Suppon no Yurei – The Turtle Ghost

Mizuki_Shigeru_Suppon_no_Yurei

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara and Japanese Wikipedia

The big cities in the Edo period were full of shops that specialized in the soft shell turtle dishes called suppon. If the truth be told, this was because people at the time believed that suppon was an effective remedy for hemorrhoids. But this isn’t that kind of story.

There were three guys in Nagoya city who loved suppon. Every chance they got, they would go out drinking and wind up at a suppon restaurant. It wasn’t that they had hemorrhoids or anything—they just loved the taste— true gourmets for all things turtle. Or more than that. These guys just couldn’t get enough; they had a kind of suppon mania.

One day they decided to try a new suppon restaurant, but when they went in they felt like something was wrong. They couldn’t help but notice that the proprietor of the restaurant’s face looked very much like the turtles he was serving. The rest of his body had a greenish tint, and his flesh was scaly. But it wasn’t until he rose up on his impossibly long legs that they realized they were dealing with a suppon yurei, a turtle ghost.

The three men ran from the shop as fast as their legs could carry them. When they got back to their house, they hid under their blankets and shivered with fright for two, then three days until they were brave enough to show their faces to the world. None of the men ever ate suppon again.

Translator’ s Note:

Another yokai tale of overeating for Thanksgiving. The original to this story comes from the Edo period kaidan-shu Kaidan Tabi-no-Akebono (怪談旅之曙; Weird Tales of Voyages by Daybreak), where it was titled Suppon no Bakemono. Mizuki Shigeru changed the title to Suppon no Yurei, which is an interesting choice seeing as yurei is a word generally reserved for the spirits of humans. But it is not always so, as you can see.

Suppon_no_Bakemono

Suppon no Yurei s is one of the rare tales of yokai turtles. Turtles play an odd place in Japanese folklore. On the one hand they were treated as serene gods and spiritual animals, on the other hand they were considered quite capable of bloody revenge. Their ability to bite and hang on indefinitely gives them their reputation. Tales of yokai turtles always call out the turtle’s nature as ”shunenbukai” (執念深い) , meaning tenacious , spiteful, or vindictive.

The particular tale is considered to be a variation of Takenyudo (Tall Priest) legends. These legends are similar to the Nopperabo legends (see Shirime – Eyeball Butt) where an ordinary encounter suddenly turns extraordinary when someone you thought to be human exhibits supernatural characteristics. In the case of the Nopperabo, this is a lack of face. In the case of Takenyudo—and the Suppon no Yurei—it is suddenly stretching to an inhuman size.

Suppon no Yurei is ambiguous on how the turtles managed to manifest a semi-human appearance for their yokai. Are these the ghosts of the dead turtles? Or is this a classic henge shape-shifting turtle out to protect his brethren from winding up in the pot? No one really knows, and the guys in the story don’t stick around to find out. Mizuki tries to clear up this ambiguity by re-naming the story “Suppon no Yurei,” implying a spirit of a dead turtle. Based on my knowledge of Japanese folklore, I would vote for a long-lived turtle who transformed into a yokai and gained supernatural powers. But then, turtles are already long-lived so this one would have had to have been around for a long, long time.

Mizuki Shigeru does make a note that it is perfectly OK to enjoy a meal of suppon—he personally loves suppon—just don’t eat too much of it. Moderation is key if you want to enjoy your food without invoking the wrathful spirits of animals.

Further Reading:

For more Thanksgiving yokai of overeating and other turtle tales, check out:

Oseichu – The Mimicking Roundworm

The Sprit Turtle

Shio no Choji – Salty Choji

Kitsune no Yomeiri – The Fox Wedding

Mizuki_Shigeru_Kitsune_no_Yomeiri

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Showa: A History of Japan, Tales of Old Japan, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, and Other Sources

On a day when the sun shines bright and the rain falls, wise parents advise their children to play indoors. It isn’t that they are worried about them catching a cold. No, it is something more mysterious. For on such days the kitsune, the magical foxes of Japan, hold their wedding processions.

From Sakurai city in Ibaraki prefecture to Kashihara city in Nara prefecture, tales of Kitsune no Yomeiri appear all over Japan— with the sole exception of the northern island of Hokkaido. Most stories follow similar patterns with only slight variations. There are two phenomena referred to as Kitsune no Yomeiri—the bizarre weather called sunshowers where rain falls in broad daylight; and the procession of foxfire, called kitsune-bi (狐火), winding through the mountains late at night.

