Tag Archives: Japanese

The Story of Izanami and Izanagi

Main piece: 

EG: So my dad’s from Japan, and there’s this story about how the island of Japan was made with the gods izanagi and izanami, and there was something about how izanagi was stirring the sea to create the island of Japan. And then there was something about izanami hiding a cave, so the sun wouldn’t come up because he’s related to the sun or something. And then she would come out of that cave when she heard music, and that’s why they have Taiko drumming.

Interviewer: And how does that relate to your childhood?

EG: Uh as a kid my family went to Japan every summer so it can relate that way. And since we were in the countryside, or like suburbs, or like near the mountains, there’s a lot of shinto shrines and stuff and a lot of the Japanese kids shows had elements of Japanese folklore like kappa and stuff. 

Context:

My informant, EG, grew up in the US and visited her dad in Japan every summer. Being surrounded by Japanese suburban culture there was a very special experience to her, which is why she remembers the story––especially when Japan in western media is generally only depictions and stories about the very urbanized areas. EG was also the president of the Taiko club at USC, which would explain why she remembered the bit about Taiko drumming. This story was collected over a phone call about her time in Japan.

Thoughts:

Upon doing further research to fill in the gaps of the story, it turns out that Izanagi and Izanami were two, occasionally interpreted as a romantic couple, who created everything as we know it. They created more than just the ocean and Taiko. I think that this story is really interesting because the world springs forth from their bodies; like Izanagi’s eyes became the sun and moon deities, for example. This happens in a lot of other culture’s folklore. A famous example would be the Greek version of the Earth, Gaia, and how the parts of her body create the world. I think it’s interesting that creation stories often have this thread of the world being a singular body.

(For another version of the story of Izanami and Izanagi, please see this link:  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Izanagi, Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Waving/Beckoning Cat

R: Well, we gave him a cat for luck.
C: Why? And why is it waving
R: I’ve actually heard two stories for that. One, was a long time ago, there was an emperor who was a good man. He would always greet everyone he saw as he went about his walks. One day, he saw a cat waving at him and so he stopped to wave back. Then, right in front of him, whoooosh, a horse galloped by and would have hit him!
The other one I’ve heard is that the cat is actually beckoning you. So there was an emperor who was sitting under a tree and enjoying his day when he saw a cat beckoning him to come. So he did and then right after he was out from under the tree, lightning struck it and would have killed him had he not gone to the cat.
So now when someone is starting a new business, you give them a waving cat.
Context
The informant gave their brother-in-law a waving cat when he opened a new business and shared that story to those present when prompted to by his children. To the informant, it was a way of honoring their brother-in-law’s culture and sharing stories (the informant enjoys storytelling) that they had heard from their parents when growing up.
My Thoughts
I have heard several versions of this story besides the two shared here and have seen many different waving cats in Japanese stores. This shows the cultural desire to be able to influence things such as luck and to honor the things and people that bring good fortune: a good turn for a good turn. In another version of the story [see link below] the samurai is the one saved by the cat and he then goes on to give much wealth to the temple that the cat belonged to and honor the cat upon its death.
https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/maneki-neko-temple-tokyo/index.html

Hanako-san

Context: The following is an account from the informant, my younger sister. She told me this after I asked if she had heard any interesting stories lately, as many happen to pop up at schools. When I asked for more of the conversation or more detail, she said her memory was fuzzy and she was unable to recall.

Background: The informant was relating to me something interesting she had heard from her Japanese friend in high school recently. She had never heard of such a story before, so she thought it was interesting.

Main piece: Once, I mentioned to my friend that I always changed my clothes in the third bathroom stall. She said, “Oh, did you know that in the third stall of every girls bathroom is a Japanese ghost?” 

Analysis: After doing some research, the friend appears to be referring to the Japanese urban legend of Hanako-san, the spirit of a young girl who haunts school bathrooms. In order to summon the ghost, individuals are required to go to the girls’ bathroom, usually on the third floor, and knock on the door of the third stall, asking for her presence.

I think it is interesting to hear about such a tale, which is popular in Japan, in the United States, where it is relatively unknown. Also, this ritual of calling upon a ghost in the bathroom bears stark similarities to the commonly known Bloody Mary ritual. It’s also interesting to note the frequent occurrence of female ghosts or spirits haunting school bathrooms, which would normally be a rather odd place to haunt, since people don’t spend too much time in the bathroom, such as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter series.

