The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild brings many changes to the franchise. The dark themes of the game, while not exactly a change, certainly stand out. Ruins are everywhere and people are relegated to small settlements. Overlooking these settlements and ruins are shrines. Deep inside these strange relics of technology long lost, past lethal trials and puzzles, you will find a strange sight for the Legend of Zelda: mummies.
Well, they aren’t exactly strange. Mummies appear throughout the series, but these mummies are strange because they aren’t enemies–they are failed protectors. You’ll find them enshrined behind a barrier and wearing the garb of Sheikah clerics. As a reward for clearing the trials, they offer you a spirit orb, the manifestation of their spiritual power. What’s more, you’ll see these mummies wait in various meditative poses straight out of Buddhist texts. It’s unusual for the Legend of Zelda to show such distinct religious elements. You’ll see hints, like the shield emblem from the original Legend of Zelda, but you don’t usually see a distinct religious practice. The mummies you see are based on reality: sokushinbutsu.
Those Who Want to Die for Others
A Chinese sokushinbutsu believed to be Liuquan, the master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100 Image Source
Sokushinbutsu or “Buddhas in Their Very Body” aren’t considered mummies by their worshipers. Mummies are made by preserving the body after death, but these monks aren’t considered dead by followers. Rather, their spirits are preserved in their bodies in a state of deep meditation (Clements, 2016).
Would-be sokushinbutsu follow a path set by the founder of the Shingon tradition, Kukai. He believed it was possible to attain Buddhahood in the believer’s current body instead of some future incarnation as other schools believe. For his part, Kukai is said to be eternally meditating somewhere at Mt. Koya. In fact, the tradition closely associates with mountains including Mt. Yudono, Mt. Haguro, and Mt. Gassan. The belief led monks to practice harsh austerities such as fasting and reciting sutras under icy waterfalls and, for some, self-mummification.
Why would anyone want to mummify themselves? Well, it’s believed sokushinbutsu have a strong motivation to help people in need. They freely offer their powers to save people from problems that range from starvation to taxes. Sokushinbutsu are rare, which adds to their mystique and powers. About 21 sokushinbutsu are found in Northern Japan, and we know of 9 more from historical records. The oldest dates to 1683 and the most recent dates to 1903. This monk was enshrined only after World War II (Clements, 2016). The desire to help people in their suffering drove a few men (only men can become sokushinbutsu) to undergo the process.
Sokushinbutsu are found in China as well. A Chinese Buddhist statue contains the remains believed to be of Liuquan, the master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100. We don’t know for certain if he mummified himself, but researchers suspect he went through the process. According to Vincent van Vilsteren, a museum curator (Winter, 2015; Self-made Mummy, 2015):
“We suspect that for the first 200 years, the mummy was exposed and worshiped in a Buddhist temple in China. Only in the 14th century did they do all the work to transform it into a nice statue.”
How to Mummify Yourself
Back in Japan, the self-mummification process builds from the already ascetic diet of Shingon monks. Monks who want to become sokushinbutsu observed a strict diet that forbids meat, alcohol, rice, wheat, soybeans, adzuki beans, black sesame seeds, barnyard grass (maybe backyard grass is okay?), millet, foxtail millet, buckwheat, and corn. They usually ate nuts, roots, and pine bark. The diet made sure the monk didn’t have body fat to decay. Some monks ate bark and sap from the tree used to make lacquer.
They would also seclude themselves in the mountain in 1,000 day intervals. Some for as long as 4,000 days or just shy of 11 years. Cold winters and daily cold water meditation practices combined with being forbidden to seek medical help killed many would-be sokushinbutsu before they could reach their goals. After this period ended, they would start the mummification process–such as drinking tea poisonous enough to deter maggots (Winters, 2015). The process ended with being buried alive with only a tube to allow them to breath. They would then meditate until starvation claimed them.
Then, 3 years and 3 months later, people exhumed the new sokushinbutsu, dressed him in clerical robes, and enshrined him. The Shingon tradition believes these monks will remain in deep mediation until Maitreya, the Future Buddha, descends from Tusita Heaven in the distant future (Clements, 2016). Maitreya is thought to come after the dharma (the path to compassion/enlightenment) is forgotten in the future and succeed Śākyamuni as the Buddha (the current Buddha).