What does Kitsune no Yomeiri mean?

Kitsune no Yomeiri combines the kanji狐の (kitsune no; Fox’s) with嫁入り (Yomeiri; Wedding). In a literal translation, yomeiri means to “receive a bride,” as the custom is for the groom’s family to receive the bride on the wedding day as a proper member of their family. Until the middle-Showa period, Kitsune no Yomeiri Gyoretsu (狐の嫁入り行列; The Fox Wedding Bridal Procession) was more commonly used. But most drop Gyoretsu in the modern age. Just getting lazy, I suppose.

While Kitsune no Yomeiri is the most common term, there are regional versions of the same phenomenon. In Saitama and Ishikawa prefectures it is known as Kitsune no Yomitori (狐の嫁取り; The Taking of a Fox Bride). In Shizuoka it is called Kitsune no Shugen (狐の祝言; The Fox Wedding Celebration).

In Tokushima, the Kitsune no Yomeiri is a less happy occasion. It was called the Kitsune no Soshiki (狐の葬儀; Fox Funeral) and seeing one is considered an omen of death.

The Foxfire Lantern Procession

Fox Wedding Painting

The Kitsune no Yomeiri has long been a part of Japanese folklore, although with the rise of the Inari Fox-cult during the Edo period it gained a greater significance and cultural permeation. A description of Kitsune no Yomeiri comes from the book Echigo Naruse (越後名寄; Encyclopedia of Echigo) published during the Horeki period (1751-1764).

“On dark and quiet nights, in secret places, strings of lanterns or torches can be seen stretching out single file in an unbroken chain more than two miles long. It is a rare site, but an unmistakable one. It can be seen most often in Kanbara county, and it is said that on such night young foxes claim their mates.”

The procession of lights became associated with weddings as it mirrored Japanese wedding ceremonies at the time. Based on traditions established during the Muromachi period (1392–1573), weddings were held at night and the bride was escorted over to her new home by a lamplight parade. This type of ceremony—called the Konrei Gyoretsu (婚礼行列; Wedding Procession) —lasted until the mid-Showa period when Western wedding ceremonies replaced traditional Japanese ceremonies.

Legends of the Kitsune no Yomeiri merged with existing stories of kitsune magic and bewitchment. People who tried to follow these foxfire lantern processions would find that they disappeared as soon as they got close—although on rare occasions traces of the ceremony were found. Shunjitsu Shrine in Saitama prefecture was said to be a popular place for fox weddings. Whenever a Kitsune no Yomeiri lit up the night, the mountain road leading to the shrine was covered with fox poop the following day.

Fox Wedding Kimono

Picture from this website

Stories of Kitsune no Yomeiri continued well into the Edo period. In Toshima village (modern day Kita-ku, Tokyo) Kitsune no Yomeiri was seen on several consecutive nights, eventually becoming one of the Seven Mysteries of Toshima. Mt. Kirin in Niigata prefecture is full of foxes, and Kitsune no Yomeiri was said to be a common occurrence. In both Niigata and Nara prefectures, Kitsune no Yomeiri was thought to be a good omen for the harvest, with the more lanterns being seen the more fruitful the harvest. A year with no fox weddings made people dread the upcoming famine.

The foxes of Gifu prefecture didn’t just content themselves with lanterns. The foxfire procession was accompanied by the sound of cracking and blazing bamboo, although when examined the following day the forests appeared untouched.

Scientific Explanation for Kitsune-bi

The procession of lamplights is not only a widespread phenomenon in Japan; it is worldwide. Japanese kitsune-bi is different from foxfire in Western legends, which comes from a phosphorescent fungus. It is more akin to the Will-o’-the-wisp, also known as ignis fatuus or “Fool’s Fire.”

The most common explanation is that these fires are the oxidation of the chemical phosphine caused by decaying organic matter, such as can be found in forests. Other suggestions are that they are a mere optical illusion caused by the setting sun. But there is no scientific evidence for either of these theories.

The foxfire procession kind of Kitsune no Yomeiri are rarely seen today. This is most likely due to the 1950s deforestation of Japan’s native forests and replanting with fast-growing industrial cedar. Whatever magic of the forests that produced the foxfire lights, it is now gone, sacrificed to industry.

