lot of self sacrifice from their civilians, for the sake of the war effort; but bad people can find a bad use for anything.

Background Explanation 

Rather that add footnotes or links, I’ll explain a few points in advance.

The story is set at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Russo-Japanese war was fought in 1904-1905. You can see the uniform described in §6 in this print.

I’ve written people and place names with spelling that reflects the Japanese. Most are pronounced as you might expect. The less obvious are roughly like this: Kaizou > Kye-zoh; Risuke > Ris-ke; Shingorou > Shin-go-roe; Shouhei > Show-hay; Oono > Oh-no. When the well digger Shingorou gets called Ido-Shin, ido means ‘well’; so it’s something similar to the Welsh ‘Jones the bread’ style of naming  (but I don’t know any Welsh people who actually say things like that).

A sen is 1/100 yen. A rin is 1/1000 yen.

A jizou (ji-zoh) is a Bodhisattva (enlightened being in Buddhist religion), often worshipped with small roadside statues in Japan, sometimes set up in rows.

I translated tea shop as café, because for me ‘tea shop’ conjures up something more genteel that what is evidently meant here. I translated aburagashi as fried cake pieces, as that seemed to be the direction that recipes I found on the internet were going. Konpeitou are small many coloured sugar sweets. I’m not sure if yakisurume (‘fried/grilled squid’) is literally squid, but an internet search seems to find sweet sellers selling something with this name whose ingredients at least include squid. The ‘knuckles’ are (apparently) a sweet made from soya bean flour: here.

You can read the story online at Aozora Bunko here.

I've put the actual translation after the break.

 A Camellia Tree with a Tethered Cow
NIIMI Nankichi
At the side of a path deep in the hills, there was a young camellia tree. The cow driver Risuke tethered his cow to it.

The rickshaw puller Kaizou also used the foot of the camellia tree to rest his rickshaw. A rickshaw is not a cow; so it was not problem that he did not tether it.

Then Risuke and Kaizou went off into the mountain to get a drink of water. If you left the path and went about a hundred metres into the mountain, there was a place with a spring of pure, cool water.

The two of them took turns to drink. Lying with both hands propped on the common fern and osmund, they breathed in the scent of the pure water and put their heads down to it like deer. They drank so much that the water sloshed around in their stomachs.

In the mountains the spring cicada were already singing.

‘Ah, they’ve started to sing. Hear them, and the warm is on it’s way,’ Kaizou said, putting on his bowl shaped wicker hat.

‘After this, we’ll get to drink this water again as we come and go,’ Risuke said, busily wiping himself with a cloth to get off the sweat that had come out from drinking so much water.

‘Just a bit closer to the path would be good, mind you,’ Kaizou said.

‘You’ve got that right,’ Risuke replied. This was what all the people who drank the water here always said to one another, like a kind of greeting.

When the two got back to the camellia tree, there was a man on a bicycle standing there. This was around the time when bicycles were new to Japan; and in the countryside, they were something for the upper classes.

‘Who’s that?’ Risuke said nervously.

‘Might be the district councillor,’ Kaizou said.

When they got close they found that it was the town’s elderly landowner. All the land in this area belonged to him. Then they found one more thing: the landowner was absolutely furious.

When he saw them, he shouted out, ‘Oy, Oy. Whose is this cow?’

The cow was Risuke’s. ‘Well, it’s my cow.’

‘Your cow, fellow? Look at this! It’s eaten all the camellia leaves. It’s quite bald now.’

The two looked at the camellia tree with its tethered cow. What the bicycled holding landowner said was true. The young camellia tree’s tender leaves had all been ripped off; and what was standing there was more like a pitiful stick.

‘This is a real mess,’ Risuke thought. Red faced and flustered, he untied the rope from the tree. Then in apology he whipped the cow’s neck with the rope.

But that was not enough to get the landowner’s forgiveness. He began to scold Risuke scathingly, just as if he was scolding a child. Then striking the saddle of his bicycle, bang, bang, he said, ‘Right. I don’t care how: put the leaves back how they were before!’

