Two Tales of Mermaid Meat

Ningyo Niku

Translated from Opinions About Life and Death as Told by the Legend of Yaobikuni, Japanese Wikipedia, and this Blog

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

Japan has mermaids, but they are very different creatures from western folklore. They can take many shapes, but the most common in the form of a fish with a woman’s head. And even then, appearance is not their most distinctive feature—eating the flesh of a mermaid is said to grant an extended lifespan. And sometimes it does something else.

Yaobikuni – The Eight-Hundred Year Nun

Yaobukini Shrine

One of Japan’s most famous folk legends, variations of this story can be found across the entire country. Most versions of the story involve a fisherman who catches a strange fish. He brings it home to cook for his family and a friend. The friend notices that the fish has a human face, and advises them not to eat it. The fisherman throws the fish away, but his hungry daughter slips into the kitchen and eats it any way. Cursed with immortality, she becomes known as Yaobikuni—the eight-hundred year nun.

Here is an interesting variation translated from Takeshi Noji’s “Opinions About Life and Death as Told by the Legend of Yaobikuni” [八百比丘尼伝承の死生観]. Notice the difference about how the mermaid flesh is discovered.

One day a man was invited to dine and be entertained at the house of another man whom he had never met before. Now, this was a man learned in Buddhism and who had attended many lectures, and he knew that many such invitations lead to places such as the Palace of the Dragon King or to a dead man’s abode. He accepted, but was on his guard.

When the feast came, he saw that he was being served mermaid meat. He was repulsed by the feast and did not eat it, but slipped some of the mermaid meat in his pocket as a souvenir of his strange adventure. Unfortunately, when he came home that night his daughter searched his pockets to see if her father had brought her a treat, and gobbled down the mermaid meat. From that time on she did not age.

Her life become one of bitter loneliness. She married several times, but her husbands aged and died while she went on. All of her friends and loved ones died as well. Eventually she became a nun, and left her village to wander the country. At ever place she visited, she planted a tree—either cedar, camellia, or pine. She eventually settled at Obama village in Wakasa province (Modern day Fukui prefecture) where she planted her final set of trees. The trees still stand to this day, and are said to be 800 years old.

Three Cedars of Togakushi

Three Cedars of Togakushi

Normally, mermaid legends are found on port towns bordering the sea. But this story comes from Togakushi of Nagano, approximately 65km away from the shore. This legend follows the same beginning as the well-known Yaobikuni legend, but adds it’s own cruel twist.

One day, a fisherman caught a mermaid in the ocean. The poor creature begged for it’s life, but the fisherman didn’t listen and killed it. He brought the meat home to where he lived with his family and three children.

The following day, when he was out fishing, his hungry children crept into the storage box in the kitchen and gorged themselves on the mermaid flesh. Soon after their bodies began to change. Their skin sprouted scales like that of a fish. At the end of their torment, they died. The father was wracked with grief, and bitterly regretted his actions. But it was too late.

In a dream, a divine messenger told him “To save your children’s souls, make a pilgrimage to Togakushi, and plant three cedar trees to honor them.” The father did as he was told, and travelled the 400km to Togakushi to plant the trees.

They trees are still there, called the Sanbonsugi of Togakushi (Three Cedars of Togakushi) where they are worshipped in a Shinto shrine.

Three Cedars of Togakushi Sign

Translator’s Note:

I came across this blog post on the Three Cedars of Togakushi, and thought it was an interesting legend to post about! However, you can’t really put the Togakushi legend into context without the much-more famous story of Yaobikuni, so there they both are!

I like the variation of Yaobikuni that I found. Like the legend of Okiku, there are hundreds of different versions of her story spread all across Japan, each one changed in just a few key details. This one features a wily man who is too smart to fall under a spirit’s spell, but is then undone by his own daughter.

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Japan and Yokai

Gashadororo

From ancient to modern times, Japan’s monsters continue to be part of the cultural psyche.

By Komatsu Kazuhiko

Translated from this article

The 1994 Yokai Boom

When Kodansha published my book “New Ideas of Yokaiology” (妖怪学新) in 1994, it was during a renaissance of yokai and kaii—traditional tales of the strange and unexpected.

