Category Archives: Folklore and Urban Legends

Japan has many interesting and sometimes disturbing urban legends and folklore. Discover harvest festivals, myths, and even bathroom ghosts!

Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad

fisher-boy-urashimaLong, long ago in the province of Tango there lived on the shore of Japan in the little fishing village of Mizu-no-ye a young fisherman named Urashima Taro. His father had been a fisherman before him, and his skill had more than doubly descended to his son, for Urashima was the most skillful fisher in all that country side, and could catch more Bonito and Tai in a day than his comrades could in a week.

But in the little fishing village, more than for being a clever fisher of the sea was he known for his kind heart. In his whole life he had never hurt anything, either great or small, and when a boy, his companions had always laughed at him, for he would never join with them in teasing animals, but always tried to keep them from this cruel sport.

One soft summer twilight he was going home at the end of a day’s fishing when he came upon a group of children. They were all screaming and talking at the tops of their voices, and seemed to be in a state of great excitement about something, and on his going up to them to see what was the matter he saw that they were tormenting a tortoise. First one boy pulled it this way, then another boy pulled it that way, while a third child beat it with a stick, and the fourth hammered its shell with a stone.

urashima-saves-tortoiseNow Urashima felt very sorry for the poor tortoise and made up his mind to rescue it. He spoke to the boys:

“Look here, boys, you are treating that poor tortoise so badly that it will soon die!”

The boys, who were all of an age when children seem to delight in being cruel to animals, took no notice of Urashima’s gentle reproof, but went on teasing it as before. One of the older boys answered:

“Who cares whether it lives or dies? We do not. Here, boys, go on, go on!”

And they began to treat the poor tortoise more cruelly than ever. Urashima waited a moment, turning over in his mind what would be the best way to deal with the boys. He would try to persuade them to give the tortoise up to him, so he smiled at them and said:

“I am sure you are all good, kind boys! Now won’t you give me the tortoise? I should like to have it so much!”

“No, we won’t give you the tortoise,” said one of the boys. “Why should we? We caught it ourselves.”

“What you say is true,” said Urashima, “but I do not ask you to give it to me for nothing. I will give you some money for it—in other words, the Ojisan (Uncle) will buy it of you. Won’t that do for you, my boys?” He held up the money to them, strung on a piece of string through a hole in the center of each coin. “Look, boys, you can buy anything you like with this money. You can do much more with this money than you can with that poor tortoise. See what good boys you are to listen to me.”

The boys were not bad boys at all, they were only mischievous, and as Urashima spoke they were won by his kind smile and gentle words and began “to be of his spirit,” as they say in Japan. Gradually they all came up to him, the ringleader of the little band holding out the tortoise to him.

“Very well, Ojisan, we will give you the tortoise if you will give us the money!” And Urashima took the tortoise and gave the money to the boys, who, calling to each other, scampered away and were soon out of sight.

Then Urashima stroked the tortoise’s back, saying as he did so:

“Oh, you poor thing! Poor thing!—there, there! you are safe now! They say that a stork lives for a thousand years, but the tortoise for ten thousand years. You have the longest life of any creature in this world, and you were in great danger of having that precious life cut short by those cruel boys. Luckily I was passing by and saved you, and so life is still yours. Now I am going to take you back to your home, the sea, at once. Do not let yourself be caught again, for there might be no one to save you next time!”

All the time that the kind fisherman was speaking he was walking quickly to the shore and out upon the rocks; then putting the tortoise into the water he watched the animal disappear, and turned homewards himself, for he was tired and the sun had set.

urashima-fisherThe next morning Urashima went out as usual in his boat. The weather was fine and the sea and sky were both blue and soft in the tender haze of the summer morning. Urashima got into his boat and dreamily pushed out to sea, throwing his line as he did so. He soon passed the other fishing boats and left them behind him till they were lost to sight in the distance, and his boat drifted further and further out upon the blue waters. Somehow, he knew not why, he felt unusually happy that morning; and he could not help wishing that, like the tortoise he set free the day before, he had thousands of years to live instead of his own short span of human life.

He was suddenly startled from his reverie by hearing his own name called:

“Urashima, Urashima!”

Clear as a bell and soft as the summer wind the name floated over the sea.

He stood up and looked in every direction, thinking that one of the other boats had overtaken him, but gaze as he might over the wide expanse of water, near or far there was no sign of a boat, so the voice could not have come from any human being.

Startled, and wondering who or what it was that had called him so clearly, he looked in all directions round about him and saw that without his knowing it a tortoise had come to the side of the boat. Urashima saw with surprise that it was the very tortoise he had rescued the day before.

“Well, Mr. Tortoise,” said Urashima, “was it you who called my name just now?”

The tortoise nodded its head several times and said:

“Yes, it was I. Yesterday in your honorable shadow (o kage sama de) my life was saved, and I have come to offer you my thanks and to tell you how grateful I am for your kindness to me.”

“Indeed,” said Urashima, “that is very polite of you. Come up into the boat. I would offer you a smoke, but as you are a tortoise doubtless you do not smoke,” and the fisherman laughed at the joke.

fisher-lad-sea-king-palace“He-he-he-he!” laughed the tortoise; “sake (rice wine) is my favorite refreshment, but I do not care for tobacco.”

“Indeed,” said Urashima, “I regret very much that I have no “sake” in my boat to offer you, but come up and dry your back in the sun—tortoises always love to do that.”

So the tortoise climbed into the boat, the fisherman helping him, and after an exchange of complimentary speeches the tortoise said:

“Have you ever seen Rin Gin, the Palace of the Dragon King of the Sea, Urashima?”

The fisherman shook his head and replied; “No; year after year the sea has been my home, but though I have often heard of the Dragon King’s realm under the sea I have never yet set eyes on that wonderful place. It must be very far away, if it exists at all!”

“Is that really so? You have never seen the Sea King’s Palace? Then you have missed seeing one of the most wonderful sights in the whole universe. It is far away at the bottom of the sea, but if I take you there we shall soon reach the place. If you would like to see the Sea King’s land I will be your guide.”

