Things Japanese/Demoniacal Possession
Demoniacal Possession. Chinese notions concerning the superhuman powers of the fox, and in a lesser degree of the badger and the dog, entered Japan during the early Middle Ages. One or two mentions of magic foxes occur in the Uji Shūi, a story book of the eleventh century; and since that time the belief has spread and grown, till there is not an old woman in the land—or, for the matter of that, scarcely a man either—who has not some circumstantial fox story to relate as having happened to some one who is at least the acquaintance of an acquaintance. In 1889, a tale was widely circulated and believed of a fox having taken the shape of a railway train on the Tōkyō-Yokohama line. The phantom train seemed to be coming towards a real train which happened to be running in the opposite direction, but yet never got any nearer to it. The engine-driver of the real train, seeing all his signals to be useless, put on a tremendous speed. The result was that the phantom was at last caught up, when, lo and behold! nothing but a crushed fox was found beneath the engine-wheels. Nor has the twentieth century witnessed any abatement in the popular belief. Fox stories—not necessarily vouched for, of course, but still deemed worthy of mention—are related in the same newspapers which chronicle sober facts and new scientific inventions. In fact, the name of such tales is legion. More curious and interesting is the power with which these demon foxes are credited of taking up their abode in human beings in a manner similar to the phenomena of possession by evil spirits, so often referred to in the New Testament. Dr. Baelz, of the Imperial University of Japan, who has had special opportunities for studying such cases in the hospital under his charge, has kindly communicated to us some remarks, of which the following is a résumé:—
"Possession by foxes (Kitsune-tsuki} is a form of nervous disorder or delusion, not uncommonly observed in Japan. Having entered a human being, sometimes through the breast, more often through the space between the finger-nails and the flesh, the fox lives a life of his own, apart from the proper self of the person who is harbouring him. There thus results a sort of double entity or double consciousness. The person possessed hears and understands everything that the fox inside says or thinks; and the two often engage in a loud and violent dispute, the fox speaking in a voice altogether different from that which is natural to the individual. The only difference between the cases of possession mentioned in the Bible and those observed in Japan is that here it is almost exclusively women that are attacked—mostly women of the lower classes. Among the predisposing conditions may be mentioned a weak intellect, a superstitious turn of mind, and such debilitating diseases as, for instance, typhoid fever. Possession never occurs except in such subjects as have heard of it already, and believe in the reality of its existence.
"The explanation of the disorder is not so far to seek as might be supposed. Possession is evidently related to hysteria and to the hypnotic phenomena which physiologists have recently studied with so much care, the cause of all alike being the fact that, whereas in healthy persons one half of the brain alone is actively engaged—in right-handed persons the left half of the brain, and in left-handed persons the right—leaving the other half to contribute only in a general manner to the function of thought, nervous excitement arouses this other half, and the two—one the organ of the usual self, the other the organ of the new pathologically affected self are set over against each other. The rationale of possession is an auto-suggestion, an idea arising either with apparent spontaneity or else from the subject-matter of it being talked about by others in the patient's presence, and then overmastering her weak mind exactly as happens in hypnosis. In the same manner, the idea of the possibility of cure will often actually effect the cure. The cure-worker must be a person of strong mind and power of will, and must enjoy the patient's full confidence. For this reason the priests of the Nichiren sect, which is the most superstitions and bigoted of Japanese Buddhist sects, are the most successful expellers of foxes. Occasionally fits and screams accompany the exit of the fox. In all cases—even when the fox leaves quietly—great prostration remains for a day or two, and sometimes the patient is unconscious of what has happened.
"To mention but one among several cases, I was once called in to a girl with typhoid fever. She recovered; but during her convalescence, she heard the women around her talk of another woman who had a fox, and who would doubtless do her best to pass it on to some one else, in order to be rid of it. At that moment the girl experienced an extraordinary sensation. The fox had taken possession of her. All her efforts to get rid of him were vain. "He is coming! he is coming!" she would cry, as a fit of the fox drew near. "Oh! what shall I do? Here he is!" And then, in a strange, dry, cracked voice, the fox would speak, and mock his unfortunate hostess. Thus matters continued for three weeks, till a priest of the Nichiren sect was sent for. The priest upbraided the fox sternly. The fox (always, of course, speaking through the girl's mouth) argued on the other side. At last he said: "I am tired of her. I ask no better than to leave her. What will you give me for doing so?; The priest asked what he would take. The fox replied, naming certain cakes and other things, which, said he, must be placed before the altar of such and such a temple, at 4 p.m., on such a day. The girl was conscious of the words her lips were made to frame, but was powerless to say anything in her own person. When the day and hour arrived, the offerings bargained for were taken by her relations to the place indicated, and the fox quitted the girl at that very hour.
