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!

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 ;).

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


[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

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


[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, 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

[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“., 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.


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.

The Battle of the Ape and the Crab

Japanese_Fairy_Book_-_Ozaki_-_P203If a man thinks only of his own profit, and tries to benefit himself at the expense of others, he will incur the hatred of Heaven. Men should lay up in their hearts the story of the Battle of the Ape and
Crab, and teach it, as a profitable lesson, to their children.

Once upon a time there was a crab who lived in a marsh in a certain part of the country. It fell out one day that, the crab having picked up a rice cake, an ape, who had got a nasty hard persimmon-seed, came up, and begged the crab to make an exchange with him. The crab, who was a simple-minded creature, agreed to this proposal; and they each went their way, the ape chuckling to himself at the good bargain which he had made.

When the crab got home, he planted the persimmon-seed in his garden, and, as time slipped by, it sprouted, and by degrees grew to be a big tree. The crab watched the growth of his tree with great delight; but when the fruit ripened, and he was going to pluck it, the ape came in, and offered to gather it for him. The crab consenting, the ape climbed up into the tree, and began eating all the ripe fruit himself, while he only threw down the sour persimmons to the crab, inviting him, at the same time, to eat heartily. The crab, however, was not pleased at  this arrangement, and thought that it was his turn to play a trick upon the ape; so he called out to him to come down head foremost. The ape did as he was bid; and as he crawled down, head foremost, the ripe fruit all came tumbling out of his pockets, and the crab, having picked up the persimmons, ran off and hid himself in a hole. The ape, seeing this, lay in ambush, and as soon as the crab crept out of his hiding-place gave him a sound drubbing, and went home. Just at this time a friendly egg and a bee, who were the apprentices of a certain rice-mortar, happened to pass that way, and, seeing the crab’s piteous condition, tied up his wounds, and, having escorted him home, began to lay plans to be revenged upon the cruel ape.

monkeyandcrab1Having agreed upon a scheme, they all went to the ape’s house, in his absence; and each one having undertaken to play a certain part, they waited in secret for their enemy to come home. The ape, little
dreaming of the mischief that was brewing, returned home, and, having a fancy to drink a cup of tea, began lighting the fire in the hearth, when, all of a sudden, the egg, which was hidden in the ashes, burst with. the heat, and bespattered the frightened ape’s face, so that he fled, howling with pain, and crying, “Oh! what an unlucky beast I am!”

Maddened with the heat of the burst egg, he tried to go to the back of the house, when the bee darted out of a cupboard, and a piece of seaweed, who had joined the party, coming up at the same time, the ape was surrounded by enemies. In despair, he seized the clothes-rack, and fought valiantly for awhile; but he was no match for so many, and was obliged to run away, with the others in hot pursuit after him. Just as he was making his escape by a back door, however, the piece of seaweed tripped him up, and the rice-mortar, closing with him from behind, made an end of him.

So the crab, having punished his enemy, went home in triumph, and lived ever after on terms of brotherly love with the seaweed and the mortar. Was there ever such a fine piece of fun!


Freeman-Mitford, A.B., Tales of Old Japan, ,1871.

How Tajima Shume was Tormented by a Devil of his own Creation

oniOnce upon a time, a certain Ronin, Tajima Shume by name, an able and well-read man, being on his travels to see the world, went up to Kiyoto by the Tokaido. One day, in the neighbourhood of Nagoya, in
the province of Owari, he fell in with a wandering priest, with whom he entered into conversation. Finding that they were bound for the same place, they agreed to travel together, beguiling their weary way by pleasant talk on divers matters; and so by degrees, as they became more intimate, they began to speak without restraint about their private affairs; and the priest, trusting thoroughly in the honour of his companion, told him the object of his journey.

“For some time past,” said he, “I have nourished a wish that has engrossed all my thoughts; for I am bent on setting up a molten image in honour of Buddha; with this object I have wandered through various provinces collecting alms and (who knows by what weary toil?) we have succeeded in amassing two hundred ounces of silver–enough, I trust, to erect a handsome bronze figure.”

