Japanese fairy/folk tales are quite different from the fairytales that Americans are used to. Most western fairytales were gruesome in their original form from Germany, Scandinavia, etc. In "Cinderella," for example, the step-sisters had cut off part of their foot so that Cinderella's ball slipper would fit to trick the prince, but he found out about the trick when the blood dripped out of the shoe. In the original "Little Red Riding Hood" there were elements of cannibalism and sexuality, and Little Red and her mother/grandmother were eaten by a wolf with no hunter to save them at the end of the story. But despite these horrid origins, western fairytales still have happy endings for the princes and princesses, the good people. Cinderella, in the end, married her prince, Sleeping Beauty wakes up by a kiss from her prince and the spell is broken over the kingdom, and so forth. Several of the Japanese tales, on the other hand, were more subtle with their violence and focused more on the psychological rather than the physical and ended in sadness for the main characters. Most Japanese tales (like their western counterpart) have some sort of moral to their stories.
There are several stories where a man saves or meets an animal or spirit who comes back as a beautiful woman to marry the man (or live with the elderly couple) and lives under a rule of some sort, usually a type of privacy/secrecy, that the elderly couple or husband has to follow, but is always broken and the woman has to leave.
An example of the above is in the story Yuki Onna, or "Snow Woman," where a young man witnesses a mountain spirit take the life force of his elderly companion. The snow woman swears him to secrecy and if he doesn't keep the secret she would come and kill him. The young man leaves the mountain and doesn't tell anyone how his companion dies. A young woman soon comes and marries the young man. Years later, after the couple has had children, the man who is no longer quite young tells his wife the story of the snow woman saying that she?reminded him of the mountain spirit. His wife transforms into the mountain spirit and tells the man he has broken his promise but since they had children she would not kill him. She disappears in a swirl of snow leaving the man and children.
The obvious lesson of the "Snow Woman" story is to keep your promises. Many stories involving the spirit/animal woman have such a moral. Although Japan is a masculine culture (ruled by men), several of their stories have the woman in power. Of course, the woman is usually a spirit of some sort to give an excuse for her power in a male dominant society.
Another story that isn't quite a happy ending is about two old men who are neighbors. One of the old men was very mean spirited and it showed one day when a stray dog was sniffing around his property. The mean man threw rocks, and whatever else that was available, at the dog. The other old man was very lonely and so he adopted the dog and showed it kindness even though he was poor. The dog spoke and told the kind old man to go look inside his well. Inside the well the kind old man found buckets full of gold coins. The mean old man saw this and snuck to the well and pulled up the bucket and found manure that burst into his face. So angered by this the mean man killed the dog. The kind man grieved and buried the dog and soon a tree grew there. The tree spoke to the kind man and told him to cut open the tree. The kind old man obeyed and found more treasures inside the tree. The mean old man saw this and being greedy he went to the tree and chopped it open but instead of treasures manure and rocks rained down?on him. The moral of this tale is that you will be rewarded for kindness and perhaps there is a lesson on eavesdropping as well.
The traditional tricksters in Japan are the tanuki (raccoon-dog) and the fox. The raccoon is a fairly harmless trickster that plays tricks on farmers, stealing some food, but is generally friendly. The fox, however, could cause a bit more harm since it is cunning and sly.
I haven't heard many stories about wolves, but there are stories of them being the protector of villages and of them following a villager through the forest until the person was safely home. This is truly the opposite of the stories we grew up on in the western civilization where wolves are big and bad. In fact, even up to this day when the native wolves of Japan are extinct, some villages give offerings to the wolves. It used to be that when a wolf gave birth to pups the village would give congratulatory gifts to the wolf and supposedly the wolves would give gifts when a woman gave birth to a baby.
As you can see, Japanese folk/fairytales are quite different from the western fairytales we are used to. The characters we are familiar with are changed. The big, bad wolf we know is the protector of villagers and the "princesses" of the stories can lead melancholy lives. Many stories end with a sad turn of events and even a feeling of un-fulfillment. Perhaps this reflects the reality of life; you can't always have the happy ending or satisfaction. The stories themselves are full of subtle meanings while western stories are more obvious and full of action. My mother told me once that some other countries after WWII say that the Japanese can't be trusted because they do not show a lot of emotions. My mother says that here in America it is all about free speech and that you can do anything, but in Japan since long ago the Japanese people have to be conservative. Her theory is that since Japan was so isolated and a very small country, unlike America, there was nowhere to run to if you offended someone with careless words, which is why they have to be conservative and subtle.
The prevalent religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto. Unlike other religions the Japanese have melded the two together and practice both loosely in harmony. Shinto is the religion of the living. The respect of nature is shown through the belief that all things have a spirit. In fact most, if not all, Japanese folk/fairytales are connected to nature. Buddhism takes care of the dead with the afterlife. Both religions are usually peaceful and quite spiritual, blending together and part of the Japanese life as are the stories.
Another great difference between western stories and Japanese stories is the presence of spirits/ghosts. Western fairy/folk tales seem to be more oriented to the physical with vivid scenes of gruesome violence and most, if any, don't have any ghosts or spirits. Japanese stories, however, are more spiritual and focused on the mental drama and are filled with some sort of spirit mostly from the natural world and sometimes from the supernatural world.
Japanese and western stories are very different, but these stories stick with us. These stories affect our psyche from our fascination with their violence to the melancholy of a loved one leaving, and we are attracted to the reality hidden in these spun tales that show our nature, our humanity.
Fiction » Essay Rated: K+, English, Words: 1k+, Favs: 1, Published: 6/6/2004