In a large but very old house there lived a Mr. Kitabayashi and his family. On the occasion of his son’s marriage, Kitabayashi gave quite a banquet, with choice food including the auspicious mixture of rice and red beans, the sekihan. The food was so plentiful that after the guests had retired there were still heaps left over; it being late, things remained as they stood, and the family went to bed.-Shortly afterwards a clock struck midnight, and at the same time Mr. Kitabayashi heard an unusual noise in the guest room, and suspecting a marauder decided to investigate: he carefully slid aside one of the fusuma, and peeped through the gap.
What was his surprise to see a couple of big badgers and a troop of young ones partaking of the sekihan! The parents eagerly helped the youngsters to gorge themselves, and they all seemed to have a really good time…. “Poor things”, thought the kind-hearted Mr. Kitabayashi; “they evidently are short of food and find it hard to satisfy all these mouths.” So he not only went to bed, leaving them to their enjoyment, but thenceforth laid out a meal for them every evening.
Now one night two real burglars broke into the house, and threatened Kitabayashi with a long sword, asking for money. “Unless you give us a large amount, we shall kill you all!” they warned. He and his family could but tremble and stay under their covers as if frozen by fear…. But then the fusuma were suddenly thrown apart, and two gigantic wrestlers entered the room…. “Rascals!”, they cried, “out you go, or we shall kill you with our bare hands!” And the burglars were scared to death and ran away as fast as their legs would carry them….
The relief of the family was naturally intense. “How can we ever thank you enough!” they cried, and deeply bowed their heads. But when they looked up again, the wrestlers had dis- appeared. Wondering for a long time what might really have happened, and glad of the supernatural help, they at length fell asleep.
Later on, Kitabayashi and his wife had a strange dream. A badger appeared to them, and thanked them for their kindness in providing so much food for him and his during a period of great shortage. It was only out of gratitude that they had helped when danger from burglars had threatened. There was nothing to worry about. So saying, the badger again vanished.
In old translations of folk tales, tanuki is often called a badger. Tanuki are not badgers. They are a type of canine with the markings of a racoon, and that is why tanuki are often called raccoon dogs. At first, confusing a badger with a dog seems strange. However, badger folklore predates tanuki stories by a few centuries. Badgers shared many of the same traits as tanuki: a love for pranks, shape-shifting abilities, and other abilities. Badger stories began in the 8th century only to disappear from the records until the 13th century with tanuki stories. During the 13th century, the badger merged with the tanuki and created a single folklore. Tanuki had long struggled with identity. He was confused with the fox. All told, the tanuki has enjoyed 800 years of stories. It sounds like a lot, but not when you compare the tanuki to the fox’s 2,200 years of playing tricks.
In a certain Japanese village there grew a great willow-tree. For many generations the people loved it. In the summer it was a resting-place, a place where the villagers might meet after the work and heat of the day were over, and there talk till the moonlight streamed through the branches. In winter it was like a great half-opened umbrella covered with sparkling snow.
Heitaro, a young farmer, lived quite near this tree, and he, more than any of his companions, had entered into a deep communion with the imposing willow. It was almost the first object he saw upon waking, and upon his return from work in the fields he looked out eagerly for its familiar form. Sometimes he would burn a joss-stick beneath its branches and kneel down and pray.
One day an old man of the village came to Heitaro and explained to him that the villagers were anxious to build a bridge over the river, and that they particularly wanted the great willow-tree for timber.
“For timber?” said Heitaro, hiding his face in his hands. “My dear willow-tree for a bridge, one to bear the incessant patter of feet? Never, never, old man!”
When Heitaro had somewhat recovered himself, he offered to give the old man some of his own trees, if he and the villagers would accept them for timber and spare the ancient willow.
The old man readily accepted this offer, and the willow-tree continued to stand in the village as it had stood for so many years.
One night while Heitaro sat under the great willow he suddenly saw a beautiful woman standing close beside him, looking at him shyly, as if wanting to speak.
“Honourable lady,” said he, “I will go home. I see you wait for some one. Heitaro is not without kindness towards those who love.”
“He will not come now,” said the woman, smiling.
“Can he have grown cold? Oh, how terrible when a mock love comes and leaves ashes and a grave behind!”
“He has not grown cold, dear lord.”
“And yet he does not come! What strange mystery is this?”
