Carnegie Mellon University

Inhumanity, Family Connection, and Deceit in Mori Ogai’s Sansho The Steward

Lucida Fu
Carnegie Mellon University – Japanese Studies


This final project aims at showing and proving what the short story Sansho The Steward, written by Mori Ogai, reveals about Japanese culture. The three main points that it encompasses is that this short story reveals that inhumane situations arise from corrupt morals and other humans, family ties persevere through trials, and that kindness can act as a shield for manipulation. In this short story, a family embarks on a journey to find their father, who was exiled, and faces many trials and tribulations on the way. The family falls victim to deceit, which was overshadowed by kindness, and lands in slavery, where they are separated from one another and endure inhumane conditions.

1. Introduction

1.1 Question

What does Mori Ogai’s Sansho The Steward reveal about Japanese culture?

1.2 Answer

Mori Ogai’s Sansho The Steward reveals that inhumane practices often arise from human controlled situations and the corrupt government, family ties are strong and prevail through separation and trials, and that people use deceit through kindness as a shield for manipulation and ill intentions.

1.3 Elaboration of Answer

Sansho The Steward reveals the inhumane practices of slavery and the corrupt morals that government officials held in order to allow this practice to take place, and how engrained it was in Japanese culture at one point in history. The family of this short story was sold into slavery, where they experienced inhumane conditions carried out by other humans themselves.  When sold into slavery, the children were bought and sold like objects, dehumanizing them and minimizing their worth as individuals. They were associated with a monetary value, and valued based simply on this monetary value, rather than any of their traits as individuals and humans. The family in this novel were travelling in search of their father, when they were sold into slavery, demonstrating the “strengths and the tenuousness of family ties” (Sragow 1994). Their father was exiled, and because of their strong and deep connections, the family went on a journey to reunite with him and complete their family. Throughout the short story, the family faced several hurdles, but always remained close and connected, through their strong familial bond. Their connections persevered despite everything they were thrown into. At the beginning of their journey, the mother met a stranger at the time, Yamaoka. This stranger seemed like a kind individual, offering the family lodging and hospitality when they clearly needed it most. At the start, the mother did not think anything of this kind gesture, other than the fact that it was a kind gesture towards their family. However, it is later revealed that Yamaoka acted in a form of deceit, manipulating the family and ultimately ending them up in slavery and prostitution. The mother’s trust in Yamaoka is what ultimately allowed them to be sold into slavery, demonstrating how trust in humanity can allow one to fall victim to deceit and manipulation.

1. Generation and Legacy

Mori Ogai, born Mori Rintaro, was born on February 17, 1862, in Shimane Japan, and died on July 8, 1922. (Wikipedia 2021, Mori Ogai). He was born Mori Rintaro, but known by the name Mori Ogai for the vast majority of his professional life. He was born to medically inclined parents, as both his parents served as physicians. He followed in their footsteps, earning a medical license He served the Japanese people as an army surgeon and general officer during the war. (Wikipedia 2021, Mori Ogai) Mori was part of the Trail Blazers generation, because he stepped up to the challenge of modernizing literature by writing fiction. (Goosen 1997, p. xiii) He was also one of the first authors of his time to explore Western culture, as he translated German Works and shared them with the Japanese people. (Wikipedia 2021, Mori Ogai) Sansho The Steward was published in 1915, shortly after the end of the Meiji Era. During the Meiji Era, Japan transitioned out of a feudal government, resulting in a westernized nation state. (Wikipedia 2021, Meiji (era)). The legacy that this short story applies to is Stories of Love and Obsession, as the family in this story’s love is so strong that it keeps them together in the face of separation(Goosen 1997, p. xxiii). It also relates to Stories of Political and Social Comment (Goosen 1997, p. xxix)., because the government had extremely corrupt morals during the setting of the short story, resulting in the inhumane situations the family was forced into and exiled for.

