Category Archives: Literature

Lafcadio Hearn’s “Kaidan” in 3 Minutes


Obon season is coming again in Japan, and this is a good time for ghost stories. Unlike the US, where Halloween and October are a popular time for ghost-stories, such stories are popular around late summer In Japan because Obon is a time when people pay respects to dead ancestors, etc.

In the past, I’ve told ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, the famous Greco-Irish author who lived in Japan 120 years ago. Many, though not all, are from Hearn’s novel “Kwaidan”, which in modern Japanese is spelled as “Kaidan” (怪談). However, this year I am doing a bit of a twist. The YouTube videos below are stories from Kaidan, told in 3 minutes or less, by the Japan Internet comedy show Eagle Talon (鷹の爪).

These videos are only in Japanese, sorry, but they’re hilarious to watch. I’ve linked the original English-versions of the story too.

The first story is Rokuro-kubi, which I posted here. You can also click on the video here.

And here’s another story, Earless Hoichi, which I posted here. You can click on the video:


On Mosquitoes

Aedes aegypti.jpg
Aedes aegypti” by Muhammad Mahdi Karim ( Facebook YoutubeOwn work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s summer, and as you know, mosquitoes become a big nuisance. A couple years ago, I was in Japan during the summer, and one morning, I decided to go for a walk at the nearby park. It was a nice, warm morning, so I sat down at a bench, and decided to read a book. While there, I felt something tickling my legs, and I thought it was a breeze, but when I got home, I had 16 mosquito-bites! I was miserable for the next 3 days. ;-p

Anyhow, I wanted to share this essay from Lafcadio Hearn‘s (小泉八雲) famous book Kwaidan (1903) which can be found here:


With a view to self-protection I have been reading Dr. Howard’s book, “Mosquitoes.” I am persecuted by mosquitoes. There are several species in my neighborhood; but only one of them is a serious torment,–a tiny needly thing, all silver-speckled and silver-streaked. The puncture of it is sharp as an electric burn; and the mere hum of it has a lancinating quality of tone which foretells the quality of the pain about to come,–much in the same way that a particular smell suggests a particular taste. I find that this mosquito much resembles the creature which Dr. Howard calls Stegomyia fasciata, or Culex fasciatus: and that its habits are the same as those of the Stegomyia. For example, it is diurnal rather than nocturnal and becomes most troublesome in the afternoon. And I have discovered that it comes from the Buddhist cemetery,–a very old cemetery,–in the rear of my garden.

Dr. Howard’s book declares that, in order to rid a neighborhood of mosquitoes, it is only necessary to pour a little petroleum, or kerosene oil, into the stagnant water where they breed. Once a week the oil should be used, “at the rate of once ounce for every fifteen square feet of water-surface, and a proportionate quantity for any less surface.” …But please to consider the conditions in my neighborhood!

I have said that my tormentors come from the Buddhist cemetery. Before nearly every tomb in that old cemetery there is a water-receptacle, or cistern, called mizutame. In the majority of cases this mizutame is simply an oblong cavity chiseled in the broad pedestal supporting the monument; but before tombs of a costly kind, having no pedestal-tank, a larger separate tank is placed, cut out of a single block of stone, and decorated with a family crest, or with symbolic carvings. In front of a tomb of the humblest class, having no mizutame, water is placed in cups or other vessels,–for the dead must have water. Flowers also must be offered to them; and before every tomb you will find a pair of bamboo cups, or other flower-vessels; and these, of course, contain water. There is a well in the cemetery to supply water for the graves. Whenever the tombs are visited by relatives and friends of the dead, fresh water is poured into the tanks and cups. But as an old cemetery of this kind contains thousands of mizutame, and tens of thousands of flower-vessels the water in all of these cannot be renewed every day. It becomes stagnant and populous. The deeper tanks seldom get dry;–the rainfall at Tokyo being heavy enough to keep them partly filled during nine months out of the twelve.

Well, it is in these tanks and flower-vessels that mine enemies are born: they rise by millions from the water of the dead;–and, according to Buddhist doctrine, some of them may be reincarnations of those very dead, condemned by the error of former lives to the condition of Jiki-ketsu-gaki, or blood-drinking pretas… Anyhow the malevolence of the Culex fasciatus would justify the suspicion that some wicked human soul had been compressed into that wailing speck of a body…

Now, to return to the subject of kerosene-oil, you can exterminate the mosquitoes of any locality by covering with a film of kerosene all stagnant water surfaces therein. The larvae die on rising to breathe; and the adult females perish when they approach the water to launch their rafts of eggs. And I read, in Dr. Howard’s book, that the actual cost of freeing from mosquitoes one American town of fifty thousand inhabitants, does not exceed three hundred dollars!…

I wonder what would be said if the city-government of Tokyo–which is aggressively scientific and progressive–were suddenly to command that all water-surfaces in the Buddhist cemeteries should be covered, at regular intervals, with a film of kerosene oil! How could the religion which prohibits the taking of any life–even of invisible life–yield to such a mandate? Would filial piety even dream of consenting to obey such an order? And then to think of the cost, in labor and time, of putting kerosene oil, every seven days, into the millions of mizutame, and the tens of millions of bamboo flower-cups, in the Tokyo graveyards!… Impossible! To free the city from mosquitoes it would be necessary to demolish the ancient graveyards;–and that would signify the ruin of the Buddhist temples attached to them;–and that would mean the disparition of so many charming gardens, with their lotus-ponds and Sanscrit-lettered monuments and humpy bridges and holy groves and weirdly-smiling Buddhas! So the extermination of the Culex fasciatus would involve the destruction of the poetry of the ancestral cult,–surely too great a price to pay!…

Besides, I should like, when my time comes, to be laid away in some Buddhist graveyard of the ancient kind,–so that my ghostly company should be ancient, caring nothing for the fashions and the changes and the disintegrations of Meiji. That old cemetery behind my garden would be a suitable place. Everything there is beautiful with a beauty of exceeding and startling queerness; each tree and stone has been shaped by some old, old ideal which no longer exists in any living brain; even the shadows are not of this time and sun, but of a world forgotten, that never knew steam or electricity or magnetism or–kerosene oil! Also in the boom of the big bell there is a quaintness of tone which wakens feelings, so strangely far-away from all the nineteenth-century part of me, that the faint blind stirrings of them make me afraid,–deliciously afraid. Never do I hear that billowing peal but I become aware of a striving and a fluttering in the abyssal part of my ghost,–a sensation as of memories struggling to reach the light beyond the obscurations of a million million deaths and births. I hope to remain within hearing of that bell… And, considering the possibility of being doomed to the state of a Jiki-ketsu-gaki, I want to have my chance of being reborn in some bamboo flower-cup, or mizutame, whence I might issue softly, singing my thin and pungent song, to bite some people that I know.