“He has come! His heart has been always here, here under this willow-tree.” And with a radiant smile the woman disappeared.
Night after night they met under the old willow-tree. The woman’s shyness had entirely disappeared, and it seemed that she could not hear too much from Heitaro’s lips in praise of the willow under which they sat.
One night he said to her: “Little one, will you be my wife—you who seem to come from the very tree itself?”
“Yes,” said the woman. “Call me Higo (“Willow”) and ask no questions, for love of me. I have no father or mother, and some day you will understand.”
Heitaro and Higo were married, and in due time they were blessed with a child, whom they called Chiyodō. Simple was their dwelling, but those it contained were the happiest people in all Japan.
While this happy couple went about their respective duties great news came to the village. The villagers were full of it, and it was not long before it reached Heitaro’s ears. The ex-Emperor Toba wished to build a temple to Kwannon in Kyōto, and those in authority sent far and wide for timber. The villagers said that they must contribute towards building the sacred edifice by presenting their great willow-tree. All Heitaro’s argument and persuasion and promise of other trees were ineffectual, for neither he nor any one else could give as large and handsome a tree as the great willow.
Heitaro went home and told his wife. “Oh, wife,” said he, “they are about to cut down our dear willow-tree! Before I married you I could not have borne it. Having you, little one, perhaps I shall get over it some day.”
That night Heitaro was aroused by hearing a piercing cry. “Heitaro,” said his wife, “it grows dark! The room is full of whispers. Are you there, Heitaro? Hark! They are cutting down the willow-tree. Look how its shadow trembles in the moonlight. I am the soul of the willow-tree! The villagers are killing me. Oh, how they cut and tear me to pieces! Dear Heitaro, the pain, the pain! Put your hands here, and here. Surely the blows cannot fall now?”
“My Willow Wife! My Willow Wife!” sobbed Heitaro.
“Husband,” said Higo, very faintly, pressing her wet, agonized face close to his, “I am going now. Such a love as ours cannot be cut down, however fierce the blows. I shall wait for you and Chiyodo—— My hair is falling through the sky! My body is breaking!”
There was a loud crash outside. The great willow-tree lay green and disheveled upon the ground. Heitaro looked round for her he loved more than anything else in the world. Willow Wife had gone!
Takagi Umanosuke and the Ghost of a Woman By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892).
The Dark Presser. The Old Hag. The Ghost Presser. Alien Abduction. No matter what cultural form it takes, kanashibari excites and terrifies. Between 40-50% of people will have at least one experience of kanashibari in their lifetimes (Schegoleva, 2002). In the West, we know it as sleep paralysis.
Nightmares and sleep paralysis happen together during the second half of the night–REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this phase, the body disconnects from the brain so you don’t enact your dreams. Even automatic reflexes, such as kicking when the knee is tapped, are shut off. This isn’t a problem unless the brain wakes up before the body reconnects. This is what is called sleep paralysis or kanashibari (Schegoleva, 2002). When the brain wakes in this state, it is still dreaming, but your eyes are open and seeing the dreams. The brain struggles to understand what’s going on by substituting explanations from your culture–aliens, ghosts, demons, vampires, and other creatures. When the body and brain reconnect, the dreaming stops, but it can take seconds to 20 minutes for them to talk to each other again (Cox, 2015). Until then, you are at the mercy of the experience (Cox, 2015):
“I had one patient who was lying in bed and woke up to see a little vampire girl with blood coming out of her mouth,”says Brian Sharpless, a clinical psychologist at Washington State University and author of the book, Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives. “This is an example of a really vivid, multi-sensory hallucination. She could feel this vampire figure grabbing onto her arms, pulling her, and saying she was going to drag her to hell and do all these terrible things to her.”
The first recorded experience appears in Al-Akhawayni’s 1st century Persian manuscript Hidayat. In 1664, the Dutch physician Isbrand van Diemerbroeck reported a case of sleep paralysis in a 50-year old woman. But it wasn’t until 1755 that nightmares and sleep paralysis became linked when Samuel Johnson defined the word nightmare. The earliest recording of sleep paralysis in Japan dates to the 12th century. The Japanese Emperor Konoe Tonno (1139-1155) experienced the sensation of chest compression sometimes associated with sleep paralysis. “Every night the emperor was oppressed by a mysterious agony which the holiest monks, working all their healing rites, seemed unable to relieve.” In 1153, Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104-1180) saved the emperor by killing a winged demon called Nue with an arrow (Orly & Haines, 2014).
