USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’
Folk Beliefs

Don’t Place Your Head Pointing North When You Sleep

Main piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.

Informant: One thing I always do is like I never place, like when I’m sleeping, whenever I move into a new room, and I never sleep on the side where my head is facing north. Like my head is pointing north. Like if I sleep this way, that part can never be north. Like any other direction but north.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Informant: North is just really bad direction for us. Ummm, I think it’s cuz it symbolize coldness, coldness or like winter, or just like, I think ghost as well. Just like all the bed thing situated at north. It just like a bad connotation. South is like, sunny, warm, you know, but north is like cold. So if you play with color, north is like white, grey, blue, darkness. Or south is like, you know, red, orange, yellow, you know what I mean? So like it’s not like such a big deal but I never point north when I am sleeping. So I always check direction when I move to new apartment.

Interviewer: If you sleep with head pointing north, what will happen?

Informant: It just like bad dreams, you won’t sleep well.

Background:

My informant was born in Osaka, Japan. Both of her parents are very Japanese. So, although she immediately moved to Hong Kong after she was born, she learned Japanese and Japanese culture from her parents. She learns this folk piece from her mom. Whenever they move to a new house or place bed in a room, her mom will always check the direction and make sure the bed does not point north. Growing up with this believe, my informant also practices it, and never sleeps with her head pointing north.

Context:

She is a good friend of mine since we both lived in Osaka for a while. This piece was collected as we had lunch at the USC village. I invited her to talk about her culture and we were sharing thoughts while waiting for the food. The conversation was conducted under a relaxing environment and we both feel pretty comfortable sharing our childhood experience.

Thoughts:

I feel in Asian countries, people are really aware of the directions, especially when they buy houses. For example, in China, people like their houses or rooms face south because of more sunshine time. And they say the room temperature in a room that faces south tend to be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer compares to other rooms. There is also a price difference in the apartment that faces south and others. If the apartment faces south, it will be more popular and sell at a higher price. However, even selling with a higher price tag, the ones that face south are usually the first batch to be sold out. After I come to America, I realize that people do not put such value on direction, which is one of the big differences I discovered between east culture and west culture.

 

Festival
Game
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Tug-of-War

Text:  KT: We have a giant tug-of-war, like literally a million people pulling at a single rope at a time. It happens every year, just for fun.

AT: To symbolize what, were you celebrating something?

KT: No idea, maybe we were. But every year there is a rope that is about 3 meters in diameter, and there are offsets of ropes that pull out. And it’s literally a million people, and they shut down the biggest freeway on the island and they see which side wins. And you can just pick whatever side you want. There’s people climbing on the ropes and shouting, it just gets really crazy.

AT: Does someone usually win?

KT: Oh yeah, every time. And there’s usually like three deaths every year. They just don’t give a shit. Five-year-old me was terrified, it’s very dangerous.

Context: KT was born in Okinawa, Japan and lived there with his Japanese mother and British father for the first nine years of his life. Though memories of his time in Japan are fading as KT ages, he still remembers specific things about life in Japan that were ingrained on his young mind during his early years. The folklore above was shared over lunch one afternoon during which I asked KT if he thought he had any folklore he could share with me from Japan. Most of the material he remembers is because he either got in trouble for going against the superstition or his involvement in the practice scared him. In this case, the practice scared him. 

Interpretation: KT doesn’t remember the specifics of this festival due to his young age during the time of his participation. He remembers the practices of it, not the festival’s purpose, which is understandable for a child. KT did a good job of providing a primary account of the methodology that goes along with fighting over the largest ropes in the world. Though he thought the people of Okinawa were participating in this large-scale game just for fun, the festival has actually been around for hundreds of years. Tugs-of-war were once held throughout the island to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and to pray for rain. Everyone in the community took part in these rituals symbolizing Okinawa’s spirit of yuimaaru (cooperation). It can be assumed that the festival isn’t as important to the harvest as it used to be, but it still exists as a symbol of Okinawan community.

 

Life cycle
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Peach Boy in Hawaii

Main Piece

Informant: “A story that I heard a lot growing up was about this boy who was born from a peach. They called him Momotarō. He was considered a blessing to this older couple, who had not been able to have kids, but had always acted humble and hardworking. They got the child as if they were being rewarded, and it’s explained that the Gods sent him to be their son.”