P.S. Interesting fact: most mosquitoes do not drink blood at all. Only certain species need blood to make eggs.

Meiji Shrine Fortune-Poem


My wife and I like to visit Meiji Shrine in Tokyo often. Last year, my wife was having Yakudoshi right now (maeyaku, yakudoshi, atoyaku), so she went there to get purified and avoid potential calamity. I like going just because it’s a very nice Shinto shrine.

Normally, when you visit Shinto Shrines in Japan1 you can get your fortune for the year told. This is called omikuji and I’ve posted about it before.

However, Meiji Shrine is somewhat unusual because the fortunes you receive are not really fortunes. This is the “fortune” I received:


This is actually a poem written by Empress Shoken (shōken kōtaigō 昭憲皇太后) who was the wife of Emperor Meiji. In fact all the omikuji fortunes are written by either the Emperor or Empress.

The shrine’s website explains why: Before the war (WWII?), Meiji Shrine only sold ofuda, the sacred tablets used in Shinto. They did not have omikuji at all. However, after the war, the shrine wanted to provide more religious teachings, and decided to make a unique form of omikuji that would distinguish them from mundane temples and shrines. A professor of religious studies from the Shinto-based Kokugakuin University named Miyaji Naokazu came up with the idea to get rid of omikuji based on good or bad fortunes, and provide something with deeper meaning.

The Emperor and Empress wrote tens of thousands of poems each, but the shrine selected 15 poems each that were felt to have deeper meaning and these became the omikuji used today. Additionally, because there are more foreign visitors than before, there are now omikuji available in English too. These are from 20 poems selected, 10 from the Emperor and 10 from the Empress.

As for the poem I got, here it is:

人知れず Hito shirezu
思ふこころの Omou kokoro no
よしあしも Yoshi ashi mo
照し分くらむ Terashi wakaran
天地のかみ Tenchi no kami

I looked it up in Japanese (no translations in English, as far as I know), and it seems to be about how humans cannot know what is in each other’s hearts. We think these are private thoughts. However the heavenly gods know.

I might be wrong though. If anyone has information, please feel free to share.

Anyhow, I think it’s a cool idea to use poetry, not fortunes, for the omikuji at Meiji Shrine. If you go sometime, definitely spend the money on omikuji. Based on personal experience, some temples or shrines seem to “rig” their omikuji, so that people rarely have bad luck, or often have really good fortunes. The Meiji Shrine’s approach seems more genuine, which I think is cool. :)

1 I think Buddhist temples sometimes do this, depending on the sect. Shingon, esoteric Buddhism, is particularly eclectic, so you can see it there, for example.

Introducing the Kokinshu

A copy of the Kokinshu I purchased recently.
A copy of the Kokinshu I purchased recently.

Hi Everyone,

Some readers might remember that I am a fan of Japanese waka (和歌) poetry. Waka poetry, is an older form of poetry that came before haikus. When people think of Japanese poetry, they often think of haikus, but haikus are relatively new, so there’s lots and lots of poetry written as waka, not haiku, that Westerns don’t know about. The main difference is that haikus are 5-7-5 syllables, while waka are 5-7-5-7-7, so there’s two extra lines of 7 syllables.

Waka poetry was very popular in the “golden age” of Japanese culture, the Heian Period. Noble men and woman, and their attendants, wrote poetry to one another all the time as a way of communicating their thoughts. Poetry could be a path to success too.

But also, poetry was so popular, that there were official anthologies too. There were 21 anthologies total, and some were better than others. I wrote about the 21 anthologies in greater detail on my other blog. The most famous of these anthologies is probably the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集) or just Kokinshū for short. It’s name literally means “A Collection of Poems, Old and New”.

The Kokinshu anthology was completed in 914, but start 15-20 years earlier. It took the committee, led by one Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之) a long time to compile all the poems and then organize into an anthology. It is not as famous to Westerners as the Hyakunin Isshu, which I made an entire blog for, but the Isshu is a private collection. Althought it is very famous and influential, it was not an official, Imperial anthology.

The Kokinshu is far larger than the Hyakunin Isshu too. It has hundreds of poems. Instead of reading specific poems, Ki no Tsurayuki and the committee organized the anthology by “books”. There are 20 books, with different topics like “Autumn”, “Love” and “Miscellaneous”. What’s clever about the anthology is that the poems within each book are carefully organized too.

For example, in the “Autumn” book, the first poems talk about early fall, and tend to sound similar to each other. However, as you progress through the book, the poetry topics subtly move into other subjects, and then into late autumn. So as the reader progress, the season of Autumn progresses too. The trick is to not focus on one poem, but the progression of poems together. It creates a seamless progression through different subjects within the same book.

There are very few translations of the Kokinshu, but thankfully I found a good one by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius. This book does a nice job translating the poems, and providing useful footnotes, but also translates Ki no Tsurayuki’s originally forward. Ki no Tsurayuki walks the reader through a brief history of Japanese poetry (relative to his time) and critiques famous poets of the past, namely the Six Immortals of Poetry. His criticism is pretty harsh, but I think this was typical of the era.

I haven’t through the entire book, but I tend to jump around and find a section worth reading.

There’s a lot of good poems in there, and I hope to share some soon. I don’t know if I could make a blog devoted to the Kokinshu, like I did with the Hyakunin Isshu, but instead I hope to post here and maybe the other blog from time to time. I hope to also read the Shinkokin Wakashū someday. This was a later anthology, and was intended as a kind of “sequel” to the Kokinshu.