The association of sleep paralysis and spirits is found across cultures. The most common story is the Old Hag, which appears in Japan and in Europe. Typically, it involves an ugly woman, often dressed in white, sitting on the sleeper or making eerie sounds. The English word haggard comes from this experience. In some European stories, witches descend onto sleepers who are trapped in their beds. Haggard means “ridden by the hag” (Cox, 2015). However, other supernatural creatures are said to cause sleep paralysis. In Japanese folklore, kanashibari happens whenever a person is about to encounter a supernatural being. It’s something of a premonition (Yoshimura, 2015).
The Ghost of Seigen Haunting Sakurahime By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892)
The word kanashibari comes from a medieval Japanese spell called kanashibari no ho, a paralysis magic practiced by priests of Onmyodo Shugendo of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s thought the ability can be attained through intense ascetic training, and different groups developed different ways of casting the spell. In the book Shoku nihongi, the founder of Shugendo, En no Ozumu (634-701) used the spell to punish spirits who failed to collect water and firewood for him. Most often, the spell was used to subdue an opponent or expel an evil spirit by invoking Fudomyoo, the patron deity of Shugendo (Yoshimura, 2015). Kanashibari means “to immobilize as if bound with metal chains.” Kana means metal. Shibaru means to bind.
Who Experiences Kanashibari
While anyone can experience sleep paralysis, women and students are more prone to it (Arikawa & Templer, 1999). As many as 43% of Japanese students report at least one episode. It’s thought women and students are more prone to kanashibari because both have less control over their environment and because they have more disruption in their sleep cycles (Arikawa & Templer. 1999; Schegoleva, 2002).
Kanashibari’s nightmares focus on lack of control. After all, you can’t move during it. The frustration of not having control over your circumstances can come to the fore during your dreams. Despite this discomfort, students want to experience kanashibari. Some attempt to induce the experience by sleeping on their backs, which can help cause it. Others write “Get lost!” on a piece of paper, tear it up, and throw it away in an effort to anger spirits enough to visit that night. In fact, when researchers asked how to avoid kanashibari, students couldn’t offer solutions. They wanted to experience it rather than avoid it (Schegoleva, 2002). Here is an interview Schegoleva had with an 11-year old boy to give you an idea about kanashibari:
‘Yes, it happened when I was five. I remember lying in my bed, my body being pressed by someone in long white clothes. I could see my brother sleeping but could not move to free myself or scream for help.’
‘Was it a male or female figure?’
‘I immediately decided that it was a female. I don’t know why.’
‘You remember it quite well. How did it end?’
‘I felt that I could move my toes, and the same moment the ghost disappeared.’
‘Do you think it was a ghost?’
‘My brother told me next morning: so you had kanashibari and saw a ghost!’
‘Did you tell the other members of your family what had happened?’
‘No, but a few years later my mother asked if I had had kanashibari, and I said yes, and told her about it.’
‘Has it happened to you just once?’
‘In fact, the second time it happened soon after I spoke to my mother about kanashibari.’ [Laughs.]
‘How old were you?’
‘Well, it was about two years ago, so I was nine, I think. But I did not see anything, there was just this
strange annoying noise, like a glass breaking.’
‘Like glass breaking? Was there actually anything like glass around?’
‘No, and the noise was constant, not real, like glass broken into pieces – crrraasshhhh, as if something
big and fragile was being dropped on the floor.’
‘Were you frightened?’
‘No, the second time I knew what was happening and even found it funny, though the noise was …bothering me.’
‘And the first time, when you were five?’
‘I do not remember very well, but I think I should have been afraid.’
‘Do you know why people get kanashibari? Or how to get kanashibari?’
‘I am not sure, but some of my classmates should know, ask them.’
