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Tales of wonder from Tohoku’s deep past

by Victoria James

Special To The Japan Times

The first time most people outside Japan heard about the country’s northern Tohoku region was when it was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, leaving more than 15,000 dead and a million buildings damaged or destroyed. But to those familiar with Japan, Tohoku has long been cherished as a region where an older, simpler way of life endures — and as the cradle of Japanese folk literature.

Tales from a Mountain Cave; Hisashi Inoue, trans. Angus Turvill; THAMES RIVER PRESS

The tsunami devastated coastal towns such as Ofunato, Kesennuma and Kamaishi. Pictures of the wreckage of these communities were beamed around the world, becoming the shattered emblems of a nation’s tragedy. Now — 21/2 years on — a book of tales that unfold in the small corner of Japan bounded by these three towns has appeared in a prize-winning new English-language version.

All royalties and translation fees from “Tales from a Mountain Cave,” written by Kamaishi-resident Hisashi Inoue in 1976 and freshly translated by British scholar Angus Turvill, will go toward post-tsunami support projects in the area, which alone is a good enough reason to buy it. But the real power of this volume to do good in a region still striving to return to normality is its ability to enchant and intrigue — reminding us how much more there is to Tohoku than its recent, very public suffering.

Futuristic cities, or the romance of samurai and geisha — for many foreigners, these are the twin poles around which Japanese culture revolves. But there is another, deep history that feels as though it’s been present in Japan for millennia despite only being documented in the past century. In 1912, bureaucrat Kunio Yanagita published a book that spawned an entire scholarly discipline, minzokugaku (folklore studies): “Tono Monogatari (The Legends of Tono).” It’s no coincidence that the Japanese title of Inoue’s “Tales from a Mountain Cave” is “Shinshaku Tono Monogatari” — shinsaku meaning “a new version” or, perhaps, “revisited.”

The original legends of Tono are not, it is certain, tales to read to children. There is the infamous “Tale 69,” of a girl who loved her horse so deeply that “they became husband and wife” — until her appalled father hangs the animal from a mulberry tree. “Tale 55″ laconically records how women in a certain village are often made pregnant by kappa, water spirits — and that the resulting infants are so grotesque they are chopped in pieces and buried in wine casks.

Yanagita’s source was an educated young man from a peasant family who told the scholar his stories in 1909. “Tales from a Mountain Cave” likewise opens with author Inoue introducing his source, but we’ve jumped over two world wars in the interim. The year is 1953 — though at first glance you’d hardly know it. Here again is a sorrowful tale of a girl who loves her horse too much; a lost traveler who discovers a baby in the cooking pot at the house where he seeks shelter; a pond with a curious guardian; and more kappa, leaving the women alone this time, but still up to no good.

They ought to seem laughable, these relics of a Japan that existed before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before the postwar ningen-sengen (Humanity Declaration) of the Emperor Showa, here being dragged into the 1950s. And yet Inoue’s stories are woven tightly to the fabric of contemporary history. The tale of the carter’s daughter, Aoe, and her horse Shiro is set in wartime, its outrageous conclusion precipitated by the arrival in their village of soldiers requisitioning horses for army transport. A yarn of gruesome revenge that makes creative use of a wooden box comes from the eve of war, when a group of mineworkers go on the run. Inoue himself is a university dropout, forced to work in a sanatorium to make ends meet in the tough postwar years, while the tale-teller, is a former professional musician uprooted from Tokyo. (Or is he?)

All the tales play out against a backdrop of rural hardship. No tsunami breaks during “Tales from a Mountain Cave” (although the original “Legends of Tono” contains the story of Fukiji who lost his wife in a such a wave and lives with his children in a shelter on the site of their destroyed home). Instead, famine bites so hard that fathers sell their daughters, a young man has to live as an unpaid labourer in the fields of his rich relatives, taxes are unendurable, children drown, and men accused of crime are forced into bonded labor. Yet amid all the poverty and struggle is a magical world of trickster creatures, where true love is real (if sometimes ill-advised) and fortunes may mysteriously be made (if always at a price). In “Tales from a Mountain Cave” the residents of the Ofunato-Kamaishi-Kesennuma region don’t just survive — their lives are touched with wonder, and anything can happen.

So this deftly translated, entertaining, yet often poignant volume isn’t just another fund-raiser for the tsunami-stricken region — it showcases its rich cultural heritage. And it also feels like a promise that a community that has survived so much will survive this latest disaster.

For our readers in Britain, translator Angus Turville will be talking about ‘Tales From a Mountain Cave” at the Japan Foundation, London on Dec. 11 at 6:30pm. Admission is free, but please book at event@jpf.org.uk