Saturday, January 25, 2014

Memories of Japan: Supernatural Beings

Kappa eating a cucumber
Today is Saturday, January 25, 2014. 

Yōkai (妖怪) is a general word for supernatural beings in Japanese folklore.  Yōkai can also be positively malevolent or merely malicious.  They are even occasionally helpful, but you often have to trick them into helping you.  Some of them appear as inanimate objects, while others appear to be animals or human beings.  Some have no particular shape, but you know they're there.  They populate ancient Japanese folktales and fairy tales, as well as modern manga.  The ones who are capable of shape-shifting are classed as obake

When I learned the word obake, I pretty much translated it as "ghost," and nowadays that's often the way the word is used, although the Japanese have another word, yūrei, that specifically means the spirit of a deceased person, which is the Western sense of the word "ghost."  Yōkai are not thought to be spirits of deceased human beings, however.

--> Four of the most popular yōkai are kappa, which resemble turtles, tengu, which are mostly humanoid, but which can shape shift, oni, your standard devil or demon, and tanuki, which are supposed to be "raccoon dogs," but which can also shape shift.


My friend Mrs. Tanaka was responsible for introducing me to kappa.  She absolutely believed in these creatures, and spent a lot of time warning me about them.  She told me what they looked like – in case I should meet up with one, how they generally behaved, and what I could do to protect myself from them.  I just wish I could recreate her stories, because she was a fabulous teller of tales. 

Kappa are creatures of the river.  They resemble a turtle, with a recognizable shell on their backs, but they are depicted in humanoid form, about the size of a child.  They have scaly skin like a reptile that is usually green, but can also be yellow or blue.  They have webbed hands and feet, and they smell like fish.  Their appearance (as well as what they are called) varies from region to region in Japan, but one common feature is that they all have a hard shell on their back, a beak instead of a mouth, and a "plate" (sara) on top o their head.  This is a flat, hairless area on top of the head that is always kept wet, and which is the source of their power.  If you can get them to "empty out" the water in their plate, you have them at a disadvantage.  Another notable feature in some stories is that the kappa's two arms are connected, able to slide from one side to the other, and you can pull them both out.  The kappa will do anything to get them back.  (They can be re-attached if the kappa gets them back.) Some stories say they live in the rivers only in the spring and summer, then they travel to the mountains to live during the winter.  

Danger! Let's not play in the water.
Kappa are troublemakers or tricksters, and in this sense they reminded me of river trolls.  They are often blamed for drownings, and in some areas out in the country there are actually signs picturing kappa that warn people not to swim or to be careful when swimming.  Kappa are said to lure people into the deep water for a wrestling match.

Kappa also bother animals, especially horses and pigs, which is interesting in light of our Western ideas of spooked horses or pigs that have been taken over by evil spirits.  (Check out Mark 5:13 in the Bible for the pig reference.)

Kappa statue
A characteristic of kappa is that they are extremely polite, so if you can get them to bow to you, the water will spill from the "plate" at the top of their head, thus making them vulnerable.  You can also, according to some stories, repel them with sesame, ginger, or iron.  Also, kappa like to eat cucumbers, so in rural areas, people will write the names of their children on cucumbers and throw the cukes into the river to appease any kappa that might be in the water.

If you manage to befriend a kappa, or at least make one beholden to you, you can get it to help irrigate your crops – if you are a farmer.  Or you can get it to deliver you a fresh fish for supper.  Legend says that it was the kappa that taught human beings how to set bones.  Their sense of decorum compels them to honor any promise you can get them to make.

Some Shintō shrines are actually dedicated to the worship of helpful kappa, and ceremonies are still held in some places to placate the kappa in hopes of a good harvest.

This sign says it's 7.8 kilometers to the Japan Sea.
This image of a kappa is just like what Mrs. Tanaka
drew for me. I'm sure signs like this must have

influenced her concept of what they look like.

