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Musings VIII: Monsters and Identity in “The Great Yōkai War”

Monsters – the Ultimate Adversary?

youkai yokai Japanese Monsters Mizuki shigeru

An assembly of yôkai.

It seems to be the most gripping kind of tale: The fight against a monster. Our heroes may confront it literally, as a demonic creature or a mad serial killer, or more symbolically, in the faceless grinding mechanisms of society, or the depths of their own subconscious.

The Japanese monsters categorized as yōkai are fascinating to me, not only because of their ever-changing appearance and narratives but also for their function in cultural discourse. A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about the classic Yōkai daisensō, “Great Yōkai War”-chapter in Mizuki Shigeru’s manga Gegege no Kitarō, and while the material in doubtlessly somewhat dated now, I still consider it interesting enough to bear retelling in this blog.

The Father of Modern Monster Manga

Mizuki Mura Shigeru

Mizuki (Mura) Shigeru, 2010.

Mizuki Shigeru was one of the most influential mangaka of the 20th century. He was born as Mura Shigeru in 1924, most likely in Ōsaka,[1] and grew up in the remote town of Sakaiminato (“border harbour”) which faces the Sea of Japan. In his own autobiographical stories, he marks two eras of his life as most important: Firstly, his childhood, when an old woman told him stories about yōkai and thus built the foundation of his lifelong attention to them. Secondly, his war experiences, especially the time he spent convalescing in the village of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea after the loss of his left arm. In his works, he often idealizes the life of the natives: “as if I had somehow come upon a fairyland”[2]. Besides the spooky stories about Gegege no Kitarō, see below, Mizuki also illustrated numerous yōkai, some of which he invented or gave physical appearance for the first time. He also created a number of influential autobiographical narratives and the award-winning Showa: A History of Japan.[3] Mizuki was active as an artist far into old age; he died in November 2015. It is a great regret of mine that I never managed to visit the museum devoted to him during my stay in Japan.

Monsters and Japanese Identity

Gegege no Kitaro Kitarou

Kitarô being his usual caefree self.

In contrast to ever-raising action levels and expectation-driven heroes who developed from the model of Tezuka Osamu’s protagonists such as Astroboy, Mizuki’s Kitarō is a more ambiguous, more laid back figure.[4] And a decidedly uncanny one, of cause. As the last descendant of a spirit tribe, Kitarō usually functions as mediator between yōkai and humans.[5] In the story Yōkai daisensō, “The Great Yōkai War” (1966), however, Kitarō allies with a group of yōkai to liberate an island from an occupation by Western monsters. This story reflects two important moments of Japanese Post-War culture and politics: The American occupation and the re-emerging discourse of Japaneseness.

A Transformation of the historical situation

In Yōkai daisensō, Mizuki addresses the real conflict of the American occupation of Japan by shifting it into a fantastic otherworld. The “monstrous” concepts of American occupation and war itself take physical form as Western monsters and thus return to the public conscious, where they can be worked through and resolved. For, as Japanese studies scholar Fabio Gygi puts it, “[t]he only way to exorcise a monster […] is to conjure it, that is, paradoxically, to make it appear”.[6] Doubly distanced in the otherworld of monsters and the island of Kikaigashima, a fictitious location at the tip of Okinawa (the very edge of Japan), the trauma becomes safe to handle. In addition, criticism of the present situation, which might be a dangerous topic in realistic works, becomes possible in a fantastic scenario.

Western Monsters as Occupation Force

western monsters Kitarou Kitaro wolfman dracula Frankenstein

Three of the four western monsters.

Scholar of Japanese Media studies Zilia Papp analyses four approaches to the monster-war-theme in her 2009 article.[7] Regarding the Kitarō manga, she emphasizes the anti-American theme. In earlier narratives about monster wars, yōkai symbolized the alien Other, including foreigners, and were defeated by Japanese human characters.[8] By contrast, Kitarō and a band of yōkai depart to aid a child in markedly Asian dress (he is wearing a Vietnamese hat) against clearly western monsters. Thus, Mizuki uses Japanese monsters to represent the Self and “stereotypical western monsters” for the enemy. Namely, the antagonists are a witch, a wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, and the design of the latter two clearly alludes to American cinema.[9] In addition, “[a]nalogies to the Pacific War (1942-45), the Battle of Okinawa (1945) and the Vietnam War (1959-75) are articulated” in text and image.[10] As a result, a clear confrontation between Japanese and American representatives emerges.

Kitaro Sunakake Baba Medamoma Oyaji Konaki Jiji Nurikabe Yokai Youkai Daisenso Daisensou

The company departs.

Yōkai, Japanese Monsters, as icons of Japaneseness

In her analysis of the ikai (otherworld) motif in Japanese literature of the 1990s, professor for Japanese literature Lisette Gebhardt states that an otherworld may include aspects of the alien and the afterlife. It serves as construction site for new patterns of identification.[11] In the 1960s, new identification patterns were also certainly necessary after the collapse of the military system of wartime Japan. Moreover, the development from wartime shortages and destruction to the economic growth of the 50s and 60s necessitated a redefinition of what it meant to be Japanese. This definition often arises from texts of the nihon(jin)ron or “discourse of (the) Japan(ese)”. Cultural Anthropologist Aoki Tamotsu proposes a subdivision of modern Japanese history according to the prevalent type of nihonjinron. Kitarō would fall into the early third phase, in which Japanese cultural traditions were revalidated. Fittingly, Michal Dylan Foster in his epochal study Pandemonium and Parade (2009) describes Mizuki’s works as “(re)discovery of the yōkai as pop-culture icon”.[12] Kitarō assembles yōkai from all over Japan to assist the child from the occupied island, thus his group comes to represent Japan as a whole. With their roots in local myth and folklore, yōkai are symbols of Japan in its perceived cultural uniqueness.

