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!
“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.
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.
Japanese 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.
About one thousand years ago (but according to the dates of the story 744 years ago) the temple of “San-jn-san-gen Do” was founded. That was in 1132. ‘San-ju-san-gen Do”means hall of thirty-three spaces; and there are said to be over 33,333 figures of the Goddess Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in the temple to-day. Before the temple was built, in a village near by stood a willow tree of great size. It marked the playing-ground of all the village children, who swung on its branches, and climbed on its limbs. It afforded shade to the aged in the heat of summer, and in the evenings, when work was done, many were the village lads and lasses who vowed eternal love under its branches. The tree seemed an influence for good to all. Even the weary traveler could sleep peacefully and almost dry under its branches. Alas, even in those times men were often ruthless with regard to trees. One day the villagers announced an intention to cut it down and use it to build a bridge across the river.
There lived in the village a young farmer named Heitaro, a great favorite, who had lived near the old tree all his days, as his forefathers had done ; and he was greatly against cutting it down.
Such a tree should be respected, thought he. Had it not braved the storms of hundreds of years ? In the heat of summer what pleasure it afforded the children ! Did it not give to the weary shelter, and to the love-smitten a sense of romance ? All these thoughts Heitaro impressed upon the villagers. Sooner than approve your cutting it down/ he said, “I will give you as many of my own trees as you require to build the bridge. You must leave this dear old willow alone for ever/
The villagers readily agreed. They also had a secret veneration for the old tree.
Heitaro was delighted, and readily found wood with which to build the bridge.
Some days later Heitaro, returning from his work, found standing by the willow a beautiful girl.
Instinctively he bowed to her. She returned the bow. They spoke together of the tree, its age and beauty. They seemed, in fact, to be drawn towards each other by a common sympathy. Heitaro was sorry when she said that she must be going, and bade him good-day. That evening his mind was far from being fixed on the ordinary things of life. “Who was the lady under the willow tree ? How I wish I could see her again!’“thought he. There was no sleep for Heitaro that night. He had caught the fever of love.
Next day he was at his work early ; and he remained at it all day, working doubly hard, so as to try and forget the lady of the willow tree ; but on his way home in the evening, behold, there was the lady again ! This time she came forward to greet him in the most friendly way.
“Welcome, good friend !”she said. “Come and rest under the branches of the willow you love so well, for you must be tired.”
Heitaro readily accepted this invitation, and not only did he rest, but also he declared his love.
Day by day after this the mysterious girl (whom no others had seen) used to meet Heitaro, and at last she promised to marry him if he asked no questions as to her parents or friends. “I have none,” she said. “I can only promise to be a good and faithful wife, and tell you that I love you with all my heart and soul. Call me, then, ” Higo,” J and I will be your wife.”
Next day Heitaro took Higo to his house, and they were married. A son was born to them in a little less than a year, and became their absorbing joy. There was not a moment of their spare time in which either Heitaro or his wife was not playing with the child, whom they called Chiyodo. It is doubtful if a more happy home could have been found in all Japan than the house of Heitaro, with his good wife Higo and their beautiful child.
Alas, where in this world has complete happiness ever been known to last ? Even did the gods permit this, the laws of man would not.
When Chiyodo had reached the age of five years— the most beautiful boy in the neighbourhood—the ex-Emperor Toba decided to build in Kyoto an immense temple to Kwannon. He would contribute 1001 images of the Goddess of Mercy.
The ex-Emperor Toba’s wish having become known, orders were given by the authorities to collect timber for the building of the vast temple ; and so it came to pass that the days of the big willow tree were numbered, for it would be wanted, with many others, to form the roof.
Heitaro tried to save the tree again by offering every other he had on his land for nothing, but that was in vain. Even the villagers became anxious to see their willow tree built into the temple. It would bring them good luck, they thought, and in any case be a handsome gift of theirs towards the great temple.
The fatal time arrived. One night, when Heitaro and his wife and child had retired to rest and were sleeping, Heitaro was awakened by the sound of axes chopping. To his astonishment, he found his beloved wife sitting up in her bed, gazing earnestly at him, while tears rolled down her cheeks and she was sobbing bitterly.
