Jinmenju – The Human Face Tree

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara

This tree is found in mountain valleys. The fruit of the tree looks like a human head. It doesn’t say a word, but it is constantly laughing. It is said that if the fruit laughs too heartily, it falls from the tree.

According to the Edo period Hyakka Jiten encyclopedia Wakan Sansai Zue (和漢三才図会; A Collection of Pictures of Heaven, Earth, and Man from China and Japan), the Jinmenju trees are found in the south, and the fruit of the tree is called the jinmenshi, or human-faced child. They ripen in the fall, and if you eat the fruit they have a sweet/sour taste. It is said that the Jinmenju seed also has a human face, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It is possible that the trees were all eaten and it is why we don’t see them today.

In the past however, it was said that people planted great orchards of the laughing Jinmenju. That must have been a beautiful sight.

The legend of the Jinmenju comes from China, and was passed onto Japan where it was considered to be a yokai due to its peculiar nature. There are also stories of trees bearing human-faced fruit from India and Persia, usually with the faces of beautiful girls. Even now, when you walk through the forest you can see trees whose roots bear a resemblance to human and yokai faces. I have five pictures of trees like this in my photo albums. I wonder if this is some new species of Jinmenju?

Translator’s Note

Most people think of yokai as some kind of monster, but the Jinmenju is a type of yokai called choshizen, or super-nature, which includes mysterious plants and animals. Toriyama Sekien included the Jinmenju in his collection Konjyaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past). All Jinmenju stories have their origin in a Chinese book Sansai Zue(三才図会; A Collection of Pictures of Heaven, Earth, and Man).

This entry was translated for Dan Tsukasa, who is developing a Japanese folklore video game called Kodama. (Which you all should all check out!) I am helping Dan out with some yokai info for the game, part of which takes place in a magic forest. So look forward to some more choshizen offerings.

Further reading:

Read more yokai magical tree tales on hyakumonogatari.com:

Ochiba Naki Shii – The Chinkapin Tree of Unfallen Leaves

Enju no Jashin – The Evil God in the Pagoda Tree

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 83n831
    Jun 04, 2012 @ 06:01:47

    From the European front, I find that when the companions of Vasco de Gama encountered a strange nut-bearing tree in their travels to India ca. 1498, they had a similar reaction. According to João de Barros, the fruit “wants to resemble a nose placed between two round eyes, from where it throws the sprout, when it wants to be born; by reason of such figure, it was called by our [men] coco, name imposed by the women on anything they want to put fear to the children, this name thus remained, as no one knows another.” (quote courtesy of Wikipedia).

    So the coconut retains the name of a common Iberian boogieman (or yokai in Japanese) variously called El Cuco or El Coco. The word evidently comes from a slang term for (human) head or skull as in the phrase “loco in the [en el] coco,” title of a popular 1950s song by Eileen Barton (and currently a meme-phrase among followers of the new “My Little Pony” cartoon series).

    Reply

  2. Zack Davisson
    Jun 04, 2012 @ 14:10:20

    I have heard of the coconut / face connection before, which is very similar to the jinmenju. I hadn’t heard abou the El Coco connection though. Very cool.

    And there is a new “My Little Pony?” Yikes! That is scarier than any monster on my site!

    Reply

  3. vilajunkie
    Jun 05, 2012 @ 12:25:23

    There’s the waqwaq (or wakwak or vakvak) tree in medieval Arabic legends too:

    “Waqwaq” was also the name of an unusual tree. The earliest reference to it (though without the name) occurs in a Chinese source, the T’ung-tien of Ta Huan, written before 801. Ta Huan was told the story by his father, who had lived in Baghdad for 11 years as a prisoner of war after the Battle of Talas. He claimed to have heard the following story from Arab sailors:

    The king of the Arabs had dispatched men who boarded a ship, taking with them their clothes and food, and went to sea. They sailed for eight years without coming to the far shore of the ocean. In the middle of the sea, they saw a square rock; on this rock was a tree with red branches and green leaves. On the tree had grown a number of little children; they were six or seven thumbs in length. When they saw the men, they did not speak, but they could all laugh and move. Their hands, feet and heads were fixed to the branches of the trees.

