Willow Wife: A Japanese Legend
By Kawmudi Debnath
Ceylon Today Features
The significance of the willow tree, ties deep into the culture of many countries, often depicted in art as an important source of spirituality. Japan is one such country which highly regards the willow tree and according to Japanese folklore, spirits and ghosts are attracted to it. The following is the beautiful tale of the willow wife that has captured the hearts of many throughout the years.
The willow tree
This story takes place about a thousand years ago to the time the temple of ‘San-jn-san-gen’ was discovered. ‘San-jn-san-gen’ translates to ‘33-three spaces’ and was a temple that was said to contain over 33,333 figures of Goddess Kwannon; the goddess of mercy. Before the temple was built, in a village nearby there was a willow tree, its size immense.
The village children, during the evening would play around this tree, climbing on to the lower branches and swinging from its vine, to and fro, screaming with delight. Not only for the children, the tree provided shade and wind to those who came back tired from the summer heat. Lovers would meet under its shade and declare their love to one another and even give their vows of eternal love under its branches. But no matter the benefits, people were still cruel and ruthless back then and one day, the villagers declared that the tree should be cut down to be used as an easy source of wood to build a bridge.
In the village, loved and greatly favoured by all, was a young man known as Heitaro. He lived nearby the willow tree his entire life and the thought of cutting it down, sent a sense of stinging grief straight to his heart. Heitaro stood in front of the willow tree, demanding everyone’s attention and claimed that the tree should not be cut down. He explained the joys it had given the villagers, the shade from the summer heat, the romantic setting for lovers to enjoy, and rightly questioned if such a tree should not be respected.
Heitaro offered the other trees in his land and claimed that he would find enough wood for the villagers to build the bridge, if the willow tree was not to be harmed. A murmur of approval spread throughout the gathering crowd and the willow tree was saved. Delighted that his words had an effect on the situation, Heitaro kept his promise and found the wood needed to build the bridge.
The beautiful girl
A few weeks later when Heitaro was returning home from work, he thought of visiting the willow tree before reaching home. Once he got there, to his surprise, there stood a beautiful girl whom he had never seen in the village. Instinctively, as a sign of respect, Heitaro bowed and called out to her. The woman turned and bowed back and the two spoke about the beautiful willow tree. Heitaro felt drawn to the lovely woman.
He was enchanted by her beauty and the way she spoke, and as time went by, with the sun setting in the distance, Heitaro wished he could remain there forever in her company. That night Heitaro was not able to sleep. He kept wondering who the beautiful girl was and wondered if he would ever meet her again. He knew he had fallen deeply in love with her and decided that the next time he meets her, he would declare his love. The next day at work, Heitaro rose early and worked hard the whole day, trying his best to get the girl he met by the willow tree out of his head.
When he was done for the day, Heitaro made his way towards the willow tree and sure enough, there she was, pale and beautiful, standing there, with the wind blowing through her long dark hair. She turned and smiled the most beautiful smile Heitaro had ever seen as she came forward to greet him. She asked him to sit with her under the branches of the tree and relax in each other’s company after a hard day at work.
Heitaro readily accepted the offer. As he sat down beside her, he took her hands gently into his and declared his love for her. A smile broke through the girl’s face and she accepted Heitaro’s love. Every day the couple met at the willow tree, spending their time joyfully – and after awhile, Heitaro asked for her hand in marriage. The girl agreed but on one condition. She asked Heitaro not to question her about her history, claiming that she has no family and relations, in fact has no name. She claimed that with time, she will tell him everything he needs to know and promised to be a good and loyal wife, loving him with all her heart and soul. She was given the name Higo and the next day, the two exchanged their vows of eternal love. As time flew by, Heitaro and Higo had a beautiful baby boy named Chiyodo. Heitaro was the happiest man alive having found a beautiful wife and now, a beautiful son of his own. This happy family of three spent their days in contentment but alas, their happiness was short lived.
Building of the temple
When Chiyodo reached the age of five, the Emperor at the time decided to build the temple with respects to the goddess of mercy. He sent orders to collect as much timber that could be found for the building of the vast temple. As you might have guessed, the willow tree, like every other tree, was ordered to be cut down.
Heitaro tried in vain to save the tree once again by offering every single tree on his land, but as these were direct orders from the Emperor, his pleas were not heard. The other villagers did not come to his aid as all of them decided that using the willow tree for the building of the temple would bring them good luck.
One night when Heitaro and Higo were asleep, cuddling their son between them, the couple suddenly woke up to the sound of on axe chopping down at the willow tree. Heitaro was depressed but there was nothing he could do and thus, decided to go back to sleep but to his astonishment however, his wife was crying bitterly, as if in pain. Heitaro pulled her close and held her in his arm, asking her what was wrong.
Higo, choking back her tears told Heitaro that the day has finally come she tells him of her past. Higo tearfully explained that she was nothing less than the spirit of the willow tree who was grateful for him taking a stand to save her. She had taken into human form, ready to live her entire life by his side. She explained that cutting down the tree would mean the end of her life as well. Heitaro listened with grief and horror, holding his dear Higo close to his chest as she started fading. With one last smile at her husband, Higo bade her final goodbye, after asking Heitaro to take good care of their son. With those final words, she disappeared into the night as the last axe cut through and the great willow tree collapsed to the ground.
Heitaro woke Chiyodo up and together, made their way to the fallen willow tree. As they approached it, the workers were trying hard to move the tree but it would not budge. Heitaro looked at his son with a smile that projected the reality that he could barely fathom. He requested the workers to stop what they were doing, explaining that the tree was the spirit of his wife and to allow their son to help move her.
Stunned at what they were hearing, they made way for the little boy. With the mere touch of Chiyodo’s small hands, the great tree glided gently towards the river, almost in harmony with an ‘Uta’ (a song) Heitaro had begun singing as his wife moved closer to the river.
The ‘Uta’ is a song that Japanese workers sing to this day while doing heavy labour, giving them the strength to get them through the day.