Sunshowers and Fox Weddings

Hokusai_Kitsune-no-yomeiri

The Meiji period Tanka poet Masaoka Shiki wrote:

“When rain falls from a blue sky, in the Hour of the Horse, the Great Fox King takes his bride.”

Another strange natural phenomenon goes by the name of Kitsune no Yomeiri, and in the modern era is much better known. On days when the sun shines and it still rains—a weather condition called tenkiame (天気雨) in Japanese or sunshowers in English—foxes are once again thought to hold their wedding ceremonies.

How sunshowers became associated with fox weddings is vague. Some say that it has to do with mountains where foxes are mostly found. There are times when mountains are covered in rain, while the town below is clear. People said that the foxes summoned the rain with their magic to hide their wedding ceremony. Others just think that because sunshowers are a mysterious occurrence, going against the natural pattern of clouds and rain, that people assumed a supernatural origin and associated it with foxes.

Although most pre-Meiji period accounts are of the foxfire processions, Katsushika Hokusai captured the sunshower-type in his painting Kitsune no Yomeiri-zu (狐の嫁入図; Picture of a Fox Wedding). The sunshower fox wedding was also mentioned in a 1732 Bunkraku puppet play Dan no Ura Kabuto Chronicles (壇浦兜軍記; The Chronicles of a Helmet of Dan no Ura).

As always, there are regional variations. In agricultural regions the sunshower version of Kitsune no Yomeiri was a good omen, promising rain for the crops and many children for the any new brides lucky enough to be married on such a day. In Tokushima, sunshowers are known as Kitsuneame (狐雨; fox rain) and not associated with weddings. In Kumamoto prefecture fox weddings are associated with rainbows, and in Aichi prefecture they are associated with hail.

How to See a Kitsune no Yomeiri

Fox Wedding Ink Painting

While most people go out of their way to avoid seeing strange phenomena (getting wrapped up in kitsune magic is rarely healthy in Japanese folklore) there are a few rituals for the brave and the curious.

In the Fukushima Prefecture, a bizarre ritual exists of wearing a suribachi mortar on your head and sticking the wooden pestle in your belt, then standing under a date tree. Of course, this only works on the 10th day of the 10th month of the Lunar calendar.

Aichi prefecture has a much easier method—just spit in a well and weave your fingers together. You are said to be able to view the Kitsune no Yomeiri though the gaps in your fingers.

But most stories advise against seeing a fox wedding—foxes are powerful in Japanese folklore, but dangerous. A wise person keeps well away.

Kitsune no Yomeiri in Literature

During the Edo period, numerous writers and kaidan-shu collections included first-hand accounts of Kitsune no Yomeiri, including those of people wandering into the middle of them and participating. The Kanei period (1624-1645) Konjyaku Kaidanshu (今昔妖談集; Kaidan Collection of Times Past), the Kansei period (1789-1801) Kaidanro no Tsue (怪談老の杖; A Cane for Old Kaidan Folk), and the Bunsei period (1818-1830) Edo Chirihiroi (江戸塵拾; Picked up Dust from the Edo Period) all contained first-hand accounts of encounters with Kitsune no Yomeiri.

Kitsune no Yomeiri Ukiyoe

Some of the stories can be grim. A tale set in the Warring States period (1467-1568) tells of a young bride who suddenly fell sick and died. The night of her burial, a foxfire procession passed over her gravesite. Some are more uplifting, like the tale of an old couple who cared for a wounded fox pup, and many years later were honored guests at the fox’s wedding procession. Most stories, however, are of the voyeur nature—just a glimpse caught by a frightened soul hiding behind a tree when the wedding train passes by.

Mizuki Shigeru remembers being warned as a young boy against going outside during sunshowers. He writes about his memories of Kitsune no Yomeiri in his comics NonNonBa and Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. Kurosawa Akira featured the sunshower-type Kitsune no Yomeiri in his film Dreams

From Algernon Freeman-Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan, 1910

Algernon Freeman-Mitford describes the sunshower type of Kitsune no Yomeiri from the foxes’ point of view in his 1910 book Tales of Old Japan: Folklore, Fairy Tales, Ghost Stories and Legends of the Samurai:

“Once upon a time there was a young white fox, whose name was Fukuyemon. When he had reached the fitting age, he shaved off his forelock and began to think of taking to himself a beautiful bride. The old fox, his father, resolved to give up his inheritance to his son, and retired into private life; so the young fox, in gratitude for this, laboured hard and earnestly to increase his patrimony.

