Noh TriviaQuestion and Answer

Question159 Does the idiomatic phrase “Iza Kamakura” come from Noh?


The story of a retired great man who hides his identity and travels around helping those suffering injustices calls to mind “Mito Kōmon,” the popular long-running prime-time Japanese TV period drama. There is a Noh program with a similar theme, called “Hachinoki.”

A poor warrior living in Sano in Kōzuke Province (currently Gunma Pref.) burns a beloved bonsai tree as firewood to entertain a travelling priest. The samurai tells the priest that although he has now fallen on hard times he will be the first to rush to his master in the event of “Iza Kamakura” (an emergency in the capital, Kamakura).

In fact, the priest is Regent Hōjō Tokiyori, the highest authority of the Kamakura shogunate of the day. One legend is that after standing down from the regency he wandered around the country and became a priest called Saimyōji-dono (Saimyōji-nyudō or Priest Saimyōji). The play has a happy ending, in which Tokiyori gives an order to summon the warriors, and gives territory to the poor samurai who acts on his earlier words and rushes to Kamakura.

“Iza Kamakura” (literally, time to go to Kamakura) is an idiomatic phrase used when people get excited in an emergency. It is believed to originate from the emotional determination the samurai held that he would rush to Kamakura in the event of a major incident for the shogunate of the era.

Actually, the phrase “Iza Kamakura” does not appear in “Hachinoki.” Even so, the play has become very popular for depicting the feelings of warriors of the Kamakura shogunate and has been adapted to kabuki and other performing arts, becoming deeply rooted among Japanese people. For this reason, it is common to give “Hachinoki” as the source of the idiom.

Meanwhile, the phrase “Suwa Kamakura” has the same meaning as “Iza Kamakura.” This expression is also used in the playful answer to the riddle, “Sake is best from Nada and soy sauce from Noda, so which city is the best vinegar from?” The similar pronunciation of “Suwa” in “Suwa Kamakura” and “su-wa,” meaning “vinegar is,” gives the answer, “Vinegar is best from Kamakura.”

(Dec. 25 2019)

illustration : Hiroko Sakaki

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