The Bamboo Cutter

Context:

The informant–HO– is a third generation Japanese American 18 year old woman born in California who attended a weekly Japanese language school from age 7 to age 9. The tale was told to her by her grandmother (born in Japan) in English. I, the interviewer, am labeled as DJ.

Piece:

HO: So once upon a time, there was this little old man. He and his wife never had kids. So they were like very sad old people. And his job was to just like go out and cut bamboo all day, and then, like, sell it. So then one day he was like walking through the bamboo forest and was like, “Oh my God. Why does that bamboo look like the moon is shining directly on it?” Because it was. So he was like, “I’m gonna cut that bamboo down. It’s, like, I feel like it’s a sign.” And once the bamboo, like, falls down, he sees that, like where he cut it, there’s, like, a little tiny person like that big. Maybe, like, a few inches tall. And it’s just like a little lady. And she’s just, like, in there. And he’s like, whoa. You must have been sent from the gods cause you’re like a little child. And we never had kids. And then he takes it home to his wife. She’s like, “That’s a tiny kid.”

DJ: Wait, is it a kid or is it a woman?

HO: It’s like a tiny little girl, I would think. And then they’re like, “OK, well, we’re taking her in as our own.” And then- But then they don’t let anyone see her, obviously, because she’s, like, definitely smaller than the average baby. So several months later, she’s like the size of like a normal little girl, like a teen girl. Not 100 percent sure. And then they, like, have like a party where they, like, reveal her to the world. And everyone’s like, “Whoa. She’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.” And they’re like, “Yeah, we know.” And then, like, news spreads fast because Japan is, like, tiny. So then everybody, like every man on earth is like, “Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah!” They like travel to their little bamboo house and they’re like, “What’s up? Can I marry your daughter?” And the dad’s like, “No,” he’s like, “I’m not even, like, technically her real dad. So that’s why I’m telling you no.”

DJ: Oh, he tell people that he’s not her real dad?

HO: Yeah. Which is, like, really suspicious. That sounds like you stole her. Whatever. And then… And then he talks to his daughter in is like, “So like what do we do about all these suitors?” And she’s like, “I’ll pick one if they can do all these crazy tasks. And I don’t remember what any of the tasks are. So that’s my bad. But. Then, obviously, none of the men can do any of them. So she’s like, “OK, you’re all, like, not going to marry me. Because you’re the worst.” And then, like, the emperor, like, comes to see her and he’s like, “Well, what about me?” And she’s like, “No.” And he’s like, really disturbed by it because he’s like,”How could she say no to me, the emperor?” So then she’s just, like, lonely all the time and the dad’s like, “Well, it’s kind of your fault. And then she’s like, “Yeah, I know, but like the moon was just talking to me, and it told me that, like, my moon family is, like, coming back for me. The dad’s like, “No. No.” So then he calls up the emperor and is like, “Hey, we need to, like, we need to literally get all your guards and we’re blocking our house off because that would work against moon people” And so they like, guard the house. And the daughters like, “This is stupid, like. We’re otherworldly.” And then the moon people just, like, descend on a cloud, like, they have like a chariot on a cloud. They just like come down and are like, “Get in the chariot.” And she’s like, “All right.”And then she gets in the chariot. And she’s like, “Just think of me when you look at the moon.” And the dad’s like, “OK.” And then she just, like, floats away. And that’s the end.

Analysis:

This tale carries on a theme in Japanese folk tales of supernatural children hatching from plants discovered in the wild and taken in by an elderly couple. The tale is also a pre-science fiction narrative features extraterrestrial beings from another planet visiting Earth.

For a similar tale in which a child is discovered in a giant peach rather than a bamboo stock, see Momotarō (Peach Boy)

Momotarō (Peach Boy)

Context:

The informant–HO– is an third generation Japanese American 18 year old woman born in California who attended a weekly Japanese language school from age 7 to age 9. The tale was told to her by one of her teachers in English. 

Piece:

The one I know the most is about the little boy who hatches from the peach. It’s like an egg. I don’t know where it [referring to the the story] comes from. It’s just like a fairy tale. It’s an Asian fairy tale. It’s Japanese. OK here’s the story. I think it’s just called Peach Boy, I guess, in English. 

