The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/The Folk-Lore of Japan



In the old days of Japan's seclusion, when the country was the Thorn Rose Castle of the Pacific Ocean, and herself the sleeping Princess, the wealth of Japanese folk-lore was scarcely dreamed of. The Europeans, both clerical and commercial, who resided or traded in Japan during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, have left in their writings little or no traces of this part of Japan's intellectual wealth. "One may search the voluminous literature of the Jesuit and other missionaries, or the writings of travellers or traders in the various languages of Europe, and not find the heap worth the winnowing, if he be a seeker after folk-lore. Even the later investigators, Kaempfer, Von Siebold, and others, do not seem to have given much attention to this branch of inquiry, apparently, in their minds, so far apart from serious investigation. When, however, the country was thrown open to foreign trade and residence by the genius of American diplomacy, in the persons of Commodore Matthew Perry and Townsend Harris, the seekers after the fruits of the Japanese popular imagination were richly rewarded. The writer's first interest in Japan was excited by several pretty or amusing tales, like those of "The Monkey and the Crab," and "The Kioto and Osaka Frogs," told him by his classmate in college, now the Hon. E. C. Pruyn of Albany, N. Y., who had been with his father, the Hon. Robert H. Pruyn, the American minister in Yedo from 1861 to 1865. When, further, that genuine classic, Mitford's "Tales of Old Japan," was published, the whole English-speaking world was able to enjoy at least a few of the typical specimens of Japanese folklore. Now, there is at the disposal of the student the "Japanese Fairy Tale Series," published by the Kobunsha in Tokyo, numbering about two dozen booklets, and embodying excellent translations made from the originals by Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain, Mrs. T. H. James, Rev. E. Rothesay Miller, etc. There was also published at Yokohama, in 1874, a brochure entitled "Olden-Time Tales for Little People;" and, at Schenectady, New York, in 1880, with illustrations by Ozawa of Tokyo, a small duodecimo containing thirty-five stories from the wonder-lore of Japan entitled "Japanese Fairy World," by the writer of this paper. Most of the copies of this last publication, by the way, disposed of for cash were sold in England, but the large majority of the copies printed were distributed gratuitously among the libraries throughout the United States.

Yet apart from these well-known popular stories, which afford material for the study of the student, and which in Japan are usually published in the form of tiny booklets, very rough, cheap, and intended almost entirely for little children, there are thousands, possibly tens of thousands more, as yet uncommitted to script or print, found recorded in the local histories and gazetteers, or still floating on the lips of the people. The Japanese, living in an archipelago by themselves thousands of years, and on a soil which in itself is constantly active, owing to the interior forces of the earth, have been busy with imagination and fancy. The earthquake and the volcano are constantly ready to excite even the solid earth to undulation, explosion, or the manifestation of the phenomena that strike terror or pleasure to the senses. Surrounded on every hand by waters that are marvellously rich in many striking forms of animal life, and dwelling on a landscape that is beautiful, rugged and changeable, at times, even to fascination, they have in the forces and phenomena of nature abundant potency of reaction upon their imagination.

Further, they are a mixed people, whose congeners have come from the North, the South and the East. The Malay and Negrito blood from the sub-tropical South; the old Dravidian or Aryan elements, driven up northeastwardly through Asia, and entering Japan through Saghalien; the Highlanders of North Asia coming down through Corea and landing in Southern Japan, with a considerable amount of Chinese and, later, Corean elements blended, make up a remarkable ethnic composite. These various people bringing their old hereditary traditions, the Tartar-Corean stock having the Shamanism and beast-idealizing and worship, together with all the repertoire of ideas and imaginings of Chinese Asia; the Southern element carrying over to the islands a wonderful mass of mythology that has close connection with the sea and the waters under the earth; the Buddhists conveying fresh elements of myth and story from both the cold and warm parts of the mainland, have all had their share in making Japan's folk-lore.

Furthermore, the early prehistoric and indigenous tales recited through centuries to admiring listeners, and forming an integral part of the Kojiki or national Bible of the Japanese, have been mightily reacted upon by Buddhism. Professor Basil H. Chamberlain well says, that Buddhism has shaped and colored the folk-lore of Japan.

