5.0 out of 5 stars Fairy tales and the soul of a country
“Tales of Old Japan” is a book with an interesting pedigree. From 1866-1870, Author A. B. Mitford was an attaché with the British Legion at Edo (Modern day Tokyo), and one of the first foreign diplomats to Japan. He served as a translator for the young Meiji Emperor, and became intimately familiar with the country and its language.
Upon his return to Britain, he became discouraged and disappointed by Western media reports of the Japanese people, portraying them as an uncouth people lacking in morals or character, with vicious men and wanton women. Mitford set out to correct that error by writing “Tales of Old Japan,” showing through Japanese legends and fairly tales the moral heart of the country, what they admired, what they aspired to, and what they feared.
Because of this, “Tales of Old Japan” is much more than a collection of stories. Published in 1871, it is the first English-language book of its kind, and many famous Japanese tales, such as “Okiku and the Nine Plates,” and “The Forty-Seven Ronin,” appear here for the first time. Each tale was selected not only for its own interest, but to teach Western audiences about the soul of the Japanese people through their native fairy tales. After each story, Mitford writes about how the story is seen in Japan, what people admired about the heroes and despise about the villains.
These insights are what separate “Tales of Old Japan” from other books of this style. It is less academic than Myths and Legends of Japan and yet more than a collection of fairy tales like the massive Japanese Tales. Similar legends are collected in all three books, although they are presented differently. Mitford’s book is very readable, but uses translations common of the era, such as “Prince” and “dirk” to represent Japanese concepts like the Daimyo and the samurai’s shortsword wakizashi. Some of his language might be considered sexist or racist by modern standards, but that is something that must be forgiven for a book over a hundred and thirty years old. Mitford admired the Japanese, and shows so at every turn.
“Tales of Old Japan” covers legends of loyalty (“The Forty Seven Ronin”), love (“The Loves of Gompachi and Komurasaki”) the importance of the sword (“A Story of the Otokodate of Yedo”), the feudal system (“The Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto”), vengeance (“The Ghost of Sakura”) as well as a large collection of fairy tales and superstitions, like “The Tongue-cut Sparrow,” “The Battle of the Ape and the Crab” and “The Prince and the Badger.”
Many of these will already be familiar to those who have read some Japanese folklore, but it is fascinating to read Mitford’s commentary and the first English translation and interpretation. Mitford also commissioned a Japanese woodblock artist, Odake, to create images to go along with the stories. These beautiful prints are included in the Dover publication of “Tales of Old Japan,” reproduced in black and white.
Also included are indexes describing in detail four important aspects of Japanese life, “The Marriage Ceremony,” “One the Birth and Raising of Children” and “Funeral Rights.” All of these are windows to the past, first hand accounts of what happened then. Another index talks of the ceremony of seppuku, known more commonly in English as hara-kiri. Mitford translates the laws and customs of hara-kiri, including how it varies for persons of rank, the difference between execution for an illegal but honorable killing as opposed to a passion slaying, and what to do with the head and body afterwards. Those who only know movie-style versions of the act will be surprised by the real thing, as I was.
Mitford also transcribes his own eye-witness account of a hara-kiri execution, one of seven foreigners invited to attend. While Mitford tries to stay a dispassionate observer, he is eventually forced to break from his professional voice in order to write “It was horrible.”