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.

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.

Under the Cherry Blossoms

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.

The Foxes’ Wedding

Kuniyoshi_Kuzunoha bigJapanese fox folklore has many romantic stories. The Foxes’ Wedding is one such story. According to Japanese beliefs, the fox–or kitsune if you prefer–is a loyal and dedicated lover. Most stories feature a human marrying a female fox. This story is a love story between two foxes, which is fairly rare. White foxes are viewed as divine and benevolent, unlike red foxes. Red foxes can be tricksters or as benevolent as white foxes. This story focuses on white foxes.

One final note: this story is also unusual because of its ending. Most Japanese folk stories dealing with foxes have tragic endings. Western fairy tales have trained Westerners to expect a “happily ever after” ending. However, in Japanese folktales such an ending is rare. Japanese culture considers a story incomplete without sorrow. If you want to learn more about the Japanese fox, check out my book: Come and Sleep: the Folklore of the Japanese Fox.

Once upon a time there was a young white fox, whose name was Fukuyémon. When he had reached the fitting age, he shaved off his forelock and began to think of taking to himself a beautiful bride. The old fox, his father, resolved to give up his inheritance to his son, and retired into private life; so the young fox, in gratitude for this, laboured hard and earnestly to increase his patrimony. Now it happened that in a famous old family of foxes there was a beautiful young lady-fox, with such lovely fur that the fame of her jewel-like charms was spread far and wide. The young white fox, who had heard of this, was bent on making her his wife, and a meeting was arranged between them. There was not a fault to be found on either side; so the preliminaries were settled, and the wedding presents sent from the bridegroom to the bride’s house, with congratulatory speeches from the messenger, which were duly acknowledged by the person deputed to receive the gifts; the bearers, however received the customary fee in copper cash.

When the ceremonies had been concluded, an auspicious day was chosen for the bride to go to her husband’s house, and she was carried off in solemn procession during a shower of rain, the sun shining all the while. After the ceremonies of drinking wine had been gone through, the bride changed her dress, and the wedding was concluded, without let or hindrance, amid singing and dancing and merry-making.

The bride and bridegroom lived lovingly together, and a litter of little foxes were born to them, to the great joy of the old grandsire, who treated the little cubs as tenderly as if they had been butterflies or flowers. “They’re the very image of their old grandfather,” said he, as proud as possible. “As for medicine, bless them, they’re so healthy that they’ll never need a copper coin’s worth!”

As soon as they were old enough, they were carried off to the temple of Inari Sama, the patron saint of foxes, and the old grand-parents prayed that they might be delivered from dogs and all the other ills to which fox flesh is heir.

In this way the white fox by degrees waxed old and prosperous, and his children, year by year, became more and more numerous around him; so that, happy in his family and his business, every recurring spring brought him fresh cause for joy.

References

A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan. 1871.