Of that great mass of fairy and folk tales found in the Kojiki, the chief literary basis of the Shintō religion, three distinct strata or cycles may be distinguished. One group of stories illustrates events or ideals from the extreme south, the Riu Kiu islands and Kiushiu; another, from Idzumo and the southwest; and the third from Yamato or central Japan. Evidently, also, as has been proved by Professor Kumii of the Historical Society in the Imperial University of Tokyo, the early religion of the aboriginal inhabitants whom the conquerors from the mainland of Asia found on the soil when they made conquest of the country and set up their tribe-chief as Mikado, was something quite different from the Kami-no-michi (that is, the Way, or Doctrine of the Gods,) or Shintō religion. This Shintō cultus, in which the Mikado is reckoned the descendant of the heavenly gods and their vicar on the earth, and therefore the one to whom all allegiance and obedience is due, is really a composite of two religions, made by over-laying the ancient aboriginal cult by a usurpation of both politics and dogmatics. In a word, the conquerors from the mainland of Asia captured the indigenous religion, which was probably the simple worship of Heaven, with liturgy and bloodless sacrifices, and made it the engine of their political power, giving it a head and front in the person of the august Emperor, the Mikado. The superior weapons, abilities, and higher culture of the conquerors, together with their knowledge and resources of agriculture, could of themselves probably have made reasonably rapid conquest of the aboriginal tribes of fishermen and hunters; but they chose to secure quicker victory by what they believed to be superior dogmas.

Yet, even before the disciplined armies of the Mikado had brought all Japan obedient to his sway. Buddhism entered with her scriptures, codes, art and the paraphernalia of a sensuous cult, all backed by the superior zeal and abilities of the priests from the continent. It is reasonably certain that about seven or eight centuries, that is, from the fourth to the twelfth, were consumed in the political unification of Japan. It is demonstrable that Buddhism required nine centuries for the complete conversion of all the people in the Japanese empire to the faith of Shaka Muni.

While it is true that Buddhism has shaped and colored Japanese folk-lore, yet it is surprising to find on critical study how many of the oldest and most racy and interesting of Japanese folk-tales have escaped baptism into Buddhist ideas. It is comparatively rare, except in the stories of manifestly late origin, that we find Buddhist dogma made in any way prominent, or even integral and necessary parts of the narrative. On the other hand, it is true that within the radius of the shadow cast by every Buddhist temple and shrine in Japan, during the sun's daily career through the sky, there is a permanent crop of wonder tales,—how Buddha was manifested in stone or wood, gem. Jewel or tree, washed ashore by the waves or found in bamboo or mushroom; how wonder and miracle-working bits of idols and images have literally "astonished the natives"; how love-lorn maidens have suffered and died, and have come to bedraggled resurrection; how lovers have been disappointed and come to a fiery "resurgam"; how the blood feud and vendetta have been carried out even beyond the graTe; how the fox, badger, and cat have passed through manifold transformation; how the moon and sun, and all inanimate things in nature, have played various tricks and pranks; how the heavenly inhabitants and creatures from the planets have visited the earth;—all these are still precious local heirlooms. In the old days these stories were treasured up, and often made the means of theft, swindle, and deceit, and occasionally of clan fight and neighborhood jealousy, and yet this Buddhistic jungle-growth of fancy and imagination must not be confounded with that national treasury of folk-lore which belongs to the nation at large.

In entering upon the enchanted fairyland of Japan, we do not meet with the same kind of creatures that inhabit the worlds of Teutonic or European imagination. The gentle fairies which we meet with on English soil are not here; nor, on the other hand, do the imps and demons in the Japanese world seem to have as much power as those under the shadow of the Scandinavian precipices or in the twilight of German forests. There are mighty dragons, there are imps and demons, to be sure; but the oni that lurks everywhere in Japan is rather a sly, mischievous fellow, than one armed with supernatural powers.

Of course, the Japanese, Buddhist and Indian elements, added to those which are indigenous, give us a range of forces which is as wonderful as anything in the "West. There are transformations and metempsychoses of almost every imaginable sort. The elemental forces of nature are often at the command of the creatures or personages; time and space are annihilated; the potent wands and drugs and invisible coats and earth-compassing wings are all here, and yet it cannot be said that beauty is the predominating idea. Mystery is everywhere present, and it may be said in general, that most of the ideas illustrated in mid-Asiatic and Occidental lore are set forth, though always in a way to suit the Japanese mind.