There’s like this old lady, and she’s going to do her laundry in like the nearby river ‘cause that’s like what they did then, I guess. I don’t know. And then she sees like this giant peach floating by and she’s like “Whoah…that’s a big peach. I’m gonna take it back to my husband, and we’re just gonna like eat this huge peach. Because that’s crazy how big it is. So like the husband sees it and is like, “Whoah! That’s a huge peach!” And she’s like, “I know right!” And he’s like, “Where’d you buy it?” And she’s like, “I literally just found it floating in the river.” Would you eat a peach that was floating in the river? So {the husband} gets a big knife and is like, “I’m gonna cut this sucker open.” And then when he is like about to do it, he hears a voice that’s like, “Stop!” And then he’s like, “Whoah!” And so he stops. And then, it just like (She then cups her hands and mimics the sound of a cracking noise while separating her cupped hands to represent the peach opening like an egg) And there’s a boy inside! And his age? I’m not sure. He’s just like little. Just young. I would say like baby to toddler range. Uhm…yeah.. Okay and then… What’s next? 

Then he’s like the talk of the town. And..uh..so they just adopt him as their own. Sort of like Hercules when, like, those two “normies”, like find him and raise him and he’s like [She laughs] He’s like… He’s kinda, like, better than all the other kids. He’s just like- in literally every other aspect, and the other kids are like, “Oh my god he’s the best!” And the parents are like, “Yeah we know.” But nobody knows why except for them, and they know it’s, like, ‘cause he hatched from inside of a giant peach. Is this what James and the Giant Peach is about? I’ve actually never seen it. It makes you think…

Okay, and then he’s fifteen. He’s like, “What up, fake Dad that’s like my adopted dad? Um, here’s a proposition: “What if I like go to this island full of demons,” which are just like those little red people. There’s, like, an island full of demons and they, like- They basically have taken over this, like, island that people used to live on, and they’re like going crazy. He’s like, “I wanna go there, and, like, free all the people.” And his dad is like, “Since you’re, like, crazy better than all the other children, why should I stop you? You can do anything.” 

So then he, like, goes and starts his little journey. And then he’s, like, walking along, and he comes across this wild dog. And the dog is like, [She mimics a dog growling] “What are you doing? Why are you walking here?” And the little kid is like, “Oh my god do you know who I am? Like, I’m Peach Boy!” And the dog’s like, “Oh my god. So sorry that I even questioned why you were walking here. Like, I’m super embarrassed. Could you let such a rude person on your journey? Like, I can’t believe how rude I just was.” Direct translation. [She said this sarcastically.] And he’s like, “Sure! Let’s go!” And, like, how is that dog gonna kill demons? I don’t know but, whatever. And they’re like walking along some more, and then they like- This monkey, like swoops down and is like, “Hey! Heard you guys are gonna go fight those demons. Can I be in on it?” And the dog’s like, “You’re a monkey. That’s dumb.” But the little boy is like, “Yeah!” So then, there’s like- [She hums a bouncy tune] Walking along some more. And then they, like- There’s a bird flying by, and the dog barks at the bird and is like… I don’t know. He just doesn’t like birds, but the boy is like, “Don’t be rude to the bird. That’s rude.” And then um… And then he’s like, “Hey, bird, we’re gonna go kill some demons. Do you wanna come?” And the bird’s like, “Yeah!” And then, they all go, but then the boy’s like, “But if you’re gonna join our little clan, all you crazy animals have to promise that you won’t be mean to each other because that’s rude.” They have a bad trek record, obviously. 

So then, they’re like- Okay, so then, they go to- They finally reach the shore. Like Japan’s an island. How long can it take you to reach the shore? Then, they find a little boat. How? I don’t know, but they get on a little boat, and they sail across the ocean to the demon island.. um.. And then they get off the boat. 

Oh wait, back up. When they’re sailing there, um, the peach boy is like, “Bird go ahead, and tell all the demons that we’re going to seriously kill all of them.” Which, like, wouldn’t you want it to be a surprise attack? But like, whatever… And the bird’s like, “Alright.” And so he flies over and is like, “Whats up? You’ll never believe who’s coming. It’s the peach boy. And then um..Okay, so then, the demons are like, “Okay. We’re super ready.” They’re not. 