That was impossible. At that the rickshaw puller Kaizou also took off his bowl shaped wicker hat and apologised for Risuke. ‘There, there. Just this once perhaps you could let it go. Risuke here could hardly know the cow was going to eat the camellia when he tethered him there.’

At that the landowner finally got his anger under control; but his outburst of rage had gone so far that his body was shaking terribly. He tried two or three times to get on his bicycle before he finally managed to get it going properly and rode off.

Risuke and Kaizou walked on towards the village. But they were no longer talking. For an adult to be bawled out by another adult is a pitiful thing. The rickshaw puller Kaizou could understand Risuke’s feeling.

‘If that water were just a bit closer to the path, it would good,’ Kaizou said finally.

‘You’ve got that right,’ Risuke said.


When Kaizou got to the rickshaw stand, he found the well digger Shingorou. It was called a rickshaw stand, but really it was a penny sweet shop at the side of the village street. The well digger Shingorou was nibbling at a piece of fried cake and telling some story or other in a loud voice. From talking to people outside from down inside his wells, Ido-Shin’s voice had ended up very loud.

‘When it comes to wells now, just how much does it cost to dig one, Ido-Shin?’ Kaizou asked, taking one piece of fried cake for himself from the box of penny sweets.

Ido-Shin explained in detail: the labour cost so much, the well enclosure’s clay pipes cost so much, the cement for setting the pipes together cost so much.

‘First off, if it’s a normal well, you could do it with thirty yen,’ he said.

‘Oho, thirty yen, you say?’ Kaizou said wide eyed. He munched at his fried cake for a while. Then he asked, ‘If you dug a well in the place where you come down from Shintanomune, water would come out, wouldn’t it?’ That was the area where Risuke had tied his cow to the camellia tree.

‘Yeah, if that’s the place, you’d get water. Since there’s a spring in the mountain in front, there’d be water down below. But what would you dig a well there for?’ Ido-Shin asked.

‘Well, there’s a kind of a reason for it,’ Kaizou said and left it at that.

As Kaizou headed home, pulling his empty rickshaw, he muttered again and again, ‘Thirty yen, eh? ….. Thirty yen?’

Kaizou lived with his old mother in a little thatched house with a wood behind it. The two worked as peasant farmers; and Kaizou went out pulling his rickshaw when he had time.

At supper, the two talked about the day’s incidents with enjoyment. Kaizou’s old mother told him that next door’s chicken had laid its first egg today, but it was a strange little egg, that bees had been looking round the holly tree by the back door, yesterday and today too, perhaps they were meaning to build a nest, and if bees built a nest there, it would be dangerous – no way round it – to go to the miso room to get miso. 

Kaizou told how while they went to get a drink of water, Risuke’s cow had ended up eating the camellia leaves. ‘If only there had been a well at the roadside there!’ he said.

‘Like you say. If it was by the roadside that would be good for everyone,’ his mother said and counted the people who went along that path in the noonday heat. The oil seller who came pulling his cart from Oono town, the courier who passed through from Handa town on his way to Oono, the tobacco pipe repairman Tomi who set off from the village going to Handa, and apart from them lots of horse and cow wagon drivers, rickshaw pullers, pilgrims, beggars, schoolchildren and so on. All these people’s throats had to get dry around the time they were passing Shintanomune. ‘And so,’ she summed up, ‘If there was a well by the roadside, that would be such a help for everyone.’

Kaizou told her that a well like that could be dug for thirty yen.

‘For poor people like us, a price like thirty yen seems like a lot of money; but for Risuke with his recent windfall, just thirty yen shouldn’t be a problem,’ his mother said.

Kaizou remembered that Risuke was said to have recently made a surprisingly big profit at forest work.

After taking a bath Kaizou set off to the ox cart driver Risuke’s house.

