A Need for Compassion: Bodhisattva Guanshiyin vs. Kannon

China and Japan tend to share many things, while taking time to be distinct from one another. Buddhism is a cultural aspect that became popular in both areas during the sixth century c.e. and onwards. The growth of Buddhism in both countries happened in a similar fashion and the same bodhisattva became popular in both places. With an overview of how Buddhism’s popularity arose and a description of Kannon (the bodhisattva in Japan) and Guanshiyin (the bodhisattva in China), I will argue that this particular bodhisattva was very influential in many aspects of both Chinese and Japanese culture.

Buddhism originated in India hundreds of years prior to its popularity in eastern Asia (de Bary, 306). In this time, Buddhism split into two major schools of thought—Mahayana and Hinayana (de Bary, 309).  Mahayana Buddhism is what eventually becomes popular throughout China, Korea and Japan and arose in the first or second century c.e. (de Bary, 309). Mahayana Buddhism is more recent and tends to be more mystical in practice, with faith placed in divine Buddhas and bodhisattvas (de Bary, 309).

When Buddhism reached China, it had to compete for followers. At the time (first century c.e. ), Taoism and Confucianism was already very popular and certain Buddhist practices clearly went against Confucian teachings. Shaving one’s head was considered doing harm to their body and thus disrespectful to their parents (de Bary, 315). There was also the aversion to Buddhism as it does not appear in the classics and that it came from India. However, Chinese scholars were very interested in the texts that the Buddhists had and worked on translating them to see if they could add any valuable knowledge to their already vast scholarship. After two centuries, Chinese intellects turned to Buddhism with philosophical questions. They began to interpret the sutras and Buddhist teachings through Taoist terms and started to dispel some of the misgivings allowing Buddhism to flourish (de Bary, 313).

Once Buddhism reached popularity in China, it spread quickly through Korea and then to Japan as most ideas did in East Asia. In Japan there was a similar issue to China with existing ideologies because there were many local religions referred to as Kami cults (Royall, xxxvi). However, similar to China Buddhism was picked up by the elite (mainly the Soga clan in Japan) and popularized it as being compatible with Kami (Saunders). As Buddhism rose in Japan, Bodhisattvas would even take the place of Kami in local temples or a temple would have a shrine to both a Kami and a Bodhisattva (Saunders).

Since Taoism and Confucianism were so widespread, it can be hard to tell how Buddhism became so popular. In short, the idea of salvation made Buddhism quite appealing to both Chinese and Japanese peasantry (de Bary, 313; Saunders). Local religious deities were not known for being particularly good or evil, in fact they were quite fickle. Many tales depict kami or monsters as being unpredictable, however Bodhisattvas are universally known for their kindness and compassion (MacWilliams, 393). The Bodhisattva Kannon is particularly important in this role, as the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra dictates that “Kannon constantly surveys the world listening for sounds of suffering. When he hears suffering, he comes in one of his 33 different forms to recite the dharma and save all who are suffering.” (MacWilliams, 375) This passage gives Kannon an omnipresent feeling and may contribute to how commonly Kannon is mentioned in Japanese tales. Furthermore, there are many temples in Japan dedicated to Kannon which have many myths surrounding their creation. These myths were termed ‘engi’ and “engi with their emphasis on the miracles and, in many cases, a supporting cast of kami, helped to popularize the kannon cult.” (MacWilliams, 385). With many myths comes many depictions. Possibly the most famous is the statue of Kannon at Kanshinji (Bogel, 30). The statue is painted gold and is only brought out for two days of the entire year (Bogel, 30). It has been named a national treasure and centuries old tales have been recovered that describe it (Bogel, 30; MacWilliams, 384).

The century prior to these mountain ascetics in Japan, similar ‘miracle’ tales were being spread throughout China. The Records of Witness of Responses of Guan(g)shiyin in Three Collections is three collections of miracle tales that feature bodhisattva Guanshiyin (another name for Kannon). (Mair, 2) An interesting fact is that it appears that the popularity of Guanshiyin came from Korea, which is backwards from the normal flow of ideas in eastern Asia. (Mair, 2) Through these collections scholars can see how worship of the bodhisattva changed throughout time. As the popularity of Kannon began in Japan with spreading tales and ended in many great temples being erected to Kannon, similar things happened in China. The first two collections of tales mention how just speaking Guanshiyin’s name would bring help to the caller, but in the last collection, protagonists begin to create statues and images to call for Guanshiyin’s help. (Mair, 13) There is also a shift where physical representations of the bodhisattva are enough to help the protagonist. In one story, a man wears a gold Guanshiyin clip in his hair and when the blade comes down to his head for execution, the clip prevents the man from being hurt. (Mair, 16) Other tales tell the story of how statues of Guanshiyin appear at prominent temples similar to the Kannon statues in Japan. Tales such as the ones found in these collections promoted iconography which became a very popular business in China and can be clearly seen culminating in the great works funded through the Tang dynasty.

Even with how influential Guanshiyin was to Chinese culture, Kannon appears to have affected Japanese culture differently. There is one tale about a retired Emperor Kazan who dies and split into 33 pieces. These 33 pieces were distributed to the 33 Kannon temples in Japan as this was the best place to be relieved from suffering. (376, MacWilliams) Now, this tale represents a popular pilgrimage that has lasted centuries in Japan. Kannon pilgrimages were very popular and there were multiple routes one could take with different temples. (375, MacWilliams) This is what sets Kannon apart from Guanshiyin. Despite all this, it is impossible to measure the depth of influence this bodhisattva has had for art, poetry and development of Buddhism in China and Japan.

Works Cited

Bogel, Cynthea J. “Canonizing Kannon: The ninth-century esoteric Buddhist altar at Kanshinji.” The Art Bulletin 84.1 (2002): 30-64.

Campbell, Aurelia, et al. “The Cult of the Bodhisattva Guanyin in Early China and Korea by.” (2008).

DeBary, William. “Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1.” (1960).

MacWilliams, Mark W. “Temple Myths and the Popularization of Kannon Pilgrimage in Japan: A Case Study of Ōya-ji on the Bandō Route.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (1997): 375-411.

Saunders, Ernest Dale. “Buddhism in Japan: with an ou lin of its origins in India.” (1964).

Fox Spirits in Imperial China

For most of China’s long history, foxes are among five animals with a significant role in human affairs.  Fox spirits operate under an apparent dichotomy—many tales show them to be benevolent, while in others they are deceitful and quite evil—but their ability to shapeshift symbolizes their true place in rural Chinese society and its existing Confucian framework. After a brief introduction, I will go into great depth about fox spirits as they appear in folklore during the Imperial era.

Throughout all the folktales regarding fox spirits (usually just referred to as foxes after translation), they virtually possess the same few characteristics. They are magical shapeshifters with the potential for immortality and god status. Fox spirits often seek to subdue male humans under a beautiful female disguise in order to get the male to ejaculate. Basically, the ejaculation allows the fox spirit to absorb the human’s life-force. Once enough life-force, or knowledge from mediation or study, has been collected, the fox can became immortal as a celestial fox. Although the fox spirits usually transform into females, particularly because the nocturnal aspect of the fox is heavily associated with yin, a feminine property, foxes can still transform into male humans, mostly of old age. I assert the transformation of foxes into elderly men or beautiful, fragile women feeds into their behavior of trickery and wile. This is especially the case since women maintain a subordinate position in imperial Chinese society and elderly men, although respected, do not inspire caution or suspicion from onlookers. (This hints at Confucian influence which I will discuss shortly.)

The scholarship on fox spirits categorizes them as both good and evil but favors the interpretation of them as usually more malevolent—evident when Rania Huntington, author of Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative says, “Foxes could be both positive and, more usually, negative omens” (11). However, it is important to emphasis the dichotomy and the reason for such. Foxes are both demon and spirit. There are important reasons for why foxes are given two, somewhat opposite titles. Each title describes how it functions in Chinese culture.

The tale from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, specially “The Alchemist,” although “The Boon-Companion” and “Miss Lianxing” as well, illustrates the virtuous aspect of the fox spirit. The main character of the story, Jia Zilong a scholar, befriends what he knows to be a man with knowledge of the immortals and magic, but what is later found to be a fox. The fox wanted to avoid making acquaintance with Jia based on his one bad quality of avarice, or extreme greed for wealth. This foreshadowing comes to greater fruition when Jia tries to steal the foxes’ black stone that can turn anything into silver or gold. Counter to what typically happens among fox tales, instead of death, immense suffering, or another severity, the termination of their friendship is the only punishment that Jia is dealt. A year later, Jia founds the black stone again to which, after encountering the fox, disobeys his wishes and falls into avarice again. However Jia reveals his plan to give the wealth away to the poor, and thus conquering his previous flaw. They continue to be friends.

