“Goblin Poetry” KIDAN – Weird Tales from Japan Full text by Lafcadio Hearn

"Goblin Poetry" KIDAN - Weird Tales from Japan Full text by Lafcadio Hearn Storeis
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Goblin Poetry


Recently, while groping about an old book shop, I found a collection of Goblin Poetry in three volumes, containing many pictures of goblins. The title of the collection is Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari, or “The Mad Poetry of the Hyaku-Monogatari.” The Hyaku-Monogatari, or “Hundred Tales,” is a famous book of ghost stories. On the subject of each of the stories, poems were composed at different times by various persons,—poems of the sort called Kyōka, or Mad Poetry,—and these were collected and edited to form the three volumes of which I became the fortunate possessor. The collecting was done by a certain Takumi Jingorō, who wrote under the literary pseudonym “Temméï Réōjin” (Ancient of the Temméï Era). Takumi died in the first year of Bunkyū (1861), at the good age of eighty; and his collection seems to have been published in the sixth year of Kaéï (1853). The pictures were made by an artist called Massazumi, who worked under the pseudonym “Ryōsai Kanjin.”


From a prefatory note it appears that Takumi Jingorō published his collection with the hope of reviving interest in a once popular kind of poetry which had fallen into neglect before the middle of the century. The word kyōka is written with a Chinese character signifying “insane” or “crazy;” and it means a particular and extraordinary variety of comic poetry. The form is that of the classic tanka of thirty-one syllables (arranged 57577);—but the subjects are always the extreme reverse of classical; and the artistic effects depend upon methods of verbal jugglery which cannot be explained without the help of numerous examples. The collection published by Takumi includes a good deal of matter in which a Western reader can discover no merit; but the best of it has a distinctly grotesque quality that reminds one of Hood’s weird cleverness in playing with grim subjects. This quality, and the peculiar Japanese method of mingling the playful with the terrific, can be suggested and explained only by reproducing in Romaji the texts of various kyōka, with translations and notes.


The selection which I have made should prove interesting, not merely because it will introduce the reader to a class of Japanese poetry about which little or nothing has yet been written in English, but much more because it will afford some glimpses of a super-natural world which still remains for the most part unexplored. Without knowledge of Far Eastern superstitions and folk-tales, no real understanding of Japanese fiction or drama or poetry will ever become possible.


There are many hundreds of poems in the three volumes of the Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari; but the number of the ghosts and goblins falls short of the one hundred suggested by the title. There are just ninety-five. I could not expect to interest my readers in the whole of this goblinry, and my selection includes less than one seventh of the subjects. The Faceless Babe, The Long-Tongued Maiden, The Three-Eyed Monk, The Pillow-Mover, The Thousand Heads, The Acolyte-with-the-Lantern, The Stone-that-Cries-in-the-Night, The Goblin-Heron, The Goblin-Wind, The Dragon-Lights, and The Mountain-Nurse, did not much impress me. I omitted kyōka dealing with fancies too gruesome for Western nerves,—such as that of the Obumédori,—also those treating of merely local tradition. The subjects chosen represent national rather than provincial folklore,—old beliefs (mostly of Chinese origin) once prevalent throughout the country, and often referred to in its popular literature.




The Will-o’-the-wisp is called kitsuné-bi (“fox-fire”), because the goblin-fox was formerly supposed to create it. In old Japanese pictures it is represented as a tongue of pale red flame, hovering in darkness, and shedding no radiance upon the surfaces over which it glides.


To understand some of the following kyōka on the subject, the reader should know that certain superstitions about the magical power of the fox have given rise to several queer folk-sayings,—one of which relates to marrying a stranger. Formerly a good citizen was expected to marry within his own community, not outside of it; and the man who dared to ignore traditional custom in this regard would have found it difficult to appease the communal indignation. Even to-day the villager who, after a long absence from his birthplace, returns with a strange bride, is likely to hear unpleasant things said,—such as: “Wakaranai-mono wo hippaté-kita!… Doko no uma no honé da ka?” (“Goodness knows what kind of a thing he has dragged here after him! Where did he pick up the old horse-bone?”) The expression uma no honé, “old horse-bone,” requires explanation.


A goblin-fox has the power to assume many shapes; but, for the purpose of deceiving men, he usually takes the form of a pretty woman. When he wants to create a charming phantom of this kind, he picks up an old horse-bone or cow-bone, and holds it in his mouth. Presently the bone becomes luminous; and the figure of a woman defines about it,—the figure of a courtesan or singing-girl…. So the village query about the man who marries a strange wife, “What old horse-bone has he picked up?” signifies really, “What wanton has bewitched him?” It further implies the suspicion that the stranger may be of outcast blood: a certain class of women of pleasure having been chiefly recruited, from ancient time, among the daughters of Éta and other pariah-people.


Hi tomoshité
Kitsuné no kwaséshi,
Asobimé wa—
Izuka no uma no
Honé ni ya aruran!


[—Ah the wanton (lighting her lantern)!—so a fox-fire is kindled in the time of fox-transformation!… Perhaps she is really nothing more than an old horse-bone from somewhere or other….]


Kitsuné-bi no
Moyuru ni tsukété,
Waga tama no
Kiyuru yō nari


[Because of that Fox-fire burning there, the very soul of me is like to be extinguished in this narrow path (or, in this heart-depressing solitude).]




