The Mystique of the Ancient — Japan Through the Lens of Literature & Folk Tales


What we talk about when we make use of the word literature in common speech is the body of elements that encompass the written word: Language, tone, figures of speech, and rhetoric, or so we’ve been told by the classic postmodernist ideology all the way since the Enlightenment era (Damn French). This was back when the idea of freedom of speech and freedom of religion were the ultimate novelty, only to be spread across the Americas by the countless colonies settled across uncharted territories. Western Literature, of course, was no exception to change. Postmodernism had just entered its infancy stage.

However, back when the fight against the natives for the colonization of America reached its peak, Japan had already experienced major cultural and religious changes almost a thousand years ago, such events placed around around the years 710 and 794 in the gregorian calendar in between the Asuka and Nara periods.

Empress Genmei considered one of the most prominent in the foundation of Japan’s government system in the year 707 ordered the compilation and publication of a document to make an account of the events that happened across Japan, so future lineages could use it as an historic reference. Access to the document, of course, would be restricted to certain individuals. This way, many myths, folk tales, rumours from all places of Japan, and even the theory of the creation of it all were compiled in a chronological style. The endpoint for this history was the period of the Empress Suiko, the first Empress of Japan and the very first woman ruler of East Asia. All this aligned and gave birth to the Kojiki, which is regarded as the oldest Japanese written work.

However, the real puppeteer behind the scenes was Hieda no Are who was not only considered the compiler of most of the Kojiki’s content but also the person who wrote the very first texts on it. It is uncertain whether or not this individual is a woman or man. They were believed to be servant of the Tennou lineage.

You might be wondering, hey this is getting boring… But just wait a second, I’m getting to the most interesting part. The reason why the Kojiki is object of study is not primarily because of its age, but because the ORIGINAL drafts what Hieda no Are based his/her compilations upon, so to speak no longer exist. It’s even thought they never did in the first place. The raw version of the Kojiki is actually thought to be by a number of historians and scholars a tell-all book with accounts of massacres across Japan, spectral appearances, testimonies of villagers and common folks witnessing rare creatures, political corruption, and events the Tennou lineage didn’t want the masses to know. This led to Genmei Empress a few decades later to order the re-compilation of said accounts, concealing the truth in the process. Upon publishing the text, her diminishing popularity and all skepticism towards her government were “cleared up”.


After the end of Suiko Empress’s government and a handful of lineages after and before the very idea of the Kojiki came into existencethe Nihon Shoki was set to be compiled by the Tennou at the time, Tenchi. But due to a dispute with an official regarding the assassination of Soga no Iruka of the Soga Clan during the infamous Isshi Incident, the palace was burned to ashes. Many documents were lost, including allegedly the very first texts of the Nihon Shoki and the Tennouki (天皇記), the latter a document compiled by order of the Suiko Empress. At the time, 28-year-old Hieda no Are was consulted and through his/her memories the aforementioned first compilation of the Kojiki was done.

This is one theory that suggests the idea of conceiving the Nihon Shoki is actually older than the Kojiki itself; it just never happened, ergo why there are theories about the original documents of the Kojiki never existing. They could have been lost in that incident for all we know. Tenchi Tennou, Suika Empress, and more than anyone, Hieda no Are, were key figures in devising the very foundations of the written word in Japan prior to the formal establishment of the Japanese language. And the most impressive is that they were decades away from each other. Let’s remember most documents used to be written in classical Chinese or Kanbun, as it’s known in Japanese.

What the Genmei Empress did was basically taking the work of these key individuals and using it to re-compile it. More than anything to appease the populace and regain their lost trust due to several incidents just like the Isshi one, as well as paranormal, supernatural events taking place throughout Japan. Mystique, fear, and allure surrounding these stories began to spread just as fast as rumors did. The crystallization of the Japanese love for rumors, the occult, folk tales, spectral apparitions, legends and such began to shape up after these periods and due to these documents.

