BOUND TO PLEASE / A treasury of rural folklore

The Japan News

By Hiroko Ihara / Japan News Staff WriterFolk Legends From Tono: Japan’s Spirits, Deities, and Phantastic Creatures

Collected by Kunio Yanagita and Kizen Sasaki

Translated and edited by Ronald A. Morse

Rowman & Littlefield, 155pp

The late much-loved manga artist Shigeru Mizuki was acclaimed for his depictions of supernatural monsters and spirits in Japanese folklore. It was, therefore, natural for him to draw a manga adaptation of “Tono Monogatari” (Tales of Tono), a collection of folktales and an immortal landmark in Japanese folklore history.

When you visit another country, learning what the local people believe in or fear is a good way to begin to understand them. Folktales are a good source of such wisdom. “Folk Legends From Tono: Japan’s Spirits, Deities, and Phantastic Creatures” is the first English translation of “Tono Monogatari Shui,” a supplement to the famed “Tono Monogatari.”

The 299 tales were collected by Kizen Sasaki (1886-1933), a native of Tono, Iwate Prefecture, from local storytellers, at the request of Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), the father of Japan’s native folklore studies.

As the tales in the original text are randomly collected, Ronald A. Morse reorganized them into eight chapters and provided some explanations to make them more interesting and understandable. Morse also translated into English and published “Tales of Tono” in 1975 and is an international authority on Yanagita.

The book opens with a tale of why an old woman was nicknamed Hokkaeshi (rising from the soil). She was strangled and buried just after her birth. However, her hands emerged from the soil and she returned to life. The story is about infanticide, which — as a young Yanagita was shocked to learn — was widely practiced during famine or hardship.

The collection also mentions zashikiwarashi (parlor child), an entity that is eagerly awaited by households. The invisible but well-loved spirit is believed to protect household fortunes. The story, which appears in Chapter 3 and revolves around family and household deities, shows how important the spirit was by saying: “Originally, there was a ‘parlor child’ ... in the house of Tazaemon of Isagozawa. When the parlor child left, the family became poor.”

Mountain monsters and trickster animals are fun to read about but dangerous to encounter. A tale in Chapter 6 is about a hunter shooting jaybirds: “Hearing jays’ horrible screeching sounds, many others come from all directions and try to attack him. It continues until he comes home.” This episode may remind readers of the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds.”

In Chapter 7, glimpses of modern monsters describe the negative side effects of industrialization, particularly how folk practices were regarded by authorities as superstitions that should be eradicated.

At that time, philosopher Enryo Inoue, who was known as the Ghost Doctor, expressed doubt about ghost stories and proved they stemmed from illusions. But that’s another story.

Morse nevertheless writes: “Japanese take great pride in their local folk traditions and practice their religious beliefs in a highly tolerant setting where the lines between humans, deities, and nature are not clearly demarcated.”

Although both Yanagita and Sasaki are credited, Yanagita’s involvement is limited in this work. Despite his folklore accomplishments, Sasaki has long been overshadowed by his mentor and sometime collaborator Yanagita, according to Morse. Therefore, this translation seems to be a tribute to his achievements, too.

The Yamaguchi district of Tono is worth visiting. The quiet farming district includes the traditional L-shaped house where Sasaki was born and his descendants still live, as well as Denderano field, where elderly people were abandoned, and Dannohana cemetery, which looks from a distance like a huge Buddhist altar and where Sasaki’s grave is located. These places are mentioned in “Tales of Tono.” The district may be a boundary between this world and the next.

Where to read

At a cafe or other brightly lit, crowded place so that you won’t be spirited away.

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