Monstrous Self

It is not only their clear-cut confrontation of American monster villains and Japanese yōkai which marks the latter as representatives of the Japanese (reader him/her) self. Mizuki also uses visual techniques to encourage identification with the yōkai boy Kitarō. Initially overpowered by the Western monsters, Kitarō faces the chief villain, a tentacle-sprouting, floating, one-eyed creature named Beādo.[13] In this scene, Kitarō’s pitiful state is evident in the loss of this hair and his ancestral vest Chanchanko, two of his usually effective weapons. This alone activates the reader’s sympathy and thus identification.

kitaro Kitarou Beado back panel

Kitarô faced with the main villain.

Moreover, he is positioned with his back to the reader in a pose used to provoke identification at least since Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscape paintings. We look over his shoulder and share his perception. The well-known manga Akira (Ōtomo Katsuhiro, 1982-90) also uses this method, as manga scholar Miriam Brunner describes. “His body protrudes […] into the picture and invites the viewer’s identification […]. Passing beyond his upper body, the recipient’s eye is guided”[14] toward the panel focus, in this case the looming figure of Beādo. Mizuki is usually very conventional with his panel designs. Therefore, it is noteworthy that this panel is the only instance in Yōkai daisensō where a character stands completely outside his panel and as close as possible to the reader. Mizuki thereby emphasizes the equation of yōkai and Japanese reader in this moment of failure and helplessness before an overpowering Western force. This of course makes the final triumph of the yōkai all the sweeter.

Nostalgia for a phantom

Mizuki reworks past trauma and present distress in a fantastic realm. His reference to ancient yōkai folklore is an emphasis of cultural tradition which can be contextualized in the search for a new identity after defeat and rapid economic growth. In so doing, he also gives form to a yearning for a less complex, less globalized world; a ‘truly Japanese’ world untainted by both war and westernization. Foster describes this emotional state as one of melancholy desire: “nostalgia might be characterized as a longing for a past (time, place, self) that is impossible to (re)claim because it no longer exists or, more likely, never did.”[15] The fantasy of a magical Japan populated by yōkai satisfies this yearning for an unalienated home.

Final Remarks

The manga confronts and works through past and present political and cultural crises, while at the same time it supports the formation of a positive consciousness of Japaneseness through fantastic nostalgia. In this way, the Great Yōkai War illustrates a specific moment in Japanese cultural history and history of thought.

Notes and References

[1] Foster, Michael Dylan (2008): “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru”. In: Mechademia 3, 8–28. 12.

[2] Mizuki Shigeru, Musume ni kataru otōsan no senki, 148-149, as quoted in Foster 2008:21.

[3] Since the original writing of this essay, an English translation in 4 volumes by Zach Davisson has appeared, which ranks high on my To-Read-list. As an introduction, see his own blog about the publication of the first volume: https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/11/04/countdown-to-mizuki-shigerus-showa-1926-1939-a-history-of-japan/

[4] The most influential German manga scholar, Jaqueline Berndt, discusses this contrast. See Berndt, Jaqueline (1995): Phänomen Manga. Comic-Kultur in Japan. Berlin: Ed. q (Japan-Edition).63-65.

[5] Some of his adventures are available in English translation, also courtesy of Mr. Davisson. When I originally wrote my essay, though, I had to work exclusively with Japanese-language material since the only available translation was a French one.

[6] Gygi, Fabio (2008): “Mnemonic Monsters. Memory, Oblivion and Continuity in Japanese Popular Culture”. In: Minikomi 75, 5-12. 6.

[7] Papp, Zilia (2009): “Monsters at War. The Great Yōkai Wars, 1968-2005”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 225–239.

[8] Papp 2009:226-7.

[9] Papp 2009:227.

[10] Papp 2009:227.

[11] Gebhardt, Lisette (1999): “Ikai. Der Diskurs zur ‘Anderen Welt’ als Manifestation der japanischen Selbstfindungs-Debatte”. In: Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit (ed.): Überwindung der Moderne? Japan am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, S. 146–171. 147.

[12] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009a): Pandemonium and Parade. Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 164.

[13] This enigmatic name might refer to the pirate Blackbeard, so that the tentacle-like appendices become a beard. Alternatively, Beādo may actually be a bugbear, a folktale creature whose main purpose seems to be to frighten children. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bugbear

[14] Brunner, Miriam (2009): Manga – die Faszination der Bilder. Darstellungsmittel und Motive. Dissertation. München: Fink. 94-5, my translation.

[15] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009b): “Haunted Travelogue. Hometowns, Ghost Towns, and Memories of War”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 164–181.176.

Manga images taken from:

Mizuki Shigeru (1996[1959-67]): Gegege no Kitarō. Complete new edition. Tōkyō: Komikkusu. (“Yōkai daisensō”, Vol. 2, 119-171.)

Other images:

Portrait of Mizuki Shigeru: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/Shigeru_Mura_201011.jpg

 


The Foxes’ Wedding

Kuniyoshi_Kuzunoha bigJapanese fox folklore has many romantic stories. The Foxes’ Wedding is one such story. According to Japanese beliefs, the fox–or kitsune if you prefer–is a loyal and dedicated lover. Most stories feature a human marrying a female fox. This story is a love story between two foxes, which is fairly rare. White foxes are viewed as divine and benevolent, unlike red foxes. Red foxes can be tricksters or as benevolent as white foxes. This story focuses on white foxes.

One final note: this story is also unusual because of its ending. Most Japanese folk stories dealing with foxes have tragic endings. Western fairy tales have trained Westerners to expect a “happily ever after” ending. However, in Japanese folktales such an ending is rare. Japanese culture considers a story incomplete without sorrow. If you want to learn more about the Japanese fox, check out my book: Come and Sleep: the Folklore of the Japanese Fox.

Once upon a time there was a young white fox, whose name was Fukuyémon. When he had reached the fitting age, he shaved off his forelock and began to think of taking to himself a beautiful bride. The old fox, his father, resolved to give up his inheritance to his son, and retired into private life; so the young fox, in gratitude for this, laboured hard and earnestly to increase his patrimony. Now it happened that in a famous old family of foxes there was a beautiful young lady-fox, with such lovely fur that the fame of her jewel-like charms was spread far and wide. The young white fox, who had heard of this, was bent on making her his wife, and a meeting was arranged between them. There was not a fault to be found on either side; so the preliminaries were settled, and the wedding presents sent from the bridegroom to the bride’s house, with congratulatory speeches from the messenger, which were duly acknowledged by the person deputed to receive the gifts; the bearers, however received the customary fee in copper cash.

