Tag Archives: Japanese folklore


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.


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.


An Ancient Science Fiction Story: The Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon-Child

Discovery of the Moonchild.

Discovery of the Moonchild.

Modern Japan is well known for its fascination with all things robotic. This is rooted deep in their history, when they used clockwork puppets called the Karakuri Ninyao to play out folk stories during religious festivals. Like their preoccupation with robots, the Japanese are well known for their contributions to science fiction.  Famous science fiction from Japan ranges from kaiju monster flicks of the 1950s like Godzilla to iconic anime like Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Cowboy Bebop.

Not surprisingly, the roots of this genre run deep in Japan. The oldest surviving folkloric narrative in Japan, dating from around the 10th century, is widely considered among the oldest science fiction style story in the world. The story is called “The Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon-Child.”

An old, old story, in brief

Long ago, an old bamboo cutter and his wife eked out a lonely existence. One day, the bamboo cutter was surprised to see a bamboo stalk glowing with light. When he cut it open, he found a tiny girl nestled inside. He took her home and he and his wife raised the radiant child as their own. When the bamboo cutter returned to work, he found that the stalk the child had occupied would contain gold when he cut it open again. Soon he and his wife were rich and able to buy a big house.

During that time, the child grew to become a beautiful young woman. She gave off a faint glow, and to look on her filled her old parents with joy. They named her Princess Moonlight because of her glow. Soon though word of her beauty spread far and wide, and men from all over clamored to lay their eyes on her. Five noblemen in particular were enamored with her, staying outside her house for days on end just to catch a glimpse of her. Finally, her aged father persuades the girl to at least give them a chance. She tells the would-be husbands that she would marry whoever carries out a task she gives them. Each was given an impossible task. The first was asked to bring her the stone bowl of the Buddha back from India. The second was to give her the branch of a miraculous tree growing on Mount Horai, that was said to sprout jewels instead of fruit. The third was asked to bring her the skin of a fire-rat, from China. The fourth was told to bring her a colorful jewel that a dragon carried on its head, while the fifth was tasked with finding the swallow which carried a shell in its stomach and bring the shell back to her.

Long story short, each noble failed in his task. Some tried to deceive Princess Moonlight, while others gave up when the task proved impossible. One noble was severely injured, or killed in some versions.

The Emperor heard of Princess Moonlight’s beauty, and sent Court ladies to see if she was really as beautiful as rumor had it. When they returned and said that it was indeed true, he summoned Princess Moonlight to the palace. She refused. Intrigued, he visited her home and quickly became smitten with her.

However, Princess Moonlight was not interested in any terrestrial suitor. She was gradually becoming more withdrawn, and would spend a lot of time at night staring at the moon.  One night she revealed to her step-father that she had originally came from the moon, sent to escape a devastating war (or, in some versions, as a punishment). She said that she would one day return, and she did not want to be tied down in a marriage. Her parents grieved that she would one day leave them.

The Emperor, who heard the news, was not happy at all. When the Emperor had confirmed it, he sent troops to secure the house. One thousand were stationed on the roof, while another thousand watched the perimeter. Princess Moonlight’s parents hid her in an inner room.

Kaguya returns to the moon.

Kaguya returns to the moon.

Princess Moonlight tried to dissuade the would be protectors, saying that no preparations of the Earth dwellers could stop the moon-people. But they continued to keep her under guard. The night wore on and the moon rose high. Dawn approached and the earthlings believed that they would make it through the night without incident. Then a cloud began to form on the moon. It rolled toward them, until it loomed over the house. Radiant figures stood in a giant cloud wreathed chariot. The moon people explain that they sent the girl to earth, and the gold was also sent as a stipend for her care.  The moon people wouldn’t be talked out of their purpose. They offered Princess Moonlight the Elixir of Life and a potion which would wipe her experiences on earth from her memory forever.

She took the Elixir of Life but refused the potion. She wrote a letter to the Emperor and gave him a phial of the Elixir of Life. She leaves the letter and drinks the potion before being taken back home to the moon.

The letter was taken to the palace. The Emperor refused to read it or take the Elixir. He had the letter taken to Mount Fuji to be burnt as an offering to Princess Moonlight, which is why smoke can be seen to this day rising out of Mt. Fuji.

Traditional folktale with scifi elements

While science fiction was not a genre at the time this folktale was written, the story definitely has some science fiction elements. Specifically, the idea of aliens (the moon people) coming to earth on a fantastic vehicle. It seems like a bizarre addition to what would otherwise be a fairly typical folktale for the region. A similar story, the story of Momotaro, involves a small girl emerging from a peach, similar to how Princess Moonlight was found in a bamboo stalk. That sort of story is fairly common to East Asia, but the proto-scifi elements are unique. It goes to show that the Japanese propensity for unique story telling is rooted deep in its cultural history.

Sources:

“The Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon-Child: Japanese Folktale.” WorldofTales.com. 2014. World of Tales. November 1, 2014. http://www.worldoftales.com/Asian_folktales/Japanese_folktale_15.html

“Once Upon a Time in Japan.” NHK World. http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/folktale/special/english/kaguya/overview.html