The term Rikombyō is composed with the word rikon, signifying a “shade,” “ghost,” or “spectre,” and the word byō, signifying “sickness,” “disease.” An almost literal rendering would be “ghost-sickness.” In Japanese-English dictionaries you will find the meaning of Rikombyō given as “hypochondria;” and doctors really use the term in this modern sense.


But the ancient meaning was a disorder of the mind which produced a Double; and there is a whole strange literature about this weird disease. It used to be supposed, both in China and Japan, that under the influence of intense grief or longing, caused by love, the spirit of the suffering person would create a Double. Thus the victim of Rikombyō would appear to have two bodies, exactly alike; and one of these bodies would go to join the absent beloved, while the other remained at home. (In my “Exotics and Retrospectives,” under the title “A Question in the Zen Texts,” the reader will find a typical Chinese story on the subject,—the story of the girl Ts’ing.) Some form of the primitive belief in doubles and wraiths probably exists in every part of the world; but this Far Eastern variety is of peculiar interest because the double is supposed to be caused by love, and the subjects of the affliction to belong to the gentler sex…. The term Rikombyō seems to be applied to the apparitions as well as to the mental disorder supposed to produce the apparition: it signifies “doppelgänger” as well as “ghost-disease.”


—With these necessary explanations, the quality of the following kyōka can be understood. A picture which appears in the Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari shows a maid-servant anxious to offer a cup of tea to her mistress,—a victim of the “ghost-sickness.” The servant cannot distinguish between the original and the apparitional shapes before her; and the difficulties of the situation are suggested in the first of the kyōka which I have translated:—


Ko-ya,soré to
Ayamé mo wakanu
Izuré wo tsuma to
Hiku zo wazuraü!


[Which one is this?—which one is that? Between the two shapes of the Rikombyō it is not possible to distinguish. To find out which is the real wife—that will be an affliction of spirit indeed!]


Futatsu naki
Inochi nagara mo
Kakégaë no
Karada no miyuru—
Kagé no wazurai!


[Two lives there certainly are not;—nevertheless an extra body is visible, by reason of the Shadow-Sickness.]


Naga-tabi no
Oto wo shitaïté
Mi futatsu ni
Naru wo onna no
Sāru rikombyō.


[Yearning after her far-journeying husband, the woman has thus become two bodies, by reason of her ghostly sickness.]


Miru kagé mo
Naki wazurai no
Omoi no hoka ni
Futatsu miru kagé!


[Though (it was said that), because of her ghostly sickness, there was not even a shadow of her left to be seen,—yet, contrary to expectation, there are two shadows of her to seen!]


Hito ni kakushité
Omoté y dëasanu
Kagé no wazurai.


[Afflicted with the Rikombyō, she hides away from people in the back room, and never approaches the front of the house,—because of her Shadow-disease.]


Mi wa koko ni;
Tama wa otoko ni
Soïné suru;—
Kokoro mo shiraga
Haha ga kaihō.


[Here her body lies; but her soul is far away, asleep in the arms of a man;—and the white-haired mother, little knowing her daughter’s heart, is nursing (only the body).]


Futatsu no sugata
Misénuru wa,
Awasé-kagami no
Kagé no wazurai.


[If, when seated before her toilet-stand, she sees two faces reflected in her mirror,—that might be caused by the mirror doubling itself under the influence of the Shadow-Sickness.]




In the old Chinese and Japanese literature the toad is credited with supernatural capacities,—such as the power to call down clouds, the power to make rain, the power to exhale from its mouth a magical mist which creates the most beautiful illusions. Some toads are good spirits,—friends of holy men; and in Japanese art a famous Rishi called “Gama-Sennin” (Toad Rishi) is usually represented with a white toad resting upon his shoulder, or squatting beside him. Some toads are evil goblins, and create phantasms for the purpose of luring men to destruction. A typical story about a creature of this class will be found in my “Kottō,” entitled “The Story of Chūgorō.”


Mé wa kagami,
Kuchi wa tarai no
Hodo ni aku:
Gama mo késhō no
Mono to kosō shiré.


[The eye of it, widely open, like a (round) mirror; the mouth of it opening like a wash-basin—by these things you may know that the Toad is a goblin-thing (or, that the Toad is a toilet article).]




The term Shinkirō is used in the meaning of “mirage,” and also as another name for Hōrai, the Elf-land of Far Eastern fable. Various beings in Japanese myth are credited with power to delude mortals by creating a mirage of Hōrai. In old pictures one may see a toad represented in the act of exhaling from its mouth a vapor that shapes the apparition of Hōrai.


But the creature especially wont to produce this illusion is the Hamaguri,—a Japanese mollusk much resembling a clam. Opening its shell, it sends into the air a purplish misty breath; and that mist takes form and defines, in tints of mother-of-pearl, the luminous vision of Hōrai and the palace of the Dragon-King.


Hamaguri no
Kuchi aku toki ya,
Yo ni shiraré ken


[When the hamaguri opens its mouth—lo! Shinkirō appears!… Then all can clearly see the Maiden-princess of the Dragon-Palace.]


Tatsu no miyako no
Hinagata wo
Shio-hi no oki ni
Misuru hamaguri!


[Lo! in the offing at ebb-tide, the hamaguri makes visible the miniature image of Shinkirō—the Dragon-Capital!]