When the ceremonies had been concluded, an auspicious day was chosen for the bride to go to her husband’s house, and she was carried off in solemn procession during a shower of rain, the sun shining all the while. After the ceremonies of drinking wine had been gone through, the bride changed her dress, and the wedding was concluded, without let or hindrance, amid singing and dancing and merry-making.

The bride and bridegroom lived lovingly together, and a litter of little foxes were born to them, to the great joy of the old grandsire, who treated the little cubs as tenderly as if they had been butterflies or flowers. “They’re the very image of their old grandfather,” said he, as proud as possible. “As for medicine, bless them, they’re so healthy that they’ll never need a copper coin’s worth!”

As soon as they were old enough, they were carried off to the temple of Inari Sama, the patron saint of foxes, and the old grand-parents prayed that they might be delivered from dogs and all the other ills to which fox flesh is heir.

In this way the white fox by degrees waxed old and prosperous, and his children, year by year, became more and more numerous around him; so that, happy in his family and his business, every recurring spring brought him fresh cause for joy.

References

A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan. 1871.


The Spirit of the Willow Tree

spirit-of-the-willow-treeAbout one thousand years ago (but according to the dates of the story 744 years ago) the temple of “San-jn-san-gen Do” was founded. That was in 1132. ‘San-ju-san-gen Do”means hall of thirty-three spaces; and there are said to be over 33,333 figures of the Goddess Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in the temple to-day. Before the temple was built, in a village near by stood a willow tree of great size. It marked the playing-ground of all the village children, who swung on its branches, and climbed on its limbs. It afforded shade to the aged in the heat of summer, and in the evenings, when work was done, many were the village lads and lasses who vowed eternal love under its branches. The tree seemed an influence for good to all. Even the weary traveler could sleep peacefully and almost dry under its branches. Alas, even in those times men were often ruthless with regard to trees. One day the villagers announced an intention to cut it down and use it to build a bridge across the river.

There lived in the village a young farmer named Heitaro, a great favorite, who had lived near the old tree all his days, as his forefathers had done ; and he was greatly against cutting it down.

Such a tree should be respected, thought he. Had it not braved the storms of hundreds of years ? In the heat of summer what pleasure it afforded the children ! Did it not give to the weary shelter, and to the love-smitten a sense of romance ? All these thoughts Heitaro impressed upon the villagers. Sooner than approve your cutting it down/ he said, “I will give you as many of my own trees as you require to build the bridge. You must leave this dear old willow alone for ever/

The villagers readily agreed. They also had a secret veneration for the old tree.

Heitaro was delighted, and readily found wood with which to build the bridge.

Some days later Heitaro, returning from his work, found standing by the willow a beautiful girl.

Instinctively he bowed to her. She returned the bow. They spoke together of the tree, its age and beauty. They seemed, in fact, to be drawn towards each other by a common sympathy. Heitaro was sorry when she said that she must be going, and bade him good-day. That evening his mind was far from being fixed on the ordinary things of life. “Who was the lady under the willow tree ? How I wish I could see her again!’“thought he. There was no sleep for Heitaro that night. He had caught the fever of love.

Next day he was at his work early ; and he remained at it all day, working doubly hard, so as to try and forget the lady of the willow tree ; but on his way home in the evening, behold, there was the lady again ! This time she came forward to greet him in the most friendly way.

“Welcome, good friend !”she said. “Come and rest under the branches of the willow you love so well, for you must be tired.”

Heitaro readily accepted this invitation, and not only did he rest, but also he declared his love.

Day by day after this the mysterious girl (whom no others had seen) used to meet Heitaro, and at last she promised to marry him if he asked no questions as to her parents or friends. “I have none,” she said. “I can only promise to be a good and faithful wife, and tell you that I love you with all my heart and soul. Call me, then, ” Higo,” J and I will be your wife.”

Next day Heitaro took Higo to his house, and they were married. A son was born to them in a little less than a year, and became their absorbing joy. There was not a moment of their spare time in which either Heitaro or his wife was not playing with the child, whom they called Chiyodo. It is doubtful if a more happy home could have been found in all Japan than the house of Heitaro, with his good wife Higo and their beautiful child.

Alas, where in this world has complete happiness ever been known to last ? Even did the gods permit this, the laws of man would not.

When Chiyodo had reached the age of five years— the most beautiful boy in the neighbourhood—the ex-Emperor Toba decided to build in Kyoto an immense temple to Kwannon. He would contribute 1001 images of the Goddess of Mercy.

The ex-Emperor Toba’s wish having become known, orders were given by the authorities to collect timber for the building of the vast temple ; and so it came to pass that the days of the big willow tree were numbered, for it would be wanted, with many others, to form the roof.

Heitaro tried to save the tree again by offering every other he had on his land for nothing, but that was in vain. Even the villagers became anxious to see their willow tree built into the temple. It would bring them good luck, they thought, and in any case be a handsome gift of theirs towards the great temple.

The fatal time arrived. One night, when Heitaro and his wife and child had retired to rest and were sleeping, Heitaro was awakened by the sound of axes chopping. To his astonishment, he found his beloved wife sitting up in her bed, gazing earnestly at him, while tears rolled down her cheeks and she was sobbing bitterly.

“My dearest husband,”she said with choking voice, “ pray listen to what I tell you now, and do not doubt me. This is, unhappily, not a dream. When we married I begged you not to ask me my history, and you have never done so, but I said I would tell you some day if there should be a real occasion to do so. Unhappily, that occasion has now arrived, my dear husband. I am no less a thing than the spirit of the willow tree you loved, and so generously saved six years ago. It was to repay you for this great kindness that I appeared to you in human form under the tree, hoping that I could live with you and make you happy for your whole life. Alas, it cannot be! They are cutting down the willow. How I feel every stroke of their axes! I must return to die, for I am part of it. My heart breaks to think also of leaving my darling child Chiyodo and of his great sorrow when he knows that his mother is no longer in the world. Comfort him, dearest husband! He is old enough and strong enough to be with you now without a mother and yet not suffer. I wish you both long lives of prosperity. Farewell, my dearest ! I must be off to the willow, for I hear them striking with their axes harder and harder, and it weakens me each blow they give.