When we come to inquire in the light of, and with the analytical spectroscope, so to speak, of history, we are able to see that the folk-lore is often a distorted shadow of real history, while also it is true that the events of prehistoric times are brought before us by means of the folk-tales handed down to us from ages older than writing in Japan. For example, the question of the existence of cannibalism in early Japan, which has been settled by science through Professor Edward S. Morse's brilliant discovery of the kitchen middens or shell mounds at Omori, is conclusively proved also from the folk-tale of the Shu-ten-doji. In the twenty-second story in "Japanese Fairy World," we have the picture of a great human monster, dwelling in the mountains of Tango, who feasted upon the Japanese, preferring, of course, beautiful virgins. This great red-faced creature, of lusty youth and almost invincible power, lives with his fellow-demons in a great cave palace; their wine-cups are made of empty human skulls; their teeth are tusks and fangs; their heads have short horns, and they subsist chiefly on human flesh, while near by their habitations are heaps of human bones. Eaiko, the hero, brings some famous wine to their palace and drinks with them. Having mingled a sleeping potion with the draught, he slays the demon and restores the captive virgins to their people. This story, it seems to me, is in itself clear evidence that cannibalism was practised in early Japan.

The stories of Yorimasa, the brave archer, who shot the night-beast that disturbed the Mikado's sleep, and Watanabé who cut off the oni's arm, belong to a cycle which illustrates the old Imperial life in early Kioto. These are but examples of a score of folk-lore tales, or cycles of such stories, which in their general features, and especially in their details, throw much light on the history of the people of Dai Nippon. Indeed, what passes for history with the Japanese at the present time, and is supposed to be the story of facts before the fifth century, is probably hardly much better than what could be pieced together from folk-lore itself. The field of early Japanese history invites the investigator and literary constructor. The true history of both the nation and the state cannot be restored, even in its main features, except after a thorough sifting and comparison of the legends in the Kojiki, the poems in the Manyoshiu or Myriad Leaves, the liturgies of the Shinto religion, and all that mass of early fragmentary literature which thus far has been considered beyond the notice of the serious historian.

Very noticeable is the cycle of legends about the underworld In the Kojiki we have, almost as a matter of course, almost as a necessity in human nature, the descent into the Japanese Hades or invisible world, as they call it "The Land of Roots." Izanagi, the first of the male gods who came to the earth, goes down to find his beloved consort, Izanami, and coming back from the fllth and pollution of the lower world and washing himself in the sea, many gods of various grades are born from the rinsings of his august person. It is rare, however, that descents like this, that is, into the solid land or within the bowels of the earth are noted, while the most casual student will not fail to remark the frequency of the pilgrimages which are made by favored heroes, warriors and gentle youth, into the realms beneath the water. Usually the region visited is Eiugu or the Realm of the Dragons. Over this same realm reigns Kai-Riu-ō, (Sea Dragon King) who is the mighty monarch with a living dragon for his casque and helmet, and lord of the scaly hosts. The queen of the realm under the sea is also a mighty, but still more a gracious personage, while the daughter of Kai-Riu-ō showers her favors on elect lovers from the earth. She is surrounded by a vast train of attendants, maidens like herself. All these are dressed in garments made of the nacre of the gems of the deep and with edgings having serrated points, and further adorned with all nature's devices of beauty which she lavishes so freely upon the shells of the shore or the creatures of the deep. The Queen and her attendant maidens have for their headdresses not only their own beautiful flowing hair, but some precious sea-gem or shell, or living creature, or flashing crystal as frontlet. Down in Riugu there are, guarded by mighty dragons, the jewels of the ebbing and the flowing Tide. In one case, Isora, summoned from the depths, comes, at the command of Kai-Riu-ō, with the scintillating spheres which command the ebbing and the flowing tide. With these he equips Ojin the god of war, who, though unborn, is, through his mother, to conquer Corea. In another case, these jewels of the ebbing and flowing tide are lent to a young man who has been badly treated by his brother, and who by making a flood which—if the Noahic flood must be matched all over the world—was probably large enough in volume. At any rate, the rising waters compelled his brother, after being nearly drowned, to come to terms. We do not here interpose any rationalistic explanation to hint that possibly these jewels may be the mythological representation of the sun and moon, but simply remark in passing that down in Eiugu there is no note made of the flight of time. In Japanese poetry it is said that "there are three things which wait not for man; they are running rivers, fading flowers, and passing time." But in Riugu there is no sun to mark the day, nor moon the month, but there, one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.