What says the proverb? “He who bears a jewel in his bosom bears poison.” Hardly had the Ronin heard these words of the priest than an evil heart arose within him, and he thought to himself, “Man’s life, from the womb to the grave, is made up of good and of ill luck. Here am I, nearly forty years old, a wanderer, without a calling, or even a hope of advancement in the world. To be sure, it seems a shame; yet if I could steal the money this priest is boasting about, I could live at ease for the rest of my days;” and so he began casting about how best he might compass his purpose. But the priest, far from guessing the drift of his comrade’s thoughts, journeyed cheerfully on, till they reached the town of Kuana. Here there is an arm of the sea, which is crossed in ferry-boats, that start as soon as some twenty or thirty passengers are gathered together; and in one of these boats the two travellers embarked. About half-way across, the priest was taken with a sudden necessity to go to the side of the boat; and the Ronin,following him, tripped him up whilst no one was looking, and flung him into the sea. When the boatmen and passengers heard the splash, and saw the priest struggling in the water, they were afraid, and made every effort to save him; but the wind was fair, and the boat running swiftly under the bellying sails, so they were soon a few hundred yards off from the drowning man, who sank before the boat could be turned to rescue him.

yokaiWhen he saw this, the Ronin feigned the utmost grief and dismay, and said to his fellow-passengers, “This priest, whom we have just lost, was my cousin: he was going to Kyoto, to visit the shrine of his
patron; and as I happened to have business there as well, we settled to travel together. Now, alas! by this misfortune, my cousin is dead, and I am left alone.”

He spoke so feelingly, and wept so freely, that the passengers believed his story, and pitied and tried to comfort him. Then the Ronin said to the boatmen–

“We ought, by rights, to report this matter to the authorities; but as I am pressed for time, and the business might bring trouble on yourselves as well, perhaps we had better hush it up for the present;
and I will at once go on to Kiyoto and tell my cousin’s patron, besides writing home about it. What think you, gentlemen?” added he, turning to the other travellers.

They, of course, were only too glad to avoid any hindrance to their onward journey, and all with one voice agreed to what the Ronin had proposed; and so the matter was settled. When, at length, they reached the shore, they left the boat, and every man went his way; but the Ronin, overjoyed in his heart, took the wandering priest’s luggage, and, putting it with his own, pursued his journey to Kiyoto.

On reaching the capital, the Ronin changed his name from Shume to Tokubei, and, giving up his position as a Samurai, turned merchant, and traded with the dead man’s money. Fortune favouring his speculations, he began to amass great wealth, and lived at his ease, denying himself nothing; and in course of time he married a wife, who bore him a child.

Thus the days and months wore on, till one fine summer’s night, some three years after the priest’s death, Tokubei stepped out on to the verandah of his house to enjoy the cool air and the beauty of the moonlight. Feeling dull and lonely, he began musing over all kinds of things, when on a sudden the deed of murder and theft, done so long ago, vividly recurred to his memory, and he thought to himself, “Here am I, grown rich and fat on the money I wantonly stole. Since then all has gone well with me; yet, had I not been poor, I had never turned assassin nor thief. Woe betide me! what a pity it was!” and as he was revolving the matter in his mind, a feeling of remorse came over him, in spite of all he could do. While his conscience thus smote him, he suddenly, to his utter amazement, beheld the faint outline of a man standing near a fir-tree in the garden: on looking more attentively, he perceived that the man’s whole body was thin and worn and the eyes sunken and dim; and in the poor ghost that was before him he recognized the very priest whom he had thrown into the sea at Kuana. Chilled with horror, he looked again, and saw that the priest was smiling in scorn. He would have fled into the house, but the ghost stretched forth its withered arm, and, clutching the back of his neck, scowled at him with a vindictive glare, and a hideous ghastliness of mien, so unspeakably awful that any ordinary man would have swooned with fear. But Tokubei, tradesman though he was, had once been a soldier, and was not easily matched for daring; so he shook off the ghost, and, leaping into the room for his dirk, laid about him boldly enough; but, strike as he would, the spirit, fading into the air, eluded his blows, and suddenly reappeared only to vanish again: and from that time forth Tokubei knew no rest, and was haunted night and day.

At length, undone by such ceaseless vexation, Tokubei fell ill, and kept muttering, “Oh, misery! misery!–the wandering priest is coming to torture me!” Hearing his moans and the disturbance he made, the people in the house fancied he was mad, and called in a physician, who prescribed for him. But neither pill nor potion could cure Tokubei, whose strange frenzy soon became the talk of the whole neighbourhood.