Heitaro awoke his child just as Higo disappeared, wondering to himself if it were not a dream. No : it was no dream. Chiyodo, awaking, stretched his arms in the direction his mother had gone, crying bitterly and imploring her to come back.

“My darling child,”said Heitaro, “she has gone. She cannot come back. Come, let us dress, and go and see her funeral. Your mother was the spirit of the Great Willow.”

A little later, at the break of day, Heitaro took Chiyodo by the hand and led him to the tree. On reaching it they found it down, and already lopped of its branches. The feelings of Heitaro may be well imagined.

Strange ! In spite of united efforts, the men were unable to move the stem a single inch towards the river, in which it was to be floated to Kyoto.

On seeing this, Heitaro addressed the men.

“My friends,” said he,  “the dead trunk of the tree which you are trying to move contains the spirit of my wife. Perhaps, if you will allow my little son Chiyodo to help you, it will be more easy for you ; and he would like to help in showing his last respects to his mother.’

The woodcutters were fully agreeable, and, much to their astonishment, as Chiyodo came to the back end of the log and pushed it with his little hand, the timber glided easily towards the river, his father singing the while an “Uta.” There is a well-known song or ballad in the “Uta”style said to have sprung from this event; it is sung to the present day by men drawing heavy weights or doing hard labor:

Is it not sad to see the little fellow,

Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,

And is thus far budding well ?

Heave ho, heave ho, pull hard, my lads.

The wagon could not be drawn when it came to the front of Heitaro’s house, so his little five-year-old boy Chiyodo was obliged to help, and they sang :—

Is it not sad to see the little fellow,

Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,

And is thus far budding well ?

Heave ho, heave ho, pull hard, my lads.

There are many different versions of this story. This is one of the most detailed. Japanese folklore rarely end “happily ever after.” The stories capture the reality of intertwined happiness and sorrow. Even the closest lovers must part for a time when one of them dies. However, these stories aren’t pessimistic. Rather, they seek to teach appreciation. We appreciate what we have more when we know it must end.

References

Smith, Richard Gordon (1918) Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan.


A Carp Teaches Perseverance to a Painter

Ohara Koson c. 1910.

Ohara Koson c. 1910.

Between the years 1750 and 1760 there lived in Kyoto a great painter named Okyo-Maruyama Okyo. His paintings were such as to fetch high prices even in those days. Okyo had not only many admirers in consequence, but had also many pupils who strove to copy his style; among them was one named Rosetsu, who eventually became the best of all.

When first Rosetsu went to Okyo’s to study he was, without exception, the dullest and most stupid pupil that Okyo had ever had to deal with. His learning was so slow that pupils who had entered as students under Okyo a year and more after Rosetsu overtook him. He was one of those plodding but unfortunate youths who work hard, harder perhaps than most, and seem to go backwards as if the very gods were against them.

I have the deepest sympathy with Rosetsu. I myself became a bigger fool day by day as I worked; the harder I worked or tried to remember the more manifestly a fool I became.

Rosetsu, however, was in the end successful, having been greatly encouraged by his observations of the perseverance of a carp.

Many of the pupils who had entered Okyo’s school after Rosetsu had left, having become quite good painters. Poor Rosetsu was the only one who had made no progress whatever for three years. So disconsolate was he, and so little encouragement did his master offer, that at last, crestfallen and sad, he gave up the hopes he had had of becoming a great painter, and quietly left the school one evening, intending either to go home or to kill himself on the way. All that night he walked, and half-way into the next, when, tired out from want of sleep and of food, he flung himself down on the snow under the pine trees.

Some hours before dawn Rosetsu awoke, hearing a strange noise not thirty paces from him. He could not make it out, but sat up, listening, and glancing towards the place whence the sound—of splashing water—came.

As the day broke he saw that the noise was caused by a large carp, which was persistently jumping out of the water, evidently trying to reach a piece of sembei (a kind of biscuit made of rice and salt) lying on the ice of a pond near which Rosetsu found himself. For full three hours the fish must have been jumping thus unsuccessfully, cutting and bruising himself against the edges of the ice until the blood flowed and many scales had been lost

Rosetsu watched its persistency with admiration. The fish tried every imaginable device. Sometimes it would make a determined attack on the ice where the biscuit lay from underneath, by charging directly upwards; at other times it would jump high in the air, and hope that by falling on the ice bit by bit would be broken away, until it should be able to reach the sembei; and indeed the carp did thus break the ice, until at last he reached the prize, bleeding and hurt, but still rewarded for brave perseverance.

Rosetsu, much impressed, watched the fish swim off with the food, and reflected.

‘Yes,’ he said to himself: ‘this has been a moral lesson to me. I will be like this carp. I will not go home until I have gained my object. As long as there is breath in my body I will work to carry out my intention. I will labour harder than ever, and, no matter if I do not progress, I will continue in my efforts until I attain my end or die.’

After this resolve Rosetsu visited the neighbouring temple, and prayed for success; also he thanked the local deity that he had been enabled to see, through the carp’s perseverance, the line that a man should take in life.

Rosetsu then returned to Kyoto, and to his master, Okyo, told the story of the carp and of his determination.

Okyo was much pleased, and did his best for his backward pupil. This time Rosetsu progressed. He became a well-known painter, the best man Okyo ever taught, as good, in fact, as his master; and he ended by being one of Japan’s greatest painters.

Rosetsu took for crest the leaping carp.

References

Smith, Richard Gordon (1918) Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan.


Musings VII: On Monkeys in Japanese Culture.

Story: Three in the Morning, Four in the Evening.

In the times of the Song Dynasty[i] in China lived a man they called Sokō, which means monkey trainer. He loved monkeys and reared a whole horde of them at his house. Sokō understood the monkey’s minds quite well, and likewise the monkeys understood their master. He even reduced the number of inhabitants in his household in order to fulfill the monkeys’ wishes. But nevertheless, soon the food was almost gone.