Fox_Wedding_Woodblock_Print

Now it happened that in a famous old family of foxes there was a beautiful young lady-fox, with such lovely fur that the fame of her jewel-like charms was spread far and wide. The young white fox, who had heard of this, was bent on making her his wife, and a meeting was arranged between them. There was not a fault to be found on either side; so the preliminaries were settled, and the wedding presents sent from the bridegroom to the bride’s house, with congratulatory speeches from the messenger, which were duly acknowledged by the person deputed to receive the gifts; the bearers, of course, received the customary fee in copper cash.

When the ceremonies had been concluded, an auspicious day was chosen for the bride to go to her husband’s house, and she was carried off in solemn procession during a shower of rain, the sun shining all the while. After the ceremonies of drinking wine had been gone through, the bride changed her dress, and the wedding was concluded, without let or hindrance, amid singing and dancing and merry-making.

The bride and bridegroom lived lovingly together, and a litter of little foxes were born to them, to the great joy of the old grandsire, who treated the little cubs as tenderly as if they had been butterflies or flowers. “They’re the very image of their old grandfather,” said he, as proud as possible. “As for medicine, bless them, they’re so healthy that they’ll never need a copper coin’s worth!”

As soon as they were old enough, they were carried off to the temple of Inari Sama, the patron saint of foxes, and the old grand-parents prayed that they might be delivered from dogs and all the other ills to which fox flesh is heir.

In this way the white fox by degrees waxed old and prosperous, and his children, year by year, became more and more numerous around him; so that, happy in his family and his business, every recurring spring brought him fresh cause for joy. “

Kitsune no Yomeiri Matsuri – Fox Wedding Festivals

Fox Wedding Parade

Kitsune no Yomeiri remains a popular aspect of Japanese culture and folklore. Many towns hold Kitsune no Yomeiri festivals re-creating the famous processions. Most of these festivals are modern—coming from the 1950s to as recently as the 1990s—and were started as tourist attractions to draw people into town. Local politicians and businesses participate in the festival, and sometimes the fox bride and groom are selected as a sort of “beauty pageant.”

Not all are modern tourist traps, however. The Yokaichi city, Mie prefecture Kitsune no Yomeiri procession to Suzakiha Mamiyashimei Shrine dates back to the Edo period, and is a ritual to drive out evil spirits and ask for blessings for the harvest. The festival in Kudamatsu city, Yamaguchi prefecture, has also been held since ancient times, although it bears little relationship to popular images of the Kitsune no Yomeiri. It involves asking the blessing of a pair of white fox deities whose wedding ceremony is re-enacted every year.

Translator’s Note:

The latest entry in my series on yokai who appear in Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. In the story, a young Mizuki Shigeru is told about foxes and Kitsune no Yomeiri by his friend and mentor, the local wise woman NonNonBa. Mizuki does not believe her until, later that night, he hears foxes barking from the mountain that NonNonBa talked about. It is at that moment he realizes all of NonNonBa’s stories—and the yokai themselves—are real.

Further Reading:

For more yokai from Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan check out:

Hidarugami – The Hunger Gods
Sazae Oni – The Turban Shell Demon
Nezumi Otoko – Rat Man

For more kitsune stories, check out:

Tsukimono – The Possessing Thing

Aoandon – The Blue Lantern Ghost

Translated and Sourced from Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

In the 100 candles game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, when the last story is told and the last light extinguished, something is said to appear from the darkness. For some in the Edo Period, that “something” had a name—Aoandon, the Blue Lantern Ghost.

Who is the Aoandon?

Toriyama Seiken originated the legend of the Aoandon in his kaidan-shu Konjaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past). According to Toriyama, the Aoandon is a female spirit with long black hair, two horns poking out of her head, black, sharp teeth, and dressed in a white kimono. She is a sort of merger of the Aoi Nyobo (Blue Wife) and Hannya (Devil Woman) of traditional Japanese folklore.

The name Aoandon (青行燈) means very simply “Blue Lantern,” and is a reference to the blue-tinged lanterns that became popular as the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai game evolved.

Toriyaam Seiken’s Aoandon

Written on Toriyama Seiken’s Aoandon picture:

“When the final lantern is doused, and the shadows hang heavy, the Aoandon appears. In modern games of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, the lanterns are covered in blue paper giving an eerie light. People gather on dark nights to trade stories of evil things. But to talk about evil things is to summon them.”