Now it chanced that the story reached the ears of a certain wandering priest who lodged in the next street. When he heard the particulars, this priest gravely shook his head, as though he knew all about it, and sent a friend to Tokubei’s house to say that a wandering priest, dwelling hard by, had heard of his illness, and, were it never so grievous, would undertake to heal it by means of his prayers; and Tokubei’s wife, driven half wild by her husband’s sickness, lost not a moment in sending for the priest, and taking him into the sick man’s room.

But no sooner did Tokubei see the priest than he yelled out, “Help! help! Here is the wandering priest come to torment me again. Forgive! forgive!” and hiding his head under the coverlet, he lay quivering all over. Then the priest turned all present out of the room, put his mouth to the affrighted man’s ear, and whispered–

“Three years ago, at the Kuana ferry, you flung me into the water; and well you remember it.”

But Tokubei was speechless, and could only quake with fear.

“Happily,” continued the priest, “I had learned to swim and to dive as a boy; so I reached the shore, and, after wandering through many provinces, succeeded in setting up a bronze figure to Buddha, thus fulfilling the wish of my heart. On my journey homewards, I took a lodging in the next street, and there heard of your marvellous ailment. Thinking I could divine its cause, I came to see you, and am glad to find I was not mistaken. You have done a hateful deed; but am I not a priest, and have I not forsaken the things of this world? and would it not ill become me to bear malice? Repent, therefore, and abandon your evil ways. To see you do so I should esteem the height of happiness. Be of good cheer, now, and look me in the face, and you will see that I am really a living man, and no vengeful goblin come to torment you.”

Seeing he had no ghost to deal with, and overwhelmed by the priest’s kindness, Tokubei burst into tears, and answered, “Indeed, indeed, I don’t know what to say. In a fit of madness I was tempted to kill and rob you. Fortune befriended me ever after; but the richer I grew, the more keenly I felt how wicked I had been, and the more I foresaw that my victim’s vengeance would some day overtake me. Haunted by this thought, I lost my nerve, till one night I beheld your spirit, and from that time forth fell ill. But how you managed to escape, and are still alive, is more than I can understand.”

Kyosai Kawanabe 1831-1889. Ghost Eating a Child

Kyosai Kawanabe 1831-1889. Ghost Eating a Child

“A guilty man,” said the priest, with a smile, “shudders at the rustling of the wind or the chattering of a stork’s beak: a murderer’s conscience preys upon his mind till he sees what is not. Poverty drives a man to crimes which he repents of in his wealth. How true is the doctrine of Moshi, that the heart of man, pure by nature, is corrupted by circumstances.” Thus he held forth; and Tokubei, who had long since repented of hiscrime, implored forgiveness, and gave him a large sum of money, saying, “Half of this is the amount I stole from you three years since; the other half I entreat you to accept as interest, or as a gift.”

The priest at first refused the money; but Tokubei insisted on his accepting it, and did all he could to detain him, but in vain; for the priest went his way, and bestowed the money on the poor and needy. As for Tokubei himself, he soon shook off his disorder, and thenceforward lived at peace with all men, revered both at home and abroad, and ever intent on good and charitable deeds.


Freeman-Mitford, A.B., Tales of Old Japan, 1871.

Musings IV: Japanese Idioms, and why it is a good idea to know some.

Perhaps you’ve been so lucky never to have prayed into a horse’s ear (uma no mimi ni nenbutsu), but I bet someone has once looked at you with white eyes (shiroi me de miru) until you felt like your stomach was boiling (hara ga nie-kurikaeru yō).

Yes, those are Japanese Idioms. I’ve had a class about them last semester, so I thought I‘ll share my acquired wisdom with you ;). As with everything Japanese, they come in a couple of different categories. And like in any language, mostly you can’t quite guess what they’re supposed to mean. So, I’ll first talk about the different types and then I’ll tell you why I think, all in all, they are worth the bother of learning them. In the process I’ll introduce you to some interesting ones, anime examples included.

What are Japanese idioms?

The most commonplace word for idioms is kotowaza, which I like because it sounds like ‘word-skill’, and that is exactly what the person listening to you will think you have if you can use some idioms appropriately. The more technical term would be kanyōku (phraseme), but for non-university contexts, I guess that’s a ‘snake-leg’ (dasoku) type of fact – pretty much superfluous. An idiom can be a whole sentence, making it essentially a quotation, though in many cases the source is lost,[i] or it can be a compound of words which functions as a part of speech, and that’s how most of them work.