In Pu Songling’s collection of tales found in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, there are three tales with an instance to which a fox does harm to the human in the story. In “Friendship with Foxes,” the human falls from the perceived-to-be second story of a tavern after deceived by a fox, and must get those present to pay his way home. The “Marriage Lottery” ends with the main character marrying a hideous women who he thought, from the advice of a fox, was extremely beautiful. And there is a brief appearance of a fox in “The Magnanimous Girl,” wherein a fox is hunted and killed by the god-like heroine of the story. In all the above cases (besides the last), the humans displayed the characteristic of greed, lust, and vain, and therefore behaved negatively towards the disguised fox.

Despite there being both good and bad instances of the fox spirit in Pu Songling’s collection, with the addition of “The Fight with the Foxes” and “The Marriage of the Fox’s Daughter,” fox spirits seem to treat the human characters of Chinese folklore in the same manner to which they treat the fox. One might even say it operates similar to the Golden Rule—an idea also linked to the Confucian ideology of the time; “do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself” (Freedman, 1). Confucianism, half-religion and half-philosophy (also called an ethic or political ideology), was created as a strict outline for the everyday life of Chinese people. Shortly, I will discuss how this framework was also used to provide stability.

Confucianism brings us to another function of the fox, though closely related to treating others with respect and kindness, is more specific in terms. Filial piety outlines important relationships in Chinese society and how the members in each relationship should interact. Typically filial piety is viewed as a son respecting and obeying his father—an ethics for the living—but this patriarchy extends to the dead. Ancestor worship is an important part of filial piety: the dead rely on the living for help in the afterlife, such as with obtaining food, money, and pardon from bad deeds. The fox achieves the function of somewhat enforcing ancestor worship, or at least reminding the listener of its importance. This originated because foxes frequently inhabited caves where ancestors were buried. Foxes are therefore known as spirits due to their proximity to ancestors and the fascination they inspire in people. This is evident in Edward T.C. Werner’s monograph Myths and Legends of China, where he says, “they are supposed to be the transmigrated souls of deceased human beings” (1). This is confirmed by Qitao Guo, in a review on Xiaofei’s previously-mentioned monograph, when Guo says this about the fox, “they intruded into the domestic arena…strengthening ancestral authority [etc.]” (195). Therefore, the worship of foxes due to their close connection to the dead, as either the spirit of ancestors or a medium for them (“coursers upon which ghostly being ride”), fulfills and integrates the Confucian value of ancestor worship with the natural world (Johnson, 38). Fox spirits were the bridge for Confucianism, a largely political ideology, to integrate the ideal of subservience to those superior with the individual households of rural China, who valued ancestor worship, a sense of community, and a respect for the distant and sublime.

Furthermore, the idea of demons used to police people’s behavior, especially in a poor, rural area as imperial North China, is not a new concept. Xiaofei Kang, author of The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China, adds, “As deities of demonic origins, they are worshipped on some occasions and exorcised on others” (3). Fox spirit worship has existed in China for centuries. Although the worship is very personal to each household, the practice is connected to a fox cult—defined as “any kind of human interaction with fox spirits, [including] worship as well as exorcism, devotion as well as fear, disgust, and suspicion” (Kang, 11). For many people, fox spirits symbolize many characteristics that merge into one complex identity. They are quasi-intelligent, yokai-like creatures that live on the verges of civilization while also inhabiting sacred places such as tombs (as I said earlier). Therefore, surrounding the fox cult, is the belief that the teachings of foxes are to be adhered to out of both fear and reverence.

Foxes, both good and bad, serve to reiterate the before-mentioned Confucianism as it is orally passed on from one generation to another, and as an integral part of the identity of the community. In addition, fox spirits, again, were used to influence the behavior of those who heard fox tales. But who was trying to police whose behavior? And in what way exactly were they doing this besides through the Confucian ideology?

Secondary sources on fox tales display the wide range of meaning behind the use of fox spirits. Xiaofei Kang, in “The Fox [hu] and the Barbarian [hu]: Unraveling Representations of the Other in Late Tang Tales,” conveys that fox spirits found in folklore and legends were viewed by the educated class as a backlash against foreign elements to China during the time, and a desire to return to Confucianism and its old Chinese identity. However in The Cult the Fox (already mentioned before), she says, “The complex and often contradictory representations of foxes in early periods have had a long-lasting impact on Chinese history” (14). There are examples of foxes used to both support and undermine political authority (Kang, 15-16). In addition, foxes are possessive, metamorphic, and sexual enchanting, but also a model of humaneness and eternal peace (Kang, 15-16). Foxes were a common part of almost every household—there’s the saying “where there is no fox demon, no village can be established” (Huntington, 14)—yet foxes were said to be an advocate for marginalized groups (Kang, 7-8). Therefore, because foxes can be found supporting or denouncing a wide range of groups, ideas, and characteristics, I conclude that the fox’s role in Chinese culture was virtually ever-changing as much as the foxes were in the various tales themselves.

The fox’s shapeshifting characteristic is symbolic to its role in Chinese lore. Many groups of varying class and status use the fox differently to fulfill obviously different agendas; the main two being as demons or benevolent spirits. Mainly, demons act as proponents for Confucianism or manifestations of foreign elements to inspire Chinese cultural pride; the spirits connect to ancestral worship and how people view the sublime—in that they attached it to a strange, reclusive animal, living on the fringes of their space in time.

Fox in the Reeds by Ohara Koson (http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/10/fox-lore.html)

Works Cited

“Confucianism and Ancestor Worship.” Southern Illinois University Carbondale, pp. 1-18. Accessed 19 January 2017. http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2050&context=ocj

Freedman, Russell. Confucius: The Golden Rule. ed. 1, 1 September 2002, Arthur A. Levine Books. Accessed 19 January 2017. http://www.arthuralevinebooks.com/book.asp?bookid=6

Guo, Qitao. Reviewed Work: The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 2007, ed. 67, no. 1, pp. 193-201. Harvard-Yenching Institute. Accessed 19 January 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25066844

Huntington, Rania. Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative (Harvard East Asian Monographs). Harvard University Asia Center: 1 March 2004. Print.

Johnson, T.W. “Far Eastern Fox Lore.” Asian Folklore Studies, 1994, ed. 33, no. 1, pp. 35-68, DOI: 10.2307/1177503. Nanzan University.

Kang, Xiaofei. “The Fox [hu] and the Barbarian [hu]: Unraveling Representations of the Other in Late Tang Tales” (1999). Journal of Chinese Religions, 13 July 2013, pp. 35-67, ed. 21, no. 1, DOI: 10.1179/073776999805306777.

Pu, Sung-ling. Chinese Ghost & Love Stories. Tuttle Publishing, 1946.

Xiaofei, Kang. The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China. Columbia University Press: New York, 1 January 2006. Print.

Werner, Edward T.C. Myths and Legends in China. Dover Publications, revised ed., 16 June 1994. Accessed 19 January 2017. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/mlc/mlc17.htm

The Subdued Role of Japanese Women: Manifestations in Yokai

Throughout Japanese history, the role of women in political and social life has been consistently restricted and limited. This reality is especially evident in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, spanning from the late 1100s to the late 1500s AD (Stiverson, 1-31), prior to the Edo period. The influence of Confucianism made it extremely difficult for women to pursue and secure positions of dominance and power. Confucian ideology encouraged the exclusion of women from political discourse, severely limiting their presence in the historical record during these time periods. Independent women typically operated on the fringes of society as abnormal, bizarre outcasts and possessed relatively smaller voices relative to powerful men in Japanese government at the time. The subdued role of Japanese women was also evident in local folklore and everyday culture; Japanese Yokai, the Yamamba specifically, exemplified the influence of Confucianism on the lives of Japanese women.

The Yamamba, or mountain witch, crone, or hag in English, was an excellent representation of Confucianism’s contribution to Japanese folklore. The Yamamba was an elderly, hideous looking Yokai that inhabited the forested hills of Japan (Dylan Foster, 144-149). She was known for terrifying those that crossed her path and frequently made meals out of local children.