“My dearest husband,”she said with choking voice, “ pray listen to what I tell you now, and do not doubt me. This is, unhappily, not a dream. When we married I begged you not to ask me my history, and you have never done so, but I said I would tell you some day if there should be a real occasion to do so. Unhappily, that occasion has now arrived, my dear husband. I am no less a thing than the spirit of the willow tree you loved, and so generously saved six years ago. It was to repay you for this great kindness that I appeared to you in human form under the tree, hoping that I could live with you and make you happy for your whole life. Alas, it cannot be! They are cutting down the willow. How I feel every stroke of their axes! I must return to die, for I am part of it. My heart breaks to think also of leaving my darling child Chiyodo and of his great sorrow when he knows that his mother is no longer in the world. Comfort him, dearest husband! He is old enough and strong enough to be with you now without a mother and yet not suffer. I wish you both long lives of prosperity. Farewell, my dearest ! I must be off to the willow, for I hear them striking with their axes harder and harder, and it weakens me each blow they give.
Heitaro awoke his child just as Higo disappeared, wondering to himself if it were not a dream. No : it was no dream. Chiyodo, awaking, stretched his arms in the direction his mother had gone, crying bitterly and imploring her to come back.
“My darling child,”said Heitaro, “she has gone. She cannot come back. Come, let us dress, and go and see her funeral. Your mother was the spirit of the Great Willow.”
A little later, at the break of day, Heitaro took Chiyodo by the hand and led him to the tree. On reaching it they found it down, and already lopped of its branches. The feelings of Heitaro may be well imagined.
Strange ! In spite of united efforts, the men were unable to move the stem a single inch towards the river, in which it was to be floated to Kyoto.
On seeing this, Heitaro addressed the men.
“My friends,” said he, “the dead trunk of the tree which you are trying to move contains the spirit of my wife. Perhaps, if you will allow my little son Chiyodo to help you, it will be more easy for you ; and he would like to help in showing his last respects to his mother.’
The woodcutters were fully agreeable, and, much to their astonishment, as Chiyodo came to the back end of the log and pushed it with his little hand, the timber glided easily towards the river, his father singing the while an “Uta.” There is a well-known song or ballad in the “Uta”style said to have sprung from this event; it is sung to the present day by men drawing heavy weights or doing hard labor:
Is it not sad to see the little fellow,
Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,
And is thus far budding well ?
Heave ho, heave ho, pull hard, my lads.
The wagon could not be drawn when it came to the front of Heitaro’s house, so his little five-year-old boy Chiyodo was obliged to help, and they sang :—
Is it not sad to see the little fellow,
Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,
And is thus far budding well ?
Heave ho, heave ho, pull hard, my lads.
There are many different versions of this story. This is one of the most detailed. Japanese folklore rarely end “happily ever after.” The stories capture the reality of intertwined happiness and sorrow. Even the closest lovers must part for a time when one of them dies. However, these stories aren’t pessimistic. Rather, they seek to teach appreciation. We appreciate what we have more when we know it must end.
Smith, Richard Gordon (1918) Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan.
The Kojiki, which translates to “Records of Ancient Matters”, contains Japan’s native creation myths and other mythology. Like all mythology, it was considered both factually true and Truth through most of history. This translation comes from Basil Hall Chamberlain and dates to 1932. This excerpt includes the introduction of the first volume and Japan’s creation story. The story about the creation of Japan’s deities comes from a 1929 translation by Yaichiro Isobe. I include these two different translations to give you an idea of how these ancient texts can feel different depending on who is translating.
Hereupon all the ‘heavenly Deities commanded the two Deities His Augustness the Male-Who-Invites and her Augustness the Female-Who-Invites, ordering them to “make, consolidate, and give birth to this drifting land.” Granting to them a heavenly jewelled spear, they deigned to charge them. So the two Deities, standing upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven, pushed down the jewelled spear and stirred it, whereupon, when they had stirred the brine till it went curdle-curdle, and drew the spear up, the brine that dripped down from the end of the spear was piled up and became an island. This is the island of Onogoro.