So, you can have idiomatic compounds to use as nouns, adjectives and adverbs or verbs. What makes them idiomatic is that fascinating/annoying ability they have, as

I mentioned above, to mean something else or something more than what the individual words mean. Sometimes you can guess at the meaning based on the images used (that would be idioms based on a simile) but often enough you can’t (when the idiom metaphorical, or when refers to a historic or fictional context unknown to you).

So, read the first paragraph again. The last one might be easiest to guess, but perhaps I just feel like that because there is a very

similar idiom in my first language. If your stomach is boiling over, that means you’re seething with fury. And you might have seen a depiction of ‘looking at someone with white eyes’ in an anime – it means looking at someone as if you didn’t know them, mostly out of disdain.

The first one, a prayer in a horse’s ear, is one of my favourite Japanese idioms. It’s just such a funny image and it perfectly conveys that sense of futility which grabs you when you try to persuade someone, knowing it won’t work.[iii] This one also has some cultural flavour; a nenbutsu is an invocation of Amida Buddha. According to the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Japanese Buddhism, trusting in that invocation alone can assure your salvation by Amida Buddha after your death. So as I see it, the nenbutsu is kind of the cup-ramen of religious practices. The horse still won’t benefit from it though, making it the prime example of good intentions wasted.

The heavy stuff: 4-character-idioms

Back to the types of idioms: There is one pretty tricky category call yoji-jukugo, idioms consisting of 4 kanji characters, which are usually quotations (often titles) of ancient Chinese fables and moral tales. For example, there’s koketsu-koji, ‘Tiger’s den, tiger cub”: if you don’t enter the tiger’s den, you won’t get its cub. The story goes that a Chinese diplomat was sent as an envoy to the court of another king. He was treated favourably, but only for a short time, since that king was also offered an alliance with the Huns. As a reaction to the slight, the Chinese diplomat called his men, said these words, and they went to murder the entire Hun delegation, resulting in the king accepting the alliance – most probably because he was worried about his own head. So koketsu-koji means you need to undergo risks to achieve something, particularly in order to best your competitors.

Something you might hear student say during revision time is shiku haku, ‘4 sufferings, 8 sufferings’, an allusion to the Buddhist concept of ku. Such suffering is: being apart from loved ones, being among people you hate, not getting what you want, and physical illness – sounds like a day in the overcrowded library a week before exams/essay deadlines, doesn’t it? Not all yoji-jukugo are based on Chinese culture, however. Isseki, nichō is a literal translation of ‘[killing] two birds with one stone’, and it means the exact same thing.

Idiomatic wildlife

Let’s stick with the animals for a moment. As in Europe, animals have been given certain character trains in their folkloristic appearances. Horses feature as typical gregarious animals, since sheep did not play much of a role in old Japan. Thus, ‘if one horse goes crazy, a thousand horses go crazy’ (ippiki no uma ga kurueba senhiki no uma mo kuruu). As in a sudden stampede, crowds of people tend to follow the rest. Cats are greedy – ‘giving gold to a cat’ (neko ni koban) is the Japanese version of ‘pearls before swine’ – and foxes are tricksters, capable of transforming into humans and bewitching people. ‘Being pinched by a fox’ (kitsune ni tsumareru) means being disbelieving one’s eyes, because the situation feels like surreal, like a fox had put a spell on you. Speaking of foxes, the Japanese term for sunshower is kitsune no yomeiri, ‘the foxes’ bridal procession’, because it is said that foxes enjoy this kind of weather. And who wouldn’t like to see a bridal procession of magic foxes?

The kirin (not the beer, and not a giraffe either, but a mystical creature best described as a dragon unicorn) represents grace, so if ‘even a unicorn stumbles’ (kirin no tsumazuki) that means we all make mistakes. Monkeys are clever (at least in some of the stories) and try to solve problems, whereas dogs tend to attempt a violent solution, therefore they are mortal enemies; consequently, if two people absolutely cannot stand one another, they have ‘a relationship like dogs and monkeys’ (ken’en no naka).

Usage and adaptation

Two more examples, both with anime references, rejoice! Once, the idiom chimimōryō ga habikōru came up in a text on Japanese companies’ troubles in India. I could not only suggest ‘all hell Nura Rikuo, 'master of pandemonium'broke loose’ as a viable English equivalent; I also knew the term chimimōryō referred to ‘the evil spirits of rivers and mountains’, a form of (to borrow Michael Dylan Foster’s term) pandemonium. And not just because I have read his splendid Pandemonium and Parade with much more fun that you’d expect from a scholarly work. No, whenever I hear chimimōryō, I think of one of my favourite anime, Nurarihyon no mago, which features the grandson (and eventual successor) of the supreme commander of the Night Parade of a Hundred Demons, who also counts ‘master of Pandemonium’ as one of his titles.

