The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

Translated from Edo Tokyo Kaii Hyakumonogatari

In the 2nd year of Koka (1845), there was a turtle who was worshiped in Lake Shinobazu, in Ueno. This turtle was different from normal turtles. Its shell was white, and had faint markings on it that could be read as kanji characters. Its neck, legs, and arms were unusually thick. The turtle was originally from the great lake of Nagai in Settsu, and had been brought to Lake Shinobazu by virtuous local men who had purchased the turtle in Osaka then brought it home and dedicated it to the goddess Benzaten.

White turtles have a history of sacredness. There is a legend from India of a one-eyed white turtle who listened intently to the sermons of the Buddha Shakuson. China speaks of a white turtle who descended from Heaven and brought with it peace and tranquility. And in Japan the white turtle is revered as a symbol of peace. The appearance of a white turtle is thought necessary to ensure a peaceful Imperial reign.

To see a white turtle was said to result in an unending spring of good fortune. A long life for you, prosperity for your descendents, and freedom from illness were all said to be blessings conferred by the white turtle. There are many other legends where turtles appear as omens or signs.

In the 16th year of Meiji (1883), May 10th , the Iroha newspaper published the story of a “straw-raincoat wearing turtle.” Whether it was called a straw-raincoat wearing turtle, or a spirit turtle, or even a God turtle, the appearance of an unusual turtle was an auspicious sign during a change in Imperial eras.

The particular turtle was sighted by Yamada Miyakawa, in Mie prefecture. In that same place the turtle was purchased by the merchant Tahata Shudo, acting under the guarantee of Nakagawa Chubei of Nippon-bashi ward. Nakagawa had previously engaged the sake dealer Yorozuya Taijiro to aquire a turtle, and Tahata and Yorozuya took 1,000 yen of Nakagawa’s money to go and buy the straw-raincoat wearing turtle and to bring it back with them. They were able to make the purchase, and with the guidance and advice of a local museum, brought back the previous turtle with great care.

Kiyomizu Seifu of the Iroha newspaper saw the straw-raincoat wearing turtle on its trip back to be enshrined, and drew a picture of it. From the area of its shoulders, blue hair streamed like fine silk thread. It looked exactly as if the turtle were wearing a straw-raincoat. The turtle was not much different from normal turtles other than its hair, which needed to be combed every day with great care to prevent tangles and to prevent the hair from pulling out.

Translators Note: The straw-raincoat wearing turtle in this story is called a minogame (蓑亀; 蓑=Straw Raincoat  亀=Turtle) in Japanese.  Minogame are an actual phenomenom, where pond plants root and grow on the back of turtle shells.


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Matt
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 17:00:15

    Great post! I’ve often enjoyed seeing imagery of mino-game on temples and shrines and such. Where did you find the picture of the turtle with the pond plants on its back?


  2. Zack Davisson
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 19:52:00

    Thanks! And I must confess I found that picture doing a google image search for “minogame.” The other two pictures are scans from “Edo no Kimyo no Hyakumonogatari.” I finally got a scanner, so I will be putting some pictures on the site now to go along with the translations.


  3. Keiichi
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 14:30:52

    Hi Zack,
    Great story!
    In Japan, each pond has a “nushi”, a master, which is often a turtle. (In some cases it is a huge carp.) Sighting of the nushi is believed to be ushering good fortune to him. There is a pond in my hometown where people gather and wait for the turtle to appear, hoping to have good luck.


  4. Zack Davisson
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 14:51:04

    I didn’t know that! Very cool Keiichi!


    Sep 29, 2011 @ 00:36:16

    Great! Thank you! 🙂


    • Zack Davisson
      Sep 29, 2011 @ 08:54:39

      Thanks Yoso! I checked out your website. Wow! Those are some beautiful tattoo designs!!! I have two sleeves that I got done in Japan, based off of a couple of haikus. If you ever have a request for kaidan-themed designed and have any questions, let me know and I would be honored to help you out.


  6. yoso
    May 24, 2012 @ 04:09:35

    I thought this might be of interest to you as it brings more to your post! I enjoy following you as I’m still lost in Transtation! 🙂 So tough to understand Old Japan sometimes! Thanks! Enjoy! Y.


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