The Yamamba’s hideous appearance and villainous reputation was directly linked to Confucian ideology’s influence in Kamakura and Muromachi Japan. This influence began with Confucius himself. The Book of Analects, translated by Simon Leyes, illustrated Confucius’ views concerning women pursuing positions of power and influence. In one instance, Confucius had a conversation with a disciple in relation to “King Wu”. The disciple informed Confucius that the King possessed ten ministers. Confucius responded sharply and insisted the King truly possessed only nine ministers because one of them was a woman (Leyes, 37-38). This conversation showcased the father of Confucianism in the middle of an attempt to erase a powerful woman from the historical record; Confucius’ comments negated dominant women and placed them outside of the mainstream or status quo.

In addition, Confucius also made a comment regarding the best way to deal with women from the perspective of powerful men. He claimed that “women and underlings are especially difficult to handle” (Leyes, 89). This statement implies that Confucius believed women were complicated and not in a good way. From the Confucian perspective, women were not straightforward enough to function efficiently in positions of power and influence. For this reason, it was assumed that they would naturally function better with smaller, less impactful roles. In this way, they would be easier to control and keep in check, as Confucius previously pointed out. Women were essentially seen as too dangerous and unpredictable to be trusted alone with dominant roles.

Leonard Shihlien, author of The Political Philosophy of Confucianism, pulled from the Confucian Classics to reinforce Confucianism’s strong concern that women should remain submissive men. The Confucian Classics largely expressed the belief “that the dominance of woman is an abnormal social phenomena” and something not meant to be taken seriously (Shihlien, 188). This characterization of women in power as abnormal and bizarre gave justification to the arguments presented in the Analects that women were too difficult for power and functioned more efficiently in smaller roles. These Confucian beliefs were represented in Kamakura and Muromachi Japan, when women in independent leadership roles were pushed away from notoriety and prestige.

James R. Stiverson, author of The Cambridge History of Japan: Volume 3, discussed the struggle of women from these time periods. His discussion proved that the values concerning gender, which Confucius explicitly endorsed, were put into practice in Kamakura and Muromachi Japan.  Stiverson introduced Mugai Nyodai, a 13th Century female Buddhist Zen Master, who lived from 1223 to 1298 AD (Stiverson, 502-511). She was an exceptionally successful female religious figure for the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Despite her success, it is important to note that little information exists in the historical record concerning her leadership role or the institution she headed. Additionally, there is also a lack of details surrounding her family life and other relevant personal information. These points raised by Stiverson suggested that her influence, although important, was restricted due to her limited presence in the historical record.

Stiverson also talked about other independent Japanese women that lived on the outskirts of society and the historical record, like female shamans, entertainers, and prostitutes. These were highly successful women within their respective professions. For example, many female entertainers were so dedicated and committed to their craft, they developed daughter-disciple relationships (Stiverson, 521-529). Nonetheless, women that found independent leadership positions in these areas proved to be largely forgotten voices compared to powerful men in the Japanese government during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods.

While many everyday women in Japanese history struggled to attain power and lasting influence, this reality was mirrored in the Yamamba and other figures in Japanese folklore. The same Confucian influences were evident in these mysterious Yokai, a staple of local Japanese culture. The Yamamba was a villainous outcast living in the outskirts of society, like the independent women from the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. The Yamamba lived in direct contradiction to the life of a dutiful, responsible housewife (Dylan Foster, 144-149). Instead of nurturing children, she ate them. Instead of depending on a husband in an organized household, she lived alone away from society. These factors alone, regardless of her hideous appearance, make her a villain in the eyes of followers of Confucianism.

The historical context for the Yamamba in relation to Kamakura and Muromachi Japan provides a stronger basis for the role of Confucian values in Japanese folklore during these time periods. Noriko T. Reider discussed a portrayal of the Yamamba in a popular play from the Muromachi period known as the Noh Play. In the play, the creator, Zeami who lived from 1363-1443 AD, pushed back against traditional views of the Yamamba in Muromachi Japan. While popular folklore at the time illustrated the creature as villainous, bizarre, and dangerous, Zeami made the Yamamba the protagonist of the play (Reider, 146). In the production, she was invisible, lonely, and helped humans with their everyday chores. Zeami, whether he intended to be critical of Confucian values or not, exposed the stigma placed on independent women in Muromachi Japan. This stigma clearly manifested itself in the complex Yamamba figure. Moving forward, she would continue to be seen by some as villainous and abnormal and by others, who pushed back against Confucian expectations, as a symbol of female independence and accomplishment.

While Confucian ideology was influential in the creation of limitations and restrictions placed on women during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, it is important to recognize that there must have been other factors in Japanese society and culture that also functioned as contributors. Regardless, Confucianism served as a key cause and inspiration for these beliefs and practices. Japanese Yokai, like the Yamamba, reflect that reality. At the same time, the Yamamba’s complexity as a character captures the changing social expectations and requirements for Japanese women over the centuries.

Works Cited

Confucius. Translated by Leyes, Simon. The Analects of Confucius. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Dylan Foster, Michael. The Book of Yokai. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015.

  1. Stiverson, James. The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 3: Medieval Japan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Shihlien, Leonard. The Political Philosophy of Confucianism. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & CO., 1932.

T. Reider, Nokito. “Transformation of the Oni: From the Frightening and Diabolical to the Cute and Sexy.” Asian Folklore Studies 62, no. 1 (2003): 133-157. Accessed January 17, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1179083?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=noh&searchText=play&searchText=reider&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3Fso%3Drel%26fc%3Doff%26hp%3D25%26Query%3Dnoh%2Bplay%2Breider%2B%26amp%3D%26amp%3D%26amp%3D%26amp%3D%26amp%3D%26amp%3D%26wc%3Doff%26prq%3D%2528noh%2Bplay%2529%26acc%3Don&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Am I Pretty?

The kuchisake-onna is the product of a country trying to return to its roots during a period of rapid modernization. She is a bridge between the mystical yokai of the past and the horrors that fit a new age; a new type of yokai that fit themselves into the concrete and lights and traffic of a large city.

The kuchisake-onna’s tale spread throughout Japan in less than a year, and like any other story, it has many different versions. At its base level, the story is always about a woman with a surgical mask that hides horrible cuts on her face. She approaches her victim in the dark and asks, “Am I pretty?” If the victim says no, they are killed. If the victim says yes, she rips off her mask to reveal her disfigurement and asks again, “Am I pretty?” The victim can at this point choose to say no, leading to death, or yes, which prompts the kuchisake-onna to attack and cut her victim’s mouth like her own.

The different versions of the story add bits of pre-existing motifs from other yokai or insert other cultural anxieties into her tale. She can seem very real because of her appearance. She’s human, and the fact that she wears a surgical mask only allows her to camouflage herself easily. People in many parts of the world but in East Asia in particular often wear these masks to filter pollution or as a precautionary measure against illness. Her setting is a lonely street or subway, and her story is just familiar enough to be believable, though her origin story changes depending on who tells it and in which prefecture. This example from Nomura Jun’ichi shows a combination of the most common origins of the kuchisake-onna:
There are three sisters. The oldest had cosmetic surgery and, mistakenly, her mouth was slit open. The second sister was in a traffic accident and her mouth was slit open. Because of that, the youngest sister went insane, slit open her own mouth and was put into a mental hospital. She escaped and has appeared in town. Her hair is long; she always wears a mask and holds a scythe in one hand. If you give her candy [bekko-ame], she won’t chase after you. Or if you say “pomade,” you can run away. (qtd. in Foster 2009, 186)

In a society dominated by men, the kuchisake-onna was both a cautionary tale against cosmetic surgery and a commentary on the pressures women endure to change themselves and be beautiful per society’s standards. Michael Dylan Foster also suggested that the story of the kuchisake-onna served several purposes. She reflects some of the conflict with the shifting role of women in Japanese society and the changing gender norms that came with it. On one hand, his discussion touches on how the kuchisake-onna is a symbol of the pressure women face to be beautiful. On the other hand, he says the kuchisake-onna was seen as a symbol of beauty as a weapon. He mentions one of the 1970s Japanese women’s magazines that he researched, and how an article about kuchisake-onna was placed right next to an advertisement for plastic surgery. The dangers of these operations were made to seem as if they were much less compared to an over-exaggeration of a cosmetic surgery horror story. (Foster 2007, 712-713)

