The Tale of How Tachibana no Norimitsu, the Former Governor of Mutsu, Killed Three Men in a Swordfight

Once, long ago, there was a former governor[1] of Mutsu[2] by the name of Tachibana no Norimitsu.[3] Although not from a warrior family, he was extremely strong and brave, and a prudent man to boot. He was good-looking, with a fine reputation and everyone acknowledged him to be a superior individual. 

Now, when Norimitsu was still young, during the reign of former Emperor Ichijō,[4] he was a chamberlain in the Headquarters of the Palace Guards.[5] One night, he came out of the palace guest quarters to secretly visit a woman with whom he was having an affair. It was quite late, when, accompanied only by a single pageboy and carrying his sword in his hand, he came out of the palace gate and walked down Ōmiya[6] Avenue.[7] He began to feel uneasy when he noticed what seemed to be a number of men standing by the wall of the palace compound.

It was mid-autumn, when the moon was at its brightest and, given the lateness of the hour, it was about to set behind the mountains to the west of the capital, which meant the base of the wall was deep in shadow, so he couldn’t make out who was standing there as he went past, just hear their voices. Suddenly, one of the men called out to him.

‘Hey! You there! Stop where you are! We’re important men here – how dare you just walk by!’

‘They must be thieves,’ Norimitsu thought, but there was no way for him to retreat, so he tried to walk past as quickly as he could.

‘Don’t you just walk on by!’ shouted one of the men, running towards him.

Norimitsu glanced quickly over at the men, and felt relieved when he caught no sight of the shape of bows, only the glint of sword blades. Feeling a sense of relief at this, he put his head down, and ran off at full pelt. His pursuer continued to chase him, and even though Norimitsu ran from side to side in an effort to evade him, it looked like he would soon be caught and killed. Just as his pursuer reached him, however, Norimitsu dodged to the side, pulled out his sword and struck his pursuer in the head. The man, who had been unable to stop, fell to the ground, dead.

‘That was a good hit,’ thought Norimitsu to himself, but he had no time to catch his breath, because another man came running up shouting, ‘Oy! What have you done?’

Unable to sheathe his sword, he fled again, tucking the blade under his arm, but the man chased him, shouting, ‘Stand and fight, you bastard! Show me how good you are!’

He seemed faster than the first man, and Norimitsu realized that he wouldn’t be able to use the same stratagem again, so he quickly planned what to do, and crouched down in the road. Unable to stop, his speedy pursuer tripped over him and fell to the ground. Not bothering to rise or move out of the way, Norimitsu took advantage of the situation and struck the man in the head, killing him, too.

Just as he was thinking he was out of danger, another man came running up, snarling, ‘Tough bastard, aren’t you! You’re not getting away from me!’

Thinking that this time there was no way he would escape injury, Norimitsu prayed silently to all the Gods and Buddhas for aid as he gripped his sword firmly and quickly turned to face off against his opponent.

The man came charging towards Norimitsu as if intending to tackle him. He had his sword in his hand and swung at Norimitsu, trying to strike him, but left it until he was too close[8] and failed to even cut his clothing. Aided by his firm grip on his own sword, Norimitsu deflected his opponent’s blade and ran him through, then quickly withdrew his sword and struck again, cutting off the man’s sword arm.

Norimitsu left the man lying there and ran off again, listening for any other signs of pursuit. He heard nothing, so he ran along the palace wall, dashing through the next gate he came across and concealing himself behind one of the pillars. With the fight over, he finally had time to wonder what had become of his page. Just at that moment, the boy came walking up Ōmiya, sobbing. Norimitsu quickly called out to him from the shadows, and he came trotting over.

Norimitsu told the boy to fetch him a change of clothing, and sent him off to the palace guest quarters. When the boy came back, he quickly changed out of his robe and trousers, which were both spattered with blood, and told the boy to hide them away and keep his mouth shut about the events of the night. Then he scrubbed the blood off the hilt of his sword, and went and laid down in his bed in the guest quarters as if nothing had happened.

All night long, he lay awake, his heart pounding as he wondered if people would find out that he was responsible for the deaths, and when dawn broke he heard a great commotion, with people crying out that three mutilated bodies had been found near the Ōmiya and Ōimikado[9] crossroads, just outside the palace walls.

‘What a skilled swordsmen it must have been!’ cried someone.

‘I thought they must have all killed each other in a fight, but looking at the bodies they seem to all have been cut with the same hand,’ said someone else.

‘Was it a vendetta?’

‘Maybe they were thieves!’

Some senior courtiers passing by heard the commotion, and decided to go to see the scene, inviting Norimitsu to accompany them. Slowly and unwillingly, he went with them, thinking it would seem odd if he refused to go.

They got in a carriage[10] and when they arrived at the scene, they found it was just as described.

A man stood there, waving his arms about and talking rapidly, while looking this way and that. He was about thirty, with a thick, matted beard, and dressed in plain trousers and a pair of mismatched coats in blue and yellow, both of which were faded and had seen better days. He had a sword at his belt in a boar-skin scabbard with some of the bristles still attached, and deer-skin shoes on his feet.

