Monday, January 4, 2021

Kitsune, tanuki, and other Japanese classics (Following folktales around the world 184. - Japan)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Japanese folk tales
Yanagita Kunio
Tokyo News Service, 1954.

The book contains 108 Japanese folktales from a national folklore collecting campaign, the story of which we find out from the short introduction. The foreword talks to the younger generations especially, explaining the working and the importance or oral tradition in simple terms. The tales included in the book are common Japanese types that appear in various regions in one shape or another. Their titles are given in Japanese as well as Latin letters, and in most cases the city or region of collection is also noted. Cultural references and Japanese words are explained in footnotes. Stories are arranged by similarity, with multiple variants of the same type following each other.


I really liked The mountain spirit's quiver, in which a blind musician was lost in the mountains, and for his beautiful songs the mountains spirit took care of him in magical ways. I also enjoyed the legend of Kosai Osho and the sea turtles, which reminded me of the Greek myth of Arion: a kind priest saved large turtles from fishermen, and the turtles saved him when pirates attacked his ship. Another grateful animal featured into the story of Monkey Masamune, where two kind messengers rescued a monkey from an octopus, and received a valuable antique sword in exchange.
I liked magical transformation stories, like the one where a pine tree turned into a girl named Matsuko, and went on pilgrimage; or the one where a talking snapping turtle warned the fisherman that caught him that he would be back home in the lake soon enough.
There was a beautiful story about an old man who received a magic hood, one that allowed him to understand the language of plants and animals. He discovered a tree stump under a house that could not die but could not grow either, and found out that its tree-friends visited it every night to give words of sympathy and encouragement. 
Dragons featured into multiple stories. In one, a samurai was invited by the Dragon King of the sea to help him defeat a giant evil serpent - and in exchange given a bell for his temple. And of course there is no Japanese folklore collection without yokai. Yama-haha, for example, is a demon disguised as a mortal woman, with a giant mouth in the back of her head. Her husband had to get rid of her by trickery (and with the use of some flowers). 
The book had the classic, lovely story of the Jizo statues and their New Year hats, and also one of my favorite tales, about the Rice dumpling that rolled into the Underworld. Here, an old many followed the dumpling and became rich - but his jealous neighbor did not fare similarly well at all. After many years I finally found here the folktale version of the Three strong women picture book, about a supernaturally strong girl named Oiko, who trained a wrestler for his championship.
I liked the touching story of the old man who came across the skeleton of a girl in a spring meadow, and helped the girl's spirit find her family and eternal peace.


The tale of the monkey, the cat and the rat was an Aladdin-style magic ring story. The monkey bridegroom resembled Beauty and the Beast... up to the point where the bride pushed the persistent monkey husband into the river from a bridge. There was a Cinderella variant (Komebukuro és Awabukuro) that I especially liked because the girl was helped by her friends in completing the stepmother's task.
There was a version of the story where someone exchanges useless things for exponentially more useful ones (starting with a piece of straw), and also multiple "dream sold" tales, with bees or dragonflies crawling out of sleeping people's mouths. A "fairy gift" tale featured two old men, one showered in gold and one showered in pitch, and also two priests who danced with demons at night (the nice one got his birthmark removed, and the mean one had it doubled). 
There were many familiar trickster tales in the book. The "tail fishing" trick was played by a bear on a monkey (that's why monkey tails are short). The monkey's liver is probably one of the most often recognized Japanese folktales (and it also explains why jellyfish have no bones). Animal races happened between a badger and a mud snail (the snail won), and also between a monkey and a bullfrog. The latter was funny because they were both chasing a pot of pastry rolling down a hill, but the monkey didn't notice that the pastry fell out of the pot, so the slow frog got to eat it. There was also a version of the story where a bunch of people pass a dead body around, here with the help of a trickster named Clever Yasohachi
Naturally, the collection features many kitsune and tanuki tales (the latter is mistranslated as badger). I loved the one where a priest named Kongo-in startled a fox as a joke - and in revenge the fox make other priests believe that Kongo-in himself was a fox in disguise. In another tale a man was so confident that he couldn't be tricked by a fox... that the foxes used this to trick him, and before he knew it, he took priestly vows and shaved his head. There was also a cute story about a beginner fox who tried to disguise himself as a samurai, but his face remained hairy - and in the end he laughed about it together with the humans. I enjoyed the tale about the two tanuki who had a contest of illusions - and one of them mistook an actual royal parade for an illusion.

Where to next?
North Korea!

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