So like, once the boat gets there the monkey, the dog, and the peach boy go absolutely bonkers on these demons. They kill all of them until there is one left, and it’s, like, the leader demon. And Peach Boy is like gonna kill him, and he’s like, “Oh my god! What if I just gave you all my gold and set everybody free, and, like, we were totally good.” And Peach Boy was like, “Yes. I’m into that.” And then, so he, like showed him where all the gold was and set free all of the people he was holding who were suffering and et cetera. And then he brings home all the gold to the old people that raised him, and then they’re like super rich until they die. And thats the end.

Analysis:

This tale, told to entertain children, teaches audiences the dichotomy between good (the hero, Peach Boy) and evil (the demons) and can triumph evil through superior physical strength. 

For further analysis of the tale and its function of spreading Japanese nationalism, see 

Antoni, Klaus. “Momotarō (The Peach Boy) and the Spirit of Japan: Concerning the Function of a Fairy Tale in Japanese Nationalism of the Early Shōwa Age.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, 1991, pp. 155–188. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1178189. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020.

The Story of Momotaro–A Japanese Tale

Main Piece: This is a Japanese tale my friend told me about.


Long ago an elderly couple who lived in the mountains were doing their laundry as usual, and the grandmother saw a huge peach floating in the river, the grandmother took the peach home and cut it to eat it. But a baby boy came out from the peach. They named the baby boy Momotaro (momo= peach Taro= a very classic name for boys).

The boy grew so fast and very strong. One day. Momotaro said to the elderly couple he will go to the devils’ island to defeat the devils. The elderly couple gave Momotaro dumplings (きびだんご)so he could eat it on the trip.

On the way to the island, he met a dog and a monkey. Momotaro gave them きびだんご and they joined him to the island. Later on, he met a pheasant , also gave it a きびだんご and it also joined the party. The crew grew (like avengers).

They all successfully arrived at the devil’s island and cooperated with animals to get rid of the devils. He went back to his house and lived with the grandpa and grandma happily ever after.

Background:

My informant is a 25-year-old Japanese woman who grew up mostly in Hong Kong and Korea. She currently works in Japan. AI remembers hearing about this story on TV program about Japanese folktales. She isn’t sure if they tell this story in Japanese schools because she didn’t attend school in Japan. She says the story doesn’t mean much to her and it’s a popular tale in Japan. AI is also not sure of the meaning, but she thinks it has to do with working together to fight your devils.

Thoughts:

I don’t know any Japanese tales, but I have always been interested in Japanese culture and language. I think this story about a boy working with other animals to defeat the devil is an important message, if this is something that is told to children in Japanese schools. It tells them that they shouldn’t fight with their friends and that if they ever have problems, they should work together to figure it out. I think the message is common in other cultures as well.

The Story of Princess Kaguya–A Japanese Tale

Main Piece

This is a Japanese tale my friend, identified as AI, told me about. I am identified as IC.

AI: There was an old bamboo cutter. One day, when he was gathering bamboo in the mountains, he came across a bamboo stalk that was shining very brightly. Wondering what it was, the old man cut the bamboo, and found a cute little girl inside. He thought it was a gift from the gods and took the little girl home. He showed the girl to his wife and she instantly fell in love with her. They named her Princess Kaguya and raised her with tender loving care. Kaguya grew up to become a very beautiful lady.

However, rumors about Princess Kaguya’s beauty spread throughout the country, and soon, five great young men came to ask her for her hand in marriage. Princess Kaguya just wanted to live a quiet life, so she came up with an idea. She said, “I will marry the one who can find what I want.”

Things she asked for were very difficult to find: a stone pot of Buddha, a cowry shell from the nest of a swallow, leather clothes made from the skins of the legendary mice, a branch from a jewel tree, and the five-colored jewels from the dragon neck. No man could find these things, and they all gave up.

As the day of the full moon approached, Princess Kaguya started crying as she looked at the moon.

“Why are you crying?” asked the old man and woman. “I am not of this land. I am from the moon. Escorts from the moon will come and take me back on the night of the full moon in August. I must return where I am from,” said Princess Kaguya. She told the old man and woman that she would miss them very much.

The old man and woman decided to protect Princess Kaguya from the moon escorts by placing warriors around the house. However, the warriors couldn’t move when they saw the escorts from the moon There was a blinding light and the warriors could not drive them away. Princess Kaguya thanked the old couple for their care and returned to the moon.