Sokō was about to ration the food, but he feared the monkeys would not obey him. Thus he deceived them. First he said: “I will feed you chestnuts; three now, in the morning, and four when night comes. That may be enough.” Now the horde rose outraged, so quickly he said: “I will feed you chestnuts, four now, in the morning, and three when night comes. That may be enough.” So all the monkeys threw themselves happily at his feet.[ii]

The baffling monkey

monkeys arashiyama park family

Japanese macaques in Arashiyama Monkey Park, Kyôto. Picture taken by me.

There is one thing which bugs me about monkeys in Japan: the paradoxical way they are portrayed. In some stories, like the Chinese one above, monkeys are stupid and easily led by those smarter than they are. In other contexts, such as the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is characterized as clever. There are tales of lustful ape deities who demand human sacrifice, and at the same time, monkeys are believed to exorcise evil influences. There are even gods whose avatar and messenger is a monkey.  And lastly, monkeys can be funny. So, what does the monkey signify?

 

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney postulates: “the monkey has sensitively expressed the changing notion of the self and other in Japanese culture; thus, by tracing the meanings of the monkey, we are able to trace the transformations of the Japanese structure of thought.”[iii] That may seem farfetched, but let’s run with it for the moment, and consider the aspects.

Monkey context: Hanuman and Sun Wukong

 

Hanuman India ape god

Hanuman. Source

The Japanese word saru (猿), usually translated as ‘monkey’, may be as specific an animal as the Japanese macaque,[iv] or be used as a vague catch-it-all term for monkeys. Being the only monkey indigenous to Japan, Japanese macaques inhabit forested mountains everywhere on the Archipelago except Hokkaido.[v] Half-domesticated monkeys close to human dwellings and wild ones in deeper recesses of the mountains may have behaved quite differently and contributed to the ambiguous image. In addition, tales and images of other monkey and ape species came to Japan via India and China.

 

In media, “the monkey is portrayed initially as foolish, vain, and mischievous [but he] learns valuable lessons along the way, makes changes, and eventually gains redemption”.[vi]

An early example of this is the Hindu deity Hanuman, who initially was stupid enough to interpret the sun as a fruit he could eat, and vain enough to attempt to grab it. In addition, he liked playing tricks on people. Thus he was punished, made to forget his powers until reminded of them. Only when he redeemed himself through good deeds he was forgiven and his powers restored.[vii]

 

Likewise, the ancient Chinese epic Journey to the West tells of Sun Wukong (Son Gokū), “a mischievous demigod obsessed with desires”[viii] who even aspires to the throne of heaven. Like Hanuman, he is punished and does good deeds until he reaches redemption. An interesting detail: “Sun Wukong is always clothed and depicted in clearly anthropomorphic poses.”[ix] Why might that be?

The monkey as metaphor

Sun Wukong Son Goku monkey deity rabbit

Sun Wukong as depicted by woodblock artist Yoshitoshi, 1889. Source

Let’s return Japanese macaques for a moment. They live in hordes and thus are social creatures, which makes them “an apt metaphor for humans”[x], especially in the rather group-based society of Japan. If one reads the tale of Sun Wukong in a similar fashion, “each stage of [the m]onkey‘s mythological journey may serve as an elaborate allegory for the evolution of the human mind.”[xi] In this vein, the monkey as a symbol was taken up by Buddhism.

To reach enlightenment, one has to overcome earthly desires. The state of confusion and greed associated with the unenlightened mind is called shin’en 心猿, “monkey mind”.[xii] Thus the stupid, greedy, vain monkey represents a stage humans need to leave behind in their journey to enlightenment. In the stories of ancient China, one encounters “the legendary ape figure characterized by animal instincts and portrayed as an abductor of women and a lustful creature”[xiii] – a sort of ancient Chinese King Kong, perhaps? Sun Wukong also had his lustful moments early in his career, for example allowing a female demon to charm him just out of sexual curiosity.[xiv]

However, the monkey cannot be simply read as a metaphor for human weakness and earthly desires. Remember the ending of the stories about divine monkeys, Hanuman and Sun Wukong? They did not stop being monkeys as their character changed. So, there must be more to this image.

Japan: monkeys as gods and divine messengers

As a result of the various influences on Japanese culture, the image of the monkey in Japan is multi-faceted. Although there are some tales of evil monkey deities who demand virgin girls as human sacrifice, mostly the image is a positive one. Monkeys serve as messengers and intermediaries between Shintō gods and humanity.[xv] The Shintō god of Mt. Hiei, Sanō, for example, has a monkey as both messenger and avatar.

Kyoto imperial palace kimon northeast corner

The non-corner of Kyôto Imperial Palace, sarugatsuji. Source

Moreover, since saru 猿is also a homonym for 去る, which means ‘to expell‘, it came to be believed that monkeys could drive out evil influences. This can be seen in conjunction with Chinese geomancy (Feng Shui) in the layout of the old imperial palace in Kyōto. Like the city itself, the palace is built according to the cardinal directions, which means one of ist corners faces Northeast. Northeast, however, was believed to be kimon 鬼門, the ‚demon gate‘, the direction from where evil influences could enter.[xvi] Thus, the circumference wall of the palace grounds was indented at the northeast corner. (SO there is no actual kimon. In addition, under its eaves was placed a statue of a monkey holding a Shintō staff used for purification rituals, to ward off evil influences. Hence it is called sarugatsuji 猿が辻 (the monkey’s crossing).

The same idea of purification and healing, in addition to their reputation as lustful, probably caused the association of monkeys with fertility, defense against smallpox, and safe childbirth. Also, monkeys are considered protectors of horses, and carved images of monkeys are sometimes found around old stables, the most prominent example being the Three Monkeys (Don’t See, Don’t Hear, Don’t Speak) at Toshōgu Shrine[xvii] in Nikko.[xviii] Later these Three Monkeys came to be associated with the Kōshin belief.