Hence we have one of the forms of the ubiquitous Rip Van Winkle myth which concerns itself with Riugu. Urashima the fisher boy, who treats kindly all animal life, and allows the tortoise to go free, is transported at the invitation of the daughter of Kai-Riu-ō to Riu-Gu. As favored lover, he spends what he supposes to be several happy days down amid the treasures of the realms of the deep. When, finally, moved by filial affection, he secures permission to visit his old home, he is given a casket and warned on no account to open it. Returning to his native village, where the dogs bark at him, and the children laugh at the antique figure, he finds that no one knows him. But an old man in the last stages of senility and decrepitude answers his anxious questions by telling him that, seven or eight centuries ago, a family of his name lived in the village. The house had fallen to ruins long ago, but among the mossy and lichened stones of the Temple gi-aveyard he finds, nearly obliterated, "the names he loved to hear." Overcome with loneliness, and possessed with curiosity, he opens the casket, only to find a purple vapor issuing. In a moment he becomes stiffened in senile decrepitude, a long white beard sweeps his bosom, and he discovers himself an old man and soon dies of grief.

In one case a hero descends into a submarine paradise, which, strange to say, is in fresh water and in central Japan. A great dragon-centipede which has ravaged the neighborhood of a mountain near Lake Biwa is overcome by the arrow of the invincible archer, who succeeds in killing the monster, after several arrows have bounded back harmlessly, by moistening the point of one shaft with his saliva. Here, we have an illustration of the human saliva-charm, once so common in our own country. Among the presents which he receives in the world beneath the waters are a large bronze bowl, a sword, a suit of armor, a roll of silk, which is always the same length, no matter how much is cut from it, and a bag of rice, which, though he feeds his whole concourse of retainers from it, is never exhausted while he lives.

Time and space would fail to tell the details of the set of symbols and the catalogue of forces and personages which take part in the world of Japanese folk-lore. Of the mythology of the Japanese, the writer has already treated in one chapter of his work entitled: "The Mikado's Empire." The papers of the Asiatic Society also afford the student good aid in enjoying and interpreting the wonders of the Japanese imagination. Our paper is meant to be merely suggestive, and, therefore, we conclude our hasty survey by calling attention to the fact, that this branch of folk-lore finds its richest illustration in Japanese decorative art. Told first without a thought of ink or pen, and handed down from lip to ear, and from mouth to mouth during many generations, these stories were first committed to manuscript, and in some cases to print. At first the literary artist reproduced and elaborated these myths, setting them as jewels of the national literature. In Japan, where the skins of sheep or goats were never used as material for the author's page, the tattooer pricked in gay colors the nation's folk-lore on the human cuticle. To this day the backs of the betto contain the best illustrations of the favorites of the Japanese people. Yet they are also embodied in lacquer, ivory, crystal, carved wood, silk and paper. The artists have added, modified, and freshly and wittily interpreted the details. Usually loyal to the main outlines of the story, they allow their lambent wit to play over the surface, and here and there add bits of fancy, of color, of light, of mirth, which make Japanese art so rich in suggestion.

As the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, in 1876, delighted so many thousands of visitors by showing, as it were, the photographs of the Japanese fancy and imagination in their art products, so it is possible that the World's Columbian Exposition in this city will surpass the former encyclopaedia of fancy and yield richer delight. Besides enjoying the sight of the Japanese works of art and use, admiring the technical perfection, and learning something of their processes, the visitor to the Exposition will wish to have insight into their art ideas, symbolism, mythology, and history. Almost every article of Japanese production, from the colossal vase and urn to the fan and the opening water-flower,[1] is full of allusion and suggestion to one who reads the thought in its symbol. Bronzes, porcelain, ivory, crystal, embroidery, bristle with poetic or mythic allusion. The artist of Japan pours upon his work a prodigality of symbolism, which to the average Occidental mind is dumb or enigmatic. With some knowledge of the groundwork of their mythology, history and the aspects of nature, much of their art and symbolism may be understood. Like all the sets of symbols peculiar to particular nations or civilizations, the art-radicals or basic stock of ideas are few, yet these are expressed in numberless forms and combinations. To that phase of the illustrations and interpretation of the folk-lore of Japan, as well as to its increasing literature, we invite all those who enjoy the study of the Japanese mind as it blossomed out in days long distant from ours. In general, it may be said, that the forms which folk-lore take are the witnesses of processes of thought which are outlived, and which have emerged into higher and nobler methods of illustration and reasoning; but in the progress of the race these steps in advancement are not to be ignored. Apart from the utility and value of folk-lore study, is the enjoyment which comes to the student; and to that enjoyment, as especially furnished in this World's Columbian Exposition, we invite you all.

  1. Shreds of pith which, dropped upon water, unfold into various designs, symbols, and suggestions of stories.