Kaguya-Hime or The Tale of Genji: The Hidden Backstory

The particular narrative of Kaguya-Hime devised in the Heian period (794 – 1185) is considered to be the cornerstone of what the human being considers a story. Leaving that aside, there is, however, one fatal misconception in the West about what came to existence first. Kaguya-Hime and The Tale of Genji are two separate cases and stories coming from the same point. The former being an alleged actual story and the latter a work of fiction by Shikibu Murasaki with countless adaptations in Japanese media in the centuries to come.

Think of it as a similar case to what happened with In The Heart Of The Sea and Moby Dick. The general public knows Moby Dick, but barely anyone save historians, fans, and scholars knew about the actual true story that it’s based on. In The Heart of the Sea, its inspiration, was finally published in 2000. And even so, the story and the book remained in relative obscurity until it was adapted to a movie in 2015, which is terrible by the way. Kaguya-Hime and The Tale of Genji are different, but without the creation of the former via word of mouth, superstitions, and legends, the latter wouldn’t have come into existence. Kaguya-Hime gave birth to the very idea of “monogatari”.

The story of Kaguya-Hime emerged at a time when the influence of Chinese prose and works of poetry (Waka) gained even more force in Japan after being “imported” in the Asuka and Nara periods. We can also find here the very first look at hiragana via Early Middle Japanese. This allowed for new forms of expressions from artisans, painters, and writers beyond the Chinese arts and poetry. Thus, all of this have a part in the formal creation of The Tale of Genji as a work of fiction based on the narrative of the already-known legend of Kaguya-Hime.

Kaguya-Hime’s narrative has a strong spiritual connection to the Moon, and it’s as essential to the story as the narrative’s tone is for the characters. The reason is because it was believed the Moon was a powerful motif of belief for people in the past. A receptacle of faith. These groups of people were greatly influenced by the depiction of the Moon in the Kanbun work 唐土舶来, in which the Moon can be perceived in two ways.

The first way tells it can be perceived beautiful and close to adoration. The other says it can be perceived with contempt. It’s from here where the Chinese concept of Mid-Autumn Festival comes from. When it was introduced into Japan, it gave birth to the concept of tsukimi (月見, literally looking at the moon). This adoration, almost close to worship for the Moon, however could also lead to insanity according to the kanbun text. The Moon not only possesses beauty, but has a mysterious power that enchants people.

The Moon represents life when it ascends to sky and death when it sets down. A cycle that repeats over and over. This is one of the theories that emphasizes the importance of the Moon across the history of Japanese folk tales and how it became a concept of mystique that seeped into Japanese psyche without most people perceiving this.

1888 by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, said to be the last Ukiyo-e artist. Source.

Two essential aspects the story of Kaguya-Hime centers on are:

  • Kaguya-Hime appeared before an old man the “bamboo cutter”only to disappear into the Moon due the sins she committed on Earth
  • The punishment she later received for her sins

The way she appeared is widely known (remember that Mushishi episode?): she was born from a bamboo in a thicket, found by this old man who took her in. The girl showed signs of rapid growth, and within three months already looked like a young lady. A young lady so beautiful, so enchanting that exuded an aura that lighted the darkness at night. This light is used to cure the back pain and aching of the old man. The old man, his wife, and the girl lived peacefully until the populace started to notice the girl’s almost unnatural beauty, a beauty so captivating that attracted both men and women alike. To the point it induced madness. Soon enough, many government officials proposed to the girl. This led to her being called Kaguya-Hime, said to be written back then in kanbun as 迦具夜比売.

The way the story ends always involves Kaguya-Hime returning to the realm of the Moon, but the events that led to that are so diverse and vast it’d require writing a thesis about it to fully explain it. And it has to be one based only on theories to top it off.

So here are some theories:

The most common sin, in essence, is adultery. Kaguya-Hime was allegedly forced by the old man to marry with one of the officials in exchange of very rare treasures, which ultimately ended in tragedy for the old man, the officials involved, and of course, for Kaguya-Hime.

