An Introduction to Japanese Tree Folklore

Book Cover: Under the Cherry Blossoms
Editions:Kindle: $ 0.99
Paperback: $ 5.99
ISBN: 978-1544641607

Murder. Love. Sacrifice. From stories about a willow who falls in love with a human to an old samurai who kills himself so his beloved tree can live, Japanese folklore venerates trees. Beyond the sakura, the famous cherry tree, Japanese farmers told stories about the trees that welcomed them home and supported every aspect of their lives. Trees not only support our lives by providing building materials, food, and warmth, but they also teach us how to be human.


Once, some time ago, a young woman took a liking to a large chestnut tree. Each day she would nap for several hours underneath its boughs. She did this so frequently that people named the tree the Pillow Chestnut. One day, the woman failed to return. Her family went out to the Pillow Chestnut and found only one of her sandals. To this day, the young woman hasn’t returned. People whisper the Pillow Chestnut ate her, and they renamed the tree the Ghost Chestnut.


In the West, people hug trees. In Japan, trees hug people—to death. Most cultures speak about sacred and demon trees. Today, many of us scoff at the idea of a tree eating someone, but these stories seek to pass wisdom to future generations—don’t sleep under a tree alone. Our modern way of thinking connects factuality with truthfulness. This connection makes it difficult for us to see how the Pillow Chestnut story can be truthful. However, truth and factuality differ. Facts focus on how reality functions; truth concerns itself with human behavior. Because truth deals with how we understand reality, it affects our understanding of fact. For example, the process of evolution changes features of animals depending on their environment—a fact. Some people understand evolution as a process created by God; others see it as a process that negates the need for God. Each personal truth shapes how people understand evolution. Some see it as an extension of God’s personal involvement in creation while others see an ongoing process that extends from a mechanical universe. In a similar way, folklore and myth shape how people understand facts by fostering a certain view of reality.

Today’s headlines love to use the word myth incorrectly: 10 myths about dairy products, top 10 myths about sex, and other headlines. The use of the word myth as a substitute for the word lie distorts the importance of myths for human understanding. Creation myths provide a cultural identity. Usually, shamans, priests, and the upper classes pass these stories to the lower classes. They wrote myths into collections such as “Record of Ancient Matters,” a collection of Japanese creation stories. These myths created a scaffold for religious views and drove the everyday decisions and actions of people. Christianity, Islam, and the world’s other religions have their own mythological scaffold. Again, myth doesn’t mean falsehood; it means truth. That isn’t to say myths do not mislead at times. Myths result from the concerns of the time and those who write the stories. Myths have agendas by nature.

Folklore fleshes out the scaffold of myth. It conveys the wisdom and knowledge of farmers, fishermen, and other common people. Folktales remained primarily the oral tradition of rural villages until researchers like Yanagito Kunio collected them. Yanagita Kunio, considered the father of Japanese folklore studies, viewed folktales as guides for solving problems. How can these old stories help us solve modern problems? Why should we care about dusty old tree stories?


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