In the mountains behind, the owls were calling hoo, hoo. In Nizaemon’s house at the top of the cliff it seemed that there was a Buddhist prayer meeting underway: there was light shining on the paper screens and the sound of wooden temple drums poured down the cliff as far as the path. It was already night. Kaizou went on, and found that the hardworking Risuke was still out in the dark cow shed, busily making something.

‘You’re really working hard there,’ Kaizou said.

‘You think so? After this I’ve got two trips to Handa. I’m a little late,’ Risuke said. He came out of the shed, crawling under the cow’s belly.

The two of them sat on the edge of the veranda; and Kaizou started his talk, ‘You know, I was thinking about that thing on Shintanomune today. If someone dug a well at the roadside there, it would be a real help to everyone.’

‘Like you say, it would be a help,’ Risuke agreed.

‘The cow getting to eat the camellia leaves without us knowing, that was because the spring was so far from the path.’

‘Like you say. That’s the way it was.’

‘If there were thirty yen, you could dig a well for thirty yen.’

‘Oho, thirty yen, you say?’

‘Yeah. If only there were thirty yen.’

‘If there were thirty yen, you say?’

Even talking like this, Risuke just refused to see what the other was thinking of, so that Kaizou ended up putting it clearly, ‘If that’s all, you wouldn’t see your way to putting up the money? From what I hear, you made a fair profit with your forest work.’

Risuke had been talking easily up to now; but he quickly fell silent. Then he pinched his own cheek.

Kaizou waited a moment, then prompted the other, ‘How about it, Risuke?’

Even at that, Risuke stayed silent like a rock. Somehow Risuke just did not care for this conversation.

Kaizou spoke again, ‘Thirty yen, you can do it for that, really.’

‘And why am I the one to put up that thirty yen? If it was only me drinking the water, I’d understand; but for a well that everyone else drinks from, why am I the one paying? That’s the point I can’t swallow,’ Risuke said finally.

One way and another Kaizou tried showing how it would help people; but nothing he said would get Risuke to ‘swallow’ it. In the end Risuke was clearly fed up with the conversation and bawled into the house, ‘Wife, get the supper ready! I’m starving.’

Kaizou got up. He had understood that the reason Risuke worked so hard late into the night was for his own sake only.

Walking the path through the night alone, Kaizou thought to himself, ‘This thing, asking someone else to do it won’t work. Have to do it myself.’


Travellers and people going to town saw that something like an offerings box had been tied to the camellia tree below Shintanomune. It had a label on it, which read ‘I thought we could dig a well here so that travellers could drink. If you like the idea, please contribute one sen or five rin.

This was Kaizou’s work. As proof of that, five or six days later Kaizou was lying on his stomach on top of the cliff across from the camellia tree, just poking his neck out from under a bush of broom and watching how people were making contributions.

After a while an old woman came from the direction of Handa, pushing a pram. She was on her way back from selling flowers. The box caught her eyes and she looked at the label for a while. But she could not read the letters. That was clear from her comment, ‘There’s no jizou or anything. So why is there an offerings box out here?’

With that the old woman went on her way.

Kaizou had been propping his jaw up with his right hand. He switched to his left.

This time from the village side there came a bow legged old man, with his kimono tucked up into his belt.

‘It’s old Shouhei. He should be able to read, even though he’s an old timer,’ Kaizou murmured.

The box caught the old man’s eyes. Then saying, ‘What’s this? What’s this?’ he bent down and began reading the label. When he had finished reading he said, ‘That makes sense. Mmm, that makes sense,’ with great approval. Then he started searching his pockets, so that Kaizou thought he was about to make a contribution; but what he got out was an ancient looking tobacco pouch. The old man sat for a smoke at the foot of the camellia tree, then went on his way.

Kaizou got up and slid down the slope to the camellia tree.

He took the box in his hand and shook it. There was nothing in it.

Kaizou let out a sigh of disappointment. ‘In the end, you can’t leave it to other people, I see. If that’s how it is, I’ll have to get it done by my own efforts.’

Saying that he set off climbing Shintanomune.


