Tag Archives: japanese culture


The Spirit of the Willow Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On seeing this, Heitaro addressed the men.

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

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

Is it not sad to see the little fellow,

Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,

And is thus far budding well ?

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

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

Is it not sad to see the little fellow,

Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,

And is thus far budding well ?

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

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

References

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


1800s Japanese Photography: Windows to the Past

1800-japan-photos-08Photographs are everywhere. Every cell phone has a camera stuffed into it. Selfies and photos in general are so ubiquitous that they often lack impact. Even the most stunning photos make us shrug and click on to the next website. But if we stop and consider photos, they are a marvel. Photography captures a moment in time. The moment may be contrived, posed, or spur-of-the-moment, but it is still a glimpse at a time period. It is a glimpse at a person long gone.

The number of photos floating around the Internet combines with our ever-onward rush to consume information. How often do you stop to contemplate a picture for more than a few seconds? I am guilty of rushing onward too.

japanese woman western clothing

Japanese woman wearing Western clothing c. 1900

Why is this woman wearing Western style clothing? What was her name? What was her favorite food? She was a predecessor to the moga of the 1920s. Moga is short for modan garu, or modern girl. She was a hip, liberated woman for her time. Moga typically wore one-piece dresses that ended at the knee, high-heels, and sheer stockings. A hat made of soft fabric accented her short hair styled after popular American film stars (Sato, 1993). Our lady has the hat, but her dress looks Victorian. We can only speculate about how she viewed herself. Many of these photographs are for postcards meant to be sold in the West. But they are still glimpses of people and periods lost to time.

moga-at-beach

Moga on the beach. 1920. Notice their Western-style swimsuits. These ladies were fashionable for their time and they threatened traditional womanhood in Japan.

samurai-hand-tinted-photos-from-1865

A pair of sumo going through ritual movements for a Western audience (These postcards targeted Western visitors). A hand tinted photograph from 1865.

We can’t forget the people not seen in these photographs: the photographers. The names of photographers are sometimes as mysterious as the people depicted. What made the photographer set up this shot? What relationship did the photographer share with the people in the picture? We can rarely answer these questions.

1865 japanese mother w child

Japanese mother with her sleeping child. c. 1865 hand-tinted.

These people are gone. These frozen moments tantalize. The toy cat on the right side of the photograph and the thick blankets surrounding the child speak of the mother’s love. The ink paintings in the background are lovely. What do they tell us about the family?

felice-beato photographer 1863

A lovely hand-tinted photograph of a woman washing her hair taken by Felix Beato. c.1863.

We happen to know who took these hand-colored photographs. Felix Beato, an Englishman, used glass plate negatives coated with egg whites. This technique allowed photographers to capture detail but at the cost of long exposures. It took 4 hours to make a photo. However, Beato figured out a way to reduce the exposure time to 4 seconds. He took photographs in Egypt, China, and many other locations. He lived in Yokohama (Nobuo, 1972).

1800-japan-photos-04

A samurai in full armor, a relic of the past even when this photograph was taken.

We rush about both online and offline by our societies. We bounce to and fro, forgetting how to look deeply. Look at these photographs for several minutes. Look into the eyes of these people. Perhaps someday someone will look at photographs of you with the same questions you have. Who is this? What was their favorite food? Favorite color? What were they thinking? Why was the photograph taken?

Or perhaps they will only spend a few seconds glancing into your eyes before moving on without thinking of these questions.

We live in an exciting time. A few clicks pulls up hundreds of frozen memories, but appreciation for this remains low. It’s human nature to grow accustomed to the everyday. It takes effort to cultivate thankfulness and mindfulness. These photos of people long gone reach across time if we stop and listen. I find this exciting and humbling. Even contrived postcards offer a glimpse of a different era and way of thinking. Japan was opening to the world after a long period of isolation under the Tokugawa. These photos suggest anxiety and excitement, a curiosity for the new, and a desire to reach out to the West. For the Japanese at the time, the West was just as alien as Japan was to the West.

Edo period women

Edo period women

A Buddhist monk. c. 1870

A Buddhist monk. c. 1870

 

A geisha poses for a post card. Hard-tinted.

A geisha poses for a postcard. Hard-tinted.

A Japanese mother with her child.

A Japanese mother with her child.

References

Nobuo, I. (1972). BEATO IN JAPAN. Image, 15(3), 10-11.

Sato, B. (1993). The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles During the 1920s. Gender & History, 5 (3). 363-381.


Japanese Love for Vending Machines: A Brief History

Vending_machine_of_soft_drink_and_ice_cream_in_JapanYou probably expect me to talk about Japan’s infamous panty vending machines. Alright, alright. I will, but there is more to the story. Did you know vending machines were once considered a threat to Japanese tradition? Do you know why Japan historically has the densest concentration of vending machines in the world?

Beyond panties and bras, vending machines in Japan dispense a staggering variety of products: frozen beef, hamburgers, soft drinks, eggs, cigarettes, alcohol, ice cream, soup, porn, towels, flowers, bus tickets, train tickets, toys, batteries, coffee, DVDs, and even dates…the kind that involves people, not the fruit.

Back in 1993, there were 50 machines in every square kilometer (Minshall, 1993).  In 1998, Japan had over  5.4 million vending machines (Mak, 1998).

Who invented the first vending machine is up for debate.  In 1867, the German Carl Ade is believed to claim the first patent. But in 1888, Yoshiichi Tawaraya was said to produce the first automatic vending machine (Minshall, 1993).  In either case, Japan took the idea and ran with it.