Also, if you’ve watched or read Rurōni Kenshin, you’ll probably know another 4-kanji-idiom (yoji-jukugo). Remember Sōjiro, the cute boy assassin who managed to break Kenshin’s first Reverse-Bladed Sword, and how he never shut up about ‘If you’re strong, you live, if you’re weak, you die’? That’s basically jakuniku kyōshoku, ‘the weak are the meat the strong devour’. I’ve seen that translated as ‘survival of the fittest’, but first, ‘fit’ doesn’t mean strong and second, the idiom has this sense of the strong preying on the weak, and remaining strong because of this injustice, which seems lacking in the Darwinian phrase.

Anime also lends itself to visual puns and depictions of idioms (or people misunderstanding them). Unfortunately, I cannot think of even a single example of this, possibly because I hardly ever watch slice-of-life and High School comedy anime, which I assume are the most fertile ground for such visual puns. If anyone reading this knows of an example, feel free to share it in the comments!

Translation issues

Anime Blogging Stress

As with all cultural references, idioms are notoriously difficult to translate. Do you take the closest English equivalent, if there is one, and loose the ‘Japanese/Chinese flavour’ in the process? Do you keep it literal and hope that the reader can guess at the meaning from context? Do you provide a footnote (or headnote in case of anime subtitles)? My own preference is a mixture of the first and second approach. I would try to find a similar English idiom and tweak it a little, so that a bit of the original wording and context is transmitted as well. For example, there is the yoji-jukugo ‘the fox borrows the tiger’s authority’ (koka-ko’i or kitsune, tora no i wo karu). According to the Chinese story this is based on, the tiger was devouring all kinds of animals, until he one day caught the fox, who said to him: “Don’t you dare eat me, for the Heavenly Father has made me master of all animals. If you don’t believe me, just follow behind me and observe. The animals will see me and flee.” The tiger believed him and did as he was told, walking behind the fox. The animals saw the two of them and fled. But tiger, not knowing they were running away from him, thought they feared the fox. (From the sengoku-saku/Zhan Guo Ce, written in the second century BC and detailing the history of the Chinese Warring States Period (5-3rd century BC).) So, the idiom refers to people who borrow the power or authority of others in order to boss people around.[ii] Now, as a translation I would suggest ‚a fox in a tiger’s skin‘, because like the ‚wolf in a sheep’s skin‘, the fox assumes the airs of a different type of folkloristic animal in order to deceive others. A reader, I think, will be able to infer that, since a tiger is much grander and more dangerous than a fox, the fox is doing this to appear greater than he is, and voila – the story has been brought across.

To sum up: idioms are examples of a ‘living’ language. They are transmitted over the centuries but still applied in modern contexts, even anime, and sometimes they change: the phrase kamonegi is an abbreviated version of kamo ga negi wo seotte kuru, ‘the duck arrives already carrying spring onions’ (to season it with), which is a way of saying you received something good without working for it. However, Japanese exchange students stressed that they knew the abbreviated version much better. In this way, idioms are one of the aspects which make a language vivid and interesting; but you wouldn’t want to misuse them. So, my recommendation to language learners is to pick up a choice few you find interesting, for future use. And if you come across one in the future, try to find out what it means: there might be a nice story behind it.

I close this edition of my Musings with many thanks and to my Japanese grammar teacher and my classmates!

Notes and references:

English-Japanese idiom lists::

[i] If there is a source, you would call it an aphorism. English has a lot of ‚idioms‘ which are actually quotations from Shakespeare, for example.


How a Man was Bewitched and had His Head Shaved by the Foxes

In the village of Iwahara, in the province of Shinshiu, there dwelt a family which had acquired considerable wealth in the wine trade. On some auspicious occasion it happened that a number of guests were gathered together at their house, feasting on wine and fish; and as the wine-cup went round, the conversation turned upon foxes. Among the guests was a certain carpenter, Tokutarô by name, a man about thirty years of age, of a stubborn and obstinate turn, who said—

“Well, sirs, you’ve been talking for some time of men being bewitched by foxes; surely you must be under their influence yourselves, to say such things. How on earth can foxes have such power over men? At any rate, men must be great fools to be so deluded. Let’s have no more of this nonsense.”