“I should like to go there, certainly, and you are very kind to think of taking me, but you must remember that I am only a poor mortal and have not the power of swimming like a sea creature such as you are—”

Before the fisherman could say more the tortoise stopped him, saying:

“What? You need not swim yourself. If you will ride on my back I will take you without any trouble on your part.”

“But,” said Urashima, “how is it possible for me to ride on your small back?”

“It may seem absurd to you, but I assure you that you can do so. Try at once! Just come and get on my back, and see if it is as impossible as you think!”

As the tortoise finished speaking, Urashima looked at its shell, and strange to say he saw that the creature had suddenly grown so big that a man could easily sit on its back.

“This is strange indeed!” said Urashima; “then. Mr. Tortoise, with your kind permission I will get on your back. Dokoisho!” he exclaimed as he jumped on.

The tortoise, with an unmoved face, as if this strange proceeding were quite an ordinary event, said:

“Now we will set out at our leisure,” and with these words he leapt into the sea with Urashima on his back. Down through the water the tortoise dived. For a long time these two strange companions rode through the sea. Urashima never grew tired, nor his clothes moist with the water. At last, far away in the distance a magnificent gate appeared, and behind the gate, the long, sloping roofs of a palace on the horizon.

“Ya,” exclaimed Urashima. “That looks like the gate of some large palace just appearing! Mr. Tortoise, can you tell what that place is we can now see?”

urashima-fairy-land“That is the great gate of the Rin Gin Palace, the large roof that you see behind the gate is the Sea King’s Palace itself.”

“Then we have at last come to the realm of the Sea King and to his Palace,” said Urashima.

“Yes, indeed,” answered the tortoise, “and don’t you think we have come very quickly?” And while he was speaking the tortoise reached the side of the gate. “And here we are, and you must please walk from here.”

The tortoise now went in front, and speaking to the gatekeeper, said:

“This is Urashima Taro, from the country of Japan. I have had the honor of bringing him as a visitor to this kingdom. Please show him the way.”

Then the gatekeeper, who was a fish, at once led the way through the gate before them.

The red bream, the flounder, the sole, the cuttlefish, and all the chief vassals of the Dragon King of the Sea now came out with courtly bows to welcome the stranger.

“Urashima Sama, Urashima Sama! welcome to the Sea Palace, the home of the Dragon King of the Sea. Thrice welcome are you, having come from such a distant country. And you, Mr. Tortoise, we are greatly indebted to you for all your trouble in bringing Urashima here.” Then, turning again to Urashima, they said, “Please follow us this way,” and from here the whole band of fishes became his guides.

urashima-sea-king-palaceUrashima, being only a poor fisher lad, did not know how to behave in a palace; but, strange though it was all to him, he did not feel ashamed or embarrassed, but followed his kind guides quite calmly where they led to the inner palace. When he reached the portals a beautiful Princess with her attendant maidens came out to welcome him. She was more beautiful than any human being, and was robed in flowing garments of red and soft green like the under side of a wave, and golden threads glimmered through the folds of her gown. Her lovely black hair streamed over her shoulders in the fashion of a king’s daughter many hundreds of years ago, and when she spoke her voice sounded like music over the water. Urashima was lost in wonder while he looked upon her, and he could not speak. Then he remembered that he ought to bow, but before he could make a low obeisance the Princess took him by the hand and led him to a beautiful hall, and to the seat of honor at the upper end, and bade him be seated.

“Urashima Taro, it gives me the highest pleasure to welcome you to my father’s kingdom,” said the Princess. “Yesterday you set free a tortoise, and I have sent for you to thank you for saving my life, for I was that tortoise. Now if you like you shall live here forever in the land of eternal youth, where summer never dies and where sorrow never comes, and I will be your bride if you will, and we will live together happily forever afterwards!”

And as Urashima listened to her sweet words and gazed upon her lovely face his heart was filled with a great wonder and joy, and he answered her, wondering if it was not all a dream:

“Thank you a thousand times for your kind speech. There is nothing I could wish for more than to be permitted to stay here with you in this beautiful land, of which I have often heard, but have never seen to this day. Beyond all words, this is the most wonderful place I have ever seen.”

While he was speaking a train of fishes appeared, all dressed in ceremonial, trailing garments. One by one, silently and with stately steps, they entered the hall, bearing on coral trays delicacies of fish and seaweed, such as no one can dream of, and this wondrous feast was set before the bride and bridegroom. The bridal was celebrated with dazzling splendor, and in the Sea King’s realm there was great rejoicing. As soon as the young pair had pledged themselves in the wedding cup of wine, three times three, music was played, and songs were sung, and fishes with silver scales and golden tails stepped in from the waves and danced. Urashima enjoyed himself with all his heart. Never in his whole life had he sat down to such a marvelous feast.

urashima-servantsWhen the feast was over the Princes asked the bridegroom if he would like to walk through the palace and see all there was to be seen. Then the happy fisherman, following his bride, the Sea King’s daughter, was shown all the wonders of that enchanted land where youth and joy go hand in hand and neither time nor age can touch them. The palace was built of coral and adorned with pearls, and the beauties and wonders of the place were so great that the tongue fails to describe them.

But, to Urashima, more wonderful than the palace was the garden that surrounded it. Here was to be seen at one time the scenery of the four different seasons; the beauties of summer and winter, spring and autumn, were displayed to the wondering visitor at once.

First, when he looked to the east, the plum and cherry trees were seen in full bloom, the nightingales sang in the pink avenues, and butterflies flitted from flower to flower.

Looking to the south all the trees were green in the fullness of summer, and the day cicala and the night cricket chirruped loudly.

Looking to the west the autumn maples were ablaze like a sunset sky, and the chrysanthemums were in perfection.

Looking to the north the change made Urashima start, for the ground was silver white with snow, and trees and bamboos were also covered with snow and the pond was thick with ice.

And each day there were new joys and new wonders for Urashima, and so great was his happiness that he forgot everything, even the home he had left behind and his parents and his own country, and three days passed without his even thinking of all he had left behind. Then his mind came back to him and he remembered who he was, and that he did not belong to this wonderful land or the Sea King’s palace, and he said to himself:

“O dear! I must not stay on here, for I have an old father and mother at home. What can have happened to them all this time? How anxious they must have been these days when I did not return as usual. I must go back at once without letting one more day pass.” And he began to prepare for the journey in great haste.