Failure and Loneliness in Breath of the Wild
The mummies we find in Breath of the Wild‘s shrines pull from this tradition. These monks went into the shrines to meditate and await the coming of the Hero, becoming sokushinbutsu in the process. Tragically, they could do nothing to protect the people outside the shrines from the destruction that befell them. Throughout Breath of the Wild, you’ll see people seeking out the shrines–some looking for blessings or help. But the eternals inside could do nothing.
Now, I’ve seen people complain about how empty the world of Breath of the Wild is (it is mostly wilderness, after all). But the landscape acts as a storytelling method. That emptiness, the loneliness, speaks to the destruction and suffering that happened. The shrines housing the powerless sokushinbutsu add to this story. Throughout the game, you encounter people who have accepted their helplessness and the brutal life they live. You see people attacked outside the shrines and scattered settlements. Breath of the Wild reveals what happens when heroes fail.
The use of sokushinbutsu speaks of the level of desperation and fear within Breath of the Wild. Over 120 people willingly mummified themselves in order to await the hero. That means far more failed in the attempt and died in the process. What’s more, they did this 10,000 years before events in Breath of the Wild. Yet, in the end their sacrifice turned out to be in vain. When Ganon arrived, they could do nothing to stop him from murdering the populace.
The theme of loneliness runs deep through Breath of the Wild. The story even centers on on it, and how the hero can’t succeed alone. Sokushinbutsu, like many of the other design choices you see throughout the game, emphasizes this theme.
Clements, F. W. (2016). The Buddhas of Mount Yudono: Sacred Self-Mummification in Northern Japan. Expedition, 58(2), 30-34.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
[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.
As a master student of Japanese Studies, I am obliged to concern myself not only with modern popular culture and anime but also with the subject of Premodern Japanese. To be precise, I’m learning to read texts from the Edo period and older which use bungo, or premodern grammar. I’m also doing ‘Kanbun’, which is basically a Japanese trick of reading ancient Chinese using said grammar. It’s quite cool to think about all the yōkai legends I’ll be able to read once I’ve mastered bungo, and to realize I have just understood a story written in China in 200 BC (!) – but the practical, everyday applicability of Premodern Japanese does seem rather limited. However, I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t found
A back door.
Pop-cultural products – anime, manga, and video games – do actually use premodern Japanese, here and now. In many cases, admittedly, the use only barely qualifies as ‘premodern’, and it is mostly done to give the show a bit of an “ancient” feel. In this way, it is similar to the drawing style of historical anime which sometimes evokes murals, picture scrolls, or woodblock prints. An interesting example, in both aspects, is the 2010 anime Katanagatari, which is set in a parallel universe’s version of feudal Japan. In the opening narration, a text appears in wild brushstrokes, which uses the premodern negation auxiliary ‘nu’ instead of modern ‘nai’. Yet the sentence ends with the modern ‘atta’ (‘there was’) instead of a proper premodern form (such as ‘ari-keri’)… and even ‘nu’ is still used in modern Japanese, albeit rarely. So producers can assume that everyone will understand it, whereas ‘ari-keri’ would probably confuse people. This reminds me of the way ‘samurai’ in anime sometimes use ‘de gozaru’ for ‘to be’, to showcase the period the story is set in. It can be assumed that even viewers unfamiliar with the word will understand its meaning quickly, as it is used in exactly the same way the modern alternative is. So far, so unsatisfying.
Gods and Monsters and the Prayer of Purification
Then I watched another episode of Noragami Aragoto (2015), the second season of the Noragami anime which continues the story of a hardly known Japanese deity, Yato, his sword-which-is-actually-a-dead-soul Yukine, and their friend Hiyori. They vanquish monsters and try to evade the battle goddess Bishamon-ten, who holds a grudge against Yato.
