Category Archives: Folklore Explained


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.


Japan’s Strangest, Most Fearsome Spirit–The Wanyudo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


An Ancient Science Fiction Story: The Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon-Child

Discovery of the Moonchild.

Discovery of the Moonchild.

Modern Japan is well known for its fascination with all things robotic. This is rooted deep in their history, when they used clockwork puppets called the Karakuri Ninyao to play out folk stories during religious festivals. Like their preoccupation with robots, the Japanese are well known for their contributions to science fiction.  Famous science fiction from Japan ranges from kaiju monster flicks of the 1950s like Godzilla to iconic anime like Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Cowboy Bebop.

Not surprisingly, the roots of this genre run deep in Japan. The oldest surviving folkloric narrative in Japan, dating from around the 10th century, is widely considered among the oldest science fiction style story in the world. The story is called “The Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon-Child.”

An old, old story, in brief

Long ago, an old bamboo cutter and his wife eked out a lonely existence. One day, the bamboo cutter was surprised to see a bamboo stalk glowing with light. When he cut it open, he found a tiny girl nestled inside. He took her home and he and his wife raised the radiant child as their own. When the bamboo cutter returned to work, he found that the stalk the child had occupied would contain gold when he cut it open again. Soon he and his wife were rich and able to buy a big house.

During that time, the child grew to become a beautiful young woman. She gave off a faint glow, and to look on her filled her old parents with joy. They named her Princess Moonlight because of her glow. Soon though word of her beauty spread far and wide, and men from all over clamored to lay their eyes on her. Five noblemen in particular were enamored with her, staying outside her house for days on end just to catch a glimpse of her. Finally, her aged father persuades the girl to at least give them a chance. She tells the would-be husbands that she would marry whoever carries out a task she gives them. Each was given an impossible task. The first was asked to bring her the stone bowl of the Buddha back from India. The second was to give her the branch of a miraculous tree growing on Mount Horai, that was said to sprout jewels instead of fruit. The third was asked to bring her the skin of a fire-rat, from China. The fourth was told to bring her a colorful jewel that a dragon carried on its head, while the fifth was tasked with finding the swallow which carried a shell in its stomach and bring the shell back to her.

Long story short, each noble failed in his task. Some tried to deceive Princess Moonlight, while others gave up when the task proved impossible. One noble was severely injured, or killed in some versions.

The Emperor heard of Princess Moonlight’s beauty, and sent Court ladies to see if she was really as beautiful as rumor had it. When they returned and said that it was indeed true, he summoned Princess Moonlight to the palace. She refused. Intrigued, he visited her home and quickly became smitten with her.

However, Princess Moonlight was not interested in any terrestrial suitor. She was gradually becoming more withdrawn, and would spend a lot of time at night staring at the moon.  One night she revealed to her step-father that she had originally came from the moon, sent to escape a devastating war (or, in some versions, as a punishment). She said that she would one day return, and she did not want to be tied down in a marriage. Her parents grieved that she would one day leave them.

The Emperor, who heard the news, was not happy at all. When the Emperor had confirmed it, he sent troops to secure the house. One thousand were stationed on the roof, while another thousand watched the perimeter. Princess Moonlight’s parents hid her in an inner room.

Kaguya returns to the moon.

Kaguya returns to the moon.

Princess Moonlight tried to dissuade the would be protectors, saying that no preparations of the Earth dwellers could stop the moon-people. But they continued to keep her under guard. The night wore on and the moon rose high. Dawn approached and the earthlings believed that they would make it through the night without incident. Then a cloud began to form on the moon. It rolled toward them, until it loomed over the house. Radiant figures stood in a giant cloud wreathed chariot. The moon people explain that they sent the girl to earth, and the gold was also sent as a stipend for her care.  The moon people wouldn’t be talked out of their purpose. They offered Princess Moonlight the Elixir of Life and a potion which would wipe her experiences on earth from her memory forever.

She took the Elixir of Life but refused the potion. She wrote a letter to the Emperor and gave him a phial of the Elixir of Life. She leaves the letter and drinks the potion before being taken back home to the moon.

The letter was taken to the palace. The Emperor refused to read it or take the Elixir. He had the letter taken to Mount Fuji to be burnt as an offering to Princess Moonlight, which is why smoke can be seen to this day rising out of Mt. Fuji.

Traditional folktale with scifi elements

While science fiction was not a genre at the time this folktale was written, the story definitely has some science fiction elements. Specifically, the idea of aliens (the moon people) coming to earth on a fantastic vehicle. It seems like a bizarre addition to what would otherwise be a fairly typical folktale for the region. A similar story, the story of Momotaro, involves a small girl emerging from a peach, similar to how Princess Moonlight was found in a bamboo stalk. That sort of story is fairly common to East Asia, but the proto-scifi elements are unique. It goes to show that the Japanese propensity for unique story telling is rooted deep in its cultural history.

Sources:

“The Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon-Child: Japanese Folktale.” WorldofTales.com. 2014. World of Tales. November 1, 2014. http://www.worldoftales.com/Asian_folktales/Japanese_folktale_15.html

“Once Upon a Time in Japan.” NHK World. http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/folktale/special/english/kaguya/overview.html

 


Kappa – Dangerous, Vicious, yet Polite

KappaThe kappa is one of the most famous of Japan’s mythological creatures. It is sometimes called an imp in the West. This scaly water creature is a mix of a turtle, a monkey, and a frog. About the size of a child, the kappa is said to wait in water for a hapless victim to pass. It is said the kappa has a taste for human blood and livers.