Upon this a man who was sitting by him answered—

“Tokutarô little knows what goes on in the world, or he would not speak so. How many myriads of men are there who have been bewitched by foxes? Why, there have been at least twenty or thirty men tricked by the brutes on the Maki Moor alone. It’s hard to disprove facts that have happened before our eyes.”

“You’re no better than a pack of born idiots,” said Tokutarô. “I will engage to go out to the Maki Moor this very night and prove it. There is not a fox in all Japan that can make a fool of Tokutarô.”

“Thus he spoke in his pride; but the others were all angry with him for boasting, and said—

“If you return without anything having happened, we will pay for five measures of wine and a thousand copper cash worth of fish; and if you are bewitched, you shall do as much for us.”

Tokutarô took the bet, and at nightfall set forth for the Maki Moor by himself. As he neared the moor, he saw before him a small bamboo grove, into which a fox ran; and it instantly occurred to him that the foxes of the moor would try to bewitch him. As he was yet looking, he suddenly saw the daughter of the headman of the village of Upper Horikané, who was married to the headman of the village of Maki.

“Pray, where are you going to, Master Tokutarô?” said she.

“I am going to the village hard by.”

“Then, as you will have to pass my native place, if you will allow me, I will accompany you so far.”

Tokutarô thought this very odd, and made up his mind that it was a fox trying to make a fool of him; he accordingly determined to turn the tables on the fox, and answered— “It is a long time since I have had the pleasure of seeing you; and as it seems that your house is on my road, I shall be glad to escort you so far.”

With this he walked behind her, thinking he should certainly see the end of a fox’s tail peeping out; but, look as he might, there was nothing to be seen. At last they came to the village of Upper Horikané; and when they reached the cottage of the girl’s father, the family all came out, surprised to see her.

“Oh dear! oh dear! here is our daughter come: I hope there is nothing the matter.”

And so they went on, for some time, asking a string of questions.

In the meanwhile, Tokutarô went round to the kitchen door, at the back of the house, and, beckoning out the master of the house, said—

“The girl who has come with me is not really your daughter. As I was going to the Maki Moor, when I arrived at the bamboo grove, a fox jumped up in front of me, and when it had dashed into the grove it immediately took the shape of your daughter, and offered to accompany me to the village; so I pretended to be taken in by the brute, and came with it so far.”

On hearing this, the master of the house put his head on one side, and mused a while; then, calling his wife, he repeated the story to her, in a whisper.

But she flew into a great rage with Tokutarô, and said—

“This is a pretty way of insulting people’s daughters. The girl is our daughter, and there’s no mistake about it. How dare you invent such lies?”

“Well,” said Tokutarô, “you are quite right to say so; but still there is no doubt that this is a case of witchcraft.”

Seeing how obstinately he held to his opinion, the old folks were sorely perplexed, and said—

“What do you think of doing?”

“Pray leave the matter to me: I’ll soon strip the false skin off, and show the beast to you in its true colours. Do you two go into the store-closet, and wait there.”

With this he went into the kitchen, and, seizing the girl by the back of the neck, forced her down by the hearth.

“Oh! Master Tokutarô, what means this brutal violence? Mother! father! help!”

So the girl cried and screamed; but Tokutarô only laughed, and said—

“So you thought to bewitch me, did you? From the moment you jumped into the wood, I was on the look-out for you to play me some trick. I’ll soon make you show what you really are;” and as he said this, he twisted her two hands behind her back, and trod upon her, and tortured her; but she only wept, and cried—

“Oh! it hurts, it hurts!”

“If this is not enough to make you show your true form, I’ll roast you to death;” and he piled firewood on the hearth, and, tucking up her dress, scorched her severely.

“Oh! oh! this is more than I can bear;” and with this she expired.

The two old people then came running in from the rear of the house, and, pushing aside Tokutarô, folded their daughter in their arms, and put their hands to her mouth to feel whether she still breathed; but life was extinct, and not the sign of a fox’s tail was to be seen about her. Then they seized Tokutarô by the collar, and cried—

“On pretence that our true daughter was a fox, you have roasted her to death. Murderer! Here, you there, bring ropes and cords, and secure this Tokutarô!”

So the servants obeyed, and several of them seized Tokutarô and bound him to a pillar. Then the master of the house, turning to Tokutarô, said—

“You have murdered our daughter before our very eyes. I shall report the matter to the lord of the manor, and you will assuredly pay for this with your head. Be prepared for the worst.”