Though the story of this yokai was first documented in the Gifu prefecture in 1978, connections were drawn through tale to other women yokai that existed earlier (Foster 2009, 184). This happened to quickly validate her existence in the yokai pantheon. During the time her story first arose, Japan was going through an identity crisis. The rapid industrialization and urbanization of Japan led to programs being created that focused solely on the country’s past. Tours of the countryside were created in order to bring people back to the roots of their traditions, and the popularity of yokai soared. It wasn’t the popularity they had before the Meiji era, however. This was a popularity brought about by the commercialization of the myths many people had grown up with, so while the majority of citizens knew about yokai, these tales didn’t hold the same power over people that they once did. The nostalgia for the mysteries of the yokai did not have a place in an urban environment, and it makes sense that a new horror would be born in a turbulent and nostalgic time. As Foster aptly summarized it, “Just as migrants to urban centers had transformed their lifestyles to accommodate the spaces of city and suburb, so too the mysteries of the past could refashion themselves to be compatible with anonymous streets and concrete apartment buildings.” (Foster 2009, 187)

I mentioned previously that the kuchisake-onna was tied with other yokai that experienced a comeback in popularity. The yamanba and the ubume are two mountain crone yokai that have ties to children, and since the kuchisake-onna preyed exclusively on children in many versions of the story, she was seen as the same. The yamanba is either described as an elderly old woman, or as a young beautiful woman fitting the description of the kuchisake-onna. She was said to nurse children lost for three days, but she was also known for eating children. Because of her appearance and the fixation on children, the kuchisake-onna is suggested to be a yamanba displaced from her mountain (Foster 2009). The yamanba inspired a fashion trend in the 90s that was motivated, similar to the kuchisake-onna, by a desire to break free and protest against the pressure of beauty standards.

The kuchisake-onna is now in horror movies around the world, but it began as nostalgia for the mysticism of the yokai in pre-war Japan. The rapid growth of the country into the modern age brought about radical changes to many aspects of society, and since yokai grew and evolved with the culture up until this point, it only made sense that modern yokai would be radically different from how they were before. However, like Japanese culture today, the yokai still have their roots in the past. The kuchisake-onna may have been inspired by the turmoil of urbanization, but her stories are still reminiscent of the yokai before her.

Works Cited
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai. Berkeley: U of California, 2009. Print.
Foster, Michael Dylan. “The Question of the Slit‐Mouthed Woman: Contemporary Legend, the Beauty Industry, and Women’s Weekly Magazines in Japan.” Signs, vol. 32, no. 3, 2007, pp. 699–726. www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/510542.
Foster, Michael Dylan, and Kijin Shinonome. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Oakland, CA: U of California, 2015. Print.
Nomura, Jun’ichi. Nihon No Sekenbanashi. Tokyo: Tokyo Shoseki, 1995. Print.

First picture is from here: https://scarina.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/kids.jpg
Second is from here: https://scarina.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/chalkpicture.jpg
Third: http://www.strangerdimensions.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Kuchisake-onna.jpg

How Dragons are Changing

My podcast group, Group Naga, has been researching dragons and snakes in east Asia for our project.  In the process of researching these creatures and their role in lore, we found that there was heavy influence in the myths from Buddhism and Hinduism in south Asia.  The creatures influencing east Asian dragons and snakes were known as the Naga.  The Naga are snake kings in India, resembling cobras, and were introduced to China through the growing Buddhist presence.  Once in China, the Naga were renamed to the Chinese word for dragon because of their similarity to local dragons, being quite serpentine in shape, and having influence over water.  Certain myths such as the Hachidai Ryūō, also known as the Eight Great Dragon Kings, have become quite well known in China and Japan, and are perfect examples of this influence.  In this essay, I will be discussing other forms of alteration to the dragon myth, particularly in a modern context.

The modern medium I am looking at, is anime, and how dragons are represented in it.  In my group’s upcoming podcast we will discuss a couple of examples where the dragons have quite classical interpretations, but upon doing research for this section, I noticed something that was initially peculiar.  Many dragons I found in a top 15 list for best anime dragons, looked almost nothing like the dragons we were researching (Ansalin).  While Chinese and Japanese dragons are long and serpent-like, many of these dragons were extremely robust, with large limbs, large wings, and some could even breathe fire (something Chinese and Japanese dragons cannot do).  In short, many of the dragons looked like what one would expect to see in western media, such as the dragons from the Harry Potter series, or even from the movie Shrek.

The examples of anime dragons that were reminiscent of classic dragons were Haku from the studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, and Shenron/Shenlong from Dragon Ball Z.  Haku Is a near perfect representation of a classical dragon, being long and thin like a snake, having lived in a river and and bearing its name, he  is represented as a male, and is incredibly powerful, known to the entire premises where he works as a leader and having a lot of sway.  Another good example of a classic east Asian dragon is Shenron/Shenlong, however it is one step removed from a truly classic interpretation.  Known in the manga as Shenlong and in the anime as Shenron, he was adapted from a Chinese dragon named Shenlong, who was a dragon god and known to be a bringer of rain (Guter).  When used for Dragon Ball Z, the rain aspect was removed, but he kept the same appearance, the same or similar name, and the power of a god, being able to grant wishes upon completion of a nearly impossible task.  It is also interesting to note that the tv show Avatar the Last Airbender used dragons that were east Asian in appearance and prowess, but still displays them as breathing fire, with no association to water.  This hybridization of the dragons makes sense given the fact that the American show pulls heavily from Asian themes. The show is also an interesting example of a reverse effect compared to what is seen in Japan where they are getting more western styled dragons.

Aside from these two examples (and the shaky example of Avatar the Last Airbender) though, many of the other dragons fit better into the category described earlier, with a more western appearance.  An example of more western dragons can be seen in Fairy Tail. There are many more examples, however I am most familiar with this one. Below is a picture of Igneel, a dragon capable of using fire, as opposed to other dragons in the series who use other elements in the form of magic.

Fairy Tail


This appearance bears little resemblance to the more accurate dragons, such as Haku from Spirited Away, as can be seen below for comparison.

Image result for haku dragon

Spirited Away https://www.pinterest.com/explore/spirited-away-dragon/

When considering why the appearance of these dragons was changing so dramatically, I initially assumed that it had to do strictly with westernization in Japan, a known phenomena which has been occurring off and on for almost two centuries, especially after the arrival of Commodore Perry, opening up the country to trade and western influence.  If it is standard westernization, it may not be quite negative for the culture of east Asia, because more and more often, it seems as that east Asia is celebrating the lore and keeping from forgetting it by incorporating it into pop culture; like what seems to have happened with Haku and Shenron/Shenlong.  While thinking through this issue though, I decided to do some research into it, and came across a book that changed the way I view this topic.

In the book The Japanification of Children’s Pop Culture, an edited volume edited by Mark West, West introduces an anthology of articles by explaining how an increase in cultural exchange between Japan and the United States in particular has occurred fairly recently.  This concept is explained from the perspective of Japanese culture entering the U.S. in the form of shows like Pokemon, Speed Racer, and Astro Boy and movies like Godzilla.  He states that the change in pop culture works both ways, using the construction of a Disney World in Tokyo (West).

The way this argument is presented in West’s book causes the reader to note that the notion of westernization may not fully apply to pop-culture, in the same fashion that it has applied in the past, with a rather negative connotation.  The shift in art style and writing in anime can be better attributed to the more recent concept of the global village.  Simply implying that because of increased contact between nations and cultures, the true size of the world has metaphorically shrunk, and ideas are circulated much more easily.  The use of western themes in eastern culture, and vice versa, may likely be due to increased exposure to other cultures, and more willingness to embrace other cultures, and what the local population sees as novel and either useful or entertaining.  While Japanese dragons are being westernized, western media is experiencing a lot of Japanification in a form of cultural exchange enabled by modern technology.


Works Cited

Ansalin. “Top 15 Most Epic Anime Dragons.” MyAnimeList.net. N.p., 07 Feb. 2016. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

Dragon Ball Z, Cartoon Network, 2001, Television

Fairy Tail, Funimation, Internet

Guter, Josef. Lexikon der Götter und Symbole der Alten Chinesen: Handbuch der Mystischen und Magischen Welt Chinas. Marix-Verlag, 2004.