Media and Kanashibari
Media impacts kanashibari. When the brain is confused, it will reach for the best explanation for the experience out of its library, and for most of us, media has stocked this mental library. While we can know sleep paralysis is caused by stress, fatigue, and sleep disorders, the sleeping mind taps into the subconscious–the realm of spirits, hags, and aliens. In Schegoleva’s 2002 paper, she reported how one student had seen the ghost girl Sadako from The Ring during the student’s kanashibari experience. While in Japan and parts of Europe people dream of kappa, hags, and ghosts, Americans experience sleep paralysis differently. Susan Blackmore, in 1998, linked alleged experiences of alien abduction with sleep paralysis. The experiences match: the out-of-body sensation, luminous presence, and other associations. But why aliens? Well, in American society it’s more acceptable for people to believe an alien abducted them than a ghost or hag sat on them. Aliens are as much a part of American folklore as the kappa is for Japanese folklore. And it is out of this folklore that the mind pulls its understanding of the nightmare world.
Kanashibari can be a terrifying experience if you don’t know what’s happening, or it can be a something a student seeks for a thrill similar to watching a horror movie. If you’d rather avoid the experience, sleep on your side and try not to stress. A regular sleep pattern helps too. About half of us will have at least one episode of kanashibari in our lifetimes. Kanashibari is one of the more mysterious parts of the human experience, one that links modern people with folklore that had long since understood what we are just coming to know.
Arikawa, Hiroko & Templer, Donald, et al. (1999). The Structure and Correlates of Kanashibari. The Journal of Psychology 133 (4) 369-375.
Cox, David (2015) Vampires, ghosts, and demons: the nightmare of sleep paralysis; tales of things that go bump in the night have existed for centuries, but they may in fact be a part of a surprisingly common neurological phenomenon. The Guardian. Nov. 2, 2015.
Orly, Regis & Haines, Duane (2014) NEUROwords Kanashibari: A Ghost’s Business. Journal of the History of Neuroscience 23 192-197.
Schegoleva, A. (2002). Sleepless in Japan: the kanashibari phenomenon. Electronic Journal Of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 2
Yoshimura, Ayako (2015) To Believe and Not to Believe: A Native Ethnography of Kanashibari in Japan. Journal of American Folklore 128 (508) 146-178.
“Jiraiya and the Magic Frog” provides the inspiration for three of Naruto’s characters: Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru. In this story, Jiraiya doesn’t become a sage until the end, but he summons giant frogs and matches the rough character from Naruto. As in Naruto, the Jiraiyo of folklore chases Tsunade. Both struggle against Orochimaru. Many of Orochimaru’s powers trace to this story. Anime taps many of Japan’s folktales for characters and inspiration. As you read this story, you’ll see many other similarities with Naruto.
Ogata was the name of a castle-lord who lived in the Island of the Nine Provinces, (Kiushiu). He had but one son, an infant, whom the people in admiration nicknamed Jiraiya (Young Thunder.) During one of the civil wars, this castle was taken, and Ogata was slain, but by the aid of a faithful retainer, who hid Jiraiya in his bosom, the boy escaped and fled northward to Echigo. There he lived until he grew up to manhood.
At that time Echigo was infested with robbers. One day the faithful retainer of Jiraiya being attacked, made resistance, and was slain by the robbers. Jiraiya now left alone in the world went out from Echigo and led a wandering life in several provinces.
All this time he was consumed with the desire to revive the name of his father, and restore the fortunes of his family. Being exceedingly brave, and an expert swordsman, he became chief of a band of robbers and plundered many wealthy merchants, and in a short time he was rich in men, arms and booty. He was accustomed to disguise himself, and go in person into the houses and presence of men of wealth, and thus learn all about their gates and guards, where they slept, and in what rooms their treasures were stored, so that success was easy.
Hearing of an old man who lived in Shinano, he started to rob him, and for this purpose put on the disguise of a pilgrim. Shinano is a very high table-land, full of mountains, and the snow lies deep in winter. A great snow storm coming on, Jiraiya took refuge in a humble house by the way. Entering, he found a very beautiful woman, who treated him with great kindness. This, however, did not change the robber’s nature. At midnight, when all was still, he unsheathed his sword, and going noiselessly to her room, he found the lady absorbed in reading.
Lifting his sword, he was about to strike at her neck, when, in a flash, her body changed into that of a very old man, who seized the heavy steel blade and broke it in pieces as though it were a stick. Then he tossed the bits of steel away, and thus spoke to Jiraiya, who stood amazed but fearless:
“I am a man named Senso Dojin, and I have lived in these mountains many hundred years, though my true body is that of a huge frog. I can easily put you to death but I have another purpose. So I shall pardon you and teach you magic instead.”
