The Debt of One Hundred Thousand Heads

1597 A.D., KOREA.

Lord Admiral, I make my report. We made quick work of invading Korea. They fled before us. We came from all sides. Heads flew like hewn flowers, this way and that, rolling on the flagstones. Too many heads, my lord! Too many heads! It has taken us three days to count them, click-clicking beads in tens and hundreds, hundreds and then thousands, tens of thousands.

The count runs off the scroll and onto another, you see.  The total number of victims is staggering, as though they had sent the whole populace to meet us at the harbor landings!

Who will believe our good fortune, or how the swords ran red and never dulled from cleaving bone and sinew? How to get home a hundred thousand of these Korean keepsakes, our proof of valor?

Our ships already laden with gold and silver, jade and ceramics, inlaid cabinets, silks and scrolls, ride low like bloated sea monsters. Will there be wind enough to carry us, even without the heads as ballast?

If we leave them behind, my lord, the men will be furious. We have to prove the extent of our triumph. Our honor is at stake.

We have burned their palaces, looted their pathetic little temples, turned all their mansions to ash, squeezed the last coins from the rural landlords, but we shall be seen as idle braggarts, robbers of tombs and empty houses, unless we pile the skulls at Toyotomi’s feet in Kyoto. What will the general say if we fail in this?

The Admiral deliberates, talks with his captains of ballast and measures, the weight of captives, then calls his men to the hilltop tent.

“Cut off the ears,he tells them. We’ll give the general a mountain of ears.

If some are earless already, we shall take a nose, a mustached lip, or a lopped-off chin with a brush of beard attached.

As for the rotting heads —line them up along the sea-cliff. Let them face east, eyes wide, mouths open in suitable terror, a warning to all of our superior power.

The soldiers murmur. It is much work, but there will be food and wine, and ample time to savor the Korean girls already lined up for slave-transport.

They shout their assent. Swords clap on shields. The work begins.

The Admiral takes wine and offers it freely to all. “Drink to the general,” he bellows,

“a thousand years to Toyotomi Hideyoshi!, Lord of Nippon.”

1598 A.D., Japan

The ladies lounge in the treasure chamber.

Look what Hideyoshi brought us!

They test the furniture, line up the vases (these for spring, these for autumn) — chitter with laughter at pornographic scrolls. Do Korean women really do that?

Their fluttering robes and cherry-stained lips, their dancing fingers and playful eyes ignore the line of captives seated on wooden benches before the general’s chamber. More Koreans pass through daily — women for the taking, the pretty ones for concubines, the ugly for a life of kitchen labor — sad old scholars with mandarin whiskers destined to tutor the general’s nephews — rosy-cheeked boys for the monks and opera masters.

There is another room that only Hideyoshi enters, a room that is always in shadow.

What does he do in his “Chamber of Ears”?

The servants who peek in with wine and victuals say the smell is terrible, flies and rats everywhere. Not even burning camphor can mask its charnel aroma.

They know he requisitioned urns, boxes and baskets of all dimensions; they know that thousands of ears are piled there in pyramids from which they tumble daily, each fleshy nautilus tilted a different way.

The general arranges them for hours — something not right about an inverted ear, he says. He thinks of matching lefts and rights —what odds against the reuniting of ear lobes of just one victim? A man of games and puzzles, intrigues and mysteries, he has been given one he cannot master.

This has been going on for months. Not one of the general’s concubines has gotten pregnant since the ears were delivered, and the soldiers rewarded. If this goes on, what of the dynasty? Didn’t he rise to become father of a new Japan?

A servant tells the Number One wife: “It cannot go on this way. Soon he will tire of it. The ears are black and shrunken now like poison mushrooms.”

The Number One wife does not believe him. “He has a boy in there, I know it. A Korean boy. Or some eunuch that has seduced him. Ah! We are ruined!”

“Just wait!” says the servant. “Rot and corruption will bring it to a natural end.”

The general stops speaking to his subordinates, calls in a scribe to issue written orders.

“I am spied upon,” he tells his minister. “All my instructions henceforth will be in writing. All you may say to me is ‘Yes, regarding the matter,’ meaning ‘It is done,’ or ‘Perhaps my lord should reconsider the matter,’ meaning there has been some objection.” Each scroll he hands out is given the name of some object in the garden. Thus, “The Scroll of Three Blue Stones,” distributed booty from the invasion to the temples, and “The Scroll of Crimson Cherries” alleviated the taxes of the previous dynasty.

This goes on for some time until Tototomi and his ministers lose track of the code names, and orders that were to be remanded were not, and many that had been approved were held back. Two messengers carrying contradictory scrolls arrived at the same destination and are obliged to commit suicide. There is much confusion and shouting, but still Toyotomi does not relent.

“I am spied upon,” he mutters.

Toyotomi’s nights are not given to slumber. He spends three days awake in the Chamber of Ears, comes out white-haired and foaming at the mouth. Fever’s bed claims him but the raised-up bed where they place him is just outside the Chamber of Ears.

He tells the doctor everything. The ears, it seems, have been listening.

The general has good ears, too.

He knows that something fleshy fumbles about in there. Not a rat, but one living ear, or a pair of them, among two hundred thousand dead ones, spying his words, his plans, waiting to fly on ghost wings to the Korean fleet, to tell Admiral Yi, his nemesis, of every weakness.

Before he dies in a black-face fever, with trembling hands, throat choking as though pressed down by invisible stones, Toyotomi utters his final order:

“Bury the ears! All of them! Put a stone shrine above them. Guard the place. Let nothing escape.”



Caretaker, gardener, shrine attendant, one old man of eighty sweeps up the cigarette butts a careless wind deposits at the base of the Ear Mound.

A plaque commemorates the ancient invasion four hundred years ago, the massacre, the burial of Korean ears in hopes of atoning the angry spirits.

It is silent here in Kyoto, the odd stillness of tree and stone, of the looming, stark monument — more than silent, I think. This place takes in sound. It is listening. It would hear a whisper, a wish in the subconscious.

I have knelt at Hiroshima and wept at Nagasaki before the ruined church dome that stood against flaming mushroom horror. I have sighed in Kinkakuji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in eternal Kyoto, where a young acolyte set fire the temple, and the city dutifully replaced it, beam and stone.

Last of all I come to this sad mound, tended by one frail old man. We bow to one another. He offers me green tea in a cracked white porcelain bowl.

There is an annual ceremony, he tells me, a burning of incense, a proper prayer.

But is it heard across the water? Tenfold ten thousand ghosts gasp on the Korean seashore, waiting for apologies they cannot hear, scanning the east with doleful demon eyes, ghost hands on their ever-bleeding cheeks, mouths open still. Japan has come and gone again, leaving more ghosts again, accumulating the debt of apology.

Dawn gives way to sun-slant of early morning. The raked earth stirs around the monument. The tiny pebbles levitate. Grooves, channels, wormholes into the ancient mound push out like tiny volcanoes. Then hordes of pink antennae burst out at the trumpeting sun.

I am here to witness one hundred thousand hatching butterflies! Clouds of pink and salmon, vermilion and cherry, spread their matched wings in endless mutation, whirlwind of cho-cho maidens, warrior moths, mandarin and concubine, scholar, musician — all butterflies. Glyphs on their wings spell out the names of all the ancient families, ascending on an updraft, clouds of every color heading westward, westward to sing to the ghosts who called them.

Scroll to Top