But if you do like Japanese poetry, especially Waka poetry, the Kokinshu is among the best of the 21 Imperial Anthologies.

Getting To The Bottom Of Ferguson, Cutting Through the Madness

Two young, black men who have tragically lost their lives recently.
Two young, black men who have tragically lost their lives recently.

I was sad to hear about the verdict in the trial for police officer Darren Wilson. I felt bad for Mike Brown’s parents who lost their son, and for all those frustrated with life in Ferguson, MO.

But then I read another article by the BBC which shows how there are many, different eye-witness stories about what happened. Many people saw what happened, but they gave different versions and different viewpoints. So it was hard for the jury to find any concrete evidence.

"Rashomon poster 2" by Daiei, (c) 1950 - accessed 01-March-2008. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Rashomon poster 2” by Daiei, (c) 1950. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Reading this reminded me of a famous old Japanese movie called Rashomon, which was originally a short story by the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke. The story and the movie take place at the famous Rashomon Gate (羅生門) in Kyoto where three men talk about a murder that recently happened.

The murder is told from four different viewpoints. The first three (the thief, the samurai’s wife and the samurai through medium) all contradict each other. It’s clear each person is telling their version of the story out of self-interest.

Only the final version of the story seems objective but not completely.

So, the film (and novel) teaches a lesson that people are frequently motivated by self-interest and will distort the truth to suit their own beliefs or desires. Oftentimes people do this without realizing it because most of the things we do in life are motivated by self-interest anyway.

But it’s because of this distortion that we are unable to see the truth. We see what we want to see even if it is not accurate.

I guess this is partly why so many witnesses at the scene of Mike Brown’s death are so contradictory. Everyone brings their personal “baggage” and judgments. But it’s even worse on social-media. Many people who did not witness the death of Mike Brown still give their opinions. Some say Darren Wilson is a racist cop, some say Mike Brown is a thug. Some say Mike Brown is a saint, others say Darren Wilson was performing his duty in a stressful environment. Maybe all these opinions are true. Maybe none of them are true.

To me, it seems like people’s opinions on social media tell us more about that person’s “personal baggage” and views than what actually happened.

Unfortunately, we may never know the whole story.

As a Buddhist, I see the loss of life, any life,1 as tragic. Thus, regardless of why or how it happened Mike Brown’s death still affects us all. People are angry, scared, frustrated, confused and now rioting in the streets. So, regardless of what actually happened, a violent death still degrades society that much more. If we continue to act in self-interest though, the cycle will repeat and more lives will be lost.

As I wrote in a previous post, we may not always be able to help incidents like this directly, but there things we can in our own lives, and our own community that will still benefit people in places like Ferguson and others.

The Buddha gave some help advice on this, as taught in the Dhammapada:

129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

131. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

132. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.

133. Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

And elsewhere in the Metta Sutta:

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.

Until people learn to talk face to face and listen, respect one another as fellow humans, misunderstandings will continue and violence will repeat itself. We will have to cut through the madness sooner or later or perish as a society.

P.S. More on differing viewpoints in American culture and Buddhism.

1 This is why Buddhist uses the term ‘all sentient beings’. Buddhism sees all beings equally, because the individual forms are temporary. One day a frog, the next day a banker, etc.

The Quiet Life

Hi all,

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the 13th century Japanese classic, Essays in Idleness or tsuredzuregusa (徒然草). There is a lot of silly or idle talk in the book, but there are also things I like in there. I found this passage today:

124) The priest Zehō [poet and contemporary of the author] ranks second to none as a scholar of the Pure Land Sect, but instead of making a show of his learning, he recites the nembutsu day and night, a quiet way of life I find most admirable.

It reminds me of something Benchō (弁長, 1162–1238) said generations earlier:

People maintain that the best place for a life of retirement is the Kokawa Temple or Mount Koya. But as for me, there is nothing to compare with the bed from which I rise every morning.

This is the ideal life for me too. :)

Lafcadio Hearn’s “Of A Mirror And A Bell”

This is the last story in our Halloween week here at the ol’ blog from Lafcadio Hearn’s famous book Kwaidan, which contains weird, old tales from 19th century Japanese culture. Some of these stories are well-known today, and I see them in my daughter’s books sometimes (e.g. “Yuki Onna”). Others are more obscure.

This is a great tale that I read for the first time this week and wanted to share. Thanks to Project Gutenberg for providing the book for free. The tale is called “Of A Mirror And A Bell” or kagami to kane (鏡と鐘) in Japanese. I added a couple links to Wikipedia in this, but all the [ ] notes are from Hearn himself. I left them intact.

Eight centuries ago, the priests of Mugenyama, in the province of Totomi, wanted a big bell for their temple; and they asked the women of their parish to help them by contributing old bronze mirrors for bell-metal.

[Even to-day, in the courts of certain Japanese temples, you may see heaps of old bronze mirrors contributed for such a purpose. The largest collection of this kind that I ever saw was in the court of a temple of the Jodo sect, at Hakata, in Kyushu: the mirrors had been given for the making of a bronze statue of Amida, thirty-three feet high.]

There was at that time a young woman, a farmer’s wife, living at Mugenyama, who presented her mirror to the temple, to be used for bell-metal. But afterwards she much regretted her mirror. She remembered things that her mother had told her about it; and she remembered that it had belonged, not only to her mother but to her mother’s mother and grandmother; and she remembered some happy smiles which it had reflected. Of course, if she could have offered the priests a certain sum of money in place of the mirror, she could have asked them to give back her heirloom. But she had not the money necessary. Whenever she went to the temple, she saw her mirror lying in the court-yard, behind a railing, among hundreds of other mirrors heaped there together. She knew it by the Sho-Chiku-Bai in relief on the back of it,—those three fortunate emblems of Pine, Bamboo, and Plumflower, which delighted her baby-eyes when her mother first showed her the mirror. She longed for some chance to steal the mirror, and hide it,—that she might thereafter treasure it always. But the chance did not come; and she became very unhappy,—felt as if she had foolishly given away a part of her life. She thought about the old saying that a mirror is the Soul of a Woman—(a saying mystically expressed, by the Chinese character for Soul, upon the backs of many bronze mirrors),—and she feared that it was true in weirder ways than she had before imagined. But she could not dare to speak of her pain to anybody.