Collector: “That reminds me of a lot of stories, especially religious ones, too.”

Informant: “Yeah, that premise isn’t the most unique, but the peach makes it memorable. He grows up and then decides to leave and go fight some Oni, which are a type of demon. He has some animals that help him on the way, and I think one of them is a duck….Yeah. There are a dog, a monkey, and a duck. They stop the demons and then get to take their treasure.”

Collector: “Who told you this story?”

Informant: “My mom would tell me it, but I think most people in Hawaii know it. It’s Japanese, but there are books and a lot of stuff for kids based on it.”

Analysis

The story of Momotarō seems very easy to compare to a lot of other stories in Western culture, be it Superman or Moses. The popularity of it seems easy to comprehend, given the good values and morals that it is supposed to set forward for young children. The fact that the informant learned this story growing up in Hawaii exhibits how strongly connected those two geographical places are, and how the culture of Japan affects the state to this very day. It fascinated me that the  work generally is told the same in Hawaii, and that not many oicotypes were known to the informant. It can be assumed that the printed version of this book that popularized in the 1970s for the Bank of Hawaii’s 75th anniversary played a large part in the spread of this story in the same variation. The authored Momotaro: Peach Boy declares itself  an “Island Heritage book” that promotes its impact on Hawaiian culture.

Folk Beliefs
Tales /märchen

The Peach Boy: A Japanese Tale

The following is a conversation with SS that details her interpretation of the popular, Japanese tale about the Peach Boy.

 

SS: There’s an old couple who wanted a boy and then the grandmother goes to wash clothes in the river area, and then she sees this gigantic peach coming down, and she thinks ‘Oh, great! I’ll this this home with me so we can have this for dinner!’ And when they cut open the peach, there’s a little baby in it. He grows up to become this super-power, amazing boy, and eventually goes and destroys these bad demons that were living on a nearby island and were coming and attacking the farmers or the people in the community.

 

EK: How did you learn this tale? What is your relation to it?

 

SS: I tend to focus on tales because it’s just what I teach, but there’s a lot about an old couple wanting a child, and then getting a superhuman child. It’s a pattern, but one really famous one is this story. So this is a story that everyone hears if you grow up in Japan, a story that, I think there’s probably some more sophisticated narrative originally from the Medieval period, that’s probably shared by the warrior community, and then there’s a repackaging of it into this cute little story and that’s just been passed down. So yeah, if you look at Japanese folklore collections, it’s like one of the first stories that will be there.

 

My Interpretation:

It seems that this is a fairly popular tale that many Japanese children learn when they are young. Like fairytales we learn in the U.S., such as Snow White or Pinocchio, it appears that the Peach Boy tale is the equivalent in Japanese culture. As Japanese children grow up, this is a tale that they take with them that they most likely will tell their children and will be passed on for generations.

Legends

The Dojo Temple (Dojoji): A Japanese Legend

The following is a conversation with SS that details her interpretation of the Japanese legend about the Dojo Temple (Dojoji in Japanese).

 

SS: The story is about the Dojo temple; the title comes from a temple that forbid women from entering. Women were considered to pollute the sacred religious space. There’s a story that surrounds this temple where at a nearby, I think it was an inn, a woman was running the inn, you know, like, a little house that she was letting people stay at and she’s running it, a beautiful monk comes, and they fall in love, or maybe not exactly in love, because she seems to be really interested in him and he promises her that he will come back after he goes to this religious pilgrimage to Dojoji, this temple. Well, it turns out that he was just using that as an excuse because he got scared of her, so he goes away. But the woman gets really angry when she finds this out and turns into a serpent and then chases the guy until he gets to the temple and hides in this, kind of like, bell, and the serpent coils around the bell and burns him to death. So, there’s a lot of variations of the story but this is like the main part. So, you can see the story can be very dramatic and the Japanese perform it a lot, so you can see it in Kabuki theater, Noh theater, puppet theater, etc., etc.

 

EK: Would you say this is a legend or more of just a story?