Birth of the Eight Great Islands
The 8 islands of ancient Japan
Hereupon the two Deities took counsel, saying: “The children to whom we have now given birth are not good. It will be best to announce this in the august place of the Heavenly Deities.” They ascended forthwith to Heaven and inquired of Their Augustnesses the Heavenly Deities. Then the Heavenly Deities commanded and found out by grand divination, and ordered them, saying: “They were not good because the woman spoke first. Descend back again and amend you words.” So thereupon descending back, they again when round the heavenly august pillar as before. Thereupon his Augustness the Male-Who-Invites spoke first: ” Ah! What a fair and lovely maiden!” Afterward; his younger sister Her Augustness the Female-Who-Invites spoke: “Ah! what a fair ad lovely youth!” In such way did they give birth to a child the Island of Ahaji, Honosawake. Next they gave birth to the Island of Futa-na in Iyo. This island has one body and four faces, and each face as a name. So the Land of Iyo is called Lovely Princess, the Land of Sanuki is called Prince Good Boiled Rice; the Land of Aha is called Princess of Great Food; the Land of Tosa is called Brave Good Youth. Next they gave birth to the Islands of Mitsugo near Oki, another nae for which is Heavenly Great Heart Youth. Next they gave birth to the island of Tsukushi. This island likewise has one body and four faces, and each face has a name. So the Land of Tsukushi is called White Sun Youth; the Land of Toyo is called Luxuriant Sun Youth; the Land of Hi is called Brave Sun Confronting Luxuriant Wonderous Lord Youth; the Land of Kumaso is called Brave Sun Youth.
Next they gave birth to the island of Iki, another name for which is Heaven’s One Pillar. Next they gave birth to the Island of Tsu, another name for which is Heavenly Hand net Good Princess. Next they gave birth to the Island of Sado. Next they gave birth to Great Yamato the Luxuriant Island of the Dragon Fly, another name for which is Heavenly August Sky Luxuriant Dragon fly Lord Youth. The name of Land of the Eight Great Islands therefore originated in these eight islands having been born first. After that, when they had returned, they gave birth to the Island of Ko in Kibi, another name for which is Brave Sun Direction Youth. Next they gave birth to the Island of Adzuki another name for which is Ohonudehime. Next they gave birth to he Island of Oho, another name for which is Tamaru-wake. Next they gave birth to he Island of Hime, another name for which is Heaven’s One Root. Next they gave birth to he Island of Chika, another name for which is Heavenly Great Male. Next they gave birth to he Island of Futago, another name for which is Heaven’s Two Houses.
The Birth of the Deities
Izanagi and Izanami, Amaterasu’s parents.
Having, thus, made a country from what had formerly been no more than a mere floating mass, the two Deities, Izanagi and Izanami, about begetting those deities destined to preside over the land, sea, mountains, rivers, trees, and herbs. Their first-born proved to be the sea-god, Owatatsumi-no-Kami. Next they gave birth to the patron gods of harbors, the male deity Kamihaya-akitsu-hiko having control of the land and the goddess Haya-akitsu-hime having control of the sea. These two latter deities subsequently gave birth to eight other gods.
Next Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to the wind-deity, Kami-Shinatsuhiko-no-Mikoto. At the moment of his birth, his breath was so potent that the clouds and mists, which had hung over the earth from the beginning of time, were immediately dispersed. In consequence, every corner of the world was filled with brightness. Kukunochi-no-Kami, the deity of trees, was the next to be born, followed by Oyamatsumi-no-Kami, the deity of mountains, and Kayanuhime-no-Kami, the goddess of the plains. . . .
The process of procreation had, so far, gone on happily, but at the birth of Kagutsuchi-no-Kami, the deity of fire, an unseen misfortune befell the divine mother, Izanami. During the course of her confinement, the goddess was so severely burned by the flaming child that she swooned away. Her divine consort, deeply alarmed, did all in his power to resuscitate her, but although he succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, her appetite had completely gone. Izanagi, thereupon and with the utmost loving care, prepared for her delectation various tasty dishes, but all to no avail, because whatever she swallowed was almost immediately rejected. It was in this wise that occurred the greatest miracle of all. From her mouth sprang Kanayama-biko and Kanayama-hime, respectively the god and goddess of metals, whilst from other parts of her body issued forth Haniyasu-hiko and Haniyasu-hime, respectively the god and goddess of earth. Before making her “divine retirement,” which marks the end of her earthly career, in a manner almost unspeakably miraculous she gave birth to her last-born, the goddess Mizuhame-no-Mikoto. Her demise marks the intrusion of death into the world. Similarly the corruption of her body and the grief occasioned by her death were each the first of their kind.
