There are amazing tales of warriors accomplishing all types of great feats. Oftentimes in old Japanese tales, these individuals are painted with words that put them on the level of being super-human. This can range from having super strength, impeccable intelligence, and unmatched wit. How about we add voracious consumption of alcohol to that list?
In my 2-part series “Fame to the Spear”, I mentioned about a famous tale that told how a loyal retainer was able to drink his way to obtained a treasured Imperial spear. For this article, we’ll look into the details of this story, which is called “Kuroda Bushi” (黒田節, Song of Kuroda). Along with this, we’ll review where & when it was created, and the lasting appeal it has in the locations associated with the writer and members in the tale. There are different versions of this story, each with slight variations in how it is told and how it progresses. Some versions have more details than the other, while some have dialogue to illustrate how each characters interact with one another. The following sites are but some of the sources used as guides in writing this article:
THE FULL STORY
The protagonist of this story is Mori Tomonobu (母里友信)¹, who is known as an accomplished warrior with the spear, and a retainer of the Kuroda family. He goes by other titles, including “Tahei” (太兵衛), “Tahyōe” (多兵衛), and the official title of “Tajima-no-kami” (但馬守). Among those who served the Kuroda clan, he was a skilled warrior especially with the spear, and was a member of both “Kuroda Nijuuyonki” (黒田二十四駒, 24 Cavalrymen of the Kuroda clan) and “Kuroda Hakko” (黒田八虎, 8 Tigers of the Kuroda clan) due to his loyalty and military service. Tomonobu also has a reputation for being a “sake-gō” (酒豪), which we’ll interpret as “sake guzzler”.
The story takes place around the New Year period of 1569. Mori Tomonobu was about to embark on an errand for his lord, Kuroda Nagamasa, to the lower town of Fushimi castle in the Capital (京, which is Kyōto in present-day Japan). This area was under the control of Fukushima Masanori, who was the feudal lord there. Aware of who he may run into, Nagamasa forbade him consume any alcohol while there, stating, “you must not accept any sake he offers, no matter what!”. Obediently, Tomonobu, promised not to drink any sake while out on his errand.
When Tomonobu arrived, Masanori was brought word of this guest to his town. Wasting no time, Masanori hurried to go see Tomonobu. When He found him, Masanori invited him to his drinking party, so they may celebrate with a couple of rounds of drinks. Remembering what his lord told him, Tomonobu humbly refused. Masanori made a few more attempts to invite the reluctant warrior, which finally he would accept.
Now, why would a person in Masanori’s position go out to get a lower-ranking warrior like Tomonobu to attend his drinking party? For starters, this invite was nothing special for Masanori. In fact, it was just another excuse for him to drink himself drunk. While bearing merits due to the great feats he’s achieved in battle, he also had a reputation for liking to drink sake a little too much. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for him to report to duty on the field while being drunk! On top of this, Masanori was also aware of Tomonobu’s reputation of being able to consume a lot of sake himself and not get drunk. You can say that this was Masanori’s chance to test if this rumor was true.
Back to the story, Masanori led Tomonobu to his residence, and lead him to a room that was adorned with many nice items, and a table that would be used for the sake party. As his guest sat down and got settled in, Masanori brought forth a very large bowl of sake to kick off their drinking fest, stating, “here, drink this”. Still on duty and concerned about the impact such an amount of sake would have on him, Tomonobu refused. He would try to entice the invite with a wager, offering to grant him anything he wanted in his room if he could consume all the sake in the large bowl. While there were some nice items around the room, as expected by someone of Masanori’s status, Tomonobu once more declined to consume the entire content within the large bowl.
At this point, Masanori was getting annoyed with Tomonobu’s constant declination, as he proceeded to taunt the Kuroda retainer by saying, “What?!? As a warrior of the Kuroda house, you are so disappointing! Even if you, a member of the Mori clan, do hold the reputation as “sake-guzzler”, you certainly have no backbone to back it up. Pity goes to Lord Nagamasa for having a bunch of wimps under his command, for he runs nothing more than a province of weaklings!²“. These words got to Tomonobu and made him very furious. Taking the large bowl, he drank everything straight down. Putting the bowl down, he exclaimed “I’ll have another”. Refilled with sake, he would proceed to drink everything again. He repeated this a few more times, consuming more than anyone could’ve imagined. Finished, Tomonobu maintained is composure as he politely commented “I will now claim my prize in accordance to your promise, which will be that spear over there”. He pointed to a large spear, lacquered in black, and boosting a grand spearhead with exquisite carvings.
This was no ordinary spear, as it was a treasured property that passed through the hands of famous people; commissioned by the 106th Emperor Ōgimachi, it would be rewarded to great military commanders, from the 15th Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki, to the ambitious rulers Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Masanori was rewarded this spear by his master Hideyoshi after achieving great feats in battle³, and he treasures this greatly. This is none other than the legendary Nihongō⁴, and it was about to be lost due to a silly drinking bet.