Now, when all the mirrors contributed for the Mugenyama bell had been sent to the foundry, the bell-founders discovered that there was one mirror among them which would not melt. Again and again they tried to melt it; but it resisted all their efforts. Evidently the woman who had given that mirror to the temple must have regretted the giving. She had not presented her offering with all her heart; and therefore her selfish soul, remaining attached to the mirror, kept it hard and cold in the midst of the furnace.

Of course everybody heard of the matter, and everybody soon knew whose mirror it was that would not melt. And because of this public exposure of her secret fault, the poor woman became very much ashamed and very angry. And as she could not bear the shame, she drowned herself, after having written a farewell letter containing these words:—

“When I am dead, it will not be difficult to melt the mirror and to cast the bell. But, to the person who breaks that bell by ringing it, great wealth will be given by the ghost of me.”

—You must know that the last wish or promise of anybody who dies in anger, or performs suicide in anger, is generally supposed to possess a supernatural force. After the dead woman’s mirror had been melted, and the bell had been successfully cast, people remembered the words of that letter. They felt sure that the spirit of the writer would give wealth to the breaker of the bell; and, as soon as the bell had been suspended in the court of the temple, they went in multitude to ring it. With all their might and main they swung the ringing-beam; but the bell proved to be a good bell, and it bravely withstood their assaults. Nevertheless, the people were not easily discouraged. Day after day, at all hours, they continued to ring the bell furiously,—caring nothing whatever for the protests of the priests. So the ringing became an affliction; and the priests could not endure it; and they got rid of the bell by rolling it down the hill into a swamp. The swamp was deep, and swallowed it up,—and that was the end of the bell. Only its legend remains; and in that legend it is called the Mugen-Kane, or Bell of Mugen.

Now there are queer old Japanese beliefs in the magical efficacy of a certain mental operation implied, though not described, by the verb nazoraeru. The word itself cannot be adequately rendered by any English word; for it is used in relation to many kinds of mimetic magic, as well as in relation to the performance of many religious acts of faith. Common meanings of nazoraeru, according to dictionaries, are “to imitate,” “to compare,” “to liken;” but the esoteric meaning is to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another, so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result.

For example:—you cannot afford to build a Buddhist temple; but you can easily lay a pebble before the image of the Buddha, with the same pious feeling that would prompt you to build a temple if you were rich enough to build one. The merit of so offering the pebble becomes equal, or almost equal, to the merit of erecting a temple… You cannot read the six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one volumes of the Buddhist texts; but you can make a revolving library, containing them, turn round, by pushing it like a windlass. And if you push with an earnest wish that you could read the six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one volumes, you will acquire the same merit as the reading of them would enable you to gain… So much will perhaps suffice to explain the religious meanings of nazoraeru.

The magical meanings could not all be explained without a great variety of examples; but, for present purposes, the following will serve. If you should make a little man of straw, for the same reason that Sister Helen made a little man of wax,—and nail it, with nails not less than five inches long, to some tree in a temple-grove at the Hour of the Ox,—and if the person, imaginatively represented by that little straw man, should die thereafter in atrocious agony,—that would illustrate one signification of nazoraeru… Or, let us suppose that a robber has entered your house during the night, and carried away your valuables. If you can discover the footprints of that robber in your garden, and then promptly burn a very large moxa on each of them, the soles of the feet of the robber will become inflamed, and will allow him no rest until he returns, of his own accord, to put himself at your mercy. That is another kind of mimetic magic expressed by the term nazoraeru. And a third kind is illustrated by various legends of the Mugen-Kane.

After the bell had been rolled into the swamp, there was, of course, no more chance of ringing it in such wise as to break it. But persons who regretted this loss of opportunity would strike and break objects imaginatively substituted for the bell,—thus hoping to please the spirit of the owner of the mirror that had made so much trouble. One of these persons was a woman called Umegae,—famed in Japanese legend because of her relation to Kajiwara Kagesue, a warrior of the Heike clan. While the pair were traveling together, Kajiwara one day found himself in great straits for want of money; and Umegae, remembering the tradition of the Bell of Mugen, took a basin of bronze, and, mentally representing it to be the bell, beat upon it until she broke it,—crying out, at the same time, for three hundred pieces of gold. A guest of the inn where the pair were stopping made inquiry as to the cause of the banging and the crying, and, on learning the story of the trouble, actually presented Umegae with three hundred ryo in gold. Afterwards a song was made about Umegae’s basin of bronze; and that song is sung by dancing girls even to this day:—

Umegae no chozubachi tataite
O-kane ga deru naraba
Mina San mi-uke wo
Sore tanomimasu

[“If, by striking upon the wash-basin of Umegae, I could make honorable money come to me, then would I negotiate for the freedom of all my girl-comrades.”]

After this happening, the fame of the Mugen-Kane became great; and many people followed the example of Umegae,—thereby hoping to emulate her luck. Among these folk was a dissolute farmer who lived near Mugenyama, on the bank of the Oigawa. Having wasted his substance in riotous living, this farmer made for himself, out of the mud in his garden, a clay-model of the Mugen-Kane; and he beat the clay-bell, and broke it,—crying out the while for great wealth.

Then, out of the ground before him, rose up the figure of a white-robed woman, with long loose-flowing hair, holding a covered jar. And the woman said: “I have come to answer your fervent prayer as it deserves to be answered. Take, therefore, this jar.” So saying, she put the jar into his hands, and disappeared.

Into his house the happy man rushed, to tell his wife the good news. He set down in front of her the covered jar,—which was heavy,—and they opened it together. And they found that it was filled, up to the very brim, with…

But no!—I really cannot tell you with what it was filled.

Happy Halloween!

Lafcadio Hearn’s “A Dead Secret”


As mentioned in my last post, this week’s posts are themed for Halloween with a Japanese twist. I am posting old stories from Kwaidan, a famous book of Japanese weird tales by Greco-Irish author, Lafcadio Hearn. In Japan he is known as Koizumi Yakumo (小泉八雲). Today’s story was something I posted before, but not in entirety. It is one of my favorite stories by Hearn, and today I am posting in entirety thanks to Project Gutenberg. I’ve added additional links and clarifications in [ ] too. Also, for reference, the title is called Hōmurareta-himitsu (葬られた秘密) in Japanese.