Now, as Yato was making the little speech he always delivers before slaying a monster, to my infinite delight, I made out the premodern auxiliary ‘mu’, one of the functions of which is to signify intention.[i]
Both the language style and the repetition of the speech before every showdown give these monster extermination sequences an aura of ritual. And premodern language patterns tend to survive in the formulaic speech of rituals, as Western Christians may have experiences themselves – think of the Catholic Lord’s Prayer, which still uses the second person singular pronoun ‘thou’ and corresponding verb inflection.
It may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if Noragami isn’t referencing norito prayers here. Norito are the ancient prayers of Shinto, the Japanese indigenous religion, and one of the oldest forms of Japanese preserved.[ii] Since the main characters of Noragami are Shinto gods and their regalia, it wouldn’t be surprising if the makers had taken some inspiration from the actual Shinto prayer of purification when they devised the little speech Yato makes before purifying (i.e. slaying) monsters. A strong hint for this is the word Yato uses for Japan, Toyoashihara-no-nakatsu-kuni (something along the lines of “The Country Amidst the Plains of Plentiful Reeds”). The term is based on Shinto legend; it is one of the names given to Japan in the Shinto creation myth, if I am not mistaken. (This should be verifiable in the English translation of the Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Things), Japan’s oldest chronicle, but I am still unable to get my hands on a copy.) The term used for Heaven in the series, Takamagahara, originates from the same mythology. Finally, Yato also uses the same words for spiritual pollution (kegare) and cleansing (harau) as the prayers do. There are even a number of Kanji visible in the background during the sequence, but never long or clear enough to actually recognize them. I wonder if they are taken from a religious text?
In addition, Yato himself has definitely seen the Edo era (based on the clothes and buildings seen in his flashbacks), and would be able, perhaps even likely, to fall back to premodern speech patterns when under stress or in a repetitive situation – no matter how contemporary (and jerk-like) he usually acts.
The common suspects and the odd one out
I asked around for suggestions of other anime with potential use of bungo, and among those recommended were a few I had actually seen already, just without realizing – Ayakashi and Mononoke (2006/2007), Mushishi (2005-6), and HōzukinoReitetsu (2014), for instance. The first three can all be placed the context of historical (horror) fiction and/or monster-fighting fantasy; thus I assume the use of bungo can be attributed to the feel of magical/religious ritual and historical flavour I described above. I have also looked at two series I hadn’t come across before, Shōnen Onmyōji (2006-7, about the grandson of the famous Feng Shui magician Abe no Seimei) and Otogi Zōshi (2004-5, another dark historic fantasy which also features Seimei), and these also fit the bill. The aforementioned Hōzuki no Reitetsu is a bit of a special case, though. Set in present day, it portrays an unlikely oni (demon) named Hōzuki and his calm in the face of the daily struggles which come with his post as chief secretary of Enma Daiō – the King of (Buddhist) Hell.[iii]
Hōzuki is a very episodic and intensively intertextual comedy series which playfully joins Eastern (and a bit of Western) religion and folklore with a parody of modern trends and pop culture. Many of the jokes will go over your head if you don’t have some basic knowledge of Buddhism, Japanese folktales and literary classics. And modern Japanese pop culture. And koalas.
Well and sometimes, in the middle of all that, you’ll get some bit of bungo. For example, in episode 3, during a big sports tournament between the Chinese and the Japanese afterlives, the legendary beauty and poet Ono no Komachi pens a short waka poem for the title character. So basically, Hōzuki no Reitetsu opens up a third dimension of the use of bungo in anime: as an ironic citation in a postmodern (con/inter)text. And at this point, I’ll close my musings on the use of premodern Japanese in anime, at least for the time being.
Notes and References:
[i] See the beginning of this clip from episode 5 of the original series for reference.
[iii] The opening introduces the 272 Hells of Buddhism, but the only version on YT is in pretty bad quality, see here. For those interested in the matter, Matthew Meyer’s yōkai anthology The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits includes a very interesting and intensely readable description of Hell (Jigoku).
About a year ago, I was looking at Edo-period book illustrations and reading name cartuoches – until I stumbled upon two which did not actually contain a name!