Then he went to his beautiful wife, the Princess, and bowing low before her he said:

“Indeed, I have been very happy with you for a long time, Otohime Sama” (for that was her name), “and you have been kinder to me than any words can tell. But now I must say good-by. I must go back to my old parents.”

Then Otohime Sama began to weep, and said softly and sadly:

“Is it not well with you here, Urashima, that you wish to leave me so soon? Where is the haste? Stay with me yet another day only!”

But Urashima had remembered his old parents, and in Japan the duty to parents is stronger than everything else, stronger even than pleasure or love, and he would not be persuaded, but answered:

“Indeed, I must go. Do not think that I wish to leave you. It is not that. I must go and see my old parents. Let me go for one day and I will come back to you.”

“Then,” said the Princess sorrowfully, “there is nothing to be done. I will send you back to-day to your father and mother, and instead of trying to keep you with me one more day, I shall give you this as a token of our love—please take it back with you;” and she brought him a beautiful lacquer box tied about with a silken cord and tassels of red silk.

Urashima had received so much from the Princess already that he felt some compunction in taking the gift, and said:

“It does not seem right for me to take yet another gift from you after all the many favors I have received at your hands, but because it is your wish I will do so,” and then he added:

“Tell me what is this box?”

“That,” answered the Princess “is the tamate-bako (Box of the Jewel Hand), and it contains something very precious. You must not open this box, whatever happens! If you open it something dreadful will happen to you! Now promise me that you will never open this box!”

And Urashima promised that he would never, never open the box whatever happened.

Then bidding good-by to Otohime Sama he went down to the seashore, the Princess and her attendants following him, and there he found a large tortoise waiting for him.

He quickly mounted the creature’s back and was carried away over the shining sea into the East. He looked back to wave his hand to Otohime Sama till at last he could see her no more, and the land of the Sea King and the roofs of the wonderful palace were lost in the far, far distance. Then, with his face turned eagerly towards his own land, he looked for the rising of the blue hills on the horizon before him.

At last the tortoise carried him into the bay he knew so well, and to the shore from whence he had set out. He stepped on to the shore and looked about him while the tortoise rode away back to the Sea King’s realm.

But what is the strange fear that seizes Urashima as he stands and looks about him? Why does he gaze so fixedly at the people that pass him by, and why do they in turn stand and look at him? The shore is the same and the hills are the same, but the people that he sees walking past him have very different faces to those he had known so well before.

Wondering what it can mean he walks quickly towards his old home. Even that looks different, but a house stands on the spot, and he calls out:

“Father, I have just returned!” and he was about to enter, when he saw a strange man coming out.

“Perhaps my parents have moved while I have been away, and have gone somewhere else,” was the fisherman’s thought. Somehow he began to feel strangely anxious, he could not tell why.

“Excuse me,” said he to the man who was staring at him, “but till within the last few days I have lived in this house. My name is Urashima Taro. Where have my parents gone whom I left here?”

A very bewildered expression came over the face of the man, and, still gazing intently on Urashima’s face, he said:

“What? Are you Urashima Taro?”

“Yes,” said the fisherman, “I am Urashima Taro!”

“Ha, ha!” laughed the man, “you must not make such jokes. It is true that once upon a time a man called Urashima Taro did live in this village, but that is a story three hundred years old. He could not possibly be alive now!”

When Urashima heard these strange words he was frightened, and said:

“Please, please, you must not joke with me, I am greatly perplexed. I am really Urashima Taro, and I certainly have not lived three hundred years. Till four or five days ago I lived on this spot. Tell me what I want to know without more joking, please.”

But the man’s face grew more and more grave, and he answered:

“You may or may not be Urashima Taro, I don’t know. But the Urashima Taro of whom I have heard is a man who lived three hundred years ago. Perhaps you are his spirit come to revisit your old home?”

“Why do you mock me?” said Urashima. “I am no spirit! I am a living man—do you not see my feet;” and “don-don,” he stamped on the ground, first with one foot and then with the other to show the man. (Japanese ghosts have no feet.)

“But Urashima Taro lived three hundred years ago, that is all I know; it is written in the village chronicles,” persisted the man, who could not believe what the fisherman said.

urashima-boxUrashima was lost in bewilderment and trouble. He stood looking all around him, terribly puzzled, and, indeed, something in the appearance of everything was different to what he remembered before he went away, and the awful feeling came over him that what the man said was perhaps true. He seemed to be in a strange dream. The few days he had spent in the Sea King’s palace beyond the sea had not been days at all: they had been hundreds of years, and in that time his parents had died and all the people he had ever known, and the village had written down his story. There was no use in staying here any longer. He must get back to his beautiful wife beyond the sea.

He made his way back to the beach, carrying in his hand the box which the Princess had given him. But which was the way? He could not find it alone! Suddenly he remembered the box, the tamate-bako.

“The Princess told me when she gave me the box never to open it—that it contained a very precious thing. But now that I have no home, now that I have lost everything that was dear to me here, and my heart grows thin with sadness, at such a time, if I open the box, surely I shall find something that will help me, something that will show me the way back to my beautiful Princess over the sea. There is nothing else for me to do now. Yes, yes, I will open the box and look in!”

And so his heart consented to this act of disobedience, and he tried to persuade himself that he was doing the right thing in breaking his promise.

Slowly, very slowly, he untied the red silk cord, slowly and wonderingly he lifted the lid of the precious box. And what did he find? Strange to say only a beautiful little purple cloud rose out of the box in three soft wisps. For an instant it covered his face and wavered over him as if loath to go, and then it floated away like vapor over the sea.

Urashima, who had been till that moment like a strong and handsome youth of twenty-four, suddenly became very, very old. His back doubled up with age, his hair turned snowy white, his face wrinkled and he fell down dead on the beach.

Poor Urashima! because of his disobedience he could never return to the Sea King’s realm or the lovely Princess beyond the sea.

Little children, never be disobedient to those who are wiser than you for disobedience was the beginning of all the miseries and sorrows of life.