A long time ago, in the province of Tamba, there lived a rich merchant named Inamuraya Gensuke. He had a daughter called O-Sono. As she was very clever and pretty, he thought it would be a pity to let her grow up with only such teaching as the country-teachers could give her: so he sent her, in care of some trusty attendants, to Kyoto, that she might be trained in the polite accomplishments taught to the ladies of the capital. After she had thus been educated, she was married to a friend of her father’s family—a merchant named Nagaraya;—and she lived happily with him for nearly four years. They had one child,—a boy. But O-Sono fell ill and died, in the fourth year after her marriage.

On the night after the funeral of O-Sono, her little son said that his mamma had come back, and was in the room upstairs. She had smiled at him, but would not talk to him: so he became afraid, and ran away. Then some of the family went upstairs to the room which had been O-Sono’s; and they were startled to see, by the light of a small lamp which had been kindled before a shrine in that room, the figure of the dead mother. She appeared as if standing in front of a tansu, or chest of drawers, that still contained her ornaments and her wearing-apparel. Her head and shoulders could be very distinctly seen; but from the waist downwards the figure thinned into invisibility;—it was like an imperfect reflection of her, and transparent as a shadow on water.

Then the folk were afraid, and left the room. Below they consulted together; and the mother of O-Sono’s husband said: “A woman is fond of her small things; and O-Sono was much attached to her belongings. Perhaps she has come back to look at them. Many dead persons will do that,—unless the things be given to the parish-temple. If we present O-Sono’s robes and girdles to the temple, her spirit will probably find rest.”

It was agreed that this should be done as soon as possible. So on the following morning the drawers were emptied; and all of O-Sono’s ornaments and dresses were taken to the temple. But she came back the next night, and looked at the tansu as before. And she came back also on the night following, and the night after that, and every night;—and the house became a house of fear.

The mother of O-Sono’s husband then went to the parish-temple, and told the chief priest all that had happened, and asked for ghostly counsel. The temple was a Zen temple; and the head-priest was a learned old man, known as Daigen Osho. He said: “There must be something about which she is anxious, in or near that tansu.”—”But we emptied all the drawers,” replied the woman;—”there is nothing in the tansu.”—”Well,” said Daigen Osho, “to-night I shall go to your house, and keep watch in that room, and see what can be done. You must give orders that no person shall enter the room while I am watching, unless I call.”

After sundown, Daigen Osho went to the house, and found the room made ready for him. He remained there alone, reading the sutras; and nothing appeared until after the Hour of the Rat. Then the figure of O-Sono suddenly outlined itself in front of the tansu. Her face had a wistful look; and she kept her eyes fixed upon the tansu.

The priest uttered the holy formula prescribed in such cases, and then, addressing the figure by the kaimyo [posthumous Buddhist name in Japan 戒名] of O-Sono, said:—”I have come here in order to help you. Perhaps in that tansu there is something about which you have reason to feel anxious. Shall I try to find it for you?” The shadow appeared to give assent by a slight motion of the head; and the priest, rising, opened the top drawer. It was empty. Successively he opened the second, the third, and the fourth drawer;—he searched carefully behind them and beneath them;—he carefully examined the interior of the chest. He found nothing. But the figure remained gazing as wistfully as before. “What can she want?” thought the priest. Suddenly it occurred to him that there might be something hidden under the paper with which the drawers were lined. He removed the lining of the first drawer:—nothing! He removed the lining of the second and third drawers:—still nothing. But under the lining of the lowermost drawer he found—a letter. “Is this the thing about which you have been troubled?” he asked. The shadow of the woman turned toward him,—her faint gaze fixed upon the letter. “Shall I burn it for you?” he asked. She bowed before him. “It shall be burned in the temple this very morning,” he promised;—”and no one shall read it, except myself.” The figure smiled and vanished.

Dawn was breaking as the priest descended the stairs, to find the family waiting anxiously below. “Do not be anxious,” he said to them: “She will not appear again.” And she never did.

The letter was burned. It was a love-letter written to O-Sono in the time of her studies at Kyoto. But the priest alone knew what was in it; and the secret died with him.

Happy Halloween!

Lafcadio Hearn’s “Rokuro-Kubi”

Hi everyone,

Halloween is coming soon, so for the blog, I thought it would be fun to post stories by Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo 小泉八雲) from his famous book Kwaidan, which in modern Japanese is “Kaidan” (怪談). In the past, I’ve posted some stories, or just summaries of stories because I was worried about copyright violations. However, it turns out that Kwaidan is so old, it’s freely available at Project Gutenberg and Sacred Texts. So, this week, I’ll be posting a couple of my favorite stories.

Today’s story is a famous one called Rokuro-kubi. Rokuro-kubi are well-known monsters, or yōkai, in Japanese culture. Sometimes, my daughter’s books have cute and funny versions of yokai and I often see the long-necked rokuro-kubi. They also appear in tales I’ve mentioned before such as Shojoji.

Anyhow, Hearn’s story below is about Rokuro-kubi. I’ve added a few links to Wikipedia or clarifications in a couple places using brackets [ ]. Enjoy!

Hokusai’s famous painting of rokuro-kubi. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nearly five hundred years ago there was a samurai, named Isogai Heidazaemon Taketsura, in the service of the Lord Kikuji, of Kyushu. This Isogai had inherited, from many warlike ancestors, a natural aptitude for military exercises, and extraordinary strength. While yet a boy he had surpassed his teachers in the art of swordsmanship, in archery, and in the use of the spear, and had displayed all the capacities of a daring and skillful soldier. Afterwards, in the time of the Eikyo war [永享の乱 Eikyō-no-ran, in 1438], he so distinguished himself that high honors were bestowed upon him. But when the house of Kikuji came to ruin, Isogai found himself without a master. He might then easily have obtained service under another daimyo; but as he had never sought distinction for his own sake alone, and as his heart remained true to his former lord, he preferred to give up the world. so he cut off his hair, and became a traveling priest,–taking the Buddhist name of Kwairyo.