A second theory and the most obscure but respected in some scholarly communities is that Kaguya-Hime was raped every single night by the old man since he lost his mind due to the sheer beauty of the girl and he was caught by his wife. Kaguya-Hime, ashamed of the event, runs away from the house and returns to the Moon. The old man howls to it out of desperation. Her wife curses both Kaguya-Hime and her unfaithful husband in the name of the Moon, which led her to become an oni.

Then again, the Moon is said to be the axis of the story, blinding every person with its beauty only to drive them insane. Just like Kaguya-Hime did.

Adachigahara no Onibaba: Another Side of the Youkai “Oni” in Folk Tales

Onibaba (鬼婆) is perhaps a word you’ve seen here and there or you might have even seen the classic horror 1964 Japanese film of the same name (by the way, it’s totally unrelated to the believed-to-be story behind the legend). It is also known as onionna (鬼女) as the primal characteristic of the legend depicts a woman, be it young or old, who harbors a rancor so deep and unfathomable she turned into an oni.

One of the versions most told among people especially in the prefecture of Fukushima, based on my experience after living in Japan for 6 months is the one of Adachigahara district in the city of Nihonmatsu. It’s heard quite a lot too in the southern Tohoku region. Hell, I have heard this version even in some cities all the way in Saitama, which is where I resided, and it’s not exactly close to Fukushima either by car or train.

The Legend of the Adachigahara Onibaba, or onionna, tells the ancient story of a wet nurse called Iwate who used to work at the residence of a public servant in Kyoto. She brought under her care the residence’s “princess” until the girl fell really sick. Iwate consulted a fortuneteller who told her to make the princess eat raw liver from a pregnant woman. Upon hearing so, Iwate embarked on a journey to find said liver. However, getting a liver from a pregnant woman proved to be not an easy task at all.

After many years, Iwate ended up in Adachigahara and started living temporarily in an old grotto. When the fierce cold of late autumn arrived, a young couple entered the grotto looking for shelter. The husband was named Ikomanosuke and the pregnant wife Koiginu. Late that night, Koiginu began to have contractions, so Ikomanosuke went outside desperately looking for a midwife. It was in this moment when Iwate took a knife and cut open Koiginu’s stomach to obtain the liver from a pregnant woman.

1885 by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka. Source.

Already on the brink of death and breathing agonizingly, Koiginu told Iwate she embarked on a journey to find her mother from whom she was separated in Kyoto when she was little but was, unfortunately, never able to meet her. Koiginu died seconds later after saying her last words while holding a small talisman. Iwate found the talisman really familiar upon closer examination. She then realizes Koiginu was actually her daughter from whom she separated many years ago, ironically so, to find a way to save her.

The very shock of finding this out drove Iwate mad and she turned into an oni. Since then, she killed any traveler who looked for shelter nearby the grotto and drank their blood. This cautionary tale began to form the legend of Adachigahara no Onibaba and it spread across the region. Entangled with the superstition and fear of people, this folk tale gave birth to even more folk tales.

A few years later, a monk called Harumitsu entered the grotto fully knowing of the “demon hag”. While running away from her and praying, he was able to defeat her via the spirit of Bodhisattva stored in the wooden box behind his back. Iwate, or onibaba, was allegedly buried alongside the Abukuma River. On her tombstone the inscription Kurozuka (黒塚) was carved.

The grave of Iwate near the Abukuma River in Nihonmatsu City.

Pretty interesting story, right? True or not, there’s just simply a mysterious aura to all these kind of stories that Japanese people talk about, rumor about, and ultimately, end up spreading. One of the major reasons why Japan is known for loving superstitions and believing rumors is due to the tantalizing aura these legends exude. Onibaba, or onionna, is one of many remaining ones. And it most probably will remain to be a story to tell for many generations to come, perhaps a story built on human curiosity, but more than anything, a human story.

