Books / Reviews

From Japan's heart of darkness

A hundred years ago, a young scholar named Kunio Yanagita traveled to remote Iwate Prefecture in search of stories that reflected people’s lives. Yanagita was born at an epochal time when Japan was flinging off its feudal past and embracing modernity. He wanted to capture the vanishing ways in which common folk saw their world.

THE LEGENDS OF TONO: 100th Anniversary Edition, by Kunio Yanagita, translated by Ronald A. Morse. Lexington Books, 2008, 83 pp., $27.99 (cloth)

In the distant town of Tono, he listened to the stories of Kizen Sasaki, a 25-year-old aspiring writer from a family of farmers. Sasaki narrated fantastic legends about trickster foxes, mountain goblins and river imps. “Kizen is not a good storyteller,” Yanagita wrote in an anthology, “but he is honest and sincere.” That quality seems to have made all the difference. First published in 1910, “The Legends of Tono” became a literary classic and helped make folklore a serious study in Japan. It also put Tono on the map as ground zero for Japanese spooks.

There is magic on every page of Yanagita’s “Legends,” and it’s very hard not to be seduced by this reissued, 100th anniversary translation by Ronald A. Morse.

There is the story of a poor farmer who had a beautiful daughter. The girl loved her father’s horse, spending every night with it until they became husband and wife. When the father found out, in a fit of rage he hung the horse from a mulberry tree and chopped its head off as the wailing girl clung to it. She then flew off into the sky, horse head and all, and became the agricultural deity Oshira-sama.

Many tales involve close encounters of the unpleasant kind. One concerns a farm servant named Chozo who returns home at night to find a shadowy man by his door. When Chozo confronts the stranger, he slips into a narrow crack in the door and vanishes. Chozo looks up, only to see “the man was flat against the wall above the entrance looking down at Chozo. The man’s head hung down . . . (his) eyeballs were about thirty centimeters in size and seemed to pop out.”

And then there are the stories of kamikakushi, the kidnapping of mortals by mysterious beings. Deep in the mountains, hunters discover long-lost women held captive by tall, wild-eyed men who have eaten their children. Other unlucky girls fall prey to the lusts of kappa imps that inhabit the deep rivers of Tono, and give birth to hybrid babies. “When kappa children are born,” Yanagita relates, “they are hacked into pieces, put into small wine casks, and buried in the ground. They are grotesque.”

Yanagita paints a picture of both supernatural and mundane life in Tono with an economy of language that novelist Yukio Mishima lauded as “a peerless model of conciseness.” His legends show how Tono people incorporated the mysterious denizens of the mountains, rivers and fields into a comprehensive worldview that man ignores at his peril. But Yanagita brilliantly chose also to include many notes about Tono’s religious customs, history and geography — even gossip about foreigners on the coast. As a whole, the legends are far more poignant than any old ghostly anthology. These are stories that people told around the irori hearth over the long winters in a time and place when the darkness of night was truly dark. And every imp, spirit and goblin was so much more real.

This handsome new edition updates Morse’s excellent but rare 1975 translation (which can still be found at the Tono City Museum for about ¥2,000) with a new preface and introduction, archival photos provided by Tono City and a list of related texts in English. It’s a must-have for everyone who wants to know what the psycho-spiritual lives of rural Japanese were like a century ago, not to mention fans of kappa and Japan’s myriad other folk monsters. Tono stands proud as Japan’s heart of darkness, and Yanagita is its best guide.

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