Then the youth bowed his head to the floor, poured out his thanks to the old man and begged to be received as his pupil.
Remaining with the old man of the mountain for several weeks, Jiraiya learned all the arts of the mountain spirits; how to cause a storm of wind and rain, to make a deluge, and to control the elements at will.
He also learned how to govern the frogs, and at his bidding they assumed gigantic size, so that on their backs he could stand up and cross rivers and carry enormous loads.
When the old man had finished instructing him he said “Henceforth cease from robbing, or in any way injuring the poor. Take from the wicked rich, and those who acquire money dishonestly, but help the needy and the suffering.” Thus speaking, the old man turned into a huge frog and hopped away.
What this old mountain spirit bade him do, was just what Jiraiya wished to accomplish. He set out on his journey with a light heart. “I can now make the storm and the waters obey me, and all the frogs are at my command; but alas! the magic of the frog cannot control that of the serpent. I shall beware of his poison.”
From that time forth the oppressed poor people rejoiced many a time as the avaricious merchants and extortionate money lenders lost their treasures. For when a poor farmer, whose crops failed, could not pay his rent or loan on the date promised, these hard-hearted money lenders would turn him out of his house, seize his beds and mats and rice-tub, and even the shrine and images on the god-shelf, to sell them at auction for a trifle, to their minions, who resold them at a high price for the money-lender, who thus got a double benefit. Whenever a miser was robbed, the people said, “The young thunder has struck,” and then they were glad, knowing that it was Jiraiya, (Young Thunder.) In this manner his name soon grew to be the poor people’s watchword in those troublous times.
Yet Jiraiya was always ready to help the innocent and honest, even if they were rich. One day a merchant named Fukutaro was sentenced to death, though he was really not guilty. Jiraiya hearing of it, went to the magistrate and said that he himself was the very man who committed the robbery. So the man’s life was saved, and Jiraiya was hanged on a large oak tree. But during the night, his dead body changed into a bull-frog which hopped away out of sight, and off into the mountains of Shinano.
At this time, there was living in this province, a young and beautiful maiden named Tsunadé. Her character was very lovely. She was always obedient to her parents and kind to her friends. Her daily task was to go to the mountains and cut brushwood for fuel. One day while thus busy singing at the task, she met a very old man, with a long white beard sweeping his breast, who said to her:
“Do not fear me. I have lived in this mountain many hundred years, but my real body is that of a snail. I will teach you the powers of magic, so that you can walk on the sea, or cross a river however swift and deep, as though it were dry land.”
Gladly the maiden took daily lessons of the old man, and soon was able to walk on the waters as on the mountain paths. One day the old man said, “I shall now leave you and resume my former shape. Use your power to destroy wicked robbers. Help those who defend the poor. I advise you to marry the celebrated man Jiraiya, and thus you will unite your powers.”
Thus saying, the old man shrivelled up into a snail and crawled away.
“I am glad,” said the maiden to herself, “for the magic of the snail can overcome that of the serpent. When Jiraiya, who has the magic of the frog, shall marry me, we can then destroy the son of the serpent, the robber named Dragon-coil (Orochimaru).”
By good fortune, Jiraiya met the maiden Tsunadé, and being charmed with her beauty, and knowing her power of magic, sent a messenger with presents to her parents, asking them to give him their daughter to wife. The parents agreed, and so the young and loving couple were married.
Hitherto when Jiraiya wished to cross a river he changed himself into a frog and swam across; or, he summoned a bull-frog before him, which increased in size until as large as an elephant. Then standing erect on his warty back, even though the wind blew his garments wildly, Jiraiya reached the opposite shore in safety. But now, with his wife’s powers, the two, without any delay, walked over as though the surface was a hard floor.
Soon after their marriage, war broke out in Japan between the two famous clans of Tsukikagé and Inukagé. To help them fight their battles, and capture the castles of their enemies, the Tsukikagé family besought the aid of Jiraiya, who agreed to serve them and carried their banner in his back. Their enemies, the Inukagé, then secured the services of Dragon-coil.
This Orochimaru, or Dragon-coil, was a very wicked robber whose father was a man, and whose mother was a serpent that lived in the bottom of Lake Takura. He was perfectly skilled in the magic of the serpent, and by spurting venom on his enemies, could destroy the strongest warriors.