Legacy: Edo Boom, Setsuwa Storytelling, and its Impact on Contemporary Culture

Of all the time periods Japan has experienced through the ages, Edo is the most known due to ending of the isolation period and the gap in which Japan made first contact with other countries, even cementing bilateral relations with them.

The series of political, social, religious, and cultural events such as the introduction of Christianity as well as the foreign trade of goods, slaves, and weapons would later unfold to cause an impact on Japan’s population and literature. Folk tales were no exception.

With an already fully developed Japanese linguistic system hiragana and okurigana artists from diverse fields searched for new techniques and forms of expressing themselves. New forms of entertainment. And this derived in a new art form now widely recognized as Ukiyo-e.

Ukiyo-e encompassed the daily events, cultural depictions of society, superstitions, folk tales, pornography, and landscape pictures. Mostly. At the time, buying an Ukiyo-e was like buying the latest issue of JUMP, in case you bought one depicting a legend, folk tale, or landscape. Or if you wanted a one-off, you would just get an Ukiyo-e depicting an erotic situation. Erotic Ukiyo-e were in fact one of the most popular. They were even smuggled, which only helped create the misconception at the time that the Ukiyo-e was a “vulgar” form of expression.

The main influence in Ukiyo-e works comes from genre painting, which dates a hundred years before the beginning of the Edo period, almost at the end of the Muromachi period (1543-1573). The fundamental difference between genre painting, traditional Japanese painting of landscapes, Yamato-e and Ukiyo-e lies in three factors:

  • The two schools from which Ukiyo-e was influenced, such as the Tosa (土佐派) and Kanou (狩野派), which can be interpreted as orthodox and vulgar respectively.
  • The material in the creation of Ukiyo-e works, which can range from wood to paper to even some types of clothing.
  • The process, which usually involved a carver and a painter, although there were Ukiyo-e artists who made paintings, not prints.

With this said, let’s make clear that Ukiyo-e were mostly PRINTS, and not paintings.

The relevance of Ukiyo-e in literature and mostly, folk tales and legends, lies in the fact they helped visualize stories that otherwise people would not have had access to. People born throughout the final stages Edo period and the bakumatsu were educated to read and write hiragana and kanji, but not literate enough to be able to comprehend kanbun and classic Chinese prose. Most of the documents and ancient works were still written in classic Chinese at the time.

Ukiyo-e made a difference. Prominent documents, works, and legends, such as the already mentioned Onibaba, Kaguya-Hime, Kojiki, etc. gained widespread popularity with later generations in the Edo period thanks to it. Folk tales and legends were reinvigorated, superstitions took an even stronger hold of the populace, and rumors spread creating even more rumors, true or not.

Setsuwa, which is the Japanese form of storytelling for legends, folktales, and myths, was already established at the time. The most important work derived from it is the already mentioned Nihon Ryouki, compiled in the Heian period. This work along with the Kojiki (Nihon Ryouki v.2) cemented the way the Japanese populace interpreted stories involving supernatural incidents, the occult, and mythological creatures.

From certain anime… Ring any bell?

It goes without questioning, but most part of Japanese texts and documents in eras prior to Edo and Meiji were fundamentally influenced by Buddhism in any form or shape. It was slowly pre-ingrained in the Japanese psyche. And while in modern culture and works it’s not as visible and obvious as it was in the past, vestiges of Buddhism influence are common throughout Japanese modern literature and pop culture.

知らぬが仏, Ignorance is Bliss. Underlying meaning: To know it means to get access to the truth and knowledge one may find unpleasant and distressing; therefore, remaining in ignorance is equal to maintaining a peaceful state of mind by becoming one with Buddha.