In this interesting tale, the hero Urashima fails. His kind heart grants him a reward, entry into a heaven-like place where he can marry a beautiful princess. Such a thing would be impossible for a common fisherman. Yet, being a good man, he remembers his parents and wants to go back. Only, he finds 300 years had passed. In desperation he opens the box he promised he would not and dies. Urashima seems to be a good man, but there is a little deeper lessen than the last motto of the story suggests. Urashima’s mistake was accepting the offer to travel to the heavenly realm. First, it is a realm he was not supposed to enter. Once there, he must stay. He turns his back on his elderly parents. Remembering them and wanting to return is too late to correct the mistake. He then breaks his promise and opens his personal Pandora’s Box. Two sins that cost him everything. Now, if he stayed in the heavenly realm, he would have been rewarded for his good deeds. He could also possibly arrange for his parents to join him.

Urashima is an interesting folktale about the need to be obedient and see decisions through to the end.

References

Ozaki, Yei Theodora. (1908).  Japanese Fairy Tales. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers.

Chamberlain, Basil Hall (2009). The Fisher Boy Urashima. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/30024?msg=welcome_stranger

Kuchisake-onna–The Slit-Mouthed Woman

Poster for the Korean release of the movie Carved: the Slit-Mouthed Woman, based on the popular urban legend.

Poster for the Korean release of the movie Carved: the Slit-Mouthed Woman, based on the popular urban legend. (image copyright: Palisades Tartan)

A recurring theme on this blog is that Japan is a land haunted by all sorts of weird ghosts and goblins. From gigantic blood sucking skeletons to flying heads in flaming ox-cart wheels, Japan’s rogues gallery is one of the most unique in the world.

Even its more plausible boogeymen have an eerie quality to them. Take, for example, the kuchisake-onna, better known as the Slit-Mouthed Woman (also the name of a J-horror movie I reviewed four years ago, based on the legend.) She is said to be a beautiful woman dressed in a long coat, with a surgical mask covering her face. Surgical masks are commonly worn in Japan and other East Asian countries when a person is suffering from a cold or flu. In the case of the Slit-Mouthed Woman, the mask is covering something far more horrifying than a mere cold sore–her cheeks have been slashed open, literally making her smile go “ear to ear.” In some accounts she is said to have as many as 130 teeth–fangs really–giving an even more eerie cast to her horrible deformity. Even more extraordinary, some variants of her story have the Slit-Mouthed Woman able to run like an Olympian, covering 100 yards in as little as 3 seconds.  She carries a pair of scissors or a scythe, which she uses to slash her victim’s cheeks to make them look like she does.

 

A 20th Century Monster

Perhaps the variance in her description comes from the fact that there is little agreement on her origins. Her story began circulating among Japanese school children in 1978, during which time a variety of stories attributed to her began to circulate. Some say that she is a vengeful ghost mutilated in the feudal era by her jealous samurai husband who caught her cheating on him. Others claim she is no ghost at all, but rather a woman (perhaps an Olympic athlete given her fleet feet) who was horrifically disfigured in a botched dental procedure. This could explain her fondness for medical paraphernalia, such as scissors and gauze masks. Another version has the Slit-Mouthed Woman being attacked by her jealous sister, who slashed her cheeks with a pair of scissors.

Whatever the case, encounters with this yokai/mad woman are said to occur in broad daylight, in the afternoon when many children are walking home from school. She approaches her potential victims and asks them “Do I look beautiful?” If the hapless victim answers in the affirmative, she rips off the mask revealing her toothy grin and says, “Even like this?’ before lashing out with her blade. Answer no, and she attacks anyway.

One key to surviving an encounter with the Slit-Mouthed Woman intact is distraction. After all, she is either an Olympic level athlete (who apparently remains swift on her feet even well into middle age) or a being possessing supernatural speed–running is not an option, unless of course you’d like to be disfigured and winded at the same time. When she asks her question, the best answer is an ambivalent one–say “so-so” or “average.” She will be confused, and in that time you can make good your escape.

Two more things that can distract the Slit-Mouthed Woman are Bekko ame, a traditional Japanese candy, and hair pomade. She reportedly loves candy, and will break off an attack if you throw Bekko ame at her. She is repulsed by the scent of hair pomade, supposedly because the doctor who disfigured her in some versions of the legend stunk of the stuff. Even saying the word “pomade” three to six times can be enough to scare her off.

 

A result of collective delusion?

These elements, mixing the potentially plausible with the clearly folkloric, make the Slit-Mouthed Woman unique among Japan, and the world’s, vast cast of nightmarish creatures. She exists in a sort of netherworld, not quite a ghost yet not quite a real person either. Perhaps that is why, more than 30 years after stories about her first began to circulate, she still remains a popular legend, one that almost all Japanese school children have heard at one point. Her ambiguous nature leaves room for all sorts of elaboration for school-yard storytellers, giving fertile ground for the legend to grow and evolve with succeeding generations of school children.

Many explanations of the legend’s origins have been presented. Some believe that the Slit-Mouthed Woman was a sort of phantom-slasher, a being born of the remarkable pressures Japanese school children face within Japan’s famously tough school system. This then would be a case of collective delusion, a phenomena often confused with mass hysteria. Collective delusions are characterized by the rapid spread of an irrational belief among a community that results in irrational behavior but not necessarily physical symptoms, while mass hysteria is a form of mass conversion disorder, where societal pressures and personal anxiety are vented by conversion into physical symptoms.

I covered an example of collective delusion on my own blog, which seems relevant to this case due to the similarity of the age groups involved. In Glasgow, Scotland, an irrational belief that an iron-toothed vampire responsible for killing at least two children lurked in the local cemetery took hold in school age children, prompting many to take up stakes and turn amateur vampire hunter. The weird happening grew out of playground stories that took on a life of their own. Perhaps the same dynamic is at work with the Slit-Mouthed Woman, although it is unusual for a collective delusion to have such a long life and the appearance of the Slit-Mouthed Woman in 1978 does not appear to have caused a panic similar to the one that gripped Glasgow in the 1950s.