Collecting thousands of followers, he made great ravages in all parts of Japan, robbing and murdering good and bad, rich and poor alike. Loving war and destruction he joined his forces with the Inukagé family.
Now that the magic of the frog and snail was joined to the one army, and the magic of the serpent aided the other, the conflicts were bloody and terrible, and many men were slain on both sides.
On one occasion, after a hard fought battle, Jiraiya fled and took refuge in a monastery, with a few trusty vassals, to rest a short time. In this retreat a lovely princess named Tagoto was dwelling. She had fled from Orochimaru, who wished her for his bride. She hated to marry the offspring of a serpent, and hoped to escape him. She lived in fear of him continually. Orochimaru hearing at one time that both Jiraiya and the princess were at this place, changed himself into a serpent, and distilling a large mouthful of poisonous venom, crawled up to the ceiling in the room where Jiraiya and his wife were sleeping, and reaching a spot directly over them, poured the poisonous venom on the heads of his rivals. The fumes of the prison so stupefied Jiraiya’s followers, and even the monks, that Orochimaru, instantly changing himself to a man, profited by the opportunity to seize the princess Tagoto, and make off with her.
Gradually the faithful retainers awoke from their stupor to find their master and his beloved wife delirious, and near the point of death, and the princess gone.
“What can we do to restore our dear master to life?” This was the question each one asked of the others, as with sorrowful faces and weeping eyes they gazed at the pallid forms of their unconscious master and his consort. They called in the venerable abbot of the monastery to see if he could suggest what could be done.
“Alas!” said the aged priest, “there is no medicine in Japan to cure your lord’s disease, but in India there is an elixir which is a sure antidote. If we could get that, the master would recover.”
“Alas! alas!” and a chorus of groans showed that all hope had fled, for the mountain in India, where the elixir was made, lay five thousand miles from Japan.
Just then a youth named Rikimatsu, one of the pages of Jiraiya, arose to speak. He was but fourteen years old, and served Jiraiya out of gratitude, for he had rescued his father from many dangers and saved his life. He begged permission to say a word to the abbot, who, seeing the lad’s eager face, motioned to him with his fan to speak.
“How long can our lord live,” asked the youth.
“He will be dead in thirty hours,” answered the abbot, with a sigh.
“I’ll go and procure the medicine, and if our master is still living when I come back, he will get well.”
Now Rikimatsu had learned magic and sorcery from the Tengus, or long-nosed elves of the mountains, and could fly high in the air with incredible swiftness. Speaking a few words of incantation, he put on the wings of a Tengu, mounted a white cloud and rode on the east wind to India, bought the elixir of the mountain spirits, and returned to Japan in one day and a night.
On the first touch of the elixir on the sick man’s face he drew a deep breath, perspiration glistened on his forehead, and in a few moments more he sat up.
Jiraiya and his wife both got well, and the war broke out again. In a great battle Dragon-coil was killed and the princess rescued. For his prowess and aid Jiraiya was made daimio of Idzu.
Being now weary of war and the hardships of active life, Jiraiya was glad to settle down to tranquil life in the castle and rear his family in peace. He spent the remainder of his days in reading the books of the sages, in composing verses, in admiring the flowers, the moon and the landscape, and occasionally going out hawking or fishing. There, amid his children and children’s children, he finished his days in peace.
Myth is a word that gets thrown around a lot in media, and it is almost always used wrong. For many, myth is a synonym for lie. We say something is a myth in order to avoid the harsher word lie. Some of this comes from our Western Judaeo-Christian perspective. Creation stories from other religions, such as Japan’s Kojiki, are labeled as myths. That is, they are considered lies compared to Judaeo-Christian truth. This perspective is just as easily flipped. The story of Genesis is equally a myth from the perspective of Shinto and other religions.
If you are a devoted Christian, your hackles are probably raising. The Story of Adam and Eve is a myth, just as the story of Amaterasu is a myth.
But the word myth is actually a good word.
Despite the misuse of the word, myth actually has more in common with the word truth. Part of the confusion comes from the postmodern view of morality and reality. Postmodernism and its close cousin Relativism do not believe in an objective truth, an objective set of morals and views of reality. Postmodernism believes some views are superior to others, but they are not universally true. Relativism believes all views are equally correct. On the other hand, myths come from a perspective that reality is governed by an objective, universal truth. Myths are stories that point to these truths.