Whenever I heard a story from Mrs. Tanaka, I would try to check it out with some other people, to see what they would say.  One private student of mine, a university graduate from Kagoshima, on the island of  Kyūshū, began telling me what to watch out for. 

"You have to watch out when you cross a river at midnight, because the kappa will try to trick you, especially if you are carrying rice balls with you," she said.

My question was, "Why would I be carrying rice balls across a river at midnight? "  This seemed to stump her.  


Two depictions of tengu, featuring the long
nose and wings.  The image on the right is holding
a feather fan.
These creatures were originally thought of as birds of prey, but now they often have a humanoid appearance.  Distinguishing features of tengu include a red face with a very long nose, and they are often depicted as looking like a wandering Buddhist priest or mountain ascetic, who wears one-toothed geta (wooden shoes) and who carries with him a shakujō, or long wooden walking staff.   They are also often depicted holding a majic feather fan called ha-uchiwa ( 羽団扇).  In the stories, the fan has the ability to shrink or grow a person's nose, or to stir up great winds.

Tengu geta with only one "tooth."  Regular geta have
two teeth.
Tony Johnston wrote a book for children called The Badger and the Magic Fan, which was illustrated by Tomie de Paula. I believe the book is no longer in print, but you can still get used copies or find it at your local library.  I loved reading it to kids and having them act out the story, which is an adaptation of a Japaese folktale called "The Tengu's Fan" (Tengu no Ha-uchiwa).  
In the story, a scoundrel steals a magic feather-fan from a tengu, then pays a visit to a rich man and uses the fan to make his sleeping daughter's nose grow.  The father calls in priests and doctors, and even a witch, to see if any of them can shrink her nose, but they all fail.  In desperation, the rich man promises his daughter in marriage to anyone who can shrink the girl's nose.  This is when the scoundrel presents himself to the rich man, saying he can cure the daughter's problem. He shrinks her nose, and they are married.  Later, the scoundrel falls asleep and the tengu, who have tracked down their fan, steal it back, but before leaving, they fan the scoundrel's  nose so that it grows long and reaches the heavens, where two heavenly workers building a bridge mistake the nose for a long piece of wood.  They pull the scoundrel up into heaven, and he is never seen again.  

Tomie de Paola's illustrations of the scoundrel in the story are that of a tanuki, which I will describe below.  The scoundrel in the original Japanese story is not a tanuki, but I thought it was a brilliant idea, because tanuki, like tengu, are known to be tricksters and shape-shifters.  I wish I still had my copies of the book so I could show you what the little tengu children looked like.

Tengu in a parade. They aren't wearing tengu geta, though.
I read one review of the story in which a lady said the elements of the story were just too weird, and I think it's probably true that you need to have a background in Japanese folktales to appreciate some of the elements.  That was something I was able to give my American students, and they loved the story.  I had some cotton yukata left over, which I used to dress the kids for the parts when we acted out the story. I also had a huge uchiwa-style fan (which looks like a ping-pong paddle, and not like one that opens and closes), which we decorated on both sides to represent the properties of being able to grow and shrink noses.  I let the kids figure out how to make the noses grow and shrink, which resulted in several really creative ways to represent this. 


Tanuki  "racoon dog"
The tanuki is the only mythical creature that has a counterpart in reality.  The name "racoon dog" isn't perhaps the best fit, but they do have markings on the face like a raccoon, and their bodies do look like a dog's, so I'm not going to quibble.  I never did see a real tanuki, however.

They are a species native to East Asia, including China, Japan, parts of Russia, and Korea.  They are described as canids, which is a general word for dog-like animals such as wolves, foxes, jackals, and coyotes.  Although tanuki have markings like a racoon, they are not closely related to racoons.  Tanuki can climb trees, like grey foxes.  They are omnivores that modify their diets seasonally.  They are the only canid species that hibernates in winter.  