2. Slavery, Family, and Deceit in Sansho The Steward

2.1 The Inhumane Practice and Morals Carried Out by Humans

Slavery was an inhumane practice that took place in the 19th century, where people were forced into labor, demonstrating the corrupt morals held by some leaders at the time. The first piece of evidence is at the top of the short story, “With them was a servant woman of about forty, who urged on the two weary children” (Mori 1915, 1).  Right off the bat, it is revealed that the family has a servant, and it is an almost normalized fact. This woman serves the family, and is accompanying them on this journey in search of their family. The second piece of evidence is when a woman says, “There have been some terrible men, slave dealers, …Seven nearby families have been implicated” (Mori 1915, p. 2). This demonstrates how families were stripped of everything and sold into slavery, an inhumane act carried out by other humans. (Miller 2007, p. 65). The act and system of slavery was entirely human controlled, with no aspect of it being natural. Individual humans put themselves above others, on a pedestal, believing their lives were more important, making them deserving of a better quality of life. The third piece of evidence is “But there are the orders from the governor of the province. There is nothing we can do about it.” (Mori 1915, pp2). This quote demonstrates the corrupt orders from the government, and how they were ordered to not help the travelers who so desperately needed it. The fourth piece of evidence is “Sado went north, Miyazaki to the south” (Mori 1915, p. 8). In addition to the terrible condition these slaves worked under, the slaves faced another inhumane condition, their families being torn apart. (Eggert 2017). This demonstrates another inhumane condition that the slaves were placed under. The family was devastated that the children were being separated, as all they had was each other. However, the irony of this situation they may not have realized was that the servant woman travelling with them was also separated from her family in order to serve this family. However, in this case, it is children being bought and sold, rather than adults. The fact that the story began with the mention of this family and their servant woman emphasizes the idea that slavery and this practice was engrained in society and normal for a family to have a servant woman work for them and tend to their needs. The fifth piece of evidence is “They would never kill a slave they paid good money for” (Mori 1915, p 20). This quote demonstrates the monetary value associated with another human being, and how they were bought and sold like objects, dehumanizing them further. The value associated with this human being is simply the amount of money they paid for them, rather than any of their qualities or personalities as individuals. The idea that they would never kill an expensive slave lends itself to the assumption that they might kill a slave they did not pay good money for, on the other hand. This means that the value of a person decreases with their monetary value, and that they hold little to no worth as individuals if they were not expensive. The reason this family went on this pilgrimage in the first place was in search of the children’s father and mother’s husband, who was exiled for promoting humanity. The fact that this happened further reinforces the corrupt morals of those in charge at this time period. Families were torn apart and sold into slavery, where they were forced into labor, dehumanizing them and their worth, sometimes without even realizing it.

2.2 Family Ties Persevere

Another aspect of Japanese Culture that this short story encapsulates is that families often had to separate, but the familial ties remain strong. In the face of separation and struggle, family heirlooms and their strong connection kept them close, keeping them safe despite the distance and peril. The first piece of evidence of this is when the young girl says, “If we could only hurry to where father is waiting for us…” (Mori 1915, p. 2) The father had to separate from the family, seeking employment, for the better for the family; their strong connection is what ultimately led them to go on this journey in search of him. Their family was not complete with the father so far away, and he was waiting for the rest of his family in order to feel whole again. The second piece of evidence of the strong familial ties is “Her husband had gone to Tsukushi and had not returned, so now she was taking the two children there to inquire as to his whereabouts” (Mori 1915, 5). This quote demonstrates how their family connection was so strong that when the father left seeking work, the family came together to embark on this journey. The journey of this family began as a quest for their father, and because they could not stand to be separated without answers on his location, the family set out on foot in search of him. The third piece of evidence is “Anju, always take care of your guardian amulet, the image of Jizo, your guardian god. Zushio always keep with you the sword your father gave you. And always do your best to keep together!” (Mori 1915, p 8). Separated from their mother, the children must keep together, as that is all they have left. The sword their father gave them demonstrates how a sentimental heirloom can connect the children to their father and protect them, emphasizing the strength of familial ties. The last line of the quote, “And always do your best to keep together!” (Mori 1915, p 8), demonstrates how important it was for the mother that her two children had eachother and stayed with one another, in order to keep eachother safe after now being separated from both of their parents. The fourth piece of evidence is “The two children held tight to each other and wept. Although they had left their home village and traveled great distances, they had at least been with their mother; now, unexpectedly separated from her, they had no idea what they ought to do” (Mori 1915, pp 9). The family stuck together through thick and thin, and was what got each other through their travels far from home. Their connection was so strong that being separated from their mother was extremely detrimental and hurtful, but they persisted. The fifth piece of evidence is “The children insisted they would rather die than be separated” (Mori 1915, pp 13). After being separated from their parents already, the children could not stand to be separated from each other, saying that they would rather die. Despite their separations from their parents and their current conditions, “human attachments that transcend all else.” (Eggert 2017). This quote further enhances the idea that family connections persevere and are so strong that in this case, could not be broken.