There is another possibility. The Slit-Mouthed Woman story is technically classified as an urban legend. While urban legends are modern folklore, they differ in that their central conceit is either based on true events or are at least plausible. Could the Slit-Mouthed Woman legend be based on a real incident that occurred in 1978, or not long before?

Such a notion sounds far fetched, but there is precedent for such an occurrence. The Bunnyman Bridge in Maryland is routinely listed as one of the scariest places on Earth. The Bunnyman, a supernatural bogey with a bunny suit and a penchant for mayhem, is said to haunt the bridge tunnel, where legend has it that he has slaughtered dozens of teens foolhardy enough to venture there on Halloween night. While the elaborate and seemingly plausible origin story of the Bunnyman, which I won’t go into here but you can read about in depth on my blog, is bunk, there is an odd element of truth to the story. A mysterious figure in a bunny suit who wielded an axe did appear in the area around the infamous bridge in the 1970s. While he didn’t kill anyone, his odd behavior and aggressive acts cemented his image in the local unconscious, eventually resulting in the Bunnyman legend told and retold today.

Maybe a similar dynamic is at work with the Slit-Mouthed Woman legend. Perhaps a woman wearing a surgical mask did go on a rampage in the 1970s. Or perhaps the story has more mundane origins, in children’s fear of the unknown. Whatever the case, the legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman is a part of Japan’s folklore, and it is here to stay.

 

Sources:
Fitch, Laura. “Have you heard the one about…?” japantimes.co.jp. June 7, 2005. The Japan Times. April 18, 2015. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2005/06/07/community/have-you-heard-the-one-about/#.VTPwCpN9mWN

“Kuchisake Onna.” Scaryforkids.com. August 21, 2014. Retrieved April 18, 2015. http://www.scaryforkids.com/kuchisake-onna/

“Kuchisake-onna.” urbanlegendsonline.com. September 13, 2011. Urban Legends Online. April 18, 2015. http://urbanlegendsonline.com/kuchisake-onna/

Yodo, Hiroko and Alt, Matt. “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.” Tuttle Publishing. 2008.

Japan’s Strangest, Most Fearsome Spirit–The Wanyudo

SekienWanyudoJapan is a land chock full of weird ghosts and monsters. Some are harmless, if off-putting, creatures, while others are creatures straight out of your worst nightmare.

Today’s beast is two parts weird and one part terrifying, even more so because of its tendency to haunt residential areas of major cities, most notably Kyoto.

Legend has it that a tyrannical daimyo was touring what is now Kyoto on an ox cart when an assassin struck him down. The evil man, so angered by his untimely demise, became a monstrous spirit called a Wanyudo. The bizarre looking being’s appearance is something straight out of a nightmare (or maybe a bad LSD trip). Legends going back a thousand years describe the beast as looking like a disembodied head that forms the hub of a flaming ox-cart wheel. Oh, and it flies to boot.

While the Wanyudo’s appearance is odd to the point of being a bit goofy, the monster has a reputation for being among the deadliest monsters in Japan’s folkloric menagerie. The mere sight of it can give a person an intense fever, and heaven help you if the Wanyudo catches you looking. It is said to run down victims, ripping them limb from limb and leaving nothing but a burned and broken husk in the road.

Now and then, the monster will let those it catches peeking survive. One legend tells of a woman who caught a glimpse of the Wanyudo on its nightly flight. The monster, seeing her, boomed: “If you have time to gaze upon me, tend to your own child!” This was when she noticed four tiny limbs hanging from the burning spokes of the monster’s wheel. She rushed to her child, to find his limbs all ripped off.

Stories differ a bit as to where the Wanyudo resides when it is not streaking through the night skies and terrorizing people. Some say it sleeps in the mountains, while others say it guards the gates of Hell. Few things can protect against the wrath of the Wanyudo. Staying inside is about the only sure bet. For extra protection, paste sacred sheets of paper–ofudo strips–bearing the saying “kono-tokoro-shobo-no-sato” on them. Literally translated, “this is the town of Shobo,” it is a reference to a Confucian story where one of Confucius’ disciples avoided a town named Shobo, because the character Shobo can be read “triumph over one’s mother.”

Remember this the next time you find yourself in Kyoto. And don’t look too close at any fireballs that happen to streak through the sky. Just in case.

 

Source
Yodo, Hiroko and Alt, Matt. “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.” Tuttle Publishing. 2008. Pgs 34-37.

The Old Man Who Made Withered Trees Blossom

In the old, old days, there lived an honest man with his wife, who had a favourite dog, which they used to feed with fish and titbits from their own kitchen. One day, as the old folks went out to work in their garden, the dog went with them, and began playing about. All of a sudden, the dog stopped short, and began to bark, “Bow, wow, wow!” wagging his tail violently. The old people thought that there must be something nice to eat under the ground, so they brought a spade and began digging, when, lo and behold! the place was full of gold pieces and silver, and all sorts of precious things, which had been buried there. So they gathered the treasure together, and, after giving alms to the poor, bought themselves rice-fields and corn-fields, and became wealthy people.

Now, in the next house there dwelt a covetous and stingy old man and woman, who, when they heard what had happened, came and borrowed the dog, and, having taken him home, prepared a great feast for him, and said—

“If you please, Mr. Dog, we should be much obliged to you if you would show us a place with plenty of money in it.”

Old Man, Withered Trees that Blossom

The dog, however, who up to that time had received nothing but cuffs and kicks from his hosts, would not eat any of the dainties which they set before him; so the old people began to get cross, and, putting a rope round the dog’s neck, led him out into the garden. But it was all in vain; let them lead him where they might, not a sound would the dog utter: he had no “bow-wow” for them. At last, however, the dog stopped at a certain spot, and began to sniff; so, thinking that this must surely be the lucky place, they dug, and found nothing but a quantity of dirt and nasty offal, over which they had to hold their noses. Furious at being disappointed, the wicked old couple seized the dog, and killed him.

When the good old man saw that the dog, whom he had lent, did not come home, he went next door to ask what had become of him; and the wicked old man answered that he had killed the dog, and buried him at the root of a pine-tree; so the good old fellow, with, a heavy heart, went to the spot, and, having set out a tray with delicate food, burnt incense, and adorned the grave with flowers, as he shed tears over his lost pet.