But always, under the koromo [just means ‘clothes’ 衣] of the priest, Kwairyo kept warm within him the heart of the samurai. As in other years he had laughed at peril, so now also he scorned danger; and in all weathers and all seasons he journeyed to preach the good Law in places where no other priest would have dared to go. For that age was an age of violence and disorder; and upon the highways there was no security for the solitary traveler, even if he happened to be a priest.

In the course of his first long journey, Kwairyo had occasion to visit the province of Kai. One evening, as he was traveling through the mountains of that province, darkness overcame him in a very lonesome district, leagues away from any village. So he resigned himself to pass the night under the stars; and having found a suitable grassy spot, by the roadside, he lay down there, and prepared to sleep. He had always welcomed discomfort; and even a bare rock was for him a good bed, when nothing better could be found, and the root of a pine-tree an excellent pillow. His body was iron; and he never troubled himself about dews or rain or frost or snow.

Scarcely had he lain down when a man came along the road, carrying an axe and a great bundle of chopped wood. This woodcutter halted on seeing Kwairyo lying down, and, after a moment of silent observation, said to him in a tone of great surprise:–

“What kind of a man can you be, good Sir, that you dare to lie down alone in such a place as this?… There are haunters about here,–many of them. are you not afraid of Hairy Things?”

“My friend,” cheerfully answered Kwairyo, “I am only a wandering priest,–a ‘Cloud-and-Water-Guest,’ as folks call it: Unsui-no-ryokaku [means novice/itinerant Zen priest 雲水]. And I am not in the least afraid of Hairy Things,–if you mean goblin-foxes, or goblin-badgers, or any creatures of that kind. As for lonesome places, I like them: they are suitable for meditation. I am accustomed to sleeping in the open air: and I have learned never to be anxious aboutmy life.”

“You must be indeed a brave man, Sir Priest,” the peasant responded, “to lie down here! This place has a bad name,–a very bad name. But, as the proverb has it, Kunshi ayayuki ni chikayorazu [‘The superior man does not needlessly expose himself to peril’]; and I must assure you, Sir, that it is very dangerous to sleep here. Therefore, although my house is only a wretched thatched hut, let me beg of you to come home with me at once. In the way of food, I have nothing to offer you; but there is a roof at least, and you can sleep under it without risk.”

He spoke earnestly; and Kwairyo, liking the kindly tone of the man, accepted this modest offer. The woodcutter guided him along a narrow path, leading up from the main road through mountain-forest. It was a rough and dangerous path,–sometimes skirting precipices,–sometimes offering nothing but a network of slippery roots for the foot to rest upon,–sometimes winding over or between masses of jagged rock. But at last Kwairyo found himself upon a cleared space at the top of a hill, with a full moon shining overhead; and he saw before him a small thatched cottage, cheerfully lighted from within. The woodcutter led him to a shed at the back of the house, whither water had been conducted, through bamboo-pipes, from some neighboring stream; and the two men washed their feet. Beyond the shed was a vegetable garden, and a grove of cedars and bamboos; and beyond the trees appeared the glimmer of a cascade, pouring from some loftier height, and swaying in the moonshine like a long white robe.

As Kwairyo entered the cottage with his guide, he perceived four persons–men and women–warming their hands at a little fire kindled in the ro [炉, hearth] of the principle apartment. They bowed low to the priest, and greeted him in the most respectful manner. Kwairyo wondered that persons so poor, and dwelling in such a solitude, should be aware of the polite forms of greeting. “These are good people,” he thought to himself; “and they must have been taught by some one well acquainted with the rules of propriety.” Then turning to his host,–the aruji, or house-master, as the others called him,–Kwairyo said:–

“From the kindness of your speech, and from the very polite welcome given me by your household, I imagine that you have not always been a woodcutter. Perhaps you formerly belonged to one of the upper classes?”

Smiling, the woodcutter answered:–

“Sir, you are not mistaken. Though now living as you find me, I was once a person of some distinction. My story is the story of a ruined life–ruined by my own fault. I used to be in the service of a daimyo; and my rank in that service was not inconsiderable. But I loved women and wine too well; and under the influence of passion I acted wickedly. My selfishness brought about the ruin of our house, and caused the death of many persons. Retribution followed me; and I long remained a fugitive in the land. Now I often pray that I may be able to make some atonement for the evil which I did, and to reestablish the ancestral home. But I fear that I shall never find any way of so doing. Nevertheless, I try to overcome the karma of my errors by sincere repentance, and by helping as afar as I can, those who are unfortunate.”

Kwairyo was pleased by this announcement of good resolve; and he said to the aruji:–

“My friend, I have had occasion to observe that man, prone to folly in their youth, may in after years become very earnest in right living. In the holy sutras it is written that those strongest in wrong-doing can become, by power of good resolve, the strongest in right-doing. I do not doubt that you have a good heart; and I hope that better fortune will come to you. To-night I shall recite the sutras for your sake, and pray that you may obtain the force to overcome the karma of any past errors.”

With these assurances, Kwairyo bade the aruji good-night; and his host showed him to a very small side-room, where a bed had been made ready. Then all went to sleep except the priest, who began to read the sutras by the light of a paper lantern. Until a late hour he continued to read and pray: then he opened a little window in his little sleeping-room, to take a last look at the landscape before lying down. The night was beautiful: there was no cloud in the sky: there was no wind; and the strong moonlight threw down sharp black shadows of foliage, and glittered on the dews of the garden. Shrillings of crickets and bell-insects [suzumushi 鈴虫 or bell-crickets] made a musical tumult; and the sound of the neighboring cascade deepened with the night. Kwairyo felt thirsty as he listened to the noise of the water; and, remembering the bamboo aqueduct at the rear of the house, he thought that he could go there and get a drink without disturbing the sleeping household. Very gently he pushed apart the sliding-screens that separated his room from the main apartment; and he saw, by the light of the lantern, five recumbent bodies–without heads!