I was working behind the scenes of an exhibition at my former university (Goethe-University Frankfurt Main, Germany), which owns a small but very well-preserved collection of mid- to late- Edo-period (mostly early 19th century) woodblock printed books. Many of those are illustrated (beautifully even though black-and-white). We planned to exhibit a few of these, related to the topic of travel in Edo-period Japan. In the process of preparing the information booklet for the exhibition, my supervisor, my co-worker and I usually transcribed and then translated the text on the pages which were to be shown. Since I couldn’t read premodern Japanese very well, I tended to focus on short texts such as name cartouches and one-line image titles. This is where I noticed that, in two pages from different volumes of Santô Kyôden’s (1761-1816) novel Mukashigatari Inazuma Byôshi (Tales of the Past: The Envelope with the Lightning Design, illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni), two old women are not actually named in their name cartouches.Instead they are identified as ‘the mother of Kamon’ ( 嘉門の母, Kamon no haha, right) or literally ‘an old woman’ (老女, rôjo, down left). Incidentally, both of them have to be rescued by male heroes: the old woman from a pack of dogs, Kamon’s mother from a bear.
By contrast, in another novel we exhibited, Shûshoku Shibori no Asagao (Autumnal Colours: Morning Glories Tie-Died, by Shôtei Kinsui, illustrated by Utagawa Yoshifuji), the female characters seemed to be travelling quite safely on their own or with a servant, and they have actual names, both in the text and in their cartouches.
Why might this be? The principal difference between these two sets of female characters is their age. The women in Shûshoku are young and thus of interest to the male heroes (as potential wives or paramours); but the old women in Mukashigatari have either already served their function as wife/lover and mother, or are too old now to do so. In both cases, I thought to myself, they have nothing left to contribute to a patriarchal society… so why bother naming them?
There is more to it of course. In the Edo era, religious and social prejudice against women was prevalent; Buddhism as well as Shinto decried women as polluted and polluting beings for their ‘sexual allure’ and their bleeding in menstruation and childbirth. (These were colourfully evoked in the Buddhist concept of Blood Lake Hell and are probably responsible for the prohibition for women to ascend certain holy mountains.) Yet, Buddhist nunneries existed too, and traditionally, an imperial princess dwelled as a miko (shrine maiden) in the ancestral shrine of the Tennô family. Because of the approach of death, old age especially was seen as a time of religious devotion for both genders – that was how the elderly were supposed to spend their additional free time in ‘retirement’. Kamon’s mother follows this custom and in so doing, I would argue, demonstrates her agency when she travels the mountains, by herself, to worship at a temple. I would also assume that, similar to the nunneries of the Christian Middle Age, religious practice offered security and even a pathway to some degree of validation and authority for women.
However, Confucianism was more influential in the period than either Japanized Buddhism or Shintô, and it emphasized the moral virtue of caring for the aged, represented by ‘the image of the devoted son carrying his incapacitated [i.e. passive] parent around on his back’. This is referenced in Mukashigatari when the hero, having saved Kamon’s mother from the bear, carries her home.
On the other hand, the image also recalls the ‘custom’ of ubasute (‘throwing away the old woman’) attacked in Confucian moral tales. In old times, these stories claim, whenever food was scarce or sometimes just because they became too much work, old people were abandoned in the mountains (which are linked to the afterworld in the Japanese religious mindset) by their kin – that is, until a faithful son breaks with the custom (there are different variants but this is the general story). In both ways, as a symbol of devotion or as a reminder of past bad practices, the image was vastly familiar in the Edo period and would have been recognized by the readers. This stereotype could also be a reason why Kamon’s mother lacks a personal name – she is an intertextual reference.
Turning to the other old woman, the beggar, I found that, despite the Confucian demand for care and loving obedience toward one’s parents (and by extension all aged persons), old beggars are portrayed as a frequent occurrence in Edo-Period texts. Wandering from door to door begging for food, they would often be attacked by the village dogs, as the rôba is in Mukashigatari. Although probably not as common an image as the piggyback-riding parent, the beggar woman trying to keep the dogs at bay with a stick may thus also have been a well-known image. (My supervisor suggested this as well.) In Mukashigatari, the encounter might prove crucial for the hero: he is travelling incognito, wearing a straw-hat which covers his face, but he needs to lift it in order to assure the old woman of his intentions (see image above). This will most certainly come into play later in the story: thus, the old woman serves a narrative function, as Kamon’s mother does – no need for a name.