Monkeys as scapegoats: The migawari-zaru of Nara

Scape-apes ;). https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/21/33097347_25b511f84d_b.jpg

Scape-apes ;). Source

According to the Chinese calendar, the 57th day in a 60-day cycle and the same year in a 60-year calendar, Kōshin 庚申, was particularly ominous. In Kōshin nights, three worms living in a person’s body would ascend to heaven while the person slept, and report on their sins. One possible countermeasure was to simply stay awake that night, also known as kōshin machi: the Kōshin wake. Alternatively, the people of Nara identified the god being reported to as Kōshin-san, whose messenger was a monkey. Therefore, if they tied little monkey-shaped charms to the eaves of their houses before Kōshin nights, they were safe: “the monkey (Koushin’s messenger) is punished instead.”[xix] Again the monkey represents humans as fallible, sinful beings, while at the same time playing an angelic role as divine messenger. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

Comic monkeys

Last semester in my early modern Japanese class, we translated a couple of stories from the Seisuishō 醒睡笑, a collection of humourous tales compiled by monk Anrakuan Sakuden in the early 17th century. It was the way the monkey appeared as a symbol in these funny stories which finally gave me the clue to a possible common denominator of the monkey images in Japanese culture. So, I will give you my translation of the two stories I worked on and my idea what may be the baseline of monkey symbolism in Japan.

Story: If monkey faces resemble the lord

Once lived a lord with an unusually emaciated body and dark skin. He called his most trusted retainer to him, told him to sit opposite his lord, and asked: “I have heard that everyone says my face looks like that of a monkey. Say, is this true or a lie?”

The retainer listened attentively and said: “I am honoured by your trust, my lord, to be asked this question. But who would dare say such a thing? No, people only say that the faces of monkeys resemble your own.“

When the lord heard this, he said “Well spoken. Then it must be as you say“, without the slightest indignation. In such cases, when a lord completely misunderstands their brazen words, the common people tend to say “The Lord has big ears [like a monkey]!”: He hears everything, but does nothing.

Interpretation: The monkey as Self and Other

baby monkey glasses face funny

Yes, my lord? Source

As a reason for the negative aspects of the monkey’s image, Ohnuki-Tierney suggests a form of Othering. “[S]eeing a disconcerting likeness between themselves and the monkey, the Japanese also attempt to create distance by projecting their negative side onto the monkey and turning it into a scapegoat, a laughable animal who in vain imitates humans.”[xx] In other words, it is once again human weakness, hubris, and stupidity which the monkey represents. This becomes clear in the story above, where the lord is only ‘aping’ (sarumane 猿真似 in Japanese) a ruler’s style, without understanding the situation. He does not just resemble a monkey outwardly; his stupidity and self-deluding vanity recall the characters of Hanuman and Sun Wukong before their transformation.

Already in the Man’yōshū, an ancient collection of Japanese poetry, monkeys represent ugliness.[xxi] But more than ugly, a stupid leader is dangerous for his subjects as well, as another Chinese fable featuring monkeys, 井中撈月, details. In this story, the chief monkey decides to try and grab the moon reflected in a still pool. Following his orders, the monkeys grab each others tails and form a chain from the tree branch toward the water surface, until the bough breaks under their weight and they all drown.

The stupid, ugly lord failing in his job is a comical character because he is such an average human being. The general populace can recognize such a character as one of themselves, and laugh about the familiarity – despite the hint of danger an incapable lord brings. In contrast, the next story is set in a Buddhist temple, quite removed from the life of common people.

Story: A monkey-like acolyte climbs a tree

One day, the poet Sōchō visited Kasadera temple. As he was strolling on the temple grounds, he saw a chigo, a boy acolyte, dexterously climb into a treetop. He composed the opening verse of a poem:

             The acolyte climbs

            up the tree as skillfully

            as a monkey’s child

The acolyte answered with a closing verse:

            Since a useless monk draws near

            to bark at him in fury.

Interpretation: The boy’s ambiguous monkey mind

As I mentioned above, in order to reach Buddhist enlightenment, it is necessary to overcome the restless, greedy thoughts which characterize the ‘monkey mind‘. It is fitting, then, to compare a young acolyte to a monkey, even more so if he climbs a tree to escape his studies. However, the acolyte’s answer displays the cleverness characteristic of the Taoist zodiac sign of the monkey.[xxii]

dog monkey idiom japanese

“Like Dogs and Monkeys”. Source

In his verse, the acolyte takes up the comparison of himself to a monkey, but turns it around. By casting the pursuing priest as a dog, he alludes to the saying “a relationship like dogs and monkeys” (ken’en no naka, 犬猿の仲), thus portraying himself as the clever monkey who solves a problem with intellect (hiding), whereas the wild dog (the priest) can only resort to violence (shouting at him).

The monkey as trickster

Such a twist in the meaning of an image between the first and the second verse was a typical feature of linked-verse poetry. Therefore, the acolyte shows off not only his wit but his learning. However, here he falls back into the trap of monkey vanity, the flaw of young Hanuman and Sun Wukong. Arrogantly he dares to pitch a verse to an actual poet while he is a mere novice, and looks down on the very monks he learned his skill from, by comparing them to dogs. So, is he clever or is he stupid and vain? Well, both, of course.

The acolyte is overestimating his own ability; he tries to act and appear very clever but fails, as the lord in the previous story did. Firstly, hiding in a tree is not of much use if you engage in clearly audible poetry contests. Secondly, by making up his clever verse, the acolyte accidentally admits to running away from his studies and/or evading punishment. In this way, he fits Ohnuki-Tierneys definition of the monkey “as a trickster, […] who uses his wits in an attempt to outsmart others”, in order “to achieve beyond [his] capacity [or] ascribed status”.[xxiii] But ultimately, as the lord above, this ‘aping’ of his betters has to fail.

Conclusion: the monkey as human

So, back to the categorization of the story as comedy. The acolyte’s reply is funny, but why? It is because the punchline is based on the ambiguity of the monkey image, which the acolyte uses to turn its meaning around. Humor is usually based on either an unexpected, surprising turn, or the recognition of ourselves. The acolyte’s answer is such a surprising turn, and in his attempt to evade an unpleasant situation, as well as in his desire to show off his skill, we can recognize ourselves.

monkey mobile phone bath hot spring

No whatsapping in the bath, please. Source

Thus, the monkey as a symbol is ambiguous because it represents humans. The Indian and Chinese monkey deities first display human weakness, then repent and redeem themselves to a level of greatness or sainthood which is the other end of the spectrum of human ability. The Japanese monkey symbolism has absorbed these stories as well as indigenous myths of monkey gods and divine messengers and created a deeply ambiguous image. This image, in turn, is very appropriate for comic use because of its ambiguity. Be it an ugly, stupid lord unfit for rule, or a self-important acolyte skilled in poetry, what we laugh about in these stories is the humanity of its protagonists. And the monkey is the symbol for this multi-faceted humanity.