While the courtiers were all discussing what sort of man he might be, one of their outriders reported that he had claimed to have killed the three men as part of a vendetta. Norimitsu was overjoyed to hear this, and said nothing as the courtiers commanded that the man approach and explain himself.

Soon enough, the fellow hesitantly approached the carriage, and went down on one knee his hand on the hilt of his sword.[11] He was a strange-looking sort, with beady, bloodshot red eyes peering from either side of small nose and above a pair of bulging cheeks covered with a red beard, over a pointed chin.

Upon being ordered to account for his actions, the man told the following tale.

‘I was passing by here, minding my own business, about midnight last night, when these three louts rushed up to me demanding to know my business and shouting that they wouldn’t let me past. I thought they must be thieves so I squared off against them and cut them down.

‘I thought nothing more of it until this morning when I got a good look at them and realized they were a gang who I’ve had a bit of bad business with in the past and wanted to pay back! There you have it – I’ve had the good luck to kill my enemies, and not even know it!’

As he spoke, the man jumped to his feet with excitement, nodding his head and pointing at the bodies in the street. The assembled nobles were very impressed, and demanded that he tell the whole story again, in greater detail. As he did so, his claims about the fight grew wilder and wilder.

‘You dog, taking credit for my work,’ thought Norimitsu to himself with amusement, ‘but this is one credit I’ll happily give to you!’

He showed nothing of this on the surface, simply joining the others in praising the man’s skill.

He did this because he was worried about what might happen if people found out it was him, so he was overjoyed that someone had come forward to claim the credit and put an end to any speculation about who was responsible.[12] It’s said he only revealed the secret to his children on his deathbed.

This Norimitsu was the father of Suemichi, the former governor of Suruga,[13] who is living today, or so it is told.


[1] A provincial governor (kami), was a noble, usually of the Fifth Rank, who was sent out to represent the court and government, and run the provincial administration. A major part of the governor’s job was ensuring that appropriate tax revenues were paid and remitted back to the court, but they also acted as judges, and theoretically could call upon military forces in their provinces. Governorships were sought after by members of the lower nobility, because it was possible to become quite wealthy as a result of the position’s control over tax revenues.

[2] Mutsu, also known as Michinoku, was a large province which occupied most of the north-east of Japan’s main island, Honshū, in premodern times. It had a reputation for wildness and would have been thought of as impossibly far away by people in the capital.

[3] Tachibana no Norimitsu (965- ?) was the son of the wet-nurse to Emperor Kazan. He had a reasonable career for a minor noble, with appointments as a Chamberlain and in the Palace Repairs Office, before a number of provincial governorships, including that of Mutsu. This story of his bravery is recounted in a number of premodern collections in addition to Konjaku monogatari, most notably Gōdanshō (1104-1108) and Uji shūi monogatari (1212-1221), so it must have been quite well-known. Sei Shōnagon, however, gives quite a different picture of him in Makura no sōshi, describing him as something of a buffoon who cannot even compose a line of poetry!

[4] Emperor Ichijō (980-1011) ascended the throne in 986 and remained there until his death, dating this story to a twenty-four year period at the end of the tenth, and beginning of the eleventh, centuries.

[5] The Palace Guards (eji) were, as their name suggests a group of men tasked with guarding the imperial palace. They were divided into three separate groups, each under a headquarters responsible for guarding the outer, middle and inner palace. Senior officers were, of course, drawn from noble families with these positions being awarded largely on the basis of status, rather than martial skills. In this sense, Norimitsu, as a skilled swordsman, is something of an anomaly. The ease with which he can leave the palace at night, and run back in later, covered in blood, shows that, on this night at least, the Outer Palace Guards were not doing much of a job.

[6] Ōmiya Avenue (Ōmiya ōji) was a major street which ran from north-south in Heian-kyō. The portion here ran along the eastern wall of the palace compound in the north of the city.

[7] As we will see later in the story, a man of Norimitsu’s status would normally have travelled by carriage with a number of attendants. The fact that he is walking is probably the reason why events unfold in the way that they do.

[8] The swords they are using are called tachi and have long blades (about 70-80 cm). They work best in a fight if you can swing them with the full force of your arms, but as Norimitsu’s assailant has left it until he gets close, he’s not able to manoeuvre his sword properly.

[9] Ōimikado Avenue(Ōimikado ōji) was one of the major thoroughfares in Heian-kyō running from east to west in the north of the city. It intersected with Ōmiya by the Ikubōmon gate to the palace, which was the southernmost gate in the palace compound’s eastern wall.

[10] This serves to emphasise why the theives had mistaken Norimitsu for someone of much lower status – noblemen did not usually walk anywhere, not even the short distance from the inner palace compound to the outer gates.

[11] He is doing this for balance.

[12] Being a skilled swordsman and actually killing people was not something that a well-bred gentleman would do, so it is getting a reputation as a killer he is worried about, rather than being held legally responsible.

[13] Suruga province was located on the south coast of Honshu. Its most famous landmark was (and still is) Mount Fuji.