On Zashiki-Warashi

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Tono Monogatari

There is what is called the Three Great Stories of Tono.  Of these, the legend of the zashiki-warashi is by far the most famous.  Let’s touch on these legends a bit.

Zashiki-warashi (“zashiki” meaning the tatami room of traditional Japanese houses, and “warashi” meaning a kid or small child) are often seen as a kind of omen in the houses of once-great families on the verge of decline.  The disappearance of the zashiki-warashi from the house was a sign that the family’s fortunes had waned.  Looking into this, you can find many families who have used zashiki-warashi to account for the withering away of their wealth and status.   The disappearance of zashiki-warashi was also an easy way to explain away a neighbor’s misfortunes to children who were too young to understand.   Many a parent has relied on this convenient excuse to circumvent uncomfortable questions.

But there are other thoughts on the zashiki-warashi.  In the 42nd year of Meiji, Yanagita wrote in his diary that on the journey from Hanamaki to Tono he saw only three places that showed any sign of human habitation.  On these rough plateaus between the surrounding mountains it was said there were a hardscrabble people making their living off the land called Yamabito.  These people of the mountains were said to be of substantial build and were described as having eyes differently colored from normal Japanese.  The villages of the Tono area were terrified of Yamabito, who were said to sometimes raid the villages and either ravage or kidnap the local women.   Due to this fear of outsiders, as well as due to the special geographical features of the mountain basin in which they lived, the people of Tono were solitary and exclusionary.   Their houses held many secrets.  Old families of rank and reputation sometimes found their daughters ravaged and impregnated by these Yamabito attacks, and any child born of such a union was hidden away in the depths of the family mansion and never allowed to see the daylight.  Other families of lesser fortunes sometimes gave birth to more children than they could afford, so it was said that some children were culled, their bodies buried under the dirt floors or under the kitchen instead of a proper grave.   An eyewitness to both of these ancient customs sites these practices as the origin of the zashiki-warashi legends.

There are of course other origins that have nothing to do with bad parents hiding or killing their own children. Some say that zashiki-warashi are merely spirits of the house, no different than any other kami.

Regardless of their origins, they are a vivid and ancient legend.  One official account, published in 1910 (the 43rd year of Meiji), tells of an elementary school in Tsuchibuchi where a first grade student claimed to see a zashiki-warashi right in front of him, although his teachers and classmates were unable to see the spirit.

Further Reading:

Read more Zashiki Warashi tales on hyakumonogatari.com

Zashiki Warashi

The Legends and Storytellers of Tono

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Tono Monogatari

Yanagita Kunio’s “Tono Monogatari” is mainly the recollections of Tono-native Sasaki Kizen.  Sasaki was a researcher of local legends, and also harbored dreams of becoming an author himself.   Gathered here are the many stories passed down through generations from parent to child in the Sasaki household, including myths and legends, folktales and traditions, ghost stories and fairy tales.   Sasaki told them with out any particular order, plot, literary structure or device, and Yanagita wrote them down accordingly. Together these stories and Yanagita’s other books became the foundation in Japan of minzokugaku, or folklore studies. 

2010 celebrates the 100th anniversary of the initial publication of “Tono Monogatari,” and Tono has planned many events in recognition of this milestone.  This book is one of those events.  Tono itself retains many of the characteristics and atmosphere that it had in Yanagita’s days.  With the images of this book held in your heart, you can visit Tono and be transported back a hundred years to when the stories were first written down.

Tono is found in the northern Japan, in the southern mountainous district of Iwate prefecture.  Located in a valley basin and ringed by three holy mountains, Tono can find on either side Mt. Hayachine, Mr. Rokkoushi and Mt. Ishigami.  Together, these are called the Three Mountains of Tono.   The middle mountain, Mt. Hayachine, also forms a part of another group known as the Three Southern Mountains including Mt. Iwate and Mt. Himegami. As the most outstanding and prominent of the mountains, Mt. Hayachine has been an object of worship for thousands of years. Fukuda Kyuya included Mt. Hayachine on his list of 100 Famous Mountains of Japan.

If you visit Tono you will find that there are elements exactly as in the book.  Story number 98 tells of large rocks by the side of the road with the words “mountain kami,” “kami of the fields” and “kami of the village entrance” carved in them. These can still be seen today.  The many kami of Tono are even now celebrated, including amongst their number the honored dead, important pilgrimages, and even a “kami of wives.”   At the shrine of the kami of wives you can see people praying for good fortune in marriage, or for the blessing of a child, or even those mothers who have lost a child praying for its soul.

All of these stone monuments to spirits and ancestors are surrounded on every side by a rich abundance of natural beauty.  The area brews a peculiar feeling of mystery and magic.  It is no wonder that when night comes and the darkness falls, the children of Tono gather eagerly around the hearth to hear the stories that have been passed down through the ages…

It is these stories, passed down through the ages, which have been collected and bound as “Tono Monogatari.”    What you won’t find here are tales commonly told to children, no classic morality stories of “The Boy from a Certain Village Who Went in Search of Adventure.”  Instead, what you will find are raw stories that sprang from real people.  There are stories of strange circumstances and suspicious encounters (some even filled with blood and gore).  The storyteller who filled children’s head with these stories as night fell also bound them together as a people, providing a collective narrative of society to be shared with each successive generation of children.

However, there are only about twenty-five left of these storytellers.  And while about six of these can be found in a proper performance, the rest are probably found at the train stations, serving as tour guides to visitors.  They ask no fee, but are just there to share their body of lore when the occasion calls, at anytime to anyone.

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