And as he said this, glaring fiercely at Tokutarô, they carried the corpse of his daughter into the store-closet. As they were sending to make the matter known in the village of Maki, and taking other measures, who should come up but the priest of the temple called Anrakuji, in the village of Iwahara, with an acolyte and a servant, who called out in a loud voice from the front door—

“Is all well with the honourable master of this house? I have been to say prayers to-day in a neighbouring village, and on my way back I could not pass the door without at least inquiring after your welfare. If you are at home, I would fain pay my respects to you.”

As he spoke thus in a loud voice, he was heard from the back of the house; and the master got up and went out, and, after the usual compliments on meeting had been exchanged, said—

“I ought to have the honour of inviting you to step inside this evening; but really we are all in the greatest trouble, and I must beg you to excuse my impoliteness.”

“Indeed! Pray, what may be the matter?” replied the priest. And when the master of the house had told the whole story, from beginning to end, he was thunderstruck, and said—

“Truly, this must be a terrible distress to you.” Then the priest looked on one side, and saw Tokutarô bound, and exclaimed, “Is not that Tokutarô that I see there?”

“Oh, your reverence,” replied Tokutarô, piteously, “it was this, that, and the other: and I took it into my head that the young lady was a fox, and so I killed her. But I pray your reverence to intercede for me, and save my life;” and as he spoke, the tears started from his eyes.

“To be sure,” said the priest, “you may well bewail yourself; however, if I save your life, will you consent to become my disciple, and enter the priesthood?”

“Only save my life, and I’ll become your disciple with all my heart.”

When the priest heard this, he called out the parents, and said to them—

“It would seem that, though I am but a foolish old priest, my coming here to-day has been unusually well timed. I have a request to make of you. Your putting Tokutarô to death won’t bring your daughter to life again. I have heard his story, and there certainly was no malice prepense on his part to kill your daughter. What he did, he did thinking to do a service to your family; and it would surely be better to hush the matter up. He wishes, moreover, to give himself over to me, and to become my disciple.”

“It is as you say,” replied the father and mother, speaking together. “Revenge will not recall our daughter. Please dispel our grief, by shaving his head and making a priest of him on the spot.”

“I’ll shave him at once, before your eyes,” answered the priest, who immediately caused the cords which bound Tokutarô to be untied, and, putting on his priest’s scarf, made him join his hands together in a posture of prayer. Then the reverend man stood up behind him, razor in hand, and, intoning a hymn, gave two or three strokes of the razor, which he then handed to his acolyte, who made a clean shave of Tokutarô’s hair. When the latter had finished his obeisance to the priest, and the ceremony was over, there was a loud burst of laughter; and at the same moment the day broke, and Tokutarô found himself alone, in the middle of a large moor. At first, in his surprise, he thought that it was all a dream, and was much annoyed at having been tricked by the foxes. He then passed his hand over his head, and found that he was shaved quite bald. There was nothing for it but to get up, wrap a handkerchief round his head, and go back to the place where his friends were assembled.

“Hallo, Tokutarô! so you’ve come back. Well, how about the foxes?”

“Really, gentlemen,” replied he, bowing, “I am quite ashamed to appear before you.”

Then he told them the whole story, and, when he had finished, pulled off the kerchief, and showed his bald pate.

“What a capital joke!” shouted his listeners, and amid roars of laughter, claimed the bet of fish, and wine. It was duly paid; but Tokutarô never allowed his hair to grow again, and renounced the world, and became a priest under the name of Sainen.

There are a great many stories told of men being shaved by the foxes; but this story came under the personal observation of Mr. Shôminsai, a teacher of the city of Yedo, during a holiday trip which he took to the country where the event occurred; and I have recorded it in the very selfsame words in which he told it to me.

This tales starts are pretty gruesome with Tokutaro roasting a young girl alive. Then it flips expectations on its head. In Japanese folklore, foxes (or kitsune – きつね) are mischievous creatures and messengers of the gods. In this story, foxes seem to be both. They are both tricksters and a spiritual call for the men they trick. Tokutaro gives up a worldly life and becomes a priest because of the lesson he learned from his encounter with the foxes.

If you want to learn more about kitsune, I wrote a book about them: Come and Sleep: The Folklore of the Japanese Fox.


Milford, A. (1871). Tales of Old Japan.