Presence of mind

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Fujiwara no Yasumasa playing the Flute by Moonlight, 1882, by Artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892)

There was once a man who may be called the ‘generalissimo’ of the robbers and who went by the name of Hakamadare. He had a strong mind and a powerful build. He was swift of foot, quick with his hands, wise in thinking and plotting. Altogether there was no one would could compare with him. His business was to rob people of their possessions when they were off-guard.

Once around the tenth month of a year, he needed clothing and decided to get hold of some. He went to prospective spots and walked about, looking. About midnight when people had gone to sleep and were quiet, under a somewhat blurry moon he saw a man dressed in abundant clothes sauntering about on a boulevard. The man, with his trouser-skirt tucked up with strings perhaps and in a formal hunting robe which gently covered his body was playing the flute, alone, apparently in no hurry to go to any particular place. Wow, here’s a fellow who’s shown up just to give me his clothes, Hakamadare thought.

Normally he would have gleefully run up and beaten his quarry down and robbed him of his clothes. But this time, unaccountably, he felt something fearsome about the man, so he followed him for a couple of hundred yards.

The man himself didn’t seem to think, Somebody’s following me. On the contrary, he continued to play the flute with what appeared to be a greater calm. Give him a try, Hakamadare said to himself, and ran up close to the man, making as much clatter as he could with his feet. The man, however, looked not the least disturbed. He simply turned to look, still playing the flute. It wasn’t possible to jump on him. Hakamadare ran off.

Hakamadare tired similar approaches a number of times, but the man remained utterly unperturbed. Hakamadare realized he was dealing with an unusual fellow. When they had covered about thousand yards, though, Hakamadare decided he couldn’t continue like this, drew his sword, and ran up to him.

This time the man stopped playing the flute and turning said, ‘What in the world are you doing?’. Hakamadare couldn’t have been struck with greater fear even if a demon or a god had run up to attack him when he was walking alone. For some unaccountable reason he lost both heart and courage. Overcome with deathly fear and despite himself, he fell on his knees and hands.

‘What are you doing?’ the man repeated. Hakamadare felt he couldn’t escape even if he tried. ‘I’m trying to rob you’, he blurted out. ‘My name is Hakamadare’. ‘I’ve heard there’s a man about with that name, yes. A dangerous, unusual fellow, I’m told’, the man said. Then he simply said to Hakamadare, ‘Come with me’, and continued on his way, playing the flute again.

Terrified that he was dealing with no ordinary human being, and as if possessed by a demon or a god, Hakamadare followed the man, completely mystified. Eventually the man walked into a gate behind which was a large house. He stepped inside from the veranda after removing his shoes. While Hakamadare was thinking, He must be the master of the house, the man came back and summoned him. As he gave him a robe made of thick cotton cloth, he said, ‘If you need something like this in the future, just come and tell me. If you jump on somebody who doesn’t know your intentions, you may get hurt’.

Afterward it occurred to Hakamadare that the house belonged to Governor of Settsu Fujiware no Yasumasa. Later, when he was arrested, he is known to have observed, ‘He was such an unusually weird, terrifying man!’ Yasumasa was not a warrior by family tradition because he was a son of Mubetada. Yet he was not the least inferior to anyone who was a warrior by family tradition. He had a strong mind, was quick with his hands and had tremendous strength. He was also subtle in thinking and plotting. So even the imperial court did not feel insecure in employing him in the way of the warrior. As a result, the whole world greatly feared him and was intimidated by him.

Sato, Hiroaki, Legends of the Samurai, 1995, Overlook Books.

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