The etymological meaning of Rokuro-Kubi can scarcely be indicated by any English rendering. The term rokuro is indifferently used to designate many revolving objects—objects as dissimilar as a pulley, a capstan, a windlass, a turning lathe, and a potter’s wheel. Such renderings of Rokuro-Kubi as “Whirling-Neck” and “Rotating-Neck” are unsatisfactory;—for the idea which the term suggests to Japanese fancy is that of a neck which revolves, and lengthens or retracts according to the direction of the revolution…. As for the ghostly meaning of the expression, a Rokuro-Kubi is either (1)a person whose neck lengthens prodigiously during sleep, so that the head can wander about in all directions, seeking what it may devour, or (2)a person able to detach his or her head completely from the body, and to rejoin it to the neck afterwards. (About this last mentioned variety of Rokuro-Kubi there is a curious story in my “Kwaidan,” translated from the Japanese.) In Chinese mythology the being whose neck is so constructed as to allow of the head being completely detached belongs to a special class; but in Japanese folk-tale this distinction is not always maintained. One of the bad habits attributed to the Rokuro-Kubi is that of drinking the oil in night-lamps. In Japanese pictures the Rokuro-Kubi is usually depicted as a woman; and old books tell us that a woman might become a Rokuro-Kubi without knowing it,—much as a somnambulist walks about while asleep, without being aware of the fact…. The following verses about the Rokuro-Kubi have been selected from a group of twenty in the Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari:—


Nemidaré no
Nagaki kami woba
Chi hiro ni nobasu
Rokuro-Kubi kana!


[Oh!…Shaking loose her long hair disheveled by sleep, the Rokuro-Kubi stretches her neck to the length of a thousand fathoms!]


“Atama naki
Bakémono nari”—to
Mité odorokan
Onoga karada wo.


[Will not the Rokuro-Kubi, viewing with astonishment her own body (left behind) cry out, “Oh, what a headless goblin have you become!”]


Tsuka-no-ma ni
Hari wo tsutawaru,
Kéta-kéta warau—
Kao no kowasa yo!


[Swiftly gliding along the roof-beam (and among the props of the roof), the Rokuro-Kubi laughs with the sound of “kéta-kéta”—oh!the fearfulness of her face!]


Roku shaku no
Byōbu ni nobiru
Mité wa, go shaku no
Mi wo chijimi-kéri!


[Beholding the rokuro-Kubi rise up above the six-foot screen, any five-foot person would have become shortened by fear (or, “the stature of any person five feet high would have been diminished”).]




The Snow-Woman, or Snow-Spectra, assumes various forms; but in most of the old folk-tales she appears as a beautiful phantom, whose embrace is death. (A very curious story about her can be found in my “Kwaidan.”)


Yosō kushi mo
Atsu kōri;
Sasu-kōgai ya
Kōri naruran.


[As for the Snow-Woman,—even her best comb, if I mistake not, is made of thick ice; and her hair-pin, too, is probably made of ice.]


Honrai wa
Kū naru mono ka,
Yoku-yoku mireba
Ichi-butsu mo nashi!


[Was she, then, a delusion from the very first, that Snow-Woman,—a thing that vanishes into empty space? When I look carefully all about me, not one trace of her is to seen!]


Kiété yuku é wa
Shirayuki no
Onna to mishi mo
Yanagi nari-keri!


[Having vanished at daybreak (that Snow-Woman), none could say whither she had gone. But what had seemed to be a snow-white woman became indeed a willow-tree!]


Mité wa yasathiku,
Matsu wo ori
Nama-daké hishigu
Chikara ari-keri!


[Though the Snow-Woman appears to sight slender and gentle, yet, to snap the pine-trees asunder and to crush the live bamboos, she must have had strength.]


Samukésa ni
Zotto wa surédo
Yuki oré no naki
Yanagi-goshi ka mo!


[Though the Snow-Woman makes one shiver by her coldness,—ah, the willowy grace of her form cannot be broken by the snow (i.e. charms us in spite of the cold).]




The spirits of the drowned are said to follow after ships, calling for bucket or water-dipper (hishaku). To refuse the bucket or the dipper is dangerous; but the bottom of the utensil should be knocked out before the request is complied with, and the spectres must not be allowed to see this operation performed. If an undamaged bucket or dipper be thrown to the ghosts, it will be used to fill and to sink the ship. These phantoms are commonly called Funa-Yūréï (“Ship-Ghosts”).


The spirits of those warriors of the Héïké clan who perished in the great sea-fight at Dan-no-ura, in the year 1185, are famous among Funa-Yūréï. Taïra no Tomomori, one of the chiefs of the clan, is celebrated in this weird rôle: old pictures represent him, followed by the ghosts of his warriors, running over the waves to attack passing ships. Once he menaced a vessel in which Benkéï, the celebrated retainer of Yoshitsuné, was voyaging; and Benkéï was able to save the ship only by means of his Buddhist rosary, which frightened the spectres away….


Tomomori is frequently pictured as walking upon the sea, carrying a ship’s anchor on his back. He and his fellow-ghosts are said to have been in the habit of uprooting and making off with the anchors of vessels imprudently moored in their particular domain,—the neighborhood of Shimonoséki.


Erimoto yé
Mizu kakéraruru
Kokochi seri,
“Hishaku kasé” chō
Funé no kowané ni.


[As if the nape of our necks had been sprinkled with cold water,—so we felt while listening to the voice of the ship-ghost, saying:—”Lend me a dipper!”]


Yūréi ni
Kasu-hishaku yori
Onoré ga koshi mo
Nukéru senchō.


[The loins of the captain himself were knocked out very much more quickly than the bottom of the dipper that was to be given to the ghost.]


Benkéï no
Zuzu no kuriki ni
Tomomori no
Sugata mo ukamu—
Funé no yūréï


[By the virtue of Benkéï’s rosary, even the ship-following ghost—even the apparition of Tomomori—is saved.]