IC: What do you think this story means?

AI: I’m not sure but I think it’s more magical and beautiful compared to Momotaro. This story is also more popular to girls.

IC: Why is that?

AI: I’m not really sure but bamboos are always close to temples, which are beautiful places in Japan and that a beautiful girl was born from the bamboo is magical. Also, the story is so old but Princess Kaguya wants to find love of her own, not marriage that is a kind of arranged marriage. I think it shows that people will always look for love, even traditionally and now.

Background:

My informant is a 25-year-old Japanese woman who grew up mostly in Hong Kong and Korea. She currently works in Japan. She remembers hearing about this story when she was in Hong Kong and went to a Japanese cram school and the teachers told her this was crucial story she had to know as a Japanese.

Thoughts:

I think this story talks about how you must always return to where you belong, which can be interpreted as you shouldn’t try to be someone you’re not. Kaguya eventually returns to the moon because that is where she belongs. Even if she wanted to stay, she couldn’t. Although in real life, there aren’t celestial beings from the moon, I think it can be applied to friendships and peer pressure. Growing up, children are often influenced by the opinions of their peers and it can drastically impact their future path. The wrong group of friends will send them down the wrong path. With the right group of friends, you will be on the good path and become someone who will have their own opinions and understand when you should stand up for your own beliefs.

夏が終わった

Main piece:

Original text: 夏が終わった

Translated text: The summer ends.

The informant told me that in Japanese, words sometimes have more meanings than they seem to have. For example, “summer” is not only a season. It represented the best time of love. “Summer” is when you are fervently love someone but haven’t decided to tell him/her. It’s like the beautiful relationship between highschoolers: they are in love, but too young to say it out bravely. When “the summer ends”, it means someone decided to give up on a relationship, or a fruitless love.

More generally, 夏が終わった also means the best period of one’s time has ends. It’s like the end of teenage.

Background information:

The informant is a student from China studying abroad in Japan. She saw the hashtag 夏が終わった on twitter. People do not only post about season under it, but also use it to descrive something more emotional. She shared this with me through social media chat box.

Context:

I collected this piece through a casual interview with my informant in social media chat box.

Thought:

It’s a really beautiful to say something inside someone ends. I like how Eastern Asian culture tends to have more connotation in their language.

月が綺麗ですね

Main Piece: 月が綺麗ですね /The moon is very pretty (tonight).

The informant told me that it is too direct for Japanese people to say “I love you”. Japanese as a language is very obscure. In daily conversation, people are being extremely polite to each other. Therefore. directly saying “I love you” seems to be rude and abrupt. Instead of saying that out, they would say “the moon is very pretty tonight”. This is because there is a story about a Japanese famour writer, Soseki Natsume, translated “I love you” into 月が綺麗ですね. When people thinking about 月が綺麗ですね , they would think of “I love you”. It’s a connonative way of expressing love to someone.

Background information:

The informant is a student from China studying abroad in Japan. She heard this term and the story of Soseki Natsume before she went to Japan. In this coversation, she told me that the story might not be true. Because the story gets popular after Natsume’s death, no one know if he really translated “I love you” into something with the moon.

Context:

I collected this piece through a casual interview with my informant in social media chat box.

Thought:

This piece is well-known because of anime. Lots of Japanses anime and manga adapted this term into their story. I knew it from somewhere else before this interview as well. But still, it is a very romantic way to tell someone your love.

Korean belief on Japanese Spirits

Text:

Informant: The reason why Japan is such a hot spot for spirits and ghosts is because ghosts can’t cross water, and Japan is an island country. Korean people who travel to Japan, especially people who have a wider third eye, have to be very careful. They have to be very mindful of what kind of spirits they might accidentally carry back over the water. Spirits can’t cross water themselves, but they can cross on someone’s back or someone’s shoulder. I feel like it was made up to keep us from traveling to Japan ‘cause we’re supposed to hate each other.

Context:

I asked a group of friends to share any superstitions they were raised with. This was one of their replies. The informant is of Korean descent and was raised in both Korea and China.

Thoughts: The subtle xenophobia in this reminds me of the Mexican Pet story in that it teacher the listener to fear what comes from the other country.