The next day, Kaizou entered the village café after delivering a customer to Oono town. That had come to be the place where the village rickshaw pullers would go after doing a job and rest while they waited for the next customer. That day too there were three other rickshaw pullers resting in the café when Kaizou arrived.

As soon as he got inside, as always, Kaizou took one of the fried cake pieces that were basking face up at the back of the counter with its row of penny sweet boxes. While waiting for customers, the rickshaw pullers had nothing to do, and they had the habit of opening the lid of the penny sweet boxes and taking out fried cake pieces or ‘knuckles’ or the sweets called pekoshan or fried squid or sweet bean pots and the like. Kaizou had the same habit.

But this time Kaizou put the fried cake piece he had picked up back into its box.

His fellow rickshaw puller, Gen, seeing that, said, ‘What’s up, Kaizou? Were there mice droppings in the dried cake pieces?’

Kaizou, slightly red faced, answered, ‘No, that’s not it. I’m just not that hungry today.’

‘Huh,’ Gen said, ‘Your colour definitely doesn’t look bad, so what else is wrong?’

After a while Gen took a handful of konpeitou out of a glass jar and nonchalantly throwing one of them up into the air he caught it in his mouth. Then he said, ‘How about it, Kaizou? Shall we have a round?’

Up to yesterday Kaizou had often played that game with Gen. The two of them would compete, and the one who missed the fewest would have the other buy him a different sweet. Kaizou was better than all the other rickshaw pullers at this trick.

Today, however, Kaizou said, ‘Since this morning my back tooth’s been hurting, you see. I can’t eat sweet stuff.’

‘Is that right? In that case, you want to play, Yoshi?’ Gen said, and started the game with Yoshi.

The two of them turned their heads upwards and threw the many coloured konpeitou into the air and tried catching it in their mouths. Some pieces went into their mouths neatly enough, others hit their noses or landed right in the ash of the tobacco tray.

Kaizou looked on, thinking that if it was him playing, he wouldn’t let one go astray. After Gen and Yoshi had let a whole bunch fall, he felt like saying, ‘Right, want to see what I can do?’ But he held it back. It was really painful.

‘If a customer would just come along now!’ Kaizou thought, looking towards the sunlit road with narrowed eyes; but before any customer appeared, the café’s mistress came out. She had made a big sweet bean roll, piping hot.

The rickshaw pullers were delighted and took a piece each. Kaizou too could not keep from starting to reach for it; but in the end he stopped himself.

‘What’s up with you, Kaizou?’ Gen said, ‘Not spending one sen, letting it all go into savings. Are you planning to build a big storehouse?’

Kaizou gave a pained laugh and went outside. Then at the edge of the water channel, he broke off a stalk of sedge and hunted for frogs.

In Kaizou’s breast there was a determination as hard as a fist. The money he had till now spent on sweets would from now on go unspent into savings. He meant to dig a well for everybody below Shintanomune.

Kaizou had no stomach ache or tooth ache. He desperately wanted to eat the sweets; but to make the well, he had given up the habits he had had till then.


Two years passed.

On a day when even the camellia tree whose leaves the cow had eaten was putting out two or three flowers, Kaizou went to the house of the landowner in Handa.

Kaizou had come to this house several times over the last two months. He had pretty much got together the money to dig the well; but since he could not get the landowner’s permission to dig it there, he had come to ask again and again. The landowner was that old man who had abused Risuke so violently for tying his cow to the camellia.

As Kaizou passed through the gate, a horrible hiccupping ‘hiett’ sound could be heard from inside the house.

When Kaizou asked, he learnt that since the day before yesterday the old landowner had had hiccups that just would not stop. His body was quite worn out with it, and he had taken to his bed. Kaizou came to his bedside to visit.

The old man was making the quilt heave with his hiccups. When he saw Kaizou’s face, he said stubbornly, ‘No, you can ask as often as you like, I won’t have a well made there. If these hiccups go on another day, I’ll die, they say; but even if I die, I won’t let you have your well.’

Kaizou saw that he had no choice but to struggle with this dying old man. He told him that putting one chopstick in a cup and drinking the water in it in one go was supposed to be a charm against hiccups.

