Teisai hoshi den

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  • Written: 1610s
  • Other Names: 定西法師琉球話 (Teisai houshi Ryuukyuu banashi), 定西法師琉球物語 (Teisai houshi Ryuukyuu monogatari), 定西琉球国営中見録 (Teisai Ryuukyuu-koku eichuu kenroku)
  • Japanese: 定西法師伝 (Teisai houshi den)

The Teisai hôshi den (lit. "Told by Buddhist Master Teisai") was a story about a man who traveled to Ryûkyû, written in the 1610s. It circulated widely in manuscript form, and was one of the earliest and most influential Edo period texts to impact widespread conceptions about Ryûkyû.

The text circulated widely in the 17th century, but was also copied out by Hakuseki’s brother-in-law Kusakabe Keiei around 1711-1716, and circulated further in the 18th century. It is said to have first been written by someone who simply noted down a story he heard while living near the gates of Reigan-ji in Edo, in the 1610s.

The text follows the story of a peasant from Iwami province named Tsukuda Heisuke, who decides to get into commercial business, in order to provide a more comfortable life for his parents. He gets his parents’ permission to sell the family’s treasured sword, and does so in Kyoto, getting five pieces of gold and one hundred kan of silver in exchange for it. He then returns home, but his parents won’t accept the money, so he travels to Hiroshima, where he receives advice that the China trade is a good way to build a fortune. He then travels to Satsuma province, where he is cured of a mouth tumor of some sort by a physician’s miracle drug. While in Satsuma, he gains the favor of Prince Sashiki of the Ryûkyû Kingdom, who frequently sojourns in Satsuma. Heisuke then gets the opportunity to travel to Ryûkyû, and takes it, journeying to Sashiki Island. There, he treats the daughter of one of the prince’s retainers, and manages to also treat one of the royal consorts, gaining favor within the royal court and getting to have his wish of traveling to China heard by the king. He is also appointed royal food taster, and acquires popularity, a beautiful wife, and a child. However, he can’t stop thinking about his parents back in Japan, so he asks for permission to return home, and receives it from the king. He then returns home, gets married there, brings the family business to prosperity, and provides a comfortable old age for his parents. While he’s been gone, though, Ôkubo Iwami-no-kami Jûbei Nagayasu has been appointed daikan for Iwami province, and he is now overseeing the expansion of coal & silver mining. Heisuke marries his daughter to Ôkubo, and gets himself appointed to oversee the mines. However, the Tokugawa become aware of Ôkubo’s bad administration, and the whole family gets punished – Heisuke is arrested as well. His dreams of prosperity are shattered, and he dreams every night of these bad deeds, which cause him great distress. He chants nenbutsu and prays for salvation, and takes on the monastic name Teisai. Somehow, while working for the mines he meets Prince Sashiki once again, who had now been captured in Satsuma’s invasion of the kingdom, and renews their old friendship. The Prince then dies at Sunpu, and is buried at Seiken-ji at Okitsu.

The story is said to have been written simply based on a story that the author heard. While some scholars, such as Mori Senzô, have suggested that the dates of Teisai's journey can be closely estimated based on the actual historical figures and events mentioned, other scholars, such as Higaonna Kanjun, have argued the story is pure fiction. Even if any part of it is historically true, it seems to derive largely from borrowings from the story of Tenjiku Tokubei, and rumors about Ôkubo Nagayasu. Still, while the story confuses Prince Gushichan for Sashiki, it gets correct that Sashiki is a Ryukyuan princely name, and gets some of the other details there correct – about Satsuma’s invasion and the prince being taken captive, and about his then dying in Sunpu and being buried at Seiken-ji at Okitsu, for example. The story also correctly relates that Ryukyu is a center of the China trade, and that the only way there from Japan is via Satsuma. However, the story also misrepresents Naha as being home to a lively community of Japanese from all over the archipelago – in fact, only a very few Satsuma officials were resident there, and Japanese presence otherwise was severely restricted. Further, the story suggests that the reason for Satsuma’s invasion of Ryûkyû was that the Chinese official Jana ueekata traveled to Ryûkyû in order to attempt to sever Ryûkyû’s interactions with Japan. This is an interesting element, as it shows that the author knew the name (title) Jana ueekata, and knew he was closely involved in circumstances surrounding the invasion; in truth, Jana was a Ryukyuan official, the head of a pro-China faction but not actually from China himself, and while he may have supported certain policy stances at court that opposed stronger/closer ties with Japan, really his most prominent place in the historical narrative is his execution at the hands of Satsuma officials after he refused to swear loyalty to them.

Regardless of whether the story is true, however, what is perhaps more significant is that this story was among the earliest to circulate widely in Japan, and would have had a profound impact upon common conventional knowledge (beliefs) about Ryukyu.


  • Yokoyama Manabu 横山学, Ryûkyû koku shisetsu torai no kenkyû 琉球国使節渡来の研究, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (1987), 142-144.