Yūréï wa
Ki naru Izumi no
Hito nagara,
Aö-umibara ni
Nadoté itsuran?


[Since any ghost must be an inhabitant of the Yellow Springs, how should a ghost appear on the Blue Sea-Plain?]


Sono sugata,
Ikari wo ōté,
Funé no hésaki ya
Tomomori no réï!


[That Shape, carrying the anchor on its back, and following after the ship—now at the bow and now at the stern—ah, the ghost of Tomomori]


Tsumi fukaki
Umi ni shidzumishi,
Yūréï no
“Ukaman” toté ya!
Funé ni sugaréru.


[Crying, “Now perchance I shall be saved!” The ghost that sank into the deep Sea of Sin clings to the passing ship!]


Ukaman to
Funé wo shitaëru
Yūréï wa,
Shidzumishi hito no
Omoï narunan.


[The ghosts following after our ship in their efforts to rise again (or, “to be saved”) might perhaps be the (last vengeful) thoughts of drowned men.]


Sugata wa sugoki
Yūréï no,
Kaji wo jama suru
Funé no Tomomori.


[With vengeful aspect, the grisly ghost of Tomomori(rises) at the stern of the ship to hinder the play of her rudder.]


Uwo no éjiki to
Nari ni ken;—
Funa-yūréï mo
Nama-kusaki kazé.


[Having perished in the sea, (those Héïké) would probably have become food for fishes. (Anyhow, whenever) the ship-following ghosts (appear), the wind has a smell of raw fish!]




Readers can find in my “Kottō” a paper about the Héïké-Crabs, which have on their upper shells various wrinklings that resemble the outlines of an angry face. At Shimonoséki dried specimens of these curious creatures are offered for sale…. The Héïké-Crabs are said to be the transformed angry spirits of the Héïké warriors who perished at Dan-no-ura.


Shiwo-hi ni wa
Séïzoroë shité,
Ukiyo no sama wo
Yoko ni niramitsu.


[Marshaled (on the beach) at the ebb of the tide, the Héïké-crabs obliquely glare at the apparition of this miserable world.]


Saikai ni
Kōra no iro mo
Yahari aka-hata.


[Though (the Héïké) long ago sank and perished in the Western Sea, the Héïké-crabs still display upon their upper shells the color of the Red Standard.]


Munen to muné ni
Hasami ken;—
Kao mo makka ni
Naru Héïkégani.


[Because of the pain of defeat, claws have grown on their breasts, I think;—even the faces of the Héïké-crabs have become crimson (with anger and shame).]


Mikata mina
Ikon wo muné ni
Hasami mochikéri.


[All the (Héïké) party having been utterly crushed, claws have grown upon the breasts of the Héïké-crabs because of the resentment in their hearts.]




Modern dictionaries ignore the uncanny significations of the word Yanari,—only telling us that it means the sound of the shaking of a house during an earthquake. But the word used to mean the noise of the shaking of a house moved by a goblin; and the invisible shaker was also called Yanari. When, without apparent cause, some house would shudder and creak and groan in the night, folk used to suppose that it was being shaken from without by supernatural malevolence.


Tokonoma ni
Ikéshi tachiki mo
Yanari ni yama no
Ugoku kakémono!


[Even the live tree set in the alcove has fallen down; and the mountains in the hanging picture tremble to the quaking made by the Yanari!]




The term Sakasa-bashira (in these kyōka often shortened into saka-bashira) literally means “upside-down post.” A wooden post or pillar, especially a house-post, should be set up according to the original position of the tree from which it was hewn,—that is to say, with the part nearest to the roots downward. To erect a house-post in the contrary way is thought to be unlucky;—formerly such a blunder was believed to involve unpleasant consequence of a ghostly kind, because an “upside-down” pillar would do malignant things. It would moan and groan in the night, and move all its cracks like mouths, and open all its knots like eyes. Moreover, the spirit of it (for every house-post has a spirit) would detach its long body from the timber, and wander about the rooms, head-downwards, making faces at people. Nor was this all. A Sakasa-bashira knew how to make all the affairs of a household go wrong,—how to foment domestic quarrels,—how to contrive misfortune for each of the family and the servants,—how to render existence almost insupportable until such time as the carpenter’s blunder should be discovered and remedied.


Tatéshi wa tazo ya?
Kokoro ni mo
Fushi aru hito no
Shiwaza naruran.


[Who set the house-pillar upside-down? Surely that must have been the work of man with a knot in his heart.]


Hidayama wo
Kiri-kité tatéshi
Nanno takumi no
Shiwaza naruran?


[That house-pillar hewn in the mountains of Hida, and thence brought here and erected upside-down—what carpenter’s work can it be? (or, “for what evil design can this deed have been done?”)]


Uë shita wo
Chigaëté tatéshi
Hashira ni wa
Sakasama-goto no
Uréï aranan.


[As for that house-pillar mistakenly planted upside-down, it will certainly cause adversity and sorrow.]


Kabé ni mimi
Arité, kiké to ka?
Sakashima ni
Tatéshi hasira ni
Yanari suru oto!


[O Ears that be in the wall! listen, will ye? to the groaning and the creaking of the house-post that was planted upside-down!]


Uri-iyé no
Aruji wo toëba,
Oto arité:
Waré mé ga kuchi wo
Aku saka-bashira.


[When I inquired for the master of the house that was for sale, there came to me only a strange sound by way of reply,—the sound of the upside-down house-post opening its eyes and mouth! (i.e. its cracks).]