For one instant he stood bewildered,–imagining a crime. But in another moment he perceived that there was no blood, and that the headless necks did not look as if they had been cut. Then he thought to himself:–“Either this is an illusion made by goblins, or I have been lured into the dwelling of a Rokuro-Kubi… In the [Chinese] book Soshinki it is written that if one find the body of a Rokuro-Kubi without its head, and remove the body to another place, the head will never be able to join itself again to the neck. And the book further says that when the head comes back and finds that its body has been moved, it will strike itself upon the floor three times,–bounding like a ball,–and will pant as in great fear, and presently die. Now, if these be Rokuro-Kubi, they mean me no good;–so I shall be justified in following the instructions of the book.”…

He seized the body of the aruji by the feet, pulled it to the window, and pushed it out. Then he went to the back-door, which he found barred; and he surmised that the heads had made their exit through the smoke-hole in the roof, which had been left open. Gently unbarring the door, he made his way to the garden, and proceeded with all possible caution to the grove beyond it. He heard voices talking in the grove; and he went in the direction of the voices,–stealing from shadow to shadow, until he reached a good hiding-place. Then, from behind a trunk, he caught sight of the heads,–all five of them,–flitting about, and chatting as they flitted. They were eating worms and insects which they found on the ground or among the trees. Presently the head of the aruji stopped eating and said:–

“Ah, that traveling priest who came to-night!–how fat all his body is! When we shall have eaten him, our bellies will be well filled… I was foolish to talk to him as I did;–it only set him to reciting the sutras on behalf of my soul! To go near him while he is reciting would be difficult; and we cannot touch him so long as he is praying. But as it is now nearly morning, perhaps he has gone to sleep… Some one of you go to the house and see what the fellow is doing.”

Another head–the head of a young woman–immediately rose up and flitted to the house, lightly as a bat. After a few minutes it came back, and cried out huskily, in a tone of great alarm:–

“That traveling priest is not in the house;–he is gone! But that is not the worst of the matter. He has taken the body of our aruji; and I do not know where he has put it.”

At this announcement the head of the aruji–distinctly visible in the moonlight–assumed a frightful aspect: its eyes opened monstrously; its hair stood up bristling; and its teeth gnashed. Then a cry burst from its lips; and–weeping tears of rage–it exclaimed:–

“Since my body has been moved, to rejoin it is not possible! Then I must die!… And all through the work of that priest! Before I die I will get at that priest!–I will tear him!–I will devour him!… AND THERE HE IS–behind that tree!–hiding behind that tree! See him !–the fat coward!”…

In the same moment the head of the aruji, followed by the other four heads, sprang at Kwairyo. But the strong priest had already armed himself by plucking up a young tree; and with that tree he struck the heads as they came,–knocking them from him with tremendous blows. Four of them fled away. But the head of the aruji, though battered again and again, desperately continued to bound at the priest, and at last caught him by the left sleeve of his robe. Kwairyo, however, as quickly gripped the head by its topknot, and repeatedly struck it. It did not release its hold; but it uttered a long moan, and thereafter ceased to struggle. It was dead. But its teeth still held the sleeve; and, for all his great strength, Kwairyo could not force open the jaws.

With the head still hanging to his sleeve he went back to the house, and there caught sight of the other four Rokuro-Kubi squatting together, with their bruised and bleeding heads reunited to their bodies. But when they perceived him at the back-door all screamed, “The priest! the priest!”–and fled, through the other doorway, out into the woods.

Eastward the sky was brightening; day was about to dawn; and Kwairyo knew that the power of the goblins was limited to the hours of darkness. He looked at the head clinging to his sleeve,–its face all fouled with blood and foam and clay; and he laughed aloud as he thought to himself: “What a miyage! [omiyage お土産, a souvenir]–the head of a goblin!” After which he gathered together his few belongings, and leisurely descended the mountain to continue his journey.

Right on he journeyed, until he came to Suwa in Shinano; and into the main street of Suwa he solemnly strode, with the head dangling at his elbow. Then woman fainted, and children screamed and ran away; and there was a great crowding and clamoring until the torite (as the police in those days were called) seized the priest, and took him to jail. For they supposed the head to be the head of a murdered man who, in the moment of being killed, had caught the murderer’s sleeve in his teeth. As the Kwairyo, he only smiled and said nothing when they questioned him. So, after having passed a night in prison, he was brought before the magistrates of the district. Then he was ordered to explain how he, a priest, had been found with the head of a man fastened to his sleeve, and why he had dared thus shamelessly to parade his crime in the sight of people.

Kwairyo laughed long and loudly at these questions; and then he said:–

“Sirs, I did not fasten the head to my sleeve: it fastened itself there–much against my will. And I have not committed any crime. For this is not the head of a man; it is the head of a goblin;–and, if I caused the death of the goblin, I did not do so by any shedding of blood, but simply by taking the precautions necessary to assure my own safety.”… And he proceeded to relate the whole of the adventure,–bursting into another hearty laugh as he told of his encounter with the five heads.

But the magistrates did not laugh. They judged him to be a hardened criminal, and his story an insult to their intelligence. Therefore, without further questioning, they decided to order his immediate execution,–all of them except one, a very old man. This aged officer had made no remark during the trial; but, after having heard the opinion of his colleagues, he rose up, and said:–

“Let us first examine the head carefully; for this, I think, has not yet been done. If the priest has spoken truth, the head itself should bear witness for him… Bring the head here!”

So the head, still holding in its teeth the koromo that had been stripped from Kwairyo’s shoulders, was put before the judges. The old man turned it round and round, carefully examined it, and discovered, on the nape of its neck, several strange red characters. He called the attention of his colleagues to these, and also bad them observe that the edges of the neck nowhere presented the appearance of having been cut by any weapon. On the contrary, the line of leverance was smooth as the line at which a falling leaf detaches itself from the stem… Then said the elder:–

“I am quite sure that the priest told us nothing but the truth. This is the head of a Rokuro-Kubi. In the book Nan-ho-i-butsu-shi it is written that certain red characters can always be found upon the nape of the neck of a real Rokuro-Kubi. There are the characters: you can see for yourselves that they have not been painted. Moreover, it is well known that such goblins have been dwelling in the mountains of the province of Kai from very ancient time… But you, Sir,” he exclaimed, turning to Kwairyo,–“what sort of sturdy priest may you be? Certainly you have given proof of a courage that few priests possess; and you have the air of a soldier rather than a priest. Perhaps you once belonged to the samurai-class?”