Spirited Away. By Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli, 2001.

West, Mark I., ed. The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: from Godzilla to Miyazaki. Scarecrow Press, 2008.

The Role of Animals in Japanese and Western Literature

The fox is an elusive creature in the wild, so it makes sense that they are portrayed as aloof and mischievous in literature. In both Japanese and Western cultures, foxes trick, deceive, and even harm humans. By discussing several examples of foxes in literature in both cultures, it is revealed that they have a clearly defined role. On the other hand, not all animals in literature have a set role or purpose, but the incorporation of animals into literature in general acts as a way of introducing the moral of a story and also allows humans to have something to compare themselves to in order to learn more about what it means to be human.

In “Bewitched”, Omoto, a servant for an officer of the Bureau of Civil Affairs is sent an urgent message requesting her presence immediately. She set off at once, and brought her son with her. When she arrived, she was greeted by her master’s wife instead. She stayed there for a few days until the wife asked her to deliver a message back in town. Thinking that she would not be gone long, she left her son with her master’s wife. She arrived in town and was greeted by many people she knew — including the master’s wife. They all asked her where she had been all this time. Omoto became extremely confused and worried. Where was her son? Was her mind playing tricks on her? She immediately led a search party back to where she thought she had left her son. She found him playing in a field, but there was no house in sight or any evidence that a house had ever been there. The tale concludes by stating that “But would she really have abandoned her little boy on a wild moor? It’s far more likely that foxes tricked her” (“Bewitched.” Japanese Tales, edited by Royall Tyler, Pantheon Books, 1987, 294-5). In this tale, a woman is purposely deceived by a fox for no reason. She was a loyal servant and a good mother, and yet, an evil fox decided to play a horrible trick on her.

Another Japanese tale entitled “Fox Arson” provides another example of a fox’s malevolent ways. In this tale, a servant for the governor of Kai saw a fox on the way home and tried to kill it with an arrow knowing how much trouble foxes cause. He only managed to hit its leg, and then it disappeared. As soon as the servant reached his home, the fox appeared suddenly, carrying a flaming torch. The fox transformed into a human and threw the torch into the house, burning it down to the ground. The tales concludes by warning the readers to leave foxes alone for they “act with swift vengeance” (“Fox Arson.” Japanese Tales, edited by Royall Tyler, Pantheon Books, 1987, 298). The man was only trying to protect himself and his community, but his actions led the angry fox to seek revenge.

In Western literature, foxes are also seen as cunning, deceptive, and even evil creatures. Perhaps one of the earliest examples of foxes in Western literature is attributed to Aesop, the famous fable writer who lived during the 600s in ancient Greece. In “The Fox and the Raven”, a fox tricks a raven into giving her its cheese by complimenting the raven over and over again. The raven was holding the piece of cheese in its beak and when it opened its mouth to show the fox how beautiful its voice was, the fox snatched the cheese as it fell through the air. The fox made sure to ridicule the raven for its mistake before scurrying off with its newly acquired dinner (Babrius, Valerius, editor. Aesop’s Fables. University of Chicago Press, 1960).   

The Grimm brothers, famous for their epic fables and fairy tales, also included foxes in some of their stories. One in particular, “The Wolf and the Fox”, is about a fox who is forced to serve a wolf because the wolf was physically stronger than the fox and threatened to eat him if he did not follow his orders. The fox is told to fetch the wolf food everyday, and everyday the wolf gains weight and loses agility. One day, the fox comes up with a plan to get rid of his “master”. He leads the wolf into a barn where he says that there will be food. Once they enter the barn, the farmer sees them and tries to kill them both. However, because the fox was quicker, only the fox managed to escape. Because the fox was not gluttonous and lazy like the wolf, he had the ability to survive (Grimm, Jacob & Grimm, Wilhelm. Household Tales. Translated by Margaret Hunt, The University of Adelaide, 2014).

According to The Mythology of Grimm, a book written by Nathan Robert Brown, it is common for foxes to be portrayed as “mischievous tricksters” all around the world. Some trick others for fun, some in order to teach others a lesson in humility, and some because they gain something in the process. For example, tales written by Alaskan tribes, including the Inuit, the Inupiat, and the Yupik, involve foxes that deceive humans in some way. In Japanese culture, foxes are sometimes viewed or referred to as “kitsune”. In the past they have been said to be messengers of a Shinto kami called Inari. If one harmed a fox, then one would have to be prepared to face the wrath of Inari. It is because of this that foxes began to fill the role of dealing out “righteous justice on those who are cruel, prideful, arrogant, or even just mean to foxes” (Brown, Nathan Robert. The Mythology of Grimm. Penguin, 2014).

While it seems very obvious what role a fox plays in both Japanese and Western literature, it is not always clear as to what role other animals play. Other animals don’t necessarily have a perfectly defined behavior that they are associated with. If that is the case, then what is their purpose in the stories? Authors Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan write that “encounters with animals – whether fictionalized in fables or visualized in paintings and photographs – compel us to question what it means to be human and how we differ from and are similar to them” (Arluke, Arnold & Bogdan, Robert. Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards, 1905-1935. Syracuse University Press, 2010). In other words, humans use animals as something to compare themselves to. Arluke and Bogdan go on to say, however, that in general, humans tend to be confused about the role of animals. Some animals are hunted, eaten, brought and sold, and used for clothing, and yet, some are given a name, are grieved for when they die, and are pampered (Arluke, Arnold & Bogdan, Robert. Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards, 1905-1935. Syracuse University Press, 2010). In fact, humans sometimes go so far as to say “we are not animals” in order to further separate themselves from animals that they use for labor, entertainment, and companionship (Arluke, Arnold & Bogdan, Robert. Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards, 1905-1935. Syracuse University Press, 2010).

This is especially interesting when discussing the story of Beauty and the Beast — a tale where a girl falls in love with a beast. If it is truly the case that humans are constantly trying to distance themselves from animals, then why would this tale be about a great love between two beings that are so different from one another? Arluke and Bogdan argue that some animals are seen as “good” and worthy of a relationship with humans because they contribute to our happiness while others are seen as bad if they threaten our well being (Arluke, Arnold & Bogdan, Robert. Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards, 1905-1935. Syracuse University Press, 2010). It is not until later in the story when Belle gets to know the Beast that the audience views him as “good”. When the reader understands that the Beast makes Belle happy, they begin to like him as a character.

As revealed by author Jack Zipes, animals also have another broader purpose. Zipes writes that Western tales include animals to “tell us what we lack and how the world has to be organized differently so that we receive what we need” (Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton University Press, 2010). In other words, animals in Western tales help to introduce the moral of the story. The article discusses “Puss in boots” as an example. Tales about this cat usually have the same basic plot: an anthropomorphized cat helps a human in need and is generally portrayed as wiser and more cunning than the human. In the end, the cat is seen as a hero (Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton University Press, 2010). Tales involving Puss in boots teach their readers that anyone – human or animal – is capable of being a hero, and that sometimes animals do play the most important role. Ultimately, Puss in boots tales also teach readers not to judge a book by its cover.

While some animals, like the fox, seem to have a specific role that they play when present in fables and fairy tales, other animals can have varying roles. It is important to remember that animals can have a significant part in a story, and can even become an unlikely hero. Regardless of what their role is, the use of animals in stories has been an important element in literature for centuries. Whether they act as friend or foe, their presence in literature will continue both today and in the future.

Works Cited

Arluke, Arnold & Bogdan, Robert. Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards, 1905-1935. Syracuse University Press, 2010.

Babrius, Valerius, editor. Aesop’s Fables. University of Chicago Press, 1960.

“Bewitched.” Japanese Tales, edited by Royall Tyler, Pantheon Books, 1987, 294-5.

Brown, Nathan Robert. The Mythology of Grimm. Penguin, 2014.

“Fox Arson.” Japanese Tales, edited by Royall Tyler, Pantheon Books, 1987, 298.

Grimm, Jacob & Grimm, Wilhelm. Household Tales. Translated by Margaret Hunt, The University of Adelaide, 2014.

Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Kitsune and Women

Women are frequently found as characters within Japanese tales and many times these women are portrayed as kitsune, or fox spirits. There is a special connection found between women and kitsune in Japanese tales. Women are often associated with kitsune in Japanese tales because the fox spirits often transform into women and typically deceive men, however, there are other tales associated with women and kitsune. These tales frequently offer insights into important cultural practices of the time and the roles and expectations of women are often reflective in Japanese tales. The Heian period (794-1185) was a time when Buddhism was beginning to spread throughout Japan and more people were following Confucian practices. These practices were influential on cultural views and expectations of people during this time. Examining the roles of women and men during this period sheds light on cultural views of behavior that would ensure both spiritual and physical wellness. These roles and expectations differ between women and men and help define gender expectations during the Heian Period. Cultural expectations of how women should behave can be found through the mystifying and haunting tales of Japanese culture. The association between women and kitsune has a meaningful relationship in understanding the cultural roles and expectations of women through subtle and sly societal connections.

The Heian period was a time of peace and prosperity (Hidden Sun, 13). There was also a strong emphasis on Confucian beliefs especially on the aspect of filial piety (Hidden Sun, 15). Filial piety is the concept that you should be good to your mother and father and this concept is essential in understanding Japan culture during the Heian period. By the culture having such an emphasis on filial piety, women were given an extra incentive and expectation to get married, become good wives, and good daughter in laws. Within the Confucian ideology patriarchal families were the “model of how societies should be organized” (Widows of Japan,418). Marriage practices during this time were better than earlier periods for women but not yet ideal to certain theologies. Women had some independence within their marriage but other struggles came along with this new found “freedom”. At this time, men were allowed to take multiple wives while women were only permitted one spouse (Haruko, 74). It is important to consider that most scholarly writings typically talk about women in the context of marriage. One reason to acknowledge this finding is because social values that are considered of high importance would be recorded. One of the most important roles of women at the time would be to become a good wife. It was believed that by following these societal beliefs the families would not only gain physical benefits but also spiritual benefits (Lindsey, 38-39). Later during the Edo period (1603-1868), many families adopted the use of a female lifestyle guide called the Onna Chohoki (Lindsey, 36). This lifestyle guide said that marriage determines whether a young women flourishes or withers and if they did not follow the guidelines the divine punishment was typically disease (Lindsey, 39-40). Knowing background information on the Heian period allows for a deeper understanding in to one Japanese tale that had subtle influences on the expectations of women and the roles they played during the Heian period.

The tale, “The Loving Fox”, is a Japanese tale about a man walking down the street who meets a beautiful woman who turns out to be a fox (Royall, 115). According to Taylor Royall’s book, Japanese Tales, the woman warns the man that if they lay together that she will die instead of him and that if he wished to honor her that he should write the lotus sutra in her honor. And this is indeed what happens. This tale has several subtle hints about gender roles woven through the intricate tale about a man simply walking down the street. As mentioned previously, men had more freedom than women during this time. You would not hear this tale being told with the roles reversed. You would not find a tale that a woman was walking down the street and that she thought a man was handsome and approached him. This shows a glimpse into the masculine superiority and its influence over women.

One of the main points to address is the idea that the woman was portrayed as being a fox. The fact that the “woman” was not actually a woman but portrayed as an animal, suggests that being a woman has different value than a man in the tale. The story also seems to emphasizes more the spiritual than the physical by mentioning about the lotus sutra. In this particular tale, marriage is not involved as it is in other kitsune tales, but it is also possible to infer from this tale that there is a consequence for the woman “laying in his arms” because she dies in place of him. There is no punishment for the man which expresses the idea that men have more freedom than women.

For the Heian period being a time of peace and prosperity (Robins-Mowry, 13) women in general did not feel as much of the effects of freedom as men. While there was in no way the same amount of freedom for women as there was for men, it can be seen through Japanese tales with kitsune that the role and expectations of women were different than that of men. During this time, men were also constantly gone to visit other women (Robins-Mowry, 15) which can explain why there were no problems for the man. While some stories about Kitsune, especially those where they are married, emphasize the expectations of women.

However, “The Loving Fox” is a favorite example of a tale where the meaning behind it is more on the subtle side and leaves for more personal interpretation which could have a bigger influence on the culture at that time. After delving deeper into the enriching history of the Heian period, the folklore and tales of the time can begin to bring a new meaning to the sometimes confusing, and mysterious tales. As previously discussed, the roles of women have a connection to kitsune that helps to understand the context of women throughout the Heian period. One last point to acknowledge is that history has many more explanations than just the expectations of women that can be found throughout Japanese tales, and the next time you read or hear of a tale, research the historical background because you may find a subtle connection to explain other significant cultural practices.

Works Cited

Haruko, Wakita, and Suzanne Gay. “Marriage and Property in Premodern Japan from the Perspective of Women’s History.” Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 1984, p. 73. doi:10.2307/132182.

Lindsey, William. “Religion and the Good Life: Motivation, Myth, and Metaphor in a Tokugawa Female Lifestyle Guide.” Jstor, Nanzan University, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30233776.

Robins-Mowry, Dorothy. The Hidden Sun: Women of Modern Japan. Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1983.

Tyler, Royall. Japanese Tales. New York, Pantheon Books, 1987.

“Widows of Japan: an Anthropological Perspective.” Choice Reviews Online, vol. 49, no. 01, Jan. 2011, doi:10.5860/choice.49-0363.

Princess Mononoke: looking into Japanese history

In the beginning of the film, a village located in eastern Japan is attacked by a pig demon. The prince named Ashitaka, kills the demon successfully. But the demon hurt Ashitaka’s arm during the battle. The village witch said that Ashitaka must leave the village and find a cure in the western lands. After Ashitaka leaves a monk told him that he may find help in a Great Forest Spirit. He saved two soldiers from Irontown on his way. When he reaches Irontown, Ashitaka finds out that pig demon is originally a good yokai, it becomes evil because Lady Eboshi and her people try to shoot at it. Lady Eboshi leads the destruction and creation of iron town. The town was a place for social rejects and provided them a place to live and work. They also created firearms to protect against the angry gods from the forest. And Lady Eboshi was planning to develop a more advanced weapon to kill the forest god. Princess Mononoke was raised by wolves and resented humankind. She wanted Lady Eboshi gone because she was destroying the things she loved. Princess Mononoke tries to attack Lady Eboshi and Irontown, but Ashitaka intervenes. Ashitaka is injured and is saved by the powers of the forest spirit. Later, the town is attacked. Ashitaka goes back to defend irontown. Lady Eboshi is on her way to kill forest god, she is winning towards forest creatures and Princess Mononoke. During the battle, another group joined to attack forest creatures, a pig demon and Princess Mononoke are surrounded by them. Ashitaka wants to help but he is powerless. At this time, the forest god appears and saves Princess Mononoke, but human army stoles the head of him. He goes crazy in order to find back his head. Ashitaka and Princess Mononoke together help the forest god and forest goes back to peace. Princess Mononoke is still not able to forgive human and she leaves Ashitaka back to her beloved forest.

As Hayao Miyazaki, the directer of Princess Mononoke, mentioned in his interview, this movie is based on Muromachi period of Japan. Miyazaki said he is up to all kinds of things, it is his younger staff wants to focus on a period that most people were ignorance. Considering that muromachi period is a commonly known as a tough period in the history of Japan, so that Miyazaki chose this as background. But after carefully watching the movie three times, Miyazaki actually gave some details of  Jomon period. For example, there is a scene when the monk and Ashitaka eating together, monk admitted that “you remind me of the old tales, brave people, far to the east who used stone arrowheads and rode red elk, the Emishi.”From his word, we know that Emishi have fantastic skill of pottery modeling but it seems they still do not know how to use metal. These are signs of Jomon period. In reality, Emishi is a race which was defeated by Yamato people(majority race of Japanese) after Jomon Period and then they moved to northern Japan like Hokkaido. In Emishi village from earlier scene, it is easy to find a lot traditional elements. Ashitaka cuts his hair instead of his head hoping for forgiveness from the god, the knife that the girl gave to Ashitaka is a traditional symbol of love. Princess Mononoke’s Indian looking wearing is also based on Jomon period. In addition, looking back to the Emishi witch, their wearing have something in common, such as circular ear pendant, tooth like neck pendant and one piece made shirt.