In March of that year, yokai researcher Tanaka Takako published his groundbreaking “Cities Seen in the Hyakki Yagyo” (百鬼夜行の見える都市). In June, Yumemakura Baku sparked an unprecedented interest in Onmyoji and Abe Seimei with the first book in his Majūgari trilogy. Then in September, novelist Natsuhiko Kyogoku used yokai tales as raw materials for his mystery novel debut “The Summer of Ubume” (姑獲鳥の夏). Meanwhile in July of 1994, director Takahata Isao was inspired by the development of the Tama Hills area of Tokyo to make the film “Pom Poko” (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ), based on yokai folklore surrounding tanuki.

Since that initial boom, history and art museums across Japan roll out yokai and folklore exhibitions every summer. They offer explorations of yokai culture and history, and displays of supernatural-themed artwork and artifacts. These summer exhibitions are hugely popular, and never fail to draw large crowds year after year.

Looking at all of the books and films that have been published since 1994, it would appear that the public appetite for yokai is unending. Any naysayers who claim the yokai boom is over quickly find themselves laughed out of the room.

Why does this interest in yokai and strange tales persist? Perhaps it is because yokai have become deeply entrenched in subcultures like anime and comics. Since the collapse of the Bubble Economy, most of Japan’s industries have been stagnant except for pop culture. Japanese pop culture has also expanded to the international stage. Many who have never heard words like “yokai” or “Abe Seimei” or “Onmyoji” hear these terms in Japanese entertainment, and the concepts seem fresh and exciting, rejuvenating interest in Japanese culture and folklore.

New Ideas of Yokaiology

Why Do People Create Yokai?

I wasn’t aware of being part of a new movement when I was writing “New Ideas of Yokaiology.” I only wanted to precisely arrange and express my thoughts about the study of yokai and the supernatural.

One of my main purposes in the book was to explore a different avenue of thought regarding yokai than from the works of Yanagita Kunio which dominated folklore studies. Specifically, I wanted to turn away from his idea that yokai were basically devolved or unworshipped kami.

Yanagita conjectured that yokai were the leftover deities of old religions that had faded. But I felt that couldn’t explain their relevance in modern society, and how new yokai continued to be created. Why did people create yokai? What purpose did they serve? Can they only be studied from a historical perspective, or are there some special characteristics of Japanese yokai culture? These the questions that welled up in my studies.

In my book, I found that a unique element of yokai study is how many other disciplines it touches. In order to properly discuss yokai many scholars came together into a roundtable, into the combined discipline of yokaiology (妖怪学). These scholars are enthusiastic in their pursuit of yokai, and together have written a “New Yokaiology Declaration” (新しい妖怪学宣言). From this, yokaiology was embraced as a serious form of study.

For my part, I think yokai are an expression of human imagination and creativity. I study them as a cultural phenomenon. Yokai can arise from anything with a human connection; from animals, plants, or minerals. They are born in the world between human observation and human imagination. To me that means that to say I study yokai must mean that I also study humans. You cannot separate the supernatural from their human creators. Yokaiology is a branch of anthropology. Through the study of yokai, we can learn about human nature as well.

Years into the study of yokai, it has been come clear that yokaiology is an important part of the overall study of Japanese culture. It is a rich source of material and information. It is a history that stretches from the time of the Kojiki and the Nihonshiki. Along that time a countless variety of yokai have been born, countless yokai stories told and art created. Not because they are something we fear, but because playing with the mysterious brings us great pleasure. They bring joy to our everyday life.

The tradition of yokai is very much alive in modern Japan. They are almost universally loved. In fact, yokai are at the very foundation of Japanese culture, and we cannot neglect such important research.

Translator’s Note:

I thought this article by yokai scholar Komatsu Kazuhiko was interesting, and I finally found the time to translate it. He makes some wonderful points about yokai, and has a unique perspective on seperating yokai from the traditional interpretations of Yanagita Kunio.

Also a reminder that my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is finally published! Thanks to everyone for your patience in getting it out, and if you haven’t ordered it yet, well …

Yurei_Japanese_Ghost_Cover

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