To conclude, it seems to me that, from whatever angle I approach them, these women end up being functions – either biologically, religiously/morally or narratively – rather than people. Limited in their options and confined by social expectations, which push them aside as dependents on filial piety, they don’t seem to matter enough to anyone – character, writer or reader – to deserve a personal name. Basically they cannot do anything interesting: if you are but an old woman with a stick, chances are you will not be able to beat back the dogs on your own.
In my next ‘musing’, I might be looking at very young women with sticks who perform magical feats, meaning Magical Girls, and try to disentangle a bit of the puzzling mixture of progressive and cringe-worthy stereotypical elements in the genre.
 For an interesting discussion of the position, rights and abilities of Edo-period women, see Yabuta Yutaka, “Rediscovering Women in Tokugawa Japan”, a paper presented at the Japan Forum, Harvard University, 2000. http://rijs.fas.harvard.edu/pdfs/yabuta.pdf
 Okano Haruko, “Die Stellung der Frau in der japanischen Religionsgeschichte“, in Elisabeth Gössmann, ed, Japan – Ein Land der Frauen? (München: Juridicum, 1991), pp. 34-55, pp. 50-53.
 I read this in the notes to an English translation of the Kôjiki which is unavailable to me at the moment.
 Susanne Formanek, “Traditional Concepts and Images of Old Age in Japan”, in Florian Coulmas, ed, The Demographic Challenge: A Handbook about Japan, pp. 323-43, pp. 332-4. See also her (German) study Denn dem Alter kann keiner entfliehen: Altern und Alter im Japan der Nara- und Heian-Zeit (Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1994), p. 505.
 Women were allowed in temples if they were past the age of forty: Susanne Formanek, Die“böse Alte” in der japanischen Populärkultur der Edo-Zeit: Die Feindvalenz und ihr soziales Umfeld (Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005), p. 384. There was a danger, of cause, for old women living alone in the mountains to become suspect, as the tales of the yôkai ‘yamauba’ reveal (Yamauba are also connected to the obasute-custom I mention later; see http://yokai.com/yamauba, for example). All the more reason, then, for Kamon’s mother to emphasize her piety.
How far would you go for your beliefs? If your faith called for it, would you give up your life? What if, to get to heaven, you were called upon to take your OWN life?
Sound bizarre? To a sect of Buddhists called Shugendo it wasn’t. These monks and nuns are known now as the Sokushinbutsu, and are considered “living” buddhas (seems odd to call them living, but whatever). They went through a long, painful process in order to preserve their bodies and achieve Buddhahood and the state of Nirvana. To put it in Western terms, they mummified themselves alive in order to go to Heaven.
You might be thinking right now about the Egyptian mummification process, and wondering how in the heck someone could do something like that to themselves (the why might be understandable…after all, eternal peace and happiness is a pretty powerful motivator, although I should add that the Buddhist idea of ‘heaven’ is a lot different than what we think of here in America.)
The mummification process in this instance is a lot different than that practiced by the Egyptians. Fundamentally different, in fact, because the Sokushinbutsu literally attempted to mummify themselves alive, while the Egyptians did their process post-mortem and, obviously, to another person.
So how was this self-mummification achieved? The first step of the process lasted 1000 days. During this time, the aspiring Sokushinbutsu would eat a special diet of nuts and seeds while participating in a rigorous exercise routine in order to strip fat from their body. In the second step of the process, the monk would only eat bark and roots for 1000 days. Also during this time, they would consume a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, a sap normally used to make lacquer for bowls. This tea caused vomiting and diarrhea, which resulted in rapid weight loss. Most importantly though, compounds in the sap made the body poisonous to maggots, which is obviously a good thing if you’re trying to keep the little critters from eating your corpse.
Leaves of the lacquer tree, whose sap was used to make the tea that poisoned the monk’s bodies. Image credit: Aomorikuma
Once the second phase was done, the emaciated and sickly monk would enter a tomb crafted to be barely bigger than his body. He would assume the lotus posture, which he would not move from for the rest of his life. He would be sealed into the tomb, his only contact with the outside world a small air tube and a bell. Every day for the rest of his life, he would ring the bell to let those outside know he was still alive.