    The same story occurs repeatedly in Arabic sources, where the tree is identified as “the waqwaq tree,” and is later embellished by turning the little children into beautiful young women, suspended from the branches by their hair. The classic account, written in 12th- century al-Andalus, says the women “are more beautiful than words can describe, but are without life or soul…. This is a wonder of the land of China. The island is at the end of the inhabited world….”
    [...]
    Al-Biruni, who wrote his wonderful book Kitab al-Hind (The Book of India) in AD 1000 based largely on Sanskrit sources, mentions a country where people are born from trees and hang suspended from the branches by their navels. Perhaps the waqwaq tree too goes back to a Sanskrit source, and the Arab tales of Waqwaq are themselves a faint memory of a time when the Indonesian archipelago was in the cultural orbit of Hindu–Buddhist culture.

    The story of the waqwaq tree traveled westward, like many other oriental stories, appearing in at least one of the surviving manuscripts of the 14th-century traveler Friar Odoric and in one of the many medieval French romances of Alexander the Great. Its final appearance dates from 1685, when all the mysteries of the Indian Ocean had long faded in the light of pragmatic European accounts. It occurs in the Safinat Sulayman (The Ship of Solomon), an account of a Persian embassy to Siam (now Thailand) written by a scribe who accompanied the mission. He says he heard it from a Dutch captain:

    Once on our way to China we dropped anchor in the bay of an island to avoid a heavy storm. There was a strange collection of people inhabiting the island who only barely resembled human beings. Their feet were three cubits long and just as wide and they were completely nude and had very long hair. At night they all climbed to the top of their own trees in the jungle, even the women, who bore their children with them under their arms. Once up in the tree they would tie their hair to a branch and hang there all night resting.

    Nothing shows the medley of cultures of the Indian Ocean so well as the story of the waqwaq tree: It probably originated in a Sanskrit Hindu text, was told in the eighth century to a Chinese envoy by an Arab sailor, was brought to Europe by a Franciscan friar and was retold by a Dutch sea captain to a Persian envoy to the king of Siam.

    http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200504/the.seas.of.sindbad.htm

    Reply

  4. angrygaijin
    Jun 09, 2012 @ 05:37:46

    Cooool!

    I showed this to my gf. She told me to look up the 人面魚.

    Reply

  5. Anonymous
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 05:34:20

    In my country, there’s a similar ghost too. Its name is Gundul Pringis, “gundul” in Javanese means bald while “pringis” means grin or grimace. Like Jimenju, Gundul Pringis looks like a bald head with red eyes and it’s grinning. The appearance of this ghost starts with a sound like a fruit falling to the ground and rolling around.

    Reply

  6. Zack Davisson
    Jun 18, 2012 @ 12:08:31

    There are a few human-faced monsters. The Jinmen-gyo (human-faced fish), Jinmen-ken (human-faced dog), and–oddest of all–the Jinmenso, which is a bump on the knee with a human face.

    Reply

    • Anonymous
      Feb 12, 2013 @ 01:55:36

      Apparently there’s also a human faced dog once in my country too. -_- Weird things happen a lot in my country.

      Reply

  7. vilajunkie
    Jun 20, 2012 @ 10:50:22

    Back when I was in Japan (1998), I saw a TV show about the paranormal which had an episode with Kuchisake-Onna, Hanako no Toirei, and the Jinmen-ken. The Jinmen-ken probably freaked me out the most–though Kuchisake-Onna was a close second. I can’t remember the show’s name. But if anyone can find that particular episode for me, you win a thousand internets. :)

    Reply

  8. Zack Davisson
    Jun 20, 2012 @ 11:10:14

    Those three are more properly Urban Legends than folklore, although they have been welcomed into the yokai pantheon. I don’t know that exact show … I have seen a few similar ones. Every summer the Japanese airwaves are full of ghost and paranormal one-shot TV shows.

    Reply

  9. vilajunkie
    Jun 20, 2012 @ 20:59:11

    Yeah, I guess they are more properly urban legends than folkloric legends. However, I remember seeing an emaki illustration in the Kuchisake-Onna segment that was claimed to be an Edo period version of her. Of course, it just as easily could have been a modern illustration meant to look like it came from an emaki. She was chasing after two people (kids?) and leaning over them with a huge grinning head, similar to the Mikoshi-Nyuudou.

    Reply

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