Perhaps any nation has a lot of narratives concerning old historical figures that have been used for ethical education. What is shown in the above Japanese-style painting is one such narrative in Japan. A samurai is looking for something in a river with his servant. The servant is carrying a torch, indicating that it is in the evening. When elderly Japanese see this painting, they can soon make a good guess that the samurai on the bridge is Aoto Fujitsuna (青砥藤綱).
Fujitsuna was a lord of small manors in Kanto area in the Kamakura period. Although he was wealthy thanks to his fertile manors, he lived a frugal life having simple clothes and diet. Instead of using his wealth for himself, he used it for giving foods, clothes and money to poor people.
Japan in the Kamakura period was governed by successive regents from Hojo clan. One day, concerning one of the manors of a regent, a conflict took place between the regent and a local officer. At the time, judicial decisions were made by a council that consisted of members chosen from lords. Fujitsuna was one of the members. In the council, almost all members supported the regent fearing his strong power, although the account by the local officer was reasonable. However, Fujitsuna stated the facts reasonably without fearing the power of the regent. As the result, the regent lost the case.
The local officer who was pleased with the unexpected winning gave Fujitsuna 300 kan of money putting them in tawara (a big bag made of straws). Seeing the money, Fujitsuna became upset. He returned the money to the local officer, saying: "The reason I stated my honest opinion in the council was just for the benefit of the regent. I never showed favor to you. Since I prevented the regent from falling in a bad reputation, the regent should give me a token of his gratitude. There is no reason for you to give me anything."
One evening, when Fujitsuna was walking on a bridge, he accidentally dropped coins of 10 mon. The coins rolled down into a river. Ten mon probably corresponded to about present 100 yen, or about one dollar. Samurai of his rank did not care about such a small amount of money. However, he ordered his servants to look for the money in the river. He handed 50 mon to a servant and made him to buy flaming torches. Lighting the torches, they finally found the 10 mon in the river.
People who heard of the event laughed at Fujitsuna, saying: "He bought the torches paying 50 mon in order to regain 10 mon. It was too small benefit from the large loss, wasn't it?" Hearing it, Fujitsuna, contracting his brows, said: "It only shows that you are interested in neither public interests nor charity. If I had not looked for the 10 mon in the river, it would have been lost forever. The 50 mon that I payed for the torches profited the merchant. There was no loss at all. It was a benefit to the public, wasn't it?" People got speechless with admiration.
One day, the regent had a dream in which a deity of Hachimangu shrine recommended him to patronize Fujitsuna as he is a man to be depended on. Accordingly, the regent decided to give Fujitsuna eight large manors. However, Fujitsuna rejected the offer, saying: "You decided to give me the manors according to the dream that you had. It follows that someday you might kill me according to a dream that you would have. I have not render any outstanding service. It would make me like a public enemy to accept such an offer when I have not achieved anything that matches the reward."
Other lords and officers who heard of his reply were ashamed of themselves. Since they never accepted bribes thereafter, the Shogunate could stably govern the country for a long period.
The above narrative first appeared in Taiheiki (太平記), a historical epic written in the late 14th century. Since then, it was used for the ethical education of people in the pre-modern Japan. Since the narrative was also adopted in the textbook of ethics after the Meiji Restoration and the textbook had been used in public schools until 1945, elderly Japanese are familiar with the story.
Note: If you read old Japanese language, you can find the original Japanese text of the Fujitsuna's story here in Volume 35 of Taiheiki. To find the Fujitsuna's story, search 青砥 (Aoto) in the webpage. Aoto Fujitsuna appears as Aoto Saemon (青砥左衛門) in Taiheiki. Saemon is after the Fujitsuna's title Saemon-no-jo (左衛門尉) as an officer of Saemon-fu (左衛門府).