Sakasa-basira no
Kakinishi uta mo
Yamai ari to wa!


[Who could have thought it!—even the poem inscribed upon the pillar-tablet, attached to the pillar which was planted upside-down, has taken the same (ghostly) sickness.]




The figure of the Bodhi-sattva Jizō, the savior of children’s ghosts, is one of the most beautiful and humane in Japanese Buddhism. Statues of this divinity may be seen in almost every village and by every roadside. But some statues of Jizō are said to do uncanny things—such as to walk about at night in various disguises. A statue of this kind is called a Baké-Jizō,—meaning a Jizō that undergoes transformation. A conventional picture shows a little boy about to place the customary child’s-offering of rice-cakes before the stone image of Jizō,—not suspecting that the statue moves, and is slowly bending down towards him.


Nanigé naki
Ishi no Jizō no
Sugata saë,
Yo wa osoroshiki
Mikagé to zo naki.


[Though the stone Jizō looks as if nothing were the matter with it, they say that at night it assumes an awful aspect (or, “Though this image appears to be a common stone Jizō, they say that at night it becomes an awful Jizō of granite.”)]




Place a large cuttlefish on a table, body upwards and tentacles downwards—and you will have before you the grotesque reality that first suggested the fancy of the Umi-Bōzu, or Priest of the Sea. For the great bald body in this position, with the staring eyes below, bears a distorted resemblance to the shaven head of a priest; while the crawling tentacles underneath (which are in some species united by a dark web) suggests the wavering motion of the priest’s upper robe…. The Umi-Bōzu figures a good deal in the literature of Japanese goblinry, and in the old-fashioned picture-books. He rises from the deep in foul weather to seize his prey.


Ita hitoë
Shita wa Jigoku ni,
Sumizomé no
Bōzu no umi ni
Déru mo ayashina!


[Since there is but the thickness of a single plank (between the voyager and the sea), and underneath is Hell, ‘t is indeed a weird thing that a black-robed priest should rise from the sea (or, ” ‘t is surely a marvelous happening that,” etc.!)]




Homes are protected from evil spirits by holy texts and charms. In any Japanese village, or any city by-street, you can see these texts when the sliding-doors are closed at night: they are not visible by day, when the sliding-doors have been pushed back into the tobukuro. Such texts are called o-fuda (august scripts): they are written in Chinese characters upon strips of white paper, which are attached to the door with rice-paste; and there are many kinds of them. Some are texts selected from sûtras—such as the Sûtra of Transcendent Wisdom (Pragña-Pâramitâ-Hridaya-Sûtra), or the Sûtra of the Lotos of the Good Law (Saddharma-Pundarikâ-Sûtra). Some are texts from the dhâranîs,—which are magical. Some are invocations only, indicating the Buddhist sect of the household….


esides these you may see various smaller texts, or little prints, pasted above or beside windows or apertures,—some being names of Shintō gods; others, symbolical pictures only, or pictures of Buddhas and Bodhi-sattvas. All are holy charms,—o-fuda: they protect the houses; and no goblin or ghost can enter by night into a dwelling so protected, unless the o-fuda be removed.


Vengeful ghosts cannot themselves remove an o-fuda; but they will endeavor by threats or promises or bribes to make some person remove it for them. A ghost that wants to have the o-fuda pulled off a door is called a Fuda-hégashi.


Hégasan to
Rokuji-no-fuda wo,
Yūréï mo
Nam’mai dā to
Kazoëté zo miru.


[Even the ghost that would remove the charms written with six characters actually tries to count them, repeating: “How many sheets are there?” (or, repeating, “Hail to thee, O Buddha Amitâbha!”)]


Tada ichi no
Kami no o-fuda wa
Sasuga ni mo
Noriké naku to mo
Hégashi kanékéri.


[Of the august written-charms of the god (which were pasted upon the walls of the house), not even one could by any effort be pulled off, though the rice-paste with which they had been fastened was all gone.]




The old Japanese, like the old Greeks, had their flower-spirits and their hamadryads, concerning whom some charming stories are told. They also believed in trees inhabited by malevolent beings,—goblin trees. Among other weird trees, the beautiful tsubaki (camellia Japonica) was said to be an unlucky tree;—this was said, at least, of the red-flowering variety, the white-flowering kind having a better reputation and being prized as a rarity. The large fleshy crimson flowers have this curious habit: they detach themselves bodily from the stem, when they begin to fade; and they fall with an audible thud. To old Japanese fancy the falling of these heavy red flowers was like the falling of human heads under the sword; and the dull sound of their dropping was said to be like the thud made by a severed head striking the ground. Nevertheless the tsubaki seems to have been a favorite in Japanese gardens because of the beauty of its glossy foliage; and its flowers were used for the decoration of alcoves. But in samurai homes it was a rule never to place tsubaki-flowers in an alcove during war-time.


The reader will notice that in the following kyōka—which, as grotesques, seem to me the best in the collection—the goblin-tsubaki is called furu-tsubaki, “old tsubaki.” The young tree was not supposed to have goblin-propensities,—these being developed only after many years. Other uncanny trees—such as the willow and the énoki—were likewise said to become dangerous only as they became old; and a similar belief prevailed on the subject of uncanny animals, such as the cat—innocent in kittenhood, but devilish in age.


Yo-arashi ni
Chishiho itadaku
Furu tsubaki,
Hota-hota ochiru
Hana no nama-kubi.