Understanding the true meaning of the word myth is necessary to understand folklore and mythology. Myths are not concerned with facts. Our modern view equates facts with truth, but they are quite different. Facts are information without moral elements. They cannot be true or false. They can merely be correct or incorrect. We revise facts regularly as we learn more about how the physical world works. People used to believe the world was flat. This wasn’t a lie. It was merely the understanding people had based on the information available. The world is round isn’t a truth. It is a fact based on the information we have available.
Truth concerns itself with observing human nature and the nature of reality. Myths are stories that point toward truth. People may believe myths are factual, such as Genesis, but factuality isn’t as important as the truth myths reveal. People who view these as “merely” stories can still come away with Truth after reading them. Myth concerns itself with the human condition. They reveal whys behind human behavior and help explain why we view reality as we do. They explain suffering and why we suffer. Myths explain how behaviors create consequences. Trying to treat myths as literal history blinds us to the stories’ deeper messages.
Myths and folklore and closely related. Mythology deals with provincial, top-down views of reality. Folklore deals with everyday, bottom-up experiences. Mythology starts with the elite and works down. Folklore starts with the peasant and works up. Both contain observations and lessons about reality. Sometimes folklore clashes with mythology. Folklore subverts the top-down narratives of the elite classes by poking fun at them or having simple farmers one-up some high-minded noble. Mythology seeks to establish a reason for the way society is structured, a justification for why elite classes can rule over the other social classes. The boundaries between the two types of stories are porous. Folklore can become myth.
For example, the Japanese fox, Kitsune, began as a folk story that tweaked the noses of the elite classes of Japan. The fox was a create of farm fields and rural forests. Over time, the fox transformed into the avatar of Amaterasu, one of the most important Shinto goddesses. Eventually, the nine-tail fox avatars became the true form of the goddess. Amaterasu appears in the Kojiki as human, but after the folklore of kitsune became popular, she began to be portrayed as a type of fox. The fox avatar gave way to becoming the true form of the goddess.
Most myths began as folk stories. Each region had their own version, and each version contributed to the official myth as the stories merged. Kitsune was said to fertilize fields with her tail. Amaterasu gained this ability and became the Goddess of Rice. Kitsune stories were found throughout ancient and feudal Japan. Their popularity provided the groundwork for Amaterasu to become the most popular and most important god of Shinto. Yet, throughout this process the observations of these stories–what aspects of the human experience the fox symbolized–remained the same: the reality of raising food, the concerns about providing for your family, and other human concerns.
Creation of Eve, Sistine Ceiling, 1508-12, Michelangelo
In our own time, the misunderstanding of the word myth fuels tension. The creation story in Genesis is seen as a ‘myth’ by those who do not believe it is a historical fact. Those who believe in the story’s factuality take offense to this. Both groups are missing the point. The story of Genesis concerns itself more with the nature of reality and human’s role within it than sketching a historical origin to creation. Genesis speaks about our responsibility as the gardener species. It points to how we can use our intellect selfishly in a way that damages the world, ourselves, and our loved ones (eating of the Tree of Knowledge) or in a way that benefits creation as God intended. It also speaks about the negative consequences of greed and impulsive action. Finally, it touches on the danger of words. Even a single shift in wording can change the meaning of a statement with long-lasting consequences. The story’s messages are far more important than its factual accuracy.
The debate about Genesis and other modern myths centers around our misunderstanding about facts and truth. Facts can lie. Truth can exist without fact. We know Aesop’s fables are fiction, but they contain truth.
The Lion, the Fox and the Ass entered into an agreement to assist each other in the chase. Having secured a large booty, the Lion on their return from the forest asked the Ass to allot his due portion to each of the three partners in the treaty. The Ass carefully divided the spoil into three equal shares and modestly requested the two others to make the first choice. The Lion, bursting out into a great rage, devoured the Ass. Then he requested the Fox to do him the favor to make a division. The Fox accumulated all that they had killed into one large heap and left to himself the smallest possible morsel. The Lion said, “Who has taught you, my very excellent fellow, the art of division? You are perfect to a fraction.” He replied, “I learned it from the Ass, by witnessing his fate.”
Be careful not to use the word myth when you mean to say lie or misconception. The creation story of Genesis is a myth. The Kojiki is a myth. Calling a misconception a myth slanders the truthfulness of these stories and other stories.