Notes and References

[i] http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song  

[ii] The Chinese story朝三暮四, read in premodern Japanese and translated by me. A different version, with historical commentary, can be found here http://chinese-story-collection.blogspot.de/2010/09/three-in-morning-and-four-in-evening.html

[iii]Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Monkey as Mirror. Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual. Princeton UP, 1987, p.74.

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_macaque

[v] „Saru“ in Nihon Hyakka Daijiten日本百科大辞典, Tōkyō, 1919. Vol.3, p.945-6.

[vi] Schumacher, Mark. „Monkey in Japan“, in A to Z Photo Dictionary: Japanese Buddhist Statuary. Gods, Goddesses, Shinto Kami, Creatures and Demons. Available online via  http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/monkey-saru-koushin.html, last access 22.08.2016, 13:22; p.2.

[vii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.2.

[viii] Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone. Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and Journey to the West. Durham & London: Duke UP, 1992, p.224.

[ix] Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art. A Guide to Motifs and Imagery. Tōkyō, Rutland, Singapore: Tuttle, 2008, p.137.

[x] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.24.

[xi] Wang 1992, p.241.

[xii] “Monkey in Japan”, p.2.

[xiii] Wang 1992, p.222.

[xiv] Wang 1992, p.225-7.

[xv] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6

[xvi] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xvii] For tourist info, see http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3801.html

[xviii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xix] Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xx] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6.

[xxi] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.53.

[xxii] Welch 2008, p.137; „The Monkey“. http://www.chinese-astrology.co.uk/monkey.html, last access 24.08.2016, 11:36.

[xxiii] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.54, 58


The Creation of Japan, Kojiki

The Kojiki, which translates to “Records of Ancient Matters”, contains Japan’s native creation myths and other mythology. Like all mythology, it was considered both factually true and Truth through most of history. This translation comes from Basil Hall Chamberlain and dates to 1932. This excerpt includes the introduction of the first volume and Japan’s creation story. The story about the creation of Japan’s deities comes from a 1929 translation by Yaichiro Isobe. I include these two different translations to give you an idea of how these ancient texts can feel different depending on who is translating.

Hereupon all the ‘heavenly Deities commanded the two Deities His Augustness the Male-Who-Invites and her Augustness the Female-Who-Invites, ordering them to “make, consolidate, and give birth to this drifting land.” Granting to them a heavenly jewelled spear, they deigned to charge them. So the two Deities, standing upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven, pushed down the jewelled spear and stirred it, whereupon, when they had stirred the brine till it went curdle-curdle, and drew the spear up, the brine that dripped down from the end of the spear was piled up and became an island. This is the island of Onogoro.

Birth of the Eight Great Islands

The 8 islands of ancient Japan

The 8 islands of ancient Japan

Hereupon the two Deities took counsel, saying: “The children to whom we have now given birth are not good. It will be best to announce this in the august place of the Heavenly Deities.” They ascended forthwith to Heaven and inquired of Their Augustnesses the Heavenly Deities. Then the Heavenly Deities commanded and found out by grand divination, and ordered them, saying: “They were not good because the woman spoke first. Descend back again and amend you words.” So thereupon descending back, they again when round the heavenly august pillar as before. Thereupon his Augustness the Male-Who-Invites spoke first: ” Ah! What a fair and lovely maiden!” Afterward; his younger sister Her Augustness the Female-Who-Invites spoke: “Ah! what a fair ad lovely youth!” In such way did they give birth to a child the Island of Ahaji, Honosawake. Next they gave birth to the Island of Futa-na in Iyo. This island has one body and four faces, and each face as a name. So the Land of Iyo is called Lovely Princess, the Land of Sanuki is called Prince Good Boiled Rice; the Land of Aha is called Princess of Great Food; the Land of Tosa is called Brave Good Youth. Next they gave birth to the Islands of Mitsugo near Oki, another nae for which is Heavenly Great Heart Youth. Next they gave birth to the island of Tsukushi. This island likewise has one body and four faces, and each face has a name. So the Land of Tsukushi is called White Sun Youth; the Land of Toyo is called Luxuriant Sun Youth; the Land of Hi is called Brave Sun Confronting Luxuriant Wonderous Lord Youth; the Land of Kumaso is called Brave Sun Youth.

Next they gave birth to the island of Iki, another name for which is Heaven’s One Pillar. Next they gave birth to the Island of Tsu, another name for which is Heavenly Hand net Good Princess. Next they gave birth to the Island of Sado. Next they gave birth to Great Yamato the Luxuriant Island of the Dragon Fly, another name for which is Heavenly August Sky Luxuriant Dragon fly Lord Youth. The name of Land of the Eight Great Islands therefore originated in these eight islands having been born first. After that, when they had returned, they gave birth to the Island of Ko in Kibi, another name for which is Brave Sun Direction Youth. Next they gave birth to the Island of Adzuki another name for which is Ohonudehime. Next they gave birth to he Island of Oho, another name for which is Tamaru-wake. Next they gave birth to he Island of Hime, another name for which is Heaven’s One Root. Next they gave birth to he Island of Chika, another name for which is Heavenly Great Male.  Next they gave birth to he Island of Futago, another name for which is Heaven’s Two Houses.

The Birth of the Deities

Izanagi and Izanami, Amaterasu's parents.

Izanagi and Izanami, Amaterasu’s parents.

Having, thus, made a country from what had formerly been no more than a mere floating mass, the two Deities, Izanagi and Izanami, about begetting those deities destined to preside over the land, sea, mountains, rivers, trees, and herbs. Their first-born proved to be the sea-god, Owatatsumi-no-Kami. Next they gave birth to the patron gods of harbors, the male deity Kamihaya-akitsu-hiko having control of the land and the goddess Haya-akitsu-hime having control of the sea. These two latter deities subsequently gave birth to eight other gods.