Other quintessential works that were created in the Edo period and subsequent periods directly or indirectly influenced by folk tales and its allure were:

  • Honchou Shokkan (本朝食鑑): Published in 1697, penned by Hitsudai Hitomi (人見必大). A collection of 10 books. It’s considered the definitive document on the Japanese culinary arts, the intricacies and mystique that surrounds it, as well as the proper etiquette, toxic properties of dishes, and traditional cuisine. There’s a short story in it depicting a mythical fox (bake kitsune, 化け狐), and the daily ingest it used to have.
  • Rouousawa/Rououchawa (老媼茶話): The original folk tale dates back to the Edo period. A novel by the same name was published in 1923 by Kan Kikuchi (菊池寛). A work making use of the folk tale, it contains stories that range from setsuwa to fables, to sightings and legends. The youkai Shu no Bon (朱の盆) is featured in one chapter. The work would later become an object of inspiration for the immortal manga and character from GeGeGe no Kitarou, work in which many youkai depicted in the novel appear.
  • Oku no Hosomichi (おくのほそ道): Finished in its entirety in 1702 by Bashou Matsuo (松尾芭蕉). It’s considered the ultimate travel diary and one of the most revered works of Japanese Literature due to the sheer difficulty it took the author to complete. Bashou traveled more than 2400km through 150 days, Edo being the starting point. In one of the excerpts from the diary he claims to have encountered with Onibaba in one of his many journeys.
  • Koushoku Ichidai Otoko (好色一代男): Published in 1682, penned by Saikaku Ihara (井原西鶴). Referred in English as Life of an Amorous Man, it tells the story of Yonosuke, a man with a seemingly uncontrollable and lascivious desire for woman. His obsession for the female body and its eroticism made him lead such a lecherous life he did nothing but having sex. Through the 54 years of his life depicted in the work, he also showed an interest for men, little boys mostly. Upon turning 60, Yonosuke retired to the mythical island of Nyogonoshima , an island said to be only inhabited by woman and where only women are born. Considered a literary masterpiece from the Edo period. However, due to the sheer amount and rawness of the erotic scenes depicted in the work, it’d be considered downright pornography even by today’s standards.

And of course, we cannot forget about Mokuami Kawatake, the author who revolutionized the Kabuki stage, known for his miserable, realistic protagonists and minutely accurate historic settings. Only a few of his stories depicted folk tales like the kitsune nyoubou (孤女房), the story of a half-fox half-woman who marries with a man. The fox woman is one of the most representative icons of Japanese mythology involving repaying a debt of gratitude, and the influence of this can be seen in works depicting mythological creatures, especially foxes.

Literature is more than a book on a shelf… It’s history.

Later the Meiji and Taisho periods would come, known for its massive changes on the foreign policies and cultural phenomenon as well as the “Westernization” of Japan that assailed the country. Perhaps the birth of the classical Japanese maid attire kimono with an apron is the most common event known in the West from the Taisho period.

In these periods emerged names such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Souseki, or Kyouka Izumi, often regarded three of the most colossal figures within the contemporary Japanese Literature realm. But their works are once more products of the almost 1000 years of history, the 1000 years of setsuwa, folk tales, and superstitions. Just as they influenced a new era of contemporary writers such as Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, Shuusaku Endou, to name a few, they were too influenced by their circumstances and eras. In fact, they only saw the tip of the iceberg of the post-bakumatsu period which was one of the most remembered due to the revolts and chaos during the transition from one government to another.

This is why history and literature are important, even if seen with contempt due to the nature of tragic events throughout the history of humankind. History does not forget, and people should not forget history either. Literature is a record of works and events during a certain period of time, and the narrative style particular to said period. This is the fundamental difference between the ideology behind Western and Japanese Literature. After the Enlightenment era, the western hemisphere followed a set of rules an etiquette as to what it considers correct, narratively and syntactically speaking.

Japan, while influenced by its set of writers before and after WWI and WWII, kept literature as nothing but that in contemporary times: a record of works; a record of the ancient; a record to consult, to remember, to admire, and to reflect on.

History and Literature even if not liked, will always remain there, in a shelf, because we shall sooner or later, for better or worse become part of history ourselves.