[When by the night-storm is shaken the blood-crowned and ancient tsubaki-tree, then one by one fall the gory heads of the flowers, (with the sound of) hota-hota!]


Kusa mo ki mo
Némuréru koro no
Sayo kazé ni,
Méhana no ugoku
Furu-tsubaki kana!


[When even the grass and the trees are sleeping under the faint wind of the night,—then do the eyes and the noses of the old tsubaki-tree (or “the buds and the flowers of the old tsubaki-tree”) move!]


Tomoshibi no
Kagé ayashigé ni
Miyénuru wa
Abura shiborishi
Furu-tsubaki ka-mo?


[As for (the reason why) the light of that lamp appears to be a Weirdness,—perhaps the oil was expressed from (the nuts of) the ancient tsubaki?]


* * *


—Nearly all the stories and folk-beliefs about which these kyōka were written seem to have come from China; and most of the Japanese tales of tree-spirits appear to have had a Chinese origin. As the flower-spirits and hamadryads of the Far East are as yet little known to Western readers, the following Chinese story may be found interesting.


There was a Chinese scholar—called, in Japanese books, Tō no Busanshi—who was famous for his love of flowers. He was particularly fond of peonies, and cultivated them with great skill and patience.


One day a very comely girl came to the house of Busanshi, and begged to be taken into his service. She said that circumstances obliged her to seek humble employment, but that she had received a literary education, and therefore wished to enter, if possible, into the service of a scholar. Busanshi was charmed by her beauty, and took her into his household without further questioning. She proved to be much more than a good domestic: indeed, the nature of her accomplishments made Busanshi suspect that she had been brought up in the court of some prince, or in the palace of some great lord.


She displayed a perfect knowledge of the etiquette and the polite arts which are taught only to ladies of the highest rank; and she possessed astonishing skill in calligraphy, in painting, and in every kind of poetical composition. Busanshi presently fell in love with her, and thought only of how to please her. When scholar-friends or other visitors of importance came to the house, he would send for the new maid that she might entertain and wait upon his guests; and all who saw her were amazed by her grace and charm.


One day Busanshi received a visit from the great Teki-Shin-Ketsu, a famous teacher of moral doctrine; and the maid did not respond to her master’s call. Busanshi went himself to seek her, being desirous that Teki-Shin-Ketsu should see her and admire her; but she was nowhere to be found. After having searched the whole house in vain, Busanshi was returning to the guest-room when he suddenly caught sight of the maid, gliding soundlessly before him along a corridor. He called to her, and hurried after her.


Then she turned halfround, and flattened herself against the wall like a spider; and as he reached her she sank backwards into the wall, so that there remained of her nothing visible but a colored shadow,—level like a picture painted on the plaster. But the shadow moved its lips and eyes, and spoke to him in a whisper, saying:—


“Pardon me that I did not obey your august call!… I am not a mankind-person;—I am only the Soul of a Peony. Because you loved peonies so much, I was able to take human shape, and to serve you. But now this Teki-Shin-Ketsu has come,—and he is a person of dreadful propriety,—and I dare not keep this form any longer…. I must return to the place from which I came.”


Then she sank back into the wall, and vanished altogether: there was nothing where she had been except the naked plaster. And Busanshi never saw her again.
This story is written in a Chinese book which the Japanese call “Kai-ten-i-ji.”



The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies and Stories

[Asobimé] Asobimé, a courtesan: lit., “sporting-woman.” The Éta and other pariah classes furnished a large proportion of these women. The whole meaning of the poem is as follows: “See that young wanton with her lantern! It is a pretty sight—but so is the sight of a fox, when the creature kindles his goblin-fire and assumes the shape of girl. And just as your fox-woman will prove to be no more than an old horse-bone, so that young courtesan, whose beauty deludes men to folly, may be nothing better than an Éta.”


[Kitsuné-bi no….] The supposed utterance of a belated traveler frightened by a will-o’-the-wisp. The last line allows of two readings. Kokoro-hosoi means “timid;” and hosoi michi (hoso-michi) means a “narrow path,” and, by implication, a “lonesome path.”


[Miru kagé mo….] The Japanese say of a person greatly emaciated by sickness, miru-kage mo naki: “Even a visible shadow of him is not!”—Another rendering is made possible by the fact that the same expression is used in the sense of “unfit to be seen,—”though the face of the person afflicted with this ghostly sickness is unfit to be seen, yet by reason of her secret longing [for another man] there are now two of her faces to be seen.” The phrase omoï no hoka, in the fourth line, means “contrary to expectation;” but it is ingeniously made to suggest also the idea of secret longing.


[Rikombyō….] There is a curious play on words in the fourth line. The word omoté, meaning “the front,” might, in reading, be sounded as omotté, “thinking.” The verses therefore might also be thus translated:—”She keeps her real thoughts hidden in the back part of the house, and never allows them to be seen in the front part of the house,—because she is suffering from the ‘Shadow-Sickness’ [of love].”


[Mi wa koko ni;….] There is a double meaning, suggested rather than expressed, in the fourth line. The word shiraga, “white-hair,” suggests shirazu, “not knowing.”


[Tamakushigé….] There is in this poem a multiplicity of suggestion impossible to render in translation. While making her toilet, the Japanese woman uses two mirrors (awasé-kagami)—one of which, a hand-mirror serves to show her the appearance of the back part of her coiffure, by reflecting it into the larger stationary mirror. But in this case of Rikombyō, the woman sees more than her face and the back of her head in the larger mirror: she sees her own double. The verses in dictate that one of the mirrors may have caught the Shadow-Sickness, and doubled itself. And there is a further suggestion of the ghostly sympathy said to exist between a mirror and the soul of its possessor.