2.3 Deceit and Manipulation

Kindness in the form of deceit can be used as a cover for manipulation, and may only be revealed after the damage has been done. In this story, a “kind” stranger offered housing to the struggling family on their journey. What turned out to be an ill intentioned act seemed at first as nothing but a genuine, kind act from a stranger. The first piece of evidence is when the mother says, “I am very grateful for your kind offer...Yet if you could somehow manage to feed the children...we will all be eternally grateful for you” (Mori 1915, pp. 5) The family had embarked on this journey in search of their father and husband, and had nowhere to stay for the night. When the mother ran into Yamoaka, she asked him for help, and he gladly helped this poor family. The mother put her faith and trust in this stranger at the beginning, believing that he would do good and truly help the family. Although he did indeed help this family that first night, all of his kindness was erased with the terrible acts that soon followed. This shows how trust in the kindness of individuals can often cause one to fall victim to acts of terrible deceit. The second piece of evidence is “However, although she was grateful to him for having helped them, even to the extent of breaking the law, she did not necessarily trust him in every particular.” (Mori 1915, 7). This shows that after the first act of kindness, although the mother did put her trust in Yamaoka, there were hints of doubts arising. However, even these doubts did not prevent her family from being sold as slaves. This demonstrates that even a little bit of mistrust caused the family to fall victim to deceity, even though the mother was aware and had her doubts. This also shows the minimal extent that one should be trusting strangers, as one may never know their true intentions and goals they are working towards. Although the family got housing, food, and comfort that one night of their journey, the conditions they faced after were in no way, shape, or form worth the one night of comfort they received from this stranger. In addition, the fact that the original act of kindness and housing was illegal demonstrates the corruption of the government and law enforcement at the time, enforcing the earlier point. The third piece of evidence is when Yamaoka says, “Neither one of you will go home empty handed. I’ll divide my guests between you, so that they won’t be overcrowded” (Mori 1915, p 7). Yamaoka provided lodging and food for this family, and divided the family first thing the next morning. Yamaoka went from housing the family, who were in despair, to selling them as slaves, in the matter of one night, showing how he was able to manipulate them through deceit. It also further demonstrates how ill his intentions were, and how all the acts of kindness he had just performed for the family were acts of fraud and lies.


Mori Ogai’s Sansho The Steward reveals that the morals of government leaders during this time were quite corrupt, leading to inhumanity. The father of this story was “exiled after attempting to be civil and promote human rights amid a heartless bureaucracy” (Eggert 2017) The family chased after him, who was punished for promoting good, and ultimately sold into slavery, demonstrating how inhumane and corrupt the morals of the time were. Forced into slavery, the family were treated like objects at a store or auction, with only monetary value associated with them. They were dehumanized and controlled by other humans, acting as puppets in the slave masters orchestration. It also reveals that despite being separated and enduring the terrible conditions they were forced into, family connections persevered and remained strong. This story represents the “quest of a brother and sister for their mother; of a slave for freedom; of a boy for this father and the principles for which his father stood (or of a boy to become the man his father became)” (Emerson, 1953). This quote demonstrates how the entire story and the lives and motives of the characters revolve heavily around family connection and principles. The family maintained a strong connection, even after being separated multiple times, through family heirlooms and their pure, familial connection. The family’s journey was originally motivated by their desire to reunite and reconcile, because of these strong connections. Throughout this journey, they faced many trials, being separated and sold into slavery and forced into labor. Through all of these trials, however, the family’s connection remained strong through it all. The third component of Japanese culture it reveals is that through deception, people can get others to go along with their plan and achieve their malicious intentions. Yamaoka, the stranger the mother of the family encountered at the beginning of their journey to their father, covered his evil intentions in a mask of kindness. This kindness tricked the mother into trusting this stranger, and believing he was being a good person, genuinely offering his help to the family. Because he had this family, specifically the mother’s, trust, he was able to manipulate them and ultimately rob them of their lives and sell them into slavery the next morning. In this story, through “deception and betrayal, marked by a horrifying score and harsh, unforgiving edits, Tamaki is separated from her children and impressed into a harem, while Zushio and Anju are sold into slavery in a distant compound.” (Davis 2006). On their journey to find their father and husband, the family stumbles upon Yamaoka, who offers them illegal lodging, which seems like a kind gesture. However, it is realized later on that it was actually a deceit filled move, landing the children in slavery and the mother in prostitution. This fact emphasizes the fact that trust in strangers may not always result in good, and even hints of doubt cannot prevent one from falling victim to betrayal.

Literary Work

Mori Ôgai. Sansho the Steward. 1915.

Works Cited

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Miller, D. A. “Sansho the Bailiff.” Film Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 1, 2007, pp. 65–67. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.

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