“You have guessed rightly, Sir,” Kwairyo responded. “Before becoming a priest, I long followed the profession of arms; and in those days I never feared man or devil. My name then was Isogai Heidazaemon Taketsura of Kyushu: there may be some among you who remember it.” At the mention of that name, a murmur of admiration filled the court-room.; for there were many present who remembered it. And Kwairyo immediately found himself among friends instead of judges,–friends anxious to prove their admiration by fraternal kindness. With honor they escorted him to the residence of the daimyo, who welcomed him, and feasted him, and made him a handsome present before allowing him to depart. When Kwairyo left Suwa, he was as happy as any priest is permitted to be in this transitory world. As for the head, he took it with him,–jocosely insisting that he intended it for a miyage.

And now it only remains to tell what became of the head.

A day or two after leaving Suwa, Kwairyo met with a robber, who stopped him in a lonesome place, and bade him strip. Kwairyo at once removed his koromo, and offered it to the robber, who then first perceived what was hanging to the sleeve. Though brave, the highwayman was startled: he dropped the garment, and sprang back. Then he cried out:–“You!–what kind of a priest are you? Why, you are a worse man than I am! It is true that I have killed people; but I never walked about with anybody’s head fastened to my sleeve… Well, Sir priest, I suppose we are of the same calling; and I must say that I admire you!… Now that head would be of use to me: I could frighten people with it. Will you sell it? You can have my robe in exchange for your koromo; and I will give you five ryo for the head.”

Kwairyo answered:–“I shall let you have the head and the robe if you insist; but I must tell you that this is not the head of a man. It is a goblin’s head. So, if you buy it, and have any trouble in consequence, please to remember that you were not deceived by me.” “What a nice priest you are!” exclaimed the robber. “You kill men, and jest about it!… But I am really in earnest. Here is my robe; and here is the money;–and let me have the head… What is the use of joking?”

“Take the thing,” said Kwairyo. “I was not joking. The only joke–if there be any joke at all–is that you are fool enough to pay good money for a goblin’s head.” And Kwairyo, loudly laughing, went upon his way.

Thus the robber got the head and the koromo; and for some time he played goblin-priest upon the highways. But, reaching the neighborhood of Suwa, he there leaned the true story of the head; and he then became afraid that the spirit of the Rokuro-Kubi might give him trouble. So he made up his mind to take back the head to the place from which it had come, and to bury it with its body. He found his way to the lonely cottage in the mountains of Kai; but nobody was there, and he could not discover the body. Therefore he buried the head by itself, in the grove behind the cottage; and he had a tombstone set up over the grave; and he caused a Segaki-service to be performed on behalf of the spirit of the Rokuro-Kubi. And that tombstone–known as the Tombstone of the Rokuro-Kubi–may be seen (at least so the Japanese story-teller declares) even unto this day.

More stories coming soon, Happy Halloween!

Typhoons and Going To The Movies in Japan

Hi folks,

It’s been away since I talked about my recent trip to Japan, and I wanted to go back and talk about an interesting experience I had near the end of the trip. Because my daughter is in school in the US from September to June, we can only visit Japan in July/August. This time of year, the airfare is very expensive, the weather is hot and muggy, and there are sometimes typhoons.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest do not have typhoons, hurricanes, or any serious storms. The weather is pretty grey and mild all year. The first time I saw a serious rainstorm was in Hanoi, Vietnam when I saw the summer monsoon rains, which were very intense. But, even still, I have never seen a typhoon before.

As mentioned earlier, my daughter and wife went to see the latest Doraemon movie at a big movie theater near Kawasaki Station in Kawasaki City. I had to stay home and watch Little Guy so I didn’t get to see the movie. To make up for it, my wife’s sister helped me reserve tickets at the same theater for the new Space Brothers movie 宇宙兄弟#0 (Space Brothers, episode #0). This movie is a prequel to the main story and delves more into the lives of Hibito and Mutta before episode #1.

Coincidentally, the day we reserved was right in the middle of a typhoon! Typhoon Halong came to Japan in early August, where it was called Typhoon #11 (taifū jūichi gō, 台風11号), and the eastern edge brushed over the city of Kawasaki. We didn’t get the typhoon full-force, but even the edge of it was surprisingly strong. Before we left for the movie, we stopped at a neighbor’s house to drop off some food, and after just walking one block, we were soaked! Our neighbor kindly gave us a ride to the station, and I was able to get to the movie OK.

Because this was the edge of the typhoon, it wasn’t very windy, just really rainy.

It was my first time going to a Japanese movie theater, especially by myself. My wife had to watch Little Guy that day, and my daughter went out with my sister-in-law. I was pretty nervous at first, and I did a terrible job ordering popcorn. For some reason, I totally misunderstood what the person at the counter said. Then again, I’ve never ordered popcorn in Japanese before.1 ;)

Anyhow, they gave me the popcorn and Coke in a large, triangular tray. I was kind of confused, but I took the tray into the theatre and sat down. Unlike American movies, Japanese theaters had fewer previews that you have to sit through, which was nice. Also, the tray was supposed to fit into a notch in my seat, so it would become a little table for me to keep my food. I thought this was very clever, because in American theaters I have to put my food on the floor or my lap.

The movie itself was great. Very touching (yes, I got choked up a bit) and definitely worth watching if you like the Space Brothers series. The theater had a gift shop too, featuring souvenirs of the movies currently showing, so I was able to get a few items like a souvenir glass, a toy for Princess, and a Pug doll for my wife (she loves pugs). Also, because I went there on opening day, I also got a free copy of the script too in nice book-form.

By the time the movie was done, the typhoon had died down. I met my wife at Lazona shopping mall near Kawasaki Station and we went home. The theater was a great experience. My Japanese is not very good, but I was surprised to see that I understood about two-thirds of the movie. Since I already knew the story pretty well, that probably helped. ;) But it was fun to be in a theater, watching in a foreign language. It felt like years of study had paid off.

Even with the crazy typhoon, it was a great day.

1 I do order other things in Japan regularly, but I guess my popcorn-ordering-skills need more practice. ;P