 

SS: Well, it’s kind of hard to say. It’s been retold a lot in narrative form, performance, and so on, it’s all over the place, it’s been around from medieval to early modern Japan, which is from like eleventh century to 1868. It first appears in a religious text, so it could be a story that was made up to alert men of the danger of women, that they kind of pollute the sacred space. But then people became fascinated in the serpent itself. So, like in artworks, they’re not at all interested in the moral of the story that was important for probably the religious community very early on, but [instead] in the serpent that keeps on becoming this dramatic highlight.

 

EK: Where did you first hear this?

 

SS: I mean it’s one of those works that you read in school, like, one of those works that keeps coming up when you’re teaching pre-modern literature. It’s just all over the place. It’s actually associated with a specific region, like there’s and actual temple and a space, so I think, there are lots of different ways to access or come in contact with it. I grew up in Japan too, so I also know the story pretty well.

 

My Interpretation:

I believe the story that SS is a legend, in that it has questions of factuality but occurs in the real world. It seems that there are several variations of this story out there as well. SS noted that its origins are in religious texts and it’s also told by word-of-mouth, as well as performed in many different Japanese theaters, all of which I’m sure have their own interpretations or performances of the story. It seems that back when the story was first thought up, women were not thought of very highly of, as the legend presents the woman as pollution to sacred spaced, as well as a serpent creature. A serpent symbolic of being sneaky and deceitful, like the snake in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

I suppose that this could have been fable at the time for men to hear in order for them to watch out for women who would “cause” them cheat on their wives or manipulate them into doing bad things. Overall, I think it’s an easy legend to repeat, so although there is most likely lots of variation to the story, the way it flows has helped the main plot remain similar over thousands of years.

Legends
Myths
Tales /märchen

The Legend of the Fox in Japanese Culture

The following is a conversation with SS that details her interpretation of the legend of the fox in Japanese culture.

 

SS: So, in Japan the fox is called ‘Kitsune,’ and in a lot of stories and literature and folklore, the fox is, like, a bad omen. In a lot of narratives, if characters are traveling and come across a fox, they’ll turn back or go a different direction. They’re also known to shapeshifters, so they can turn into humans. There’s actually one story about these two men who are travelling, and one is always suspicious of the people they come across on the road, thinking that they’re all foxes out to get them, that they, like, are just foxes transformed into humans. So, it’s almost like a supernatural creature, especially in the Early-Modern period of Japan.

 

EK: What do you make of this legend of the fox, then, as you grew up in Japan?

 

SS: Foxes were one of those things that were worshipped on everyday level, not really in religion, but more of just like a folk practice, to bring things like successful business and so on. You can see little local shrines or like little houses with tiny fox figures in them, so I think it’s all over the place, this belief in foxes. I think it reflects the, kind of, way that foxes can be sneaky, you know like ‘sly as a fox,’ sort of thing.

 

My Interpretation:

In my experience with literature and different cultures, foxes seem to be a mischievous character, especially in Japanese folklore. They can either be a friend or foe, depending on how you treat them/the circumstances that you run into them. They tend to be trickster characters. Like SS said, we even have the saying “sly as a fox.” How the Japanese look at the fox during travel reminds me of how the Irish look at black cats as a bad omen before travel.

I’ve never heard of the fox being able to shapeshift into human form nor being worshipped like they are in Japan, though. It seems like Japanese culture sees a power in the fox that other cultures don’t. They view the creature as something that could either give them a gift of wisdom or trick them in some way, therefore they pay their respects to the animal through worship so as to make sure they aren’t tricked.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative

Blue Ghosts in Okinawa, Japan

AM: So, it was- like the first month or two when i moved to Japan and I was hanging outside at like…2am like at night in a park. Um, the military base we was staying on was built like near like Japanese Shrines and whatnot and they said that you know the shrines are haunted and there’s a lotta “superstitions” with those. So while we’re out hanging, there was like oh look- you can see a bluf- blue figure on a hill like on top of the shrine and when I looked over you- I saw like a bluish like glow from the hills where the shrine was and they said that this island is one of the most haunted places and that there’s a lot of spirits around.

VG: Woah. What island was it?

AM: Okinawa.