[Mé wa kagami….] There are two Japanese words, keshō, which in kana are written alike and pronounced alike, though represented by very different Chinese characters. As written in kana, the term keshō-no-mono may signify either “toilet articles” or “a monstrous being,” “a goblin.”


[Hinagata] Hinagata means especially “a model,” “a miniature copy,” “a drawn plan,” etc.


[Tsuka-no-ma ni….] It is not possible to render all the double meanings in this composition. Tsuka-no-ma signifies “in a moment” or “quickly”; but it may also mean “in the space [ma] between the roof-props” [tsuka]. “Kéta” means a crossbeam, but kéta-kéta warau means to chuckle or laugh in a mocking way. Ghosts are said to laugh with the sound of kéta-kéta.


[Roku shaku no….] The ordinary height of a full screen is six Japanese feet.


[hair-pin] Kōgai is the name now given to a quadrangular bar of tortoise-shell passed under the coiffure, which leaves only the ends of the bar exposed. The true hai-pin is called kanzashi.


[Shirayuki] The term shirayuki, as here used, offers an example of what Japanese poets call Kenyōgen, or “double-purpose words.” Joined to the words immediately following, it makes the phrase “white-snow woman” (shirayuki no onna);—united with the words immediately preceding, it suggests the reading, “whither-gone not-knowing” (yuku é wa shira[zu]).


[Zotto] Zotto is a difficult word to render literally: perhaps the nearest English equivalent is “thrilling.” Zotto suru signifies “to cause a thrill” or “to give a shock,” or “to make shiver;” and of a very beautiful person it is said “Zotto-suru hodo no bijin,”—meaning, “She is so pretty that it gives one a shock merely to look at her.” The term yanagi-goshi (“willow-loins”) in the last line is a common expression designating a slender and graceful figure; and the reader should observe that the first half of the term is ingeniously made to do double duty here,—suggesting, with the context, not only the grace of willow branches weighed down by snow, but also the grace of a human figure that one must stop to admire, in spite of the cold.


[Erimoto yé….] Hishaku, a wooden dipper with a long handle, used to transfer water from a bucket to smaller vessels.


[Yūréi ni….] The common expression Koshi ga nukéru (to have one’s loins taken out) means to be unable to stand up by reason of fear. The suggestion is that while the captain was trying to knock out the bottom of a dipper, before giving it to the ghost, he fell senseless from fright.


[Yūréï wa….] The Underworld of the Dead—Yomi or Kōsen—is called “The yellow Springs;” these names being written with two Chinese characters respectively signifying “yellow” and “fountain.” A very ancient term for the ocean, frequently used in the old Shintō rituals, is “The Blue Sea-Plain.”


[Sono sugata….] There is an untranslatable play upon words in the last two lines. The above rendering includes two possible readings.


[Tsumi fukaki….] There is more weirdness in this poem than the above rendering suggests. The word ukaman in the fourth line can be rendered as “shall perhaps float,” or as “shall perhaps be saved” (in the Buddhist sense of salvation),—as there are two verbs ukami. According to an old superstition, the spirits of the drowned must continue to dwell in the waters until such time as they can lure the living to destruction. When the ghost of any drowned person succeeds in drowning somebody, it may be able to obtain rebirth, and to leave the sea forever. The exclamation of the ghost in this poem really means, “Now perhaps I shall be able to drown somebody.” (A very similar superstition is said to exist on the Breton coast.) A common Japanese saying about a child or any person who follows another too closely and persistently is: Kawa de shinda-yūréï no yona tsuré-hoshigaru!—”Wants to follow you everywhere like the ghost of a drowned person.”


[Ukaman to….] Here I cannot attempt to render the various plays upon words; but the term “omoï” needs explanation. It means “thought” or “thoughts;” but in colloquial phraseology it is often used as a euphemism for a dying person’s last desire of vengeance. In various dramas it has been used in the signification of “avenging ghost.” Thus the exclamation, “His thought has come back!”—in reference to a dead man—really means: “His angry ghost appears!”


[Uraméshiki….] There is a double meaning given by the use of the name Tomomori in the last line. Tomo means “the stern” of a ship; mori means “to leak.” So the poem suggests that the ghost of Tomomori not only interferes with the ship’s rudder, but causes her to leak.


[Ochi-irité….] Namakusaki-kaze really means a wind having a “raw stench;” but the smell of bait is suggested by the second line of the poem. A literal rendering is not possible in this case; the art of the composition being altogether suggestive.


[Shiwo-hi ni wa….] Hi, the third syllable of the first line of the poem, does duty for hi, signifying “ebb,” and for hikata, “dry beach.” Séïzoroë is a noun signifying “battle-array”—in the sense of the Roman term acies;—and séïzoroë shité means “drawn up in battle-array.”


[Saikai ni….] The ensign of the Héïké, or Taïra clan was red; while that of their rivals, the Genji or Minamotō, was white.


[Mikata mina….] The use of the word hasami in the fifth line is a very good example of kenyōgen. There is a noun hasami, meaning the nippers of a crab, or a pair of scissors; and there is a verb hasami, meaning to harbor, to cherish, or to entertain. (Ikon wo hasamu means “to harbor resentment against.”) Reading the word only in connection with those which follow it, we have the phrase hasami mochikéri, “got claws;” but, reading it with the words preceding, we have the expression ikon wo muné ni hasami, “resentment in their breasts nourishing.”