When the bell stopped ringing, those attending the monk through his self mummification process would seal up the tomb completely and leave it sealed for another 1000 days. Once the 1000 days were past, they would open up the tomb and see if the would be Sokushinbutsu had achieved his aim of self mummification. Most times, they would open the tomb and find a rotted corpse. A few times though, the process worked and the corpse was fairly well preserved (although not quite as well as Egyptian mummies and not near as well as bog mummies.)
Those who tried and failed this bizarre and painful process were respected for their devotion, but those who became Sokushinbutsu were immediately venerated as a ‘living’ Buddha and put on display for all to see.
Thankfully, this bizarre practice has not survived the test of time. The process was outlawed in 1879 in Japan, and for good measure now any kind of assisted suicide, including suicides for religious reasons, are now illegal.
I feel obligated to point out the obvious here. This was NOT what the Buddha intended, and I seriously doubt he would approve had he lived long enough to see this process take place. The Buddha tried the whole “extreme self denial to achieve Enlightenment” thing and it didn’t work out too well for him. Luckily he stopped it before he died of starvation or sickness.
No, what the Shugendo sect did was not in keeping with the Buddhist philosophy as it was meant to be practiced. It was one of those extreme sects – every religion/philosophy has them – and they don’t really reflect the views of the wider community well at all.
That being said, right or wrong, this is a part of history. The Sokushinbutsu show just how far people will go in pursuit of a belief, misguided or otherwise.
Delving into the world of folklore as much as I have, I’ve come across a lot of very strange beliefs. While weird beliefs aren’t limited to Japan, not by a long shot, the Japanese certainly don’t disappoint when it comes to bizarre critters. I’ve often found myself wondering why and how so much weirdness came to be concentrated on a relatively small chain of islands on the rim of the Pacific. Now, I am far from a scholar when it comes to Japanese studies, but it isn’t much of a stretch to say that Japanese religious traditions probably have something to do with it.
Nowadays, Japan is a mostly secular country. The bulk of Japanese tell poll-takers that they don’t consider themselves part of any religion. Certainly, many people observe various Shinto and Buddhist festivals, but the vast majority seem to do so more out of cultural habit than actual belief. Religion has little impact on daily life in Japan in the 21st century.
This was not the case in Japan’s early days. Japan’s indigenous religion is called Shinto, meaning “the Way of the Gods”. No one knows when exactly it developed, and it lacked any sort of coherent structure as is often seen in religious systems. Shinto is essentially an animistic religion, which is to say that its adherents imbue everything in nature–mountains, trees, streams, rocks, etc–with a spirit.
In Japan, these spirits were known as kami. They were generally considered friendly to humans, but they could be angered by human actions, particularly if humans polluted holy places with uncleanliness. When angered, kami could bring about natural disasters and other mischief. In order to keep the kami happy, early Shinto practitioners practiced various cleanliness rituals.
The Shinto belief system grew into a complex network of deities, spirits, and demons. It’s pretty easy to see how a huge variety of mythological creatures can develop from a religion that claims everything has a spirit!
There were some unifying features of Shintoism though, namely the myth of Japan’s creation. Izanagi and Izanami created Japan when droplets of water dripped off the tip of Izanagi’s spear. The pair of deities descended to the newly formed islands and proceeded to have a huge family, most notably the sun goddess Amaterasu, who would go on to become the most important goddess in the Shinto pantheon and the legendary progenitor of the Imperial line.
Shintoism today is pretty well mixed with Buddhism. Buddhism came into Japan from Korea at around the 6th century AD, bringing its own complex mythology to the islands. The two systems merged fairly well together, with Buddhism emphasizing ethical conduct and Shintoism emphasizing respect for nature. Buddhism brought the concepts of demons like Mara, not to mention its own vast cache of demons, monster,s saints, and spirits.
In later years, as Japan approached the 20th and later the 21st century, other influences came into the country. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, and a plethora of home grown sects all call Japan home. With such a vast melting pot of philosophies and myth systems, is it any wonder some strange stories pop out now and then?