By the death of his faithful spouse Izanagi was now quite alone in the world. In conjunction with her, and in accordance with the instructions of the Heavenly Gods, he had created and consolidated the Island Empire of Japan. In the fulfillment of their divine mission, he and his heavenly spouse had lived an ideal life of mutual love and cooperation. It is only natural, therefore, that her death should have dealt him a truly mortal blow.
He threw himself upon her prostrate form, crying: “Oh, my dearest wife, why art thou gone, to leave me thus alone? How could I ever exchange thee for even one child? Come back for the sake of the world, in which there still remains so much for both us twain to do.” In a fit of uncontrollable grief, he stood sobbing at the head of the bier. His hot tears fell like hailstones, and lo! out of the tear-drops was born a beauteous babe, the goddess Nakisawame-no-Mikoto. In deep astonishment he stayed his tears, a gazed in wonder at the new-born child, but soon his tears returned only to fall faster than before. It was thus that a sudden change came over his state of mind. With bitter wrath, his eyes fell upon the infant god of fire, whose birth had proved so fatal to his mother. He drew his sword, Totsuka-no-tsurugi, and crying in his wrath, “Thou hateful matricide,” decapitated his fiery offspring. Up shot a crimson spout of blood. Out of the sword and blood together arose eight strong and gallant deities. “What! more children?” cried Izanagi, much astounded at their sudden appearance, but the very next moment, what should he see but eight more deities born from the lifeless body of the infant firegod! They came out from the various parts of the body,–head, breast, stomach, hands, feet, and navel, and, to add to his astonishment, all of them were glaring fiercely at him. Altogether stupefied he surveyed the new arrivals one after another.
Meanwhile Izanami, for whom her divine husband pined so bitterly, had quitted this world for good and all and gone to the Land of Hades.
These creation stories, though strange to modern readers, speak of several truths. First, the story speaks with affection about the Japanese homeland. Much of Japanese history is characterized by a special affinity toward the land. Several times throughout Japanese history there were movements to restore the forests and other habitats. When everything has a spirit or god behind it, people tend to hold a respectful, reverent view of the environment and how it supports their lives. This can also be seen in Native American cultures. This myth and those like it suggest how we should retain our respect for the world around us and its resources. To do otherwise disrespects the divine and jeopardizes our ability to live.
The story about the gods’ births sets the stage for several reoccurring themes in Japanese literature and culture. Harmony is emphasized. Japanese culture places the quest for harmony between people and between people and nature in the center. Their honorific system grew out of this. The story shows how the decay of harmony and the reality of sorrow can lead to unintended consequences. In his grief, Izanagi kills his son, creating more sons and daughters in the process–much to his surprise. The story lays out a thread found throughout Japanese literature. The blissful, harmonious life Izanagi and Izanami shared couldn’t last. Izanami’s tragic death introduces sorrow to what was a happy story. Japanese literature enjoys balancing happiness with sorrow. Tragedy completes the story. Without sorrow, happiness cannot be understood. Few stories end “happily ever after” but this reflects a clear-eyed view of reality. Buddhism carries a similar thread. Buddhism stories focus on how suffering permeates our experiences. This overlap helped Shintoism (which is what these creation stories originate from) and Buddhism mingle. Whenever you read Japanese literature, you will see this interweaving of religions.
When you read some of these old translations, archaic Japanese is either depicted in Old English as you will see here or in Latin. Chamberlain’s excerpt contained a few sections of Latin that I translated for you. During the time these stories were written, the Imperial Court used a different dialect of Japanese than the rest of the country. This dialect fell out of style rather quickly but reappeared in literature. Imperial characters and gods spoke it to emphasize their separateness. The use of the language is similar to the Western use of Latin after the fall of Rome. Latin become the language of the Catholic Church and of educated noble elites. It was used to write court and religious documents. This similarity prompted some early translators to use Latin for Imperial Court Japanese. Unlike Latin, which still appears in academia and the Catholic Church, Imperial Court Japanese disappeared. A few remnants appear in Japanese language, but it lacks the cohesion that endures in Latin. You can still find vestiges of it in the speaking style in joseigo, the speaking style of Japan’s Lolita subculture, and with the Japanese Imperial family.
Chamberlain, B. (1939) Translation of Kojiki. Kobe: J.L. Thompson & Co.
Yaichiro, I. (1929) The Story of Ancient Japan or Tales from the Kojiki. San Kaku Sha.