It wasn’t unusual for people in ancient Japan to use rivers and stream as toilets. The kappa would wait underwater and just out of sight for someone to drop their drawers and aim their bottom toward the river. In a flash it would extend its arm right up the hapless person’s rectum, through their insides and grab their tongue. Just a quick, it would yank, pulling the person inside out so it can get to the person’s liver and organs. Moral of the story: don’t use streams and rivers as toilets! Kappa are also known to enjoy raping women, kidnapping children, and drowning people and animals. They are said to be strong wrestlers.

Hokusai Kappa

This Hokusai drawing shows a man minding his own “business” only to have a Kappa pounce.

Despite the viciousness of kappas, they are said to be polite and keep their promises. In fact, their politeness is a known weakness. Kappas have a depression on the top of their head that is shaped like a bowl. It holds water for when they go on land. Water is the source of their strength, but being as they are extremely polite, they tend to bow to people and spill their water!

Kappas can be defeated by pulling off their arms; which is said to be easier than it sounds. They love wrestling, so defeating them at their game is an option.

Kappa also keep their promises. People used to offer kappas cucumbers scratched with the names of people who needed protection or, at least, a promise from the kappa not to hurt them.

Kappa have also been said to befriend people who show them how to mend broken bones. Apparently, broken bones are a problem with kappa. They also have been known to irrigate the fields for their farmer friends and bring them fresh fish time to time.

It is said that kappa are still around in modern Japan. Instead of streams they now wait in toilets for an unsuspecting rump. If you feel something moving in the toilet bowl you had best move fast and flush a cucumber down it!

References

Kappa. Scary Website for Children. http://www.scaryforkids.com/kappa/

Kappa. Japanese Folklore, Mythology and Mythological Creatures http://people.rit.edu/~acp8763/wf/stage2/kappa.html

Kappa (folklore). Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kappa_%28folklore%29

 

 


Kojiki and Amaterasu

Amaterasu Most of us know Amaterasu from various manga, anime, and video games. Amaterasu can be traced to the oldest chronicle in Japan, the Kojiki. Kojiki translates to “Record of Ancient Matters” and dates the the early 8th century. The book traces the lineage of the Emperors to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess and goddess of the universe. The chronicle recounts various Shinto myths such as the creation of Japan by Izanami and Izanagi. Amaterasu was born of Izanagi after he failed to save his sister wife Izanami in the underworld. Amaterasu was born from hisleft eye while her sister Tsukuyomi and brother Susanoo were born from his right eye and nose.

Susanoo Skinning a Pony by Kinuko Y. Craft

Susanoo Skinning a Pony
by Kinuko Y. Craft

Amaterasu inherited the rule of heaven from her parents. She was at odds with her brother Susanoo who was a selfish cruel god and ruler of the nether world. However, before he left for the nether world, he rose in the sky, causing Amaterasu to be concerned for her kingdom. He claimed only good intentions; he only wanted to see his sister before leaving. The pair then engage in an odd sort of incest. Susanoo chews Amaterasu’s jewelry and spits out children. Amaterasu chews up his sword and spits out her own set. They exchange the children; the children of the sword inherited Amaterasu’s authority in heaven. The children born from her jewels became the imperial family.

Well, a short time passes and Susanoo still hadn’t left the sky. As was his nature, he started causing problems like breaking rice fields dikes.  His antics went too far when he broke a hole in Amaterasu’s roof and threw in the corpse of a colt, causing her to cut herself on her shuttle while she was weaving. Like Greek myths, divine beings in Japanese mythology are quite human. Anyway, in outrage she goes into a cave, plunging heaven into darkness.

Ume no Uzume The seductive dance meant to lure Amaterasu from her cave. by Kinuko Y. Craft

Ume no Uzume
The seductive dance meant to lure Amaterasu from her cave.
by Kinuko Y. Craft

The other deities tried to get the Sun Goddess to return by offering her beautiful things and even had a goddess dance lewdly: ” pulling out the nipples of her breasts and pushing down her skirt-string to her private parts.” The laughter made Amaterasu curious, and the deities grabbed her, begging her not to leave them again. They took it upon themselves to punish Susanoo. They fined and banished him from heaven.

Izanagi and Izanami, Amaterasu's parents.

Izanagi and Izanami, Amaterasu’s parents.

The Kojiki continues with other tales of Susanoo and Amaterasu. The chronicle can loosely be described as a type of bible for Shinto beliefs. It provides various lessons on human nature and served as a political tool for the Imperial family. Japanese myths tend to be grounded in everyday affairs. Amaterasu was working on weaving a roof when her brother caused her problems.  Unlike Greek myths, Japanese deities tend to be entities that people don’t really have to fear. They tend to be homely and sociable rather than otherworldly. Even Susanoo’s antics and selfishness has a childlike aspect to it. He is poking fun at his older sister but goes a little too far.  He also violates the will and life of nature through his antics.  Amaterasu tends to be forgiving and overlooks most of her brother’s antics. Even then, she doesn’t lash out against him. Rather she retreats to a cave to take care of her cut and spend some time alone until her anger passes. Susanoo is only fined and banished when the deities conclude he can’t behave properly.

The story underlines compassion.

The Kojiki is one of the oldest sources of these stories. They are stories that show what the people of the time considered important or were thinking about. They are stories that focus on how one should act or not act. They are stories used to legitimize, or at least explain, way society had its structure.

Japanese mythology is interesting and quite different compared to Western myths. Amaterasu eventually become the most important deity of Shinto and Japanese mythology.

References

Chamberlain, B (1919). The Kojiki. http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/kj/

Kojiki. Washburn University. http://www.washburn.edu/reference/bridge24/Kojiki.html

Pelzel, J. (2012). Human Nature in the Japanese Myths. http://cla.calpoly.edu/~bmori/syll/Hum310japan/Myths.html