Research material: Extract from the thesis on Kaguya-Hime by Youko Okazaki, Iwate University, Faculty of Education. Extract from the article on Honchou Shokkan and Japanese Food Culture by Ayako Ehara and Ri Ri, Tokyo Kasei-Gakuin University. On the Legend of Onibaba from Bashou Matsuo’s site. Database of Works and Stories pre-dating the Edo period.


The Mystique of the Ancient — Japan Through the Lens of Literature & Folk Tales

4 thoughts on “The Mystique of the Ancient — Japan Through the Lens of Literature & Folk Tales

  1. Poim says:

    Very nice article. Classical Japanese Literature has a lot of to offer and I feel it’s very praiseworthy you wrote an article about some of it.


  2. nobrows says:

    Fascinating article, and a great survey of Classical Japanese literature.

    But, I find the conclusions you have drawn at the end to be a bit puzzling, particularly this line right here:

    “This is the fundamental difference between the ideology behind Western and Japanese Literature. After the Enlightenment era, the western hemisphere followed a set of rules —an etiquette— as to what it considers correct, narratively and syntactically speaking.”

    Even setting aside the validity of that statement’s accuracy regarding Western literature’s own nature (of which entire professional academic careers have been made of), isn’t this contradicting what you say earlier in the paragraph, ” Literature is a record of works and events during a certain period of time, and the narrative style particular to said period.”? The “narrative style particular to said period” will consist of rules, conventions and syntactical style, as literature is not created in vacuum but as a cultural product influenced by societal norms, evolution in language, and the natural events surrounding the writer. If we are to define “Post-Enlightenment” as a “period,” then it follows by your own logic that it will follow a convention that it finds “correct.” What then do you base this dichotomy on?

    Later on you make this statement:

    “Japan, while influenced by its set of writers before and after WWI and WWII, kept literature as nothing but that in contemporary times: a record of works; a record of the ancient; a record to consult, to remember, to admire, and to reflect on.”

    Is this the basis of the dichotomy that you set earlier then? In addition, is this to imply a sort of formal purity that Japan has preserved? If so, does this not ignore the realist, almost Victorian style of Soseki/Tanizaki, the post-modernist Murakami, or the post-war Banana Yoshimoto you yourself mentioned, in addition to recent pop-culture (a distinction I make for convenience) phenomena of Light Novels? Or is this a value statement that you make about Japan’s literary preservation?

    I don’t write this with any intention of discrediting the rich literary history of Japan (which you have wonderfully illustrated throughout this post). I am rather just questioning the comparative line you have drawn between a monolithic “Western” literary tradition and Japan’s own. Neither do I imply any sort of superiority between the two literary traditions. Instead, I was merely surprised at your closing paragraphs, for reasons I have laid out above.



    1. Makkusu says:

      It is a dichotomy that it’s indeed puzzling and difficult to convey through words, but more than anything, it’s a colossal task to someone who isn’t versed in how the contemporary Japanese readership works understand (most of the posts on this blog assume this).

      Soseki, Tanizaki, Murakami, etc. all have been influenced by the Western wave of works and writers in a given form or shape, but it is, however, really different how their readership absorbes their body of works, compared to a western readership.

      Ultimately, literature works in a similar fashion in both hemispheres. What makes the difference is how the readership reacts and consumes all this. Japan generally sees this “record” of works to draw inspiration from, and as a source of academic enlightment in universities.

      The way this dichotomy works has also been largely affected by how the Western and Eastern publishing worlds operate. This has contributed to the way a given readership consumes and envision these works, and it’s pretty much a different can of worms. To ask to clear up this contradiction and dichotomy would be like asking to merge two different cultures.

      Glad you liked the post.


      1. Thanks for the response!

        Actually, your answer cleared up a lot of confusion regarding the dichotomy. Wasn’t looking to have it dismantled per se, but rather was looking for the logic behind your delineation. Which you have wonderfully provided here. Do you have any recommendations for any reading for how the Eastern publishing world/readership operates?

        Apologies for the double comment by the way.


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