Japanese Tales (Andrew Lang)

Week 7: India and Japan - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

The Japanese tales you will be reading in this unit are folktales, rather than stories taken from Japanese mythology. As folktales, these stories have a great deal in common with folktale types told all over the world. Yet in their details, the stories are Japanese, and this background reading will help acquaint you with some aspects of Japanese history and culture that will help you to recognize and understand these details.

About Japan

The earliest records of Japanese history date to around the year 400 C.E., and by around the year 500 C.E. a powerful family (the Yamatos) moved from the southern part of Japan towards the center of Japan (map) and settled in the area of Kyoto (map). There they established a wide-ranging rule over central and western Japan. Kyoto became the imperial capital in 794. The city of Tokyo was not established until the 12th century, and it did not become the official capital of Japan until 1868. Even today, Kyoto is referred to as Saikyo, the western capital. The city of Osaka (map) arose as a rival to Kyoto, and it emerged as center of merchant and trading activity in the 16th century. Osaka remains a center of industrial activity in Japan today.

For much of its modern history, Japanese society was divided into five hierarchical classes: the daimyo (feudal barons and landholders) the samurai (aristocratic warriors, the retainers of the barons), followed by peasants, craftsmen, and merchants.

Shinto and Buddhism

The main religions of Japan are Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto and Buddhism have peacefully coexisted for hundreds of years in Japan, and many people in Japan observe both Shinto and Buddhist practices. Within the context of Shinto, the Buddha is revered as a divinity, while in Buddhism the many Shinto divinities are viewed as different manifestations of the Buddha.

Shinto comprises the native religious observances of ancient Japan, without a clearly defined set of religious doctrines. There are elements of nature worship in Shinto, along with hero cult, divination and shamanism. There are many Shinto shrines, with festivals and pilgrimages that are associated with those shrines. There is no single supreme deity in Shinto, although the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, held a special position as the Ruler of Heaven and the Japanese emperors traced their divine origin to this goddess.

Buddhism entered Japan from China. The Japanese word "Zen" (Zen Buddhism) derives from the Chinese word Ch'an, which in turn derives from the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning meditation. Zen Buddhism represents in many ways a blending of the Buddhism practiced in India and the Chinese philosophy of Taoism.

In addition to meditation (za-zen), Zen Buddhism is also famous for its use of "koans", paradoxical sayings and stories of the great Zen masters that were recorded and collected for use in Buddhist instruction. You may know this famous Zen koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Haiku is a distinctively Zen form of poetry, which you may also be familiar with. A Haiku is a seventeen-syllable poem in three lines (5-7-5). Here are some examples by the Buddhist monk Basho (1644-1694), translated into English:

Autumn full moon,
the tides slosh and foam
coming in

* * *

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers'
imperial dreams

* * *

From every direction
cherry blossom petals blow
into Lake Biwa

The principles of Zen Buddhism have exerted an influence on many different aspects of Japanese culture, including not just poetry but also the visual arts, calligraphy, flower arrangement, and the famous Japanese tea ceremony.

A note about "tanuki"

Several of the stories you will be reading are about a distinctively Japanese trickster animal, the tanuki. The English name for tanuki is "raccoon dog", because the tanuki's face has a mask something like the masked face of a raccoon. The tanuki can have a roly-poly pot belly, and tea kettles in the shape of tanuki are popular throughout Japan. Ceramic tanuki statues are also found outside restaurants and bars, since the tanuki is a notorious glutton. Like most tricksters, the tanuki can be comic but also cruel. In folklore, the tanuki is a shape-shifter (and so is the red fox, or "kitsune," an animal closely associated with the tanuki in Japanese folklore).

In addition to changing its own shape, the tanuki can create illusions, making things seem to appear that are not really there. When the tanuki creates an illusion, it supposedly chants magic words and rubs leaves on its head. You can see this in the computer game Super Mario Brothers: when Mario acquires a leaf, he turns into a "Tanooki Mario", wearing a tanuki suit (not to be confused with raccoon-suit Mario!).

About Andrew Lang

Exactly because Andrew Lang's works are in the public domain and commonly available on the Internet, he is an important resource for this class; the units on The Arabian Nights, Japanese Tales, African Tales, Estonian Tales, and Danish tales all come from Lang's books. Andrew Lang was born in 1844, in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign (Victoria had become queen in 1837). When Andrew Lang died in 1912, he had outlived Queen Victoria by only a decade (Victoria died in 1901). Andrew Lang's life is thus almost perfectly "Victorian." He was a professor of anthropology at Oxford, one of the notorious "armchair anthropologists" of the late 19th century (the most famous example being Sir James Frazer, best known for his book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion). As the British Empire expanded its reach around the world, these British armchair anthropologists worked hard to popularize the folk literature and traditions of "primitive" peoples around the world. They did not do field work themselves, but they read the reports of far-flung anthropologists and they compiled, compared, and published voluminously. You can see the range of Lang's interests in a bibliography of his publications. In addition to books on myth, religion and folklore, he published popular adaptations of many classics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Morte d'Arthur, and the Arabian Nights.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM