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

Bakeneko – The Changing Cat

Sourced and translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Hyakumonogatari, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, Yokai Jiten, Nihon Kokugo Dai-ten, and Other Sources

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Late at night, a sublimely beautiful woman walks the street alone. As she passes by the light of a paper lantern, you notice something about her shadow—it is not human. Cast by the flickering light of the paper lantern is the clear shape of a cat.

She is a bakeneko.

What is a Bakeneko?

Bakeneko has been rendered in English in a variety of ways. Monster cat. Ghost cat. But the most accurate translation would be “Changing Cat,” as that is the defining characteristic of bakeneko.

The word bakeneko (化け猫) consist of two kanji; “Bake-“(化け) means to change form, to transform. The kanji is often used with yokai, and indeed a general term for monster in Japanese is obake (御化け) meaning “changer.” “-neko” (猫), of course, just means “cat.”

The word bakeneko is often used as a catch-all term for the mysterious and magical cats of Japan. Nekomata in particular are sometimes called a type of bakeneko. But this is a misuse of the name. Kaibyo(怪猫) is the general term for paranormal cats in Japanese. Bakeneko, just as their name implies, are defined by their ability to transform.

Specifically, bakeneko are able to take human shape, or near-human shape. Some bakeneko maintain a cat form, but they are able to speak human language and wear human clothes. Some legends say that these cat-shaped bakeneko put towels on their heads and dance on their hind legs. Much, much rarer legends are humans who change shape into cats, but which are also called bakeneko.

Because of their shape-shifting abilities, bakeneko belong to a class of yokai called henge (変化), or changing yokai. This includes other shape-shifters such as tanuki and kitsune.

Like most of Japan’s magical cats, bakeneko are said to be cats who have lived a long time. There are stories of split-tailed bakeneko, who appear similar to nekomata. The primary difference between the two is the bakeneko’s ability to adopt human shape. Also like other magical cats, there are stories of bakeneko manipulating the dead, or cursing humans.

Bakeneko Origins – The Lamp Lickers

For the origins of most yokai, there is at best a definitive “maybe” on how they arose. But for the bakeneko, there is a general scholastic consciences that the legends began with fish.

Cats are not indigenous to Japan, and the little “hand-fed tigers” were imported in later years and served as house pets and rat-catchers. Most of Japan at the time lived on a diet of vegetables and grains, with very little supplementary meat or protein. Cats were fed leftovers. However, cats are carnivorous. They don’t do well on a diet of vegetables and grains, and when they are hungry they will take their protein where they can get it. And many households had a ready supply, even if they didn’t know it.

Oil lamps as the time often used rendered fish oil as fuel. To a protein-starved cat this was exactly what they needed, and they would stand on their hind legs to reach up to the lamp to lick out the fish oil. Frightened pet owners looking at the lamplight-cast shadows would see their tiny cat suddenly elongate and stand on two legs as if transforming into a human. Thus was established the connection between bakeneko and shadows.

The cries of cats have also been known to mimic human words and sounds. To an ear already disposed to think their little tabby is shape-shifting at night, imaginations were allowed to run wild and people heard their cats speaking Japanese.

The Bakeneko Rebellion of Nabeshima

While there are many, many bakeneko legends in Japan (too many to tell here), the most famous is the Bakeneko Rebellion of Nabeshima.

This story takes place in Hizen province (modern day Saga prefecture) during the rule of Nabshima Mitsushige (1632-1700). Nabeshima employed a man named Ryuzoji Matashichi to serve as his opponent for Go. One day Matashichi fell out of favor with his lord Nabeshima, and Nabeshima had him put to the death. Matashichi’s mother was heartbroken by this, and poured out her sadness to the family cat they kept, then killed herself with a knife.

The cat licked the blood from the mother, and from this transformed into a bakeneko. Every night the cat would sneak into the castle to torment Nabeshima. The curse only ended when Nabeshima’s loyal retainer Komori Hanzaemon battled the cat and won, saving the Nabeshima house.

The story is famous not only as a legend, but also because it coincides with a real succession conflict in the Nabeshima household. It was made into a kabuki play that debuted at the Nakamura-za theater in the 1840s, titled Hana Sagano Nekoma Ishibumi Shi ( 花嵯峨野猫魔碑史; The History of the Stone Monument of the Demon Cat of Sagano). The play was a hit, but the Nabeshima family successfully petitioned to have the production closed. They were too late, however. The cat was out of the bag, and the bakeneko became a popular monster for future kabuki productions.

Bakeneko also became a popular subject for Edo period ukiyo-e artists. Many of these portray a giant cat in the background, although the cat is often just a symbol showing the true soul of the human character crouching in the foreground, the true bakeneko.

Bakeneko Yujo – TheBakeneko Prostitutes

In the Edo period, books called kibyoshi (yellow books)and sharebon (which translates as “Books of Fashion”) told stories of near-do-wells and salacious tales of life in the pleasure quarters. Considering the Edo periods mania for kaidan weird tales, it was only natural that these two genres should combine to tell tales of bakeneko prostitutes who haunted the lantern-lit lanes of the Yoshiwara.

These stories usually followed a familiar pattern, where a popular prostitute would escort a customer too her room and perform her usual service. Late at night, the customer would wake up and find his lady not there. He would sneak into a different part of the house where he peeked at her, and the dainty woman would be revealed as a bakeneko, usually engaged in tearing the heads off of live fish and shrimp, blood dripping on her face.

Seafood was the dead giveaway for these bakeneko prostitutes, and sometimes customers would present a woman with a live fish to see if her true nature would be revealed. Strangely enough, this plot device was used by Mizuki Shigeru for his character Neko Musume, a bakeneko that appears as a cute little girl but suddenly transforms into a ravenous beast in the presence of fish or mice.

Further reading:

Read more yokai magical animal tales on hyakumonogatari.com:

Iriomote Oyamaneko – The Iriomote Great Mountain Cat

Kasha – The Corpse-Eating Cat Demon

Nekomata – The Split-Tailed Cat

The Cat’s Grave

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