[Tokonoma ni….] The tokonoma in a Japanese room is a sort of ornamental recess or alcove, in which a picture is usually hung, and vases of flowers, or a dwarf tree, are placed.


[takumi] The word takumi, as written in kana, may signify either “carpenter” or “intrigue,” “evil plot,” “wicked device.” Thus two readings are possible. According to one reading, the post was fixed upside-down through inadvertence; according to the other, it was so fixed with malice prepense.


[Uë shita wo….] Lit., “upside-down-matter-sorrow.” Sakasama-goto, “upside-down affair,” is a common expression for calamity, contrariety, adversity, vexation.


[O Ears that be in the wall!] Alluding to the proverb, Kabé ni mimi ari (“There are ears in the wall”), which signifies: “Be careful how you talk about other people, even in private.”


[Uri-iyé no….] There is a pun in the fourth line which suggests more than even a free translation can express. Waré means “I,” or “mine,” or “one’s own,” etc., according to circumstances; and waré mé (written separately) might be rendered “its own eyes.” But warémé (one word) means a crack, rent, split, or fissure. The reader should remember that the term saka-bashira means not only “upside-down post,” but also the goblin or spectre of the upside-down post.


[Omoïkiya!….] That is to say, “Even the poem on the tablet is upside-down,”—all wrong. Hashira-kaké (“pillar-suspended thing”) is the name given to a thin tablet of fine wood, inscribed or painted, which is hung to a post by way of ornament.


[Baké-Jizō] Perhapss the term might be rendered “Shape-changing Jizō.” The verb bakéru means to change shape, to undergo metamorphosis, to haunt, and many other supernatural things.


[Nanigé naki….] The Japanese word for granite is mikagé; and there is also an honorific term mikagé, applied to divinities and emperors, which signifies “august aspect,” “sacred presence,” etc…. No literal rendering can suggest the effect, in the fifth line, of the latter reading. Kagé signifies “shadow,” “aspect,” and “power”—especially occult power; the honorific prefix mi, attached to names and attributes of divinities, may be rendered “august.”


[Ita hitoë….] The puns are too much for me…. Ayashii means “suspicious,” “marvelous,” “supernatural,” “weird,” “doubtful.”—In the first two lines there is a reference to the Buddhist proverb: Funa-ita ichi-mai shita wa Jigoku (“under the thickness of a single ship’s-plank is Hell”). (See my Gleanings in Buddha-Fields,p.206,for another reference to this saying.)


[FUDA-HÉGASHI] Hégashi is the causative form of the verb hégu, “to pull off,” “peel off,” “strip off,” “split off.” The term Fuda-hégashi signifies “Make-peel-off-august-charm Ghost.” In my Ghostly Japan the reader can find a good Japanese story about a Fuda-hégashi.


[Hégasan to….] The fourth line gives these two readings:—
Nam’mai da?—”How many sheets are there?”
Nam[u] A[m]ida!—”hail, O Amitâbha!”
The invocation,Namu Amida Butsu, is chiefly used by members of the great Shin sect; but it is also used by other sects, and especially in praying for the dead. While repeating it, the person praying numbers the utterances upon his Buddhist rosary; and this custom is suggested by the use of the word kazoëté, “counting.”


[Yo-arashi ni….] The word furu in the third line is made to do double duty,—as the adjective,furu[i], “ancient”; and as the verb furu, “to shake.” The old term nama-kubi (lit., “raw head”) means a human head, freshly-severed, from which the blood is still oozing.


[Kusa mo ki mo….] Two Japanese words are written, in kana, as “mé”—one meaning ” a bud; “the other “eye.” The syllables “hana,” in like fashion, may signify either “flower” or “nose.” As a grotesque, this little poem is decidedly successful.


[Weirdness] Ayashigé is a noun formed from the adjective ayashi, “suspicious,” “strange,” “supernatural,” “doubtful.” The word kagé signifies both “light” and “shadow,”—and is here used with double suggestiveness. The vegetable oil used in the old Japanese lamps used to be obtained from the nuts of the tsubaki. The reader should remember that the expression “ancient tsubaki” is equivalent to the expression “goblin-tsubaki,”—the tsubaki being supposed to turn into a goblin-tree only when it becomes old.


[peonies] The tree-peony (botan) is here referred to,—a flower much esteemed in Japan. It is said to have been introduced from China during the eighth century; and no less than five hundred varieties of it are now cultivated by Japanese gardeners.


All Stories

1.Story of Foxes| 2.The Child of the River| 3.Of a Promise Kept| 4.Of a Promise Broken| 5.Story of the Futon of Tottori| 6.The Legend of Yurei-Daki| 7.Common Sense| 8.A Legend of Fugen-Bosatsu| 9.The Story of Umétsu Chūbei| 10.Ingwa-Banashi| 11.The Corpse-Rider| 12.The Story of Chūgorō| 13.Chin Chin Kobakama| 14.The Fountain of Youth| 15.The Goblin Spider| 16.Goblin Poetry

Kwaidan Series


Japanese version

1.狐の話| 2.川の子供| 3.守られた約束| 4.破られた約束| 5.鳥取の布団の話| 6.幽霊滝の伝説| 7.常識| 8.普賢菩薩の伝説| 9.梅津忠兵衛の話| 10.因果話| 11.死骸に乗る者| 12.忠五郎の話| 13.ちんちん小袴| 14.若返りの泉| 15.化け蜘蛛| 16.妖魔詩話



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