japanese-folklore

9

30 Days of Mythical Tricksters  → Day 18: Kitsune

The red fox crosses the ice
intent on none of my business.
It’s winter and slim pickings.

I stand in the bushy cemetery,
pretending to watch birds,
but really watching the fox
who could care less.
She pauses on the sheer glare
of the pond. She knows I’m there,
sniffs me in the wind at her shoulder.
If I had a gun or dog
or a raw heart, she’d smell it.
She didn’t get this smart for nothing.

She’s a lean vixen: I can see
the ribs, the sly
trickster’s eyes, filled with longing
and desperation, the skinny
feet, adept at lies.

Why encourage the notion
of virtuous poverty?

It’s only an excuse
for zero charity.
Hunger corrupts, and absolute hunger
corrupts absolutely,
or almost. Of course there are mothers,
squeezing their breasts
dry, pawning their bodies,
shedding teeth for their children,
or that’s our fond belief.
But remember - Hansel
and Gretel were dumped in the forest
because their parents were starving.
Sauve qui peut. To survive
we’d all turn thief

and rascal, or so says the fox,
with her coat of an elegant scoundrel,
her white knife of a smile,
who knows just where she’s going:

to steal something
that doesn’t belong to her -
some chicken, or one more chance,
or other life.”

Margaret Atwood

Japanese Ghost & Demons Art of the Supernatural Edited by Stephen Addiss

George Braziller Inc 1985

Scans courtesy of Mark Jiro Okui

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“Takiyasha-hime at the ruined palace at Soma”, Yôshû Chikanobu (1838-1912)

In Japanese folklore, Takiyasha-hime (”demon princess of the waterfall”) is a witch and the daughter of Taira no Masakado (an historical character), a rebel who tried to overthrow the emperor. She lives in the deserted Soma palace where she plans her revenge through sorcery. However, a warrior named Oya Tarô Mitsukuni is sent to stop her. Here, she stands with a scroll in her hand, summoning monsters to repel her foes.

Mermaids are known as ningyo in Japanese, but they are very different from the mermaids of Western tradition. Ningyo more closely resemble fish than humans, with a varying level of human-like features, ranging from just an ugly, deformed fish-like face, to an entire human torso with long, bony fingers and sharp claws. They can range in size from the size of a human child to the size of a large seal. Unlike the mermaids of the Atlantic and Mediterranean legends, ningyo from the Pacific and the Sea of Japan are hideous to behold, resembling more of an otherworldly nightmare than a seductive siren.

Mermaids resembling the breeds known throughout the West – with an attractive human torso and a piscine lower body – are not unheard of in the Japanese islands. Particularly since the end of the Edo period and the opening of Japan to the West, more and more Western-style Atlantic mermaids have been seen in Japanese waters. However, the most common Japanese mermaid is more beast than beauty.

Ningyo sightings go back to the earliest written histories of Japan. The first recorded mermaid sightings in Japan are found in the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of classical Japanese history, dating back to 619 CE. The flesh of a ningyo is believed to grant eternal life and youth to those who eat it, and thus it is the subject of many folk tales. However, it carries with it a danger that most people are not willing to risk. Ningyo can place a powerful curse on humans who try to wound or capture them, and some legends tell of entire towns that were swallowed by earthquakes or tidal waves after a foolish fisherman brought home a ningyo in one of his catches. While their grotesque appearance and supernatural powers make them an intriguing subject, they are best avoided at all costs.

Fox witches are by far the most commonly seen witch figures in Japan. They gain the foxes trust by bribing it with its favorite food and then striking up a deal with them, typically promising food and daily care in return for the fox’s magical services. The fox of Japanese folklore is a powerful trickster, imbued with powers of shape changing, possession, and illusion. The most feared power of the fox witches is their ability to command their foxes to possess other humans.

The akkorokamui is a Japanese cryptid that resembles a giant, brilliant red octopus.  Stories of this being are centered off the coast of Hokkaido, Northern Japan, but sightings have also been reported elsewhere along Japan’s coast line and as far away as Taiwan.  It can be seen from a long distance due to its size and color, and has been known to swamp boats.

The Ainu people have sighted the akkorokamui for centuries, but sightings have been recorded by non-Ainu people as well, including missionary John Batchelor.  In his book The Ainu and their Folklore, he recorded the following incident:

“In the morning, we found the whole village under a cloud. Three men, it was said, were out trying to catch swordfish, when all at once a great sea monster, with large staring eyes, appeared in front of them and proceeded to attack the boat. A desperate fight ensued. The monster was round in shape, and emitted a dark fluid and noxious odor. The three men fled in dismay, not so much indeed for fear, they say, but on account of the dreadful smell. However that may have been, they were so scared that the next morning all three refused to get up and eat; they were lying in their beds pale and trembling.”