While drunk himself, Masanori was fully aware of what was in stake with his treasured spear. He initially tried to protest, pleading how special the spear was in his possession, but Tomonobu refused to listen, and remain steadfast on acquiring the Nihongō, stating, “a warrior does not repeat himself⁵”. Aware that he cannot go against his word, Masanori complied and handed over the spear. With that, Tomonobu made his way out and headed on his way with his trophy, not showing any signs of being intoxicated.
HOMETOWN PRIDE VS ORIGIN PRIDE
Today, the Kuroda Bushi is known as a folklore song of Fukuoka prefecture, where Mori Tomonobu’s grave is. This version is very popular there, as it is represented in businesses (especially sake distributors) and entertainment (i.e. singers and theatrical performers). It grew in popularity thanks to how the actual episode became known in the first place. Mid to late 1600s of Edo period, feudal lords who stayed in the lower town of Fushimi castle spoke freely about the sake party that Fukushima Masanori held and how it brought the lost of his prized spear to the hands of the Kuroda retainer Mori Tomonobu.
Eventually, this tale would reach the ears of a Confucius scholar named Kaibara Ekiken, who was a native of modern-day Fukuoka prefecture. Since the Kuroda family were from Fukuoka prefecture, Ekiken saw value in this story and made it into a song called “Kuroda Bushi”. In the form of a song, it spread throughout Japan, and would eventually be associated with Fukuoka prefecture. This song, along with other tales & info regarding those affiliated with the Kuroda family, was compiled by Ekiken into a collection labeled “Kuroda Kashinden” (黒田家臣伝). This also goes hand-in-hand with the Nihongō being retrieved and placed in a museum in Fukuoka as well. With the reputation as being the birthplace of the once influential Kuroda family, there’s no mistake that the residence in Fukuoka would find it necessary to keep the Kuroda Bushi and Nihongō close to home.
Despite its obvious connections with Fukuoka prefecture, the Kuroda Bushi is also just as important in Kyōto. In fact, the actual location in present-day Fushimi District where the tale took place is a tourist attraction, which is advertised as “”Kuroda Bushi”, Tanjō no Chi” (黒田節、誕生の地), or “Birthplace of the song “Kuroda Bushi””. Historically, Kuroda Nagamasa, Mori Tomonobu’s lord, had good relations with Fukushima Masanori. Interestingly, it is rumored that Nagamasa had a house in north-eastern part of Fukushi castle’s lower town, which is where he would pass away. While possible considering the importance of Kyōto during medieval Japan, it has yet to be proven.
Another point to mention is the strong association to sake the area of Fushimi has. During the early mid 1600s, the Tokugawa Shogunate was well established, major wars were over, and a movement of development was underway. The town in Fushimi was developing into a hub for business endeavors, as it was close to a port where many traders used. At this point, a sake brewing business was started, and became very successful. While this was not the 1st sake brewery, it did contribute to Kyōto’s long history of sake manufacturing. Thus, the episode of sake drinking in the Kuroda Bushi is synonymous with not just Fushimi, but Kyōto as a whole.
This brings the story of the Kuroda Bushi to a close. It is an interesting tale, one that illustrates a different form of battle & wit⁶. Who’d guess that having an insatiable gut for alcohol like Mori Tomonobu would net a hometown folklore? Also, be on the lookout for a full translation of the Kuroda Bushi as displayed in Kyōto. This will be posted in the Translation section of this site.
1) Originally, the surname “Mori” (母里) was pronounce as “Bori”. Later in the Edo period, this name was not only phonetically changed in official documents of the Tokugawa Shogunate to “Mori”, but the kanji was also changed to a more familiar “毛利”. This may have been done to make it easier to identify the Bori clan. Nowadays, it is common to read the original name as “Mori”, but in Fukuoka prefecture, as well as in the documents of the Kuroda family, it is still read as “Bori”.
2) The actual line in Japanese: “なんだ、酒豪だと言われる母里でさえ、このくらいの酒を飲む自信がないとは黒田家の侍もたいしたことないな、腰抜け揃いの弱虫藩か長政殿もお気の毒に”
3) Fukushima Masanori’s great feat was discussed here
4) This was discussed in details here. On a side note, this event also dubbed the spear “Nomitori Nihongō” (呑み取り日本号, Nihongō taken through drinking contest).
5) The actual line in Japanese: “武士に二言は無い”
6) Did this story conclude with a happy ending? Sort of, but depends from which perspective you view it from. It’s said that after the event, Fukushima Masamori made a plea to Kuroda Nagamasa to have Mori Tomonobu return the Nihongō, including offering an exchange with a replica spear. To maintain the peace, Nagamasa also tried his best in the matter, but Tomonobu held steadfast to the validity to the promise made at the sake party, and refused. This would sour relations between Masamori and Nagamasa for awhile, until another feudal lord named Takenaka Shigetoshi intervened. Watching how bad they interacted with one another from the sideline, Shigetoshi stepped in and resolved the matter by having them make up through an exchange of kabuto (兜, helmet).