Tanuki puppies
Tanuki is often mis-translated as "badger," which is why the children's book I mentioned above calls the scoundrel character a badger.  The illustration, though, shows the badger character looking very much the way a tanuki is portrayed in Japan.

Garden tanuki for sale
I first met a tanuki as a little statue that is typically placed in a garden.  Later, I found out that the way tanuki are portrayed in modern times is a fairly recent invention.  The little statues you see in the garden always show the tanuki standing up on its hind legs.  It has a big belly and huge, over-sized scrotum that hangs between its legs (explained below), a large tail, and big eyes.  It wears a straw hat and carries a bottle of sake (rice wine) and a promissory note (also explained below).

In folktales tanuki are shape-shifters with magical powers.  They morph into human form to play tricks on unwary travelers, hunters, woodsmen and monks.  Today, they have a more benevolent aspect.

The giant scrotum has its origin in the fact that metalworkers from Kanazawa Prefecture would wrap gold in the skins of real tanuki before hammering the gold into thin sheets.  The skins were so tough that it was said a small piece of gold could be thinned into the size of eight tatami mats.  That would be just about 12 square feet, which seems like a bit of an exaggeration, but what do I know about gold leaf?  Anyway, because the Japanese slang term for testicles (kintama) sounds like "small ball of gold" (kin no tama), eight-mat brag was transferred to the tanuki's nutsack, and images of the tanuki with a giant scrotum began to appear as prosperity charms.  The scrotum isn't about overindulgence in sex, but about financial prosperity.  Even in Japanese schoolyards, kids sing about the tanuki's balls that swing-swing-swing, even when there is no wind.  

The promissory note that the tanuki carries refers to his ability to pay money to people that looks real, but as soon as he leaves, the seller discovers that the "money" is nothing more than worthless pebbles, dirt and leaves.  

You can see tanuki statues in front of bars and restaurants, where they have the same sort of role as maneki neko (beckoning cats).  I have no idea why they are placed in gardens.  The ceramic ones aren't very good for outdoor use, especially if you leave them out over the winter, but these days you can get ones made of solid, reinforced concrete for your garden.  

Modern tanuki statue made of concrete

The "badger," character was a tanuki in this story.


Oni seem a bit more familiar to Westerners. They are depicted in human form as gigantic, hideous ogres with sharp claws, wild hair, horns sticking out of their heads, sometimes extra fingers or eyes, and usually red skin.  (The skin can also be black, blue or yellow.) Their mouths are very large, with huge, canine teeth.  They are usually naked except for a loincloth made of tiger skin, and they carry an iron club called kanabō (金棒).  Today, when someone is described as an "oni with an iron club," it means the person is invincible.  Traditionally, oni are thought to be the monsters that populate the Buddhist hell, and they are said to eat human beings in one gulp.  They have a huge appetite for human flesh.   In several stories, oni are associated with lightning and thunder.

Oni can appear anywhere, causing trouble and spreading fear wherever they go.  They generally morph into a pleasing human shape, often of the opposite sex from their victim.  During the Edo Period (1603-1867) children in mountain villages who were born with teeth were considered oni children.  They were killed, abandoned, or sent into the priesthood, because children with teeth were thought to turn into full-blooded oni in adulthood.  The Japanese still say that if a child looks like neither parent, it is probably the child of an oni.

As I explained in one of my posts about holidays, Setsubun, which is a cultural holiday celebrated on February 3, marks the beginning of spring on the lunar calendar.  On this day, people throw roasted soybeans around their houses (or just outside the door) to exorcise their living or working spaces of evil spirits.  In homes, the bean-throwing is done by the head of the household, and sometimes a family member wears an oni mask to play the part of the evil spirits that get thrown out of the house.  They shout, "Evil spirits out!  Good fortune in!" as they throw the beans, and after the ritual cleansing, everyone is supposed to eat one bean for every year of their age, with one more for good luck.  :-)

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