"A curious scene of a somewhat similar nature may occasionally be witnessed at Minobu, the romantically situated chief temple of the Nichiren sect, some two days journey from Tōkyō into the interior. There the people sit praying for hours before the gigantic statues of the ferocious-looking gods called Ni-ō, which are fabled to have been carried thither from Kamakura in a single night on the back of the hero Asaina some six hundred years ago. The devotees sway their bodies backwards and forwards, and ceaselessly repeat the same invocation, "Namu myōhō renge kyō! Namu myōhō renge kyō!" At last, to some of the more nervous among them, wearied and excited as they are, the statues eyes seem suddenly to start into life, and they themselves rise wildly, feeling a snake, or maybe a tiger, inside their body, this unclean animal being regarded as the physical incarnation of their sins. Then, with a cry, the snake or serpent goes out of them, and they themselves are left fainting on the ground.—
"So far Dr. Baelz. His account may be supplemented by the remark that not only are there persons believed to be possessed by foxes (kitsune-tsuki), but others believed to possess foxes (kitsune-mochi), in other words, to be wizards or witches commanding unseen powers of evil which they can turn loose at will upon their enemies. The following extract from a Japanese newspaper (the Nichi-Nichi Shimbun of the 14th August, 1891) may serve to illustrate this point:
"In the province of Izumo, more especially in the western portion, there exists a peculiar custom called fox-owning, which plays an important part in marriages and transfers of landed property. When a marriage is being arranged between persons residing several leagues apart and unacquainted with each other, enquiries into such points of family history as a possible taint of leprosy or phthisis are subordinated to the first grand question: is or is not the other party a fox-owner? To explain this term, we may say that fox-owning families are believed to have living with them a tribe of small, weazle-like foxes to the number of seventy-five, called human foxes, by whom they are escorted and protected wherever they go, and who watch over their fields and prevent outsiders from doing them any damage. Should, however, any damage be done either through malice or ignorance, the offender is at once possessed by the fox, who makes him blurt out his crime and sometimes even procures his death. So great is the popular fear of the fox-owners that any one marrying into a fox-owning family, or buying land from them, or failing to repay money borrowed from them, is considered to be a fox-owner too. The fox-owners are avoided as if they were snakes or lizards. Nevertheless, no one ever asks another point blank whether or not his family be a fox-owning family; for to do so might offend him, and the result to the enquirer might be a visitation in the form of possession by a fox. The subject is therefore never alluded to in the presence of a suspected party. All that is done is politely to avoid him.
"It should be noticed, moreover, that there are permanent fox-owners and temporary fox-owners. The permanent fox-owners silently search for families of a similar nature to marry into, and can never on any account intermarry with outsiders, whatever may be the inducement in the shape of wealth or beauty. Their situation closely resembles that of the pariahs and outcasts of former times. But even the strictest rules will sometimes be broken through by love which is a thing apart, and liaisons will be formed between fox-owners and outsiders. When such an irremediable misfortune takes place, parents will renounce even their well-beloved only son, and forbid him to cross their threshold for the rest of his life. Temporary fox-owners are those who have been expelled from the family for buying land from a permanent fox-owner. These circumstances conspire to give security to the fox-owners (whether such in truth or imagination, we are not in a position to say); for no one will harm them by so much as a hair's breadth. Therefore they are all well-to-do; some are even said to count among the most affluent families in the province. The very poorest people that have borrowed money from them will strain every nerve to raise money to repay the loan, because failure to do so would make others regard them as fox-owners and shun them. The result of all this is that a nervous malady resembling possession is much commoner in this province than elsewhere, and that Dr. Shimamura, assistant-professor at the Imperial University, during his tour of inspection there this summer, has come across no less than thirty-one cases of it."
To this may be added that in the Oki Islands, off the coast of Izumo, the superstition is modified in such wise that dogs, not foxes, are the magic creatures. The human beings in league with them are termed inu-gami-mochi, that is, "dog-god owners." When the spirit of such a magic dog goes forth on an errand of mischief, its body remains behind, growing gradually weaker, and sometimes dying and falling to decay. When this happens, the spirit, on its return, takes up its abode in the body of the wizard, who thereupon becomes more powerful than ever. Our informant was a peasant from the Oki Islands,—the best authority on such a point, because himself a believer and with no thesis to prove.
Oddly enough, we ourselves once had to submit to exorcism at the hands of Shintō priests. It was in the summer of 1879, the great cholera year, and we were accused by the authorities of a certain village at which we desired to halt, of having brought the demon of cholera with us. For, true to human nature, each town, each village, at that sad season, always proclaimed itself spotless, while loudly accusing all its neighbours of harbouring the contagion. Accordingly, after much parley, which took place in the drenching rain, with night approaching and with the impossibility of finding another shelter for many miles, some Shintō priests were sent for. They arrived in their white vestments and curiously curved hats, and bearing branches of trees in their hands. They formed in two lines on either side of the way, and between them our little party of two Europeans and one Japanese servant had to walk. As we passed, the priests waved the dripping branches over our heads, and struck us on the back with naked swords. After that, we were sullenly accorded a lodging for the night. To the honour of the Japanese government, let it be added that when we returned to Tōkyō and reported the affair, the village authorities were at once deposed and another mayor and corporation set to reign in their stead. Perhaps we ought to apologise for thus obtruding our own personal adventures on the reader. We have only hesitatingly done so, because it seems to us that the exorcism of two Englishmen near the end of the nineteenth century is a little incident sufficiently strange to merit being put on record.
As for badgers, they are players of practical jokes rather than seriously wicked deceivers. One of their pranks is to assume the shape of the moon; but this they can only do when the real moon is also in the sky. Another common trick of theirs is to beat the tattoo on their stomach (tanuki no hara-tsuzumi). In art they are generally represented thus diverting themselves, with an enormously protuberant abdomen for all the world like a drum.
- Assistant, that is, to Dr. Baelz.