As he was about to pass out through the gate, the landowner’s son came chasing after him. ‘Father’s a stubborn man, there’s no help for that,’ he said. ‘At some point, the property will come down to me, and if that happens, I’ll allow you to dig your well.’

Kaizou was delighted. The way things were, the old man looked sure to die in just two or three days. If that happened, the son would inherit and have the well dug, which would be just great, Kaizou thought.

That night at supper, Kaizou told his old mother, ‘If that stubborn old man dies, his son will have the well dug, he says. Well, it looks like he’s going to die in two or three days, so that works out nicely.’

His mother spoke back, ‘Your heart’s gone bad from thinking only about your own business. It’s a bad thing to wait and hope for a person’s death.’

Kaizou’s heart felt heavy. What his mother said was true.

Early next morning, Kaizou set off again for the landowner’s house. As he passed through the gate, the sound of convulsive hiccupping could be heard, weaker than yesterday. He realised that the landowner’s body had become really feeble.

‘You’re back again? Dad’s still living, right,’ the son said, coming outside.

‘No, I wanted to meet with him while he was still alive,’ Kaizou said.

The old man was in bed, quite worn out. Kaizou put both hands on the bedside, ‘I’ve come to apologise,’ he said. ‘Yesterday as I was going home I heard from your son that if you died he would allow the well. My heart turned bad hearing that. You’ll die pretty soon, so that’ll work out fine, I thought – a terrible thing, but I was quite cheerful about it. That is, I was only thinking about my well. My heart became like a demon’s waiting and hoping for your death. For that, I’ve come to apologise. I won’t ask about the well again. I’ll look for some other place for it. So please don’t die.’

The old man had listened in silence. Then for a long time he looked up, still silent, at Kaizou’s face.

Finally he spoke, ‘You’re a remarkable man. You’ve a good heart. I’ve lived all my life thinking only about what I wanted, without giving a thought for other people. But your fine heart has moved me now for the first time. There aren’t many people like you these days. So I’ll let you dig your well there. Please dig whatever well you like. If you don’t find water when you dig there, pick somewhere else, wherever you want, and have them dig there. It’s all my land round there. Hmm. And then, if your money isn’t enough to dig the well, I’ll pay the rest, any amount. As I might die tomorrow, I’ll put that in my will.’

When he heard these unexpected words, Kaizou did not know how to respond. But to see this self centred old man find a good heart before he died made Kaizou happy too.


It was noon towards the end of spring when fireworks sent up from Shintanomune exploded in the lightly clouded sky.

A procession from the village came down from Shintanomune. At its head, dressed in black, with a black and yellow hat, was a soldier. It was Kaizou.

As they came down from Shintanomune, there was a camellia tree on one side. Its flowers were scattered now and pale green tender leaves were coming. On the other side, cut a little into the cliff, there was a newly built well.

When it reached that point, the procession stopped. That was because Kaizou at the front had stopped. Two small children on their way home from school were drinking the beautiful water they had drawn from the well; you could hear the water going down their throats. Kaizou looked on with a smile.

When the children had finished, Kaizou said, ‘I’ll have a drink too, I think,’ and went over to the well.

Looking in, he saw that plentiful fresh spring water was bubbling up inside the new well. In just the same way, delight was bubbling up in Kaizou’s heart.

He drew some water and drank it, savouring the taste.

‘With that, I’ve done all I wanted. It’s a tiny bit of work; but I’ve managed to leave something for other people,’ Kaizou felt like grabbing hold of someone and telling them that; but he said nothing, just smiled and went on climbing the hill towards the town.

Across the sea, the war between Japan and Russia had started. Kaizou was going overseas to join that war.


In the end Kaizou did not come back. He was one of the gallant flowers scattered in the Russo-Japanese war. But the work that he left behind him is still living. In the shadow of the camellia tree the fresh water still comes springing up; and tired travellers wet their throats and get back their spirits, and go on their way.

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