VG: Woah-

AM: And that is- it is very common to see those there… so we was like “yeah, let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

Background:

Location of Story – Okinawa, Japan

Location of Performance – Dormitory room, Los Angeles, CA, night

 

Context: This performance took place in a group setting – about 2-3 people – in a college dormitory room. This performance was prompted by the call for stories about beliefs, ghosts, or superstitions as examples of folklore. This story came after a few others. The one prior was specifically about a high school grade being cursed.

 

Analysis: One point of interest in this performance is the effectiveness of the subtlety of the description of the “spirits.” The only physical description the audience receives about these supernatural beings is that they humanoid in figure and blue. The color is particularly notable because, at least in my experience, I have always viewed the ghosts in ghost stories as being neutral toned or white. Therefore, this description was able to create a whole new image for me and draw me deeper into this performance. It also reinforces the foreignness AM might feel since he had just moved to Japan: not only is the location different but also all of the local lore. One might even go so far as to say that this story was presented with a negative conation despite having no description of graphic hauntings or threats. 

Childhood
Customs
Game

Kagome – Japanese Children’s Game

NC: There’s a Japanese game that children play called kagome, um…so it’s-it’s really similar to ring around a rosey in that…um…it was based on…experiments that people were doing, so Ring around the rosie is about um the disease the bubonic plague but um uh kagome is about experiments that people were doing um on the Japanese and they- they basically took children and they mutilated them I think that’s what it is. And um they would haunt people in the building like they would haunt the doctors and they would say um “kagome, kagome” and some other uh words and they would basically play that game in a circle and um that’s just like the ghost story behind that game.

 

Background:

Location of Story – Japan

Location of Performance – Dormitory room, Los Angeles, CA, night

 

Context: This performance took place in a group setting – about 2-3 people – in a college dormitory room. This performance was prompted by the call for stories about beliefs, ghosts, or superstitions as examples of folklore via a group message. NC approached me in person in response to the text and this is the second of two stories she presented. The first was about a monster who took the form of a beautiful, floating female head that had been decapitated and haunts a building. It was apparent that NC had just recently discovered this game because she was looking at her computer the whole time. 

 

Analysis: I think the comparison to “Ring Around the Rosey” is really effective here because it reinforces the idea that games or rhythm games are often counter-hegemonic and can critique a system under the guise of play. It is an indirect form of protest and also a way to be able to process the trauma of an experience such as this with humor and distance from the actual reality. On a different note, I really wished I would have NC where she discovered this game because I can understand stumbling upon a ghost story but not a traditional Japanese child’s game; I want to know where these are being documented online since she had her computer. 

 

Annotation: Upon further research, I discovered that the folk song element to this performance is actually much more essential to the folk game in other collected versions. For example, there is a documentation of this game in Highlights magazine for kids will additional information about how to perform the song. This version documents the chant as, “Can you guess? Can you guess? Who is right behind you? Could it be, possibly…” and then the participants would recite their names until “it says stop.” I could not identify what the “it” of this game is, but what is interesting to note here is that the word kogome is missing from this particular chant. This may very well because it is a translation, but for me, it demonstrates a lack of that historical context. The meaning is even more deeply hidden in the practice of the game. Additionally, Highlights includes the physical rules of the game, which involve being in a circle and blindfolded. See citation below for a PDF of the Highlights article.

 

Citation: Yasuda, Anita. “Kagome Kagome.” Highlights for Children, vol. 65, no. 10, 10, 2010, pp. 12. ProQuest, http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy1.usc.edu/docview/756206958?accountid=14749.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Crab and the Monkey

Informant: I got one. It’s a folktale from when I was younger.

 

Interviewer: Is it like, a Brazilian or a Japanese tale?

 

Informant: It’s Japanese… I don’t remember who told me the tale, it’s very common knowledge in Japan. It might’ve been in daycare. Does it matter?

 

Interviewer: Not really. What is it about?

 

Informant: Ok, so this is about a monkey and a crab. The crab has an onigiri and the monkey has a persimmon seed… onigiri is like, a rice ball. The monkey wants the crab’s onigiri, so he tells the crab to trade it for his persimmon seed. The crab doesn’t want to at first, but the monkey says that the seed is worth more, since if he plants it, it will grow into a persimmon tree. So they trade and then the crab goes back home and plants the seed… and the crab threatens the **** out of the seed by telling it that if it… if it doesn’t grow fruits it’s gonna cut it up with its pincers.