Emperor Godaigo is the last emperor of Kamakura period and the first emperor of Muromachi period. He was very angry about not having enough power as emperor because he studied Confucianism since very young, the concept”the prince is prince, the minister is minister” really attracted him. He wants to play the role as Chinese emperor does. But in reality he even could not make his son successor. He tried to fight with shogunate but he failed. As a result, shogun banished him to a small island. He went back after several month and a general named Ashikaga who betrayed shogun to help him. Godaigo quickly made some new policies to announce his authority as soon as he went back to the capital Kyoto. To his surprise, Ashikaga betrayed him as well. Sooner or later, Godaigo escaped to Nara to claim his orthodox and Ashikaga supported someone else to be the emperor. Therefore, northern and southern period began. After several years, shogunate inside had conflict of choosing the next shogun, two Daimyo(one of the great lords who were vassals of the shogun) grouped millions of soldiers to have a war for 11 years. The war basically clear out the last prestige of central government. Neither emperor nor shogun could control the land outside the capital Kyoto.  Thus, muromachi period Japan was a warring state, there were lots of conflicts among different local warlords and many of them tried to become daimyo themselves while daimyos were busy to fight for the position of shogun. In other words, there were tons of rebellion. We can see that lady Eboshi and another group of human army do not listen to each other as a evidence of it.

At the start of Muromachi period, Japan does not have access to trade with Chinese. Some local warlords turned into pirates to invade coastal area of China and Korean. In those fights against Japanese, Chinese and Korean suddenly found that Japanese weapon was actually better. Later on, when Ming emperor Zhu Di allowed Ashikaga shogun to trade in Ningbo, China, Japanese main product was their weapon. This phenomenon largely encouraged Japanese to develop their smeltery and casting industries. Lady Eboshi’s Irontown is one reflection of this though gun hasn’t been introduced to Japan, it was just Miyazaki’s little adjustment for anime purpose.

Culturally, one of Ashikaga’s offspring was not good at being shogun, he was good at art instead. Shogun originated and promoted Higashiyama Bunka,  it mainly based on Zen-Buddhism and the idea of Wabi-sabi( beauty of simplicity). Today Japan’s Chado(tea ceremony), ikebana(gardening), drama and painting are largely influenced by Higashiyama Bunka. Nowadays, when people referring Japanese style, it will be wabi-sabi in a large chance. In addition, most men were busy fighting during Muromachi period, so women were forced to fill the workforce instead. This allowed women to gain more influential roles in society, which is another inspiration for Lady Eboshi as the leader of a town and a potential warrior in her own right. Moreover, the word” Eboshi” usually means men’s hat, but it means prostitute referring women. Lady Eboshi used to be a fallen woman, but she stood out to help social rejects. She is an example of raising female rights at that time Japan. 

Last but not least, Japan is well-known as one of the most tidy country in the world today. However they do not have any policy in order to protect nature until Edo period. Before that, people were destroying forests in their own wish. However, with fear and respect of god, people chose not to cut down any trees near Shinto shrines. People did not show any respect towards nature and god in the movie, this implies disorder among the society, people were not following rules and laws because of long lasting war.

In conclusion, Hayao Miyazaki combines both historical context and myth to tell a interesting story. History is a mirror, the contradiction between human development and nature protection cannot be resolved in Miyazaki’s point of view, like the story ending, Princess Mononoke left Ashitaka although they love and understand each other after all sort of things. Ignorance towards destruction of people leads to god’s death and the not perfect ending. In any case, Miyazaki gave a positive ending, according to what Ashitaka said, “God is telling us to live”, which still inspires people today.

Work cited:

  • Hall, John Whitney, and Takeshi Toyoda. Japan in the Muromachi Age. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell U, 2001. Print.
  • Martin, Ian. “A Deeper Look at Hayao Miyazaki’s Nature.” The Japan Times. The Japan Times, 2 Aug. 2014. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/08/02/books/book-reviews/deeper-look-hayao-miyazakis-nature/#.WIFq2fkrI-V
  • Miyazaki, Hayao. “Miyazaki on Mononoke-hime // Interviews // Nausicaa.net.”Miyazaki on Mononoke-hime // Interviews // Nausicaa.net. Nausicaa, 2 July 2014. Web. 19 Jan. 2017. <http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/interviews/m_on_mh.html>.

Buddhism’s influence on Japanese Culture during the Heian and Kamakura Periods

Japanese society underwent intense changes during the Nara, Heian, and Kamakura periods. Influential ideas foreign to Japan such as Confucianism rose to intellectual prominence while traditional beliefs like Shinto came in to question by the educated and wider population. With these new ideas came new societal customs that would go on to shape Japanese culture for centuries to come, not the least of these being Buddhism and the rapidly developing ideology that came with it. As is made evident by oral folklore and traditions of the Heian and Kamakura periods, Buddhism quickly became an important factor in determining societal and cultural customs in daily Japanese life. Buddhist teachings and their local interpretations informed many aspects of Japanese culture during the Heian and Kamakura periods—placing women in a subordinate social position, reinforcing traditional ideas of aristocratic superiority, and impacting the way ancestor worship and filial piety were treated in Japanese popular religion.

Interpretations of Buddhist teachings during the Heian and Kamakura periods greatly affected the role women played and how they were viewed in society, and this can be seen in tales of folklore collected during these periods. Buddhist teachings that reached Japan during the Heian period taught that “woman’s nature is inherently evil”, and labeled feminine sexuality as a force of temptation (Libra et al. 7.). This belief quickly became widespread, and folk tales began to warn of the temping powers of women. In one tale, “The Lure”, a fine prince is tempted by a beautiful woman to spend the night at her palace in the mountains. After arriving, the prince discovers that the woman had tricked him in to coming so that her master could kill the young man. Narrowly escaping the trap, the prince spends the rest of his days in prayer to the Buddha for saving his life (Tyler, 111.). The tale is clear in its message—condemning the woman as a temptress in direct violation of the Buddha’s wishes.

This association of women with evil greatly reduced the role women played in society at the same time that Buddhism was starting to take hold as the dominant religion in Japan. Women became much less involved in court politics during the Heian period and lost many opportunities to gain religious status as well during this time, as the number of nuns was greatly reduced (Friday, 143.). In fact, many times, women were not allowed to even enter holy sites such as Mt. Hiei (Matsunaga, 208.). This reality is briefly reflected in the tales of the Heian period, with one story, titled “Kobo Daishi”, which tells of a mountain that has the shrine of two gods at its peak, ending by telling the reader “women have never been allowed on the mountain” (Tyler, 37.). Clearly, Buddhist teachings in Japan had a great effect on gender roles in the Heian and Kamakura periods—reducing the political and religious agency of women in that society and placing negative stigmas of evil upon them. With Buddhism spreading rapidly during these periods of Japanese history, it became inevitable that these teachings would impact the society and culture of Japan.

Buddhist teachings that became popular during the Heian and Kamakura periods also served to reinforce the idea that aristocrats had deservedly attained their higher status through reincarnation and karma. Seeing as Buddhism during these periods was generally seen as a function of the state, the ideology that became popular, especially during the Heian period, espoused the belief that those of higher class or those born in more fortunate circumstances were being rewarded in this life for their good deeds and karma of previous lives. Conversely, those born into the lower class were serving punishment for previous deeds and must look to the aristocracy as examples of superior enlightenment (Mason, 107.). This can also be seen through examination of folklore tales recorded during this time. In one tale, “The Solid Gold Corpse”, a very poor commoner finds himself begging the Buddhist deity Kannon for help, but fast losing hope. In his plea, he cries “surely my karma from past lives has brought this poverty on me” (Tyler, 244.). This is a clear reflection of a belief in Hinayana Buddhism, which gained popularity for a brief time during the Heian period and espouses the concept that nirvana can only be attained by improving one’s karma after multiple rebirths (Friday, 136.). Clearly, the aristocratic Japanese society that existed long before Buddhism entered Japan selectively utilized this concept from a particular sect of Buddhist teaching to reinforce the idea that the wealthy and politically elite were, in ways both physical and spiritual, superior to the lower classes.