But there was more good luck in store yet for the old people—the reward of their honesty and virtue. How do you think that happened, my children? It is very wrong to be cruel to dogs and cats.

That night, when the good old man was fast asleep in bed, the dog appeared to him, and, after thanking him for all his kindness, said—

“Cause the pine-tree, under which, I am buried, to be cut down and made into a mortar, and use it, thinking of it as if it were myself.”

The old man did as the dog had told him to do, and made a mortar out of the wood of the pine-tree; but when he ground his rice in it, each grain of rice was turned into some rich treasure. When the wicked old couple saw this, they came to borrow the mortar; but no sooner did they try to use it, than all their rice was turned into filth; so, in a fit of rage, they broke up the mortar and burnt it. But the good old man, little suspecting that his precious mortar had been broken and burnt, wondered why his neighbours did not bring it back to him.

One night the dog appeared to him again in a dream, and told him what had happened, adding that if he would take the ashes of the burnt mortar and sprinkle them on withered trees, the  trees would revive, and suddenly put out flowers. After saying this the dream vanished, and the old man, who heard for the first time of the loss of his mortar, ran off weeping to the neighbours’ house, and begged them, at any rate, to give him back the ashes of his treasure. Having obtained these, he returned home, and made a trial of their virtues upon a withered cherry-tree, which, upon being touched by the ashes, immediately began to sprout and blossom. When he saw this wonderful effect, he put the ashes into a basket, and went about the country, announcing himself as an old man who had the power of bringing dead trees to life again.

The Blossoming Withered Trees

A certain prince, hearing of this, and thinking it a mighty strange thing, sent for the old fellow, who showed his power by causing all the withered plum and cherry-trees to shoot out and put forth flowers. So the prince gave him a rich reward of pieces of silk and cloth and other presents, and sent him home rejoicing.

So soon as the neighbours heard of this they collected all the ashes that remained, and, having put them in a basket, the wicked old man went out into the castle town, and gave out that he was the old man who had the power of reviving dead trees, and causing them to flower. He had not to wait long before he was called into the prince’s palace, and ordered to exhibit his power. But when he climbed up into a withered tree, and began to scatter the ashes, not a bud nor a flower appeared; but the ashes all flew into the prince’s eyes and mouth, blinding and choking him. When the prince’s retainers saw this, they seized the old man, and beat him almost to death, so that he crawled off home in a very sorry plight. When he and his wife found out what a trap they had fallen into, they stormed and scolded and put themselves into a passion; but that did no good at all.

The good old man and woman, so soon as they heard of their neighbours’ distress, sent for them, and, after reproving them for their greed and cruelty, gave them a share of their own riches, which, by repeated strokes of luck, had now increased to a goodly sum. So the wicked old people mended their ways, and led good and virtuous lives ever after.

This little story warns about having selfish intent. The wicked neighbors were self centered while the old man gave away a part of everything he gained without question. Even after the neighbors killed the man’s dog, he did not seek revenge. Rather, he mourned his friend and moved on. The man’s kind heart was what brought his blessings. Even after all the trouble the neighbors cause, the old man takes them in despite all the evils they caused.

This story doesn’t say that good triumphs over evil. The kind old man suffers almost as much as the wicked neighbors. Rather, the story teaches how we should always act from compassion, even to enemies. Compassion in the story generates physical riches, but the old man cared little about that. He cared more about the welfare of his lost canine friend, his community, and his wicked neighbors. Compassion has no ulterior motives. The man did not seek riches, they just happened, and he shared his good fortune. The story is a nice little moral tale about having the right mindset in life and not living selfishly.

References

Milford, A. (1871). Tales of Old Japan. http://ftp.utexas.edu/projectgutenberg/1/3/0/1/13015/13015-h/13015-h.htm

 

Nurikabe–The Ghostly Wall Yokai

Torin_NukaribeJapan is a land haunted by many strange monsters and ghosts. Known collectively as Yokai (and Yurei. The two words are often used interchangeably, but for our purposes we will say that Yurei refer to human ghosts and Yokai to magical creatures of all sorts), these beings can range from the mischievous to the malevolent to the helpful. One notable type of Yokai is the Gashodokuro, giant skeletons who suck the blood from their victims. On the less deadly end of the spectrum are the Nuppeppo, flabby beings of dead flesh that do little more than stink up local cemeteries.

Somewhere between overtly deadly and mildly irritating is the Nurikabe, a being originally said to haunt the coastal regions of Fukuoka Prefecture. The Nurikabe has allegedly tormented Japanese travelers for centuries by quite literally acting as a ghostly wall–the monster is said to block roads, continually extending as the hapless wayfarer attempts to circumvent the invisible obstacle. The yokai forces travelers far out of their way, and was often blamed when people arrived late or became lost on the road. The Nurikabe could be defeated by taking a stick and striking at the bottom of the wall.

What makes Nurikabe interesting as far as Yokai go is that the ghostly apparition is a case study in how depictions of folklore change over time. The being was originally said to be completely invisible, or in some cases it was attributed to the mischievous tanuki.

Over time, however, Nurikabe took on a more corporeal form. a painting from 1802 (seen above) depicts the monster as looking a bit like a three eyed elephantine creature. Perhaps there were intermediate forms of Nurikabe depictions yet to be discovered, since going from invisible to an elephant monster is quite a leap, but it does demonstrate how over time ideas about folkloric stories change immensely.

But perhaps the most famous depiction of Nurikabe comes from a man who allegedly encountered one himself. The beast is a character in Mizuki Shigeru’s Gegege no Kitaro series, a long running manga about the adventures of various folkloric creatures. The character in the manga is depicted as a wall with eyes, arms, and legs.

Mizuki was partially inspired in his depiction by an encounter he claims to have had during World War 2 while stationed in New Guinea. Walking alone though the jungle at night, he suddenly was unable to move forward or backward. Walled in, Mizuki sat on the ground and rested, and was able to continue his progress after only a few minutes.