Blue Lanterns and Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai

The game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai started out very simple; a hundred lit candles were placed in a room, and as ghost stories and weird tales were told in order, a single candle would be extinguished. With each story the room got progressively darker. When the final candle was expunged, some supernatural creature was said to be summoned.

Exactly what was summoned was never made clear. In one of the earliest recordings of a Hyakumonogatari Game, in the kaidan-shu Tonoigusa (宿直草), the game was played in a cave by a group of samurai. When the last candle was being put out, a giant hand appeared to come down from the ceiling. A quick slash of a the sword showed that the hand was nothing more than a spider, whose enormous shadow cast by the last candle had appeared as a giant hand.

As the game left the warrior caste and moved into the realm of the townsfolk, it evolved. In order to create a spookier atmosphere, candles were replaced by specially prepared blue lanterns to give the gathering a more mysterious feel—an early form of mood lighting. These lanterns, called andon, consisted of paper panels in bamboo frames set over candles or oil lanterns. Normally the paper was white, but for Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai gatherings the white paper was replaced with blue. (Andon can still be seen all over the world nowadays, although most of them are electric instead of burning actual candles or oil.)

The game got even more sophisticated over the centuries, and even a little bit more lazy. Instead of lighting a hundred lanterns, sometimes oil lamps were prepared with specially made wicks that counted down from one hundred. Which each story, part of the wicks was cut, bringing the light down until the final cut. Some games would place the lantern in a room away from the main gathering place, next to a mirror. After each story, the storyteller would have to walk alone into the room, cut their wick and then stare into the mirror.

Many gatherings actually cut their event short after the 99th tale, with no one being brave enough to walk into the room for the final story.

Speak of the Devil, and the Devil Appears

It has long been a tradition in Japan that talking about ghosts and monsters attracts ghosts and monsters. They need the right atmosphere to appear, and the 100 candles Hyakumonogatari Game was all about setting the right atmosphere. If you talk about it, it will come.

But until Toriyama Seiken wrote about the Aoandon in his Konjaku Hyakki Shu, there was no consensus on what appeared. Toriyama did what he often did when inventing new yokai; he took a common phrase or word and imagined a spirit to go along with it. In the case of the Aoandon, he imagined the extinguishing of a blue lantern, and the ghost woman that might be waiting in the dark, or looking back at you from a mirror.

Like many of Toriyama’s creations, there were attempts to craft a story onto the Aoandon. Artists Kondo Misaki imagined a woman consumed by jealousy who transformed into a yokai and was cursed to haunt these blue lanterns, waiting for her chance to appear. When the mirror aspect of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai was invoked, she served as Japan’s version of Bloody Mary, a test of courage and the tricks your mind can play on you when you are alone with a mirror in a darkened room.

Translator’s Note:

The Aoandon is not exactly the most exciting yokai—pretty much a name and a picture—but since this is officially my 100th post on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (and my blog finally lived up to its name) I thought it was time for the Aoandon to appear. I am nothing if not a traditionalist.

However, this particular game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is far from over. I have lots more yokai to do and many more Japanese ghost and monster stories to translate for you. Thanks for reading!!

The Seven Wonders of Honjo

During the Edo period, the area known as Honjo (modern day Sumida ward in Tokyo) was a meloncholy and shadow-haunted place that drew legends about it like a cloak. Vast fields spread about Honjo, with only a few houses scattered here and there, and many a night-traveler would walk far to avoid a trip though those fields at night.

Several of the ghost legends of Honjo were collected together and called the Honjo Nanafushigi (本所七不思議), the Seven Wonders of Honjo. The number seven is purely nominal; as in many places in the world, the number seven carries mystical significance and when you are telling ghost stories the “seven wonders” sounds scarier than the “nine wonders” or “eight wonders.”

Many local places had their own collection of “seven wonders.” They form a typical model of urban legend, passed down through word of mouth, told and retold over kitchen fireplaces, then transitioning from local legend to stage performance.

The Seven Wonders of Honjo moved from the streets of Edo into the halls of Rakugo performers, who took the seven wonders on tour. In the late 1880s Utagawa Kuniteru (歌川国輝) made a series of prints called the “Honjo Nanafushigi.” In 1937, Shinko Kimura filmed “Honjo Nanafushigi” (本所七不思議), which was remade in 1957, as “Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo” (怪談本所七不思議; Kaidan Honjo Nanafushigi) by Katano Goro. The films featured yokai stories and did not really focus on the authentic Seven Wonders.

Today of course, the Seven Wonders of Honjo are largely remembered as tourist attractions.  You can buy special sweets in the shape of the seven wonders, and take walking tours of Sumida where you read all about the seven wonders on helpful tourist maps and plaques.

The Seven Wonders are:

• The “Leave it Behind” Straggler–  置行堀(Oite Kebori)
The Sending-Off Lantern 送り提灯(Okuri Chochin)
The “Following Wooden Clappers” 送り拍子木(Okuri Hyoshigi)
The Unlit Soba Shop  燈無蕎麦 (Akarinashi Soba)
The Foot Washing Mansion 足洗邸 (Ashiarai Yashiki)
The One-sided Reed 片葉の葦 (Kataba no Ashi)
The Chinkapin of Unfallen Leaves 落葉なき椎 (Ochiba Naki Shii)
The Procession of the Tanuki 狸囃子(Tanuki Bayashi)
The Taiko of Tsugaru 津軽の太鼓 (Tsugaru no Taiko)

The Bodhidharma Button

I recently got a request from a reader to help her identify what she called an “old Japanese button.”  She had suspected that the image was an onryo, a Japanese vengeance ghost.

The Image

The image on the button—not really a button but I will call it that for the time being—was easy to identify. That is not an onryo, but the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, known more popularly as Daruma.

Daruma is one of the most popular figures in Japanese folklore art and in contemporary Japan. From whisky bottles to women’s underwear, you can find Daruma’s scowling face on almost every product-type in Japan. Daruma is a super-figure in Japanese folklore, credited with inventing everything from tea to Shaolin martial arts. He is most commonly found as the wish-granting, roly-poly Daruma dolls. Sold eyeless, you paint in one eye while making a wish, then paint in the other eye in thanks when the wish comes true.

The historic Daruma comes from 5th or 6th century AD. Most of his life is so completely wrapped in legend it would be impossible to sort fact from fancy, but he is often considered to have come from South India, or “from Persia.” Whatever his origin, he is the divine transmitter of Ch’an Buddhism, known in Japanese—and English—as Zen Buddhism. In art, he is depicted as being grumpy, ill-tempered, scowling, with a beard and deep-set eyes.

The image on this button, with the emaciated, skeletal form, is very different from the portly and robust figure found in most depictions of Daruma.  The scene is most likely taken from Daruma’s “nine years of wall gazing.”In this legend, Daruma was denied entrance into a Shaolin Monostary, so he went to a nearby cave and stared at a wall for nine years.  There are several variations on the legend, including one where he fell asleep after seven years and—disgusted with himself—tore off his own eyelids so they couldn’t betray him.  Casting his eyelids on the ground, they sprouted up into the first tea bushes which Daruma brewed and drank to keep himself awake for the final two years.

The Artist

 The rest of the request—who made this button and what is it?—went out of my area of expertise.  Even reading the kanji on the button was difficult, as it is in archaic form and written in a calligraphic style.  Neither I nor my wife, who is Japanese, could read the signature. So I called on my friend Aaron Rio, with his big brains and phd in Japanese Art to help in the identification.  And help he did!

First off, what is the object exactly?  All we know for sure is that it is not a button.  Without seeing the reverse side and depth it is difficult to make a determination—Is it a medallion or a container? A lid? And why are there cords attached?  The best guess is that it is a netsuke 根付, possibly of the kagamibuta 鑑蓋 variety missing it’s ivory surround. Or it is possibly the lid of a small netsuke container.

As to the writing, the three characters at left are 民乗, the artist/carver’s name, and then his cipher (花押, kaō), i.e., a handwritten (carved) signature. 民乗,whose actual name was 海野珉乗 (Unno Minjō, 1873-1910; note the different character used for ‘min’) is a known netsuke carver. He was a professor at 東京芸大 when he died, as was his far more famous father Unno Shomin (海野勝珉), who was also a metalworker. The Museum of Fine Art (MFA) in Boston has at least one netsuke, a kagamibuta, by this artist, and they date it to the late 19th century.

Just because it is signed doesn’t mean it is real, of course. There are lots of netsuke fakes. However, Minjō wasn’t exactly a celebrity carver, and he did die rather young, so I’m not sure why anyone would fake his signature. And the signature resembles (though isn’t identical) to the signature on the MFA piece, The MFA has an extensive online catalogue, and you may very well find this other Minjō netsuke there as well.

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