The Dream Story of Gojiro

ascent of the dragon's gate - gojiroOnly a few years ago there was a gentleman in Fukui, Japan, who had a son, a bright lad of twelve, who was very diligent at school and had made astonishing progress in his studies. He was especially quick at learning Chinese characters, of which every Japanese gentleman who wishes to be called educated must know at least two thousand. For, although the Chinese and Japanese are two very different languages, yet the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese use the same letters to write with, just as English, Germans, French and Spaniards all employ one and the same alphabet.Now Gojiro’s father had promised him that when he read through five volumes of the Nihongi, or Ancient History of Japan, he would give him for a present a book of wonderful Chinese stories. Gojiro performed his task, and his father kept his promise. One day on his return from a journey to Kioto, he presented his son with sixteen volumes, all neatly silk-bound, well illustrated with wood-cuts, and printed clearly on thin, silky mulberry paper, from the best wooden blocks. It will be remembered that several volumes of Japanese literature make but one of ours, as they are much lighter and thinner than ours.Gojiro was so delighted with the wonderful stories of heroes and warriors, travelers and sailors, that he almost felt himself in China. He read far into the night, with the lamp inside of his mosquito curtain; and finally fell asleep, still undressed, but with his head full of all sorts of Chinese wonders.

He dreamed he was far away in China, walking along the banks of the great Yellow River. Everything was very strange. The people talked an entirely different language from his own; had on different clothes; and, instead of the nice shaven head and top-knot of the Japanese, every one wore a long pigtail of hair, that dangled at his heels. Even the boats were of a strange form, and on the fishing smacks perched on projecting rails, sat rows of cormorants, each with a ring around his neck. Every few minutes one of them would dive under the water, and after a while come struggling up with a fish in its mouth, so big that the fishermen had to help the bird into the boat. The game was then flung into a basket, and the cormorant was treated to a slice of raw fish, by way of encouragement and to keep the bird from the bad habit of eating the live fish whole. This the ravenous bird would sometimes try to do, even though the ring was put around his neck for the express purpose of preventing him from gulping down a whole fish at once.

It was springtime, and the buds were just bursting into flower. The river was full of fish, especially of carp, ascending to the great rapids or cascades. Here the current ran at a prodigious rate of swiftness, and the waters rippled and boiled and roared with frightful noise. Yet, strange to say, many of the fish were swimming up the stream as if their lives depended on it. They leaped and floundered about; but every one seemed to be tossed back and left exhausted in the river, where they panted and gasped for breath in the eddies at the side. Some were so bruised against the rocks that, after a few spasms, they floated white and stiff, belly up, on the water, dead, and were swept down the stream. Still the shoal leaped and strained every fin, until their scales flashed in the sun like a host of armored warriors in battle. Gojiro, enjoying it as if it were a real conflict of wave and fishes, clapped his hands with delight.

Then Gojiro inquired, by means of writing, of an old white-bearded sage standing by and looking on: “What is the name of this part of the river?”

“We call it Lung Men,” said the sage.

“Will you please write the characters for it,” said Gojiro, producing his ink-case and brush-pen, with a roll of soft mulberry paper.

The sage wrote the two Chinese characters, meaning “The Gate of the Dragons,” or “Dragons’ Gate,” and turned away to watch a carp that seemed almost up into smooth water.

“Oh! I see,” said Gojiro to himself. “That’s pronounced Riu Mon in Japanese. I’ll go further on and see. There must be some meaning in this fish-climbing.” He went forward a few rods, to where the banks trended upward into high bluffs, crowned by towering firs, through the top branches of which fleecy white clouds sailed slowly along, so near the sky did the tree-tops seem. Down under the cliffs the river ran perfectly smooth, almost like a mirror, and broadened out to the opposite shore. Far back, along the current, he could still see the rapids shelving down. It was crowded at the bottom with leaping fish, whose numbers gradually thinned out toward the center; while near the top, close to the edge of level water, one solitary fish, of powerful fin and tail, breasted the steep stream. Now forward a leap, then a slide backward, sometimes further to the rear than the next leap made up for, then steady progress, then a slip, but every moment nearer, until, clearing foam and ripple and spray at one bound, it passed the edge and swam happily in smooth water.

It was inside the Dragon Gate.

A woodblock print of a koi-nobari, carp banner.

A woodblock print of a koi-nobari, carp banner.

Now came the wonderful change. One of the fleecy white clouds suddenly left the host in the deep blue above, dipped down from the sky, and swirling round and round as if it were a water spout, scratched and frayed the edge of the water like a fisher’s troll. The carp saw and darted toward it. In a moment the fish was transformed into a white dragon, and, rising into the cloud, floated off toward Heaven. A streak or two of red fire, a gleam of terrible eyes, and the flash of white scales was all that Gojiro saw. Then he awoke.

“How strange that a poor little carp, a common fish that lives in the river, should become a great white dragon, and soar up into the sky, to live there,” thought Gojiro, the next day, as he told his mother of his dream.

“Yes,” said she; “and what a lesson for you. See how the carp persevered, leaping over all difficulties, never giving up till it became a dragon. I hope my son will mount over all obstacles, and rise to honor and to high office under the government.”

“Oh! oh! now I see!” said Gojiro. “That is what my teacher means when he says the students in Tokio have a saying, ‘I’m a fish today, but I hope to be a dragon tomorrow,’ when they go to attend examination; and that’s what Papa meant when he said: ‘That fish’s son, Kofuku, has become a white dragon, while I am yet only a carp.'”

So on the third day of the third month, at the Feast of Flags, Gojiro hoisted the nobori. It was a great fish, made of paper, fifteen feet long and hollow like a bag. It was yellow, with black scales and streaks of gold, and red gills and mouth, in which two strong strings were fastened. It was hoisted up by a rope to the top of a high bamboo pole on the roof of the house. There the breeze caught it, swelled it out round and full of air. The wind made the fins work, and the tail flap, and the head tug, until it looked just like a carp trying to swim the rapids of the Yellow River—the symbol of ambition and perseverance.

This story explains the folklore origin of the nobori banner flown as a traditional wish for health and prosperity. May 5th stands as a holiday called “Children’s Day” since World War II. Koi-nobori fly for each member of the family. The festival traces back to the 18th and 19th century where boys staged battles using iris leaves as swords. Tradition calls the holiday Shobu no Sekku, festival of the irises, for this reason. The festival sought to recreate the battles between the 12th century families Genji and Heike. The festival acts as a prayer for young boys to grow up strong and courageous. 

So why the carp? The carp, or koi, stands as a symbol of courage and strength because it can leap up waterfalls as we’ve seen in Gojiro’s story. Folklore captures the reasons for festivals in fantastic stories such as this. In this case, the wish for children to grow strong enough to become successful: dragons.

References

Griffis, William Elliot (1887) Japanese Fairy World: Stories from the Wonder-lore of Japan. London: Trubner and Company.

The Bandits and the Wrestlers, a Tanuki Tale

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.

You can learn more about tanuki in my book. Tanuki: The Folklore of Japan’s Trickster.

The Willow Wife

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!

I included this and other tree stories in my book, Under the Cherry Blossoms: An Introduction to Japanese Tree Folklore.

References

Davis, F Hadland (1912). Myths and Legends of Japan. George G Harrap and Company, London.

Chasing Nightmares – Kanashibari

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.

References

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: The Story Behind Naruto’s Characters

“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.

What is a Myth?

Susanoo

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.