Mizuki’s depiction of the once invisible phenomenon has now become the standard way the Japanese visualize the Nurikabe. While Americans are less aware of this fairly obscure yokai, it appears to have had some influence on the iconic Mario Bros game series. The Whomps, tall blocks of stone with arms, legs, and faces, appeared in Mario 64 and have since been featured in many Mario games, at least superficially resembles Mizuki’s nurikabe. While it is difficult to tell if the Whomps were directly inspired by nurikabe, the appearance of the two beings are at least similar enough to infer that the folklore had some influence, even if it was strictly unconscious.

Nurikabe might not be quite as colorful and interesting as some of the wackier Japanese monsters, but they do shed light on how folklore evolves over time. Folklore is constantly being re-imagined as new generations with access to new technologies come into contact with old stories. From the intricate paintings of the Edo period to the pages of a manga to the world of video games, the Nurikabe is an ancient ghost who has evolved substantially over time as people have come reinvented the story to fit their own vision.

 

Sources:

Foster, Michael Dylan. “The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.”  University of California Press. January 14, 2015. pgs 140-141.

 

Yoda, Hiroko and Alt, Matt. “Yokai Attack: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.” Tuttle Publishing. July 30, 2013. pg. 31.

 

The White Hare of Inaba

The Japanese hare's brown fur changes to white during the winter of some regions of Japan.

The Japanese hare’s brown fur changes to white during the winter of some regions of Japan.

Long, long ago, when all the animals could talk, there lived in the province of Inaba in Japan, a little white hare. His home was on the island of Oki, and just across the sea was the mainland of Inaba.

Now the hare wanted very much to cross over to Inaba. Day after day he would go out and sit on the shore and look longingly over the water in the direction of Inaba, and day after day he hoped to find some way of getting across.

One day as usual, the hare was standing on the beach, looking towards the mainland across the water, when he saw a great crocodile swimming near the island.

“This is very lucky!” thought the hare. “Now I shall be able to get my wish. I will ask the crocodile to carry me across the sea!”

But he was doubtful whether the crocodile would consent to do what wanted. So he thought instead of asking a favor he would try to get what he wanted by a trick.

So with a loud voice he called to the crocodile, and said:

“Oh, Mr. Crocodile, isn’t it a lovely day?”

The crocodile, who had come out all by itself that day to enjoy the bright sunshine, was just beginning to feel a bit lonely when the hare’s cheerful greeting broke the silence. The crocodile swam nearer the shore, very pleased to hear some one speak.

“I wonder who it was that spoke to me just now! Was it you, Mr. Hare? You must be very lonely all by yourself!”

Crocodile being hunted“Oh, no, I am not at all lonely,” said the hare, “but as it was such a fine day I came out here to enjoy myself. Won’t you stop and play with me a little while?”

The crocodile came out of the sea and sat on the shore, and the two played together for some time. Then the hare said:

“Mr. Crocodile, you live in the sea and I live on this island, and we do not often meet, so I know very little about you. Tell me, do you think the number of your company is greater than mine?”

“Of course, there are more crocodiles than hares,” answered the crocodile. “Can you not see that for yourself? You live on this small island, while I live in the sea, which spreads through all parts of the world, so if I call together all the crocodiles who dwell in the sea you hares will be as nothing compared to us!” The crocodile was very conceited.

The hare, who meant to play a trick on the crocodile, said:

“Do you think it possible for you to call up enough crocodiles to form a line from this island across the sea to Inaba?”

The crocodile thought for a moment and then answered:

“Of course, it is possible.”

“Then do try,” said the artful hare, “and I will count the number from here!”

The crocodile, who was very simple-minded, and who hadn’t the least idea that the hare intended to play a trick on him, agreed to do what the hare asked, and said:

“Wait a little while I go back into the sea and call my company together!”

The crocodile plunged into the sea and was gone for some time. The hare, meanwhile, waited patiently on the shore. At last the crocodile appeared, bringing with him a large number of other crocodiles.

“Look, Mr. Hare!” said the crocodile, “it is nothing for my friends to form a line between here and Inaba. There are enough crocodiles to stretch from here even as far as China or India. Did you ever see so many crocodiles?”

Then the whole company of crocodiles arranged themselves in the water so as to form a bridge between the Island of Oki and the mainland of Inaba. When the hare saw the bridge of crocodiles, he said:

“How splendid! I did not believe this was possible. Now let me count you all! To do this, however, with your permission, I must walk over on your backs to the other side, so please be so good as not to move, or else I shall fall into the sea and be drowned!”

So the hare hopped off the island on to the strange bridge of crocodiles, counting as he jumped from one crocodile’s back to the other:

“Please keep quite still, or I shall not be able to count. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine—”

Thus the cunning hare walked right across to the mainland of Inaba. Not content with getting his wish, he began to jeer at the crocodiles instead of thanking them, and said, as he leapt off the last one’s back:

“Oh! you stupid crocodiles, now I have done with you!”

And he was just about to run away as fast as he could. But he did not escape so easily, for so soon as the crocodiles understood that this was a trick played upon them by the hare so as to enable him to cross the sea, and that the hare was now laughing at them for their stupidity, they became furiously angry and made up their minds to take revenge. So some of them ran after the hare and caught him. Then they all surrounded the poop little animal and pulled out all his fur. He cried out loudly and entreated them to spare him, but with each tuft of fur they pulled out they said:

“Serve you right!”

When the crocodiles had pulled out the last bit of fur, they threw the poor hare on the beach, and all swam away laughing at what they had done.

The hare was now in a pitiful plight, all his beautiful white fur had been pulled out, and his bare little body was quivering with pain and bleeding all over. He could hardly move, and all he could do was to lie on the beach quite helpless and weep over the misfortune that had befallen him. Notwithstanding that it was his own fault that had brought all this misery and suffering upon the white hare of Inaba, any one seeing the poor little creature could not help feeling sorry for him in his sad condition, for the crocodiles had been very cruel in their revenge.

Just at this time a number of men, who looked like King’s sons, happened to pass by, and seeing the hare lying on the beach crying, stopped and asked what was the matter.

The hare lifted up his head from between his paws, and answered them, saying:

“I had a fight with some crocodiles, but I was beaten, and they pulled out all my fur and left me to suffer here—that is why I am crying.”

