Love suicides

  • Other Names: 相対死に (aitai jini)
  • Japanese: 心中 (shinjuu)

"Love suicides," or shinjû, are a popular romantic tragic theme in Edo period theater and literature, inspired by numerous real events. Though popularly known as shinjû ("between/within hearts"), such cases were known in the official legal record as aitai jini (towards one another, or together, in death).[1]

It is said there were nine hundred cases of love suicides in Kyoto and Osaka in 1703-1704 alone.[2] In the most typical, or stereotypical, form, love suicides took place between a prostitute and her lover, who could not be united in life, due to the woman's contract to the brothel, and thus choose to be united in death. Often, the man would slit his lover's throat before stabbing himself, though in some of the most famous stage depictions of such acts, the man hangs himself. To avoid it looking like a murder-suicide, the couple would often leave a letter explaining their feelings, and their decision, confirming that it was something they both chose. Courtesans sometimes also showed their love for someone, a protest against their fate, and desire for monogamous marriage, by mutilating themselves (e.g. by pulling out her own fingernails), in an act also known as shinjû.[1]

Such acts inspired many puppet and stage plays, including Sonezaki shinjû ("Love Suicides at Sonezaki"), and Shinjû ten no Amijima ("Love Suicides at Amijima"), two of the most famous works by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and two of the most famous works of the bunraku puppet theatre form as a whole. These two plays premiered on the puppet stage in 1703 and 1721 respectively, were both soon adapted to the kabuki stage, and have been referenced or recreated in numerous other theatrical works and films. They were preceded in 1683 by what is said to have been the first ever kabuki shinjû play, inspired by the deaths of the courtesan Yamatoya Ichinojô and her lover Goze no Chôemon in Osaka in that year. This first-ever love suicides play starred Uemura Kichiya II as the courtesan. The shogunate attempted to ban shinjû plays on several occasions, most notably in 1723 following the popularity of Amijima two years earlier, on the grounds that such works romanticized and thus encouraged suicidal act; these bans were never very effective, however.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012), 89.
  2. Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 317. Love suicides were seemingly quite rare among the courtesans of Nagasaki, however. Historian Amy Stanley notes only two cases mentioned in the city's criminal record (Stanley, 89). This may have been because prostitutes in Nagasaki were less stigmatized, and were more able to reenter "ordinary" society once their contracts were up, and to marry and settle down into "ordinary" monogamous relationships.