Next Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to the wind-deity, Kami-Shinatsuhiko-no-Mikoto. At the moment of his birth, his breath was so potent that the clouds and mists, which had hung over the earth from the beginning of time, were immediately dispersed. In consequence, every corner of the world was filled with brightness. Kukunochi-no-Kami, the deity of trees, was the next to be born, followed by Oyamatsumi-no-Kami, the deity of mountains, and Kayanuhime-no-Kami, the goddess of the plains. . . .

The process of procreation had, so far, gone on happily, but at the birth of Kagutsuchi-no-Kami, the deity of fire, an unseen misfortune befell the divine mother, Izanami. During the course of her confinement, the goddess was so severely burned by the flaming child that she swooned away. Her divine consort, deeply alarmed, did all in his power to resuscitate her, but although he succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, her appetite had completely gone. Izanagi, thereupon and with the utmost loving care, prepared for her delectation various tasty dishes, but all to no avail, because whatever she swallowed was almost immediately rejected. It was in this wise that occurred the greatest miracle of all. From her mouth sprang Kanayama-biko and Kanayama-hime, respectively the god and goddess of metals, whilst from other parts of her body issued forth Haniyasu-hiko and Haniyasu-hime, respectively the god and goddess of earth. Before making her “divine retirement,” which marks the end of her earthly career, in a manner almost unspeakably miraculous she gave birth to her last-born, the goddess Mizuhame-no-Mikoto. Her demise marks the intrusion of death into the world. Similarly the corruption of her body and the grief occasioned by her death were each the first of their kind.

By the death of his faithful spouse Izanagi was now quite alone in the world. In conjunction with her, and in accordance with the instructions of the Heavenly Gods, he had created and consolidated the Island Empire of Japan. In the fulfillment of their divine mission, he and his heavenly spouse had lived an ideal life of mutual love and cooperation. It is only natural, therefore, that her death should have dealt him a truly mortal blow.

He threw himself upon her prostrate form, crying: “Oh, my dearest wife, why art thou gone, to leave me thus alone? How could I ever exchange thee for even one child? Come back for the sake of the world, in which there still remains so much for both us twain to do.” In a fit of uncontrollable grief, he stood sobbing at the head of the bier. His hot tears fell like hailstones, and lo! out of the tear-drops was born a beauteous babe, the goddess Nakisawame-no-Mikoto. In deep astonishment he stayed his tears, a gazed in wonder at the new-born child, but soon his tears returned only to fall faster than before. It was thus that a sudden change came over his state of mind. With bitter wrath, his eyes fell upon the infant god of fire, whose birth had proved so fatal to his mother. He drew his sword, Totsuka-no-tsurugi, and crying in his wrath, “Thou hateful matricide,” decapitated his fiery offspring. Up shot a crimson spout of blood. Out of the sword and blood together arose eight strong and gallant deities. “What! more children?” cried Izanagi, much astounded at their sudden appearance, but the very next moment, what should he see but eight more deities born from the lifeless body of the infant firegod! They came out from the various parts of the body,–head, breast, stomach, hands, feet, and navel, and, to add to his astonishment, all of them were glaring fiercely at him. Altogether stupefied he surveyed the new arrivals one after another.

Meanwhile Izanami, for whom her divine husband pined so bitterly, had quitted this world for good and all and gone to the Land of Hades.

These creation stories, though strange to modern readers, speak of several truths. First, the story speaks with affection about the Japanese homeland. Much of Japanese history is characterized by a special affinity toward the land. Several times throughout Japanese history there were movements to restore the forests and other habitats. When everything has a spirit or god behind it, people tend to hold a respectful, reverent view of the environment and how it supports their lives. This can also be seen in Native American cultures. This myth and those like it suggest how we should retain our respect for the world around us and its resources. To do otherwise disrespects the divine and jeopardizes our ability to live.

The story about the gods’ births sets the stage for several reoccurring themes in Japanese literature and culture. Harmony is emphasized. Japanese culture places the quest for harmony between people and between people and nature in the center. Their honorific system grew out of this. The story shows how the decay of harmony and the reality of sorrow can lead to unintended consequences. In his grief, Izanagi kills his son, creating more sons and daughters in the process–much to his surprise. The story lays out a thread found throughout Japanese literature. The blissful, harmonious life Izanagi and Izanami shared couldn’t last. Izanami’s tragic death introduces sorrow to what was a happy story. Japanese literature enjoys balancing happiness with sorrow. Tragedy completes the story. Without sorrow, happiness cannot be understood. Few stories end “happily ever after” but this reflects a clear-eyed view of reality. Buddhism carries a similar thread. Buddhism stories focus on how suffering permeates our experiences. This overlap helped Shintoism (which is what these creation stories originate from) and Buddhism mingle. Whenever you read Japanese literature, you will see this interweaving of religions. 

When you read some of these old translations, archaic Japanese is either depicted in Old English as you will see here or in Latin. Chamberlain’s excerpt contained a few sections of Latin that I translated for you. During the time these stories were written, the Imperial Court used a different dialect of Japanese than the rest of the country. This dialect fell out of style rather quickly but reappeared in literature. Imperial characters and gods spoke it to emphasize their separateness. The use of the language is similar to the Western use of Latin after the fall of Rome. Latin become the language of the Catholic Church and of educated noble elites. It was used to write court and religious documents. This similarity prompted some early translators to use Latin for Imperial Court Japanese. Unlike Latin, which still appears in academia and the Catholic Church, Imperial Court Japanese disappeared. A few remnants appear in Japanese language, but it lacks the cohesion that endures in Latin. You can still find vestiges of it in the speaking style in joseigo, the speaking style of Japan’s Lolita subculture, and with the Japanese Imperial family.

References

Chamberlain, B. (1939) Translation of Kojiki. Kobe: J.L. Thompson & Co.

Yaichiro, I. (1929) The Story of Ancient Japan or Tales from the Kojiki.  San Kaku Sha.