Now one of these young men had a bad and spiteful disposition. But he feigned kindness, and said to the hare:

“I feel very sorry for you. If you will only try it, I know of a remedy which will cure your sore body. Go and bathe yourself in the sea, and then come and sit in the wind. This will make your fur grow again, and you will be just as you were before.”

Then all the young men passed on. The hare was very pleased, thinking that he had found a cure. He went and bathed in the sea and then came out and sat where the wind could blow upon him.

But as the wind blew and dried him, his skin became drawn and hardened, and the salt increased the pain so much that he rolled on the sand in his agony and cried aloud.

Just then another King’s son passed by, carrying a great bag on his back. He saw the hare, and stopped and asked why he was crying so loudly.okuninushi no mikoto

But the poor hare, remembering that he had been deceived by one very like the man who now spoke to him, did not answer, but continued to cry.

But this man had a kind heart, and looked at the hare very pityingly, and said:

“You poor thing! I see that your fur is all pulled out and that your skin is quite bare. Who can have treated you so cruelly?”

When the hare heard these kind words he felt very grateful to the man, and encouraged by his gentle manner the hare told him all that had befallen him. The little animal hid nothing from his friend, but told him frankly how he had played a trick on the crocodiles and how he had come across the bridge they had made, thinking that he wished to count their number: how he had jeered at them for their stupidity, and then how the crocodiles had revenged themselves on him. Then he went on to say how he had been deceived by a party of men who looked very like his kind friend: and the hare ended his long tale of woe by begging the man to give him some medicine that would cure him and make his fur grow again.

When the hare had finished his story, the man was full of pity towards him, and said:

“I am very sorry for all you have suffered, but remember, it was only the consequence of the deceit you practiced on the crocodiles.”

“I know,” answered the sorrowful hare, “but I have repented and made up my mind never to use deceit again, so I beg you to show me how I may cure my sore body and make the fur grow again.”

“Then I will tell you of a good remedy,” said the man. “First go and bathe well in that pond over there and try to wash all the salt from your body. Then pick some of those kaba flowers that are growing near the edge of the water, spread them on the ground and roll yourself on them. If you do this the pollen will cause your fur to grow again, and you will be quite well in a little while.”

Kaba flowers can translate to birch or bulrushes. Because this story speaks of kaba being by the edge of the water, it is most likely referring to bulrushes, cattails. Also, our hare could not pluck flowers from a birch tree even if he jumped.

Kaba flowers can translate to birch or bulrushes. Because this story speaks of kaba being by the edge of the water, it is most likely referring to bulrushes, cattails. Also, our hare could not pluck flowers from a birch tree even if he jumped.

The hare was very glad to be told what to do, so kindly. He crawled to the pond pointed out to him, bathed well in it, and then picked the kaba flowers growing near the water, and rolled himself on them.

To his amazement, even while he was doing this, he saw his nice white fur growing again, the pain ceased, and he felt just as he had done before all his misfortunes.

The hare was overjoyed at his quick recovery, and went hopping joyfully towards the young man who had so helped him, and kneeling down at his feet, said:

“I cannot express my thanks for all you have done for me! It is my earnest wish to do something for you in return. Please tell me who you are?”

“I am no King’s son as you think me. I am a fairy, and my name is Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto,” answered the man, “and those beings who passed here before me are my brothers. They have heard of a beautiful Princess called Yakami who lives in this province of Inaba, and they are on their way to find her and to ask her to marry one of them. But on this expedition I am only an attendant, so I am walking behind them with this great big bag on my back.”

The hare humbled himself before this great fairy Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto, whom many in that part of the land worshiped as a god.

“Oh, I did not know that you were Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto. How kind you have been to me! It is impossible to believe that that unkind fellow who sent me to bathe in the sea is one of your brothers. I am quite sure that the Princess, whom your brothers have gone to seek, will refuse to be the bride of any of them, and will prefer you for your goodness of heart. I am quite sure that you will win her heart without intending to do so, and she will ask to be your bride.”

Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto took no notice of what the hare said, but bidding the little animal goodby, went on his way quickly and soon overtook his brothers. He found them just entering the Princess’s gate.

Just as the hare had said, the Princess could not be persuaded to become the bride of any of the brothers, but when she looked at the kind brother’s face she went straight up to him and said:

“To you I give myself,” and so they were married.

This is the end of the story. Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto is worshiped by the people in some parts of Japan, as a god, and the hare has become famous as “The White Hare of Inaba.” But what became of the crocodiles nobody knows.

This story teaches us about justice. The hapless rabbit was wrong to play a trick on the crocodiles, but the revenge the crocodiles played was far more than the rabbit deserved. Plucking out all the rabbit’s fur is stiff punishment for name calling and trickery.

Then, a cruel man played a trick on the bleeding rabbit, telling the rabbit to jump into the sea with those open wounds. Desperate, the rabbit listened and worsened his situation. The salt from the sea and wind ruin his skin.

Luckily, a kind soul (the fairy, Okuninushi-no-Mikoto) helped the rabbit heal and regrow his fur. Okuninushi is a Shinto divinity. The name translates to “Great Land Master” and he was the ruler of Izumo Province before being replaced by Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu. Grateful, the rabbit makes a divine prediction: Okuninushi will marry the princess his brothers seek to wed.

Okuninushi marries Princess Yakami. The marriage leads to Okuninushi’s brothers to seek to kill him, but those are other tales.

The rabbit’s plight was more than what he deserved. Karma is supposed to be proportional to one’s actions. Okuninushi sets the aright by helping the rabbit heal itself. Notice that the rabbit had to take action. The hare also repented of his name calling and trickster ways. In both cases, the rabbit had to work to relieve his suffering. This lesson extends to us today. Repentance of mistakes and wrongs we commit against people is only a step. We also must take action to heal ourselves. We need to make amends to those we did wrong. Of course, in this story, the hare was unable to do that. However, the hare learned not to repeat his mishap. Japanese mythology is laced with moral tales.

References
Ozaki, Yei Theodora. (1908).  Japanese Fairy Tales. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers.

Yasumaro, O no. (c. 711 CE.). Kojiki.