I don’t normally do promotional posts like this, but it’s tough to keep up with a regular blog writing schedule when posts require a fair amount of research. So think of this post as a way for me to rest while still telling you I have a new book available. I don’t believe in veiling promotional articles in the costume of a regular article, but I still made sure to sprinkle neat information and my experiences researching Japanese tree stories.
The sakura, or cherry tree, is Japan. The tree roots itself deep into Japanese culture. Anime fans are well aware of the symbols of the cherry blossom–how it represents the present, fleeting moment and springtime. However, these scenes from anime reach deep into Japanese literature, all the way back to the Heian period’s Tale of Genji and various folk stories.
The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, connects sakura blossoms with high art. The first written accounts of flower viewing parties sketch how the Heian elite spent their time politicking under cherry trees. It wasn’t until the Edo period that the rest of the populace began to enjoy their own cherry blossom viewing festivals. Part of this was because of the growing influence of the merchant class at the time. As merchants grew wealthier, the samurai class felt threatened and confiscated that wealth. They didn’t tax the urban class.
In response, the rich urban class burned their wealth on red-light districts, on geisha, and on public parks. They began to mimic the Heian period sakura viewing parties–only with more booze and rowdiness.
Each of Japan’s three classes of the time–samurai, urban, and farmer–had their own set of sakura stories. Each class reflected the concerns of the class. For example, the samurai focused on honor and family lineage, while the farming class focused on romance. Yes, people and trees fell in love. Or rather, the spirits of trees fell in love with humans.
Tree stories seem to be a bit of an odd topic. I stumbled across Japanese tree stories when I was researching for Come and Sleep: The Folklore of the Japanese Fox. One of the fox stories I found involved the fox turning into a tree to confuse people traveling through a forest. I thought it was a one-off story, but I soon discovered tree spirits could shapeshift too. Western tradition also has a long history of tree spirits, but those stories weren’t as well developed. However, they inspired many modern fantasy creatures such as nymphs and dryads and ents. In Japan, trees didn’t inspire other fantasy creatures, but they married, had children, and even walked. Not to mention, Japan’s association with cherry blossoms became a stereotype.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that we in the West gained access to these stories. I had to do some digging to find good English translations of them and none of those were modern. In fact, I found no collection of stories focused on trees in English. I had the same issue when I dug into kitsune. There was only a single book about it, and that book had been out of print for over 40 years. Which is why I decided to write these short, introductory books about kitsune, tanuki, and trees. I kept them short in order to make them easier to read, and I did my best to avoid using Japanese transliterations too much. I don’t like to slog through scholarly articles loaded with Latin substitutions for archaic Japanese so I decided to keep my books as readable as I could. I also decided to keep the original 1800s grammar intact for the most part. I find it charming, and it helps the stories feel old. But it can be tough to understand at times.
Old stories set the groundwork for stories we have today. In fact, we often see Hollywood and other studios retell them, but sadly, not everyone has access to these stories. Society results from the stories we tell ourselves. They reflect our concerns, which are little changed from past concerns despite the progress of technology. Human problems–social, economic, spiritual–remain the same throughout the ages. Old stories teach us lessons modern stories fail to do with their concern for profit and desire to avoid offending people. Old stories don’t worry about being politically correct and sledgehammer lessons we need to hear but find unsettling. Many stories, for example, take a firm stand against sex before marriage, which has become the norm in our society (of course, the stories focus on women keeping their chastity and not on the men). Research I’ve cited in other articles supports the idea of waiting until marriage, but it’s not a popular stance, nor does it sell.
Likewise, old tree stories speak about individual environmental responsibility. We often look at what government and industry can do, but fail to discuss how we need to change our habits. Tree folklore speaks about how individual habits can hurt the trees around a village, which eventually hurts the village too. But individual responsibility is often lost in our environmental discussions because many see such changes as infringing on their freedom of choice. As Edo period stories show, the consequences of irresponsibility leads to death of loved ones. Strange how stories from the 1600s can still be relevant to current environmental concerns, if on a smaller scale. They even touch on naysayers in the stories.
It’s interesting how centuries-old stories address the same concerns as today. We really haven’t changed all that much. If you want to learn more, check out Under the Cherry Blossoms and Come and Sleep. Both are available in paperback and on Kindle.