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Tokyo Stage
No.011
Messages left by ancestors in folklore of yokai phantoms
“Disasters and yokais – Japanese cataclysms explored with Kunio Yanagida”Akihiro Hatanaka, writer and editor
Akihiro Hatanaka is a writer and editor, specializing in folklore and folk tradition. He will talk about mysterious oral literature passed down in Tokyo, extracting topics from “Disasters and yokais – Japanese cataclysms explored with Kunio Yanagida,” the book he authored on the basis of Yanagida’s writings.
“Disasters and yokais – Japanese cataclysms explored with Kunio Yanagida”

 Tracing stories of pictorially inexpressible yokais collected by the folklorist

After the Great East Japan Earthquake, scholars including sociologists, historians, and engineers have discussed why the disasters could not be prevented and how they should be prevented in the future. I researched what the past folklorists though about cataclysms and how they interpreted folklore. Then, I found out that ominous signs and unsubstantial matters which reflected disastrous memories were described as yokai phantoms.

In one of colored woodblock prints by Utagawa Hirokage, for example, kappa spirits are depicted pulling the thunder god down into water. Judging from the facts that this work was completed immediately after the Ansei Great Earthquakes and the Eko-in temple in Ryogoku has long been mourning for neglected spirits, I suspect that kappas were painted as those who were killed by earthquakes and floods. Or, on second thought, the sense of guiltiness for abortion compelled by starvation may have been represented in the form of kappa.

 Wolves in Soshigaya-Okura and tengu goblins in Shimokitazawa and Omotesando

The wolf statue at the Mitsumine shrine (left) and the tengu mask displayed within the precincts of the Shinryuji temple in Shimokitazawa (right)

The wolf statue at the Mitsumine shrine (left) and the tengu mask displayed within the precincts of the Shinryuji temple in Shimokitazawa (right)

The wolf statue at the Mitsumine shrine (left) and the tengu mask displayed within the precincts of the Shinryuji temple in Shimokitazawa (right)

Cholera broke out in 1858. Cholera was believed to be the handiwork of an evil fox. As the cult of wolf to exterminate fox possession widely spread, a stone statue of a wolf instead of a guardian dog was placed at shrines. The cult of tengu is also well-known. The tengu embodies mysterious phenomena taking place in mountains. For example, a fire occurring in an uninhabited forest was considered to be the responsibility of a tengu. Thus, the tengu has been worshipped as a god for protection against fire. Imbuing yokais with disasters, people in those days may have strongly felt this reality. Vulgar superstitions and folk beliefs should not be treated disrespectfully. I hope people visit those remains to understand their meanings.

Akihiro Hatanaka

Born in 1962 in Osaka. He is a writer and editor, working for the Institute for Art Anthropology, Tama Art University, as a research associate, and for the Department of Photography, College of Art, Nihon University, as a lecturer. He has authored many books on folk studies.

Akihiro Hatanaka