 

Interviewer: That’s not very nice (laughs).

 

Informant: No, but then the seed grows into a tall tree and gives fruits, so I guess it worked. Anyways, the monkey then goes to the crab’s house and climbs the tree and starts eating the fruit. The crab comes out and asks the monkey to pass him some fruit, but the monkey throws the unripe stinky fruit at ‘em and it ******* kills him, and the shock makes the crab give birth…

 

Interviewer: …Is that it?

 

Informant: No… It’s like halfway done, I’m trying to remember the rest… Ok so the kid crab is pissed that the monkey killed the mom crab, and wants revenge on the monkey. So he goes out and makes friends with like, other bullied guys like the chestnut, the bee… the rock mortar… thing, and cow poop. Then they break and enter the monkey’s house and hide… The chestnut hides in the hearth, the bee hides in a water pail, the mortar hides on the roof, and the cow poop hides on the floor, close to the entrance.

 

Interviewer: Is this like, a real folktale?

 

Informant: I swear, I can’t make this **** up.

 

Interviewer: Ok, ok. What happens next?

 

Informant: Ok so later, the monkey comes home and decides to sit by the fire. The chestnut tackles him and sets the monkey on fire. Monkey is inflicted with burn, so he runs to the water pail to put it out, but the bee comes out and stings the **** out of him, so the monkey tries to run out of the house and slips on the cow poop, and then the mortar jumps off the roof and onto the monkey and it ******* kills him… the end.

 

Interviewer: What? That’s it? … What even is the moral of the story?

 

Bystander: I think it’s about not scamming people or you’ll die. But what happened to the kid crab, what did it do?

 

Informant: Baby crab didn’t do ****. But yeah, that’s it, monkey died because he killed crab.

 

Context

During one of my club’s meetings, I told the members about the collection project and the members started discussing about various folktales and other stories. This was amongst the ones that stood out.

 

Analysis

To be completely honest I was dumbfounded that such a weird story was told to children, but upon further investigation it turns out that, it is in fact, a popular Japanese folktale. From what I gather, it teaches children to not scam or betray people, because it’ll come back to you in some shape or form.

 

Different Versions and Literary Works

The folktale has many different versions, usually changing the baby crab’s allies or the way that the monkey is attacked in its home. In one version, the monkey gets his butt snipped bald by the crab, which explains why some monkeys have bare bums.

Versions of this folktale can be found in Andrew Lang’s The Crimson Fairy Book (http://www.online-literature.com/andrew_lang/crimson_fairy/30/)

 

Or Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4018/4018-h/4018-h.htm)

Folk Beliefs

Reincarnation

My informant is a twenty-three year old man who is half-Japanese, half-Mexican. He grew up more with Japanese culture, and was very eager to share the folklore he knew from this culture. The following is from when I interviewed him in the USC Village.

 

Peter: “My grandparents aren’t devout buddhists, but my grandparents would use reincarnation to get me to behave as a child. They would tell me that if I’m a good person– a kind person– I’ll get a good second life… But if I’m mean or treat people poorly, I’ll come back as a cockroach! [He chuckles at his own ephaptic shout of ‘cockroach’] Now that I think of it, my grandparents would also bring up karma in this way.”

 

Me: “Karma?”

 

Peter: “Yeah, like, you are rewarded when you do things for people. People often do things for you in return. Or if you do something good, something good will happen to so. Same for the bad.”

 

Me: “Has Karma or Reincarnation influenced your life in other ways, or has it affected your own philosophy?”

 

Peter: “Well, some of my professors gave me letters of recommendations for USC. So… I rewarded them with gifts to thank them for what they did. As far as karma goes, I think it sticks with me — whenever someone goes out of their way for me, I make sure to make up for it in the future. It really makes me appreciate and value the people who do good things for me.”

 

Analysis:

I think this is an example of a folk belief/superstition being passed down to a generation that has repurposed the belief to fit his modern surroundings. My informant is not buddhist, but he has found the beliefs of karma and reincarnation useful to shaping his own view of the world. He chooses to reward those to help him because he wants to make everything equal the same way karma is said to make things equal.

 

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