Buddhist teachings during the Heian and Kamakura periods also greatly changed the way filial piety and ancestor worship were viewed and practiced in Japanese society at the time. Prior to the introduction and incorporation of Buddhist ideology into Shinto concepts, ancestor worship had still been a very important aspect of Japanese culture. Worshipping one’s ancestors properly was considered key to the deceased having a prosperous afterlife and to the living having a fortunate future. After Buddhist thought began to infuse itself into local religious practice, ancestor worship became an essential part in allowing one’s ancestors to achieve nirvana. The common people began referring to the deceased as hotoke—a word which translates roughly to Buddhas (Matsunaga, 236.). Helping the ancestors achieve nirvana was important for the living, as it meant good karma for the next life. Particularly, having the living recite and copy various Buddhist sutras was considered good practice for earning the deceased a place among the Buddhas (Matsunaga, 242.). This practice and its resulting consequences can be seen in the Japanese tale “Hell in Broad Day”. In this tale, three brothers visit various “hells” on a mountain in order to discover where their recently deceased mother has been reborn. Eventually, the brothers discover that their mother is “suffering unspeakable agony” for sins she committed during her life and the only way to save her is to copy the Lotus Sutra one thousand times in a single day. The brothers complete the impossible task with help from the Emperor and their mother is reborn in heaven (Tyler, 314.). This story demonstrates very clearly the newfound importance that ancestor worship took in Heian Japan after the introduction of Buddhist ideology. The brothers in the story are willing to do the impossible in order to save their mother from torment in the afterlife, and her redemption is dependent entirely on Buddhist teachings and scriptures. This is a marked departure from previous ancestor worship which required little organized philosophy and was seen as more symbolic than realistic.

The impact the Buddhism had on Japanese society during the Heian and Kamakura periods is often overlooked in comparison to Confucianism. Buddhist teachings reduced the role of women in religious realms as well as political ones. They also helped to reinforce the idea that the aristocracy were somehow superior to the lower classes and were used to incorporate Buddhism in previously Shinto practices such as ancestor worship. Study of folklore from these periods of Japanese history reveals the scope and impact that this new and changing ideology had. All things considered, Buddhist philosophy quickly made its way to the heart of Japanese culture during these time periods and integrated itself as part of the society and social norms of the times.

Works Cited
Friday, Karl F. Japan emerging: premodern history to 1850. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012.

Lebra, Joyce, Joy Paulson, and Elizabeth Powers. Women in changing Japan. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1976.

Mason, R. H. P., and J. G. Caiger. A history of Japan. New York: Free Press, 1974.

Matsunaga, Daigan, and Alicia Matsunaga. Foundation of Japanese Buddhism. Los Angeles: Buddhist Books International, 1974.

Tyler, Royall. Japanese tales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987.

Oni: The Real Significance of Fantastical Beasts

The folklore and literature of Japanese culture has been inundated with stories of mythical and mysterious beings, called yokai, for centuries. Yokai take innumerable forms, ranging from humanoid to serpentine dragons and everything in between. The yokai enjoy a cultural relevance and longevity that has allowed them to become a significant aspect in the historical and modern realities of Japan. This longevity can be partially attributed to Shinto’s institutionalized method for accepting and adding various local spirits, beasts, demons, or any other creatures to the acknowledged pantheon. Furthermore, it was discovered early on that tales of yokai could be utilized as a vehicle for distributing buddhist and confucian ideologies. The historical significance of yokai goes beyond being, “synonymous with folklore” as Michael Dylan Foster says in The Book of Yokai, and beyond their ability to communicate religious or philosophical ideologies. In this essay, I will explore how a specific class of yokai, the Oni, have transcended their position as fairy-tale villains.

The Oni are a malevolent race of demon with their first mention in the Kojiki of the year 712. They are fearsome, usually large, ogre-like beings with red or blue skin, fangs, horns, and armed with a large iron staff. The Oni are conceptualized as evil and lacking any redeeming qualities, “Although there is some variation, the one is generally portrayed in narratives and ritual contexts as a nasty otherworldly being who threatens humans; he is a person-shaped anti person, encapsulating everything that imperils humans and human society.” (Foster, 118). The earliest depictions of the Oni are found in the twelfth century Jigoku zoshi, or buddhist “hell scrolls”. Despite their ancient origins, the conception of Oni has hardly changed. Even in modern iterations and pop culture they are depicted largely the same way, and they’re character has changed very little as well.

While there are numerous tales featuring Oni as the evil force or villain that a hero must vanquish, their significance goes beyond that of the big bad guy. For example, the famous tale entitled Shuten doji, tells of the famed warrior-hero Minamoto no Raiko’s Ulysses-esque victory over Shuten doji, the drunken king of the Oni. This tale falls under the literary genre otogi zoshi, or “companion tales” which were written from the fourteenth through the seventeenth century, with a focus on, “entertainment and moral/religious edification” (Reider, 207). Shuten doji is accused of kidnapping, enslaving, and cannibalizing the defenseless maidens of Kyoto. By imperial decree, Raiko hunts him down in his fortress, where, with the help of three buddhist deities and some very strong sake, he knocks out the devil and removes his head.

At face value, Shuten doji is buddhist propaganda. There is a clear message that because of Raiko’s piety and devotion to the buddhist gods, he is sure to emerge victorious. But upon deeper analysis, we discover, “The Shuten doji legend may contain a significantly complex socio-historical dichotomy.” (Reider, 208). The Oni have been used as a literary device referencing outsiders, “Similarly, one can be interpreted historically as visualizations of otherness and the dangers associated with it. Almost human in form, but at the same time imperiling all that is human, one represent everything foreign and mysterious that threatens the status quo.” (Foster, 119). As Shuten doji is set during Emperor Ichijo’s reign (986-1011) of the Fujiwara Regency (858-1184), it is believed that the Oni of Shuten doji represent those who were not on good terms with the Fujiwara bloodline, individuals pushed to the edges of society. Therefore, according to Noriko Reider in “Shuten doji: Drunken Demon”, “no full appreciation of the Shuten Doji legend is complete without the consideration of as societal outcasts, the disenfranchised, the indigent, and the uninitiated.” (Reider, 209).

There are other historically marginalized populations that could be represented by the Oni, “such as shugendo religious practitioners, who were ‘outsiders’ living in the mountains and engaging in mysterious practices.” (Foster, 119). The practitioners of shugendo, called shugenja, were on the fringe of Japanese religious society. Mountains held a special place of reverence in Shugendo, and many of the religious rituals took place in remote mountainous areas. The relative isolation of the Shugenjas created an air of mystery and distrust around them prior to the Edo period. The most infamous aspect of Shugendo religious practices is the demonstration of magical powers, “These demonstrations once included flying through the air, walking on swords, walking on fire, ‘hiding’ one’s body, and entering boiling water. The details concerning some of these powers, such as flying through the air and hiding one’s body, are unknown, with only scant information concerning them in the surviving Shugendo records.” (Hitoshi, 104). These unusual practices would have set the Shugenja apart, combined with their relative isolation, it is easy to see how they could be seen as “the other”. They are anti-society simply by nature of being unfamiliar or different.

With the Meiji Restoration and the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the year 1868, the emperor was restored to his seat of power. This transition created a new sense of national identity in Japan, “they had been accustomed for centuries to think and exist in terms of small spatial categories, and thus it was for the most part quite strange to conceive of belonging to a nation of ‘Japanese’.” (Antoni, 158). In the most famous of all Japanese folktales, the story of Momotaro (Peach Boy), a young boy armed with dumplings invades Oni Island, conquers it, and returns with the riches of the island. This particular tale was adapted by the Japanese government for early-twentieth-century textbooks to unite the Japanese people starting with the youth, so that they would grow up with a Japanese identity. In the prewar period and during the pacific war, the Oni no longer symbolized those on the fringe of society, but foreigners and, “allied troops were portrayed as the dangerous demonic Other.” (Foster, 122).

Aside from contributing to the Japanese spiritual and mythical cosmology, the yokai have transcended Japanese literature to establish themselves as significant features of Japanese history. Despite being fictional characters, they have influenced, and been used as a tool to influence Japanese culture, politics, religion, and even daily life.

Works Cited
Antoni, Klaus J. Momotarō (the Peach Boy) and the spirit of Japan: concerning the function of a fairy tale in Japanese nationalism of the early Shōwa age. Nagoya: Nanzan U, 1991. Print.
Foster, Michael Dylan, and Kijin Shinonome. The book of yokai: mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. Oakland, CA: U of California Press, 2015. Print.
Miyake, Hitoshi, and H. Byron. Earhart. Shugendō: essays on the structure of Japanese folk religion. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies, the U of Michigan, 2001. Print.
Sansom, George Bailey. A history of Japan to 1334. Stanford, CA: Stanford U Press, 1958. Print.