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Samurai Scarecrows

by Alice Gordenker

Dear Alice,

While out for an autumn stroll with my wife’s relatives, I came across what, at first glance, seemed to be a pair of samurai scarecrows! They were nearly as tall as me, made all of straw, and were packing two swords each! Being a savvy kind of farm boy, I figured out pretty quickly that they couldn’t really be scarecrows, because they weren’t near crops but were tied to the gate of a Shinto shrine. This was in a place called Sodegaura, on the Chiba side of the Aqualine bridge-and-tunnel highway from Tokyo. Any chance you can find out what the heck those straw figures are?

Rick B., Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture

Dear Rick,

What you saw are kashima ningyo, life-size straw dolls that have been made every fall for hundreds of years by the people of the Abe district of Sodegaura. There are no records about when the tradition started, or why, but Abe resident Kazuo Ono, who is trying to preserve the custom by getting young people involved, thinks it was to ensure a good harvest and protect the village from calamity. In fact, you weren’t so far off with your scarecrow theory. It’s likely that the figures were originally intended to scare off not crows but contagious diseases.

Until the late 19th century, Japanese people believed illness was spread by evil gods called yakubyogami. At first these gods were thought to take human form, but later, influenced by thinking in texts from China, some people came to think of them as little beasties small enough to enter the body. The Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka, which opened a year ago as Japan’s newest national museum (the others are in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara), owns a very interesting book called the Harikikigaki. Written in 1568, mostly about acupuncture, this rare text includes 63 color depictions of the various mushi (bugs) then believed to cause disease.

I took a look at these illustrations, and what’s startling about them is that the mushi are so darned cute! A very bad bug called Kan-mushi, thought to live in the backbone and cause curvature of the spine, looks like an adorable little white dinosaur. The bug responsible for heart disease is depicted as a short-legged pony. Another looks like a child’s drawing of a furry moth, complete with smiley face. The museum has turned the Harikikigaki beasties into “mascots,” putting them on pins, key chains and phone straps, all conveniently available in the on-site gift shop.

But cuteness aside, there was good reason to ward off yakubyogami. This was especially true during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when repeated epidemics of measles and cholera swept through the country, often wiping out entire villages, and smallpox was the No. 1 killer of children. Desperate to keep illness out, villages throughout Japan held prayer rituals and erected talismans similar to the straw guardians you saw in Sodegaura. These were most frequently placed at the borders of the village, according to Koichi Tagata of the Chiba Prefectural Boso no Mura Museum, and are referred to by a variety of generic names including tsuji-kiri (literally, “crossroads cut”) and tsuno-tsuri (suspended rope). The museum has documented dozens of places where the tradition survives in Chiba, and Tagata told me such talismans were once seen throughout Japan. They’re hard to spot these days but Boso no Mura has several examples on display in its outdoor reproduction of an Edo-era village, including a straw snake curled high up in a tree and an octopus hung on a rope over the path leading into the village.

I also spoke with Satoshi Tanaka, an author of books about Japanese concepts of hygiene, health and the body. “It’s easy to make fun of such folk beliefs now that we have scientific knowledge about the causes of disease,” he observed, “but their understanding of what caused disease — small creatures that entered the body and grew there — isn’t really so different from our modern understanding about infectious viruses and bacteria.

“For people who were up against deadly diseases, with no medicines, folk practices and rituals surely were better than doing nothing at all,” Tanaka told me, adding, “I’d like to think that, in the face of terrible epidemics, talismans like the kashima ningyo made people stronger.”

I’d like to think so too.