Why Were Vending Machines so Popular in Japan?

Japan loved vending machines for many reasons. Convenience dominates these reasons. Etiquette rules Japanese society. Many people get tired of obligated small talk and social requirements. Vending machines let you avoid that.

“Because of traditional attitudes it can be psychologically awkward to walk into a shop to buy something small, like a pack of cigarettes, and just leave.” (Sterngold, 1992)

Seventeen ice vending machineJapanese businesses have a reputation for lavishing attention on customers and smothering them with personal service. Small neighborhood shops thrived because they provided intimacy and trust people once demanded (Sterngold, 1992). But over time, this changed. The increasing pace of life drove people toward the immediacy of vending machines. The Japanese tradition of elaborate courtesies smashed against a world that doesn’t have time for them.  Vending machines, at first, appeared to be another threat to tradition. They allowed people to avoid traditional interactions with their rituals. But they can also be seen as a middle ground between retaining traditional social etiquette and throwing it away. They carve out a middle ground.

Busy people can use them instead of pressuring the culture to drop traditional etiquette. Busyness can’t be underestimated as a changing force. Japanese workers put in long hours, often off the clock.  Vending machines allow people to circumvent cultural expectations in other ways too. They help people avoid social embarrassment associated with buying certain products. For example, in the 1990s flower machines allowed young men to avoid the embarrassment of admitting to shopkeepers they were buying a nice gift for a sweetheart. Such a gesture of affection was unusual in Japan for the time and rather embarrassing (Sterngold, 1992).

Vending machines soon developed a wide variety of products to accommodate long work hours and avoid the embarrassment of trying to placate a wife a salary-man rarely sees. Even better for the customer, prices between different machines remained the same. On the business side, vending machines save on overhead. Land and labor in Japan cost a bundle. Vending machines produce more revenue for each square meter of space compared to a retail store (Mak, 1998). Competition zeroes in on location. Because product prices remain the same, vendors seek the best locations for their product selection. Volume creates profit, so the best locations in the busiest areas yield the best profit. Vending machines encourage impulse buying and immediate need. That is why underwear machines are found in saunas (Sterngold, 1992).

Japan’s low crime rate helps. Businesses can place machines all over and not worry about vandalism (Mak, 1998). Here in the US,  we place vending machines in front of established businesses because of the real threat of vandalism. You will rarely see a vending machine standing alone in a street. In Japan, vending machines appear nearly anywhere.Vendors need to place their machines where the consumers need them to maximize impulse buying. Even if this means the machine stands along on a hiking path in the middle of a forest (selling insect repellent, of course). Access to electricity limits placement more than anything.

Finally, vending machines have return policies. People can fill out a form (paper back in the day)  if a machine ate your money, and the product was delivered to you (Minshall 1993).

Weird Vending Machines

Vending machines are a common sight at train stationsHere’s the part you were waiting for! Because vending machines sell such a wide range of products, you will get a few strange varieties.

Back in the 90’s vending machines peddled dates for those who lack time to meet people. Remember, this was before online dating. Japanese men would submit an application with a photo including information about their blood types, height and weight, astrological sign, and job. Guys paid $40 to make 30 copies of their forms destined to be randomly placed in 30 “Happy Guy” vending machines around Tokyo. Women put in $2 to receive the info (Thornton, 1992).

In 2013, a bra vending machine debuted, but it sold few. The bras it sold cost 3,000 yen — about $30.

Used Panty Vending Machines

Panty Vending Machines

They kinda look like Pokeballs. Gotta catch them all?

Vending machines that sell underwear worn by teens are one of those stories that refuses to die. These machines did exist in Tokyo, but they were never a common way of buying such (Waterstreet, 2014). The whole thing started back in the 1990s during a teen school-girl craze that swept through parts of Japan. It rode on the waves of the exploding j-pop idol movement. Worn school uniforms and underwear were sold in specialty adult stores (Ashcraft, 2012). School girls would sell their clothes to these shops. This didn’t last long. Japan’s health departments cracked down, and the practice became illegal. But new underwear can still be sold.

The underwear fetish still survives, just like the urban legend of worn-panty machines.

As you’ve seen, the 1990s were something of a golden age for vending machines. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind some Japanese style vending machines here in the States. No, I don’t mean the panty-machines. The ability to buy little things like batteries and other odds without fighting checkout lines would be great! But the US has a lot more theft and vandalism than Japan, so I don’t see this ever happening. What would you like to see in a vending machine?

References

Ashcraft, B (2012). Japan’s Panty Vending Machines: The Unreal Hyperbole (and Honest Truth). Kotaku. http://kotaku.com/5948143/japans-panty-vending-machines-the-unreal-hyperbole-and-honest-truth

Mak, James (1998), “Why is Japan a Paradise of Vending Machines?”  Japan — Why it Works, Why it Doesn’t: Economics in Everyday Life.  University of Hawaii Press.

Minshall, Tim (1993) A Paradise of Automation. New Scientist. 140 (1893), 61-62.

Sterngold, James (1992) “Why the Japanese Adore Vending Machines. The New York Times. 

Thornton, E. (1992). Japan’s New Cupid: Vending Machines. Fortune, 125(7), 13.

UPI (2013) Bra Vending Machine attracts few customers in Osaka, Japan.

Waterstreet, C (2014). Vending Machines Reveal Tolerance of Abuse. The Sun-Herald. 34


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!

References

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.

Reference

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


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.”

kitsune_korin

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.

References

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